As the movie ended and I got up to leave, something didn’t feel right. No one else was moving. At a time when most would be unsticking their sneakers from the theater floor and beating a hasty path to the parking lot, these people were frozen in place. Slumped is perhaps a more appropriate description, and seeing their faces illuminated by the dim house lights made it clear what had happened: the movie had crushed their spirits. Every face bore an expression of shock and defeat…the film had burdened them all with real emotional weight, and for those few moments it was simply too heavy to move out from underneath.
The movie in question was Chasing Ice, a new documentary that depicts with aching beauty the collapse of the world’s glaciers. It follows the adventures of photographer James Balog, whose quest to document the demise of the glaciers is part comedy, part tragedy, and part tribute to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring and rapidly disappearing natural wonders. As we come to understand what is causing their destruction, climate change becomes the clear villain of the movie. Curiously however, the film makes only passing efforts to present a scientific justification to the audience.
Instead, it’s all gut. The movie opens up early with raw emotion, be it laughing at a seemingly deranged Balog as he sloshes barefoot through Arctic waters for the perfect photograph or gawking at helicopter flyover shots that depict the awesome scale and beauty of the glaciers. It’s no wonder that when these glaciers begin to collapse you’re filled with a pervading sense of loss. When ice chunks twice the size of Manhattan break away, one feels stressed and overwhelmed, and when time-lapse photographs show how quickly glaciers are receding there is a stab of guilt and fear for the future. It’s one thing to hear about these behemoths being beaten back so spectacularly, so severely. It’s another thing to see it…the pictures bring viewers to a place the science can’t.
If you don’t believe me, or think I might be exaggerating for effect, please watch this video. (WARNING: may jerk your tears)
I must admit I got pretty choked up the first time I saw this video. Her transformation is so genuine, her remorse so deep, that I couldn’t help but get caught up when it all starts pouring out. It hit me too because I’ve been in her shoes. The first time I came to a full understanding of climate change and what it means for humanity’s future, I was knocked on my ass so hard I thought I might not get up again. Like her, and like the audience in my theater, I know what it’s like to have my entire worldview smashed to bits in an afternoon.
Each person has their own understanding of humanity and its place in the world. Sometimes we call this understanding religion, sometimes we call it politics, sometimes we just call it self. Whatever we call it and whether we admit it or not, this understanding is our most prized possession. Indeed, many reject out of hand contradictory evidence and will fight to their dying breath to defend their beliefs. Yet when deeply held beliefs are contradicted by our very own eyes, they can collapse as spectacularly as any glacier. Imagine the feelings of ancient people forced to discard a flat earth for a round one, or of Catholics betrayed by a church once thought beyond reproach. Having core tenets of your being debunked is a powerful and life-altering experience. Embracing the scale and severity of climate change is no less profound.
So thank goodness for Chasing Ice, and thank goodness for this woman and the hope that her transformation inspires in me. We should all endeavor to process the realities of climate change at an intellectual level, but it won’t be until we all internalize the raw emotion behind its meaning that we’ll effect real change. It’s a powerful and moving thing to watch someone wake up to a new reality, something we’ll all bear witness to many more times in the coming years. Through this project, I hope to be there for many of my friends when they too have this moment.