K Paoletter 10: Ice Floes


Once upon a time, the arctic was magisterial. About the glaciers of West Greenland, the great essayist Barry Lopez wrote: “When I saw them, it was as though I had been waiting quietly for a very long time, as if for an audience with the Dalai Lama.” In Arctic Dreams, Lopez’ chronicle of the 5 years he spent traveling the Arctic in the 1970s and 80s, he likens these glaciers to “a mountainous architecture of ascetic contemplation.” “It was as if they had been borne down from a world of myth,” he marvels, “some Götterdämmerung of noise and catastrophe. Fallen pieces of the moon.” Obsessed with the region’s baffling “ability to transcend whatever we would make of it,” Lopez observes that “the land as far as you can see is rung with a harmonious authority, the enduring force of its natural history.”

Lopez was, to put the case lightly, smitten. Arctic Dreams is a an unnerving book to pick up now, capturing as it does a landscape that has by and large already passed into history. The West Greenland ice sheet that so entranced Lopez is melting at a faster rate than at any time in recorded history. Polar bears, animals whose ability to live and hunt off sea ice floored Lopez, are now often seen emaciated, clinging to floats in open water and offered up by photojournalists as visceral reminders of the plight of northern species. The Arctic, today, is no longer “rich with metaphor, with adumbration.” Instead, it is withering.

Lopez’ ignorance of the coming catastrophe is easy enough to chalk up to his book’s age— Arctic Dreams was published in 1984, after all. How could he have known? Well, as Nathaniel Rich demonstrates in “Losing Earth,” his issue-long report that constituted the The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, the science, by the mid-80s, was clear. The scientist Roger Revelle had made a report to Lyndon Johnson about the greenhouse effect as early as 1965, Rich points out, and over the course of his article he describes the coalescing of scientific opinion that continued over the next two decades. This process culminated in the 1979 issuance of “Carbon Dioxide and Climate” by a group of scientists led by the meteorologist Jule Charney, which predicted that global temperatures were liable to rise by three degrees Celsius over the next half century. The publication “was not accompanied by a banquet, a parade or even a news conference,” Rich writes, “Yet within the highest levels of the federal government, the scientific community and the oil-and-gas industry— within the commonwealth of people who had begun to concern themselves with the future habitability of the planet— the Charney report would come to have the authority of settled fact.”

Rich relates the efforts of the environmental activist Rafe Pomerance and the geophysicist Gordon MacDonald to publicize the findings of the Charney report: they prevailed upon then-Senator Al Gore to hold a trailblazing hearing on the subject in 1982, and capitalized on the outcry over the hole torn in the ozone layer by industrial cooling agents known as CFCs to generate support for stemming greenhouse gas emissions. By 1987, three years after the passage of an international treaty limiting the use of CFCs, “it had become conventional wisdom that climate change would follow ozone’s trajectory.” As Rich adeptly demonstrates in his astonishing, necessary article, that conventional wisdom was grievously wrong.

Perhaps Lopez missed the news stories about the hearings, or the scientists he was dog-sledding around Baffin Island with simply weren’t well versed on the subject. Whatever the case, that lack of any mention of climate change makes Arctic Dreams a curious document. It is perhaps the last book to approach the subject of the Arctic with a perspective of any kind of permanence, and is best read as an artifact encapsulating a vast, vanishing ecosystem and mankind’s heroic attempts to survive within in.

Oh, but what a history it is! Lopez covers everything from the equation of narwhals with unicorns by medieval fishermen— “because you have seen something doesn’t mean you can explain it”— to the several varieties of a muskox’s hair that form its “pelage.” He eventually turns his attention to humans, too, and though he is often admiring of the European explorers who came to the region in search of the Northwest Passage, he reserves his greatest reverence for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, writing that “land does for them what architectures sometimes does for us. It provides a sense of place, of scale, of history; and a conviction that what they most dread— annihilation, eclipse— will not occur.”

This, of course, is a faulty assurance. And though Lopez never directly addresses climate change, he does seem to sense the landscape devolving. He notes that “one cannot change the historical fact that the air is no longer clear in some places,” and takes it upon himself to visit the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, a stretch of Alaska “wretched with the hopes of cheap wealth” amd festooned with “muscular equipment sitting idle like slouched fists in oil-stained yards.”

Lopez calls the exploitation of the bay “no business of mine” and is relieved to depart the scene “for another world entirely, the world of science, a gathering of data for calculations and consultations.” Lopez’ is a classic forest-for-the-trees problem: even as he develops extensive expertise on the conditions on the ground, he is unable (or unwilling) to pay attention to the likes of Charney and MacDonald who were telling everyone who would listen that all those data points when taken together showed that the center could not hold.

I do not begrudge Lopez his failure to heed the doomsayers. Instead, I am glad to have his book as a record of the Arctic that is melting away, day by day, and comforted by the wisdom of his observations. “What every culture must decide,” he writes of both the indigenous peoples of the region and the colonizers who harvest its resources, “actively debate and decide, is what of all that surrounds it, tangible and intangible, it will dismantle and turn into material wealth.” How marvelous it would be to live in the world Lopez imagines, where debates are had and decisions made. Instead, our capacity to dismantle without thought has proved infinite, and the damage we have wrought is only beginning to be felt.

When the twin bombshells of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea and Paul Manafort’s guilty verdict dropped last week, I was in the midst of catching up on season one of Slow Burn, the Slate podcast that seeks to recreate the experience of living through Watergate. Funny coincidence, that. In Slow Burn, the reporter Leon Neyfakh uses archival footage, historical research, and interviews with contemporaries to capture the methodical progression of the scandal. The timeline he lays out is dramatically more complicated than the “Nixon was a crook; he got caught” summation that lives on in the popular imagination, and Neyfakh makes a special point of demonstrating how loyal Nixon’s supporters and political allies remained until the release of the final tape proving he directed the cover-up. For those of us wondering how the current president’s party can stand the madness, the historical parallels Neyfakh draws are somewhere between enervating and encouraging; either way, his podcast proves an enlightening retreat from the history that’s been unfolding on our Twitter feeds for the past two years.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me @KPaoletta, or maybe not, since we’d all be better served by putting our phones down to savor the waning warmth of summer.

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