“At first, people think I am messing around. But it’s all about the journey around the black hole,” laughs Andri Snær Magnason, discussing his new book ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’ (‘About Time and Water’).
The writer, performer, and activist is one of Iceland’s most prodigious cultural icons. His 2006 creative non-fiction book ‘Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation’ anticipated the financial collapse while taking on Iceland’s dependence on the aluminum industry and its greed for energy production at the cost of ecosystem wellness. He has held public conversations with countless major international figures, including eco-feminist Indian scholar Vandana Shiva and the Dalai Lama. And, in 2016, Andri Snær took his activism to the next level when he ran for Iceland’s presidency.
We sit around the kitchen table as we chat. Andri’s voice is slightly worn from a confluence of activities this autumn. After penning an article for The Guardian in August, he commemorated Okjökull by writing the memorial text for the first glacier funeral in Iceland. At that time, he had also just completed ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’.
“The book is about time and how science has shown us that all elements of water on the planet are fundamentally changing,” Andri Snær explains. “The glaciers are going down. The sea levels are going up. The acidification of the oceans is reaching a level not seen for 50 million years. Weather patterns are changing dramatically everywhere.”
Black hole sum
It’s here that the author’s journey around the black hole begins.
“In a way, talking about climate change is like talking about a black hole,” he suggests. “You can’t look straight into it because it draws in all light. There is nothing there. You get no signal, no bounceback. The only way to talk about a black hole is by not talking about a black hole. The only way to talk about a black hole is to look at the periphery.”
The periphery in ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’ contains interviews, myths, and stories from Andri Snær’s family and life experiences. Through these, he approaches the black hole of climate change. “I have interviews with my grandfather about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. I have talked to the Dalai Lama. My grandfather’s sister tells me about when she was [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s nanny in 1930,” he says, outlining the book’s contents. “I use these as side stories.”
Andri Snær holds steady eye contact as he talks, his glacier-blue irises encircling each black-hole pupil. “This issue is so large that language collapses. Meaning collapses. Metaphors collapse,” he explains. “One of the ways to talk about that is by not talking about it, by diverting the story to the periphery and using that to resonate at the scale of what is actually in the centre.”
“[The climate crisis] is bigger than language,” Andri Snær emphasises. “It is bigger than any words I can use. I can’t say it is enormous in the 12th degree or incredible. I can’t scale up my language like I can with numbers. The way we scale up language is with mythology—with archetypes and stories.”
He highlights the decreasing pH of the oceans as an example. “The words ‘ocean acidification’ were first mentioned in Icelandic media in 2006,” he recalls. “These are the biggest words in the world; it’s the biggest fundamental change of the ocean’s chemistry for 15 million years. How can I communicate that with a term first mentioned here in 2006? A concept like ocean acidification is not connected to anything cultural. It’s not connected to The Beatles. It’s not connected to Hitler or Stalin or the French Revolution or Martin Luther King. It’s not connected to baby seals, even though it is about baby seals.”
This disconnection segues to another point. “What does a nuclear bomb mean before or after it has exploded?” he asks. “After it has exploded, it is loaded with meaning. Before it’s exploded, it is just a concept; it’s a big metal thing with some imaginary outcome. We can’t really wait for ‘ocean acidification’ to get its load because then we will be done. The shit will have hit the fan.”
It’s here that Andri Snær zeroes in on the crux of ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’. “I am exploring how words have no meaning until they are fully loaded with meaning. It is important that we understand the full size of the words used to talk about climate change. Most of the book, I don’t mention climate change. When people ask me what am I writing about—if I say ‘climate change’, they would just roll their eyes. But when I change the answer and I say I am writing about time of water and all elements of what is changing in the next 100 years, people reply, ‘Okay, interesting!’ I can see their ear flaps open. I can see their brains illuminating.”
The kitchen table between us is lit by afternoon sun. We pour tea as we talk, dividing water between two glasses.
“A year ago, people were asking me, ‘are you sure it’s one story? Aren’t these five stories? One interview with the Dalai Lama, one book about glaciers in Iceland, one about your grandmother…’ But I said no,” he recalls. “I want everything to weave together like a tapestry.”
Andri Snær admits that this unusual structure was perhaps influenced by the Icelandic sagas. “In Njáls Saga, there is a man named Mörður, but now we’re going to another place. They introduce somebody and then go elsewhere. We don’t really know how the threads come together until the very end,” he offers. “In my book, I also introduce characters in the beginning, but their meaning comes at the end of the book.”
He cites additional literary influences in the works of Rebecca Solnit, Sven Lindqvist, and W.G. Sebald. “They write this kind of literature of tapestries, where lots of threads are woven and come together at some point, and where a story starts in the distance but eventually makes it to the core.”
In lieu of abstract concepts like climate change or ocean acidification, Andri Snær offers tangible, felt access to the same issues by interweaving stories of water and family.
“I try to think about the concepts and there’s nothing there,” he says. “If I think about my grandchildren, okay—but they don’t exist either. There is no load, no person in that idea. Instead of thinking about my grandchildren, I think about my grandparents because those are people who are in the same distance, just in the other direction. And they are fully loaded; they have lived their full lives. Instead of going forwards, I go backwards.”
Two teacups, a kettle, audio-recording equipment, and a computer populate the space of the kitchen table. Andri Snær gestures to the instruments.
“When you start talking about the gadgets of the future, you stop focusing on the human,” he explains. “If I was writing a story now, I wouldn’t write ‘and she took a Zoom recorder with the two microphones looking like a whiskey bottle.’ I wouldn’t write ‘her laptop was half-open and in that was a buzzing microchip.’ I would just say ‘they sat together and they were talking about grandmothers.’”
“It is sentimental,” he continues. “I’m using pancake sci-fi. It’s not about them sitting in a kitchen with a screen in front of them, some device developed in 2070. It’s about interactions as humans. We sit in kitchens and eat pancakes our grandmothers make for us. Then you become a grandfather and make pancakes for your grandchild. That’s the kind of meaning of life I am using. Pancake sci-fi.”
The kitchen table lacks pancakes, but we continue our discussion anyway.
Andri Snær considers the new book to have a more general appeal than ‘Dreamland.’ “That book was about a dam in the east,” he explains. “I was playing with the lingo of start-up creativity and what Iceland could do to foster ideas. I used that versus the grand-scale governmental 5-year masterplan to aluminise Iceland. With ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’, the scope is much larger. I ask deeper questions of what is holy and what is not holy, what is rational and what is not rational. What is pushing us off the rails?”
The dam in the east to which Andri Snær refers is the Kárahnjúkar; its development a controversial environmental issue in Iceland. “People said, ‘We don’t want to hear about dams.’ ‘Dreamland’ was about the future of Iceland, our rivers and Highlands. In that book, I don’t mention the dams until page 200. People think the book is about dams, but they’ve been reading for 200 pages and are like, wait, where are the dams?”
The Kárahjúkar dam’s construction continues to provoke upset and debate in Iceland, even more than ten years after its completion. “I had to explain why the pyramids in Egypt are there before I could talk about about the dam. Finally when I came to it, the goal was not to have built the dam. The goal was to be building dams. That is a fundamental difference. To be building dams means you will gobble up the Highlands and, in 20 years, you’ll be finished. You’ll scratch your head and ask, ‘why did I do it?’”
‘Dreamland’ focused on the creation of Hálslón, a large reservoir in the East Highlands that resulted from the construction of the Kárahnjúkar dam in the 2000s.
“I have one chapter in ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’ where I write about the same area as I did in ‘Dreamland,’” Andri Snær recalls. “I found an old travel book from 1939 by Helgi Valtýsson, who was born in 1877. He spoke about nature as a poet and researcher of reindeer. I look at how he describes the land he is faced with versus how our generation does. I am wondering if it’s progress or not.”
For Andri Snær, Icelandic nature was primarily viewed in economic terms, and more specifically, “the brand value that nature would give Iceland,” he states. “But in 1939, Helgi goes up to this area and he explodes emotionally! He evaporates into the space-dimension of God. It’s the most extreme nature text I have ever seen.”
Holy cow of Nordic mythology
Andri Snær connects Helgi’s writing with his own volley into storytelling. “Helgi was drenched in Romanticism, but still trying to build up the nation of Iceland. I am also exploring those ideas but I go more into mythology.”
Glaciers are a particular focus. “In Nordic mythology, the world starts with a frozen cow and from this cow came the four major rivers that nourish the world. I find that the holy cow of Nordic mythology is a concrete place that I can analyse. A myth that has always been very bizarre as a source of life makes perfect sense as a metaphor for a glacier. The glaciers in the Himalayas are considered a life source, milking cows of the region.”
Children of oil
From Nordic mythology, Andri Snær swerves into his own story of creation. “We are children of oil,” he contends. “We smuggled ourselves into the world by tapping into the Triassic sunlight, a million years of dinosaur summers. The Earth would never have given birth to us.”
He swiftly links this to his own nation’s ancestral tales. “In Icelandic folklore, they always had this dream of bypassing the human toil,” he explains. “Sometimes they could make a deal with the devil and the devil would finish harvesting the field in a minute instead of toiling the whole summer. But later, the devil comes to claim your child because that was part of the deal. Suddenly, you’re in a big dilemma.”
“That’s our dilemma now,” he continues. “We’re in this existential crisis where we are not children of nature. Nature cannot provide for us in the traditional way. These superpowers of technology—oil especially—we have to reduce. We have to have this super-fast-track to other energy sources—sun and wind—to keep some of these superpowers.”
River of oil
The difficult work of presenting this existential crisis involved translating statistics into relatable ideas. Take oil production. “What would 100 million barrels of oil a day be if it was a river? It would be like Dettifoss,” he explains.
Global carbon emissions is another example. “When Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, the carbon emissions were 150,000 tonnes per day. It closed down airspace from planes that contributed 300,000 tonnes per day. So it was the first ecologically sound and socially responsible volcanic eruption in human history,” he says. “Human carbon emissions are equal to 650 Eyjafjallajökull eruptions—not only for 2 weeks like the one in Iceland, but every day. Always. Open, full-blast eruptions.”
“Anybody who thinks that humans don’t have an impact, that’s like denying that volcanoes have an impact. Volcanoes have impact and humans are the volcano. But these human-volcanoes have CEOs. If it were just a normal volcano with no CEOs or lobbying groups, then everybody would agree that this was a problem. But volcanoes with CEOs can make it appear as though they’re not doing anything. It’s complicated.”
Andri Snær picks pieces of wax from a candle on the kitchen table as we talk.
It is then he declares, “We are a fire cult. We are run by fire. The gods were right when they punished Prometheus for stealing fire. We have now ignited so much fire that it is bigger than the biggest volcanic eruptions in geological history. The current fires have been cleverly hidden; the fire in our car, we don’t see it. It’s not like we have a campfire coming from the hood. We see no difference from an electric car or another car. We have fire in airplanes. We have fire in the harvesting machines. We have fire in the ships.”
Spin the black circle
In August, Andri Snær participated in the glacier Okjökull’s funeral by penning the memorial plaque. To accompany this, he wrote an article for ‘The Guardian.’ This coincided with an op-ed piece written by Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, for ‘The New York Times’ regarding Iceland’s melting glaciers and the current government’s plan to reach carbon neutrality.
“That was an amazing week,” Andri Snær recalls. Everything was aligned. Greta Thunberg was in the middle of the North Atlantic while we were putting up the memorial plaque for Ok. And all the Nordic Ministers were in Iceland with Angela Merkel.”
He laments a missed opportunity during that week, though, especially given the confluence of Nordic Ministers and the German chancellor being in Iceland. On the slow pace of governmental responses to the climate crisis, Andri Snær asserts, “We’re not acting like it’s an emergency. In this situation, it does mean disruption. When you have a strike, it disrupts something. It stops your everyday life. I’m not sure that we can take an issue that is so big and that involves so much change and innovation and do that seamlessly without any disruption to our daily routine.”
“The Ministers believe you can keep 120 beats per minute,” he continues, “and seamlessly phase the next song in—DJ into the next record and keep dancing. I think we will have to notice a new song started, though.”
“When I talk to young people. I tell them that we are in a paradigm shift,” he says. “My generation was told to follow your dreams, climb that ladder, race with the others, don’t be a loser. But there was no deeper meaning. It was all about this MBA language. It didn’t have anything about God or nature or not even the nation. I think this nationalism that is coming up now is because people have been starved of a higher ideal, and so it goes into national populism. People tend to want to have a higher meaning in their lives.”
Andri Snær understands that the younger generation now will have their work life focused on carbon emission reduction and issues related to the climate crisis. “The UN has told us that we have to get emissions down to zero in the next 30 years. Every industry, every working life, every ideal—everything is about this for those who are 15 today until they are 45.”
The conversation then comes full-circle, as Andri Snær reflects on the higher meanings of his grandparents’ generation.
“My grandfather was born into extreme poverty,” he shares. “When he was 11, he quit school and started working for the family. Those conditions that used to be here are in India now. My grandfather took responsibility at a very young age. He was a social entrepreneur, founding the Glacial Research Society and the Flight Rescue Squad. I’m looking at how I can use my grandparents’ life stories, how they volunteered for three weeks a year for glacial research. They did things that needed to be done.”
On running for president
This can-do attitude is something Andri Snær has carried forward into his own life, ultimately leading him to run in the 2016 presidential election.
“It was easier than writing the book,” he laughs. “My idea was to use that strange position of what the president is to connect people on all stages of society and start making things happen quicker. But during the election, the climate change issue was hardly mentioned. I was too dizzy to make the gravity that I thought was needed. So it was all about nonsense actually. Then, I had all this stuff that is now in the book in my mind… Scattered fragments of the book.”
He urges, though, that the book is not a political pamphlet. “It is literature,” he asserts. “Of course it is the same person who wrote the book that ran for president. My ambition at that time was to let science move politics, because scientists have been very modest. Scientists put it out and then they wait for politicians to take it or leave it.”
“Scientists haven’t essentially been activists. As soon as they become activists, they are thrown into a marginal left party. That’s considered to be left, to measure CO2. That’s what socialists do. Right-wing people don’t see it; they produce the CO2,” he laughs again.
Watery horror picture show
In addition to publishing the book, Andri Snær is currently headlining a sold-out performance, also titled ‘Um Tímann og Vatnið’, at Borgarleikhúsið. Working with musician Högni, a thirty-member children’s choir, video, and photography, Andri Snær takes the structure of the book and lifts it to the stage.
“I’m getting very strong and good responses to telling the story. People are not bored; they’re not sleeping and I get a standing ovation,” he laughs. “It’s very good.”
Two shows remain, being staged on November 12th and 26th. While this run is in Icelandic, Andri Snær is considering adapting the show to English. “I could easily do an English version with a few minor twists. I have had lectures in Harvard, Columbia, and Keele University. There I was talking to scientists. That gave me confidence that I was on the right track because I was speaking to people who are specialists in their fields.”
Here we are now, entertain us
On the appeal and necessity of dystopian tales, Andri Snær paints a grim picture.
“The story is also about entertainment. You could write a story about the Second World War or Stalingrad, but you’re always writing a story. As horrible or grave as it is, the biggest crime is to write a boring story. It is this strange paradox. A story is about the most serious things that we are faced, and people finish it like a thriller and say it was fun to read,” he laughs. “Well, fun is not the right word, but still…”
He takes one more sip of tea. “You could say it’s also a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down,” he concludes. “My book is the Forrest Gump of climate change, using Mary Poppins to become the Forrest Gump of climate change.”
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