Antarctica, the most uninhabitable place on Earth, is not by any reasonable standard beautiful. It has no history of human settlement, and relatively few defenders among the more endangered climates. One of those defenders is Sebastian Copeland, photographer, explorer, spokesperson, mountain climber.

In the late 1990s, Copeland was largely known as a celebrity photographer, though one with a foot in the outside world. “I was educated on the issues of climate change” he told us, “and though I always had a philanthropic background, that was targeted to more specific issues — clear cutting, whale hunting. But [climate change] really resonated with me, especially within the icy worlds I was fond of travelling in. Nothing communicates the warming of a climate like melting ice.”   

This year, Copeland has partnered with Revo Sunglasses, becoming the company's fourth official brand ambassador. Together, he and Revo hope to communicate the importance of environmental causes in a way that appeals to advocates and casual consumers alike.

We recently spoke with Copeland about his experiences in Antarctica, his photography and how he is helping to win over skeptics.

What planted the seed of your fascination with our environment?

My grandfather was a surgeon who moved to India from Ireland during the Raj, and he was really big on safaris. Mid-life, he traded his gun for a camera, and never shot an animal again. But he accumulated quite the collection of photographs of wild animals. After that, he relocated to Africa, and settled in Swaziland. I took my first photographs when I was 12, in South Africa, so I had an early inkling, which was really in my DNA, from my grandfather’s influence.

For most of my 20s, I had a rock climbing and mountaineering background. I was also shooting advertisements, with celebrities and all that. I was trained as an athlete my whole life, but the draw was always to an extreme, anything driven by adrenaline. The mountains were cold, difficult, and challenging — antagonistic to human presence. That’s always what’s drawn me to it.

Human exploration of Antarctica is relatively new. Had you studied the experiences of those that came before you?

My early fascination for the explorers of yore was something that I had cultivated through childhood and into adulthood. I always thought that, when I had enough money, instead of focusing on summits, I’d focus on polar regions, which take a considerable amount of money. About 10 years ago, I focused on travelling through the Arctic.

Were you offered that original opportunity, or did you create it yourself?

InsertCopeland2.jpgI financed my first trips myself. I used my skills as a photographer to bring back that (visual) information, which became my equity, if you will. I could parlay my photographic acumen into something that had consequences. To sensitize people. I became more and more engaged in the issues of how climate effects the polar regions, and I was soon invited to speak on the subject, including at the UN. I started to phase out advertising for environmental photography. My advocacy is to get people to fall in love with their world through the images I bring back, from environments they may never visit.

Was going to Antarctica for the first time — a place that, for all its resources, might as well be the moon — an intensely emotional experience?

Absolutely. There’s no escaping it. For me, it was really about the concept of “exploring.” My dream is to actually go into orbit or to the moon, and I’m sure the dream of any explorer is to go to places that are really antagonistic. And in terrestrial terms, “exploring” is really about exploring the limits of your own potential, your ability to overcome challenges. Though I’m sure in many places I’ve been, there’s never been a human footprint.

Arriving in Antarctica, there was real sensory depletion. The limited colour pallets, the lack of smells, the limited scope of sound, essentially just the wind and the sound of ice crushed beneath you. That’s about it. A lack of immediate pollution. All those things give you the sense of being on a different planet. But of course, it is a planet, our planet, a planet that is a limited biosphere. A world that is comparatively shrinking, because of the growth of human demographics and modern transportation. Over the past 100 years or so, it has become within our reach.

It’s a paradox, between it being so otherworldly and distant, and yet the actions we perpetuate here have an impact on it. And we can get flown in, and venture out, so it’s closer than it seems.

Your photos takes a surprisingly realistic look at the continent. Though many of the pictures are beautiful, they are often very stark and eerie. Was it your intention to give people this accurate, as opposed to inviting, view?

InsertCopeland1.jpgAbsolutely. What I intend to do mostly in these environments, is to point my camera and shoot. The beauty is baked in [to the landscape]. Yes, there’s a sense of foreboding, it doesn’t look like a weekend getaway but it is what it is. There’s real beauty, but it is antagonistic to humans. It thrives with mammal life, seals, whales, birds, penguins. So it is an active ecosystem, but humans are not designed for it. That’s relevant, because we are only one of 30 million species on this planet. It is not there for us to conquer, and that should be a humbling lesson. Just because we don’t inhabit the poles doesn’t mean they’re not relevant. We are just not the protagonists in this context.

Does the fact that Antarctica lacks a “human” face — history, culture, etc. — make it harder for people to appreciate what is happening to it?

That’s the conundrum. I try very hard to create a connection with this world, and to draw people into it. It doesn’t need to have us in it to have relevance. I draw in people emotionally, and hope that has an impact.

It seems like, even in my short lifetime, global warming has moved environmentalism from the “nature is beautiful” approach to a more realistic “nature is essential.”

Convincing people even by saying “do this for future generations” is no longer effective. We’ve progressed to the next stage of this platform. Look at it much more pragmatically;  a green economy has to do with job creation, saving money. That’s how we’re going to move the needle to a business leadership and governmental perspective. We need to move people’s hearts and stimulate their minds, but that still remains a difficult threshold.

I try to make people fall in love with their world, so they will try and save it. A lot of people communicate from a purely scientific standpoint, and that, whilst necessary, has not proven to be as effective as one would have hoped.

What is the hypothetical or predictable end result of global warming’s effect on Antarctica? Let’s say we do nothing. What happens?

You have to look at the entire ecosystem, humans included, as a chain. There’s a multitude of weak links in that chain. The synergistic connection between all things maintains an equilibrium, and allows us to exist on this planet, and that’s what we care about. The minute something is thrown off kilter, there is a chain reaction. If we don’t do anything, the melting ice will bring freshwater into the ocean. In the northern hemisphere, the North Atlantic drift will slow down because of the mass of fresh water as opposed to salt water, which regulates temperatures in Europe.

And as all of this is changing, it has an impact on seasonal crop cycles, which regulate how we make food. We organize our societies on a seasonal cycle that has been in place for the last 15,000 years. In the slowing-down, we have what we’re already seeing: wild changes in climate. Heat waves like we had in Russia last summer. It devastated the grain production for a country with huge exports. It went from 94 million pounds to 66 million. Putin said, “No export of grain.” So all the country’s around Russia stopped their exports. And all of a sudden, Tunisia has a revolution because food prices are too high.

It’s disturbing to think about, but will it take a massive environmental disaster, the likes of which we still haven’t seen yet, to get everyone to realize what a global problem this is?

What’s really sad is, it’s always been because of tragedies that we react. And once that tragedy has subsided, we move away from it. We had the Deepwater Horizon disaster last year, and all of a sudden offshore drilling became a big issue. There was a moratorium placed on drilling, then all of a sudden there was a move to strengthen our nuclear programs, and then in Fukushima, Japan, everybody gets up in arms about that. We can’t do nuclear anymore, so let’s re-open offshore drilling. We seem to go back and forth. Little by little, we increase our renewable portfolios, but not in any way that is significant, relative to the crisis we are in at the moment.

Related: Revo Sunglasses online

1 Comments | Add a Comment
He tells our children the planet is dying as in SAVE THE PLANET, so if he spent as much time spreading love for Nature as he does condemning it to a slow death, I might have some respect for him. Telling my kids they will die a death by CO2 just to get them to turn the lights out more often is not the way to make people respect Nature, nor him. He has turned naturalists, ecologists, Nature lovers, conservationists and environmentalists into hysterical fear mongering doomsday freaks who are taught that Humanity is an evil organism foreign to Nature itself. He should be celebrating the defeat of the smoggy 70's when a river caught fire in Ohio and be grateful for all of the laws, protections and standards we have achieved in a half century of successful environmentalism. But Nutzuki's environMENTAL fear factor philosophy ignores the fact that in places like London Ontario, we have not had one single smog day in over 5 years. Yet still he holds the tip of the spear of fear to our children's backs and tells them "they" are the only ones that can "save the planet" so "they" can have children of their own. No Dave, Nature is not delicate, or fragile or sick or dying. We are living longer now than at any time in history and I for one will celebrate our clear blue skies, not condemn the planet and it's future children to death.
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