Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘Glaciers and Geohuman Relations’

All images courtesy of the authors.

Figure 1: top of Ok mountain in snow

For seven hundred years or so, Ok Glacier lived atop Ok mountain. There, it accumulated snow and ice; it also crawled, not quickly, but persistently, down the northern face of the now-extinct shield volcano where it made its home. Okjökull—its formal name since “jökull” is the Icelandic word for glacier and Ok was the name given to this constellation of ice way back in the time of settlement, 1200 years ago—was the smallest of Iceland’s named glaciers. Nonetheless, it appeared on every glacier map of the country going back several hundred years. Some say that Ok Glacier sticks in the memory because of its funny name, ‘Ok’. The word means ‘burden’ in old Icelandic and “Ok” reads, of course, to Icelanders and others as the English word ‘OK’. 

We found Ok, in some ways by accident, but also in the para-accidental way that anthropological research projects can sometimes yield surprises, wonder and revelation. Our research in Iceland had begun with questions of political parody (Boyer 2013) and then turned to questions about the rapid loss of a natural form, namely ice and how that might be shaping social and cultural futures (Howe 2019). Ice is not only nominal in the country’s identity, it is also a material form that has conditioned life on the island nation for as long as humans have inhabited it. About 10% of the country’s surface is covered in ice, in glaciers like the massive Vatnajökull ice cap, and if one were to spread all the ice of Iceland across its surface, the island would be under a thick glaze of ice 2 meters thick. 

We discovered Ok in our search for glaciers and the people who lived near them, to find out how they were influenced by them, the people who had thoughts and feelings about the 11 billion tons of ice being lost every year due to climate warming. And there was Ok, on the map, as “he”1 had long been. Charmed by the glacier’s name, we set out to uncover more about this little glacier that no one had yet mentioned to us. We soon discovered a very brief report – just under eighty words total – in an English-language magazine. There, Icelandic glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson announced that Okjökull had lost so much of its icy mass that it could no longer be classified as a glacier. It was a brief obituary, of sorts. 

Figure 2: image of memorial plaque for Okjökull

We felt that Iceland losing its first named glacier was a rather important story, one that deserved more recognition, especially outside of Iceland. Over the course of a month in the summer of 2017, we were able to interview Icelandic politicians, academics, artists, hikers, farmers and even a priest for a short documentary film that was eventually titled, Not Ok: a little movie about a small glacier at the end of the world (2018). In the course of making the film we spent a lot of time talking to Icelanders about how best to make meaning of their disappearing cryosphere and those conversations led in turn to the idea to create a memorial for Okjökull and stage a funeral in his memory. The memorial plaque and funeral went viral in the hot summer of 2019, which through this odd twist of fate led to Ok getting a longer obituary from The Economist, their first ever for a non-human (2019).

From one standpoint, imagining the expiration of a glacier as a death and the appropriate response to that death as a funeral and obituary, might seem ridiculous. But from many other standpoints, the expiration of a glacier is a death: a death of the ecological systems that glaciers maintain, a death of the histories that may be lost as material traces melt and wash away, a death of a part of world heritage, or in some cases, and in some cosmological contexts, the death of a cherished kin member or earth being (Paerregaard 2023). 

While Icelandic folk traditions do not take mountains or glaciers as sentient beings per se, there has been a long tradition of belief in the sentient occupation and guardianship of mountains and rocks by spirits and non-human beings like huldufólk in the near-human landscape, as Gísli Pálsson has described (2020: 35–36). In a commensurate way, as we see with Karine Gagné’s work (2019), local people may sense a ‘broken bond’ between wounded environments and human responsibilities and commitments to them. Or, as David Anderson points out, the social relationships between humans and non-humans, particularly those rooted in a specific place, can be said to be existing in ‘a sentient ecology’ (2000: 46) even if that ecology does not include ascribing vitality to (normatively) non-living entities. 

As the world faces unprecedented losses in the natural world—from glaciers and forests to rivers and entire ecosystems—we believe that it is important to acknowledge the continuum between sentient lives and inanimate entities. That is, as anthropologists who work in and across socio-natural environments, we think it is critical to draw collective attention to the fact that all biotic life is both imperiled by the non-living world as well as entirely dependent on it. In this reciprocal relationship between the living and nonliving, and in trying to understand the blur between them, we have come to think of this continuum as one of “geohuman relations.” 

Geohuman relations are an attunement to the geohuman – those moments of contact and relationship, recognition and transformation, between human communities and the earth system. 

In her formative work, Isabel Stengers (2010) theorised how ‘cosmopolitics’ – the intimate intertwining of humans and non-humans, and the inseparability of a cosmos from a politics – serves as a challenge to global Northern perceptions of transcendental personhood and the positioning of ‘culture’ over ‘nature’. With the analytic and lived possibilities of the geohuman, we have also found many influences across a wealth of ethnographic material, including the diversity and extent of ‘sentient landscapes.’ 

Sentient landscapes are bodies of earth, air and water that demonstrate agency and in various ways come ‘alive’ with subjectivity and authority. 

Anthropologists, especially those working with Indigenous peoples, have long recognised the salience, and sentience, of non-human entities within cosmological systems. Elizabeth Povinelli, for instance, narrates how aboriginal peoples identify the powers of Two Women Sitting Down, a sacred site that most settler colonials would call ‘mountains’ (2016: 49–50). Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (2021) and Georgina Drew (2020) both demonstrate, in very different settings, how land and water forms function as ethical actors in the collective work of environmental politics. In Earth Beings (2015), Marisol de la Cadena illustrates how sentient mountains participate in community rituals and protests. And, in the work of Eduardo Kohn (2013) we find forests actively negotiating their place within Indigenous Amazonian environmental activism. 

Legal cases, under the rubric of ‘Rights of Nature’ have also signaled how non-human entities such as rivers (like the Whanganui in Aotearoa, New Zealand) and glaciers (like Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers in the Himalayas) have achieved the rights of personhood: a legal standing that, in theory, facilitates their protection from the harms of pollution, development, and runaway climate change. 

These examples provide perspective on what constitutes sentience, or ‘vital matter’ (Gagné and Drew 2024), and how that can be accounted for within communities and across legal regimes. Sentient places such as these also draw our attention to the antagonistic, and obstinate, conceit of human exceptionalism as a settler liberal political project that elevates human needs and survivance over all other vital forms and, of course, over ‘non- living’ entities as well. As Povinelli (2016) has rightly noted, there is a predisposition within Euroamerican philosophy to focus on the binary of (human) life and death, and to valorise life over non-life. 

In our work, we have been aiming to disassemble the binary between life and non-life further by questioning that division as a dual, twofold form—that is, the duality of ‘living’ vs ‘non-living’. Instead, we are interested in the experiential and discursive continuum between sentience, liveliness, and inanimate entities. The equivocations between the living and the dead, the vital and inanimate, is, we find, an especially generative space of reflection for the Anthropocene age when all living beings depend—as they always have—on non-living matter. The difference now, is that we also collectively face unprecedented challenges for species survival in the disruption of the earth system.

We hope that an analytic of geohuman relations may prove helpful to efforts like the Rights of Nature to accelerate movement away from the long history of extractivist violence and toward an ecologically attuned ethics of care and respect.


  1. Here we are adopting Icelandic linguistic gender conventions for glacier (a masculine noun); we are also following Oddur Sigurðsson’s lead in using pronouns to describe the glacier as ‘he’. We are not suggesting that Oddur (or other Icelanders) are attributing sentience or vitalism to the glacier itself. See also Pálsson (2020) on earth guardianship in Iceland historically and in the present. 

Cymene Howe is Professor of Anthropology and Founding Co-Director of the Science and Technology Studies Program at Rice University. Her most recent books include Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene (Duke 2019), Anthropocene Unseen (Punctum 2020) and Solarities: Elemental Encounters and Refractions (Punctum 2023). She was recently awarded The Berlin Prize for transatlantic dialogue in the arts, humanities, and public policy and her current research centers on the social impacts of glacial loss in the Arctic region and sea level rise in coastal communities. 

Dominic Boyer is an anthropologist, media maker and co-founder of the field of Energy Humanities. His most recent book is No More Fossils (U Minnesota Press, 2023), a discussion of the fossilized legacy of fossil fuels and the coming transition from petroculture to electroculture. In addition to serving on the Board of Governors of the Rice Sustainability Institute, he co-directs Rice University’s Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience (CFAR) and will direct its forthcoming Social Design Lab (SDL).


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