Behind the Lens: Chasing Nature
Photos: James Balog & Tad Pfeffer | Extreme Ice Survey
April 9, 2019
If Mother Nature could choose a spokesperson, it would be Jeff Orlowski. UN Champion of the Earth 2017. Emmy-award winning film-maker for Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. Activist. His breathtaking imagery captures hearts and minds. His climate-change story-telling drives policymaking. To mark the UN's World Water Day 2019, we caught up with him to delve into his incredible work and environmental insights.
Tell us about your work.
We’ve been documenting how the planet is changing and the visual consequences of climate change. We’ve been going to these pretty extreme places at the ends of the earth where the most changes are happening and happening the fastest. For Chasing Ice we went to places such as Greenland, Iceland and Alaska, documenting glaciers in extremely remote places as that is the frontline of climate change right now.
What does sustainability mean to you in 2019?
Our civilization has prospered through developing economies and industries, but that has come at the expense of the environment. Now that we’ve been hitting some major tipping points, we’re starting to realize that we can’t keep operating like this forever and using up all our resources. The big challenge is around what does industry look like, what does civilization look like as we move through the 21st century and beyond? Sustainability is this question of, how can we have a system that will run indefinitely and continue to grow off itself? It’s like a bank account. If you can live off the interest of your bank account, you can live off it forever. But if you have to keep eating away at the capital, you approach bankruptcy. All the scientists are telling us we’re approaching bankruptcy, and yet business as usual is still trying to take advantage, and that can’t go on forever.
Sounds like sustainability is not just about protecting natural resources but about changing the systems that are causing the issues.
We’re the only species on the planet that has waste. Every other species has a waste product that is food for some other creature. Yet we have made these massive piles of garbage that are just a dead end. There’s a huge movement around zero waste and the Cradle to Cradle concept, where products are created as part of closed loop cycles [ed’s note: at the end of a product’s life, the waste materials are re-used as ‘food’ for other products]. We need to move businesses away from the concept of wasteful products. How do we build our systems to be more sustainable from beginning to end? That’s the only way human civilization will sustain itself. This will be the biggest defining issue of this century. From that perspective, it’s a really exciting time to be alive despite all the catastrophe that we are likely facing.
How do you view your purpose?
I got into this because I just wanted to travel the world and take pretty pictures. But once I was out in these places and seeing how they were changing, I realized I had a greater purpose than just my own selfish adventures. It then became this really beautiful hybrid of getting to go on these adventures and have this mission of taking the stories back home. My role as a storyteller is to figure out new and interesting ways to show what’s happening around the planet and to get people to understand and care about it.
Was there a particular moment that changed your perspective?
When we were filming Chasing Ice, there was this one particular spot in Alaska where we spent a couple of days climbing a section of ice next to a glacier; it was this massive landscape of crevasses and hills. When we went back to that spot a few months later, that entire area had disappeared. All of that ice had fallen into the ocean. That was one of the biggest wake-up calls; huge blocks vanishing and just open ocean being left in its place. The scale and size of what’s changing in remote places out of sight, out of mind was much bigger than I had anticipated. They’re huge landscapes and they’re changing very quickly.
Do you feel a responsibility to change perceptions?
Yeah. When we started working in the field a decade ago, it felt like a huge responsibility to get these stories out there. Now, we’ve seen a massive cultural shift in awareness, and it doesn’t feel like it’s as much of an uphill battle because there’s broader recognition internationally. There is this momentum, there is this movement; we’re nowhere close to where we need to be, so how do we take that energy and make that movement unstoppable?
What interest has your films generated?
It’s always exciting to hear from people about how much the films have changed their perspective or made them cry. The number of people who have said, ‘I did not think I would cry about corals.’ That’s a huge validation. We have countless success stories of how we’ve changed people’s perceptions, including those of politicians. It’s motivating to hear that our work is making a difference, changing people’s opinions, and even changing policy. It’s something that our whole team is incredibly proud of.
How do you drive people’s responses to the film into action?
After every screening, we always get someone asking, ‘What can I do?’ We tend to focus on helping people identify what needs to be done in their local communities. Jane Goodall talks about the phrase, ‘Think global, act local,’ and how overwhelming that can be for people, and that it’s better to think local, act local. Think about your community, your backyard, your neighborhood, your friends, your peers, and what can be done there to make your environment a better place. I just love that philosophy because it’s so much more tangible for the average person.
The film has gathered a lot of awards, including an Emmy. What does that recognition represent?
I remember when we were at the Emmys for Chasing Ice, sitting in the back, and we had no expectation whatsoever – we were in competition against a bunch of really amazing films. When they announced that Chasing Ice had won, our whole team just erupted in surprise and joy and excitement. It was an incredible honor for the film to be recognized that way. It really helped put a spotlight on such a significant issue that needs a lot of attention, more and more conversation, and action; anything that can help point energy in that direction is a good thing.