Thursday, 1 August 2019

Iceland's Letter to the Future

In his Icelandic Diary for 20 August 1871, Morris expressed his enthusiasm at arriving in Burgfirth, in the west of the country: ‘Burgfirth, I may mention in case you forget it, or are hazy about your saga geography, is one of the great centres of story in Iceland’; and he then lists some of the important saga-steads around.  But the immediate environment impinged intensely on him too.  After climbing the ‘Burg’, ‘I sat there in excited mood for some time … southward lay the firth, quite calm and bright, those great mountains reflected in it with all detail, and over their shoulder the bright white jokuls are to be seen from here’.  Those jokuls, or glaciers, had impressed him a day or two earlier as well: ‘Taking his position high up on the west bank of Langá, the author has swept the country with his eye, east-ward to Long Jokul and Ball Jokul’.

In our epoch of climate emergency, Iceland’s glaciers are fast vanishing; and the first of them, Okjökull, close to Borgafjördur (Morris’s Burgfirth), has now officially ‘died’.  So much of this glacier has melted that it no longer fits the definition of what constitutes a glacier, thereby losing its ‘jökull’ suffix and being demoted to just plain ‘Ok’. This symbolic moment will be marked with a plaque in the form of a ‘Letter to the Future’, acknowledging that we understand the current climate crisis in which we live but that only you, the future reader, will know whether we ever adequately addressed it in practice.

This is a sombre monument, certainly; but do we fully understand that crisis?  If we stick to the ubiquitous new term which is being used to characterise our epoch – the Anthropocene – then we surely do not.  We shall need something much politically sharper than that to focus our minds and wills; and I’m sure that Morris, as both jökull-enthusiast and socialist activist, would be fully behind us in a necessary semantic switch from the Anthropocene to the ‘Capitalocene’.


Tony Pinkney said...

See Jason Moore's excellent analysis of what's at stake in the choice of 'Anthropocene' or 'Capitalocene' as a global term for our times:

Tony Pinkney said...

What does it mean to mourn a glacier? See Mourning has so many contemporary theoretical and political meanings that I think I will soon have to devote a blog post to it!