October 28, 2018

Earth’s four elemental forces… plus The Human Element

Posted by Laura Guertin

“We are changing the other elements. At the same time, the elements are changing us. I want to bring this story to life.”  —  James Balog, The Human Element

Back in 2012, James Balog’s documentary Chasing Ice was premiering at festivals across the globe. AGU interviewed Balog in the beginning of that year and hosted a panel and showing of Chasing Ice at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting (one of my undergraduate student researchers that attended the AGU session with me wrote a great summary and reflection on her blog). This screening and follow-up panel discussion is one of most impactful and memorable AGU sessions I have ever attended, and James Balog is someone I kept on my radar for his work and future contributions to science and communication/art.

Fast forward to 2018. I’m not sure when and where I first heard about the Earth Vision Film Production The Human Element, but the description on its website grabbed my attention:

Renowned photographer James Balog (CHASING ICE) uses his camera to reveal how environmental change is affecting the lives of everyday Americans. Following the four classical elements— air, earth, fire and water— to frame his journey, Balog explores wildfires, hurricanes, sea level rise, coal mining, and the changes in the air we breathe. With compassion and heart, THE HUMAN ELEMENT tells an urgent story while giving inspiration for a more balanced relationship between humanity and nature.

Each fall semester, my campus hosts a movie screening open to the campus and public during Earth Science Week. I knew that The Human Element would be the perfect film to show, with a powerful message at an important time. I was able to request a copy of the film for an early screening. With the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C coming out just days before our event, I’m not surprised we were able to show Balog’s newest documentary to approximately 100 people and include a discussion of the IPCC report and share future actions for the audience.

I don’t want to share all the details of this documentary, as James Balog will be giving the Frontiers of Geophysics Lecture at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting in Washington DC in December, along with appearing at a screening of The Human Element at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. But let me share why you should attend the Frontiers lecture and see the film.

James Balog is an amazing storyteller, using photos and videos to capture Earth’s dynamic systems, including our anthrosphere. He is aware of how important people are to his stories, and he knows how to be the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage”, letting the local voices share their realities in the present and concerns for the future.

Balog is successful in inserting some lighthearted moments throughout these serious topics. For example, during the AIR portion of the documentary, you learn that more than half of all Americans live in unhealthy air, and you hear the comment, “if you don’t care about climate change, you should care about what you and your kids are taking into your lungs.” But you also see James Balog test the composition of his own breath as he climbs on top of a van and exhales into a collection tube (trust me, in context, this brings a smile to your face). In the EARTH portion, he presents the story of coal as a personal one, and we meet his father as the two visit the Pennsylvania coal mine where his grandfather worked.

Balog states that although he wants to celebrate the elegance and beauty of nature, he instead sees a collision between nature and people. From the impact of rising water on Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay to the “new normal” of California wildfires, Balog reminds us that we (humans) are the ones that have changed the elements, and have done so very quickly. But the final messages in the documentary are ones of hope. “Ingenuity moves us all forward, and that gives me hope.” It is what should give us all hope, to change the story of our time.

“People are the only element that can choose to restore balance.”  —  James Balog, The Human Element