Interview with Andri Snaer Magnason, author of the book "On Time and Water"

The Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason discusses his book On Time and Water with Solvatten to better understand and engage with the rapidly accelerating ecological crisis. In recent years, Iceland has witnessed the melting of its largest glacier.

We at Solvatten seek new deep narratives that can help our audience to better engage with the complex challenges we are facing. We share the passion of authors driving climate action across different generations and cultures. On Time and Water, written by Andri Snær Magnason, is exactly such a book that we found fascinating for a variety of reasons, one being the mythological connection of melting ice, water and people. We appreciate the fact that diverse cultures and mythologies share a common perspective regarding the need to protect the environment.  Read the conversation from our meeting with Andri Snær Magnason about the book On Time and Water.

Solvatten: Hello Andri Snaer Magnuson author of On time and Water, a fascinating book for a variety of reasons. We share your passion for driving climate action across generations and across cultures. Why did you write this book?

Andri Magnuson: I was encouraged by a climate scientist. And he asked me; “you’re a writer here and now, why don’t you write about this issue?” And I said, “I don’t feel I have the authority. You’re the scientist, and my father’s a doctor, he’s not telling me to give people medical tips. On the contrary, he says doctors should give medical advice.” And I was also afraid that I didn’t feel I had the authority to step into his field. But he said, “I’m not a professional storyteller. I produce the data, I produce the science, but this data relates to you, it’s your data, it’s your planet, it’s your future, it’s your nature. And of course, you have the authority to integrate that into your reality. And not only that but it’s actually your moral duty as a citizen in a democratic society.” If we were just controlled by scientists then fine, just let the scientists control us, but we’re a democracy so it’s based on people understanding the issue and I wasn’t fluent in the gigatons and the pH of the oceans, or the timeline of the scale of these things.

So it’s actually also a moral duty for myself, to explore and understand it. And while I try to understand it, I have to translate it for myself. And he told me, “people don’t understand data, we understand stories.” I can show people the most horrible data in the world and they’ll just maybe yawn at the lecture. So, I took this to heart and started to really investigate this and found out there’s a review in Italy that said that what I was doing was to give soul to data. Because data can become very abstract and dry. So I put in grandmothers, holy cows, poetry and stuff, whilst also respecting the data and the science. Because paradigm shifts in the world, in terms of human rights, women’s rights, science etc, can take 100 years. Normally it happens both through information but also through stories, poetry, songs, music and culture –  carriers of the chains of paradigms. I saw myself as just one of these people that take on that responsibility to carry the stories for paradigm shifts.

Solvatten: What I read into your book is also that we climate is a moral issue. Climate justice is something that we want to explore. What is climate justice?

Andri Magnuson: Climate justice is the same as what we want to have behind the word sustainability; that we are not undermining the right of future generations or as in the benefit of, for example, the Western nations, building up their economies and industries all being on the expense of both future generations or people that are harder hit by the climate change in the Global South. Climate justice is too again look at the data and look at the effects of what we’re doing. Basically, all law says that you’re not allowed to cause harm to others. That’s just a global law: I cannot harm a person, I cannot drop a piano out of the window and make it fall on somebody’s head. But for some strange reason, we are allowed to drop a climate bomb on the head of the coming generations. If it doesn’t hit somebody until 30 years from now, it’s like we are careless against the calculated effects of what we’re doing. So climate justice is the core. And this is what the children of the climate strikes are uprising against, they are paying into pension funds today to receive money, hopefully in the year 2070. We have college students paying into pension funds for their first summer jobs. And of course, what is more rude to a person than taking his money and investing that for example, in oil companies? So basically, you’re taking money from them now to burn their future away. We’re having a big generational gap of interest also because that oil company might be profiting today and being a portion of what a pensioner today is receiving now, but for a younger person. That pensioner might think it’s very rational that the pension fund has oil money but for a young person today, it’s just totally obscene. It’s the rudest thing. Climate justice is both in the timeline of now; how we’re affecting at this given moment and it’s in the timeline of now versus future generations. Climate justice speaks in many directions.

“Climate justice speaks in many directions.”

Many countries operate on four-year terms of governments and most corporations have very short term thinking. Few investors think 30 years ahead. Most investment is written off after 30 years. Four years for a government is a short time to deal with the problem we are up against. A government can’t really plan or promise anything longer. So it’s very much up to us, the people, to understand this long term thinking. That’s what I’m trying to do in my book; when a scientist says 2100 we have always thought, “well, that’s at 80 years, that’s the Blade Runner”. It’s very symbolic that Blade Runner was set in 2019. Because we were raised with year 2000 as almost like a roof over our head. Like 2000 was a far distant future. So Blade Runner happened 2019, very far away from this distant future that we imagined. I have a theory; that our generation just doesn’t understand that the 21st century has started. And we don’t really relate to 2100, or 2008 or 70. I think most people in Glasgow think 2015 was 50 years from now. In a strange way, I think they all believe 2015 is still 50 years from now, that 1970 was 30 years ago. I don’t have scientific proof for it but I think in a strangely cultural way of time thinking, that this is how the rolling generation feels.

Solvatten: What challenges did you find writing this book?

Andri Magnuson: When I started to really dive deep into this, I found a failure of language and a failure of meaning. So I’m writing within a certain logic and rhetoric – a language of this present time, which I know will change in the next 20-30 years. I know that the language of now will change a lot like we’ve seen for example in the feminist language, which has shown us a lot how quickly things can change of how you word things. And so if I say in the next 100 years, the pH level of the oceans will drop from 8.1 to 7.7 and that this is the greatest change in the world’s oceans for 50 million years. This is the most dramatic thing that I can say, in my life. It’s basically the biggest change of the chemistry of the oceans since the time of the dinosaurs. It’s a fundamental shift of what this planet is. But somehow 8.1 to 7.7 is meaningless. 100 years is dystopia or utopia, or it’s just sci-fi. “50 million years”, I could just have said “50 gazillion years or 50,000 light years”, it just has no meaning. So how do you express something when the laguage fails?

“So how do you express something when the language fails?”

I can put myself on a high seat and say, “oh, you’re so ignorant, you don’t understand pH so you don’t understand this term.” I just have to explain very gently that you just heard this word and it’s very likely that you’re hearing this word for the 10th time or maybe even for the first time. When you hear a word for the first time, you just don’t understand it. You can’t just go out and run a marathon, it takes maybe a year to train yourself to run a marathon. And finally, you can do it. It’s the same with words. You just don’t get it the first time you hear it. But then after 20 years, suddenly you can see how this word has started to creep into the language. I remember when I first heard the words “deconstruction” and “marginalization”, talking about minorities being marginalized. I remember that I was like, “what kind of academic jargon bullshit is this?” I remember when I said it. And then I thought, “what do you mean by marginalized?” And then I saw in the news a few weeks ago, there was a strike of workers in the cleaning industry in Iceland. They said, “we will not be marginalized anymore”. I remember when I heard that word for the first time, as a very academic, superficial word that I just could not relate to. 

But then you can see how the word 30 years later, is used to empower somebody in the workers union of foreign cleaning workers in Iceland. The same goes with words like “ocean acidification”. It’s the biggest word in the world but currently, it means something similar to the word “holocaust”, in the year 1930 versus 1960. Of course, it’s very traumatic to pull out the word “holocaust”, because it’s also kind of frowned upon in rhetoric to refer to that era because it’s an easy pick of horrible things. But that’s a good example of a word that was meaningless. Maybe it was just a conspiracy theory in 1930 versus today when that word is loaded with pain and suffering, and the experience of millions of people. And suddenly, it means something completely different. So the pH level from 8.1 -to 7.7. 0.3 is always small. How do you understand that this is the biggest word in the world, and the most dramatic kind of change of ocean? We don’t really understand its ramifications, and again this shows that we are currently not living in a rational, ethical system. It is causing so much harm. It is actually a criminal thing to cause so much harm to so many people. 

“It’s actually a criminal thing to cause so much harm to so many people.”

The other thing about time is that now we feel like 100 years or eight years ahead, like 2100, is infinite time. Yes it’s long, it’s the future, we can hardly grasp it. But if I talk to my grandmother, and ask her, “are 100 years a long time or short term?”, she says, “a short time”. Our regret will be so great because we’ll feel like yesterday, we could have done something, why didn’t we do it? Because in hindsight, it seems it should have been so easy to change this.

Solvatten: It’s a very striking point. How do we enhance it and to speed up the process of using the right language to understand the climate emergency that we are undergoing?

Andri Magnuson: By writing the book and participating in this big movement, I was hoping I could help train the marathon brains to understand the scale of this. And it is a challenge. How can we speed up understanding? We can’t wait for suffering yet perhaps personal experience and suffering does speed up understanding. But in this case, that is too late. It’s just like you don’t understand an avalanche until it’s falling towards you. It’s a bit too late to understand the elements of snow piling in mountain tops. That is maybe the tragedy, if we don’t understand it. Because we do see it also during the Corona crisis; that even when it was totally burning, hospitals were filling, and people were dying unnecessarily in hospitals, other cities in the world could not translate that even in a two-week timescale. People felt it very abstract and difficult to understand that this will obviously reach us within that timescale.

It wasn’t until the emergency wards were full, that people finally took the precautions that were necessary. But we still have examples of how humanity tackled the ozone layer and how we acted before everyone had skin-cancer. We did do that in a scientific way based on scientific observation. And we can be hopeful, for example, people think Glasgow was a failure. I just remember how short ago it was seen as crazy not to explore for oil in Icelandic grounds. It was the obvious dream of each nation to strike oil and become Norway. We all wanted to become Norway and have a huge oil fund. And that was the symbol of how you wanted your nation to develop. Finally, only now in Iceland, we’re understanding we actually don’t want to find oil, and if we find it, we’re not going to drill it. So you can feel that it is happening, even though it’s slow but it’s very difficult when you’re going against your self-interest. Because if somebody would tell me that books were not good for you, I would ask; “what do you mean, I can’t make books anymore? The books are good for you.” But when you have the basis of economies in Norway or in Australia or somewhere, it becomes very difficult for people to face that, because it’s a tragic fact that your whole system is based on false grounds. But the evil only happens when you start undermining the science and actively, go against the understanding of what is inevitable.

Solvatten: You’ve written something very powerful, what is the readers reactions? Is there something that is particularly surprising to their reactions?

Andri Magnuson: I’m writing very much about my grandmother and that generation. I am happy that the book causes people to reflect on their own generations what they have encountered. I was hoping that people would not read literally about my grandmother, but it would become a symbol of grandmother’s rather than just my own private grandmother. And then, of course, lots of people become quite startled. And they say, “what can we do?” And that’s the big question, you know, like wow, “I read your book, tell me what to do.” Sometimes I’ve actually lacked the clear answer, I tell them “well, you know, the things are all here that we should do. We have to decarbonize, we have to fly less, which is very difficult in Iceland.” If we want to connect to the world, we don’t have trains or land connections with the world, we have to eat less meat, and the list goes on…

So basically, I think the most important thing is to talk to young people. I can say to the the older generation or my friends, that we have to just consume less and electrify and basically change our habits, and vote for people that want to do these changes, because it’s based on system but not individuals. But then the first time I spoke to young people, I was a bit harsh. I kind of presented all the facts. And I could see I was almost turning off the lights in the eyes. I didn’t really know how to talk about it. So I just presented, “okay, the glaciers are resting, this is happening. The sixth extinction, these beautiful animals are dying out”. And I didn’t feel like; “why should I be telling this to young people if I didn’t have any framing of what was their role in this, other than just being too late to the party?” So I started reframing it. And basically telling them also in the light of grandparents, that they’re lucky to be born today. That is, if you look at my grandfather who lost his father when he was 11 and had to start working for his family, and his mother that was sick and his four siblings. If you look at his father, he was not lucky to be born 1890. If you look at somebody born in Europe, 1914, there were huge challenges. Basically everywhere, every generation has had huge challenges. It’s maybe only the last 50 years in a very specific part of the world, that life has been kind of unusually stable. Even with the consequences of having no challenges, that is having this existential crisis of not having any role or meaning in your life, or even a job because the question of having a job is not a question when you are toiling in the fields all day.

So I tell them, “every generation has had its challenge”. And what they are faced with now is that in the next 30 years, it doesn’t matter what they choose in life. If they go into fashion, all fashion has to change, if they go into transportation, all transportation has to change, if they go into energy, all energy has to change. If they go into food, if they go into agriculture, if they go into conservation, if they go to business, all business has to change. And it’s not on some ideological grounds of changing for the sake of change. It’s because the fundamental at stake, because we have to keep the places where they are and we have to keep the water level where it is and prevent, this total imbalance of everything. And that is not essentially, because the science tells us that there are solutions. Even in current technology, we have solutions to solve so many problems, just like you have done with Solvatten, why isn’t that scaled up to 1 million and 2 million in a few years? We have so many solutions already at hand, the only thing we need to do is distribute these solutions and scale them up and scale down the things that are causing the problems.

“We have so many solutions already at hand, the only thing we need to do is distribute these solutions and scale them up and scale down the things that are causing the problems.”

I tell the younger generation that this means that if you look at history, normally you envy people that are alive during times of challenges, especially when they have independence movements and the first female heroes. The heroes of generations of movements. And I say, “sorry guys, this is what you’re into. You’re part of a generation that in 30 years will have to look back at 2020 as almost barbaric times in terms of waste and food and habits and transportation and cars, we would just look back and we’ll just shake our heads because we won’t miss it”. When you have gone through the paradigm shift it’s not like we’re talking about the good old days of slavery. You will get rid of so much that we take for granted today. You will not look back with regrets of missing the cars and the one hour traffic jams in the streets or basically our worst food habits or worst fashion habits. We’ll just shake our heads and just want to understand what we were thinking.

Solvatten: A way for us to preserve our sanity is simply to get on with the job. I mean the biggest challenge for everyone living today is not really about how to save humanity or this lifestyle, but how to preserve sanity in a world that is going insane. You feel it everywhere, a fear about what’s being lost and how to preserve human dignity in the midst of it all.

Andri Magnuson: Greta says, “we want you to panic”, which is of course a provoking sentence, because you should panic when you look at the data. But I think what she’s saying is; “I want you to be professionals”. Because we do have professions within our society. We have firefighters, we have rescue squad. It’s not like if you call 911, that you have to explain the entire thing diminutively. It’s not like you have to prevent that person from hearing somebody might have died, that there might be blood, somebody might be bleeding out, dying. It’s not like you have to spare the person at 911 one to hear this. It’s not like the ambulance driver is like, “oh, don’t tell me the truth because I will just be paralyzed of chock” – no, you would just tell that person the whole truth and he will have be professionally trained to meet very serious circumstances. And that’s what people are doing every day as a profession; meeting horrible circumstances in their daily life as policemen or ambulance drivers or firefighters. I think what Greta is saying is that we have to be professional, get the scientific facts. Okay, it’s horrible. Get that, then let’s get to work and deal with that. 

But then I am happy to hear about Solvatten – as most of the energy and probably the places with the least electricity available currently on the planet are places that also have the most sunlight, and could have the stability of solar power. But still, we are on the state of infancy in terms of capturing solar power.

A positive outlook is that when finally the richer nations start scaling up the capturing of solar energy, it becomes cheaper and more accessible and the technology becomes streamlined and easier for people to work with. I hope that we soon will see how developing nations especially in the south will leap frog over the resources of coal, oil and gas to become rich like the West. It’s not an option for them to take the same path as we did to become rich. There is deep injustice in that; that the West already used that quota. But the West has the moral obligation to be first off coal and oil because they were first in the game. So the hope is that when we scale up the solar solutions, then we will see that people might be able to develop and live a healthy life without going through the phase of coal, oil and gas.

Solvatten: Yes, that is our hope. And that’s what makes all the connections and the collaborations so important. Solutions are out and readily available. We can feel that there is a momentum building up for really systemic change that can also be down on the household level. We can look beyond GDP and grid-electricity and big infrastructure systems. In Iceland you got all this wonderful geothermal energy and you have basically, hot water running for free without any CO2 emissions at all. That’s quite unique.

Andri Magnuson: There are still about 600 million people, I think, in the world that could benefit from geothermal like Iceland does. So there are places that have geothermal, but just because the paradigm of the region was coal and gas, then they left the geothermal unharnessed and went to coal and gas. Just because we didn’t have coal and gas, we are a very young geological country, then this was something that was created in the 1930s in Reykjavik and it’s quite brilliant, forward thinking that they actually did this.

Solvatten: Yes, I’m always looking at hot water, particularly because my children love having a bath and they can spend so long time in the bathtub. That water is coming from burning through carbons. It is like you take a hot shower, and you know, you are kind of showering in CO2 emissions. It would be better to use the energy from the earths core for that.

Solvatten: Any final words for the next generation?

Andri Magnuson: If you’re searching for yourself, just wait 30 years and fix this problem first- of how to sustain the civilization, in harmony with nature. Thanks for connecting and good luck with your work with Solvatten!

Solvatten: Thank you so much for being so helpful and we really do love your book. I found it fascinating and very insightful. So thank you so much!

Andri Snær Magnason is an Icelandic writer and documentary film director. 

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