Written March 30, 2020
Global sustainability issues take on various forms and the lack of sustainable living by American citizens and 1st world citizens alike 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 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 the way the points resonate on multiple levels throughout the memoir 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 to our planet. She also 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 connects the death of M Jackson’s parents to her experiences with the Arctic. On one hand, her way of telling her memoir keeps the reader engaged and interested to see how these two ideas are connected. On the other hand, Jackson is comparing how the death of the planet is similar to the death of a loved one. 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 of how impactful the death of a loved one can be 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 are a few big questions Jackson doesn’t quite dive into that allow for further outside research if the reader of her memoir is curious to learn about in their own time. 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 continuing 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 of what is currently happening to the planet we inhabit (Petersen, 120). However, there are actually different levels of this denialism that range from full 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 in danger” 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 similar to 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 a metaphorical “glacier”. This glacier can be a multitude of things from coming together to give our planet “a fighting chance” to even just being a community that is generally there for each other, but one observation is that this glacier we are making up is a sustainable way of life because, without it, we cannot survive (Jackson, 56). 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). 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 within white, conservative United States males that specifically were part of an idea called petro-masculinity by Joshua Nelson. Petro-masculinity can be defined by Nelson 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.” He 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 environmental risks such as “drought and ocean acidification” (Jackson, 3).
There are stages to planetary denial, the first stage being a denial that the problem we have even exists since denial is 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. An American citizen 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 there’s 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’s 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 mindset 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 questions 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 learn how to live sustainably and safely 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. One point that Jackson brings up within her memoir is how there is a “glacial phenomenon where the ice vaporizes instead of melting,” which also encourages the detrimental effects of the shrinking Arctic (48). Most people hear about how the Arctic is heating up and how the 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 the methane gas the Arctic 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. Jackson explains the changes to “the foundation of the surrounding landscapes, the regularity of the weather” in regards to her parents becoming terminally ill which also plays as a parallel to the state of the planet after being impacted by humanity (6).
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. Jackson explains how crowds of people “exchange news about the weather” and “read scientific reports on climate change” in order to “attempt to imagine… the future,” which served to show the already existing fear within humanity on how the weather is constantly changing and becoming more unpredictable (71). 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 act of the Arctic melting 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, melting of their landscape 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 it has on crops. Lorin Hancock explains that “polar vortexes, increased heat waves, and unpredictability of weather caused by ice loss” change how crops grow and for how long. This of course concerns food sources in the Arctic, but Jackson mentions a way around this growing environmental concern. Jackson briefly discusses how there is a greenhouse in the Arctic that allows for food to grow in a warm room “even when, outside, the winter temperature is -56F” (30). While finding a way to survive while also being ecofriendly is a great concept, the already existing impacts of the Arctic melting impacts how expensive food becomes in other parts of the world due to the limited quantity of food.
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 came to. 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 his public admission 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 rhetorical is better: being honest about the situation even if it strikes fear into the hearts of humanity like Box did or gradually expressing honest ideas of the situation to the public like Jackson does? The answer for which route is best 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.
Jackson takes readers by the hand throughout her memoir, making sure not to leave anyone behind and explains environmental concepts to ensure that her audience is all on the same page. She understands how “difficult [climate change is] to imagine” and calmly explains that “climate change’s heart…beats to the pulse of escalating greenhouse gas emissions” (10). She acknowledges the reality while also educating readers on what the cause of climate change is and how it came about without using a scare tactic. Jackson also provides “the real solution: a world with dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions” later in the book once she has established the basic parallels between the planet and her parents (84). There is no shock value to her information nor any phrases that would condemn the reader for not having prior knowledge, which makes it inviting for anyone interested or knowledgeable on the environment.
All of these affects the Arctic has on 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 the way she expresses her thoughts is what is important. 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 extremely descriptive. Jackson uses phrases such as “jumping, surging, pouring” in order to provide hope, breathe new life into the planet, and allows readers to take her journey alongside her (38). One of the things her phrasing 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. Her choice of words introduces the idea that the planet is still very much alive through all of the damaging side effects of humanity. Jackson brings this idea of a living planet 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. “Jumping, surging, pouring” paints vivid pictures in our minds of what Jackson may be seeing and gives us the opportunity to see the world through her eyes (38). The other thing her descriptive phrasing does is it provides concrete and active verbs to what her audience reads.
All of these aspects give 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. Jackson uses phrases like “turn[ing]… in leaps and bounds” or describing how the glaciers “melt under [her] feet and whisper away” (14,45). 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 a 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, the theme 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. Jackson explains that:
“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.” 214
This is a powerful statement that Jackson’s readers can all relate to even if they haven’t had a parent suddenly pass. Jackson’s audience and American citizens alike 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 humanity doesn’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 parents’ 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 knows 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. She uses phrases such as “we stood there, stock still, eyes wide and waiting” on page 146 rather than overcomplicating her story to a point where readers would get lost trying to decipher the meaning of her chosen words. Even though the language is simple, there are still complex sentences and these sentences still push 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 how she is able to relate her thoughts about the planet on a personal aspect using death, which most readers have experienced in some way, and how she uses her personal voice within her written words.
When it comes to most sustainability texts such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, 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 parents’ 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 hinderance since some readers could perceive her echoed thoughts as overbearing. However, considering Jackson’s prose, it’s actually quite helpful. Without this thematic echo being ever present throughout her narrative, readers could tend to forget what they’re actually reading and possibly forget the message she’s trying to instill. Jackson doesn’t want to alienate us from her message, which is why she always comes back to her main argument of climate change frequently. She continues to remind her audience what she wants readers to get out of her memoir and uses simplistic language to further prevent alienating us.
Jackson ends her memoir with a scene when her father was still alive and describes “the slopes of Mt. Rainer, where the real glacier tumble and move magnificently” in order to finish with a final connection to the planet and the death of her parents’ (216). While none of Jackson’s readers can fully understand what it means to see a mountain such as Mt. Rainier so close to your home, I feel as though I can relate on some level. I was around 6 years old when my parents took me to the Province of Asti, Italy in the region of Piedmont. We went skiing in the Via Lattea mountains in Turin and as I read Jackson’s memoir, I was brough back to that feeling of being in the presence of such a powerful landscape. In snow covered mountains like that, you begin to feel so small in the grand scheme of things. Jackson describes that view wonderfully by explaining how “the mountain is shrouded with low cloud” and how “scores of smaller mountains display only their minor bases draped around like lily pads” (37).
While I wasn’t in the Arctic like Jackson, I did find myself going back to those moments in Italy while reading and growing a deeper appreciation for the planet. It brough me back to memories long forgotten and made me realize that the Arctic Jackson so thoroughly explored played a hand in my own memoires without me even realizing it. Her phrasing of how tall mountains such as the ones I skied down “all look climbable” and “accessible” from certain vantages also breathed life into these old memoires (27). I appreciated her memoir for what it is and how it was written yet being able to relate to her story on a new kind of level made it even more engaging for me as her audience.
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