The Cycle of Life, and the Destructive Influence of Consumption
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
| David Wagoner
In this blog article, I would like to face a topic that has been on my mind for a long time, but I have never been able to really put it down on paper. In a world overwhelmed by crises worldwide, it seems to me that many people have lost access not only to themselves but also to the world. First, I would like to write something about the miracle of the cycle of our life and the creation of the earth. Then I will look at how we humans have brought this wondrous balance in nature into disbalance, the influence of consumption, and how we can re-establish access to ourselves and the world. My thesis is that we as artists can only create artworks with meaning in a sustainable way that moves others emotionally when we are deeply connected to ourselves and can transfer this energy to our art.
The Cycle of Life
Let me start with our earth. Our earth exists – according to today’s knowledge – for about 4.6 billion years. In all these years an atmosphere has developed on our earth and life has arisen. The evolution of living beings has changed this atmosphere over the years and in turn, influenced life. As far as we can estimate this today, this development is unique.
When the earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago, it consisted of gases and solids, and had almost no atmosphere. The hot surface consisted of molten lava from volcanoes. Over time, this surface cooled, and an atmosphere of various gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, formed around the Earth.
In the following 500 million years, this surface cooled and solidified. Therefore, water could collect on it. Methane was among other things also responsible for the fact that the earth stored the warmth of the sun at that time and did not freeze because the sun was 70% less light-intensive at that time than it is today. Oxygen did not exist on earth at that time, only in connection with the hydrogen in the water. Nevertheless, the Earth managed to evolve carbonaceous molecules into simple living cells that did not need oxygen to live. Later, the cyanobacteria in the oceans, so often criticized today as polluting lakes, produced oxygen from carbon, water, and with the help of sunlight. This photosynthesis enabled the formation of up to 20% oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. This oxygen could now react with the methane in the atmosphere. Consequently, the methane layer dissolved, and the sky became blue. The high oxygen content, the increasing warmth, and the sunlight seeping through the clear sky promoted the formation of living organisms in the ocean and the creation of the first small plants that could use oxygen for life on land and convert it into carbon dioxide. These aerobic creatures were able to convert oxygen into life energy. At the same time, they were able to regulate the oxygen content in the atmosphere, which had increased by up to 35%, so as not to become poisoned by it. With this adaptation, larger plants were able to grow, emerge, develop, and adapt on earth for many years. Dead plants died and formed carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, from the carbon with the help of the oxygen in the air. The more carbon dioxide formed, the warmer the earth became. At that time, however, many dying plants were covered by the water of the oceans or by swamps, so that the earth was regulated by it. In turn, the new plants used the resulting carbon dioxide to create new life. The dying plants created coal and other raw materials over many years.
We, humans, are also aerobic creatures and use oxygen to obtain energy from proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from food. In the process, we convert these substances into water and carbon dioxides, which we excrete. This endogenous metabolism is really the human adaptation to the earth’s atmosphere and reflects our connection to it.
Isn’t this process fascinating? I am always amazed at how new raw materials are created on earth from existing ones, enabling the earth to adapt sustainably to new conditions. Nature generates itself. It is completely interconnected as a coherent system. Thus, it is able to regulate itself continuously and to keep itself always in balance. This self-regulation arises primarily from the fact that nothing is wasted, and everything is recycled and reused by nature. In the many, small, self-regulating networks on earth, there is no consumer, because all living things flow back as raw materials into the development of new life. If we humans left the earth to itself and had no influence on it, it would probably always be able to react and adapt to new influences from outside. The earth has always created exactly what it needs just in the next step to adapt and to survive. The waste in one system served as energy and resource in a future system. In science, therefore, one speaks of the cycle of life.
The Human Influence on the Cycle of Life
The problem is that this cycle of life on earth is not left to itself. Today, for example, we humans burn the raw materials created in prehistoric times, such as coal, oil, or gas, thereby releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Too much so that the earth can still regulate itself. The earth is warming up so much that the atmosphere protecting us is becoming thinner, holes are forming, and the sun is heating the earth further as a result.
Instead of a circular economy, we humans have created a linear economy. This consumes resources in order to produce and throws away the goods produced when they no longer meet people’s current tastes, are defective, or people have simply lost interest in them. Today, for example, it is many times cheaper to buy a new printer than to clean, repair and maintain the old one. More exciting to replace the existing camera with a newer, more powerful one. More contemporary when we replace old clothes with clothes in a modern cut. Simpler when we buy fruit wrapped in plastic at the supermarket rather than transporting them home one by one from the farmer. We, humans, produce more waste than ever and are already unable to dispose of it adequately. We humans today recycle less than 10% of the waste we produce. The rest is hidden.
In nature, there is no waste. A rotten tree that has collapsed becomes a habitat for microorganisms and fungi.
Our earth is in bad shape because the man-made techno system on earth is no longer in accordance with the given ecosystem of the earth. We give too little attention to the prevention of waste. We consider waste as waste. We think too little about reusing waste as a raw material in the sense of a circular economy. We act too little sustainably.
With our behavior, we destroy the natural balance on earth and the cycle of life.
The Destructive Influence of Consumption
We, humans, could live with what we have been given. Each of us has been given valuable gifts and qualities with which we could create new things in focus. For life itself, we often need little.
But we humans have often learned to never be enough, to never have enough, and to constantly expose ourselves to comparison. A core problem behind this development is the human consumption associated with capitalism, which seems to dictate what we need, have and must consume. Marketing and advertising play a central role here, but so do data-driven algorithms that pitch products to us, generate needs that weren’t there in the first place, or catapult us into a dependency on the digital platforms we use every day and encourage permanent consumption. At the same time, the quantity and intensity of information that hits us every day have increased rapidly. We are overwhelmed by the multitude of information and are often just in the mode of working through it, instead of keeping the focus on what is important and what we want to create from our hearts. It therefore often seems easier to swim along in this stream of consumption, because then we don’t have to think. We accept the blue pill from the movie Matrix that makes us think we have a paradise without looking behind the scenes to understand the life-changing truth. It is easy to consume. And we believe that this gives pleasure.
Consumption in Art and Photography
Art and photography are also affected by consumption. But I’m thinking less about the consumption of the creative works themselves and more about the consumption through which we produce these works.
Many photographers travel the world by airplane or large four-wheel-drive vehicles to reach distant places – always with the justification of wanting to capture the rare beauty before it disappears. Can this be an ethical-sustainable justification?
Many walk off the official trails to create photos that no one else has created but are part of the Nature First Initiative. How does this fit together? They run from one vantage point to the next, only to take the next picture and flood the photo platforms on the Internet with images that already exist in similar forms in large numbers.
As photographers working digitally, many artists create series of images, often taking hundreds of pictures in a day, knowing that, after all, storing and backing them up on digital media costs us next to nothing these days.
Before photographers go out into the field to shoot the next day, they charge all their batteries, often without thinking about where that energy is coming from.
We are all part of the problem because we consume. And we consume because it’s easier than thinking about what we’re actually photographing, why, to express what exactly.
As a consequence of this consumption, many people even take on work that they don’t actually want to do, that doesn’t give them any pleasure, but merely serves to secretly satisfy their consumption. The German cabaret artist Bodo Wartke asks in his song “Das falsche Pferd” (The Wrong Horse), for example, what would happen if all people did what they do with love? If we, with the gifts we have, could simply concentrate on the creation of the new and create this in love? Yes, what would happen then?
What if we did what we wanted to do with love? Wouldn’t we then work in the flow instead of the race and produce more sustainable, deeper works? Travel less, move more sensibly. Ask deeper questions, wonder more, and be more at one with the world.
Waste Prevention, Waste as a Resource, and Strengthening
Many answers to the problem seem simple. By imitating nature. To avoid waste. Not throwing anything away. Thinking about reusing (“reuse”), recycling (“recycle”), creating something new from waste (“refurbish”), or creating something of greater value from it (“upcycle”). To see waste as a core problem, but also as a possible solution to the problem. To stop new production that has not been created from waste. To regulate growth that is not sustainable. But all of this only works in niche markets right now, because no one is making us want to waste. Because marketing suggests to us that we need new. What if marketing suggested that we should give things a new life, and made us want to generate something new from existing things?
The system in which we currently live has become fragile. Because often only money counts. But not the value of things for our survival and the life of the earth. Shouldn’t we relate the way we price things and how to this value? How can a rare Bugatti Veyron be worth more than clean water, clean air, or a tree? Maybe we should be willing again to pay for things that are worth it and to reduce our consumption when it comes to pure status symbols. Capitalism knows not enough and not sufficient.
The big cycle of the world can only work if we have understood sustainability, the meaning, and the functioning of the small systems.
And this journey begins with us. Inside. With honestly perceiving, accepting, and connecting with ourselves and creating from that connection.
My next step in this context will be to rename my professorship at the University of Zurich. I’ve never done marketing before, and I’ve never been interested in studying mechanisms that companies can use to make more money. The new name of my chair will be “Marketing for Social Change.” How can we use the methods of marketing to motivate people to behave better and build a more sustainable world?
What does it mean for my photography? That I continue to look critically and deeply at what means something to me and what I want to express in images. That I am more mindful in the field. That I plan to be more thoughtful in using and charging batteries. That I even better consider the practices of Nature First in my daily practises.
In our workshop, this fall in Norway, my friend Trym Ivar Bergsmo and I will take this motivation, go deep with the participants, and try to work out sustainable projects. Please, visit the page to find out more.
On the thoughts about the earth’s atmosphere and its development:
- Perry Samson lecture at the University of Michigan, https://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/Perry_Samson_lectures/evolution_atm
- The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, https://www.si.edu/, and their work on Forces of Change https://forces.si.edu/index.html.
- M. Hayes, Evolution of the Atmosphere, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/evolution-of-the-atmosphere-1703862
Workshop in Northern Norway on Finding Your Creative Identity:
- Workshop-Page: https://www.rene-algesheimer.com/workshops
- Announcement: https://www.rene-algesheimer.com/workshop-announcement-norway-september-11-17-2023