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Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason talks about how to write about climate change, the intersection ...
2021-02-10 09:00:00
Mind the climate

The Power of Narrative
An Interview with Andri Snær Magnason

The Power of Narrative

The planet is burning, but we still can save it. Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason talks to Maria Hawranek about searching for words that could help us understand climate change and about the ways in which we might prevent catastrophe.

Read in 26 minutes

“Anyone who understands what’s at stake would not prioritise anything else.” You quote these words by Wolfgang Lucht – a scientist from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany – in your latest book On Time and Water. This quote really gave me pause for thought.

Everything that we do is worthless if we don’t fix the climate issue. All our culture will be in vain. If we believe that we’re creating art of some kind of continuity, if artists are seeking eternal life through their works, if somebody is to sing their songs or read their books in 300 years, we must start thinking about how we are interacting with the planet and the environment. Currently, we know what is happening, but we don’t really do what needs to be done to fix the problems. Wolfgang Lucht gave me a sort of permission to write about science. I felt I hadn’t been allowed to do that, because with academia if you misspell anything or even just say something in your own way, you get scolded. But then I met many scientists, glaciologists, oceanographers who encouraged me to write. They were saying: “You have ten thousand readers in Iceland, you must tell them,” because they felt frustrated that their research wasn’t breaking through.

It is difficult to speak about climate change and reach those who don’t want to listen. With those people, all the words simply spin down as if into a black hole.

The whole book is me asking how do you talk about something that is bigger than the language. We have a certain range of words, we have numbers – but we don’t connect very well to numbers. So how do you say that something is enormous to the 12th degree? A house can be enormous. But I’m talking about the whole planet, and I’m still stuck with the word enormous. It’s like we don’t scale up. That’s why I turned to stories and mythology. I wanted to find a way to scale up the language and so employed metaphors that are enormous, that give us the right perspective on our situation. Because when you really feel urgency, you want to just shake somebody and tell them: “Change now, right now!”

To use the Caps Lock key.

Although if I’d written the book with only capital letters, I wouldn’t be considered someone eligible for discussion, I would just be put into a hospital or something. Of course, the issue we are talking about is so urgent that we should sound the alarm. However, if people still don’t understand something like that, we should perhaps go for a different approach. I could scream at someone for a week and that wouldn’t change a thing. And I didn’t want to attack anyone or blame anyone. Instead, I decided to take my readers on a literary journey, for example to glaciers in the 1950s. I wanted to talk about science through stories. I am sure this approach allows for a better understanding of the problems discussed. Also, these are stories that I wanted to tell – and for a long time, ever since I was about 20. I wanted to write about my grandparents, but I couldn’t find a proper form for it. Then, through some coincidence, all these stories kind of came together and fitted into the narrative about climate change.

Your grandma was like a Wonder Woman. A pioneer of aviation and glacial exploration. In 1956, she and your grandfather spent their honeymoon on a three-week long expedition to a glacier.

My grandmother is still alive, my grandfather sadly passed away, but they were indeed quite a couple. They managed to do something meaningful with almost every day of their lives. If they were not travelling, they were gardening or swimming. Constantly doing something that gave them pleasure. The joke in the family was: is there any day in the year when they’re bored? Maybe one day in the middle of November, when there’s sleet or something.

Has grandma Hulda ever taken you on a trip to a glacier?

No, I missed their trip in 2006 for their 50th anniversary. I was abroad, so I didn’t get to see the place where they had spent their honeymoon. During that trip, they must have been 83 or 84.

There are a lot of glaciers in Iceland. Thanks to your grandparents, you can transform a boring story of glaciers melting into something intimate. What does a glacier have to say to us?

It’s almost like a manuscript. You can flip through a glacier like it is a book. Iceland’s glaciers are a thousand pages long, but in the Arctic, you’ll find frozen books of 100,000 pages, maybe even a million. Each layer of snow contains information about every winter on Earth, about precipitation, CO2 in the atmosphere, particles in the air, and volcanic eruptions. It’s not a pack of stupid ice. For scientists, it is an endless source of information. There is ancient rainwater in the glaciers and ancient air bubbles. Samples drilled out of glaciers, so-called ice cores, can tell us the story of the last 800,000 years of climate – that’s how old the oldest ice core is. Because of that, researchers have found out that CO2 levels have never before reached the levels we see today. But we are losing this information because the glaciers undergo fundamental changes, not only in the top layers but also deep down.

Ice exploration is your family myth. You also employ other powerful myths – like the one about Auðhumla, the sacred cow. The fact that the mythologies of Iceland and Tibet can have something in common is mind-boggling.

For Icelandic people, believing in sacred cows is absurd, because we have never made this connection with our own holy cow. We had it in front of our eyes in our oldest manuscripts. According to Nordic mythology, the world began with a cow. When I first heard it, it sounded like a misunderstanding: a frozen cow at the beginning of time.

Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no. 814/1960)
Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no. 814/1960)

It’s like something born out of consuming magic mushrooms.

Or as if a story has been told too many times and some strange errors have crept in. Our mythical cow is called Auðhumla. Auð is Icelandic for wealth or prosperity. We’re not sure what humla means. But there is a region in Nepal called Humla. In it, you have this great Himalayan trail leading to Mount Kalias in Tibet. From the region of this mountain originate the four sacred rivers of Asia: the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Karnali, one of the largest tributaries to the Ganges. There is also the sacred place in India, the glacier by the name Gomukh. Which literally means ‘the mouth of a cow’. Suddenly, it all made perfect sense as a metaphor for glaciers. Because the glaciers are like the milking cows of the world. They are feeding millions of people, keeping the water supply. I would have to spend my whole life doing anthropological research to prove that connection, but I thought that as a poetic, surprising metaphor, it explains perfectly the nature of glaciers.

You’re not the only one who has found a sacred cow in Iceland.

I wanted to share my seemingly great discovery, so I called the biologist Guðmundur Páll Ólafsson, one of my mentors, who made me more aware of many environmental issues. It turned out he had also found this cow. So there was this tension: which of us had found it first [laughs]? We decided to share it. Guðmundur and I used it differently in our books.

You employ clever tricks to help the readers imagine certain things. For example, in order to make them understand the timescale, you turn your grandmother into a unit of time. And when you want to remind us that the actions of a single person can matter, you tell us about your uncle John and his struggles to protect crocodiles. There is also the story of Jörundur, who brought the idea of freedom to Iceland – but in the beginning, the Icelandic people couldn’t understand it and so they thought it useless. This story makes the reader understand that humanity needs time to grasp new concepts. Does the experience of writing children’s books help you in breaking difficult ideas into simpler, more imaginable ones?

When you talk to children, you’re not judging them for not knowing things. And maybe in a similar way when I am writing a book like this one, I’m not scolding people for not knowing something. I had already written science fiction, children’s books and poetry, so I had broken free. I decided not to write like a journalist, who must follow strict editorial guidelines. The plan was to talk about a very serious matter without losing the entertaining aspects of storytelling. I allowed myself to be who I am. Working on science fiction and children’s books, I learned to imagine things. Something similar also happened with Dreamland, my previous book. There was something deeply wrong with the energy policy of Iceland. But it was all deadly boring: a lot of technical terms, like terawatt-hours and megawatts. So I found a way to approach those very big issues and understand them. I turned terawatt-hours into almost a crime story, so that people would actually want to read about it.

How did you learn that?

I was studying maths in college and I thought it so beautiful how they find these equations. A mathematician must carve away all sorts of unnecessary things. They take away, they oversimplify in order to get to the core of an equation. It’s the same thing with poetry. You strip away almost all of your words and then what’s left is the essence. Finding a beautiful equation, like Einstein’s E = mc², requires oversimplification. That’s what I try to do in my writing. To find the sacred cow I have to carve away a few things, but in the end, I hope I am left with something that explains all the complexity of the world.

I myself don’t instinctively understand that a 0.3 pH increase in the acidification of the oceans is a horrifying change. Therefore, I must make some effort to imagine this. Most of us don’t understand what really lies beneath scientific terms such as ‘acidification’.

I wanted to address the reader in a humble way, take the reader on the same journey that I had made, because I myself had once not understood ocean acidification. I hadn’t understood any of these issues. It was important to meet with people on a very equal level. Instead of using difficult words and making people feel insecure, I wanted to get to the core of things and explain, for example, how long it can sometimes take to understand some words. It’s like in the song “Words (Don’t Come Easy)” [laughs]. They come without any load. That is, when we hear a word for the first time, it isn’t attached to anything. Only later do they slowly, very slowly, get their meanings. Before 2009, there were only three instances of the term ‘ocean acidification’ appearing in Icelandic print media. But those are the biggest words in the world. Because the planet is 70% water. And we are talking about the biggest chemical reaction on this planet in 50 million years.

It’s similar to the word ‘Holocaust’. Now everybody feels its weight, but it didn’t always have this semantic ballast.

Yes, until it became something that millions of people had experienced, the Holocaust was maybe just a conspiracy theory or a horrible idea. Similarly, when you’re talking about ocean acidification, you can say that 500 million people will experience it, or even the whole of humanity will experience it. But it doesn’t have any emotional resonance. Before something happens, the words are so much vaguer than after.

Our life on Earth is changing. All the things that used to be unthinkable – space flights, nuclear energy – sooner or later do come through. Will we manage to change our course before it’s too late?

At the universities, I talk to young people, born in the 21st century. I was raised imagining the year 2000 as a very distant future, something out of science fiction. And now here we are, 20 years past the year 2000. Some of those young people have jobs, maybe they’re already paying into pension funds. They expect to use this pension fund money in the year 2070. Science warns us that if we continue doing as we do, the Earth will be in trouble. In order to avoid it, everything has to change. It doesn’t matter whether they are going into law, engineering, agriculture, architecture, design, fashion – every single field of activity must be fundamentally reconsidered, redesigned and remade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because as long as we know that we can still act, that we can still, to some extent, manage climate change, it can even be exciting.

Will these young people became CO2 liquidators? When you were working on your book, there were only three of those in Iceland.

Yes, they just randomly went into geology, and suddenly they’re at the forefront of saving the planet. You can see the spark in their eyes. Going to work every morning, they feel like they’re going to save the world. My conversation with them was very inspiring. They do research, and then one year later they put it into practice.

Why will this job be so important?

The problem is that we must stop CO2 emissions – and we release about 32 gigatons of CO2 every year. Apart from that, we have to capture about 1000 gigatons that have already been released. It’s almost impossible to imagine that. However, humans did lots of impossible things in the 20th century – for example, we learned how to fly. No wonder that teaching science today has a completely different meaning than 20 years ago. When a student asks: Why are we studying algebra?, the answer is: Because in the next 30 years we have to remove 1000 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, and at the moment nobody knows how to do it. But maybe you’ll find out how.

The American writer Roy Scranton wrote in his essay Raising My Child in a Doomed World that when he had a baby, he cried twice: first because of joy, second because of despair about the planet this child was brought to. You have four kids. Do you feel the same?

Working on my book I was having a lot of conversations with my son, who is 23. I think he was coming close to getting climate anxiety. But basically, people adapt. We normalize things. For example, to my horror, after two months of the pandemic, it all became quite ordinary. I knew about the old world, but it was difficult to even imagine it. The problem with climate change is that it’s so gradual. There is time to normalize it. Bizarre situations – hurricanes or fires – aren’t bizarre anymore. If we feel everything is normal, we’re not anxious or scared. As long as there are no civil wars or complete chaos, we’ll keep on getting accustomed to what’s happening. It’s like living in a city that was built where there used to be a beautiful natural landscape. We don’t miss this landscape, because we never saw it. I don’t miss the Reykjavik of the 1920s, although it might have been more beautiful than today. Our grandchildren won’t miss what they will never know.

I find that overwhelming.

The big task is: How do you act? How do you tell yourself and other people that this is not normal and that we have to change our behaviours? I think that we will find poetry and beauty in the year 2090. Today there are people living in Greenland or in deserts. People can live anywhere and find some meaning there. I was trying to imagine that while avoiding nihilism.

You also imagine yourself believing the attempts to preserve anything are futile: “Everything flows by, everything is eternal and transitory, like Grimsey waves.” I might add that 99% of species that have ever lived went extinct.

If you travelled around Europe in the 1960s, you could completely forget all the burning cities and all the terror that had happened just 20 years earlier. Someone could just embrace complete nihilism and say that even if we lose three billion human beings, the world will get over it in 10 years. We can endlessly go towards some kind of abstract nihilism.

You add that if you accepted this philosophy, future generations would deride it. They would judge us as stupid and pathetic.

It’s unfair to judge people who don’t know the future consequences of their actions, but when people are willingly, knowingly participating in things that lead to catastrophe, they deserve the blame.

And to be brought to justice for ‘ecocide’? Until recently, I wasn’t aware that this concept has existed since the 1970s, yet only 10 countries have legal punishment for damaging ecosystems – for example, Moldova, Tajikistan and Russia. But not Iceland or Canada.

I actually think this term may catch on. The first people that will end up in the international court will be oil lobbyists. They have spent millions of dollars spreading disinformation about climate change and climate research. Of course, there will have to be evidence for this sort of systematic abuse, because it’s a delicate matter, concerning also the freedom of speech and democracy. Perhaps the word ‘ecocide’ won’t be needed? Perhaps good old ‘crimes against humanity’ will suffice?

However, as you have pointed out, in your book you avoid apportioning blame.

There’s too much blame. I wanted to go in a different direction. OK, we have created many technologies that have caused many problems. However, we probably can’t get out of the situation without those technologies. It would be nice to solve everything through being conscious consumers, through organic farming and planting trees, but we have probably gone too far and we need some major technical solutions. Also, the normalization occurs partly because we no longer see what we’re really doing. A car passes me by in the street. I don’t see the fire, I don’t see the power that drives this car. The engine is hidden beneath this slick design. If every day we saw the fires we create, we would have already understood the forces we are dealing with. That’s why I am using mythology in the book, as well as simple language – you could say almost a primitive language. ‘Fire’ was probably one of the first words humans used. ‘Love’, ‘food’, ‘fire’. In mythology, fire is very big. And you don’t find anything on CO2 emissions in the Bible.

What if people don’t believe in this fire?

I keep trying to break from stagnated language, to get rid of the words that are worn out after 20 years of talk about climate change. We, humans, have collectively created the biggest fires ever, due to burning coal and oil. It is hundreds of times bigger than the combined volcanic activity. Next time you talk to a climate change denier, ask them: OK, so do you think that if we’d had 600 volcanic eruptions every day for the last 20 years, that wouldn’t have had any impact on the climate? Seriously? Any geologist will tell you something like this has not happened in the last million years. Why would you think this won’t affect the climate?

We’ll perish if we don’t put out the fires. We might perish if we do.” That’s how you put it in your book. Are we doomed no matter what we do?

I still think we can solve it. Of course, many places still rely upon profit from coal and oil, and they will have to change. There might be a lot of economic trouble and social trouble and possibly turmoil during the transition from coal to clean energy. When you’re addicted to some industry, you can’t just turn the machines off and tell the people to go home.

You had the privilege of interviewing the Dalai Lama, and I had the privilege of speaking to José Mujica, the ex-president of Uruguay. They’re both minimalists, trying to cut down consumption. Do you think that individual choices matter? Do bamboo straws and reusable straws merely make us feel good, or do they have an impact?

It all matters. Individual choices matter a lot. But I think big solutions are the job of governments. We also need regulations on the international level. I remember the banning of chemicals that had been causing the hole in the ozone layer. It wasn’t solved by giving people individual choice to buy eco-friendly, and slightly more expensive hairsprays. Changes don’t happen that way, particularly when we’re talking about collective problems. Governments must act like they do with the coronavirus: they have to remove the things that are most damaging and implement solutions. Just like when a city builds a sewage system or a new road. More sustainable life will not be possible without proper infrastructure. You can stop using plastic toothbrushes and pretend everything is OK now, but in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

I have just finished reading Jonathan Foer’s We Are the Weather. He constantly goes back to the switching off of lights by Americans during World War II. It did not matter at all from the military and strategic perspective, but psychologically it was very important: everybody felt they were participating in the war effort. Recently, talking to my friends, I said we all must eat less meat because industrial animal farming is responsible for a significant percentage of emissions. I was told: “The Chinese should give up meat and it will be enough.”

In my book, of course, I am addressing individuals. I have the sincere belief that we live in democracies, we choose our governments, and by entering this dialogue, I can contribute to the change, I can nudge things one millimetre in the right direction. I also strongly believe that humans are in the end rational beings. We will understand the things we are dealing with and we will take them seriously. Maybe for a time, people will just point at each other, but then the generation of Greta Thunberg will enter the stage, the generation of kids whose pension funds will open in the 2070s. And they will think about the future in a much more radical way.

We are talking about the generation that now goes through the coronavirus pandemic and through online classes. They have experienced this kind of totalitarian approach to solutions: they can’t hug their grandmothers, go to school, party. Nobody can dance, nobody can come to a concert, nobody can come close to another person. And everyone has to cover their face. It all sounds like something from a horrible theocracy. But we do it because of the bigger picture. Fighting climate change will also require us to give up on many things, but at the same time, we’ll create new solutions, new ways of life. Many of those will be quite fun because they will be rooted in community action and working with our neighbours. Perhaps these new solutions will be less painful than what we’re experiencing right now.

We could say: since climate change will impact young people the most, and since they are more aware of things, maybe it’s their problem and they should solve it. You, however, ran for president of Iceland in 2016. During the campaign, you said you wanted to become the power for the necessary changes. Did you really want to win, or was it all just a statement?

It was a strange decision. But I thought: OK, in Iceland the prime minister has all the power, but the president has some kind of a symbolic voice. We are living in a country that is surrounded by an ocean that is rising due to ice caps melting and the president has access to the leaders of the world everywhere. We should use this. Of course, I wasn’t convinced I would win, but I thought it might be easier just to become president and act directly than to write a book [laughs]. I had all the information in my head, but it wasn’t a given that I would ever manage to turn them into a literary narrative. Besides, I wanted the issue of climate change to be a part of the election and the debate. And it was – each candidate was asked about the climate. Finally, I hoped that if I won, I’d be able to better disseminate science, make the voice of scientists heard. So it all was sincere and I had a very interesting experience.

But you didn’t try again, despite getting 14.5% of the vote – third place.

I got around 23% in Reykjavik. In the rural areas, I was portrayed as a lazy intellectual who is against farmers, when I actually like farmers. There was no chance of running again, because by then I was just too deeply engaged with this book and documentary films. During the campaign I was quite anxious, constantly thinking that I had 10 prime years ahead as a writer and artist, but in the case of victory, I would have to sacrifice that for some office job. That was scary.

So should writers write about the climate, should journalists talk about it? Or are we doing all that merely to feel good about ourselves?

It’s as if a doctor who had saved a hundred lives said: “Well, now I can kill four or five people.” Writing the book, I was thinking about the climate, but I also felt that no matter if the planet lives or dies, I must face the literary challenge and grasp the times we are living in. It was my civic responsibility. When you go through such a process and get a deeper feeling of what is happening, it’s very difficult to go back to the old habits.

I recently watched the film Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It was striking that we know how to end inequality, and yet it is still here. Similarly, we know how to stop climate change. But how do we influence politicians? Should we organize a revolution?

The changes will occur in many different ways. Revolution is not something I trust – I’ve seen so many that were promising at first, but later ended up in disappointment. And I’m sceptical about any new, perfect system of government that will supposedly take over. The situation we’re dealing with will affect communist countries, capitalist countries, kingdoms, theocracies, and so on. Every country will have to grapple with it in its own way. I don’t expect a single global ideology that everybody will sign up to in order to prevent climate catastrophe. The changes will happen gradually, at various paces. I would like to see some sort of a 10-year plan of phasing out the most dangerous industries and replacing them with more balanced alternatives. But I don’t think that participating in street riots will get us into a situation that enables us to rebuild the infrastructure.

And yet we’ll require global cooperation. The glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, who you quote in your book, predicts that this won’t happen until we’re truly up against the wall.

On the one hand, we have the biodiversity, all the species of plants and animals, all the landscapes we want to preserve and all the beauty; on the other hand, there’s the thermodynamic system of the planet. I hope we’ll find some kind of balance in both these areas of fighting climate change. Some of the climate change solutions are crazy – for example, planting giant genetically-designed forests. Perhaps they could solve the problem of global warming, but they would be destructive to biodiversity and nature as we know it. We have to take a few steps back and look at the systems we have created in the last 60 years, at the infrastructure such as roads, harbours, airports. The whole military system didn’t exist in its current incarnation before 1939. All those things were created to answer some problems. The United Nations did not exist when my mother was born, neither did the European Union. Our challenge is to build new infrastructure. We need only something like 5% of global GDP to do that.

It’s a surprisingly small amount considering that during World War II the United Kingdom spent 50% of its GDP on armaments. Have you heard about the overview effect? Some astronauts who see the Earth from space go through an incredible change. Having experienced unity with the planet, they feel the need to protect it. Scientists are studying natural psychedelic drugs that can have a similar effect without the need for a space flight. Since we must employ various methods, maybe those drugs are one of them?

Maybe [laughs]. We surely must change our mindset. Just think: religion can make someone decide to dedicate their life to being a monk or a nun, someone who renounces all their needs. Buddhist monks have nothing except for their robes. We could solve climate change if we decided that one generation will just wear plain robes and eat nothing but rice for 50 years. And we would be grateful to this generation. Maybe this sounds like a stupid idea, but who knows? Maybe some future generation will decide to do exactly that: to own nothing. The main thing is, we must act before it’s too late. If we pass the tipping point, simple robes won’t be feasible anymore, because we’ll need protective clothes, keeping us safe from the rumbling Earth.

Let’s talk about death, if we may. What are your personal experiences of death? From your writing, I gather that your relatives have lived a long time.

Most of my relatives lived to a very old age. I was over 30 when my first grandfather passed away. It was a very old-fashioned death, unlike the modern, hospital ones. He died in his own bed. All his children and grandchildren were able to come and say goodbye, to touch his forehead, to spend some time with him. I lost another two grandparents in my forties. Grandpa Björn died at 98. One of my grandmothers is still with us.

Do you remember the first time you thought about death?

The thought of death came to me for the first time when I was standing by a roaring waterfall and I felt a strange attracting force. Just one step and I would vanish into this chaotic stream.

In the book, I wrote about my favourite place in the north of Iceland. In the summer it is buzzing with life, but there’s plenty of dying chicks, hunting predators, dead fish on the beach, skeletons and remains of animals. Any space full of life is also a space of natural death that you won’t see in a zoo, on a farm, or in a city. If this landscape changed because of climate change, it would become less hospitable for the animals. Then the death would go away because it is a sign of rich, forceful life.

When I was 25, a boy I knew committed suicide. He was a good friend of many of my pals. It was tragic and bizarre, because his life and mine were very similar. Our mothers had the same name, we both had sisters named Hulda born in 1968, both our girlfriends were called Margaret. We grew up in identical houses, we went to the same schools, befriended the same people, played in the same positions on the football field. He had a child born in the spring of 1997 and so did I. I kept thinking about how someone who led a life nearly identical to mine decided to end it. Could we have done something? Is it all about the basic chemistry of his brain that caused depression, which led to his death? I myself had my downs, but I never, not even once, wanted to kill myself.

The awareness of inevitable climate change throws many people into climate depression or climate anxiety. Global warming is also about dying.

I spoke once to an old choreographer who was working on an adaptation of a children’s play that I had written. He lost faith in humanity during Word War II and he escaped up north, seeking nature. But there he realized that nature is actually more cruel than man. One very severe winter killed 90% of the populations of certain species. The great question is: are we moving towards even greater longevity, or maybe the way we have been avoiding death is unnatural because we’ve hacked the brutal natural system? As a child, I felt sorry for dead birds. Then my uncle explained that all it takes to keep a species in balance is one surviving chick out of the hundred chicks a female has during her lifetime. Now man influences ecosystems. As a result, many people may die, many forms of life may go extinct unless technological progress and social change make it possible for nine or 10 billion people to live on this planet. Science points out that one thing we ought to do is to reduce the amount of meat we consume.

More people also means more cemeteries. There simply won’t be enough space. What will we do with the bodies?

In my science fiction novel LoveStar, a gigantic corporation commercializes some last things that haven’t yet been commercialized – namely, love, god and death. This corporation shoots dead rock stars into space, and then they fall into the atmosphere, like meteors. In time it becomes cheap and accessible, like Ryanair flights. When your grandma dies, you shoot her up, and then, at a certain hour, she burns brightly in the atmosphere. The method allows for the saving of land, also it is inexpensive and deeply symbolic. The corporation gathers all those who died in one year, some 50 million people, and organizes a festival of shooting stars. But the story doesn’t have a happy ending. I wrote it when I was 29.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Introduction translated from the Polish by Jan Dzierzgowski

Andri Snær Magnason:

An Icelandic writer, poet and environmental activist. He studied the history of Icelandic literature. His works are widely discussed in Iceland and have brought him many awards; collectively, they have been translated into 30 languages. In 2016, he ran for the office of President of Iceland. His latest book “On Time and Water” was published in 2020.


Biography translated from the Polish by Richard Greenhill

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Maria Hawranek

is an independent reporter, born in 1987. She works alongside Szymon Opryszek, with whom she published the books “Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki” [We Only Dance on All Soul’s Day Now] (2016) and “Wyhoduj sobie wolność. Reportaże z Urugwaju” [Grow Yourself Some Freedom: Reportage from Uruguay] (2018). A lover of Latin America and life in the countryside.