Journalist & Photographer

The visual banality of environmental degradation

Several of the most pressing environmental issues humanity faces are difficult to visually represent, and do not engender the conflict, drama and sensational forms of violence which the mainstream news cycle thrives upon.

Rather, environmental issues are frequently banal in appearance, unfolding slowly over time in a nature that belies their severity, often in ways near invisible to the human eye.

This is especially true of the two most serious environmental problems we face – loss of biodiversity and climate change – but also of other critical environmental issues, such as soil degradation and water scarcity.

There are, of course, exceptions.

Deforestation, sand and dust storms, extreme drought and certain forms of pollution are more amenable to visual representation – indeed, images of such environmental issues can be compelling.

At the same time, cliché, dramatic and reductionist representations of these issues crowd out the possibility of visualizing in more nuanced ways the underlying complexity and interweaving factors typical of environmental issues.

It would seem, then, that the problem lies not in the visual banality of environmental degradation itself, or in the challenges of effective visual representation of such issues, but ultimately in what we place value on visually, what we construct as worthy of concern, what we deem deserving of action.

Would the visual banality of environmental degradation be as inherently problematic in a world less inclined to conflict? Less prone to violence? Less perpetually fixated on beauty?