James Balog: I have to do this

A photographer engaged in a long-term project to document the planet’s changing ecosystems talks about blending art and science and how he combats despair with "willed optimism."

When James Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) in 2007, he wanted to document the transformations wrought by climate change and to create beautiful images.

Balog, the subject of a documentary called “Chasing Ice,” said he realized as he moved ahead with EIS that this long-term project pulled together the seemingly disparate threads of his life: his love of the outdoors, his scientific training and his art.

EIS has installed time-lapse cameras at remote sites in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska, Antarctica and the Rocky Mountains and done episodic repeat photography in Iceland, Canada, the French and Swiss Alps, and Bolivia.

Balog said he feels that he has to pursue this project -- recording the present-day environment for future generations, as well as engaging in advocacy by alerting people to the changes in ice and climate change.

“There have been times when I would have wished otherwise for an easier life, a more lucrative life, a more relaxing life, a life where I didn’t have to be in airplanes and hotel rooms as much,” he said. “But it is truly a calling.

“I feel like there’s something way, way bigger than myself. I have to answer to it.”

Balog spoke to Faith & Leadership while at Duke to receive the Duke LEAF Award from the Nicholas School of the Environment. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Did you always have an interest in the environment and photography?

I’ve always been interested in nature and experiencing nature since I was a little boy -- animals, camping, climbing trees, going on canoe trips. Then as a mountaineer, an alpinist, a technical climber -- ice and rock and far-flung expeditionary mountaineering.

I’ve climbed in the Andes and Alaska and the Alps and the Himalayas. That’s what animated me and got me excited.

The photography grew out of that passion for the outdoors, and the science grew out of that passion for the outdoors.

The science led me in my 20s to go to graduate school in geomorphology, the study of how nature sculpts the land surface into the shapes that we see. Then as I was finishing graduate school, I decided I don’t really want to be a professional scientist. I’d like to be out there in the sun and the wind and not sitting in a room making computer models about something.

Now with this ice project, my life has come full circle after 30 years. I’m doing photography of geomorphology based on a scientific platform, and I have to go into all of this adventure travel and technical climbing in order to execute it.

So everything I’ve known how to do and been interested in in my adult life comes together in this project -- mountaineering, photography and science.

Q: So you didn’t strategically plan this career?

I don’t know how people plan to strategically do anything. There were large periods of time where I looked at my life and I said, “Aside from your love of the outdoors, this is all really disjointed.”

Then all of a sudden, it all coalesced into one lovely river channel, and I look back up the channel and I can see how all those different subchannels, all that braided stream, how it was flowing along and how it was all meant to eventually overlap.

Now it all makes perfect sense to me, and I consider myself blessed and extremely lucky to have seen all of that come together, because it could have been otherwise.


Q: I don’t know whether you use the language of calling, but you talk about your work in somewhat that way. Do you think of it in those terms?

Yes. At some level I don’t feel like I have a clear, conscious, human choice. This is bigger than I am, and I’ve had a whole series of experiences that have pushed me in this direction. They’re incredibly powerful.

There have been times when I would have wished otherwise for an easier life, a more lucrative life, a more relaxing life, a life where I didn’t have to be in airplanes and hotel rooms as much. But it is truly a calling.

I feel like there’s something way, way bigger than myself. I have to answer to it.

Climate change and all the other human-caused systemic environmental change that’s around us represents a profound historical moment in the evolution of this planet. The planet has been around for more than four billion years, and yet in this very short time window, we’re seeing a big transformation.

With my knowledge base and my experience base and the things that I know how to do and the things that I love -- most importantly, the things that I love -- with all of that put together, I can’t do anything else. I have to do this.

It’s the right thing to do, and I am where I’m supposed to be. It all came together and it put me right here, and that’s it.

Q: You’re also bringing particular and unique gifts to it.

At some point, all of this is happening because of each one of those minutes, hours, days and years that I invested in the camping when I was a kid and the climbing trees when I was a kid and all those nights out under the moonlight and the starlight as a mountaineer and all the runs down powder snow as a skier and on and on and on and on.

It’s all part of the fabric that has become this work.

I’ve been trying to clone myself -- I have some other guys carry the torch with me -- and it’s harder than you might think, because so much of it does have to come out of this singular experience.

One of my assistants from back in the 90s, John Weller, has gone on to an amazing career, and his passion has been to illuminate the life of the oceans. He did a five-year project on the Ross Sea in Antarctica and has played a significant role in speaking on behalf of the preservation of the Southern Ocean.

Q: In your work, you blend art and science. How did you come to cross those boundaries?

Those two things grew together organically out of my experience of the world as I was seeing it.

We are very literally doing an artistic treatment of the scientific knowledge and a scientific treatment of an artistic experiential phase.

These two things fit together and can’t be extricated from each other, and together they give a much more intense, complete impression of what’s going on in the world than one does without the other.

Q: Do you see part of your job as mentoring others to help you carry this load?

It is. The other big thing, speaking of other people, is the film “Chasing Ice” came about because a young aspiring film director got a chance to work with us and go out in the field. He was at first my employee but then decided he wanted to go out on his own.

So Jeff Orlowski went off and formed his own production company and created “Chasing Ice,” and that’s been a huge sociocultural project and has played a major role in contributing to the climate change conversation in the U.S.

Q: The work you’re doing seems significant, but for average people, it doesn’t feel that inspiring to just turn down your thermostat. What would you advise people who may be struggling with that?

I don’t think it’s trivial to do what you can in your own life, even though at times it feels small. Changing the light bulb, going to a higher-mileage car, caulking windows, putting solar panels on the roofs, it all matters, because -- guess what? -- we’ve got to address climate change one tailpipe and one smokestack at a time, one leaky house at a time, and it’s not unreasonable to try and go back in the same direction.

More importantly, it gives you, the individual, a concrete sense of meaning, purpose, importance. At least you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and say, “I’m doing what I can in my own life.”

The human race is characterized by the social psychologists in a number of different ways, obviously, but two of the things I keep hearing about over and over again is that we are storytellers and that we seek patterns.

Those are two of the singular characteristics of Homo sapiens, so first of all, on the pattern-seeking side, the pattern is the pattern of natural events that are pointing toward the idea that we’re altering the atmosphere. That’s what science is about -- collecting the patterns.

Then the task is to tell stories based on responses to the pattern, and so I think that one of the most important things people can do in their own lives is to tell the story about the patterns. Use your voices to speak the truth as best you understand it, trying to avoid all the propaganda, all the noise, all the confusion, all the malicious intent to keep people from perceiving things clearly.

I think that using your voice is an incredibly potent thing that we all can do. It certainly goes beyond changing light bulbs and gives you much broader reach and much greater leverage.

Back to your question of feeling overwhelmed …

Q: Yes?

There have always been issues of dealing with adversity. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is easy. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves that this will be always pleasant or instantly profitable, and God knows we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking it’s entertaining.

Important things have always meant confronting adversity and doing what was important, and the right thing at the time, as best you knew how to do.

When you’re confronting adversity, you can often feel despair.

I learned early in the Extreme Ice Survey that you then have two choices, and those are the only ones you’re left with -- and one choice is in fact despair.

I can be despairing and then I can surround myself in skepticism, in cynicism and pessimism and indifference, or I can make a choice to be optimistic – “willed optimism,” if you give it a term.

Q: Researcher Shane Lopez has written a book about this -- he calls it hope and says hope is a choice.

I often don’t go with the word “hope,” because it seems too tender and grasping. To me, “optimism” is a more firm choice, where you are actually in charge of your life.

To me, it’s about willed optimism. I can be really depressed about this some days, and I mean that literally. Every single day of my life since I started into this climate-change business, I always have some period of time when I go, “God, this is hopeless” or “This is too hard” or “This is too expensive” or “This is depressing” or whatever.

But I always resort to just more or less pulling myself up by the scruff of the neck, mentally, shaking myself and saying, “No, no, that’s not where we’re going to go.”

We’re going to go toward willed optimism, and it’s only in that that you can make positive, forward progress, because the rest of it, the despair, just leaves you curled up in a corner and you don’t get anything done. There you are. You have a choice between willed optimism or despair, and I choose the willed optimism. That’s as well as I can say it.