My photographic practice evolved under the influence of critical theories of ecological economics, emphasized by thinkers as Hermann Daly, who... Read More
My photographic practice evolved under the influence of critical theories of ecological economics, emphasized by thinkers as Hermann Daly, who was one of the first to offer an integrated economy-environment model (Daly, 1968: 392) and wrote extensively on the subject of the differences of sustainability from pure economic growth and the dangers that the latter brings manifested in environmental pollution, resource depletion and th destruction of biodiversity.
Nature is an invaluable gift that we are so bad at protecting and restoring. The authors of the ‘Limits to Growth’ report in 1972 (Meadows et al, 1972: 157) have warned us that not dealing with just three important elements: namely availability of resources, pollution and population growth will lead us to a severe crisis. Isn’t it exactly what is happening right now? Many economists are trying to persuade us that the price of nature is also equivalent to its value. But is it actually true? In the influential ‘Valuing nature’ volume, published in 1999 a plethora of ecological economists argued that cost-benefit analysis was not the appropriate measuring rod for assessing the value of nature and hey, it is 2018 and we are still having the same debated as 20 years ago. Important here are the works by Joan Martinez-Alier et al (1998), who postulated in 1998 that incommensurability of values is a key foundation of ecological economics (Martinez-Alier et al, 1998: 277), a premise that I shared entirely.
The world of environmentalists is divided on the subject of the value of nature. One camp, which thinks that they have the final word, considers it appropriate to add all the complex things that nature does in monetary terms using a simple sum of financial value of drinking water, food, fiber, a financial estimate of a value of oxygen production, carbon sequestration, but also inspiration and social relations. The other group simply thinks that using money as a measuring rod is inappropriate.
As a matter of fact, there is a solution, which I proposed to International Union for Conservation of Nature acting as a consultant in 2008 and what some of its staff welcomed as ‘but this is exactly what we need!’. My proposal was to treat all complexity of so called ‘ecosystem services’ with the help of multi-criteria decision aid tools, the methods developed by mathematicians in 1960s that can deal with diverse units of measurements and don’t have to bring everything to ‘the least common denominator’ (Shmelev, 2012:155). The whole plethora of researchers later supported my views, including Norgaard (2010), Spangenberg and Settle (2010), Soderbaum (2013), Gomez-Baggethun et al (2010), but it has already been almost too late. The world has started to employ the monetary approaches to add up all the birds and the bees.
To raise awareness of this critical issue of the value of nature I adopted a visual approach and embarked on the key avenues of my Project: design and publication of the Ecosystems album, organization of a large public exhibition and various forms of engagement with the audience, which included among other things several interactive executive Spring and Summer Schools focused on the topic of the valuation of ecosystems in 2018 and 2019. My idea was that the exhibition could effectively become a travelling show given the importance of the issues it raises and the book could easily transgress boundaries and stimulate further action.
Environmental art is a relatively new phenomenon. Although landscape has been attracting attention of Asian and European painters since the first millennium AD, the specific reflection on how the humans are starting to have a profound impact on the natural world doesn’t come until the 20th century. In other fields, - philosophers have been at the forefront: our growing impact on the environment has attracted attention of the scholars like Plato, who referred to the deforestation and soil erosion caused by it in Attica as 'what now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left' (Hughes, 1975: 122).
Among photographers, who have influenced my work, there have been several important proponents of environmental themes, including Yann Arthus Bertrand with his famous Earth from Above book and exhibition, which having started on the fence of Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, has been seen in 100+ countries around the world (Arthus-Bertrand, 2002). James Balog led the National Geographic extreme ice survey and documented the melting glaciers in Greenland and other parts of the world using photography as a primary research tool (Balog, 2012).
Edward Burtinsky explored the way our economy extracts natural resources and manages some of the most important ones, namely water and oil, his exhibitions receiving high critical acclaim (Burtinsky, Pauli, 2003; Burtinsky, Schubert, 2009; Burtinsky,
Davis, 2013; Burtinsky et al, 2018). Sebastiao Salgado in his project, ‘Genesis’ with high poetic sensitivity explored the beauty of indigenous communities and natural ecosystems, including those of his native Brazil that he had to abandon as a political refugee (Salgado, 2013). Nair (2012)
emphasized the unique and poetic approach that Salgado used to portray the view of globalization and environmental deterioration from the perspective of the global South (Nair, 2012: 52). Daniel Beltra has attracted attention to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that happened on April 20, 2010, which resulted in 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled causing huge disruption of marine life, loss of livelihoods and the destruction of the tourism sector of the economy (Beltra, 2013: 1). David Maisel has presented at the same time beautiful and shocking areal images of polluted landscapes of California in his recent book, ‘Black Maps’ (Maisel, 2012).
The photographers mentioned above undoubtedly created stunning work, however the environmental impacts of making the actual photographs have not been negligible, as most of them, including Artus Bertrand, Burtinsky, Beltra and Maisel have used planes and helicopters for making areal shots, and a question about the CO2 emissions embodied in this work remains a pressing concern in the light of raising global concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. In my practice I tried to make images with much lower environmental impact, teaching courses in Ecological Economics and giving presentations on related issues to offset my impacts. There is a growing literature on land art, environmental art and photography, where the general principles of sustainable development, complex systems science and the environment are discussed and juxtaposed against the current artistic practice
starting from late 1960s to the present (Kastner et all, 2006; Smith, 2006; Kastner and Wallis, 2010; Boetzkes, 2010; Kastner,
2012; Kagan, 2011; Miles, 2014, Brown, 2014). Matilsky asserts that ‘Artists are in a unique position to effect such environmental changes because they can synthesize new ideas and communicate connections between many disciplines’ (Matilsky, 1992: 3). Magnum published photographic exploration of sustainability themes addressed exclusively by Magnum photographers and focused on broad themes of people, nature, shelter, food, community, tragedy, pleasure, economy and progress in 2002 (Magnum, 2002: 9).
The work of environmental photographers has created a lot of discussion in the media about the effectiveness of their artistic method and critical analysis helping to position their art in wider cultural context (Ball, 2017; Bjornerud, 2016; Carr, 2011; Edwards, 2011; Gambino, 2013; Gold, 2011; Jennings, 2016; Khatchadourian, 2016; LensCulture, 2016; Manaugh and Twilley, 2012; McKiernan, 2009; Peeples, 2011; Rudel, 2011; Sassen,
2011; Schuster, 2013; Scott, 2014; The Globe and Mail, 2015; Wainwright, 2012; Wolford, 2011).
The audience of my book and exhibition is currently growing and goes way beyond the viewers of the Oxford University show. I have
started including the Ecosystems album as a graduation present atmy executive education Spring, Summer and Winter Schools in Ecological Economics and this move alone helped to distribute the book to such countries as Australia, India, Colombia, Iceland, Denmark, Italy and Slovakia. Additional copies went to the USA, Germany, UK, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Russia and France. Undoubtedly, as a photographer I have been influenced by my
education, research and practical work in ecological economics, inspired to a large extent by such author as Herman Daly (Daly, 1997); Robert Ayres (Ayres, 1997) or J.B. Foster (Foster, 1997). This starting point led me to the intellectual discussions explored in Shmelev, 2012 and Shmelev, 2017, which became bestsellers and have been the foundation for the executive education programme I have been running in Oxford. At the same time it was clear that science is not enough to facilitate change and art is often required to reach the hearts and minds of a larger public and decision makers. In this context, a good example of the effectiveness of imagery is illustrated by the role of Blue Planet II by David Attenborough, which has been extremely influential and 88% of those who saw the series changed their lifestyle according to Calderwood (2018).
This is exactly why I felt that a photography album and a series of exhibitions would help me to achieve my goal of raising awareness about ecosystems and the dangers of using money as a measuring rod in this context. In my practice as a photographer I aim to illustrate the complexity of different ways in which we are related to ecosystems through the language of photography. My newly published photobook entitled ‘Ecosystems’, part of my Falmouth
University Photography MA Final Module Project, is the result of a fruitful collaboration with BA Graphic Design and Communication students at Reading University and Dr Joachim Spangenberg, who kindly wrote the chapter introductions for this album.
The book is composed of 25 chapters exploring various ways we are interacting with the ecosystems, from the simple water use and food, to complex processes like pollination and carbon sequestration and cultural ecosystem services, which indirectly create new and often non-monetary value through inspiring artists, creating spiritual and religious experiences as well as forming different cultures.
With my collaborators, we tackled such elements as fonts and styles, white or black background, bleeds and the diversity of the material, selection and sequencing, mini-maps illustrating the location where the images were created. Joachim’s texts have been incorporated into the book design. The recent photographic sessions that I was fortunate to undertake in United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Austria, Nepal, France, UK, Kazakhstan, Germany, Colombia will all be incorporated into the book to make sure that the diversity of geographic locations makes it an intriguing and visually exciting project. The book has been a great challenge in several respects – how to tell the story of ecosystems sequencing the images in way that contributes to the narrative of the book. In this context, reading the works by Gerry Badger helped a lot to understand the thinking behind designing a
photobook (Mack, 2013); Badger and Parr (2004, 2006, 2014). The sequence of ecosystem services from economic or directly used
to ecological or supporting and regulating various processes and social, representing on the symbolic aspects of interacting with ecosystems based on the synthetic classification adapted from my past work (Shmelev, 2012) has been used as a structure for the ‘Ecosystems’ album.
Several aesthetic principles in designing this book have been important. The use of colour as a creative element has playing a special role. The images selected for the book will give the readers a range of positive feelings, creating an emotional bond between the visual and scientific aspects of the material presented. With this book, I am aiming to reach a wider audience with a message about the true value of ecosystems, illustrating their complexity and helping the viewer understand how ‘the whole could be more than the sum of its parts’. This will in a way be a translation of scientific concerns of a plethora of researchers, including Martinez-Alier, Ayres, Vatn, Spash, Soderbaum, Meadows, Spangenberg, Norgaard and Gomez-Baggethun into a visual language, accessible for a broader audience. I have found excellent printers that have been able to implement the project to the highest specification.
The book features images made in Malaysia featuring the rare and endangered butterflies that act as pollinators, mountain tops with glaciers in Kazakhstan that are so crucial in storing water for drinking and agriculture, urban green spaces, which are so important for purifying air and creating well-being, blended into the architecture of Singapore, the sandy deserts of United Arab Emirates that experience severe stress from tourist desert safaris and plastics pollution, tropical ecosystems of Malaysia and Brazil, the coffee plants in Colombia, fresh fruit grown in Greece, trees producing oxygen in France, a diversity of cultures formed by different regions, inspiring locations that influenced a true revolution in early 20th century art and the ‘fauve’ or ‘wild’ use of colours by Matisse and Derain.
The importance and the timeliness of this photobook is determined by the discussions in the context of ecological economics that the scientific community is involved in at the moment. Thus, according to Richard Norgaard, what initially has been a promising metaphor, ecosystem services, turned into an opportunity to apply economic valuation approaches to something that ecological economists think should not be assessed in money alone (Norgaard, 2010: 1219). Erik Gomez-Baggethun shared the concern that ecosystem services, acting as a ‘pedagogical concept designed to raise public interest for biodiversity conservation, towards increased emphasis on how to cash ecosystem services as commodities on potential markets’ (Gomez-Baggethun et al, 2010: 1209). Gomez-Baggethun emphasized the principle of strong sustainability and limits to substitutability of man-made and natural capital. He also refers to the work of Martinez-Alier and colleagues (Martinez-Alier et al, 1998: 277) on incommensurability of values as a foundation of ecological economics and that “ environmental decision-making is faced with conflicting valuation languages that may not be
commensurable in monetary terms” (Ibid: 1213). Spangenberg and Settle (2010) criticize Payments for Ecosystem Services approaches for the fact that they are ‘based on a ‘beneficiary pays’ rather than the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The authors assert that “ecosystem functions are not distinct but mutually defining and interdependent— while services are so by definition” (Ibid: 328). Spangenberg and Settle underline that ‘The political argumentation (ecosystem functions as a basis for survival and development) has not been extremely successful in the communication to decision
makers’ (Ibid: 329) Peter Soderbaum argued that assessing nature in money was wrong for reasons of “strategy of pointing to many kinds of difficulties of monetary valuation (with intrinsic value, irreversibility, uncertainty etc.), while still insisting on CBA, amounts to a kind of double-talk”. (Soderbaum, 2013: 223).
This book is a beautiful coffee-table album accessible to a wider audience. Some of the endorsements for the back cover I was able to receive include:
“Our life depends on our ability to protect the home, which so generously hosts us. We should all contribute to our best. Sharing the captured moments of intrinsic beauty is certainly one of the most effective ways to raise awareness”, Janez Potočnik, former European Commissioner for the Environment, co-chair of the International Resources Panel, UN Environment;
“Visualizing ecosystem services is perhaps the most effective way of popularizing this important concept”, Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, PhD, Co-President, The Club of Rome;
“In this book Stanislav Shmelev, an ecological economist and an artist, goes far beyond the environmental social sciences and even the environmental humanities by appealing through photography to the incommensurable values that humans hold towards the environment”, Prof. Joan Martinez-Alier, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Past President of the International Society for Ecological Economics.
An important element of my creative practice is interaction with the audience. For me it is not enough to put my work out there in the form of a website, a book or an exhibition. I found that I really enjoy explaining the narrative and the background of a particular image, answering questions that the members of the audience might have and share stories about how individual images have been created.
In the course of the past year or so I was able to present my photography at the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Club of Rome, the British Pavilion at the United Nations COP24 conference on climate change, The Other Art Fair in Bristol, the Smart Landscape forum in Dubai and the Environmental Arts Practice Research conference at Plymouth University.
This interaction and the questions I receive serves as an indication of the genuine interest of the public, understanding of the issues involved and helps me to think about new avenues this project will take. It feels like a great beginning. The words by David Attenborough about the ‘Ecosystems’ album, ‘I have no doubt that it can be the basis of a BBC documentary’ give me strength and hope that there is considerable value in continuing with this project
and reaching out to more people, disseminating the results further, using it in the educational sphere and building foundations for the future stages of the project. One group of Oxford students has visited my Ecosystems exhibition at the Mathematical Institute and decided to go on an expedition inspired by my album.
Remarkably, the Ecosystems album has received letters of support from HH Pope Francis, HRH Prince Charles, President Macron, Prime Minister Rutte, Government of India and Sir David Attenborough as well as Nobel Prize winning climate change economists, former presidents of the International Society for Ecological Economics, IUCN, DG Environment at the European Commission, co-president of the Club of Rome, professors from Colombia, Sri Lanka, Spain, UK, Brazil, USA. The book has been launched at the 50th Anniversary conference of the Club of Rome and shown at a large exhibition held at Oxford University followed by the presentation at the UNFCCC COP24 Conference on Climate Change.
You will find more information at: https://environmenteurope.eu/ecosystems-complexity-diversity-and-natures-contribution-to-humanity
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