The opening scene of the climate change documentary, Chasing Ice—destined to be a classic—features photographer James Balog carefully making his way between ice boulders and into the frigid surf of Jökulsarlon Beach, Iceland. Right before the title sequence begins, we hear Balog declare, “The story is in the ice somehow.” He is wrong. The story is not in the ice, and the writers and the producers know it. The story is in the knee-caps.
The opening dialogue in the first seconds of the film is as follows: Balog and his assistant contemplate the crashing icy waves and Balog says, “The worst that would happen is that I would get really wet if I just stood in place.”
The assistant, a local guide, corrects him about the worst that could happen : “No, you fall. You try to run. You bang your knee on a piece of ice and you bust your knee.”
Balog simply replies: “I have to get this picture.”
The story is not in the ice; it is in the knees. Chasing Ice is the story of James Balog’s knees and the extent to which he is willing to sacrifice them in order to get the most compelling pictures of retreating glaciers and thunderous ice melt. He knows that the water he sees rushing to the sea will fuel the king tides and storm surges which will overrun whole island nations and erode our great coastal cities thousands of kilometers away from Greenland. Balog has got to get this picture.
After my first viewing of Chasing Ice, I knew that I wanted to write an article entitled “By Balog’s Knees,” thus coining the phrase that can become the rallying cry for all future climate action: “By Balog’s Knees, we will stop climate change!” Admittedly Balog is a Hungarian surname, not the moniker of a Norse god, and “By Balog’s Knees” doesn’t sound half as inspiring as “By Odin’s Ravens,” or “By Thor’s Hammer.” Nonetheless, “By Balog’s Knees” is perfect for someone like you and like me, the small climate actors, the ones who do want to act heroically and to do great things, but who have yet to connect the dots between our small actions, our kneecaps, and the preservation of hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings. By Balog’s Knee, we want to act heroically on climate change, but we just don’t believe our small actions qualify.
Chasing Ice was released in 2012. What finally triggered my writing of this article is the curious way an old friend of mine changed a weight loss challenge of mine. Last week, I posted this on Facebook: “I will donate $50 ea. to the Trump 2020 campaign and to the NRA if I am NOT below 175 lbs. on April 4, 2019.” I went on to say that if I do make my target weight I will, instead, donate $50 ea. to Climate Caretakers and to Relate 360. The former is a Christian climate action organization; the latter focuses on relational and sexual health among teenagers in NE Kansas. I got a large number of Facebook “likes,” one or two jokes, and a great deal of encouragement. One friend wrote, “You've obviously read the latest motivational research...you've made your goal public, you given yourself powerful negative consequences for failure and positive ones for success. Expect the peer pressure because none of us want your negative consequences.”
Then suddenly Thomas, my old friend, did something in my comment stream which changed the whole meaning of my personal challenge. He thought he was upping the ante by writing: “I will match amounts either way if you move your deadline to March 4.” What happened instead was that he changed my challenge from a weight loss one to a climate action challenge. (My apologies to Relate 360 who will get their donation, but who are edited out of the rest of this article.)
My original challenge was a weight loss one. Thomas didn’t challenge me to lose an additional five or ten pounds. He just changed the date. I went on-line and learned that losing twenty pounds (healthfully) can take from 10-20 weeks. March 4 would still give me 15 weeks. That’s doable. March 4 is such an arbitrary date; it just happens to be a month earlier than my deadline. April 4, on the other hand, is my birthday. It is my 57th birthday and so I had been contemplating in what degree of fitness I want to enter my 60's. The April 4th deadline is about my weight, my body, and my health. March 4 has no meaning except the meaning that I choose to ascribe to it, and the only meaning that comes to me is that here is another chance to procure $50 more in donations for climate action. On the one hand, I will have to ratchet up my exercise and calorie-cutting a bit. I will also have to adopt an even more rigorous perspective toward Thanksgiving, Christmas, and four family birthdays between now and March 4. Mostly though, and this is how I feel: I feel like I’m being asked to give up this challenge being about me, about my health, and about my birthday celebration. If I choose to accept the March 4 challenge, it will be about $100 contributed to climate action, not just $50. It will be about climate change, and whether sacrifices, no matter how small are worth it.
You may find my line of reasoning overblown, but why should it be? Donations of $50 or less are the lifeblood of small organizations like Climate Caretakers. Fifty dollars is fifty dollars, and since Thomas would be unlikely to contribute to Climate Caretakers otherwise, and since in my current financial straits $50 is all I can afford, Climate Caretakers would miss out. More importantly, when it comes to climate action, small seemingly-unheroic sacrifices are often all that are available to small climate actors like us. Nonetheless it is precisely those small seemingly-unheroic sacrifices, made in their millions and billions, which is going to win the day. By Balog’s knees, we will do our part!
Chasing Ice portrays the work of the Extreme Ice Survey as Balog and his assistants set up time lapse cameras in some of the world’s harshest frozen landscapes: twelve cameras in Greenland, five each in Alaska and Iceland, and two in Montana. These cameras, often set up high in the mountainside in order to catch the panoramic view, will bear witness to the retreat of glaciers. Other times, the crew repels down into crevasses, or perches over precarious ice bridges to snap individual photos of rushing torrents of ice melt. Or, as in the opening scene, Balog wades out into the surf to catch the crash of waves upon the ice boulders. The landscape is spectacularly beautiful, and . . . spectacularly dangerous. In one scene, the crew is in a helicopter over icy water when they lose the use of one engine. The camera pans down to the ice sheets on the water surface and Balog informs us that should they fall in such waters, they would have only five minutes of physical function before death.
Nonetheless, again, it’s the knees which run the heroic risk and in the end are sacrificed. In one scene shot inside the tent, Balog is wrapping a knee. He explains, “This knee has had two surgeries already. It could use a third.” In the next scene, however, Balog is repelling down into a crevasse, the crampons on his feet kicked into the ice wall, the weight of his body borne as much by his knee caps as by the ropes. “Oh,” he exclaims, “there’s all sorts of curious crinkling and crunching effects in my knee,” and when he returns to camp, we hear, “There were audible chunks of gravel-like substance that I could feel rolling around in there. I was covering up the soreness with anti-inflammatories and pain killers so that I could function in the field.” It’s enough to make you grab your knee-caps in sympathy, but also to ask why “functioning in the field” is so all-fired important.
During the shooting, Balog does have his third surgery. At that point, the storyline, as well as some of the heavy lifting, get taken over by the young assistants. They shake their heads in disbelief and yet are still mightily inspired. One says,
Jim was told after his surgery that hiking is not a form of exercise that they want him to pursue anymore. . . . James is doing now exactly what his doctors said he shouldn’t be doing. Ice-climbing with axes and crampons. . . . It feels like, yeah, he goes to that point where he can’t anymore and sometimes it feels like he goes even further. Yeah, and he speaks about it, he says, well, so I’ll just do a fourth knee surgery, you know? Like however many it takes to keep him going. Like most people say, I’m going to get knee surgery to fix me, to make it better. But for him, it’s to make it better so he can keep on pushing it, destroying it, basically, then he has to do just do it again.
In the very next scene, James Balog is climbing the glacier on crutches. When he finally gets a chance to explain, he tells us: “When my daughters, Simone and Emily, look at me 25 or 30 years from now and say, what were you doing when global warming was happening and you guys knew what was coming down the road, I want to be able to say, ‘guys, I was doing everything I knew how to do. ‘”
That’s the challenge invoked by Balog’s knees. I want to be able to say the same thing to my two daughters. By Balog’s knees, I did everything I knew how to do, not matter how small.