Global sustainability issues take on various forms and the lack of sustainable living has begun to affect our planet. The development of climate change has been a slow process to get where it is today and contrasting reactions from the general public in America have manifested as a result. Climate change and failing to live sustainability has manifested into affecting the weather, seasons, renewable resources, and so much more. However, one aspect to climate change that is often overlooked by the general population is how it affects the Arctic. The Arctic is crucial to the survival of our planet yet it is dying more with each passing day. Why is this happening and why is the general public ignorant to the realities of this situation?
A glaciologist named Dr. M Jackson decided that she wanted to have a deeper understanding of what glaciers specifically hold for humanity. Her memoir While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change details what happens when these glaciers, and the climate in general, changes for the worst and compares the planet’s death to the death of her parents. While her prose, varied sentence structure, and echoing thoughts make for an incredibly engaging read, she is simply scraping the tip of the iceberg. Her book allows readers to become more interested in what is happening to the planet and to motivate people to learn more. M Jackson’s memoir While Glaciers Slept uses a comparison of familial death and climate change to paint a larger image of what climate change is doing our planet, describes how a refusal to move towards a more sustainable way of life can affect us all, and reveals the importance of the Arctic to open up for more large scale conversations about sustainability that needs to be had if we want any chance at surviving on Earth.
While Glaciers Slept jumps between the death of M Jackson’s parents to her experiences with the Arctic. On one hand, it keeps the reader engaged and interested to see how these two ideas are connected. On the other hand, this is a comparison Jackson is making between the two ideas. Jackson understands that “death is almost unbearably common, as much as it is, simultaneously, almost unimaginable for each of us as individuals” (Jackson, 18), which is why she is trying to get us all to reach an understanding whether we have personally experienced death or not. She levels the playing field by introducing us all to the heartbreaking loss that she experiences through the death of her parents to simultaneously introduce us to the idea that our planet is dying.
Unlike novels such as Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, Jackson doesn’t have the mindset that the planet is inevitably doomed. Instead, she has a more optimistic approach. Jackson says that even though we haven’t “envisioned a clear future with climate change”, that doesn’t mean that we can’t change the future for the planet (Jackson, 20). Even though she’s optimistic, Jackson still has a deep understanding of what is happening and isn’t ignorant about reality. There a few big questions Jackson doesn’t quite dive into the big question that is relevant to her message about climate change which is what are some of the things people, or more specifically American, do that is so detrimental to our planet?
One of the big detrimental actions that a vast majority of Americans continue to do is remain in denial. Denialism affects the planet in insurmountable ways by keeping up with an unsustainable way of life while also limiting policy changes to help the environment. Denialism has become more prevalent due to the extensive ways people can interact now and due to leadership. The leadership roles in our American society fail to “address the systemic factors causing climate change” and lead to people living in blissful ignorance (Petersen, 120). However, there are actually different levels of this denialism that range from full literal denial to techno-optimism.
Literal denial can be translated as ignoring “the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is occurring” (Petersen, 122). This denial feeds off of the opinions raised by the public and stalls the creation of policies geared towards sustainable living. One example of a literal denier would be companies engaged in fossil fuels such as ExxonMobil (Petersen, 122). These companies make a lot off of fossil fuels and prioritize their income over the safety of the planet. It’s easy for anyone to point fingers and call companies such as ExxonMobil “the bad guys” but M Jackson takes a different approach.
Rather than condemning, she takes the opportunity to enlighten and teach in a way that is different than shoving the “our planet is endanger” speech down our collective throats nor does she ramble about how glaciers are endangered. She instills humanity into these glaciers and brings them to life, which allows readers to have a better understanding. Jackson humanizes these glaciers by explaining how “people need glaciers, just as glaciers now need us. Sudden crevasses in our lives can leave us helpless and alone, but we are never isolated for long. What makes up a glacier, I remember, is millions and millions of little snowflakes, reaching out to one another, grasping hands” (page 56).
When we think of glaciers, we may just think of giant piles of ice and snow. Jackson takes the very element that makes up these giant glaciers, snowflakes, and forces us to see how these snowflakes are inherently our American society. We are the snowflakes that, no matter how small we may be or may feel, make up something so much larger. Our existence isn’t limited to ourselves; we have a bigger responsibility and that is creating this “glacier”. This metaphorical glacier can be a multitude of things but one observation is that this glacier we are making up is a sustainable way of life because, without it, we cannot survive. We also cannot create this “glacier” alone and so these snowflakes are “reaching out to one another” to support one another in this endeavor.
Despite glaciers being in pretty bad shape, Jackson reminds us that not all hope is lost. Nearly every detrimental action humanity has done to the planet can be undone if given the time and commitment. In an interview, Jackson told her audience that “I think we can save our world’s ice and I work each day doing original research, advocacy and communication” (Ice Ice Baby: Glaciologist Dr M Jackson Interview). Through her advocacy, she hopes to change the opinions of deniers and those who live in ignorance since forming a collective understanding is the only way we have a hope of changing our current situation. While Jackson does take a fairly proactive approach to dealing with denial, there is a real trend in this denial of climate change.
The majority of deniers were found in white, conservative United States males which specifically were part of an idea called petro-masculinity. Petro-masculinity can be defined as a group that has “a set of related beliefs, emotions, and behaviors that are based in and manifest as a combination of racism, misogyny, and climate change denial” (Nelson). Nelson posits that the reason for this denial among this given demographic is due to the idea that they are more privileged than other demographics and therefore become “comfortable maintaining higher levels of overall risk acceptance” (Nelson). This comfort of risk acceptance obviously doesn’t just put them at risk but every single human on the planet, even if everyone else is actively trying to prevent risks.
There are stages to this planetary denial, the first stage being a denial that the problem we have even exists since it’s the easiest thing to do when faced with a problem we deem inconvenient (Nuccitelli, 2013). The second stage is denying the root of the problem: us. Someone realizing that they are part of a larger issue is a difficult reality to swallow but something that has to be realized in order to change to come about. The third stage is denying that climate change and what we’re doing to the planet is actually a problem. The final stages are the denial that we can reasonably fix these issues and then the idea that it’s too late to do anything (Nuccitelli, 2013). Considering this idea of “it’s too late”, there’s something Jackson touches upon in While Glaciers Slept that is quite interesting to consider.
Jackson mentions Gliese 581g on page 34, which is a planet that is theorized to be 20 light years away from Earth and could potentially sustain human life (Howell, 2016). While there’s also Gliese 581c and d, Jackson purpose of mentioning these theorized planets is to bring up a larger issue: the idea of Earth 2. Earth 2 is the idea where we leave our current planet for a different one due to the idea that we’ve irreversibly destroyed it and it isn’t worth the time, money, or energy to fix what we’ve done. There’s a lot of question that arise in relation to this Earth 2 idea: What does Earth 2 have that our current planet doesn’t have? Wouldn’t we just destroy Earth 2 like our original Earth?
At the end of her section on this Earth 2 idea, Jackson says that “scientists say that we can’t see Gliese 581g from Earth with the naked eye. It’s in the Libra constellation, but we can’t see it. We have to trust it’s there. But, if you happened to be standing on Gliese 581g, you could look over your shoulder and see our sun easily” (Jackson, 35). Jackson is trying to tell us that, even if there is an Earth 2 somewhere out there in the stars, we cannot run from our past planet and what has become of it. She’s telling us that there is hope for change and that running away won’t make our problems go away; we’ll just end up carrying those problems to a new place even if we’re running for the sheer reason of not bringing those problems back. Earth 2 is fascinating in theory but horrible in practice since we wouldn’t be able to have the means to implement new ways of live on Earth 2 if we can’t even do it on Earth 1.
If running away to this possibly fictious planet won’t work and denial won’t work, what can we possibly do? One of the major things that we can do as a community is to understand what is truly becoming of our home planet and what we can do to fix it. Jackson specifically advocates for the health of the Arctic because of how much we don’t collectively understand about the Artic and because of how much it does for us even if we don’t realize it. Most people hear about how the Arctic is heating up and ice is melting rapidly but how does it affect us and why should we care?
One way it affects every person on the planet is by the methane gas it gives off when melting. Methane is stored under the permafrost and is extremely detrimental to the ozone layer of our planet (Howell, 2016). This methane only accelerates the preexisting global warming the planet faces and adds to the already melting Arctic landscape (Howell, 2016). There is also the concept of Arctic Oscillation which can be defined as the “atmospheric circulation pattern over the mid-to-high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere” (Dahlman, 2009). Combining the rapidly melting Arctic with Arctic Oscillation creates a direct impact on the United States that manifests as colder winters and hotter summers. These two actions intermingling forces Americans to see the direct impact of global warming through the weather.
Another way that the Arctic affects the United States is due to sea levels rising. Everyone understands that ice is just frozen water, so when that ice in the Arctic melts due to global warming that humanity has caused, it creates more water and therefore raises the sea levels. The sea level has gained seven to eight inches since 1900 and the continuous rise of the sea level today puts cities residing on coasts and island nations to be at risk (Hancock). Flooding and dangerous storms become more common as the sea levels rise, which puts people and economies in danger. One possibility if humanity doesn’t begin to move towards a more sustainable way of living is the glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland to begin melting. If they were to melt entirely, the sea level is predicted to rise to around twenty feet, which would be extremely detrimental for everyone on Earth (Hancock).
The Arctic melting away also has huge impacts on wildlife. Animals such as polar bears and snowy owls depend on the permafrost and are faced with a choice: adapting or dying (Hancock). For polar bears, it means that there is a large impact on the amount of fat they can store since food starts to become rarer to find (Arctic Climate Change). The ice is how polar bears are able to travel from one land mass to the other with ease. If humanity’s way of life isn’t changed soon, “polar bears are unlikely to survive as a species” and would result in “significant and rapid consequences for the ecosystems that they currently occupy” (Arctic Climate Change).
The last significant impact the Arctic has on Americans is how it affects what we eat. As previously stated, the Arctic affects the weather everyone feels across the globe. With this change in temperature comes the impact is has on crops. “Polar vortexes, increased heat waves, and unpredictability of weather caused by ice loss” change how crops grow and for how long (Hancock). This, of course, then impacts how expensive food becomes and the amount of food there is.
The Arctic seems to be in a cyclical loop of being warmed by multiple outside sources and being warmed by itself melting, which is a realization leading climatologist Jason Box realized one day. Unlike Jackson, Box is very outspoken about what is happening to the environment even if it’s difficult to hear. Specifically, he discussed the “darker possibilities on the curve’s tail” and allowed fear to show through to the public (Richardson, 2018). Box admitted the possibility of the carbon from the sea floor located in the Arctic releasing and expressed fearfully how utterly detrimental it would be for every person on Earth. His reason for this was to express the reality of the situation instead of covering it up like most scientists in his field.
Now there’s a question of which route is better: being honest about the situation even if it strikes fear into the hearts of humanity like Box did or gradually introduce new ideas of the situation to the public like Jackson does? The answer for this depends on each individual and there cannot be a generalized answer to this. One positive to Box’s approach is that his audience knows he won’t “beat around the bush,” so to speak. A positive of Jackson’s is that she calmly, respectfully, and gradually starts to introduce the idea to her audience, specifically on the topic of Arctic and glaciers.
All of these affects the Arctic has for us is something Jackson is trying to get her readers to understand. Glaciers and the Arctic have so much importance for humanity that isn’t common knowledge. She has grown to understand these important aspects and fights to educate and bring awareness to them in order to save them. It’s not just what Jackson talks about that’s important but it’s the way she expresses her thoughts. While Glaciers Slept shares Jackson’s messages in a unique way through the way she wrote it.
While reading her memoir, one may notice that she is overly descriptive. She uses phrases such as “jumping, surging, pouring,” which does a few different things (Jackson, 38). One of the things it does specifically in this section of the book is it restores life into the planet despite the fact that she’s talking about the death of it. It introduces the idea that the planet is still very much alive through it all. Jackson brings this idea to our attention to allow us to see that there’s still hope for change and revitalization. Another thing that these descriptive sentences do is it brings the readers to her. It paints vivid pictures in our minds of what she may be seeing and gives us the opportunity to see the world through her eyes. The other thing it does is it provides concrete and active verbs to what her audience reads.
All of these aspects gives Jackson’s memoir an almost lyrical feel to it. Jackson doesn’t just describe her experiences with glaciers and her environmental travels; she makes the words sing off of the page. It could almost be compared to how an epic is written. This style of writing not only helps readers to quickly flow through her ideas but also allows for other ideas to manifest within the text.
Within this lyrical prose lies one very important aspect, which is Jackson’s themes. There is a distinct theme of healing and a thematic manifestation of that healing. While Glaciers Slept starts with the death of her mother and eventually touches upon the death of her father but as Jackson continues, it moves away from death and focuses on life and healing. She talks about how there’s still hope through uncertainty both in regards to her father’s cancer and as an allusion to the planet. “We know what the problem is. We don’t have a solution, or answers. There are some temporary measures, some promising ideas, some huge forward leaps and a few crippling losses. But the take-home message here is that Dad hasn’t given up, nor has my family” (Jackson, 214).
This is a powerful statement that Jackson’s readers can all relate to even if they haven’t had a parent suddenly pass. We all know what our problem is regarding climate change and global warming. However, there isn’t a simple solution to solving the issue nor are there any straightforward answers for what we can do. We can do some simple things to prolong it for now, we have heard some great ideas, but there’s nothing concrete yet. However, Jackson tries to show through her fathers’ death that, as long as we don’t lose hope, there is still a chance. It’s the healing of herself and the hope of healing the planet humanity resides on.
It’s very apparent that Jackson uses her parent’s deaths as a way to describe the death of the environment. For Jackson, her parent’s deaths seemed far off and not worth focusing too much on which is something that can also be said for Earth. When one thinks about Earth’s death, one thinks that it isn’t happening anytime soon. It’s normal to think that the planet will die thousands and thousands of years after our own deaths when that simply isn’t the correct way of thinking about the Earth. The fact of the matter is that no one know exactly when the planet is going to die but we do know it will happen. Why accept death when there’s something that could actually be done to prevent it? While Jackson couldn’t prevent the cancer her parents faced, she does understand that we can prevent the death of the planet.
While Glaciers Slept also uses “simple” language, which is language that almost every reader can easily understand. Even though the language is simple, there are still complex sentences and still pushes a very strong message about the planet. Jackson realized that using overly complicated vocabulary won’t help get her message across more but actually hinder her readers from understanding her point and limit who can actually read her text. Her simple language combined with her back and forth between death and the planet gives us something different than most texts which is personability.
When it comes to most sustainability texts, readers are typically met with difficult language and depressing factoids. Jackson instead takes a different approach. Jackson gives readers the chance to switch from her personal memoir with her parent’s death to her experiences with the environment. She brings her audience along on this personal, intimate journey. Jackson coherently communicates her experiences and makes it extremely digestible in regards to understanding climate change and how it occurs.
Her thoughts towards climate change echo throughout the text, which could be debated as a hindrance. However, considering Jackson’s prose, it’s actually quite helpful. Without this echo being ever present throughout her narrative, readers could tend to forget what they’re actually reading and the message she’s trying to instill. Jackson doesn’t want to alienate us from her message, so she continues to remind us what she wants readers to get out of her memoir and uses simplistic language to further prevent alienating us.
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