Review of ‘On Time and Water’ by Andri Snӕr Magnason

‘Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument acknowledges that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.

Only you know if we did it.’-

Magnason 2019

In 2019, a solemn warning to the future was unveiled, via a memorial plaque on the Okjökull glacier, as the first glacier worldwide was lost to climate change,

The memorial on the lost glacier can surely be compared to Armstrong’s ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ in 1969. Armstrong’s words will be etched in history as a time of expansion for the human race. In much the same way, these words on this memorial to the first of the glaciers to have been lost will be etched in history, as a time when humanity’s expansion threatened the existence of humanity- all within the short span of 50 years.

‘You can tell stories. You must tell stories.’

‘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 level’s will rise…All this will happen during the lifetime of a child who is born today and lives to be my grandmother’s age, ninety-five.’

Magnason defines clearly the purpose of his book quite early on and identifies one of the biggest issues facing climate change- that of communication and action.  ‘For most people the phrase ‘climate change’ is just white noise.’ He asks the question about how we connect people to a global crisis in a way that moves them- what language will they understand? ‘Should we draw words for discussing the Earth from science, emotion, statistics or religion? How personal and sentimental can we get?’

He acknowledges the difficulty of trying to fully grasp the issue of the climate crisis for an individual and what that means as a priority for them. ‘It affects everyone we know, everyone we love. We are confronted by changes that are more complex that most of what our minds typically deal with.’ At the same time, he reinforces that we do have the tools to better engage a public, who can be afflicted with mass apathy regarding a global problem that they see as being too big for them to be a part of the solution. ‘The only way to write about the subject is to go past it, to the side, below it, into the past and the future, to be personal and also scientific and to use mythological language.’

It’s not often in a book review where I can squeeze in a quotation from Tolkien- but it seems fitting considering his connections with Iceland. The character of Pippin says to his friend that maybe they are too small to make a difference. ‘Pippin: Maybe Treebeard’s right. We don’t belong here, Merry. It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end? We’ve got the Shire. Maybe we should go home.’ To which, Tolkien has the character Merry respond, ‘The fires of Isengard will spread. And the woods of Tuckborough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone.’

Magnason rightly suggests that what connects us all is mythology and that language is bound up in identity. ‘Words affect our emotions, our feelings. Words enable us to get a handhold on the state of being.’

How do we tell stories that are bigger than ourselves? How do we build the foundations of culture and connection?

It is not an accident that we have been telling the story of a family travelling on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for almost 2,000 years.

We have been telling the story of a cataclysmic flood, across multiple cultures, for thousands of years.

We’ve told stories of Norse Gods and Greek heroes in a way to understand our world and our place in it.

We have always been storytellers.

We are a bridge over time

The personal and intimate cadence of Magnason’s story fills the spaces of this book and echoes the refrain throughout. The book starts with personal familial connections, to know who we are and where we are from- in a bid to honour our ancestors and descendants.  Magnason’s message repeated throughout is that ‘this world is heavily interdependent. We are all interdependent. That’s the reality.’ The language used in the media of the phrase ‘by the end of the century’, Magnason argues is one which is blinding us to the reality of the crisis. He argues that humans are bad at understanding the geological age of the Earth and that using phrases like ‘by 2100’ can make us miss that connection with our responsibilities to the future.

Magnason repeats his argument that, ‘Two hundred and sixty-two years. That’s the length of time you connect across. You’ll know the people who span this time. Your time is the time of the people you know and love, the time that moulds you. And your time is also the time of the people you will know and love.’ He does this through memories and conversations of family members, who calculate how many years will pass between generations. This part of the book and this message really connected with me, as it will with many people who have young families.

My son is 5 and he is lucky enough to have great-grandparents who are 95. This means that they were born in 1927. If my son also lives to be 95, then he will see the year 2112. 12 years past the ‘end of the century’. Continuing this idea, if my son, also becomes a great-grandparent when he is 90, and that child lives to be 95, then that child will see the year 2202.

Over 270 years of connections and history within one family, with one child being the bridge across generations. What will the Earth be like by 2112, with current emissions and global temperature rise?

What will the Earth be like by 2202?

Magnason makes the point that, ‘For the Earth, one hundred years is like a moment.’ He continues more intently that there is an obligation to the future, as well as a recognition of the past. If my life is in danger, if my earth and my descendants are in danger, aren’t I obligated to understand what’s at stake? What words manage to define the world?

Unfortunately, Magnason laments the banality of our lives and our attention spans. He states that ‘The same week in October 2018, the United Nations IPCC issued a kind of ‘final warning’, the internet was consumed by an array of variously trivial things.’ A phenomenon that we have seen repeated as COP15 closed. A critical, once-in-a-decade biodiversity crisis disappeared in a torrent of social media activity over what the owner of Twitter would do next. There’s always a celebrity who generates much angst and anger over their comments online- more anger than is ever generated by the plight of the planet. Indeed, these climate and biodiversity summits are sometimes ridiculed as achieving little, ‘The Earth has abandoned geological speed; it is changing at human speed. And yet our response happens at a glacial pace. We hold a conference to determine the location for the next conference.’

The risks to humans

Although Magnason repeats the scientific evidence of the risk to humans, this does not feel like his primary message. The repetition of warnings about the climate crisis have not yet been heeded. Either we are not listening properly, or the story needs to change.

Magnason, perhaps rightly then, gives the headline statements, in case his reader is new to this topic. In a carefully neutral voice, he intones:

This is the point. If you are ‘climate literate’, you will be aware of this information- though what you are doing with this knowledge in terms of climate action is debatable. If this is the first time that you have seen and read this information, then how do you respond and on what level? Magnason identifies that perhaps we do not understand the immediacy of the crisis and that we view it still as a problem ‘tomorrow’. What people really mean here is that they will be dead and gone and so they won’t be impacted and so they feel it has nothing to do with them.

This degree of a lack of connection with the future lies at the heart of this text. Rhetorically, if you were told- ‘Your behaviour and actions right now could significantly alter the quality of life that your child has for the worst’- would you quit that behaviour? The concept of sticking to boundaries may be the inherent fault in humanity’s stars. Magnason suggests that, ‘The problem is, humans don’t seem to know any boundaries. They do not know when they are satisfied, nor when they’ve gone too far.’

We are standing at a crossroads

With humanity’s goal of lowering carbon emissions and reducing the ever-increasing global average temperature, we really are at a crossroads.

By 2050, we may have wide ranging government action across countries, as we did when the ozone layer was threatened. We acted quickly and collectively.

Knowing where we are and our point in time is crucial. As Magnason states, we must notice the present. ‘In the last ten years, we’ve seen the eight hottest years since temperature record-keeping began in the mid-nineteenth century. Since the turn of the century, the Icelandic glaciers have retreated more than they retreated in the entire previous hundred years. There’s a reason to take notice of the present. The time of greatest change is upon us.’

Will we seize this as an opportunity to agree at a global level, that we need to change. That what we have done to this point cannot serve our futures. What we owe to the future, from parent to child, has always been the opportunity that their life will be better that ours. That our children do not need to face the same struggles that we have faced. That we have sacrificed, so that they can benefit.

Why has this responsibility been lost?

Magnason notes that ‘Nothing we have done will be considered remarkable if achieving it has meant closing our eyes to science and throwing away the life and happiness of future generations.’

As a species, we have lost our compass as well as our path.

It is fitting to return to metaphorical language of directions, bearings and journeys, as this book is littered with journeys. From the physical journeys on glaciers from Magnason’s family, to the emotional and spiritual journey of Magnason himself, to that of the journey of the glaciers themselves. Stories about journeys that are connected. We all journey.

Magnason closes the text by driving home the responsibility that is owed to future generations not to rob and deprive them of so much of this Earth that is of value. For us to begin to tell the stories of why we value what we value, so it can be protected before it is lost.

‘And now we need to think and behave differently than we did before. We have the tools, all the devices and all the knowledge to do it.

And, if we do not, we fail both our ancestors and our descendants.’


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