How do we get people to care about the environment? Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Brooke Jarvis profiles photographer Chris Jordan, whose work documenting endangered Laysan albatrosses of Midway Island aims to show both the horror of the birds’ struggles and the beauty that inspires hope.
In 2009, the same year that Jordan first went to Midway, the American Psychological Association convened a task force to study what psychologistshad to say about the most confounding environmental crisis of our time: climate change. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act,” the task force’s chair declared, echoing countless strategy sessions at environmental NGOs. Among other findings, the report cited a theory that much of what looks like apathy in people’s response to climate change may really be a defense mechanism, a way to avoid an intolerable reality by denying it or by mentally “splitting”—facing it only intellectually, with emotions not invited. The report cited a 2007 paper by the psychologist David Kidner. “Staring reality, and not least ecological reality, in the face can indeed be unbearable,” Kidner wrote, “and it is therefore unsurprising that many of us engage in mental gymnastics in order to avert the full psychological impact of the destruction of the natural world.”
In 2011, a team of psychologists studying the emotional trauma and anxiety caused by the changing climate concluded that “global change is as much a psychological and social phenomenon as a matter of biodiversity and geophysics.” The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, after studying people living in an area transformed by open-pit coal mining, invented a word for the anguish we feel when beloved natural places change beyond recognition: solastalgia, which pulls from the roots of pain and desolation. Though we talk despairingly about how little people care about the environment, we’re now starting to recognize a different problem: Often, we care more than we can stand.
Think of the messaging debates of the environmental movement: For every question about creating urgency—are polar bears the heartstring-tugging faces of climate change, or distractions from the fact that we need to be worried about our own hides?—there are others about managing despair. Does touting recycling or low-flow toilets empower people to make bigger changes by giving them a stake in change and convincing them that environmental problems are manageable? Or does it make them feel cynical and hopeless and insulted, by offering such tiny solutions in the face of crisis? Should we be honest about the losses it’s too late to forestall, or should we plug the things that can still be saved? Hopelessness is the intolerable bogeyman, to be kept away with the right incantation.
Jordan never had much truck with that view. The first time he went to Midway it was for a single trip, in September, a time of year when all the hundreds of thousands of living albatrosses were gone from the island. Only dead young birds, decomposed to the point where the plastic in their stomachs was visible, were present. Jordan chose this time on purpose, believing that it was his job to put the emotional trauma of environmental loss front and center, not to displace it—to “fully experience the horror of just one of the tragedies that’s happening in our world.” The work of artists, he says, is “not to relieve us of feelings of hopelessness, despair, rage, love, but to help us feel those things.”
Jordan returned from Midway with a series of beautiful but disturbing photographs—intimate portraits of innocent victims whose every viewer was implicated in their deaths. He then sank into a depression that it took him months to face. “I’ve realized that the metaphor that I carried with me when I went to Midway was that Dante’s Inferno scenario,” he told me about six months after that first trip. “You walk through the fire, and you come out the other side with renewed energy or perspective. What actually happened, though, is that I felt like I walked through the fire and then just burned up in it.”
People who saw the photos likewise reported feeling traumatized, haunted, hopeless. Jordan remembers showing his photos at a girls’ school in Australia. After he was done speaking, the teacher who invited him stood up in front of the rows of 12- and 13-year-olds in their matching jumpers. Her voice breaking, she leaned into the microphone and said: “I want to feel inspired. I want to feel grief and love and these things you talk about. But what I feel is panic.” She began to sob. “Will you please just tell me,” she asked, “how do we get to hope from here?”
Jordan didn’t know how to answer her. Years later, he can’t tell the story without beginning to cry himself. It was after that talk that he decided he had to go back to Midway and find something else there.
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