Fall 2009 In This Issue

by David Crossley

"Human Nature," the theme of this issue of spot and of a recent exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography, is an interesting term, full of potential muddle as to its meaning. As you will see, the work portrayed is largely about nature, but only in rare instances is it not also about humans, and their nature.
Many of us hold ourselves to be outside of nature, even above nature. Still others maintain a vague view that we should be eliminated from nature, in order for it to flourish. But the truth is that the structure of the universe tells us it's all one thing - nature extending forever, and containing (among other things) us.
We are ferocious with our Earth. We ravenously dig and cut and haul and burn and slowly turn the planet's resources into all the things we want. We produce waste emissions that poison the soil and water and air and now begin to radically affect the climate everywhere.
Enormous harm to our children and their children is coming fast, and it's not clear that we'll be willing to turn our attention to solutions at a time when we have become so accustomed to having plenty and wanting more.
We humans are so caught up in thinking about the present that we have a hard time thinking about the future. It's well established that we require crisis - not imminent crisis but actual crisis - to shift into a defensive mode and cope with events. Right after the hurricane hits, we start looking for water and food and ice and power.
Here in the Houston area, we're just pulling out of a stupefying, record-setting drought, and large parts of Texas are going through it still. Scientists are telling us to get used to it. The Secretary of Energy, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, warns that all agriculture in California could be undermined by global warming by the end of this century. And James Lovelock, the scientist who created the Gaia theory, says it's likely that the human race will be reduced to one billion people by then, largely because so many of us will not be able to find food. He is suggesting that several billion people will starve to death.
This is probably still avoidable, of course. And to ignore the present reality of climate degradation or, worse, to understand what's on our horizon and decide to turn our heads, or even to believe that feel-good but stopgap measures such as recycling cans and the like is enough to fix it, is to court disaster.
So human nature, which is highly creative and generally desirous of good will and good fortune for all, seems inclined to enjoy life as it is even if that indulgent stance tempts species collapse and diminishes the chances of continued human evolution.
Fortunately, that creativity has been hard at work studying these changes while proposing a vast system of strategies that might mitigate disaster. As it happens, the solutions seem likely to lead to a higher quality of life for humans - a relatively new goal. It might prove useful for us to try to understand the difference between "standard of living" and "quality of life." As the urban thinker Andres Duany says, "everyone in America has a higher standard of living than any one in a Tuscan hill town, but everybody in that Tuscan hill town has a higher quality of life than any one in America." A little over the top, perhaps, but an insight worth considering.
The photographs in this issue of spot are, obviously, windows into the nature of humans, and into the natural and built environment in which we go about our business. Surely our shared visual intelligence and understanding is nurtured because so many people are so good at using photography to study and express the world. The question is whether these people, these images, and these ideas, along with others will help us come to grips with the looming catastrophe, and the hope is that they will point out the ways to avoid it and all of the genuine horror that it would bring.