Wednesday, January 5, 2005

'The Future of Ice'

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

A glacier is an exotic phenomenon of nature. It is born with a snowflake and dies when its last bit of ice turns to moisture and sinks into the earth, rises into the atmosphere or runs back home to the sea. Most people have never seen a glacier except, perhaps, at a distance. Few have actually stood, walked or climbed on one and seen and felt its majesty and menace, its life and movement, its beauty and connections to one's own existence. Those who do are most often adventurers or natives of the far reaches of the earth whose subsistence is tied to knowledge of ice. Fewer still, most of them scientists in esoteric fields, have any intellectual understanding of the value of glaciers and the larger world of natural ice near the poles and their relationship to, say, deserts, starvation in Africa, agriculture in South America, to the survival of the polar bear and, perhaps, mankind itself.

The ice of glaciers is, among other things, a repository of the natural history of earth, and most of its glaciers are retreating and vanishing and no one knows exactly what that might mean or what is to be done about it. Every mountaineer I know has seen it. Every person knowledgeable and concerned about global warming, the expanding desertification of earth, the compounding rate of species extinctions, the multitudes of people who are starving to death as these words are read, and the "totality of all life" given form and expression through the intricate connections between all things, like the toxic pollution of an oil refinery in Texas and the death of the last polar bear in the Arctic, knows that global warming is melting the glaciers and the polar ice. Scientists have measured the decline of ice, as many with less formal training have noted it, but no one knows what it portends or what might be its consequences to the earth, to its wildlife, to its oceans and to the heart and soul and future of man. But no sane, honest person thinks it is good.

And all too many people, especially those in the most polluting corporate industries and their pals in the halls of power in Washington, whose parochial worldview is narrow and cramped and hardly a millimeter above the bottom line, don't care. Who cares if a few glaciers vanish? With all the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, what does it matter if some of it melts? Even if the atmosphere is warming up a few degrees, it's not very much and isn't it just part of nature's eternal cycles? But what if the real melting of glaciers is the result of man's greed and carelessness? What if it is only an illusion that he is superior to nature and that commerce and economic matters are his purpose on earth?

In her most recent book, "The Future of Ice," American writer Gretel Ehrlich carves out her own answers to such questions, and she inspires the reader to examine why they need to be asked in the first place. The book relates her travels in glacier/polar landscapes over the course of a year from Tierra del Fuego in the south to Spitsbergen, east of Greenland, in the north in search to the answer to this question: "...what would happen if we became 'deseasoned,' if winter disappeared as a result of global warming." Ehrlich's work is not easily categorized, but she has few peers in creating evocative prose about the landscape through which she moves and her own personal inner landscape that moves her. That the two worlds are not separate, that they are in reality impermeable and part of the same setting is a central message of "The Future of Ice." She calls it "...both ode and lament, a wild time song and elegy, and a cry for help—not for me, but for the tern, the ice cap, the polar bear, and the lenga forest (an aspen-like tree that is a predominant tree species of Patagonia); for the river of weather and the ways it chooses to be born."

In just one paragraph of the introduction Ehrlich touches on vulnerability, the heart, the mind, illusions and how they affect the future of ice on earth and much more. She writes: "We're spoiled because we've been living in an interglacial paradise for twenty thousand years. Now we're losing it. Climate stability, not to mention human superiority and economic viability, are illusions we must give up. Our can-do American optimism and our head-in-the-sand approach to economics when it takes into mind only profit and not the biological health of the planet—has left us one-sided. Too few of us remember how to be heartbroken. Or why we should be. We don't look because heartbreak might imply failure. But the opposite is true. A broken heart is an open heart, like a flower unfolding from its calyx, the one nourishing the other."

She is right. Whether or not we look, and whether we look in time, will determine the future of ice.

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