Extreme Science Porn But Where Are The Social Scientists?

 Aug 11, 2013    by Carina Wyborn

I wrote this post after attending the National Adaptation Forum in Denver, where over 500 academics, advocates and practitioners came together to talk about the state of climate adaptation in the US. One night the screened James Balog’s ‘Chasing Ice’ an inspiring piece of extreme adventure science porn. The film is presents a classic David and Golaiath narrative of a nature photographer with a masters in geomorphology on a quest to photographically document retreating glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere. If you’ve seen Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, the story is the same although the cinematography puts Gore to shame.

Fighting against extreme weather conditions, technological failures and busted knees, Balog soldiers on and eventually gets his images. And what images they are. Being a mountain person, I’ve always found glacial landscapes inspiring – probably why part of me enjoyed this film so much. His images are spectacular – among the highlights is the capturing on film of a ‘calving event’, which lasted for 75 minutes as a glacier retreated a full mile across a calving face three miles wide. The height of the ice is about 3,000 feet, 300-400 feet above water and the rest below water. As a viewer and a nerd I’m both drawn into the amazing power of the footage while at the same time being shocked by what these figures tell us about glacial retreat.

This is real time footage of geological events taking place on timescale tangible to people. Presented as demonstrable proof of the unprecedented rate of change in these landscapes, this is brought home by some clever images of Manhattan Island superimposed on the calving event to give some scope. These are stunningly beautiful images of contrasting brilliant shades of blue, grey and white. As the water melts through this landscape and we are told some statistics about how much water, how many meters of sea level rise and how many million people are going to be displaced… The familiar narrative takes hold.

Balog has done an incredible job to get this footage, it is an incredibly powerful movie and I’m sure that it will turn some heads. But, disappointingly it still falls victim to the classic issues that we see of so much climate change communication. Inspiring images of distant landscapes, places so far removed from my daily life – and as I snowboarder, I am somebody who cares about what happens to the snowpack. So as I sit here on my comfortable couch, having just driven home in my new (used) SUV (yes, I now own an SUV… it looks scarily small compared to most of the vehicles in Montana or Colorado) and write this post I’m already out of the landscape and back into my normality.

On the way home I expressed my frustrations about these classic science communication fallacies to my friend. Why, I wondered out loud, do these movies always interview the glaciologist, the fire scientists, the oceanographers – but never, despite their attempts to change behaviour do they ever talk to the people who study human behavior??? She wanted to know what a social scientist would have said.

Well, first, the movie left me feeling powerless--not a particularly good motivator to change behavior. Second, as I got into my SUV I then felt bad for driving it home (and contemplating using said vehicle to go snowboarding tomorrow). Guilt. Also not a goodmotiavtor for behavior change. The landscapes are too far removed, as individuals we have few lwever to really drive systemic change, the problems are too big, the lobby groups are too powerful. We mused on the different kinds of things that would motivate behavior change--carrots, sticks--but really. I had to confess to her that the social scientists don't have the answer--I don't think anybody does.

The problem is so embedded within our way of life and the structures of our society. It’s not particularly novel to reflect on my position as an academic studying climate change:  needing to travel around the world to present my work, engage with my colleagues, have some adventures on the side – and then come back to my desk and write a post like this about our inability to make changes in the world.

We got to talking about how it needs to be made real to people – New York she said, would have to flood badly year after year before it becomes real enough for action. I don’t mention the flash through my mind about the state of the current gun debate in America, where, despite the countless mass tragedies not the least the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, gun laws are still unlikely to change over here… It is hard not to feel like a pessimist in the face of such complexity and inertia in the political system.

I don’t really have a snappy ending for this post – I’m not really sure what to say other than go see the movie for yourself. But if it inspires you to go out and make a documentary about climate change, maybe talk to some social scientists too. I know we don’t get to do crazy things like scale down ice crevasses, take measurements or produce fancy graphs, but maybe, just maybe we might have some insight into why change is so hard and why the same stories about iconic landscapes and drowning polar bears are not working anymore.

This is a repost from my research blog, The Pacific Exchange, where I post musings on climate adaptation, conservation and governance in Australia and the US

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