The End of Ice

by Caspar Henderson

Revelations about the speed of climate change took off at a gallop in the first weeks of 2019. A new study has determined that the rate of ice loss in Greenland has increased fourfold since 2003. “The research,” noted The Guardian, “provides fresh evidence of the dangers posed to vulnerable coastal places as diverse as Miami, Shanghai, Bangladesh and various Pacific islands. ”  And, observed The New York Times, the new study “is the latest in a series of papers published this month suggesting that scientific estimates of the effects of a warming planet have been, if anything, too conservative.” Just a few days before, a separate study of ice loss in Antarctica found that the continent is losing six times more mass than it was four decades ago.

And there’s more. Another new study published this month has found that the oceans are warming far faster than earlier estimates. This will contribute to further sea level rise and likely cause major changes in ocean chemistry and ecology.

Keeping up and making sense of all this is as challenging as ever. In about 2010, Timothy Morton the critic coined the term ‘hyperobject’ to describe matters that are so big and far reaching that they elude our metaphorical and conceptual lexicon. He had climate change in mind, and the term may have its uses. But, I think, it is vital to try to appreciate what is changing and what is being lost in very specific, non-generalised ways: to pay attention to the details. And in this regard, another kind of work published this month is helpful. Dahr Jamal’s The End of Ice (excerpted here) is directed at the general reader, and it is worth slowing down a little to read. Jamal writes:

Modern life has compressed time and space. You can traverse the globe in a matter of hours, or gain information in nanoseconds. The price for this, along with everything we want, on demand, all the time, is a total disconnection from the planet that sustains our lives.

As a result of this disconnection we fail to appreciate that:

swathes of the natural world are, in the blink of a geological eye, falling into oblivion.

Jamal’s aim is to help his readers to see and feel  rapid change and loss in some of the places he loves best, which in his case are the glaciers and high mountains where he has spent much of his life. Other artist and authors are trying to do this too. Two fine examples are Nancy Campbell’s fine  The Library of Ice and Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, which will be published in May, and which includes some of the most transcendent and powerful writing about Greenland in recent years.

Back in 2014 the philosopher Thomas Metzinger wrote that the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming “seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species.” He predicted that during the next decades “we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings.”  The view would seem to accord with the track record: since 2005 total global greenhouse-gas emissions have most closely tracked the worse case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But the show is not over. Responding at Perspectiva Jonathan Rowson has observed

Failing is not the same as failed, and it is sometimes wise to accept limitations, yet there is hope in Metzinger’s premise — “the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”. Those abilities of our species are not fixed. We know, as well as we know anything, that human beings can grow and change for the better. We also know that is deeply rewarding but difficult.

Metzinger would surely agree. In an essay published on Aeon around this time of year in 2018 he wrote

The real challenge is not climate change as such; the true problems humankind must confront are the inbuilt features of our very own minds, such as systematic rationality and empathy deficits, self-deception, and the extreme vulnerability of the inner mechanisms creating mental autonomy.

Vital to building any mechanisms for mental autonomy is regaining control over one’s sense of attention. Perspectiva Associate Dan Nixon argues (on Aeon and InsideOut ) that:

most effective of all… is simply to return to an embodied, exploratory mode of attention, just for a moment or two, as often as we can throughout the day. Watching our breath, say, with no agenda. In an age of fast-paced technologies and instant hits, that might sound a little … underwhelming. But there can be beauty and wonder in the unadorned act of ‘experiencing’

And it can be possible to bring greater attention and awareness to what one shares in community and action with others. In a post on the importance of reconciliation, the geographer Jem Bendell writes:

I envision seeing whole neighbourhoods and camps of people spontaneously singing and dancing together of their pure joy of experiencing all sensations of life, both during and between working together on useful tasks. Not because they are singing from habit, custom, obligation, or recreation, but because they are so connected to the wonder of experiencing life while serving life.

In The End of Ice, Dahr Jamal celebrates the approach of someone half a world away:

I am heartened by people like my friend Karina Miotto in Brazil, who has devoted her entire life to protecting the Amazon. Each time a report is published about increased deforestation in her beloved rainforest, I watch Karina become consumed in grief. But each time, she goes deeper within herself and her community, further strengthening her love for that portion of the planet where she lives, and repurposes herself into her next action to protect the Amazon. I find solace in the fact that there are millions of others like Karina, particularly among the younger generations, who have drawn their lines around their respective portions of the planet closest to their hearts and are making their stands.

In the struggle to reduce the risks of dangerous climate change, or adapt to them, the wisdom and courage of those we love, and others we may never know, could be our greatest resource.

Caspar Henderson @casparhenderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Image: Cyanometer of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure and Alexander von Humboldt. Credit Kirsten Carlson. Source Amusing Planet

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