The Creative Potential of the Human Element

On the first Sunday of January, Wildlands Trust hosted a screening of the latest James Balog documentary, The Human Element. As many of you may know, James Balog is a photographer whose work is dedicated to documenting environmental change; his visual survey of retreating glaciers was the focus of the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice

In The Human Element, Balog further develops the theme of landscape alteration by photographing environments and interviewing people within 4 thematic case studies: water, air, fire, and earth. For example, in the “water” section of the film, Balog photographs the effects rising seas and destructive floods are having on US communities. In “air,” he goes to Colorado’s urban Front Range to photograph the various dimensions of atmospheric pollution, including the health effects oil wells and other industrial installations are having on children’s lungs. For “fire,” he documents the devastation of wildfires in arid parts of the country, along with the men and women who risk their lives battling them. For “earth,” he travels to several coal mining towns in Appalachia and photographs the ravages of open pit mines and mountaintop removal scars that were vital to powering the paradigmatic transition to the modern, electrified lifestyle we know.

Wildlands conducted a discussion after the film for all those who attended the screening. I was not able to stay for the discussion, but I imagine the “water” section hit closest to home for most of us—at one point in that part of the film, the viewer is presented with a photograph of a ranch house that has tumbled down to a beach because the land beneath it was eaten away by a hurricane storm surge, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of all of the eroding oceanfront cliff faces in Plymouth (including one here at Center Hill Preserve). The “fire” section probably generated some uneasy reflection as well. After all, fire is an innate ecological feature of Plymouth’s pine barrens, but decades of fire suppression has only increased the risk of a large, destructive blaze.

Rather than solely focus on the impending environmental catastrophes that may be coming to southeastern Massachusetts, I’m hoping the discussion participants also reflected on what Balog identifies as the fifth element of environmental change: the human element. Yes, humans did indeed open Pandora’s Box and unleashed all the chaos of the climate emergency. But Balog also documents how the human element too encompasses the creative energies that are liberated when the emotional connections and loving relationships in our lives grow to encompass the landscapes we inhabit.

The documentary frames the creative human element first from a prosaic lens: When we learn to appreciate the environment we can find the willpower to build solar panels on top of tailing mounds! We’ll pass stricter laws governing tailpipe emissions! But when the documentary concludes by showing a series of portraits Balog captured of parents caressing their children in the shallow water of a shoreline, Balog’s project enters the realm of the spiritual. He is conveying that the human impulse is towards compassion and nourishment, and when we fully activate that tendency of ours, those impulses extend to all aspects of our lives, including to the land, air, and water that nurture us in return.

I intuitively understood what Balog was trying to get at. For the past year I’ve been exploring the applications of “narrative medicine,” which is the practice of using language and storytelling to alter a personal or collective situation. The findings of quantum physics tell us that reality is subjective (see double slit experiment), and narrative medicine exploits that scientific disclosure by harnessing the subjectivity inherent to storytelling. In short, alter your perspective, and an entire situation can change for the better. Anthropogenic climate change is the product of a reductionist cultural story that says nature is separate from humanity and is thus an inert substrate that can be exploited by whatever means we like, no matter how violent. Yet when we turn that story on its head and see ourselves as one with the living web of earth, we arrive at the wisdom of the ancients: every external act on the world is also an act upon ourselves.

Whoa there son, you might be thinking, what does all of this New Age woo mean for me? Shifting our narrative about the environment means extending those feelings of compassion and reverence we feel for our friends and family to the ground beneath us. And here’s the thing: you probably already do this to a certain extent. Maybe you once stood at the water’s edge of Plymouth Long Beach on a cloudy, windswept day, and, with a jolt, just knew that you were joined to a vast flux of living systems that is larger than comprehension. Or maybe you feel tenderness every time you watch the sunset through a scrabble of pitch pine branches.

What would happen if we allowed these fleeting moments of soul connection with nature to bleed into all aspects of our lives? As climate change-related catastrophes pile up exponentially, as we barrel headlong into Earth’s sixth mass extinction, it’s a question worth asking. The answer, it seems to me, is that we’d be planting seeds for an epochal shift in which the nature around us stops being a mere assemblage of raw materials.

Understand that I am not saying we can solve the climate crisis simply by plucking flowers and telling them “I love you.” We must still pressure governments and corporations to instigate meaningful policy changes regarding the environment. We must also take concrete steps to strengthen community resilience in the face of extreme weather and rising seas. But neither are we likely to solve the climate crisis if we’re “engineering” solutions from the mindset of human separation from nature. In order to change that cultural story and unlock the creative potential of the human element, each of us has internal work to do. This work involves interrogating the contours of where our sense of self and community gives way to the non-human around us. And the best place to test these questions is whatever landscape you are already enmeshed in. For most of you, that would be the pine-oak forests, tidal estuaries, and sandy beaches of Plymouth County.