Sebastiao Salgado doesn’t seem revolutionary, or all that interesting to me. His aestheticized portrayal of third-world workers, monumental in scale, was one thing—you could almost smell the “proletariat” sweat. But this return to nature thing really gets my goat:

I conceive this project as a potential path towards humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature. I have named it Genesis because, as far as possible, I want to return to the beginnings of our planet: to the air, water and fire that gave birth to life; to the animal species that have resisted domestication and are still “wild”; to the remote tribes whose “primitive” way of life is largely untouched; and to surviving examples of the earliest forms of human settlement and organisation.

I was reading Leo Lowenthal while everywhere I surfed (a week or so ago) people were “oohing and ahhing” over Salgado. For some reason, I just can’t get it up over environmental rhetoric. I try; there are some interesting things being done with it theoretically. But the actuality of it seems to prey on the worst part of human nature—the “grass is always greener” anywhere man is not just doesn’t jibe with my experience of the world. I’m more of a Blakean sort: “Where Man is Not, Nature is Barren.” I also suspect that Ansel Adam’s calendars killed many more trees than they ever saved.

The meaning of nature in almost every age is inseparable from social considerations. In the Renaissance, nature meant at once a scene of man’s activities, a field for conquest, and an inspiration; it formed the mis-en-scéne of men’s lives. . . .

However, with the coming of doubt and even despair about personal fulfillment within society, the image of nature was no longer a basis for a new perspective, but became an alternative. Nature was increasingly envisaged as the ultimate surcease of social pressure. In this context, man could submit to nature and feel at peace—at least in fantasy. His soul, inviolable in ideology yet outraged in reality, could find solace in such submission; frustrated in his attempt to participate autonomously in the societal world, he could join the world of nature. He could become a “thing” like the tree or the brook, and find more pleasure in this surrender than in the hopeless struggle against manmade forces. . . .

Paradoxically, this new type of submission to nature is closely related to political submission. The yearning for surrender to nature as it appears in Hamsun’s novels not only glorifies the awareness of individual weakness but at the same time exalts reverence for superior power in general. In our time we have seen in Europe’s totalitarian movements the apotheosis of unshakable political authority—unshakable, in part, because one cannot fathom it. The timelessness and magnificence of nature reinforces the finality of the political power in which man lives. (“Knut Hamsun” 321)

By 1937, when Lowenthal wrote this essay, nature photography was making great strides forward as a new diversion for both artists and amateur photographers. To characterize it as “political activism” seems to me to really miss out on what the confrontation with the sublime is really designed to do—it does not mobilize people, it makes them paralyzed and awestruck. Hardly an effective political formulation, unless you’re trying to create some new type of environmental imperialism.

When the environmental rhetoric people speak, I try to keep my opinions to myself. I agree with Lowenthal. I think environmental rhetoric is an area where the “liberal agenda” supports and perpetuates the agenda of “compassionate conservatives” who claim to be good “stewards” of dwindling resources. Feh!

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