On Time and Water

Recommendation: Yes, because it is a very different way of discussing climate change

Where to read: Give yourself a weekend in the garden

Read with: Sunburnt Country and Merchants of Doubt

In brief: ‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”’


In part, On Time and Water is a response to the classic problem of people who understand the science not being good at communicating it to lay people, and the people who are good at communicating either working for the devils (because that is where the money is) or not feeling they can speak to the science. In that, Magnason succeeds magnificently. It is gloriously written (or perhaps translated, if you ignore the typos) and a masterclass in storytelling, a stylistic mix of The Overstory and Bill Hayes’ beautiful Insomniac City, part family history, part memoir and part eco-lit.

On Time and Water contains multitudes – it is beautiful and terrifying and lyrical and tragic, both a call to action and a lament. As the title suggests, Magnason writes mostly about time, or rather the climate change-induced collapse of geological time into something observable in a human lifespan, and water, primarily the loss of the world’s glaciers and the impacts of ocean acidification.

It is perhaps unsatisfying from an activist perspective – there are no ‘action items’ emerging from this – but I think it succeeds in making climate change more viscerally comprehensible, counteracting the ‘buzz’ which shuts down the human brain when an idea becomes too big or difficult to grasp. It’s a good companion piece to the kind of work the incomparable Sir David Attenborough is currently doing in making climate change, species loss and conservation more understandable. As Magnason said in an interview:

The idea is that, when you talk about the future, it becomes vague because, of course, the future doesn’t have anything. The future doesn’t have smell, texture, emotions. Like when you hear a word like “ocean acidification,” it’s not connected to anything. It has no cultural significance.

In his effort to deal with this problem of time, and how to conceptualise time and climate impacts, Magnason takes an almost non-scientific, non-rational approach, challenging in particular our tendency to discuss particular ecosystems or species in terms of economic value rather than intrinsic worth. He leans heavily on family history to explain our ongoing connection with, and by extension responsibility for, the world after we ourselves are gone, drawing in particular on the astounding stories of his grandparents’ exploration of Iceland’s now dying glaciers.

Magnason also gives an unusual, but to my mind resonant, framing of the challenge ahead of us. He relays the usual genuinely terrifying projections of where we’ll be in 50 or 100 years if climate change is not addressed, but in terms of the hero’s journey, rather than some impersonal, abstract scientific puzzle. In Magnason’s telling, we are currently living in a time of myth, with grand forces of creation and destruction in play around us and world-ending stakes playing out in our daily lives. In this story there are dragons living under our car bonnets and in our light globes, endless fires of coal and oil we never see burning but which consume the world regardless. In Australia of all places, this vision has particular poignancy.

Space Station Images of Earth at Night Crowdsourced For Science | NASA

On Time and Water is worth reading simply for a different perspective on our slowly, and yet not nearly slowly enough, unfolding disaster, but it is also a profoundly moving story of loss and grief and the experience of being close to something which is already doomed, dying in a hundred years rather than millions. In Magnason’s case, it is Iceland’s glaciers – I imagine someone will write a similar lament for the Great Barrier Reef very shortly.

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