November has arrived and I’m still wearing short-sleeved T-shirts, I get pictures of people swimming, I walk into a sporting goods store and look hesitantly at the winter clothing department: am I really going to need all this stuff? Just three months ago we were looking worriedly at the sea water that had pushed into the Po as far as forty kilometers from the coast because of the drought. We are getting used to look at cold weather as a few weeks’ phenomenon, no longer able to span at least an entire season.
The reality of climate change is becoming so limpid as to silence any hint of denialism, even if it is the least of the problems. The most important point, I think, is to note that the present climate change is still not being followed by a change in human behavior, and when it does occur, it is still too much a matter of individual common sense, certainly not the result of radical collective decisions. It is not central to the media’s agenda setting and was not central in our country’s last election campaign either.
These days I have been reading On Time and water by Andri Snæ Magnason. The further I went, the more I needed to take breaks, I was reading too many important testimonies, marking on the margin of the pages a lot of questions, and conflicting thoughts were crowding in my head. This usually happens with good books.
Starting in his own little Iceland, Magnason takes us on a walk through the folds of our planet, making us dream in descriptions of glaciers and volcanoes (shocking how ice and fire marry on Icelandic soil) and drawing possible and near futures. Magnason’s travels have included interviews with the Dalai Lama and reflections on China’s real estate bubble, endangered crocodiles and suffering coral reefs, surgeons who operated Oppenheimer and Andy Warhol, Nordic legends, heads of state deaf to planetary emergencies, worrying thermometers and plastic beaches.
A wonderful hybrid of stories, science popularization, poetry and investigative journalism with a great protagonist, the planet, and two pivotal themes carved into the title. At the exact moment I put my copy back in the bookshelf, I felt compelled to write these lines. This is certainly not a review, this is rather an attempt to water Magnason’s words and give continuity to what I absorbed: water and time, the two of them again.
What do we know about climate change today?
If indeed today’s seven billion will become ten by the end of the century and the average temperature will rise by more than two degrees, it means that today’s public debate is more polluted than the air. We continue to think as people and not as a human species. I am not going to list here the possible scenarios that until a few years ago were featured only in science fiction movies; one only has to look at the dangers of Venice to hear a ringing from the future.
Yet there is an apathy swirling around climate change. I feel interest, but only to a certain extent. I can’t get all that upset, despite the drying rivers, increasingly long summers, and the few (and devastating) storms that cause deaths and millions in damage.
There is a very strong expression Magnason uses to name this apathy, and it is “white noise,” a background hum that one can live with without too much fuss.
Even assuming virtuous behaviors and good habits, in the long run, is likely to be frustrating, when all it takes is a war between two nations thousands of miles apart to unleash a ripple effect that leads to doubling the output of the coal-fired power plant on my doorstep. Thinking as people and not as a species leads to these consequences.
Back to the buzz. How to turn up the volume and transform it into an alarm?
I have this flaw. Whenever I am faced with a complex problem, I immediately look toward a school. It may be because I work there or because I have always believed in the power of good education, but I stand firm on the belief that that is where most of our problems come from (and are solved).
Do we want to create a new climate awareness? Take geography, for example. The current state of affairs brings us to two basic problems: climate and water, always the two of them. On the former we have a merciless picture. Students usually spend two hours a week taking geography class in middle schools, while high schools and technical colleges have seen the horrible mutation of geohistory, a downgrade nice and proper left there only as a conscience scruple and not as a subject that is part of the backbone of the student’s education. Side note: past the two years of high school, you lose track of geohistory in almost every major, resulting in having to zipper through two years of the very few topics you manage to study.
Water, on the other hand, is a kind of symbol. The way the subject is set up in compulsory education, it becomes essential to know all the tributaries of some river by heart instead of understanding how a glacier works. I read audits in which students know the exact population density of England but cannot explain why it is higher in some areas than others. A filing activity devoid of any reasoning.
That’s where the buzzing comes from. From the cuts, from the things learned by rote, from the stubborn renunciation of why.
The generation that sits on school desks today is much more aware than mine who did not sort in the classroom and perceived the proper length of all four seasons. It would be enough not to corrupt it, but to water it with knowledge modeled on the news from the world, the questions of the future.
Time and water are still there, but the volume needs to be turned up.