Save for perhaps a few scientific disciplines, humans really shouldn’t be spending too much time dwelling on geological time. Such epochs of Earth’s physical and climate conditions typically last over three million years, but since humans began exercising their unrelenting grip on the planet, these changes have come early. What do we do when geological speed catches up to human time? How can we connect ourselves to such an unintelligible future? How can we even describe such cataclysmic changes? These are just some of the questions Andri Snær Magnason attempts to answer in his new book, On Time and Water.
How far can a human life reach? Spatially, you could conceivably cover the entire world if you impact enough people, but how about temporally; what about time? How far into the future will your life affect people, and how far in the past could you go and still find people who have affected you?
According to Andri Snær Magnason, and using his 12-year old daughter as a reference point, a single human life can reach across 262 years. From his spry and energetic 94-year old grandmother to his hypothetical and equally vivacious great-granddaughter living in 2186, his daughter’s life will touch people on a scale much longer than a single human lifetime, or even a single generation.
This is how Magnason frames the scale upon which climate change will affect humanity. The effects of a warmer world do not happen to some unknown person in a far-off future. Each of us has a deep and intimate connection with the future that is easy to ignore, but no less real than our family and our children. And while this bond through time has proven durable for most of history, the accelerating speed of geological time is threatening to irrevocably disrupt it.
In On Time and Water, Magnason uses a combination of scientific facts, personal anecdotes and literary prose to unravel what climate change really means. He takes the reader on an intimate journey through words, mythology and history, and it is the last of these, the historical account, that is the most engaging.
Magnason’s history is not some abstract story found in a textbook, it is a story of himself and of his family. In one mesmerising section, the author recounts the tale of his grandfather and grandmother’s intrepid expedition to the top of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe where over one thousand metres’ worth of ice separate one’s feet from the ground. If Magnason’s great-granddaughter were to attempt the same hike in the mid-22nd century, she would find a considerably easier time of it, since 90% of the world’s glaciers will have melted away by 2100 if we do nothing to slow climate change.
Glaciers once took millions of years to melt, now it can happen within the reach of a single human lifetime. We struggle to find the words to describe how to feel about this. Do we express reverence for what is still here? Hope for what could yet be preserved? Grief for what is already gone? “The changes we are face to face with are more complex than most things with which our minds typically deal,” Magnason writes, going on to say that, “these changes surpass any of our previous experiences, surpass most of the language and metaphors we use to navigate our reality.”
However we choose to describe what we are experiencing, the way we talk about climate change now indicates that we have yet to pinpoint the right words. Terms like ‘ocean acidification’ and ‘atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 450 parts per million’ are as captivating as the ingredient list on a shampoo bottle, and yet the future they imply verges on apocalyptic. This is in part because of our disconnect from the future, but also because our language isn’t really suitable to our current circumstances.
In an interview with Earth.Org, Magnason tells us that, “The problem with words like ocean acidification is that they are disconnected to our culture, to the ocean, whales, disconnected to anything. And the role of art is to take a word like that and connect it, load it.”
Since our language tends to fail us, Magnason dedicates large swathes of his book recounting historical and mythological literature, to perhaps better express our modern reality. From Iceland coming to terms with their newfound freedom from Denmark in the early 19th century, to a retelling of the country’s mythological folklore and a conversation with the Dalai Lama, Magnason relies on the word ‘mythology’ a lot, and quite appropriately so. Accelerating geological time is bringing about tectonic shifts in the Earth’s systems, conditions that are eerily reminiscent of Biblical accounts that the world was created in a week, or perhaps more fittingly, that it only took forty days for it to be swept away in a devastating flood.
These jaunts through the world’s cultural mythology to frame our very real perils is apt, if a little meandering at times. On Time and Water does not have a narrative per se, or even a singular guiding theme. Trying to describe what this book is about is a challenge, but that really isn’t the point. As Magnason says, we are inherently poetic beings. We respond to lyrical descriptions of the world that transcend the visual and verifiable, and instead unlock the emotional and unknowable. Historical and mythological descriptions of our beautiful planet often relied on this, assigning god-like and transcendental elements to nature in an effort to memorialise its beauty, complexity and stability. Our more scientific descriptions of the world today are unable to do this to the same effect.
On Time and Water does not provide solutions to accelerating glacial melt, nor does it advocate for any economic reform proposals or huge lifestyle changes. It doesn’t really ask us to do anything, but it does inspire.
This is a beautiful book, written imperiously and passionately to describe a world that is rapidly changing, where much is being lost, but much still remains to be saved. What the book lacks in solutions and policy proposals, it more than makes up for in hope for the future, hope for our children and dreams that everything can be ok. The world we are moving towards will not be the same as the one our grandparents lived in, but it can still be a world full of life and magic. All we have to do is to realise that our time here matters, because our reach is much longer than we can imagine.
For more, watch Andri speak with Earth.Org founder Constant Tedder in a fascinating 90-minute conversation here.
On Time and Water
Andri Snær Magnason
2021 English-language release, Serpent’s Tail, 290pp