“Once upon a time, I was a climate-change skeptic. How could humans affect this huge planet so much? Could activists be creating a new cause to sell? Could scientists be trying to create research grants? Could the computer models be wrong? Could the media be over-hyping the science?
“Though if I was once a skeptic, I’m not one anymore. The evidence is in the ice. This knowledge of melting glaciers made me despair. But despair and defeat are not options. We must invest in our optimism and in our strength. This is the way forward.”
Not a lot of words for the first nine pages of a book. But they are ingeniously arranged and interesting to look at. And they point straight to the heart of James Balog’s Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report. The book’s publication by National Geographic was timed to coincide with his film Extreme Ice recently showed on National Geographic channels and previewed here.
Balog is an award-winning American photographer, exhibitor in many museums and galleries and author of photography books. After gaining a master’s degree in geomorphology he turned to nature photojournalism, covering a range of subjects over the years, including endangered wildlife and trees. Latterly his attention has focused on ice. Outdoor adventure has long been part of his life.
Extreme Ice Now contains a number of short essays written by Balog, interleaved with many wonderful photographs from the ice world. He explains the Extreme Ice Survey, begun in 2007, a collaboration between image-makers and scientists to document the changes transforming Arctic and alpine landscapes. Time-lapse cameras in selected places, taking images once in every hour of daylight over a period of years, are part of the record, along with a portfolio of still images, and the documentary film. Art meets science to convey the reality of global warming to a worldwide audience, to celebrate the beauty of the landscapes, and to assist scientists understand the mechanisms of glacial retreat. “If the story the ice is telling could be heard by everyone, there would no longer be any argument about whether or not humans are causing global warming. We are.”
His essays are mostly about his personal response to this realisation. He puzzles over what is holding us back from acting. He thinks probably a natural psychology of denial, allied with complacency, avoidance of responsibility, and fear. Add to this the “toxic effluent” poured through journalistic pipelines by vested interests to counter solid, observed, physical, empirical facts, and we have a recipe for confusion.
Balog chooses optimism though doesn’t find it easy: “…photography is something of an act of love. The sustained attention we give to our subjects draws us closer and closer as we get to know them better … I was filled with despair when I realised that the object of my fixation just might vanish before I returned in October.” But the idea that the people of his time will be the ones responsible for destroying something as monumental as the climate of this huge planet is too sickening to accept. Despair is not an option. We must exercise the will-power and technological resolve needed to change our ways.
The interest in Balog’s reflections is not that they offer any new information, but that they express very well the thoughts that probably many of us entertain in the face of the ongoing evidence of global warming. And they encourage us to believe that a solution can be found and to commit ourselves to working for it. The voice from the increasing ice flows of Greenland or the retreating glaciers of the Rockies and the Andes lends determination to those of us who frequent less challenging terrains.
The book may be for the coffee table but it has serious things to say as well as striking images to delight in.