Photographer James Balog says that he simply wanted to celebrate the beauty of nature in his work.
Instead, he's shifted course, and now says he feels an "urgency to bear witness" to what he calls a collision between nature and humankind, the fifth element besides the ancient idea of water, air, fire and earth.
Balog, who's traveled the world shooting natural disasters and melting glaciers for National Geographic and other major publications, gives viewers some insight into the situations he's encountered in "The Human Element."
Director Matthew Testa employs Balog as a narrator and guide in the film, divided into chapters for each element. Balog is an eloquent and thoughtful speaker, and every bit a traditional photojournalist who's more comfortable pointing the camera at subjects instead of himself. And so Testa's film is about Balog's concerns, not a portrait of Balog himself.
We see him on the ground during Hurricane Irma, shooting photographs of flooding, and at one point evacuating both his team and refugees. The initial chapter, "Water," heads up to Iceland, where Balog's Extreme Ice Survey collects time-lapse images of retreating glaciers; and then to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where the costs are visible. Parts of the community, such as a former graveyard, are now under water, and a scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that within 25 to 50 years, the entire island will be submerged. That leaves the people, some of who have lived there for generations, wondering what to do.
The film doesn't shy away from the issue of class: Many people can't really sell their homes (who would buy?) and therefore can't afford to move away. It would cost $100 million to build a seawall to protect Tangier, and the price tag makes the proposal seem outlandish. Yet the hundreds of billions of dollars required to protect wealthier coastal communities like Manhattan or Miami would surely be found.
Class emerges again in "Air." They visit a Denver mother who's four children all have asthma, thanks to the part of the city they live in: It's near a refinery and constant traffic from semis. Moving to another, healthier part of town, is too expensive.
Here in Montana, the chapter on fire will likely be of the most interest, as it focuses on the ever larger and longer wildfire seasons occurring in the West. They visit sites where the intensity and speed of the fires has cooked the ground into inhospitable soot, something they refer to as "moonscaped."
Balog and Testa gained access to the camp at the Soberanes fire, which burned 132,000 acres near Big Sur, California, in 2016. They interview top officials about the increasing danger of fighting fires in the growing wildland-urban interface. They talk to firefighters on the ground, one of whom marvels at the idea that he once fought a fire in 98 percent humidity. The most riveting footage comes when they head on the line, where crews backburn in a last-ditch effort to prevent the fire from crossing a ridge.
After the fiery apocalypse of the third chapter, the film takes an unexpected turn. "Earth" concerns the natural resources humans have extracted that are the source of climate change: oil, natural gas, and coal. They venture back to Balog's roots: His grandfather emigrated from Russia to the coal country of Pennsylvania, where grueling work paid for his son's college education and in turn a better life for Balog.
He and Testa head to Kentucky, where mountaintop coal mining built an entire way of life that's now in steep decline due to the prevalence of cheap natural gas and oil.
The filmmakers interview a coal-mine owner who hopes to turn those rubble-like mountaintops into solar-energy farms, an idea that might be discounted by locals if it was coming from an outsider.
The decision to end the movie with that note is deliberate. Balog says that "people are the only element that can choose to restore balance," if only they find the collective will.