Now Is the Time: Nature Photographers and Environmental Threats

Photo of a line of white pelicans working together as a feeding group in the artificial—but ecologically productive—channel of the San Diego River. © Budd Titlow
A line of white pelicans working together as a feeding group in the artificial—but ecologically productive—channel of the San Diego River. © Budd Titlow

Story and photos by Budd Titlow

In the entire history of human life on Earth, we have never faced two more broad-based and existential environmental threats than those posed by climate change and biodiversity loss. Right now—every day—the world is adding more atmospheric pollution, more destruction of habitat, and more threats to species, creating a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) enveloping shroud that may eventually doom our own species. On a geologic time scale, we are accelerating these processes at warp speed. A 2014 study in Science magazine reported that species were dying off at a rate 1,000 times faster than normal because of human activities. So, what’s the solution? I have some ideas but first it’s necessary to acknowledge and understand the problems, their urgency, and why nature photographers should care.

Photo of sea lion trio sunning themselves after “hauling out” on the Cliff Walk in La Jolla, California. © Budd Titlow
Sea lion trio sunning themselves after “hauling out” on the Cliff Walk in La Jolla, California. © Budd Titlow

Two critical problems

According to a recent U.N. report, more than one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction in the coming decades due to climate change, pollution, and loss of habitat. Because of climate change, devastating storms and droughts will become more frequent and severe. Plants bloom earlier in the spring, disrupting the migration of birds that feed on spring berries or insects, and the range of destructive pests and plant diseases is expanding. Arctic sea ice is melting as wildfires burn.

Biodiversity loss and climate change, the twin towers of environmental degradation, are not something that might become a problem in the future—maybe by 2030 or 2050 or 2100. They are problems right now—and they’re getting worse every day.

Whatever one believes the causes to be, climate change and biodiversity loss are threatening our existence, prosperity, and way of life. These issues are also putting at risk the vibrant landscapes, colorful plants, and spectacular animals we love to photograph. They disrupt not just our capacity to experience joy through nature photography but also our very ability to make a living.

However, the climate crisis and what some scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction do not have to remain problems. In fact, if we focus and work together, both of these conundrums can be well on their way to resolution in as little as ten years. A new administration that promises to make decisions based on solid science and a growing awareness of the scope and urgency of the problems among people give me hope. And there are ways photographers can use our special skills to help.

Photo of common dolphins feeding and cavorting in their salty habitat off the coast of Oceanside, California. © Budd Titlow
Common dolphins feeding and cavorting in their salty habitat off the coast of Oceanside, California. © Budd Titlow

A role for conservation photographers

We can put our skills and passions to work by using our photography to document endangered species, ecosystems, and landmarks and by documenting the threats they face. Whether melting ice sheets, drought, famine, wildfires, sea level rise, coral bleaching, habitat loss, extreme storms, or pollution and habitat destruction, our pictures can tell powerful stories that raise awareness and move people to take action.

As photographers, we can also join and work with local grassroots organizations, like 350.org, Citizens Climate Lobby, and Climate Action Campaign, or local conservation and preservation groups.

And, as individuals, we can examine the choices we make, the companies we invest in, and the politicians we vote for. Is driving a hybrid vehicle an option? Can we use renewable energy to power our homes? Does our 401k or IRA include fossil fuel companies or corporations with a track record of pollution and reckless development? Do our elected leaders take these causes seriously?


Rough Skinned Tree Frog

Conservation projects around the country need your images. Check out NANPA’s Citizen Science database and learn how to get involved in a biodiversity project.


Renewable revolution

There are solutions, and one of them is switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. If we play our cards right, we can use the perpetual, inextinguishable, natural power of Earth—the sun’s glorious rays, the wind’s constant breezes, and the water’s endless waves—to work for us all. And, in the process, we’ll leave the polluting fossil fuels right where they belong—buried in the ground. After all, the burning of fossil fuels is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and energy extraction—drilling wells, digging for coal, laying pipelines—destroys wilderness and habitat.

Think about it: Renewable energy here on Earth is abundant and omnipresent. Each time we go outside, we see and feel it everywhere. It’s like an endless symphony written by a master composer and played by a world-class orchestra. The golden rays of streaming sunlight are the strings—always there, maintaining the basic rhythm of the interwoven movements. The wind provides the percussion—rising from gentle whispering breezes of the snare drum to bold resounding gusts of the tympani. Then moving water blends in with the woodwinds and the brass—transitioning from gently lapping melodic notes of the flute to lazy ripples of an oboe’s dulcet tones and concluding with rolling waves of trumpet blasts. Some of the very things we love to photograph can be the energy sources of tomorrow … and we can still be photographing and enjoying them decades from now.

Photo of an eElegant terns wheeling around over their tidal flat feeding habitat in the San Diego River Channel. © Budd Titlow
Elegant terns wheeling around over their tidal flat feeding habitat in the San Diego River Channel. © Budd Titlow

We are right on the cusp of what I think will be the Renewables Revolution,—providing a mighty parallel to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the transformation of our nation from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, manufacturing society. Now we are about to transform ourselves again—from a hard-edged, fossil-fuel driven economy to a softer-sided renewable energy world.

The transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy won’t be easy. There’s a whole infrastructure to create. While it’s easy to take along a small solar panel to charge your camera batteries, you’re not going to find a charging station for your electric vehicle out in the wilderness, but there’s probably a gas station within an hour or two. We need better batteries for electrical storage and other pieces of the puzzle, but the cost of generating renewable power has already come down enough to be competitive with fossil fuels. So, this transformation is eminently possible. The Solutions Project lays out immediate plans for converting each of our states—plus many countries—from fossil fuels to renewable resources. And we can accomplish this at the same time as we create numerous new industries in wind, solar, and water power.

This is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. In fact—right now—“Big Oil” has the wherewithal to lead the transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. BP, which used to stand for British Petroleum, now touts itself as Beyond Petroleum. They know it’s coming—they’ve known for more than 30 years. They’re already planning for the transition. Because there are substantial up-front costs for them, traditional energy companies haven’t rapidly switched to renewables. But—in the long run—they will actually make more money from renewables than from fossil fuel production and processing. The sooner they make the switch, the better off we’ll all be.

Photo of “Happy” sea otters plying the cold, nutrient-laden waters of Morro Bay, California. © Budd Titlow
“Happy” sea otters plying the cold, nutrient-laden waters of Morro Bay, California. © Budd Titlow

In the end

Overall, the mighty impetus created by nationwide conversion to renewable energy will bolster every sector of our economy. As the old adage goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” This renewable energy boom will create millions of new jobs—leading to increased financial security for everyone. And that’s a “win-win scenario” we can all live with. Plus, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations will look back and be forever grateful to us for being proactive in tackling and resolving our current climate and biodiversity dilemmas.

Ultimately that means more people with the money to buy our products, take our workshops, invest in our trainings; more people who appreciate and value the animals and landscapes we photograph; more people who care for the environment as we do. What’s good for the planed is good for us photographers, too!

So, now—finally—the decision is in our hands. The issue is about preserving the existing quality and character of Earth’s species and their habitats. Will we decide to make the changes that will save our ice sheets, oceans, coral reefs, rain forests, and polar bears? Or will we just watch while our world slides into oblivion—at least for us Homo sapiens?

Budd Titlow is a professional wildlife biologist, wetland scientist (emeritus), nature photographer, and author of four books. His most recent book—written with his daughter, Mariah Tinger—is Protecting the Planet: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change.