noun. \ ə-ˈrȯr-ə
1) emission of light from atoms excited by electrons;
2) the Roman goddess of dawn.
“A plurality of knowledge tells me there can be a plurality of solutions to end this known problem.”
As an author, explorer and communicator, Dr. M Jackson aims for an inclusive narrative on climate change told through stories of how people and glaciers interact. In conversation with Erica Dingman, M Jackson gives a compelling account of her experience and why we must be open to new approaches to the challenges that lay ahead.
Erica Dingman: As a glaciologist and geographer you have chosen a different professional trajectory than many of your colleagues. What was your motivation?
M Jackson: It’s not clear-cut. The honest answer is that I chose this trajectory because of a momentum and forces that push me in this direction. I tend to move toward positive and supportive environments. Though I did consider a more traditional academic route, I found that a lot of positions for which I was qualified, I would have been one of the first or one of the few female hires. My aim was to make sure that I was in a position where I was meeting my personal end goals. It’s great to be the first woman, but I did not want to make that the focus of my career, the fight to break the ice ceiling. So I’m really grateful to have the supportive structure, especially from the National Geographic Society, especially my publisher, especially the grant agencies that continue to support my long-term fieldwork. This allows me to do my research, write and communicate in a culture that is designed for yes rather than no.
ED: What is a feminist approach to glaciology?
MJ: It’s a call to attention to the gendered nature of glacier research, and of STEM research more broadly, which has a long way to go. It’s a call to attention to the lack of woman and of diversity in all the fields of STEM. A feminist approach to glaciology advocates for a greater inclusivity in practices and knowledges. It asks: what counts as glacier research and what does not. To quote the comedian Hannah Gadsby: “diversity is strength, difference is experience.”
In glaciology there is a strong set of practices, theories, and approaches that emphasize the physical aspect of ice. That’s incredible, and I want to build from that, apply a feminist lens. Can we build on that work, also include more non-Western white male contributions? Let’s include artists. Let’s include people with no academic background who have lived with ice their entire life. What we need now is a type of glaciology that is inclusive, diverse and all-listening. We don’t need to control the borders; we do need to see everything there is to know because we are running out of time.
ED: Much of your work focuses on marginalized voices. Could you provide an example?
MJ: I’ll tell you a story from current research. I’ve been talking to a lot of people on the south coast of Iceland. In the last decade tourism has gone through the roof, and we’re talking millions of people. This is a sparse region, with approximately 2,000 inhabitants.
I’ve talked to many of the women and they tell me that historically, women did not really interact with these glaciers. Equally, many of the men might not have much experience, but during the early boom of tourism they likely had a super jeep or the financial capabilities to start a guide company. They started working on the glaciers and hiring their male friends. But without enough physical bodies to meet the demand they also hired women after a couple of years. So now many women I talk to say: “I’m working out there on the glaciers and feel myself so deeply empowered by this ice.” I like to think about that. Outside of the physical effects, why does it matter that the ice is melting?
Something what gets overlooked is how deeply ice influences individuals, men, women, gender roles, and how a society is constructed. On the south coast of Iceland you can really see that. A lot of women are now working in classically masculine and challenging environments and they’re rocking it on their own terms. It’s common to be out on the glaciers and see a male guide wearing a backpack stacked with tons of gear with all kinds of stuff strapped on. There’s a performance of masculinity and physical strength. Then you see the women and everything is tucked into those packs. You don’t know what they’ve got. Those packs are smaller, with only the bare essentials. They are not performing traditional masculinity. Instead they have a whole different view as to how to be safe on the ice. It’s really pretty incredible.
ED: Historically, how have women participated in glaciology?
MJ: This is a touchy issue. This seems like a non-answer – but I’m excited for the day that I’m not seen as a female explorer for the National Geographic Society, but simply as an explorer.
Here’s what I mean by that. For a historic context of women in glaciology we have to step back and ask who was recognized, and who authorized women’s participation. Even today the power to confer participation is part of the patriarchy. Throughout history men, women, and all ranges of gender have lived with ice. Today, the idea of a woman’s participation typically means that she completed an academic discipline, learned the tools of glaciology, received peer approval, and then practices traditional glaciology. Those numbers are increasing, but historically that was pretty darn low. Historically did women work with ice? Of course they did. Did they do scientific expeditions? Well in today’s terms, no, not a lot, but in time appropriate terms, yes. Did anyone ever recognize that? Was that science made available? Likely not. The doors were very firmly closed on acknowledging women’s participation.
But it wasn’t just women. Look at the historic context of participation and the line was definitive. Indigenous people who have been living with ice for a very long time were not included. For people who were not European white men that door was shut. That’s the historic context that I’m pushing back against. So much knowledge is lost. Generations of men and women who lived next to glaciers in Iceland wrote incredible journal entries, papers and treaties, and most of those are lost. That’s just a shame.
ED: How does a feminist narrative differ from other narratives?
MJ: A feminist narrative is not trying to dominate or remove the foundation from other narratives. For glaciology it’s trying to include all narratives and say that there isn’t a single narrative. When we look at these different knowledges of ice, a traditional Western approach to glaciology is by definition traditional and it’s a bit self-serving. It says this is the way. I think a feminist approach to that is to say a Western scientific approach is wonderful, but it is just one out of many.
With ice, a feminist approach considers ice from all different points of view to expand and include diversification.
ED: In your paper “Glaciers, Gender, and Science: A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Change Research” you argue for plurality, yet there was criticism. Why does a plurality matter?
MJ: I think people are critical for a lot of different reasons. My colleagues and I included “feminism” on purpose and threw in the different approaches that we value. There’s such a simplified idea of feminism. I think a lot of the push back comes from society’s ongoing conversation rather than the actual content of the paper. The paper is arguing that a plurality of knowledge matters. I think you can see that in pretty much everything I do.
I wake up every morning knowing that what I am working on is disappearing, but that’s not the end. If I focus on the negative, I’m losing time covering beautiful stories and thinking about different approaches. I’m acutely aware that almost all the ice I work on worldwide, especially the outlet glaciers, will have greatly reduced by the end of my lifetime. We have the answers as to why: increasing air temperatures are a primary predator. But a plurality of knowledge tells me there can be a plurality of solutions to end this known problem. These stories I’m collecting, the ways of knowing and experiencing ice is going to lead us to solutions. I’ll never see the product of those solutions. Even if we returned to perfect temperatures for ice today, it grows back so slowly. If we start appreciating all the different ways to know ice and start working on solutions, perhaps it could grow back in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetime. That’s why a plurality of knowledge matters. It’s going to inform us how we move forward. This gives context for my work, especially as I know I’ll likely never see the fruits of my labor. But, I’m ok with that, knowing that other generations will benefit.
ED: Have you seen a change in attitudes?
MJ: When I first gave presentations to general audiences I was asked questions like what’s your favorite glacier? Now, the nature of the questions has changed. We are moving away from some commonly held misconceptions and entering a space of complexity and nuance. I find that hopeful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dr. M Jackson is a geographer, glaciologist, TED Fellow, and National Geographic Society Explorer. M earned a doctorate from the University of Oregon. She is the recipient of many grants and awards, including three U.S. Fulbright grants and a U.S. Fulbright Ambassadorship. She’s worked for over a decade in the Arctic chronicling climate change and communities, guiding backcountry trips and exploring glacial systems. Her latest book, The Secret Lives of Glaciers, explores the profound impacts of glacier change on the human and physical geography of Iceland. She is currently at work on In Tangible Ice, a multi-disciplinary project partnering with explorers, filmmakers, and scientists that examines the socio-physical dimensions of glacier retreat in near-glacier communities within all eight circumpolar nations.
You can follow M Jackson on Instagram @mlejackson or learn more about her work at: www.drmjackson.com.
Aurora champions women and gender equality through a series of interviews inclusive of a wide range of voices. We recognize that freedom of expression is an important step towards equitable outcomes for women and by extension all of humanity.