Melting Polar Ice: Alchemy of Grief
“What was cold soon warms, and warmth soon cools. So moisture dries, and dry things drown.” (Heraclitus)
Disappearing polar ice has been one of the major contributing factors to global warming. This contemporary environmental problem directly impacts the future of all life on our planet. Could this self-inflicted consequence of humanity’s over-indulgence be causing our Mother Earth to abandon us? What are the effects of these liquid tears on the soul of the world? During this epochal transition, how may our grief catalyze us to deeply re-connect, re-claim, and re-grow a healthier relationship with our natural home and all of its inhabitants?
This piece searches for the ecopsychological significance of melting polar ice with respect to the impact of global warming from various cultural, mythical, and philosophical perspectives. The transition of this rapid melting affects humanity and the deep mourning associated with this event provides themes for this review.
The Effects of Melting Polar Ice
Even though natural factors have always influenced the state of polar sea ice, research strongly suggests that the influence of anthropogenic carbon dioxide has accelerated current melting trends. Over the past millennia, this influence has continued to impact the earth’s atmosphere.
Considering that the polar ice caps contain more than three-quarters of the earth’s freshwater, this melting will continue to be a significant issue. Besides being essential for marine life, ice caps help regulate sea level and global temperatures. The melting of the ice caps increases the volume of water in the oceans and decreases the salinity. The loss of the polar ice caps will increase sea levels, reduce the amount of light reflected into space, and will contribute to a rapid increase in the overall temperature of the planet.
While carbon dioxide emissions mainly drive warming, the full effects of other variables are not fully known. For example, the release of methane from thawing permafrost and warmer less saline oceans will have increasing consequences. We have started to see how the pressure change has begun to alter atmospheric circulations, including an increase of harsh winter weather, droughts and extreme storms.
Therefore, melting polar ice has negative planetary environmental impacts. Many ecosystems are being affected, and the higher temperatures will lead to more heat-related illnesses and diseases. Changing weather patterns have already started to generate droughts, fires, and floods as well as stronger storms and increased storm damage. Economic losses will continue as environmentally based activities such as fishing, farming, and tourism have continued to be negatively affected by a changing and unpredictable climate. Most of the planet’s wildlife have become innocent and unfortunate bystanders struggling for survival in the midst of this human-generated maelstrom. Earth, as we know it will continually and rapidly change her appearance as ice, uncovers new lands and rising water levels will cover-up old shorelines.
An image emerges of an elegant old grand dame enduring unfathomable stress causing her to age faster than she should. In Susan Griffin’s book Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her she writes: “When the water approaches me the shape of the wave is changed. And when the tide ebbs, you will see, I too, have changed”.
We may be witnessing a form of escalated evolution.
In our hearts, we know there is something maniacal about the way we are abusing the planetary environment. And, as Theodore Roszak asks, where can we turn to find a standard of sanity that comprehends our environmental condition?
A long time ago, all psychologies were ecopsychologies, and those who did soul work assumed that human nature was part of the interconnected web of all existence, including any unseen powers of the cosmos. Today the field of Ecopsychology can generally be defined as the study of the interrelationship between people and the natural world. This interrelationship has become more evident due to the rapidly changing environment. It has also impacted people and their societies on many different levels.
In The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder writes about the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild. This separateness has relegated nature to the status of other, but it is in the resolution of this dichotomy that healthy planetary survival resides:
“To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive”.
The melting polar ice has become categorized as a wilderness outside of our common view. And without actively belonging to any community, the polar ice continues to slip into the vast oceans. Snyder further suggests that we “make a world-scale ‘Natural Contract’ with the oceans, the air, and the birds in the sky” that would bring the issue of the climate crisis into the Mind of the Commons.
Snyder describes how we live in a backward time. “The world of culture and nature, which is actual, is almost a shadow world now, and the insubstantial world of political jurisdictions and rarefied economies is what passes for reality”. This backward reality led me to believe that because the polar ice caps are not a part of any significant world populations and have an undetermined economic benefit, they have fallen into a kind of no man’s land.
It is likely that the unresolved issues of national boundaries and borders will fully explode once the polar caps have disappeared and the new land plus potential resources have become more evident and accessible. On institutional level governments and corporations are not motivated to slow the transition of the melting polar ice. Like vultures waiting for a rich relative to die, they rub their hands greedily and salivate at the potential spoils.
Vandana Shiva links climate injustice to water injustice. She states the obvious that “water is life, but too much or too little of it can become a threat to life” . Only when the atmospheric saturation by carbon dioxide reduces will climate, and water issues become tamed.
While subverting international struggle to avert climate disaster makes economic sense for oil companies, it spells political and ecological disaster for much of the earth’s community. More than anything, the oil economy’s environmental externalities, such as atmospheric pollution and climate change, will determine the future of water, and through water, the future of all life on earth.
Shiva outlines how the struggle has already begun and maintains that water wars are not a thing of the future:
“These wars are both paradigm wars — conflicts over how we perceive and experience water — and traditional wars, fought with guns and grenades. These clashes of water cultures are taking place in every society”.
How will we bridge this global clash of water viewed as a sacred element necessary to the preservation of life and the corporate view of water as a commodifiable resource? This reality gap is the most fundamental and crucial question that humanity will need to address immediately. How would our ancestors advise us on this issue?
Around the world, water plays a significant role in many Indigenous creation myths. For example, the Jicarilla Apache believe “in the beginning the earth was covered with water and all living things were below in the underworld. Then people could talk, the animals could talk, the trees could talk, and the rocks could talk”. It is interesting how everything and everyone was connected and communicated even under a blanket of water.
A quick search through Tamra Andrew’s Dictionary of Nature Myths only uncovers a couple of examples involving ice. In Greek mythology, there was Boreas, the god of the north wind and of winter, whose hair and beard was spiked with ice and Boreas’ daughter, Khione, who was the goddess of snow. There was one additional northern reference.
In Norse mythology, frost giants personified the cold northern European winters. The early settlers of Iceland and the Germanic lands fought a constant battle with the elements; their world became dominated by icy waters, crashing waves, monstrous glaciers, and bitter cold. Somehow, the settlers had to defeat that challenge by creating frost giants, the first living beings. Like the wild, destructive forces of nature, the Giants had to be defeated.
From an Indigenous perspective “the myths of the Arctic lands reflected the continual battle the Inuit fought with the elements….people who did survive faced the constant threat of starvation … they believed that only by the goodness of the spirits would they survive”. So it is not unusual that the place or purpose of ice, as a major threat to survival, would not have had a positive place in ancestral memory.
This might suggest that ice and specifically polar ice throughout the ages has not enjoyed a position of historical importance. Survival and endurance seem to be humankind’s experience of ice. So why should humanity want to grieve the loss of something that has been so harsh to our survival? Has the collective unconscious noticed this? Maybe this is one of the deeper reasons behind the overall lack of care and concern for these remote parts of the natural world.
If humanity does survive these significant climate changes what new myths might be created for future generations to consider and remember? How will indigenous and non-indigenous stories record the mourning and the loss of the polar ice?
“there is one principal attribute of every substance….which contains its nature and essence and to which all the other properties are referred.” (René Descartes).
What is the attribute of ice, melting polar ice, and climate change?
This is a profound question on a problematic and complex global problem. At the surface, it would appear that humankind has begun to self-destruct and yet on a deeper level something else must have happened to allow, if not enable these changes to occur. We have become so disconnected that we do not know what we are doing to ourselves and future generations. Does nature herself play a part in this metamorphosis?
Gaston Bachelard wrote that nature is narcissistic because of her ability to reflect in water. Has nature helped in this transition by melting the ice to see more of herself?: “The true eye of the earth is water… In our eyes it is water that dreams. In nature it is once again water that sees and water that dreams”. Not ice, water. To see the earth more clearly and to dream, perhaps we need more water, more fresh water to begin to reduce, moderate, and dissolve the salinity of civilization.
The dissolution of fresh water into the salt water from polar ice packs and icebergs, in general, continues to be a noisy event. From crashing catastrophic events such as collapsing ice sheets to bubbling effervescence from icebergs, the forced marriage of fresh and salt water is not very harmonious nor graceful. “Water has indirect voices”, writes Bachelard, “Nature resounds with ontological echoes. Of all the elements, water is the most faithful ‘mirror of voices”. With the substantial increase of noise from the polar ice caps, what does this mirror tell us and how could humanity more fully listen to all the apparent changes surrounding us?
This listening is different from that undertaken when heading into the wilderness as relief from the stresses of life. In his book, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Paul Shepard writes:
“We hear increasingly about the spiritual uplift derived from a ‘wilderness experience.’ The great ecologist Sir Frank Darling describes this spiritual re-creation as ‘the privilege of the few,’ adding that ‘I have an uneasy feeling deep down that we should not burden the wilderness with this egocentric human purpose. The wilderness does not exist for our recreation or delectation. This is something we gain from its great function of being.’ ”
Is mourning the melting polar ice an activity that only the privileged can afford? Cynicism aside, I do believe it is necessary to connect spirit, soul, soil (water) and science. And this has always been my simple personal practice of Ecopsychology, that of reconnection.
Alchemy of Grief
“Desolation … something common to psyche and to wilderness alike.” (Edward Casey)
Jung believed the loss of emotional participation in Nature has resulted in a sense of cosmic and social isolation. The melting polar ice and related global warming have also produced deep feelings of public and private grief.
As the polar ice melts, it continues to displace many known and unknown components within various ecosystems. The displacement of one of the most basic elements of life has produced a certain desolation within our individual and collective psyches. Consciously and unconsciously we acknowledge, worry, deny, fear, and grieve the loss of polar ice as earth’s climate rapidly changes. The experience of desolation occurs with humanity facing an uncertain future of unknown environmental conditions.
Edward Casey suggests that places also require mourning. “Decathexis is a major part of the work of mourning. We mourn places as well as people, and as part of the process we must decathect from both”. The challenge with mourning the disappearing polar ice is that it is with hindsight we have appreciated their importance. This is similar to grieving a distant relative you never really got to know, but realize they had a major role supporting the health and well-being of your family.
Should humanity respectfully say thank you and goodbye to the polar ice? And maybe, at the same time, Earth has started to say goodbye to us.
In The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life, Meredith Sabini reminds us that “Jung sees the necessity of restoring to Nature its original wholeness and considered matter and spirit as equal mysteries. Matter is the tangible exterior of things and spirit the nonvisible interior”. How do we facilitate the reconnection of matter and spirit within a scientifically dehumanized world? What alchemical process could transform this fracture back into a healthy whole?
The alchemy of polar ice is the steamy liminal space between ice and water, too much heat and it melts, not enough heat, and it freezes. The constant tension between these two may be a metaphor for what is being played out in the collective psyche and soul of the world. Perhaps nature’s spirit is causing the ice to melt as an indication that it is time to unfreeze our old, and outdated, ways of living on the earth. Nature has been pushed to release some of her ancient wisdom for the sake of warning the world that we are on a path to destruction.
A Watery Closing
“As souls change into water on their way through death, so water changes into earth. And as water springs from earth, so from water does the soul.” (Heraclitus).
There is no denying that the melting polar ice has contributed to global warming. And there is a great deal of speculation as to whether we have passed the point of no return. But a more significant consideration is understanding what is profoundly transpiring within the psyche of humanity. This is the great work of Ecopsychology right now, to help humankind acknowledge and reconnect with the natural world during this great time of transition and mourning.
If we do not reconnect, the natural ecosystems will adapt accordingly, as Gary Snyder reminds us in his poignant and provocative question: “what does mother nature do best when left to her own long term strategies”. Considering the increasing rate of melting polar ice and the related irreversible changes, we will not like her answer.
Descartes, R. (1998). Principles of philosophy (D. M. Clarke, Trans.). London: Penguin.
Erdoes R. & Ortiz A.(1984). American Indian myths and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Jung C.G. (2002). The Earth Has a Soul: C.G.Jung’s Writings on Nature, Technology and Modern Life: North Atlantic Books.