Andri Snær Magnason:
you can’t look straight into a black hole
Andri Snær Magnason grew up with the wild Icelandic Highlands in his heart and soul. As a student of Nordic mythology he perceives that we are living through ‘mythic times’, such is the extent of the climatic and ecological change that we will see in a lifetime. As a writer, poet and director, and a father of four children, he finds words to help us understand the era we are living through, to question the flawed logic of economic and political systems that plunder our home, the earth, and shows us how a new generation has what it takes to enact the changes we need.
Made by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews, Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.
Music by Kai Engel under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence.
My name is Andri Snær Magnason, I’m an Icelandic writer, sometimes filmmaker, often activist, father of four children. Basically a citizen of Iceland.
I’m just a normal boy from the suburbs. I come from a family of doctors and nurses who lived in the States until I was nine. That actually influenced me quite a lot because, from a very young age, I felt like I had kind of a double perspective on Iceland, both the outsider’s eye, but also being from the inside.
I was good at maths, so I was maybe on my way into some kind of engineering or medicine, but I got tangled up in poetry. And when I was 22, I self-published my first book and it sold actually a lot. So I could buy myself an apartment, very young, actually from poetry, which is a strange story for, it’s not basically the, the struggling artist story.
My next book after that was a children’s book called the story of The Blue Planet. So my career took off quite early, and then I did sci-fi next. In kind of in the wake of, or do you call it the wake of, or the dawn of, of the internet era and the promises of connecting everybody and it hadn’t happened yet, but I was kind of exploring that through, my sci-fi novel LoveStar.
I was thinking, what do you write about, what should be the subject of poetry? And I was young and healthy and, I didn’t, I was just like a skiing kid, so I wasn’t really this artist type. And I was thinking of the history of literature in Iceland and art, how art has always been claiming spaces.
The Golden Clover didn’t have any meaning in the 17th century, but after the romantic poets had been writing poems about the Golden Clover for a hundred years, the Golden Clover became a symbol of spring, hope, God, beauty, innocence, you know, so the golden Clover actually, isn’t on our menu. You know, we don’t eat Golden Clovers because you don’t eat love, spring and God, and larvae was not anything special, it was actually a nuisance. Caravel started painting larvae and larvae is not practical for a farmer. It does not supply anything for you. It’s difficult to navigate. It breaks your horse’s bones and it’s just a nuisance. So poets before they would say the larvae fields are wounds that we are meant to heal. That is to level out the larvae fields and, and grow hay for animals and become prosperous.
But then, this painter Caravel came and just made these huge paintings, which was basically just larvae and we started to see larvae differently. So I was walking around my local strip mall, which is the ugliest place in Iceland and there are no seasons there. There’s no beauty. There’s no history, no architecture. It’s basically a horrible shopping mall. And I was thinking, what if I tried to claim this area with poetry?
So I went into Bonus, which is the supermarket chain in this strip mall and I saw it was divided exactly like the divine comedy by Dante. So you start in paradis so the fruit division, you go to inferno all the meat products. Then you end up in the purgatory, the cleaning products and everything else in this supermarket is a Bonus. So it’s a Bonus bread, bonus Cola, bonus ham, bonus toilet paper. So I was thinking, how would the most hideous book of poetry look like? And it would probably have this pink pig logo, so I made this book of poetry and took it to the owner of Bonus and he really liked the cover.
So he published it and he sold it by the counter on an eternal special offer. It was kind of a stunt. It was like, how can I be the most extreme sellout? The poet was like the last stand of holiness. Like, the last non-consumer, the non participant in the consumer society and was like, what if I take my poetry and I just go full first and I make a product and I sell it in the supermarket and a discount and you get one copy free if you buy 30 pounds of pork it was both sarcastic, but also asking some questions.
So Iceland is a volcanic island. It’s not a small place and we are only 300,000 that inhabit the island. And then we are only scattered around the coast, not even evenly scattered around the coast, just in a few towns and cities like 99% of Iceland is outta reach and in those areas you don’t have paved roads. You don’t have power lines or infrastructure only in a few places. These are roaring rivers that are untamed, roaring glacial rivers, waterfalls, geothermal areas, vast expanses of sand and lava, a very harsh, brutal landscape with one or two Oasis areas of vegetation and wildlife. The most beautiful that you could actually imagine.
When you actually take a walk, especially after you have slept in it for one or two days, and you really setting in then you start kind of changing and connecting in a different way. And you just feel this immense feeling of awe. And greatness and holiness, it’s hostile. It’s not really your friend, but you’re still connected to it. So you feel this deep respect, it’s almost seductive seducing you. Just, why don’t you just, you know, come with me, you know, just vanish into this chaos.
You have areas that are maybe only made of three elements, just maybe black sand, water and neon green moss. So it’s like, it’s like almost like the most primitive planet, somewhere in space that has one species, one type of rock and one other element and then you can understand that you don’t need so much to create beauty.
So you have these areas and then suddenly, they propose it as a area for a dam and that actually stirs and it’s smelters on by Alcoa and you can drown the area that is bigger than the capital and you can put in bulldozers and explosives and you’re just basically gonna blast it all to pieces and drown it and that stirs and it’s so painful to watch that.
2000 to 2007, or you could say 97 to 2007 was the decade of greed. China was rising and suddenly came this infinite demand for raw material from the global market and suddenly we understood that Iceland was not beautiful because we wanted to preserve it. And we had efforts to preserve it. Iceland was beautiful by coincidence because we never got the resources to destroy it. The plan was always to destroy it. The government plans since the fifties were a total destruction of the Highlands of Iceland.
I think every paradigm shift comes from many sources. It would come from a social theory, but then it’s translated into songs, poetry, paintings, culture, and stories. Both to explain the theory and to spread the idea. I think art has a huge role in that and storytelling and that’s what scientists have told me is that with not breaking through and so in the history of the woman’s right movements, the independence movements, social, any change or religious in any direction, it comes through some kind of science or ideology, but then through art, poetry, songs, music, film. I’m not saying that every writer should, has to write a climate book or something, but I, for myself, I felt like being a citizen here and now I had the, I had the moral duty to do that.
Things were going crazy in Iceland where almost all the most beautiful places in Iceland were going to be plundered for the aluminium industry. And then I made the book Dreamland, a self-help manual for a frightened nation. That’s a non-fiction book. About an issue that was a totally polarising issue. It was so tough that it destroyed friendships. Like when your uncle, that was always your favourite uncle and you would go fishing with him and he would help you renovate your house, you know? So like your favourite uncle just suddenly became an asshole and you couldn’t talk to him anymore. And you just said, fuck you uncle, you know, like, I’m not talking to you because you want to destroy everything that I cherish the most. And he would say, fuck you, Andre you are a total asshole and you want to destroy the economy and you know, so we were in that, in that kind of psychological, mental, civil war state.
The situation was aluminium or death, that is, we need jobs, we need economic growth, we need prosperity, we need a welfare system, we need roads, we need infrastructure. And that’s why we need an aluminium company and a dam, because that will create all this. And then I would say, I don’t think it’s a good idea. And then they would say, okay, so what do we do instead?
The question is illegal because in a creative society, no single individual has insight into what is created, what services emerge to problems. What kind of ideas come out. Yes. I know exactly that we can get 2000 megawatts of energy. If we harness all these rivers and those megawatts will be exactly enough to produce 1.5 million tons of aluminium and that will need exactly 2,556 jobs and exactly these container ships. Yes. I know that it’s firm. And if we say yes to that, then we will get those jobs.
But I had to argue that, but when we always say yes to something like that, we may be saying no to something else and we are destroying something that can’t be measured, but is maybe bigger than an aluminium smelter in its emptiness.
And it astonished me when I started diving into that field, how a layman could actually see faults in the headlines. I would go, I have a meeting with a group of MBA students, people from the business. And I would say, I would just ask a very stupid question. Look at this headline, 1 billion of export revenue. You are all business people, I’m just a stupid poet. Let’s just calculate where is this billion?
How can it be in an enlightened society that the headline says a billion dollars? The headline says 5% economic growth, which is just because they were finishing the time the last year and pouring lots of loan money into the economy. How can it be that I, as a poet can see this and is this the reason why my uncle hates me? Because he thinks a billion dollars are at stake and his sole livelihood. But what is actually at stake is 400 jobs. And 400 jobs is just marginal in the whole picture of the aesthetic economy. And these jobs are actually talented people that would’ve been working in the fishing industry, would’ve been working in other fields, creating value in those fields.
So to address this why we always say yes to the most obvious economic activity thinking we will become richer while in the end, we might actually sacrifice nature. We were told we have to sacrifice nature for the economy. But maybe we might be sacrificing nature and the economy, and isn’t that a very tragic situation. And also creating a civil war of uncles hitting their nephews and et cetera. So I had to rewrite the history of Iceland.
I was wondering, I don’t know anything about the history of Egypt and I don’t know anything about the pyramids. I’ve heard theories about aliens and gods and all sorts of, I’m quite sure we can find a super stupid explanation for the pyramids. I think we can just find the most stupid explanation for this possible and that the pyramids are the most stupid thing that humanity had built until we started the industrial revolution. I’m quite sure they were built in one crazy boom. Because if you build a pyramid for 40 years and you put all the resources of your state and your wars into building a pyramid, you don’t stop doing that. You’re very good at building a pyramid after 40 years and the whole economy, the supply chain from harvesting, to rope-making to gathering the slaves, to the highest engineer, people’s status culture. So after 40 years of building a pyramid, you don’t stop doing that. You build another pyramid, it’s just, you know, if suddenly came a progressive Pharaoh and said no, we’re not building a pyramid, you’re free, you can just do what you want. Everybody would just go crazy.
And then somebody like asks a stupid question. Uh couldn’t we just have put the dead Pharaoh into a simple hole in the ground because this pyramid doesn’t even cast a shade. It’s useless. We can’t use it for anything. You know, even a wall cast a shade, can be used for something, but a pyramid is, it’s like the most useless structure that a human can build, especially in that place.
And then they get this rumor from each, from Greece that actually not everybody is a slave, but this utopian world where only 50% are slaves and they just sit in these amphitheaters and listen to tragedies and eat bread and dip it in olive oil and just have this alternative utopian lifestyle of arguing philosophy and squares, et cetera.
So it’s not until after the third pyramid that you get sarcastic and ask this question and, I’m not sure actually, because I know nothing about Egypt, but when I Googled it, there’s this thing called Google and it is actually true. The pyramids, they were built on a period of 120 crazy years. And of course it’s a super simplified explanation, but we are at this place now after 120 years, you know, maybe from 1900 to 2020, we’re like, is my car cool? You know, I used to identify as a car. Like me and my car were like a single unit. It was my, like my crab shell my like my hermit crab shell, I’m not sure it is a good idea. Are they cool anymore? Is this brand cool? Is this house cool? You know, is my fashion cool? Is my daily work? Does it have meaning because we’re looking at this intolerable situation, which is maybe worse than in Egypt that I think most generations thought they have been improving the lives for their ancestors. But we are in this intolerable situation where we’re actually undermining scientifically proven on a day to day basis.
We’re undermining the future. So actually the best thing we could do for the future is actually to do nothing. If I would just go to a monastery, a Catholic or a Buddhist monastery and own nothing, and just eat a bowl of rice for 30 years, that would be the best thing I could do for the planet. The next best thing would be to develop some green technology. But at the moment that also requires lots of resources and I would still be living this lifestyle that is going against the planet. And it’s funny that it’s actually not been suggested in the public talk, like in terms of climate solutions, because we’ve had monks and nuns, or philosophers in rags for, for thousands of years, it’s been a lifestyle choice, always. but it’s never been presented as a lifestyle choice. Uh, okay guys. Sorry. We blew it in the next 30 years. We just have to meditate or either pretend to meditate and it doesn’t have to be a God. Maybe you just have to read poetry or smell flowers or grow vegetables or become a mechanic monk where you just have a rope, but you’re basically just taking old washing machines and, and fixing them for nothing, because for some strange reason, it’s too expensive to fix things.
We’re in this difficult state because the science is just so overwhelming and the time is so narrow. I’m trying to understand also how we don’t understand what is happening
It’s obvious that we understood the science behind the coronavirus, laws, regulations, habits, everything changed just overnight. And of course, because it was so urgent, people became sick overnight and the tragedy of the events that happened when it went swept through these countries.
But you talk to somebody and you ask, how did your life change according to that? And they can talk endlessly about how their life changed, how they didn’t travel, how they didn’t get to go to weddings. So they didn’t go to school just you know, everybody knows this, just infinite change of lifestyle.
Then you ask somebody, but you do agree that the climate data is showing us much more serious things, we’re talking about the existence of the planet, biodiversity, the oceans, we just, we’re basically talking about everything. And people say, yes, of course, And then I say, okay, how did your life change between IPCC reports? What do we do now that you didn’t do 20 years ago? How has your life, your business, your daily routine changed according to this science? People scratched their heads and they’re like, yeah, That’s a good question. Yeah, hmm, then I think, um, like, uh, yeah, my, my niece is vegan now. Yes. I say. But was she forced to be, you know, is that according to law or is, you know, was there a mandate, like a mask mandate to be vegan? No, no, no, she just did it. It actually feels much better. Okay. Okay. But, but, you know, what has nothing been forced upon you? There’s no, like there’s no like legal obligation that you have or, or any like any common sacrifice that everybody has had to make and that, well, I bought a Tesla and I’m like, yes. Uh, do you think aTesla is a sacrifice, and do you really think that we will address the biggest existential threat to humanity and the foundations of everything by upgrading to the coolest car that you had? So it’s so obvious. That all the information is out there, but we don’t understand it.
And I think it has lots to do with time. My generation is raised with the year 2000 as the future. We’re not adapted to thinking into the 21st century.
Sometimes when I have lectures, I ask doesn’t everybody agree that, and often people my age. Isn’t everybody agreeing here that 1970 was 30 years ago. And everybody says, yes, of course. So I think in a very strange way, people born in the seventies or sixties, that everybody that was there thinks 2050 is 50 years from now. I still think that 2,100 is a hundred years from now, but not 80 years from now, so the timeline is something that we don’t understand. The language is something we don’t understand.
And that’s why when I write my book, I had to use the metaphor of the black hole. You can’t look straight into the black hole. So I can’t say this, and I can’t put myself on the wise man’s chair into my ivory tower and say, you stupid citizen. I have to explain to people, and, and then I have to go into the history of paradigm shifts. To see that when a paradigm shift comes in, it can take a hundred years for that language, the language to change.
So I’m using examples from Nordic mythology, both in terms of language and myth, but also, so in nor mythology, the rule of poetry was, was not to say exactly what you, you did not name the things with the real names. You would not say earth, you would say, Oden Sprite you would not say sky, you would talk about the dwarfs helmet. So you would make a whole poem. That would be almost like a riddle, but all the riddles, all the words would make sense in terms of Nordic mythology. But then somebody says becomes Christian, which is a new paradigm, a new God. And he could not explain the new God. The creator of heaven and earth without saying the creator of the dwarfs helmet and Oden Sprite.
So for the first centuries or decades, you could not explain the new religion or the new paradigm without being saturated and just basically without the baggage of all the old religion. And I think we are there, we talk about green economy, earth services. Yeah, we’re trying to, yeah, I don’t understand the forest. Uh, I don’t understand the river. I don’t understand the sky. Then an economist helps us and says, oh dear, dear boy, it is providing services. So the sky is like a free supermarket that is giving you free water.. And the forest is actually a cleaning system that is, instead of this factory, it’s, it’s servicing you. So it’s, it’s like, we’re our, our language is so saturated, so I’m very aware when I write my book that we’re in this language void. And I don’t really know what language to use. Shall I use marketing language? Shall I use democratic language? If our choices lead to the apocalypse, both as consumers and as democratic citizens, will Democrat be frowned upon after a hundred years, because it just totally failed us because we will have proven that we were too stupid to choose because all the science was out there, all the technology, all the machines, everything. But we could not align our resources with the science, with the knowhow, with our daily jobs to fix it. Are systems rational, our educational systems, our democratic systems, our, our institutions, are they rational? But why is the outcome not rational? Would it have been more rational to be superstitious, to believe that there’s a God in the forest and there’s a spirit in the waterfall? There’s an enchanted place where we should not go, because people say, if you go there something terrible will happen? But then we became rational and we like picked in and they were like, there’s nothing there. We’ll just plunder that and guess what, something terrible is happening.
I’m not preaching any new aids or wholeness, but I, I just ask this question. Why can we not feel holiness when we come to a place that is to be plundered? Why is there no buffer? Almost like a immune system that prevented us destroying ourselves, by just keeping that void open of not understanding and just not fully going into places.
If we are to get some kind of hold of what is happening then climate and the earth is the centre, and basically the end goal and all education, all business, everything is about rethinking that. So it’s all about that, about redesigning, rethinking almost everything. So it doesn’t matter if you go into fashion design, everything has to be rethought. If you go into transportation, it has to be revolutionised. Almost every single field has a huge challenge in front of it. And the need for extreme talent and work and to kind of turn these, fields either turn them off or divert these habits into other directions.
When I talk to young people, I tell them that. You know, their life’s work will all be about this, it can’t be avoided.
While we have stable day to day lives, every single day is about thi and we have to look back in 30 years and feel like our habits, our mentality is basically unrecognisable to them and they won’t miss it. That is when we quit slavery. When we stop all sorts of habits, stop smoking or something. It’s not like we miss the time of the bad habit because we’ve just stepped into a new paradigm. So I tell them that it actually means it’s a challenge, but actually humans thrive through challenges. We are here now because of challenges.
And if they align their goals, according to this, then they will maybe enter a workplace or a activities that are kind of undefined. Now. But will emerge as a mainstream thing. And they will find that they will have created something thorough and tangible in a very short time, maybe 10 or 20 years, just like we see Google or something today. But also those that go into the old paradigm will find themselves obsolete and frustrated and lost and also meaningless, or, or at least highly compromised to the level of, not feeling totally satisfactory for the day to day activity.
When you look at history, you want to belong to generations, that was in the Martin Luther king March. You know, you wish you were there or you wish you were at the Women’s Liberation day in Iceland, in the 1970, you know, you wish that you had experienced moments in history and, and often it looks exciting in hindsight, but it’s actually often very difficult times, very tense times, very uncertain times and sorry guys, you’re you are, these times are now.
But the positive thing is that that generation that is born after 2000, they don’t have this creative lid on their head of not being able to think beyond 2000, because they’ve never, they’ve never been before 2000.
So I think there will be a, and this generation feels climate anxiety, and that basically means they understand it. They are afraid and they’re afraid for a reason based on science and data. And that fear then will probably both lead to depression and all sorts of things, but it will also lead to action. And lots of action and also social behaviour, that might happen faster than we expect, because this generation will also seek power quicker than my generation, because there was nobody of my generation that organised a protest filled the street with 200,000 peers. And if you look at this cliche of 10,000 hours of experience leading to greatness, we have lots of 17, 18, 19, 20 year olds that already have their 10,000 hours of activism and they’re not gonna forget that.
So we have a generation that went through the Corona crisis. They sacrificed their school years, so they have seen the emergency brick. This generation has experienced that, not as an abstract thing, but as suffering, as not meeting friends, not celebrating their best days, 18th, birthday, 19th, 17th, not having their school gatherings or school parties. So they have experienced that. So they will see the economy in a different way. So they will ask, okay, is that killing me in 2017? It doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sorry. We can’t be without it. And when somebody complains and says, what do you mean you can’t kill that? It’ll be like, oh for the first place, it’s nothing compared to what we did during the Corona crisis. And I sacrificed my school years, my best years of my life for a higher cause now you guys sacrificed something for my older years.
And they’ll just calculate, oh my God, I’m gonna be, you know, 40 in the year 2050, you know, I’m gonna be in my prime and you’re blowing it out. We feel like nothing is happening, but I’m, I’m, I feel like when things start rolling downhill, then, then things will happen much quicker than we anticipated.
So the Northern lights are a great phenomenon, this green curtain of electric lights kind of blazing over the skies. It’s beautiful And it’s like a ghost, don’t curtains like a ghost, like a running horses. It’s like a very vivid experience. And I remember as a child that the city lights were really diminishing them and light pollution made them almost invisible. And then all, of course, the daily stars they could not be seen. And I remember we experienced a blackout and suddenly this huge sky was overhead and, and the Northern lights just exploding. And I just remember this deep, amazing experience of that. And I was thinking, well, this was the day to day experience of people since the Dawn of humanity.
And now we are raising the first generation of children that can’t reach the stars. We’ve never used space more, but actually people used to navigate through stars and the stars were part of, and then they would be inspired and then they would be part of culture, religion, you know, basically the sky was a fundamental part of probably the human brain’s development and navigation. Exploration just everything was about the stars. And suddenly we just thought we are a new generation totally disconnected from that. So I convinced the city of Reykjavik to turn off all the lights for one evening. We had an astronomer to talk about the stars on national radio for half an hour.
When the lights went off, people started whispering. So it was like, they also tuned down the noise of the city. So it just like a, like, it went down like 10 decibels. I was of course freaking out when this happened, because I knew that everything that would happen in the whole city of Reykvaki during that half hour, every accident, any incident, any robbery or whatever would be blamed on me, that was instigating the project.
But then I was arguing for the real reason, which is shouldn’t it be the human right of a child to have access to the dark, deep sky. And what does it mean to develop a whole generation without access to this without this deep emotional feeling?