Why this Icelandic writer says 99% of climate talk is meaningless 'white noise'

Icelandic writer and documentary filmmaker Andri Snaer Magnason speaks to Nahlah Ayed about his response to the climate crisis, in his book entitled On Time and Water. Magnason embarked on the project at the insistence of a climate scientist who was dismayed at failures of public communication surrounding the latest research.

Andri Snær Magnason weaves mytho-poetic into hard scientific data in his book, On Time and Water

Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason wrote his book, On Time and Water, at the insistence of a climate scientist who was dismayed at failures of public communication surrounding the latest research. (Anton Smári/Biblioasis )

*Originally published on June 10, 2021.

It still astonishes Andri Snær Magnason to think that within his lifetime, two vast belief systems appear to have collapsed: communism and capitalism.

A majority of Canadians would surely dispute that capitalism has collapsed, exactly, and a majority of Cubans might argue that communism hasn't, either. But to the Icelandic author, this is a common syndrome with vast paradigm shifts: they take a while for everybody to notice.

"We can see in human history how long it can take for abstract concepts to be understood," Magnason said, in an interview with CBC IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. 

Magnason points out that when Copernicus proved that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, it took a further 100 years of argument before the news really sunk in.

"It wasn't like everyone had an 'aha' moment and understood that," said Magnason.

And so it goes with climate change — or, as most mainstream media outlets have now agreed to call it, the "climate crisis."

Just as with the Copernican revolution, or the establishment of modern democratic states, or the idea of equality between men and women, the stories of landmark moments and decisive victories can overshadow the slower pace of cultural adaptation. On fundamental issues of belief, human societies may require a century or more to truly change.

That's a particular problem when disasters approach in a matter of decades — in a sense, the timeline is both too slow and too quick for our cultures to handle.

"The problem with climate change is the scale," Magnason said.

"A leader of a nation has never talked about the surface of the ocean or how he is melting glaciers [before]. Moses parted the Red Sea and we remember that still. But that was just for a day or two! … Elements that humans thought were a symbol of eternity … these extreme forces that we believed were beyond us, now we see we're damaging that."

Language matters

Magnason is a poet, essayist, environmental campaigner, filmmaker, and one-time politician — he ran for president in Iceland in 2016, and came in third. His most recent book, On Time and Water, was published in the U.S. and Canada this year, with translations published or soon to be released in 30 countries.

He argues that world leaders gathering to discuss the future of climate have become like weather gods, and potentially tragic figures for failing to do a job once reserved, in mythological terms, for deities. 

It's such a fundamental change that it affects the meaning of our words and the foundations of our concepts of reality. And these are exactly the sort of paradigm-shifting challenges that traditionally require many decades for cultures to absorb.

One of Magnason's obsessions is with how to communicate the solutions to the climate crisis in ways that might allow cultures to adapt more quickly. He relies on mythology and family storytelling in hopes of breaking through what he sees as a language problem.

In 2019, Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason caught the world’s attention when he held a funeral for a lost glacier in Iceland. On the memorial plaque, part of the message to readers in the future reads: 'We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.' (Jeremie Richard/AFP via Getty Images)

Worrying data about the collapse of glaciers or the acidification of the oceans leads to conclusions so huge and all-encompassing that the scale easily overwhelms our comprehension, Magnason argues, comparing the mass of climate implications to a black hole in space.

"Its quantity absorbs all meaning," explained Magnason. He says that while mythological storytelling forms an important part of the response, it is of course not a replacement for the important task of relating science to everyday human experiences and practical consequences.

"The reality of drought is hunger and war," Magnason said. "The reality of melting glaciers is conflict."

He denies that too much catastrophizing by environmentalists is to blame for the widespread inaction or underwhelming responses to the threats. Instead, he attributes the failures so far to the so-called "Merchants of Doubt" — public relations firms hired to intentionally confuse people and dismantle or undermine confidence in scientists, along with a media willing to co-operate in representing the situation as a "debate" for far too long.

Obliterating bad habits

In addition, Magnason attributes the problems of communication in part to a social taboo against sacred or romantic vocabulary in many modern societies, a taboo he shares himself. He admits that he still resists what he calls "new age guru" style talk with regard to nature, and especially before the 2008 market crash, he felt obliged to speak in the vocabulary of liberalism, innovation, and marketing.

"Nothing is allowed to have an undefined purpose," said Magnason, remembering how he tried to argue against the destruction of a large wild habitat in Iceland by extolling its potential use for tourism and national brand management.

Tourists walking on the Solheimajokull glacier, on Oct.16, 2015, where the ice has retreated by more than one kilometre since annual measurements began in 1931. (Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Magnason's hopes for avoiding the worst scenarios in the coming century depend on a belief that people now in their 20s will not desire the sorts of energy-consuming practices associated with life in the 1970s in the U.S. 

"They won't miss our bad habits," Magnason predicts. As with other paradigm shifts, if we switch to a non-carbon-emitting culture, the people of the future will not want to return to how we lived before.

"They will see us as bizarre and even brutal."

A future born of new semantics

Ultimately, Magnason expresses a hope that his children's generation will look back upon the current society with pride and gratitude, because we will have succeeded in changing ourselves much more quickly and fundamentally than previous cultures did, and will thereby avoid the disastrous tipping points scientists have warned us about.

He concludes that even if he had less than a 10-per-cent chance of overcoming a life-threatening disease, he would try to fight it to save his own life, and that the same logic applies to the importance of fighting as hard as possible to overcome humanity's carbon and methane-emitting habits.

In his view, this will require carbon-busting technologies, a complete end to net-positive carbon emission, the successful preservation of glaciers, an anti-emission culture in all types of jobs, as well as a new semantics deriving partly from the work of artists responding to the latest science. 

* This episode was produced by Greg Kelly, with help from Tom Howell. Thanks also to recording engineer, Hjörtur Svavarsson in Iceland.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now