Environmental photographer James Balog, best known for his groundbreaking efforts to document human modification of nature, including the impacts of climate change on global glacier melting, will visit Cornell on April 18-23 as part of an Earth Day program hosted by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the College Scholar Program.
"I've been on this life-long journey of trying to understand the natural environment. I once thought of that as being only the non-human environment," said Balog, who was named a Cornell A.D. White Professor-at-Large in fall 2020. "But eventually, I realized that the natural and human environments are just two different parts of nature--at least in modern times, with the tremendous impact of human population, technologies, and our desire for material affluence. I grew to understand that the conceptual separation of humanity and nature is one of the primary things tripping us up as a society when we try to manage environmental affairs. When we damage that nature—that entity we think of as being 'out there'—we're actually damaging ourselves."
After earning a master's degree in geomorphology, Balog spent the past 40 years using photography to integrate art and science while documenting some of the harshest environments on earth. His Extreme Ice Survey project trained cameras over glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Austria, and the Rocky Mountains, taking one photo every daylight hour, year-round; the time-lapse videos he created from these images provide a stunning account of how quickly climate change is causing glaciers to retreat. His 2018 film "The Human Element" and 2020 book of the same title explore the intersection of humanity and the rest of nature, documenting the increasing rates of animal extinctions and catastrophic wildfires, floods, and storms.
Balog was nominated to be an A.D. White Professor-at-Large (ADW-PAL) by David Lodge, Francis J. DiSalvo director of Cornell Atkinson, and Michael Goldstein, professor of psychology and director of the College Scholar Program. The ADW-PAL Program sponsors outstanding scholars and public intellectuals who have achieved high international distinction in their fields, inviting them to campus to interact with Cornell and the broader community in multiple forums.
Goldstein said Balog's work and public reaction to it are evidence of the need to integrate art to communicate science effectively.
"The existential crisis of climate change is not something that's easily accessible to our human perceptual systems. So the pictorial record becomes critical for our understanding," Goldstein said. "Jim understood this, and he realized he could create this photographic record through which people could not deny the evidence of their own eyes. His images force you to realize that you yourself are surrounded by the reality of this."
As part of his visit, Balog will meet with faculty and students and participate in multiple community-based events at Tompkins County middle and high schools, Ithaca's Sciencenter, and the Museum of the Earth, in coordination with the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and the Discovery Trail. Balog will host a public screening of his documentary film The Human Element in downtown Ithaca at Cinemapolis on Thursday, April 21, at 7:00 PM. He will also join an expert discussion on perspectives on climate change at PRI/Museum of the Earth on Friday, April 22 at 7:00 PM.
Beth Pallace, executive director of the Discovery Trail, said the extensive community engagement planned as part of Balog's visit is a prime example of Cornell channeling its resources into supporting the broader community and schools.
"It is these types of school-based visits that impact the hearts and minds of learners, especially considering the severity of the climate crisis that we are facing. Young people are innovators and we are thrilled to be able to introduce local students to Mr. Balog's work," Pallace said.
More information on Balog's visit is available here.
Krisy Gashler is a writer for the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.