Fossil Fuels

A Life’s Work Bearing Witness to Humanity’s Impact on the Planet

For many travelers at Denver International Airport, seeing James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey—timelapses constructed from hundreds of photos of glaciers retreating around the world, which ran for years on screens in the airport’s terminals—highlighted a contradiction. Viewers could watch the rivers of ice that are critical to the Earth’s ability to support life vanish before their eyes on their way to and from flights that are one of the drivers of the warming melting the glaciers.

Balog’s photography has always inspired “cognitive dissonance”—the mental and emotional discomfort that comes with holding conflicting beliefs and attitudes. Learning that the photographer who has for decades documented the impacts of the warming climate, from Hurricane Katrina to California wildfires, descended from a family of Pennsylvania coal miners can inspire such dissonance. So can learning that the man who made iconic photos of species endangered by human actions grew up hunting.

Such contradictions aren’t so much questions that arise from Balog’s photography and writing, but what have driven him to create them. Long before anthropocene was proposed as a term to explain the geologic age in which humans are the most defining force of the planet, he was documenting what the word described for National Geographic, Time, the New York Times Magazine and many other publications. The Earth Vision Institute he founded allowed for the type of long-term focus that a new geologic era would require. The documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “The Human Element” took his big ideas to the big screen.

Now, Balog’s hefty new book, “The Human Element: A Time Capsule From the Anthropocene,” presents an anthology of his words and pictures from a lifetime of bearing witness to human impacts on the planet. Inside Climate News’ excerpt from the book includes an essay, “Carbon Inheritance,” and, of course, a selection of his iconic photographs.

—Michael Kodas, senior editor

The Human Volcano (Coal Landing), Wellington, Utah, USA, October 4, 2019. Credit: James Balog


By James Balog

Do any of us really have a right to be angry or frustrated about the climate- and-energy crisis without considering how we ourselves have contributed to it? Honestly? Truly? With eyes wide open? I don’t think so. We all play a role in producing the problem. No one inhabits a righteous, pure-and-holy aerie above the human condition. Not me, not you, not anybody.

We all drive our chariots of carbon fire. We all rely on carbon fuels to produce our clothing, food supply, lighting, the thermal comfort in our houses, and much more. Do other ties bind you to fossil fuels? Investments, perhaps? Is your comfort and prosperity today derived from a family history linked to oil or coal? Or, to take a broader view of environmental abuse, logging, commercial fishing, industrial farming, or rapacious real estate schemes? 

Since such ties weave through many of our lives, allow me to make a sheepish confession: my own family’s history is shackled to coal mining. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side and my grandfather on my father’s side both mined coal in Pennsylvania. Most of that state is as bucolic and charming as any place ever sculpted by agrarian hands. Yet where mines gnaw at the black seams, the landscape is grim and grimy. Inside those lithic mausoleums, workers metamorphosed the way shale turns to schist. My progenitors would have been ruddy-faced farmers back in their European homelands, but instead turned into hunched-over gnomes, coated in coal dust, half deaf from the roar of machinery, inhaling particles of primor-dial Gondwanaland with one gritty breath after another. To the industrial volcanoes of Pittsburgh, up chimneys of snug homes in Philadelphia and New York, the coal they dug sent the energy of ancient suns floating up to cumulus skies.

I can still picture Thomas, my great-grandfather, sitting hour after hour, as motionless as Mount Rushmore, on a musty, striped corduroy chair by the parlor window of his house. He looked 1,000 years old. Savage labor in the anthracite seams had broken his body. Coal dust fouled those little pockets in his lungs where red blood should have been gleefully slurping up oxygen. Was he in pursuit of “doing what you love,” as we say in the jargon of our self-indulgent times? No. He needed cash to support his family and was willing to trade away his existence for it; every shovelful of black carbon was an expression of his hope in a dream called America.

The coal-fired Keystone Power Plant and Farm, Shelocta, Pennsylvania, USA, 2017. Credit: James Balog
We Are OK after Hurricane Katrina, Waveland, Mississippi, USA, September 17, 2005. Credit: James Balog

Then there’s my father’s father, Michael. On October 23, 1946, in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, he and a dozen other miners rode a narrow-gauge railroad into Mine Number 6. In the eternal darkness of geology, their little train thundered along a four-foot-thick seam of bituminous coal. The men lay down in the open-topped coal cars so that 220-volt DC current, coursing through bare copper wire strung on the ceiling of the tunnel inches above their heads, couldn’t electrocute them. Miles under the mountains (six or seven, according to my father), the train stopped at a wall of coal—the “face,” in miner’s jargon. 

Hour upon grueling hour, my grandfather, with hands the size of bear paws and calloused to shoe leather, pried burnable rock from the soul of the Earth. He looked up at the tan stone ceiling. Lit by the harsh carbide beam on his helmet, the roof over his head looked exactly the same as all the other ones of the past 40 years. But on it the hieroglyphs of his fate were written. A rock slab the size of a dining room table spalled off the ceiling and nicked his temple. Within his skull a purple contusion exploded. Minutes later, Michael Balog, age 62, was dead. He returned to daylight, laying under a white shroud, on the clanking catafalque of the mine train. His son—my father, then 18 years old—rushed home from college. Two days later, he and his family buried their patriarch in a bird-twittering forest a mile upvalley from the mine.

Mountains of sulfur-stinking clinker, a waste rock he and the other miners blasted from within the mountains, will stand forever. The tools of their punishing labor rust to rubble in tranquil Appalachian valleys. So too shall the obstreperous machines of our oil age someday go to rust, leaving nothing but red-brown stains in the sand. Someday.

Intrepid Potash, Inc. mine. Approximately 10 miles down Colorado River from Moab, Utah. Colorful pools are evaporation lakes where the mined slurry is evaporated in sunlight to produce crystals of potassium chloride, also known as muriate; which is then shipped to manufacturing facilities for agricultural fertilizer. The company is the largest producer of potassium chloride, also known as muriate of potash, in the United States. Credit: James Balog

To the memory of Michael and Thomas—and let me not forget their wives, Helen and Anna, respectively, who did their own share of knuckle-bruising work to feed and clothe their families—I offer thanks for the misery endured. But the wheel of generational destiny turns. How ironic, how mysterious, how improbable it is that fate pushes me, grandson of those miners, into prying up questions about Earth matter; digging not with shovel and dynamite, but with pictures and words; digging not to extract coal, but to end the extraction of coal. To speak and live a different truth from theirs is a task I can no more avoid than they could avoid the coal seams.

Four-and-a-half billion years of Earth history.

Four million years of hominid history leading to Homo sapiens.

Four hundred generations of agricultural history.

Yet only in our 50-year sliver of time do we comprehend what human minds never did before: burning the fossil residue of ancient life poisons our bodies and our world. People of the past never knew this. They did what was necessary in the harsh light of their moment. By the standards of today we cannot judge them.

The urgent task now is to look in our own mirror. Will we shoulder the burdens of the present time with noble determination the way our ancestors did? Are we morally and ethically and intellectually lucid enough to respond in full measure to the knowledge we have about the negative consequences of carbon fuels?

Rhône Glacier with Blanket, Switzerland, September 6, 2012. As the glacier retreats upvalley, locals continually reposition the blanket to insulate ice and keep it from melting. Credit: James Balog

Prospects for the future are muddled. Visionaries—inventors and engineers, countries and communities, political and corporate leaders, and, of course, individuals—are making genuine progress toward decarbonizing the future. New technologies are bursting with possibility. The availability and quality of electric vehicles rapidly increases. Renewable energy companies are booming, old-line fossil fuel companies are contracting; Royal Dutch Shell has declared that its peak oil-producing years have passed. Government policy shifts. These favorable trends have gone on for years, slowing down under some governments, speeding up under others.

The net effect? Progress toward reducing the amount of junk we put in the atmosphere remains agonizingly slow. Too many fine intentions dangle on moonbeams of promises that never seem to reach fruition, slain by the forces of commerce, government policy, and human behavior. Most transportation still depends on spewing fossil fuel exhaust. Food production still generates vast amounts of carbon. Avaricious abuse of tropical forests still continues. Politics can still be shortsighted, greedy, or corrupt—and in the American system, entrenched interests are brutally effective at pouring burning oil down from their castle ramparts on those who would dare challenge their dictatorship.

Flame Front #9, near Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Canada, June 22, 2015. Credit: James Balog
Gray Wolf, 1989. Credit: James Balog

Since we already know what technological solutions will protect the air, the climate, and our health, I see the reduction of carbon output primarily as an issue of power politics, sociology, and psychology. The weight of persistent behavior and long-standing technology blocks imagination. Ideology distorts reason. In America, too many, including some presidents, have hijacked the Founders’ original ideas of freedom and perverted them into a malignant, anti-social stew. No one has ever been independent to the degree the fanatics claim. We all live in communities of some form or another. No rational human being would imagine we should have so much freedom of speech that we have a right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater; nor does divine decree give one part of the population a right to rob other people of a clean, healthy, and secure environment. The ideology of freedom has turned into a cancer so malignant that what should have been a massive, united response to systemic hazards like climate change and the COVID pandemic has instead become a Babel of snarling dissent. 

History has a malevolent way of repeating itself. Consider this thought from 1918, written by Winston Churchill:

The resources are available, the knowledge is available, the time is available, the result is certain; nothing is lacking except the will. We have never been able to get out of the rut of traditional and conventional methods. We have never been able to plan on a sufficiently large scale, long enough in advance, and with the necessary force and authority to drive the policy through.

Meltwater Channel on Greenland Ice Sheet #2, Greenland, July 15, 2006. Credit: James Balog

Churchill was writing as the convulsion of World War I slaughtered millions of people, and was describing how exasperated he was with government policy that paralyzed technological progress. Take his exact words. Sling them forward a century, to our time. They express the same muleheaded obstinance constraining our current efforts to stop the convulsions of a changing climate. When we can’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Now, early in 2021, with my thoughts and images just days away from being trapped in ink once and for all, a flock of encouraging new policy intentions soars in on the wind. Will these notions acquire the force of enduring law? Quickly? I can only hope so. Otherwise, people of the future will find that greed and corrosive ideology have once again defeated shining ideals. I earnestly hope and pray for the best. Implacable willpower and fierce devotion to nature’s truth must win the day.

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