‘We Are Slaves To Fossil Fuels:’ Interview With Chasing Ice Director Jeff Orlowski

The catastrophic Chasing Ice, too real for the Oscars.

This year, the Oscars weren’t considered an utter failure until the predictable chauvinism of host Seth MacFarlane played out, with the Obama administration’s public endorsement of Argo‘s propaganda serving as a worrisome chaser. But I called bullshit on it from the beginning, because climate change was a disturbing no-show, despite the fact that its exponential ravages continue to create a new existential normal much more dystopian than the last.

Plus, it’s not like there wasn’t anything to watch for the old white men who annually choose the Oscars. In a year when The Avengers‘ blew up the box office with a heroic rescue from apocalypse in Manhattan, director Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice featured a real iceberg the size of Manhattan (above) calving into the sea within an hour. Cue the fear track.

I chatted with Orlowski about that transformational apocalypse, climate change, the Oscars and much more. Then I fired off an anti-Oscars screed to the righteous enviros at Grist, who kindly signed me onto their green revolution.

‘We Are Slaves To Fossil Fuels:’ An Interview With Chasing Ice Director Jeff Orlowski

Morphizm: Climate change is existentially exhausting.

Jeff Orlowski: It’s a tough issue. It’s hard for people to maintain the energy to get the issue out there, because the opposition is so well-funded. But I still have a lot of hope: One of my mentors is Jane Goodall, and she always talks about the indomitable human spririt, which I agree with. But she also talks about the resiliecy of nature. This is not a matter of saving the planet or protecting the environment. The planet is going to be fine. The question is what kind of civilization are we going to have that will be able to sustain any semblance of what we’re used ot. That’s what it comes down to, in my mind. Our lifestyle is in jeopardy now.

Morphizm: Which isn’t a bad thing, if global warming is what’s coming.

Jeff Orlowski: We’ll be able to figure out how to get carbon levels back down and figure out sequestration; there’s incredible technology being worked on right now. But we need to stop putting crap in the air. Fossil fuels were put into the ground for a reason, because that’s where they’re safe. But the lifestyle that we have been accustomed to, which is literally just taking this energy stored in the ground and moving it into the atmosphere, has these consequences. And we don’t even need it: We know that wind and solar are sustainable, and can supply our demands. So it really comes down to this antiquated way of obtaining energy, and the people who are invested in that, because they’re going to lose a lot of money. The fossil fuel industry runs in the trillions, and if I ran one of its companies I would want to protect those assets. And I’d be motivated to not want to recognize or acknowledge climate change, because there’s a financial inventive in maintaining the status quo. I understand that perspective but…

Let’s use a slavery analogy. To some degree, we are slaves to fossil fuels, although that’s not often how we choose to talk about it. There was a peiod of American history where we had an economy based on slave labor. That’s how business functioned, but we had an ethical and moral debate about whether we could keep it going.

Morphizm: And a war, a devastating one.

Jeff Orlowski: We had a war, passed an amendment and 600,000 lives were lost. But ultimately, we did the right thing as a country, and I feel that we’re in a similar moral and ethical mindset right now. Continuing to put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is unethical for future generations. We need to stop that.

Morphizm: By the time we got into the Civil War, slaves were already taking matters into their own hands. If we’re using slavery as a historical analogy, are you concerned we’re lacking the massive mobilization needed to make historical change?

Jeff Orlowski: Well, the interesting thing is that most of the world is already far ahead of us in terms of mobilizing against climate change. America is an international treaty laggard, and has actually been slowing momentum. I think there’s a lot of international consensus that we don’t have here. I certainly hope that mobilization against climate change doesn’t come to violence on the scale of the Civil War. But I look at this as an opportunity to get skeptical politicians to come out and recognize the science, stick their necks out and take a stand against climate change. History will look back on them as heroes. From a legacy perspective, those are the people who are going to come in on the white horses and civilizations as we know it.

Morphizm: Expecting politicians to stick their necks out on this seems to betray a lack of realism.

Jeff Orlowski: But Governor Christie has done it already with Sandy, saying that he believes in climate change and he even criticized Rush Limbaugh. I hear you: It may be optimistic, but I think people are so fed up with the political system that it will have to go through changes.

Morphizm: Let’s talk specifically about the film, and its footage. Like climate change, ice is an esoteric subject, but watching a Manhattan-sized mass go down in about an hour is immediate.

Jeff Orlowski: I have to give James so much credit for coming up with the idea to document is using time-lapses. It seems like such a simple concept, although it was very difficult to execute. But he figured out how to make climate change visual and emotional, which is hasn’t been. When newscasters are debating back and forth with charts and graphs, which can manipulated in so many ways, how does the average viewer have any idea what’s really going on? James realized that they needed to see it happening, so he took what is truly a horrific subject and made it as beautiful and engaging as possible. Hopefully, we succeeded in giving people an emotional, visceral response to something that is very hard to conceptualize. And like you’re saying, ice is not cuddly teddy bears, kittens or other things people have an emotional attachment to. James figured out a way to make ice a character, to make people feel emotionally attached to it. We wanted the audience to fall in love with the ice, just as we did when we were out there.

Morphizm: There’s an enormous sense of loss conveyed, most notably because these things are likely not coming back, at least not in our lifetimes.

Jeff Orlowski: Glaciers come and glaciers go, but I look at them as indicators of how we’re changing things at a grand scale, at a rate faster than even the scientists expected. That’s the core message.

Morphizm: That’s the exponological constant: Climate change is accelerating beyond the ability of science to predict it, because science tends to lean conservative for a variety of good and bad reasons. In a stable climate, we have thousands of years for science to take its time and gather its incontrovertible evidence. But with something this existential and exponential, we need science to ignore its conservative bias and be as fast as the issue it is facing, because we don’t have thousands of years when it comes to how quick climate change is happening.

Jeff Orlowski: I completely agree with that. One of the things that amazes me is how incredibly conservative scientists are about climate change prediction. Their livelihoods and careers are based on being as accurate as possible, and if they’re not they’re looked at fringe and pushed to the outskirts of the community. So they don’t want to make predictions that seem outrageous and unbelievable. And yet the skeptics have attacked them so thoroughly. So I’m with you; it’s a very tricky balance. But even the conservative estimates out there now have some pretty dire projections. So this is something we need to take action on right now, regardless of whether or not they’re going to be even worse that what the conservative science says they’re going to be.

Morphizm: What would your team tell viewers of Chasing Ice to do, if they come away from your film feeling like they have to take immediate action?

Jeff Orlowski: Yeah, that’s interesting, because we came into this as filmmakers and photographers. We didn’t start this as activists; that wasn’t why we got into it. But because of the response to the film, there has been these pressures and demands on us about what to do about it. Our goal was to use Chasing Ice as a tool to shift perception, because we think perception is the core problem, especially in America, where there’s so much resistance to climate change. But ultimately what I believe needs to happen is that we need to regulate carbon is a very different way. We can’t burn carbon dioxide and treat our atmosphere like an invisible garbage dump. If a company has hazardous waste it needs to get rid of, it has to do it in a proper way, and we’re not treating CO2 in that fashion. It has to come to some kind of government action, but I don’t have those solutions. We’re not policymakers, but it needs to happen.

Morphizm: How has the film performed in ways you didn’t foresee?

Jeff Orlowski: Have you seen that “Chasing Ice, Changing Lives” clip that went around YouTube? That’s what we’re seeing on a daily basis. We’re seeing complete shifts in terms of understanding the issue. When people come to us and tell us the film changed their lives, it’s incredibly meaningful and humbling. We’re thrilled that its had that impact.

Morphizm: Shouldn’t we have live constant feeds like the EIS from these regions, streaming visuals of what’s going on outside our lives?

Jeff Orlowski: That would be really cool for sure. It’s near practically impossible to technologically accomplish that, because power and internet demands don’t exist out there. So we’d love the funding to get that to happen, but that would mean multiple millions of dollars and we just don’t have that available.

Morphizm: We’ll have to find you an angel investor.

Jeff Orlowski: That would be awesome. If you could help with that, that would be great. [Laughs]

The catastrophic Chasing Ice, too real for the Oscars.

Why isn’t ‘Chasing Ice’ up for an Academy Award?

Shortlisted last year for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, the critically acclaimed Chasing Ice was by far the most existentially devastating documentary of 2012.

But its viscerally emotional vistas and Manhattan-sized collapses were passed over by the Academy this year in favor of five other films, none of which have to do with what Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski told me was “the most important issue we’re ever going to have to deal with as a civilization.”