Nature tamed is offered up in national parks, zoos and even shopping centres. But can humans learn to let go and allow it to take control again? One photographer has spent six years looking at this troubled captive world.
The Anthropocene is a term used by scientists to describe our current geological age. It is viewed as having begun 200 years ago with the industrial revolution, a moment when human activity began having an accelerated effect on the planetary ecosystem. Activity, it is said, that has moved us out of the millennia-long Holocene epoch.
Evidence of this human activity will endure. Future geologists will find radioactive isotopes from nuclear-bomb tests, huge concentrations of plastics, the fallout from the burning of fossil fuels and vast deposits of cement used to build our cities. Meanwhile, a report by conservation NGO World Wide Fund for Nature and the British Zoological Society says that the number of wild animals on Earth has more than halved in the past 40 years as we push creatures and plants to extinction by removing their habitats.
Humans have left the rural world for the city and we have separated ourselves from the land that we once roamed – and from other animals. But somewhere deep within us, the desire for contact with nature remains. So while we destroy the natural world around us, we have become masters of a stage-managed, artificial experience of nature; a reassuring spectacle, but an illusion.
Over the past six years, I have travelled to 14 countries across four continents, observing how we immerse ourselves in increasingly artificial landscapes. I wonder, is this a comforting alternative reality to mask our shattering impact on the world around us? Are we engaging in a project of grand self-delusion?
We sunbathe on fake beaches, visit zoos that offer up living animals in artistically rendered dioramas of their natural habitats and visit amusement parks that offer a “jungle experience”. We gaze at aquatic creatures in artificially lit sea worlds and at polar bears in Chinese shopping malls, pacing out their existence in glazed enclosures of plastic ice and snow. We ski on artificially frozen ski slopes in Dubai while outside the desert temperature is 48C. The list goes on.
Tropical Islands holiday resort in Germany is a short train ride from Berlin. Housed in a vast hermetically sealed dome, the resort offers a sandy beach, a 10,000 sq m indoor rainforest, a waterfall and a mangrove swamp with live turtles, dragonfish, flamingos and macaws. It’s so large that you can ride in a hot-air balloon inside the dome, hovering above the crowds on the synthetic beach below.
Disney World in Florida covers more than 100 sq km; it’s almost the same size as Paris. Built in 1971, it is the largest and most visited theme park on the planet. In 2022 more than 47 million people visited the Florida complex, spending $28.7bn (€27.1bn). Nine million of those people visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I also visited Disney’s version of Africa, where you can observe elephants, rhinos and fake African villages (without leaving one’s electric mobility scooter with a built-in cup holder). Experiences on offer include Kilimanjaro Safari and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, offering safe views of the world’s largest primates, set to the beat of the Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe (“the beat of the Congo performed by African drummers”). At the Tusker House Restaurant, you encounter Donald Duck in a colonial-era safari suit and pith helmet, before setting off on the Wild Africa Trek to see the rhinos.
In the numerous theme parks and zoos that I visited, I realised that nothing happens. There are no surprises. There might be a wave machine, a volcano that puffs smoke on the hour or a roller-coaster offering momentary thrills. But nothing changes, for good or bad. Everything repeats itself. In these manufactured landscapes, with smooth tarmac walkways, piped music, filtered air and corralled animals, nothing happens unless it’s part of the show. Here, nature is made safe – no thorns, biting insects, flooding or unpredictable creatures. This is nature as spectacle. Even the surviving scraps of nature in the real world are becoming packaged for our consumption. The idea of national parks as spaces of ecological purity relates to the nostalgic search for an authentic, unspoiled land. But the concentration of millions of visitors each year to national parks ensures that the pristine and untouched qualities for which they are celebrated will not be found.
Yosemite National Park in California receives more than four million visitors a year, almost all of whom arrive by car. I found myself in a traffic jam of SUVs snaking through the park, engines running, air conditioners on. Occasionally a window would glide open and an arm would extend out to take an iPhone photo. The commodification of wilderness brings with it roads, picnic spots, car parks, toilets, restaurants and luxury hotels. National parks, promising scenic views from one’s vehicle and mediated encounters with symbolic wildlife, have become like glass-encased museum displays: static, curated and existing only to be gazed upon.
Ski tourists today are becoming more demanding too. Everybody wants a winter wonderland, despite global warming. According to the European Environment Agency, the length of snow seasons in the northern hemisphere has decreased by five days each decade since the 1970s. In Italy, 87 per cent of ski slopes were kept operational with artificial snow in 2018. Some ski resorts use artificial snow to extend their ski seasons and augment natural snowfall but others now rely almost entirely on artificial snow production.
I saw whole hillsides covered with snow guns working throughout the night. The Carezza resort in the Italian Dolomites is run by Georg Eisath, one of the founders of a major snow-cannon manufacturer. Eisath began to develop artificial snow machines in the 1980s. “Even then, we were experiencing winters with poor snow,” he says. Eisath took over an ailing resort and with the technology he helped to develop, turned it into a thriving ski destination. The resort now has an on-site five-megawatt power station creating energy for 250 snow guns, a compressor and a water pump that sucks water from two purpose-built reservoirs containing enough water to make snow for the resort’s 40km of ski slopes. “We like to say that we make better snow than the natural stuff,” he says. “In the past 20 years, the tourists have come to expect well-groomed slopes. They want perfect-quality champagne snow.”
Our assault on the natural world, and with it our apparent need for stage-managed mediated encounters with nature, seems limitless. Hotels in Asia offer live penguin encounters in restaurants, while South African lion farms offer tourists the chance to pet lion cubs and walk with tame adult lions. Even the great, previously untamed places are under assault. Kenyan safari parks increasingly resemble zoos, with animals inhabiting dwindling habitats, allowed to exist largely for our pleasure and reassurance.
Just three per cent of the world’s land remains ecologically intact, with healthy populations of all its original animals and undisturbed habitats. How did we end up here? How have we humans of the Anthropocene – or “the age of man” – become such a destructive force in the Earth’s environment? Despite incredible advancements in science and medicine, we have used our power to exploit the Earth and its animals, and in doing so we have broken a bond with nature.
Western thinking has been heavily influenced by Aristotle and the Old Testament, which placed humans and their culture above – and separate from – nature. Aristotle said, “Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.” The Bible (Genesis 1:28) says, “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.”
During the period of European colonial expansion, nature came to be seen as dangerous and in need of conquering, taming, colonising or destroying. Or as an unknown, wild, primitive space, terrifyingly absent of humans, awaiting discovery and exploitation. In a famous essay written in the 1960s, Lynn White (professor of medieval history at Princeton and Stanford universities) argued that Judeo-Christian society introduced a worldview that made people less likely to care about the environment because it promotes humans as superior to, and separate from, nature. With the result that they – we – became the primary cause of ecological devastation.
Charles Darwin controversially recategorised man as just another species; one twig on the grand tree of life. But modern humans are no longer just another species. We are the first to reshape Earth’s ecosystem. We have become the masters of our planet and pivotal to the destiny of life on it. But it seems that we are not prepared – ethically, emotionally or scientifically – for the enormous side effects of our new and recklessly wielded power over our planet. In his 1989 book, The End of Nature, writer Bill McKibben predicted a day when our changed environment would surpass the capacity of our environmental vocabulary. The remade Earth, he argued, would set record after record – hottest, coldest, driest, deadliest – before people would be forced to seek new ways of describing and understanding events. But inertia is an intellectual choice as well as a physical state. For a long time, he suggests, confronted with evidence of a changing world, humans would simply refuse to change their minds. Medea, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, said, “I can see and I approve the better course and yet I choose the worse.”
Today social media and the internet’s ceaseless flow of visual stimulation and information have birthed a state of unreality, where we are no longer looking for truth but only a kind of amazement. In Saudi Arabia, a slated new $500bn (€474.4bn) city-state called Neom is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. With a name deriving from a combination of the Greek word for “new” and the Arabic term for “future”, Neom is intended to cover an area the size of Belgium in the far north desert of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastline, where summer temperatures reach 38C. According to strategy documents, the project might include a huge artificial moon, glow-in-the-dark beaches and an indoor forest. There will also be a mountain ski resort, which will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games and will rely on artificial snow.
But listen carefully to the words in Neom’s own sales description, advises modern-day philosopher Maria Balaska. “A place on Earth where nothing would be impossible… a place on Earth like nothing on Earth.” These descriptions, she reminds us, are uncannily similar to those that are offered by that titular character in Albert Camus’ play, Caligula; the story of an emperor who is descending into madness as he destroys everything around him, including himself.
Our future as a species depends on urgent new evaluations of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. We have divorced ourselves from nature, yet we crave a connection with the very thing that we have turned our backs on. Surrounding ourselves with simulated recreations of nature paradoxically creates unwitting monuments to the very things that we have lost. It will take a paradigm shift in our priorities and empathies to change. But it’s on an industrial and political level that change needs to happen. We already have a list of great ideas: protected natural habitats, rewilding, sustainable agricultural practices, ethical treatment of animals, renewable energy and reductions in greenhouse emissions and plastic pollution. We know what can be done. We just need to find leaders and captains of industry who want to do it.
Chimelong Penguin Hotel
Elephant Bay Hotel
Chimelong Ocean Kingdom
Dolomites ski resort
Italy in Miniature
Yosemite National Park
Nairobi National Park
Tropical Islands holiday resort
Volcano Bay theme park
Look to the future
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