On Time and Water: an extract

06 August 2020

‘Magnason is the love child of Chomsky and Lewis Carroll’ – Rebecca Solnit

Icelandic author and activist Andri Snær Magnason’s ‘Letter to the Future’, an extraordinary and moving eulogy for the lost Okjökull glacier, made global news and was shared by millions. Now he attempts to come to terms with the issues we all face in his new book On Time and Water. Magnason writes of the melting glaciers, the rising seas and acidity changes that haven’t been seen for 50 million years. These are changes that will affect all life on earth.

Taking a path to climate science through ancient myths about sacred cows, stories of ancestors and relatives and interviews with the Dalai Lama, Magnason allows himself to be both personal and scientific. The result is an absorbing mixture of travel, history, science and philosophy.

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May you live in interesting times

‘Take notice what you notice.’

—Thorvaldur Thorsteinsson

Whenever I host overseas visitors to Reykjavík, I like to drive them along Borgartún, a street I call the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. I point out Höfdi, the white wooden house where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986, a house that many people associate with the end of communism, the fall of the Iron Curtain. The nearest building to Höfdi is a black boxy structure, all glass and marble, that once housed the headquarters of Kaupthing Bank. Kaupthing’s collapse in 2008 was the fourth-largest bankruptcy in the history of capitalism – not merely per capita of the Icelandic population but in net US dollars: 20 billion dollars.1

I don’t mean to gloat over others’ misfortunes, but it astonishes me that before middle age I’d already witnessed the collapse of two vast belief systems, communism and capitalism. Each had been maintained by people who’d scaled the peaks of the establishment, of government and of culture, people esteemed in direct proportion to their relative position at the pyramid’s apex. Deep inside these systems, people kept up appearances right to the bitter end. On 19 January 1989, the East German General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, Erich Honecker, said: ‘The wall will stand in fifty years’ time, and a hundred years’, too.’ The wall collapsed that November. Kaupthing’s CEO said in a television interview on 6 October 2008, after the bank had received emergency loans from the Central Bank of Iceland: ‘We’re doing very well indeed, and the Central Bank can be confident it will get its money back … I can tell you that without hesitation.’ Three days later, Kaupthing collapsed.

When a system collapses, language is released from its moorings. Words meant to encapsulate reality hang empty in the air, no longer applicable to anything. Textbooks are rendered obsolete overnight and overly complex hierarchies fade away. People suddenly find it difficult to hit upon the right phrasing, to articulate concepts that match their reality. Between Höfdi and Kaupthing’s former headquarters there’s a grassy lawn. In its centre stands a paltry copse of trees: six spruces and some woolly willow shrubs. Lying inside that cluster of trees, between the two buildings, looking up at the sky, I found myself wondering which system would collapse next, what big idea would be the next to take hold. Scientists have shown us that the foundations of life, of Earth itself, are failing. The principal ideologies of the twentieth century considered the Earth and nature as sources of inexpensive, infinite raw material. Humans assumed that the atmosphere could continually absorb emissions, that oceans could endlessly absorb waste, that soil could constantly renew itself if given more fertiliser, that animal species would keep moving aside as humans colonised more and more space.

If scientists’ predictions prove accurate about the future of the oceans and the atmosphere, about the future of weather systems, about the future of glaciers and coastal ecosystems, then we must ask what words can encapsulate these immense issues. What ideology can handle this? What should I read? Milton Friedman, Confucius, Karl Marx, the Book of Revelation, the Koran, the Vedas? How to tame these desires of ours, this consumption and materialism that, by any and every measurement, promise to overpower Earth’s fundamental life systems?

This book is about time and water. Over the next hundred years, there will be foundational changes in the nature of water on our Earth. Glaciers will melt away. Ocean levels will rise. Increasing global temperatures will lead to droughts and floods. The oceans will acidify to a degree not seen for fifty million years. All this will happen during the lifetime of a child who is born today and lives to be my grandmother’s age, ninety-five.