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Lord Man: A Parable

When we think of nature photographs, the words beauty and inspiration usually come to mind. These are the images that remind us of the wild places we’ve seen or hope to explore some day, and that bring the mysterious lives of wild creatures into focus for an elusive snapshot in time.

Likewise, the term nature writing often evokes lyrical classics from the likes of Thoreau, Dillard, and Leopold—gifted observers of Nature who give voice to the sublime.

Sometimes Nature has a different story to tell, and the pictures aren’t so pretty.

But sometimes Nature has a different story to tell, and the pictures aren’t so pretty.

In his “Lord Man” parable, author and conservationist Tom Butler merges powerful prose with an array of haunting images that work in synergy to channel the natural world’s deafening cry for mercy: We are suffocating beneath the weight of human overpopulation and consumption, and we need you to lighten the load, NOW!

Butler narrates the parable in the video version of “Lord Man,”  which you can watch below by clicking  the arrow embedded in the image. Warning: “Lord Man” will compel you to rethink your next trip to the market and your overarching role as a consumer on Earth.

Butler served as editor for the book in which his parable first appeared, titled, Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (OVER; Goff Books, 2015). The book, which can be viewed in its entirety here, is spare on text and laden with breathtaking photos of some unimaginably ugly scenes—entangled sea animals, starving innocents—elegantly interwoven in pursuit of its stated purpose: “…to make millions of people acutely, immediately, and viscerally aware of the dangers and deprivations facing people and the planet.”

Book cover showing title and several photos, standing up as if on display at a library
Book cover for Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot, edited by Tom Butler

There is no getting around the fact that the photographs in “Lord Man” and OVER will break your heart wide open—that’s exactly the point. As Bill Ryerson (President, Population Media Center) puts it in his introduction:

If you care about people, you must care about what we are doing to the planet. If you care about what we are doing to the planet, you must also care about human numbers. Given a planet with infinite space and resources, population growth could, arguably, be a blessing. We do not live on such a planet. However, there was a time when the Earth and its resources appeared boundless. Some people still adhere to that anachronistic belief. If nothing else, the photographs in this book should shatter that illusion.

But that’s not to say that Butler and his colleagues leave us with a sense of hopelessness or homelessness on our planet-in-crisis. They created OVER as the centerpiece of the 2015 launch of the ambitious Global Population Speakout campaign, which engages people worldwide in efforts to address human overpopulation and its societal and ecological impacts.

In a clearly old photo and faded photo, one man stands upon a pile of skulls stories high, while another stands in front of the pile on the ground.
Men standing with pile of buffalo skulls, Michigan Carbon Works. Photo: Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Meanwhile, “Lord Man” reminds us that we have a profoundly critical choice to make—a choice reiterated by writer and professor Eileen Crist in OVER’s afterword:

Humanity can choose to live on a planet of Life instead of haplessly plunging toward a human-colonized planet on dialysis (‘wisely managed’). To live on a planet of Life it is necessary to limit ourselves so as to allow the biosphere freedom to express its ecological and evolutionary arts.

Limit ourselves so that we and others may flourish. Like all great parables, Butler’s teaches us a lesson to live by.

Tom Butler is former editor of Wild Earth journal, and is now Vice President for Conservation Advocacy at Tompkins Conservation.

2 thoughts on “Lord Man: A Parable

  1. And as each year passes, we continue to have the ability to choose, but like any limited time offers,
    some opportunities pass. As we learn of the ocean’s currents slowing to levels never experienced in the history of modern civilization, I have no doubt that we can trust nature, and wildness to take care of itself. The question will be whether and to what extent, earth remains habitable for humans not to mention remaining, as Eileen Crist puts it “a planet of Life.” What do you think?

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