More Thin Description

I hate to sound like a broken record, but jeebus, those scientisty types sure like their world shaded in nothing but greys.

Our good friend idoubtit is at it again with this: “Swiss change tactics with prayer to stop glacial ice from disappearing.”

So what’s the skinny? From Nat’l Geo Daily News:

About 50 people set out on foot from the Swiss village of Fiesch at dawn on July 31. As the sun rose over 13,000-foot (4,000-meter) Alpine peaks, the procession moved slowly up a mountainside and into the cool of a pine forest, stopping at a tiny church.

By 7:30 the group had swollen to around a hundred—too many to fit inside the chapel of Maria Heimsuchung, or Mary of the Visitation, so a makeshift altar was erected outside.

“Glacier is ice, ice is water, water is life,” intoned priest Toni Wenger, before beseeching God to stop the glaciers high above them from melting.

By changing a few, crucial words in the liturgy, Father Wenger reversed a Catholic ritual that for 350 years had implored the heavens to push back the glaciers.

The Vatican had approved the change as the effects of global warming became all too tangible in the Alps.


The people of devoutly Catholic Fiesch and Fieschertal have made the annual pilgrimage since 1674, when Europe was in the grip of the Little Ice Age.

Looming over the villages, the two largest glaciers in the Alps … grew over the next two centuries, reaching their maximum lengths around 1850.


The consequences for the villagers were dire.

When pieces of the Aletsch [glacier] fell into Lake Märjelen—which lies between the two glaciers—the lake overflowed. Three hundred and fifty-three million cubic feet (10 million cubic metres) of water rushed down the valley below, inundating settlements, damaging property, and killing villagers. Extremely poor until the late 19th century, the locals had few options but to rebuild.

Having endured hundreds such diasters, the villagers—with the help of local Jesuits—organized the pilgrimage, to be held annually on July 31: the Catholic feast day dedicated to the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.


The glaciers began receding in the 1860s, and they continue to shrink today.

The Aletsch … has lost nearly 3 miles (5 kilometers) in length and 650 feet (200 meters) in depth since 1864.

“We prayed for the ice to recede, and our prayer worked—too well,” said Herbert Volken, mountain guide and mayor of Conches, the district that includes Fiesch.


Today the villagers no longer worry about floods, he said, but about having less drinking water, energy, and food for their animals, and more forest fires. Another problem is the impact the dwindling glaciers could have on tourism—the main source of income, besides hydropower, for the district—which is already strained by recession and the Eurozone crisis.

So far, icemelt doesn’t appear to be a factor in the tourism dropoff, Volken said. But “if the [Aletsch] glacier isn’t there any more, the tourists won’t come.”


Hanspeter Holzhäuser, a University of Bern geographer who specializes in glacier history, said the Aletsch is losing about 75 feet (23 meters) a year in length.


“Even if all the new prayer does is to draw attention to man-made global warming,” he said, “it’s a good thing.”

idoubtit’s commentary?

Here is a great example of superstition at work. They prayed to stop the destruction of their lands from the glacier’s floods and hazards. Global warming decimated the ice which has receded to such a degree that it’s causing its own hazards such as lack of water and increased fires. So, with the help of nature (aided by the industrial age), the prayer appeared to work. Now, reality bites.

The new prayers will do nothing to reverse global warming. Based on trends the rapid warming—and subsequent melting—will continue for at least the next 30 years. Yet, people will cling to their hope they can exert some effect on the environment by appealing to a higher power.

What is this ‘superstition’ of which you speak? Ok, ok, that was rhetorical. I understand what you mean: you think all those Swiss Misters and Misses believe in such hocus and/or pocus; you think they believe it’s worked (to reverse effect) in the past, and so it’ll work in the future. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: dunno quite how you are so sure of that, but so what if they do? What makes you think that that’s what’s fundamentally operative here?

Let’s start with the sorta metasocial facts of me, you, the story, and the liturgy. If the press hadn’t tagged along for the pilgrimage (were they invited? I wonder), you, me and all the readers of the Nat’l Geo website would have no idea this even had occurred. You don’t suppose that maybe, just maybe, those villagers (or at least pilgrimage organizers) were keen to have the press along, and maybe because they were keen to have the larger world made aware of their plight in the epoch of climate change, do you? Holzhäuser implies as much: “Even if all the new prayer does is to draw attention to man-made global warming … it’s a good thing.” So, don’t you think that if the pilgrims, or at least the authorities, thought for a minute that all anyone would see was a bunch of yokles trying to pull of a magic trick if the press observed, they might try to keep the press away? Dontcha?

And if you accept that, even just a smidge, ask yourself what the layer of meaning just below that is. But of course, as long as you’re working with a single element taxonomy, there is no meaning to be discerned.* Allow me work from an assumption you cannot allow yourself to make. What if a force of directors/actors here do genuinely accept the process of climate change (and hence can’t, presumably, genuinely believe that this liturgy is potentially effective)?

They’re just going along? Possibly, but I doubt it. Cognitive dissonance? That’s not an explanation. But, if you could get anywhere near the idea of ritual-as-theatre, you might be able to ask, what’s this little play trying to say? Maybe the play (and so the actors whether they are conscious of it or not) is saying, there is a problem (melting glaciers), the cause of the problem is known (global climate change), the powers that be cannot inact a solution to the problem, thus, there’s nothing else to be done but try to generate a miracle (a specific miracle for this specific problem, hence the liturgical change to produce the opposite effect from the traditionally desired one). And if you can’t conceive of such an interpretation, and if you can’t recognize the potential for political resistance in that (‘hey politicians, scientists, et al. you’ve got to fucking do something!’) is any form of communication between us even possible?

But fine, dismiss me as a pretentious apologist for all such religious nonsense. Let’s grant at this point then, your simple analysis (and I use that term loosely) that we’re dealing here with nothing but superstition. What drove the locals to this annual fit of woo from 1674?** The persistent existential threat represented by two gianormous glaciers looming over a poor village in the Alps. What drove them to reorient this woofest now? The new existential threat represented by the rapid receding of those formerly gianormous glaciers. These are people with a long history of getting fucked by the fickle finger of fate. Your dismissal of the expression of their anxieties – “people will cling to their hope they can exert some effect on the environment by appealing to a higher power” – isn’t just condescending, isn’t just stoopid, it’s absolutely, positively, fucking callous.


*And you and your ilk do this all the time – you read some piece of online journalism and take it entirely at face value and ask not a single interesting question about it. Forgive me for presuming, but I have to imagine that you have taken Herbert Volken’s remark, “We prayed for the ice to recede, and our prayer worked—too well,” simply as an affirmation of faith in the ritual. Maybe he chuckled as he said that to the reporter, maybe his anxiety about the effects of climate change on his life was palpable (if not expressed). In any case, every time you encounter a story that gets your knickers atwisted you rush in headlong, never suggesting that any qualification or interpretation of the reported ‘facts’ might be required.

**BTW, while I know nothing of the history of Catholicism in this part of Switzerland, I’m interested in the fact that this pilgrimage coincides with the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (fyi, a statutory holiday at my workplace). Few other Catholic orders are so intimately associated with education – including scientific education – as the Jesuits. Might not this religious activity entail a plea for scientific and technological help? I merely speculate.


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