[Open Letter Books; 2021]
Tr. from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the ice caps are melting. Wildfires are spreading. Huge swathes of farmland are turning to desert. If global emissions are not curbed by the year 2050, if temperatures rise beyond two degrees Celsius, all hell breaks loose. Sea levels will rise by at least a foot, swamping coastal cities like New York, Miami, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. Glaciers will thaw from Greenland to the Himalayas, creating catastrophic flooding and then equally catastrophic water shortages. Millions of people will be displaced, seeking refuge in a new home that is no safer than the one they fled.
Every single one of us should be freaking the fuck out right now. These headlines should arouse pure, visceral panic, the kind you see in the movies when the newscaster announces the asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. We should be swearing off cars and boycotting airlines and demanding our leaders divert every dime to the solution. Instead, presented with an almost-certain doomsday scenario, most of our reactions can be charitably described as . . . muted. We furrow our brows and tsk and keep scrolling; we express “concern” and “alarm” over dinner. Pondering why this is so has become something of a cottage industry in itself. The problem is forty years of misinformation; the problem is selfishness; the problem is burnout; the problem is we can’t see it; the problem is our way of life; the problem is a crisis of immense scope and complexity in an age of snappy, bite-sized takes.
The problem, of course, is all of these and none of these; addressing one will not solve the others. A deeper issue, one that connects all the others, is that we have still not cracked the code of language — that is, how we talk about and depict the climate crisis in our daily lives. This is not a new point: climate activists have spent years arguing over whether hopeful or doomist language is more effective at inspiring action. Meanwhile, Amitav Ghosh has famously asserted that contemporary fiction, with its conventions of intimate, plausible, character-focused narratives, is radically ill-equipped to explore the massive, erratic, and frequently implausible events of climate change. Without stories to guide the way, we as humans struggle to see ourselves within the broader narrative of the planet, especially after generations spent consuming stories that teach us the planet is ours for the taking.
But as the Icelandic writer Andri Snӕr Magnason demonstrates in his new work of nonfiction, On Time and Water, the issue of language goes deeper than stories. Early in the book, Magnason recounts an anecdote about a panel he participated in with the climate scientist Wolfgang Lucht. When asked by Lucht if he planned to write about the climate, Magnason replied that while he understood the importance of the topic, he worried it was too complicated for him to tackle — better left to the experts. Lucht pushed back. Writers are essential, he argued, because scientists “aren’t experts in communication. [. . .] We publish computer models and diagrams according to established scientific conventions; people look at them and nod and take them in to a limited degree, but they do not understand them, not really.” Climate scientists need writers to break through that mental wall, to help the public grasp the urgency of the matter. “Anyone who understands what’s at stake,” Lucht told Magnason, “would not prioritize anything else.”
Herein lies the crux of the matter. The language of the climate belongs to science: to measured vocab quiz terms like ocean acidification, increased emissions, two degrees Celsius. Many of us recognize these words. We might even understand their consequences. And yet when we encounter them in a sentence, they do not inspire a visceral response; they wash over us benignly. Magnason, in the opening pages of On Time and Water, compares this phenomenon to a black hole. “No scientist has seen a black hole,” he writes, “which can have the mass of millions of suns and can completely absorb light.” Similarly, the individual components of climate change — to say nothing of their cumulative effect — are so huge that their enormity “absorbs all the meaning.” These are issues that affect “all life on Earth, all Earth’s surface, the planet’s entire atmosphere.” Trying to comprehend the totality of a phrase like ocean acidification — its causes and effects, its size and scope — breaks our brains; it’s like trying to comprehend the number of stars in the sky. Echoing Lucht, Magnason admits: “I feel like I like understand the words, but I probably don’t. An empty gun looks like a loaded one; a gun’s usefulness, its harmfulness, depends on whether it’s loaded or not.” We desperately need new stories, it’s true. But what good are stories if we don’t understand the words at their center?
Magnason is part of a growing body of nonfiction writers attempting to solve this dilemma by finding new ways to illustrate the intangibles of climate science through the lens of the tangible: the economy (Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything), novels (Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement), the effect on other species (Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction), or the disappearance of society as we know it (David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth). Magnason is every bit as meticulous a writer as his peers, and On Time and Water boasts plenty of eye-popping statistics. But where Klein and Kolbert are journalists to the bone, aiming to jolt readers out of their complacency with cold, hard facts, Magnason is that most untrendy of things: a full-on, unabashed Romantic. He devotes long passages to what the poets once called the sublime. He describes lying facedown on the Skeidarárjökull glacier and pressing his ear to “a narrow crevasse that seemed a whole eternity deep though only a few inches wide.” Marveling at the vast distance between his body and the earth below, he could hear water “dancing somewhere deep down at the bottom.” Elsewhere, he recalls swimming alongside stingrays and sea turtles in the clear waters of the Caribbean and camping beneath a full moon in the remote wilderness of northeast Iceland. Look at all this, his writing demands, gesturing, astonished. Do we not realize what we stand to lose?
Magnason isn’t just appealing to our sense of awe. Faced with the problem of scale — the black hole — he posits that the only way to successfully write about the climate is to write around it: “to the side, below it, into the past and the future, to be personal and also scientific and to use mythological language.” Continuing his metaphor, he notes this is the same way astronomers detect black holes: by looking past them to see their gravitational effect on nearby stars. To talk about the climate, we have to find the stars in its own orbit, the changes they might experience, their siphoning away. We cannot look at it head-on.
As such a line suggests, On Time and Water is not your average climate tome. It is a family history, a travelogue, a meditation on the past and the future. It is a deeply personal reckoning with individual and collective responsibility in a time of reckless consumption, and a rich tapestry of myth, memory, and wonder. By following the thread of Magnason’s roving, inquisitive gaze, On Time and Water charts a new path for climate nonfiction, one that urges us to reconsider our very conception of time and the natural world.
The problem isn’t only that the language of the climate belongs to science. It’s that the language of Western culture belongs to money — and with it, the power to set real-world priorities. As Magnason writes, “Most people think only in terms of the paths and concepts offered within a given era.” And when it comes to our era, “the power to define reality and to discuss the value of nature belongs to economics.” This sentence recalls the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which argues that the language used by a given society not only reflects the values of that society but actively shapes them. In this case, the result is a society hemmed in by the language of neoliberalism, where the success of any project is measured in growth and people are reduced to mere consumers. Anything outside of this framework is deemed frivolous; this is the reason that climate legislation like the Green New Deal has to traffic in the language of jobs and progress. Nature in itself is not enough; it is still a “resource” for human ambitions.
Magnason, bless him, rejects this very line of thinking. “We are so hypnotized by progress and revolutions that our relationship with the future is characterized by irresponsibility,” he writes. Meaningful climate action cannot be achieved within the bounds of neoliberalism because the two are diametrically opposed. Magnason quotes from the Taoist text, The Classic of the Way and Virtue:
Thirty spokes coming together make up a wheel
but it is the hole for the axle that makes the wheel useful.
We throw clay to shape pots
which work because they are hollow.
Men cut out doors and windows
and the house’s empty space inside makes it useful.
For existence to bear fruit
what does not exist is most useful.
“Throughout the twentieth century, we have demanded the Earth turn a profit,” Magnason writes. “For an area to be protected, it needs to serve as a natural park or tourist destination; its purpose needs to be measurable.” What does not exist “is not considered useful in itself,” because the market cannot exploit it for gain. Yet it is that very emptiness, he notes, that “allows the wheel to revolve.” This insight recalls Rebecca Solnit’s astute observation that most environmental victories “look like nothing happened: the land wasn’t annexed by the army, the mine didn’t open, the road didn’t cut through.” Success is invisible, the prevention of forward motion in a time when we are taught to prize such a thing above all else.
What we need is a dramatic recalibration of our values and the language we use to define them. But how? It’s unfashionable these days to suggest individuals bear responsibility for the climate, especially as our options are constrained by a power structure that’s hostile to the planet at every turn. Yet collective action can only be achieved through individual effort — and it is only through collective action that the mega-polluters of the world can be brought to heel. If fossil fuel companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have shown no interest in stopping their destructive practices, it’s because a country that drives 3.2 trillion miles a year has given them little incentive to do so. When air travel ground to a halt at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, global aviation emissions dropped by 48% and took the airline industry out at the knees. The Great Lockdown of 2020 demonstrates that we can alter our lives if we feel it’s important enough; the fact that air travel has since rebounded demonstrates that, when it comes to the climate, we have simply chosen not to.
It’s not reasonable, of course, to expect people to sell their belongings and move to a cabin in the woods. And yet we could all stand to fly less, drive less, buy less — especially now, when we can no longer claim ignorance about the consequences of our actions. What we need is an antidote to what Amitav Ghosh has termed “the inertia of habitual motion,” the guiding force that so often trumps logic and reason in our daily lives. And as I read On Time and Water, it occurred to me that perhaps one reason we struggle to look head-on at the climate is because we lack basic words that link our actions to their consequences. Put simply, we do not appear to have a word that describes a person or institution whose actions or inactions contribute to climate change. After all, to say one “believes in climate change” does not mean one is actively taking steps to prevent it, and “reducing your carbon footprint” is a nebulous blueprint that can be applied to one action but not another. Conversely, labels like “polluter” and “climate change denier” cannot reasonably be used to describe well-meaning people who buy organic and vote liberal but still fly or drive thousands of miles each year.
This lack of terminology is a crucial point, especially in an age when politics are increasingly driven by matters of identity. As Ibram X. Kendi has written, “Definitions anchor us in principles. If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work toward stable, consistent goals.” What, then, might such language look like when applied to the climate? If we borrow Kendi’s framework of antiracism, we might describe someone who engages in this kind of climatic behavior as an “emitter” — a broad term that nonetheless accurately identifies the most basic cause of climate change. Their opposite might be an “anti-emitter,” a person or institution whose actions contribute to climate preservation and a healthier world for all. Like antiracism, to live as an anti-emitter would not be a fixed identity, but an ideal for us to measure our actions: an ongoing process that rejects the ethos of consumerism in favor of one that centers people and preservation. Faced with a seemingly intractable crisis, this ideal returns agency to us: it reminds us that we still have the ability to make different choices, ones that acknowledge the climate as the guiding force of our lives. Only by renaming ourselves and our values can we treat emptiness and slowness as things to be treasured rather than trivialized; only then can we develop solutions to the climate that are not hampered by the demands of the market.
Changing the way we talk about the climate alone is not enough; disagreements about those solutions remain inevitable. Like many others, Magnason spends a good deal of time praising the prospects of geo-engineering and carbon-capture technology, despite the fact that a growing number of scientists reject such ideas as magical thinking that diminish the urgency of collective action. New terminology also doesn’t inherently clarify the often-confusing contradictions of the changing climate, such as the way melting glaciers can cause both apocalyptic floods and devastating water shortages. Language in itself is not the answer; it is the material we use to pave the road ahead.
Yet changing the way we talk about ourselves in relation to the world changes our perception of scale: our expectations of speed, our understanding of time, our sense of responsibility. It opens us to the sublime, the mythic even. Throughout On Time and Water, Magnason returns to the theme of generations — the way that a person, through their grandparents, can touch someone who was born a hundred years before them, and through their grandchildren, someone who will be alive a hundred years after. A span of nearly three hundred years. “That’s the length of time you connect,” he writes, “the time you can touch with your own hands. Your time is the time of the people you know and love . . . the time that you will shape.” This is a call to action, to be sure, reflecting a belief that individuals can make a difference. But there is also wonder here, a reminder that the world is bigger and more mysterious than we can see with our own eyes — and more than anything, it’s that wonder and mystery we stand to lose. As Magnason writes, “It isn’t always economic arguments that matter most or even the philosophical argument that animals have a right to their existence. Sometimes direct, clear arguments about beauty matter most.”
Will Preston‘s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in publications across North America, including The Common, The Smart Set, Smithsonian Folkways, The Masters Review, and Maisonneuve. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Visit him at willprestonwriter.wordpress.com.