The Human Element & Our Changing World

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Put any other distraction on hold for an evening and watch the extraordinary documentary The Human Element, a deep look into the heart of our last century and how we are transforming in the early part of this century. You will not regret spending the time to watch this one.

As I watch The Human Element for the third time, I realize I could watch it many more times without a moment of boredom. The film is packed with information we don’t read in the daily media — irrefutable evidence and pictures we don’t get from superficial glimpses published in normal news coverage. It is an artistic, human-filled, and grounded portrayal of American lives. The documentary is a more complete look at the human experience than the paparazzi are instructed to capture. The 21st century is the future of our children and their children. It is something to consider in depth and breadth, and this film helps us to do so.

Image courtesy of media files sent to CleanTechnica for the release of The Human Element online

The documentary will be available on all major VOD platforms — iTunes, Amazon, DirectTV, etc. — on January 29, 2019. Below is my detailed review of the film. In one hour, we are also publishing an interview with writer James Balog.

Image courtesy of media files sent to CleanTechnica for the release of The Human Element online

James Balog explains: “Some of the work I do is about collecting evidence — and bringing that evidence back to people who don’t normally get to see these things. There is such a thing as truth. I’m trying to find it, and one way or another, reveal it through the images.”

The film satisfies the desire we have for heroes. While we watch and start to understand what human entanglement with fire has truly become, the film reveals the immense fortitude and courage of the firefighters and foresters dealing with some of the newfound challenges.

The documentary illuminates our own history and our elemental dance within our environment — which has spun out of balance. The film, directed by Matthew Testa, is packed with knowledge of every element — water, air, fire, earth, and human. The courageous heroes, the foresters and firefighters, bring the dignity of their faces to the story, demonstrating that they are keenly intelligent as well as compassionate.

Balog takes us to the water and the sinking Tangier Islands, and into the lives and the generations of watermen. He takes us into the lives of the Appalachians. We watch and hear the stories of fishermen and coal miners, as they were in the last century and as they are today.

Image courtesy of media files sent to CleanTechnica for the release of The Human Element online

Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

Balog goes into the midst of the hurricane. He takes us into the atmosphere of recent raging fires. We watch him fill his van (in the nick of time) with hurricane flood refugees. “We need to get out of here because the water is rising around us,” Balog says. He engages all those refugees, those compromised. He encourages the people to speak — but it is the stories in their eyes that matter even more, that tell more.

Every naturalist, environmentalist, scientist, adventurer, and concerned citizen must adore the tedious, intensely demanding physical and mental work Balog did to bring Chasing ICE and The Extreme Ice Survey to our eyes and minds. Balog’s panoramic photographs capture quickening changes — the melting of the moment, the melting from day to day and year to year. He takes us into remote points of the Northern Hemisphere via work that took years to complete. With the patience one usually associates with Jane Goodall, Balog has been recording our environmental history, and putting it in the context of modern culture.

“His hauntingly beautiful videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate,” the documentary website summarizes. Now, in this new story, he captures us with as much visual beauty by guiding us to the fifth element, the human spirit, the heart.

The story emanates from the eyes of humans this time and moves us through heroic daily journeys, each captured with a compassionate touch and poignant realism.

The documentary differs from other climate change films in that it also takes us into the stories or the children, the coal miners, the watermen — so deep into their eyes, where you see that they can tell no false story. They are not playing political games. They are focused on survival — as all of our politicians should also be.

The documentary focuses on air pollution as well as climate change, a necessary focus. CleanTechnica writes about numerous reports and studies from the American Lung Association and other credible health institutions regarding the effects of air pollution on our children, the elderly, and all people. The present belief is we will come to see gas emissions like we see second-hand cigarette smoke, because we are now suffering from second-hand emissions, as well as our own. These emissions are again personally debilitating and dangerous. We talk much about health care, but what about disease prevention?

The children themselves are an important highlight in this film as well. Balog interviews a school nurse (of 18 years). She speaks about the increasing number of children affected by pollution, especially asthma. Many of the children she helps missed 40 to 80 days of school in a year and required medicine 5 times a day. Balog speaks with compassion: “I find it sad to see these tender little characters harnessed to this medicine-driven lifestyle to survive.”

The children themselves get the opportunity to speak to us in this film as well. They describe vividly the terrifying and physically uncomfortable asthma attacks they suffer. They are so brave, to be filmed talking about such hurtful physical conditions from air pollution. The children on film are speaking about a tragic health condition that attacks them on a daily basis.

We Owe Them More

As a country, as a planet — the head of the Union, every corporation, every industry head, and every politician — owes these children more. We owe them better air, purer water; these firefighters more — more respect, more support; these coal miners more — more training in renewable energy, more opportunity in the future.

The Human Element shares the struggle, the challenges, and the ongoing vital force of all the champions in this film, the touching lives of Marilyn Moore and the other children. It takes a certain courage to share, as Marilyn and the other children have, their monumental daily work with us — the work necessary to breathe.

Marilyn Moore of Colorado wears an oxygen mask to treat her asthma. She appears in the documentary “The Human Element.” Photo credit: James BalogImage courtesy of media files sent to CleanTechnica for the release of The Human Element online

In the film, Balog explains that we can’t see the air, but we have an incredibly intimate relationship with it. “You fill your lungs with air more than 20,000 times a day.”

As a photographic storyteller, author, film innovator, and expert in geomorphology, Balog offers irrefutable evidence that we need to break apart the mountains of denial, and maniacal manipulation in our sociopolitical structures today.

James Balog is one of my most appreciated heroes, and as my daughter Shannon noted, he deserves the Noble Peace Prize for his uncompromising work and his fearless efforts to inform mankind of our global circumstance on our small planet earth.

Screenshot from The Human Element.

The documentary reveals so many levels and generations of heroism. The children, the firefighters, the coal miners, the watermen together make me think of another America tale. Although fiction, the book is based in reality. The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s American novel that shines light on the heroic journeys of the young in that era, the youth of the American Dust Bowl.

James Balog is one of the great storytellers of the 21st century, and beyond. He unfolds key transformations in our history, our earth, and our humanity in the last 100 years. He previews the next 100 years, the time of our children and their children, and the challenges that will only increase based on today’s patterns of society and daily life.


Sea Level Rise: Generations of Watermen and Families on Sinking Tangier Island


“Most importantly, most of our military installations are on the water,” a Norfolk resident notes. “There’s Naval Station Norfolk. They’re starting to see the early impacts of sea level rise.”

“Navy Station Norfolk is the largest Navy Base in the world,” Captain Dean Vanderley informs us. “It’s a significant national defense asset.”

Tangier Island sinking into the sea. Screenshot from James Balog’s film The Human Element.                Over the past 400 years, more than 500 islands have disappeared from Chesapeake Bay — 40 of which were once inhabited. Tangier is in line to be next. Rising waters continuously erode the island’s sand, silt, and peat, tearing the island apart. Every year, 9 acres of Tangier erode into the bay.”

Every segment of the film, Water, air, earth,  fire, and humans, as the fifth element — informs us on many levels. Each element begins in some way with our history and brings us to the present condition.

In the sequence fire, James describes: “I think in all of our lives, fire is a combination of a fascinating substance, and incredibly horrifying, scary substance.” James repeats what we will hear the experts say, what the foresters and the firefighters explain in detail. Fires tend to be larger now, mega-fires. James talks with an experienced forester and firefighter, who explains, “When I was a young guy if we had one 5,000-acre fire once in the summer, it was a big deal. And now a 5,000-acre fire — you don’t even notice that. That just kind of disappears in the noise.”

The narration continues, “Now we’re talking 50,000 and 100,000-acre fires all the time. We’re in a completely different fire environment.”

“The new fires that we’re seeing now tend to be larger, more intense,” Stephen Pyne, professor Arizona State University continues. “I think we are starting to understand that this began a long time ago — when the Earth’s keystone species, which is us, changed fundamentally it’s combustion habits.”

Chris Woodward, division supervisor in California Fire, is another one of the voices offering more of the consistent evidence that fires are not the same as they once were:

“The fire behavior is off the charts. Like the other night, I saw something about a fire burning at 91% humidity. You know, if you’re getting wet and the fire is still burning, it’s not something that is supposed to happen.”

Brendan Ripley, fire behavior analyst, emphasized, “This fire drove through the fuels in a way that we have never seen before.”

Research scientist Tania Shoennagel shares that this is now a norm in the American West, which has seen a 1000% increase in the frequency of large mega-fires:

“When we don’t restrict growth of homes into fire-prone areas, and when we don’t take significant action to mitigate climate change. We’re implicitly asking too much of our firefighters.”

Mark Finney, a research forester, speaks about mega-fires where there is no suppression capability possible:

“These are wildfires we have no control over. These big mega-fires have certainly changed the terms of engagement for the fire community.”

Watch the film and learn more. All the experts agree: Fires are different.

The information The Human Element provides on the fires in the American West, fires that captured the attention of our nation much of the year, is so telling of the gap we have between clear, deep knowledge and what shown and discussed on short news programs. The kindness and depth of a documentary film is a different art form than rushed and superficial news.

Matthew Testa, Olivia Ahnemann, and James Balog provide poignant realism and harsh facts — facts that we need to us to make better choices. In my next article, I share the insights and humanity James Balog showed me in an interview about The Human Element and the topics it covered.

Related stories & links:

Again, The Human Element will be on all major VOD platforms on January 29, 2019:


  • iTunes
  • Amazon
  • Google Play
  • Vudu
  • Xbox
  • Playstation
  • FandangoNow
  • Redbox


  • Comcast 
  • Verizon
  • Suddenlink
  • Mediacom
  • WOW!
  • Independent Systems 
  • RCN
  • Telus (CA)


  • Dish 

All images used were part of the film’s press package or were screenshots from the film, The Human Element.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Video

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Cynthia Shahan

Cynthia Shahan, started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. Words can be used improperly depending on the culture you are in. (Several unrelated publications) She has a degree in Education, Anthropology, Creative Writing, and was tutored in Art as a young child thanks to her father the Doctor. Pronouns: She/Her

Cynthia Shahan has 947 posts and counting. See all posts by Cynthia Shahan