Philippe's Reviews > On Time and Water

On Time and Water by Andri Snær Magnason
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bookshelves: ecology, futures-thinking, geopoetics

It is undeniable that we, as a planetary society, are faced with a tipping point. We have now seven decades of Great Acceleration behind us, reflected in the exponential increase in a wide range of socioeconomic and earth system parameters including population, economic activity, greenhouse gas emissions, and natural resource usage. 'Climate change' is shorthand for a multi-layered shift in equilibrium of the Earth's whole biosphere in response to this escalating human impact. According to the IPCC we are offered a time window of just a few decades to effectuate a massive reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere in order to keep heating from turning into an existential threat to humanity (IPCC 2014). However, despite the seriousness of our predicament, we have not been able to commit ourselves to decisive action.

Andri Snaer Magnason is likely correct in advancing the hypothesis that we, as human beings, simply lack an intellectual and affective predisposition to facilitate a grasp of the enormous change that is befalling us. Bureaucratese doesn't mobilise and neither do the logarithmic scales that underpin the scientific messaging on climate-related shifts. A 0.1 unit change in acidity of our oceans seems innocuous but hides a massive impact on marine biota. So we need new language, imagery and narratives to pierce through the numbing abstraction of the long-term, the non-linear and the colossal.

In Time and Water Magnason attempts to shake us from our mass apathy through a form of storytelling that weaves together five elements: brute facts, reverence for the abundance that is still left, transgenerational affective relations, cross-cultural myths, and spiritual leadership.

Brute facts: this book contains a number of startling statistics that may give the reader a jolt. Did you know that fifty per cent of the CO2 in the atmosphere is due to emissions since 1990? Or that China used more cement in each of the three years after 2004 than the US used throughout the whole twentieth century? Or that the warming of the oceans is on a scale equivalent to the detonation of four Hiroshima bombs per second? These factoids are framed to make the unfathomable scale of human impact on earth slightly more apprehendable.

Reverence: much has been lost in the past decades but there is still a lot of benign, heartbreaking beauty left in this world. Magnason treats us to a number of mesmerising stories about journeys to some of the most enchanting places on this planet, including his native Iceland. Today we can still experience glaciers and coral reefs but future generations may not any longer share that privilege.

Love: if today one would have a 10-year old daughter who would live to reach an average developed country life expectancy, she will still be alive in 2100. Sounds like science fiction, right? It's an invitation to take the long-term view when contemplating the impacts of our actions or non-actions today. The same applies when we look at the past. Magnason weaves in lots of stories taken down from his living ancestors. They are still here to bear witness of the tremendous change that has taken place over the past century. Their world has already been irretrievably lost. And the real tipping point is still upon us. Will future generations even be capable to imagine the world that we are inhabiting today?

Myths: we have preserved few of our sacred ancient mythologies that keep alive the bond between humankind and its planetary habitat. According to the author, this book took shape in response to a call from the sacred cow Audhumla, the cradle of the world, who has a sister in India, Kamadhenu. Norse and Hindy mythology partake of a similar pattern. Magnason transposes this to our present time and personifies the mighty glaciers of the Himalaya as the life-bringing source of water for more than a billion people in Central and South Asia. These glaciers are doomed to disappear and with them the source of sustenance for a significant part of humanity. Apprehending and revitalising these age old cultural archetypes may rekindle our sense of stewardship for this earth.

Spiritual leadership: one thread through the book is Magnason's encounter with the Dalai Lama. He interviewed His Holiness in Iceland and was subsequently invited to meet the Tibetan leader at his residence in Dharamsala. Their conversations reveal a man who has the pulse of our time and, suprisingly, confesses to a secular morality based on "common sense, shared experience and the latest scientific research." It's the shared experience that bakes the compassion into our DNA: "That's how compassion is borne in our blood; now the time has come to tend it, to cultivate not only material things and the intellect, but to nurture the heart. When warm-heartedness merges with wisdom, society will become stronger, more fortunate and more affectionate. Problems will decrease; when they do appear, we can solve them collectively."

in Time and Water Andri Magnason valiantly attempts to break through our lethargy and re-establish a sensitive and intelligent contact with the world around us. In a way the book seeks to rekindle various manifestations of desire, as the ancient Greeks experienced them: Eros, as the desire for something in the future; Pothos as a longing for something in the past, and Himeros, a desire for that which lies in the present. We have the ingredients here for a new cosmogony, a reinvention, or rather recreation, of our world from the ground up in order to find our way into abundant futures as yet unimagined. The stakes are high. Do we want to be seen as the generation that was handed paradise and wilfully destroyed it?
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 1, 2020 – Shelved
October 1, 2020 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Joannes (new)

Joannes Vandermeulen thank you for this review.

"sacred ancient mythologies that keep alive the bond between humankind and its planetary habitat" should be updated to be as appealing as sci-fi based on advanced technologies that remove us from our singular bodies and habitat. Woe us, but we may lack the "affective predisposition" to do to this.


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