In his forthcoming book On Time and Water, an excerpt of which appears in our October 2020 Climate issue, and in his TED talk, Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason combines science, myth, and autobiography to depict the terrible cost of the climate crisis. In a recent conversation via email, Magnason spoke with WWB about the future of glaciers and the role of literature in climate activism. This interview has been edited.
WWB: How did you turn to writing about the environment?
Andri Snær Magnason (ASM): I devoured David Attenborough documentaries as a child, but when I started writing around 1993, I thought the world was heading in the right direction, so I was writing for the sake of art, words, and stories. I wrote some nature-related poems in my first book, published in 1995, when I was twenty-two—they were haikus about the surroundings of our family farm just below the Arctic Circle. Then, just before 2000, almost every river in Iceland was under threat of damming for aluminum smelters, each of which uses as much power annually as one million people. I thought that was horrifying, to start the twenty-first century with destroying the Icelandic highlands. But I was not an economist, journalist, or natural scientist, so I was not sure how to address the issue. I found a way to deal with it through fantasy in a children's book: The Story of the Blue Planet (1999).
But soon I had followed the issue so obsessively that I knew more than I read in the papers. And I found out that having written sci-fi, poetry, and fantasy gave me an advantage: the freedom to address the dams and aluminum with different types of storytelling. The book is actually about dams and smelters but more about language and creativity. I could play with metaphors and write about terawatt hours of energy, normally a boring issue, with an approach that made people feel like they were reading a crime novel. The resulting book, Dreamland, a Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, became a huge best seller in Iceland; it sold over 23,000 copies, in a country of 350,000 inhabitants. That was in 2006, and it kind of burned me out, because the Dreamland issue had been on my mind since 2002. And then I codirected a documentary film based on the book, which came out in 2009. The issues addressed in On Time and Water were already on my mind, but I needed to refuel and become free again with fantasy in The Casket of Time (originally published in Iceland in 2013) and a short story collection of intimate and personal stories. Still, I continued to follow the global issues and gave lectures and eventually found the narrative arc for On Time and Water. Again about nature but from a much, much broader perspective.
WWB: Our entire ecosystem is under assault; how did you decide to focus on water?
ASM: First the book was just about glaciers. The Icelandic glaciers my grandparents explored vanishing in the time of my own children, weaving into that the story of the Himalayan glaciers and how we suddenly understand the creation myth in Nordic mythology. According to the ancient Edda, the world started with a frozen cow. It never made sense to me. A frozen cow at the beginning of time, with four rivers that nourished the world. But it turns out this cow is related to Kamadhenu, the world cow in Hindu mythology with her feet symbolized by the Himalayan mountains. And there you will find Gomukh, meaning “the mouth of the cow,” the origin of the Ganges River. So if you look at glaciers, especially the Himalayan glaciers, they are a perfect system, the origin of life for hundreds of millions of people. Glaciers keep the water when it is abundant and harmful during the rainy season, but release it when it is warm and dry. So if they vanish, we might see the world's most vulnerable populations affected by conflicts over water. The glaciers are not precisely vanishing; they are becoming oceans, which are rising and, due to CO2, becoming more acidic, creating a completely different ocean than previously known. So suddenly the book was about everything. Glaciers and oceans and the next hundred years: time and water.
WWB: You’ve said elsewhere that “time and water” is more evocative than “climate change.” Can you talk about the role of language in communicating the current environmental crisis?
ASM: Words and phrases tend to wear and tear. Sometimes we have to distance ourselves from things that become too close to us. Like climate change. Many think it is boring and stop noticing—yet another climate conference, they say sarcastically. But what times are we living in? The leaders of the world meet to discuss how they are changing the weather, melting glaciers, heating the planet. That is a completely different paradigm from any point in history. Genghis Khan, Caesar, Napoleon, Ramses III—some of them might have been megalomaniacal and claimed they had something to do with the weather, but that isn’t proven by modern science. But now we have common people elected as world leaders, and they are talking about a global temperature increase of two or three degrees Celsius and a sea level rise of one meter as if it were a normal thing. And we are living in this historical moment, yawning and doing nothing.
WWB: I’m struck by your use of history, both personal and cultural—myth, your grandparents—in making your argument, and your connection of the past to the present. Would you say that you’re referring to the past, and its links to our existence, to invite readers to think of the future?
ASM: I use the metaphor of the black hole. You can't see it if you look straight at it. You have to look at the periphery, how it pulls in neighboring stars. We are not just data, we understand the world through stories. We can be scientific, poetic, and even spiritual or superstitious at the same time. A geneticist can look at the morning paper’s horoscope and think for a moment that this will be a bad day for his research. We are individuals, we are family, we are society, we like to be entertained and surprised. We will love the people of our future like we love the people of the past. But the future will always be speculative and fuzzy, so instead of looking at future generations, I use my grandmother, who stretches as far back in time as my grandchildren will stretch into the future. And I can ask her if one hundred years are a long time or a short time, because she has lived them. And she says: a short time. So in 2100, the year 2020 will be yesterday. But this is also tactical. We are easily bored and have strong defenses against difficult themes. To lower the defenses, I have to say the word “grandmother.” Then the heart opens for a moment, the defenses are down, and then I have one minute to throw in “ocean acidification.”
“I felt my energy was best served where I did things best, in performance and writing rather than organizing.”
WWB: Why is myth crucial to understanding the threats to the environment?
ASM: Myth has always been used to understand the world, and it still is, like recently when the “god particle” was found. I have always been inspired by folklore and mythology and how ancient civilizations explained the world through those means. I am also questioning how rational we actually are. If the combined engineering and economic excellence of the world is throwing the planet off its orbit, how rational is that? Would it then have been more rational if we believed forests or mountains to be sacred and worshipped animals and holy cows? My fundament is still science, and many of the best scientists in the world read the book and gave me access to their findings, but there was one scientist in Potsdam, Wolfgang Lucht, who gave me “permission,” inspired me to use mythology and storytelling to bring the science into other parts of our mind and culture.
WWB: What does climate activism in Iceland look like now, and how do you feel you fit into it?
ASM: I was very active, and sometimes central, in the highland activism in Iceland. Protesting against destruction of the highlands, against dams, smelters, and construction that threatened the unique landscape of Iceland. Activism gave me many excellent friends, but it swallowed a lot of my time and energy, and I was almost completely drained after ten years of petitions, concerts, etc. . . . When I did On Time and Water, I did it more on my own terms and wasn’t as connected to organizations. I did the book and a one-man show with a musician on the main stage of the City Theater, with about 5,000 people attending. I felt my energy was best served where I did things best, in performance and writing rather than organizing. Climate action was on the rise in Iceland, but has been less so since COVID-19 hit.
WWB: How do you view the ability of climate literature to change minds? Can the climate change deniers be reached?
ASM: The climate change deniers have been reached by lobbyists and deliberate disinformation. So they can be reached, of course. I was myself easily confused when I saw convincing arguments that denied climate change. Iceland has seen the climate change a lot in the last thousand years, and it is easy to refer to the warm climate when Iceland was settled around 900 BC. They say that our times are “back to normal.” But that was local climate, not global climate, otherwise we would have seen a difference in sea level. It took me many years of reading and research to be able to identify which arguments were cherry-picked and which were science. Some deniers I have spoken to can give insight into historical trends, but often in a misleading way. I think literature is fundamental in all cultural change and paradigm shifts: the systems in our minds and societies are basically run on language, and books are vital when it comes to floating new terms and information. A good book can take you through much deeper arguments than scattered articles. As a writer, I do not necessarily see my book in the line of climate change books, and those books are not my prime inspiration. I draw from writers who have written about other issues, like Sven Lindqvist, Rebecca Solnit, W. G. Sebald, Max Frisch, and others who can combine personal stories with bigger concepts. I also look at poetry, sci-fi, and old travel literature.
WWB: Your book is now being translated into multiple languages—twenty-five at last count. How do you think about the preceding question in terms of a global conversation? (And about relying on translation—an uncertain enterprise—to help readers understand these issues and be catalysts for this change?)
ASM: I am of course very happy to be able to write in my small old language and still address readers all around the planet. Translators are so important for a language like Icelandic, because it might be natural to pick a language with a larger home base. But Icelandic works as a literary language. I am especially pleased when I read a review and see the book is perceived as I believed I was writing it, understood even better than it was by the Icelandic media. I tried not to think too much about translation when I wrote the book because if you focus on translatability you can lose the local flavor and the things that make a book special. It would be tempting to not use difficult place-names, for example, or just refer to tourist destinations. Stories about my grandmother, language-based observations, mythology, folklore—I am very happy when I see that those things strike a chord in another language. I also think a global issue needs global voices, and together they create a combined global paradigm that changes the world.
WWB: How would you most want readers of this and your other works on the environment to respond?
ASM: I want them to throw away everything and start saving the planet.
Andri Snær Magnason is one of Iceland’s most celebrated writers. He has won the Icelandic Literary Prize for fiction, children’s fiction, and nonfiction. In 2009, Magnason co-directed the documentary Dreamland, which was based on his book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation (forthcoming from Open Letter). In 2010, Magnason was awarded the Kairos Prize, presented to outstanding individuals in the field of intercultural understanding. Magnason ran for president of Iceland in 2016 and finished third out of nine candidates.
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