Transcribed from the 26 January 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
The general population of the planet gets it. Especially with the last six months of scientific studies coming out, and with extreme weather events smacking people in the face across the globe, the time is ripe for people to get the message that we have to rise up and force the issue.
Chuck Mertz: It’s time to give up on hope and to start grieving for a planet which is already suffering from climate change, and will begin suffering far worse climactic events far sooner than expert climatologists are predicting—that is, if recent history is any sign of what is yet to come. Here to tell us how to give up hope and avoid hopelessness, to find the power of grief and address what might be the worst aspects of climate change, journalist Dahr Jamail is author of The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Change.
How are you doing, Dahr?
Dahr Jamail: Hey Chuck, I’m alright, how are you?
CM: Good. It’s really great to have you on the show.
You write, “The reporting in this book has turned out to be far more difficult to deal with than the years I spent reporting from war-torn Iraq.”
We interviewed you several times reporting from the Iraq war, including one time when you were talking to us from a rooftop in Baghdad. Why is reporting on climate change more difficult than reporting on war, where you see devastation and death everywhere around you, every day? You were an unembedded journalist, so it’s not like you were getting a pretty view of the war.
Why is reporting on climate change worse? And did reporting on the Iraq war actually prepare you for the worst?
DJ: Going into a war zone, I expected the worst. I expected bodies and tragedies and deaths of civilians who had nothing to do with what was happening, and everything else that goes along with war. But the climate—I knew that going out in the field I was going to see vanishing glaciers, bleaching coral reefs, loss of habitat for species, etcetera. And I did. But it really hit me on a visceral level, doing this reporting, that this is the biosphere.
Not to downplay the scope of the tragedy of Iraq—over a million Iraqis have died as a result of that invasion and occupation. But here we’re talking about the entire planet. We’re talking about not just the human species, but other species that are caught in the crossfire, so to speak, of climate change. When we really allow it to sink in what that really means—the literally existential threat that climate change poses to literally every species on the planet including our own—it makes this a harder pill to swallow.
CM: Last week we were talking with Clare Farrell of Extinction Rebellion UK, and Extinction Rebellion rallies are happening today in Washington DC and New York City, among other cities. If counterinformation and marches haven’t worked before to slow or stop or even minimally address climate change, how much hope do you have for meaningful climate policy emerging from more disruptive tactics? Can confrontation work where marches, protests, and information didn’t?
DJ: I think it can in this instance. I am familiar with Clare, I’ve interviewed her and done a story on Extinction Rebellion. I don’t normally write about protests and uprisings and things like that. But this is an exceptional time. The message of Extinction Rebellion is utterly clear and honest. Revolutionary changes have to happen if we’re going to have a chance to survive.
If we look at all of the science—my book is heavily footnoted to make it inarguable—we are in a dire situation. Right now if we stopped all CO² emissions across the board, on a dime, we are looking at a best case scenario where we still have three degrees Celsius of warming baked into the system. And with three degrees Celsius of warming, we are looking at sea levels that are tens of feet higher than they are right now; we are looking at the loss of massive amounts of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and all the alpine glaciers in the world. We are looking at large parts of the world already turning into something like Mad Max.
More and more people are getting it, though. Even Republicans, whose message of denial persists—they know what’s happening, and still they keep up their story for the fossil fuel lobbyists and the people pulling their strings. But the general population of the planet gets it. Especially with the last six months of scientific studies coming out, and with extreme weather events smacking people in the face across the globe, the time is ripe for people to get the message that we have to rise up and force the issue.
Clearly governments have failed. Governments are not taking it upon themselves to do the right thing. The only way that’s going to happen is if we force them to do so by making business as usual and everyday life untenable for this current system.
CM: You write about mountain climbing on Earth Day 2003 with your climbing partner Sean, in Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier toward Mount Marcus Baker in the Chugach Range, and falling into a glacial crevice, a fall that could easily have led to your death. You describe it: “Despite the danger of my situation, the glacier’s beauty calms me.”
Let me stretch that a little bit. Are we at that moment? Are we dangling in a crevice about to fall to our deaths, waiting for help, yet still mesmerized by nature’s beauty—even to the point of being distracted from doing anything about climate change and the potential death that awaits?
DJ: That’s an important point. I can look out my window right now as I’m talking to you and see the forest where I live—it is in really good shape and the trees are thriving, and there are birds, and there’s clean air, and I can turn on my tap and drink the water out of it. The fact that there are still functional systems in the biosphere is potentially why a lot of people don’t see the crisis.
That is the biggest challenge in talking about climate change: the worst impacts are still in the future. It’s not something smacking you in the face right at this moment, unless you live in the panhandle of Florida and just had your entire community wiped out by a hurricane, or unless you live on the coast of Bangladesh, or the coast of southern Mississippi or southern Louisiana; unless you live in Paradise, California and your entire town just burned to the ground and dozens of people who you know were incinerated alive—overlooking that, those of us who haven’t lived through direct, overt horrors like that can still look out and think it’s not here yet, there’s still time. The reality is there’s not.
In parts of the Himalaya, glaciers are dramatically receding—and they’re the home of seven of the biggest rivers on the entire continent of Asia. We’re talking about a water source for 1.5 billion people. What happens when those are gone?
This situation is already affecting all of us. We’ve become inured, or allowed our imaginations to go to sleep. If we hear about those people in those places that I just mentioned, why is it so hard for us to imagine? It’s happening. In the region where I live, ocean acidification, drought, and wildfires are probably the current single biggest threat that are already starting to happen. But my house hasn’t burned down yet. Why can’t I just use my imagination for five seconds and have empathy with these people in Paradise, California who lost everything, and understand that this may well be happening to me soon? I’d better get off my ass and do something.
CM: When you write about climbing on glaciers, you mention how the closer you are to the Arctic, the more you notice climate change happening because it’s having a more extreme effect at the top of the globe. Yet Alaska, as we know, is a very Republican state.
Are even places that are traditionally conservative seeing a change in their attitudes towards climate change? And do you think people who live closer to the Arctic have a better understanding of climate change taking place?
DJ: What I saw in Alaska, having lived up there for ten years, is that politically, it’s like a cold Texas. It’s resource extraction, oil and gas, military. It’s a wild place to go to research climate change. I spent many months up there, from the town Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow; it was recently reverted to its Native name) to Denali to the Aleutian Islands, to the Pribilof islands in the Bering Sea, talking to people.
I’ll use an example from Utqiagvik. It is the northernmost village in the United States. I talked to people who were overtly conservative, clearly Trump supporters—and they would say they know that the climate is changing. They’re watching the permafrost thaw. They’re watching their buildings reach a state where they either have to invest millions of dollars to beef up the infrastructure and find a way to keep them there, or move them. They’re maintaining a dirt berm between the village and the Arctic Ocean, because thawing permafrost and coastal erosion caused by climate change are literally threatening the existence of the entire village. They’re aware of the fact that presently at least thirty-seven different villages around Alaska have to be relocated entirely because of these things.
And yet they would parrot Trump memes and fossil fuel memes: “Okay, it’s happening, but we don’t know how much humans are responsible for it.” That’s the line now. The one difference between a conservative in a place on the front lines and conservatives who aren’t directly on the front lines is that for people on the front lines there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. They have to admit it. They understand that they might have to abandon their entire village.
CM: I want to make sure that people understand how we are already experiencing climate change effects that might be out of sight and out of mind. Are we experiencing any negative effects, any impact from glaciers melting?
DJ: Yes. I would use the collective “we,” being people all around the world and other species. A US Geological Survey scientist at Glacier National Park educated me about what happens when we lose the ice. Of course, we lose the water. Glaciers play a key role: snowpack builds up during the winter, and when it melts, that is drinking water and irrigation for farming for people around the world—but when that snowpack goes away, the glacier meltwater replaces it for a number of weeks or months until new snow starts falling in late autumn. And in parts of the Himalaya, for example, glaciers are dramatically receding, and they’re the home of seven of the biggest rivers on the entire continent of Asia. We’re talking about a water source for 1.5 billion people. What happens when those are gone?
We could talk about where I live, too, in the Pacific Northwest, where glaciers are a huge source of water, for drinking and especially for agriculture. All of these glaciers are projected to be gone well before 2100. When you come up here and look around, it really gives you an idea of how severe these impacts are. Because there are hundreds of glaciers up here. They cover huge areas, and they are literally receding by visible amounts every single year. We’re talking about a major water crisis for humans.
And also for other species. Glaciers play a key role in controlling the temperature in the valleys they inhabit. Their meltwater keeps streams a certain temperature so that certain species can live there; if those glaciers go away, and the water either completely goes away or the water temperatures go up because it’s limited to melting snowpack instead of ice, then those species of fish and insects will no longer be able to live there. And then everything else in that valley that relies on those species to eat—whether it’s birds or bears or fox or what have you—are going away as well.
There are other dramatic ecological impacts. When glaciers go away it’s going to change the water system in the entire valley, so where certain trees grow, they are no longer going to grow. That’s going to change the entire vegetation of the valley. Again, all of the other species relying on it being a certain way are going to be affected. So we’re talking about massive changes, biophysical changes to the planet, when glaciers go away—not just the drinking water crisis that it poses for human beings.
CM: Do we have any sense of how soon it will be when weather events will become so extreme that there will be an aggressive response to climate change? Because in New York City they’re still developing the shoreline, and ocean levels are going to rise and destroy that development in the very near future.
DJ: I was just out there a week and a half ago, standing amid all that infrastructure and seeing the insane rebuilding that happened in the wake of hurricane Sandy, and talking to my friends out there—you just shake your head. It’s surreal. Or being down in south Florida doing research and interviewing some of the leading sea level rise experts on the planet, who are talking about upwards of ten, twenty, possibly thirty feet of sea level rise in the not-so-distant future—we could be looking at ten feet of sea level rise just by 2050. That’s thirty-one years from now. And yet we look at Miami and a quarter of the buildings have cranes on them—the amount of construction that’s going on! It’s booming. It’s amazing and also kind of crazy-making to be in these places.
I live in a little town called Port Townsend, Washington. It’s on the northeast coast of the Olympic peninsula. Really great place to live. Lots of forests, near several national parks, very progressive politically. And yet the city council just decided to invest several million dollars in infrastructure underneath the downtown main street, which literally sits right on the water. It’s maybe five or six feet above sea level. They’re putting in new sewers and electrical, etcetera—millions of dollars. This is the best they could come up with, knowing full well about climate change and what’s coming. Meanwhile, if we look out west, two different Native American tribes, the Makah and the Quileute, are already heavily invested and are physically moving their villages higher uphill and away from the coast.
Which one of those makes more sense?
We’re from the planet and we’re of the planet and we cannot exist without it. If people’s idea of living a comfortable, ‘civilized’ life means living surrounded by concrete and steel and completely detached from nature—if you ask me, that sounds pretty sick.
CM: You write, “Countless glaciers, rivers, lakes, forests, and species are already vanishing at a pace never seen before, and all of this from increasing the global mean temperature by ‘only’ one degree Celsius above pre-industrial baseline temperatures. According to some scientists it could rise as much as ten degrees Celsius by the year 2100.”
Dahr, do we need to return to pre-industrial living to stop the worst effects of climate change? That’s one of the things that climate change denialists have been telling us for years.
DJ: No. The Earth is going to do that for us. This Western so-called complex civilization and the fossil fuel-based economy is a dinosaur and we are watching it in a state of collapse at this point. It doesn’t work; it hasn’t worked; the disparities between the haves and the have-nots are off the charts—they’re grotesque if you ask me. It’s a failure. We are watching it in a state of collapse.
And yet we look out across the planet and there are plenty of other groups of people, indigenous people and others who are consciously choosing to live closer to the planet. It’s healthier for human beings; the people who do it are happier; and it’s obviously far, far better to the planet to live more simply. This does not mean crawling back into caves or living in lean-tos in the trees or something like that. We can live using energy very smartly. We can use renewable energy. There are plenty of people living off-grid already who are plenty comfortable and have plenty of food.
We’re from the planet and we’re of the planet and we cannot exist without it. If people’s idea of living a comfortable, ‘civilized’ life means living surrounded by concrete and steel and completely detached from nature—if you ask me, that sounds pretty sick.
CM: I want to get to your concept of hope, hopelessness, and grief. You write, “During my years of reporting from Iraq, I felt a mixture of sadness, guilt, anger, powerlessness, anxiety, despair, and grief. I went to Iraq to report on how a violent, chaotic occupation was crushing the Iraqi people and shredding the fabric of their society and culture. I wanted to offer my body and heart in solidarity with them.”
You mention listening to their stories and sharing their grief, and then you add, “My trip back up Denali was yet another iteration of this. I began to realize the need to share my grief with others about what was happening to nature.”
How much does that define your journalism? Sharing the grief of what’s happening around the world with those who cannot be eyewitness to that grief?
DJ: That was the whole goal of my book. I’m doing my best to bring it to people. We’ve become so distant from nature—and I believe that is the root cause of climate change, because if most people were living close to the planet and watching and paying attention, the alarm bells would have been sounded sooner, and would have been much more widely received. My hope and my aim is to bring people to these places through my writing; to introduce them to scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying and adding to the protection and conservation of the things that they study and love; and to bring my own emotional and personal, visceral response out in these places, watching the loss happen, to really bring it home to people in a way that might start to re-engage them in becoming reconnected to the planet.
That is the first step that all of us have to take at this point. Doing so is going to entail grief. It’s going to entail shock and sorrow and anger and sadness about how much has already been lost. We are in the sixth mass extinction. There are between 150 and 200 species going extinct per day. This is a thousand times higher than the normal background extinction rate. We’re essentially replicating the conditions that set the stage for the Permian mass extinction: dramatic, abrupt warming of the planet, massive amounts of CO² injected into the atmosphere. And now as things melt off, we’re waiting for bigger and bigger methane releases—then things start getting kicked into overdrive.
People are starting to realize these things, as I did when I really dove into climate reporting about ten years ago. And I went into a depression, and struggled mightily for months and years, looking at all this in the face and trying to stay human and have a life and live in this world. How do we do this now? How do we be? How am I going to choose to comport myself during this time? It is the era of loss. We’re in unprecedented territory as a species. We can’t even say for sure anymore that this species is going to have longevity. It could, but we don’t know.
All of that brings things up in us, internally. That’s where I take on this idea of hope. Because “hope” is so misused, and it actually detracts from and downplays the gravity of the situation, which we have to accept: I am mortal. So much is being lost. We might not make it. We have to be clear about how far along we really are before we can start making the important personal choices that each one of us now needs to make about what really is important in life. Is it making money? Or is it spending more time with nature and with people I care about and trying to do things that are better for the Earth?
What are my choices going to be? And if I need to start making some changes in my life, why am I waiting? That is the urgency and the gravity of our situation, and I’m just doing my best. I hope this helps people understand that and come to terms with where we are. Because it is also a very precious time in history. There are still things on the planet that deserve our attention and our care. They are still here, and we do still have a chance to save parts of the planet and some of these species.
CM: How can grief empower us in a way that hope cannot?
DJ: For me personally, it breaks open my heart to really go through this emotion, this deep well of sadness. I really love the people who I’m close to. I really love this planet. I really love these parts of the world that I’m attracted to and spend my life around so that I can consistently go up into the mountains and worship (I use that term literally), pay homage to the Earth and give back however I can, and listen.
The more people who can do this, the better, at this stage in history. That kind of motivation is only going to come from the love that comes after going through the real grieving process for what’s already been lost, and understanding what is now at stake. Literally, life on the planet is at stake. I don’t know what better motivation there can be. When people really get that, they are no longer being motivated out of fear or hope—which are both based in the future—but out of a current, present, love.
I love this place. I feel morally obliged to do something about what’s going on. This has lit a fire underneath me and I’m going to go take action for those I care about. If a dear friend of mine is in what I believe to be a hostage situation, I am going to give that person my full, undivided attention. I’m going to serve his every need, and I don’t want to miss one second of it. I don’t want to blink. I’m going to show up and I’m going to be there for that. I feel like that’s where we are with the planet.
If we really listen deeply to the Earth, we’re going to hear exactly what we need to hear; she’s going to tell us what we need to do for ourselves and for the planet.
CM: You quote Stan Rushworth, an elder of Cherokee descent who has taught Native American literature and critical thinking classes focusing on indigenous perspectives for more than a quarter of a century, telling you a story about his father, a veterinarian who worked closely with the University of California at Davis. Rushworth described his father as an excellent diagnostician and scientist who told him back in the 1980s that “the dire position we’re in now is solid evidence of the fact that the predominant civilization does not have a handle on all the interrelationships between humans and what we call the natural world. If it did, we wouldn’t be facing this dire situation. It wouldn’t be an issue. We simply do not have a big enough or right-minded enough vision. Because of this, we need to allow for something we cannot understand. This is not about hope, but more humility, and carefully considered action within that humility, and much deeper listening.”
You write, “That story has helped redefine my entire relationship with the mountains and provided profound meaning as to why I have been drawn up into the mountains since childhood.”
How so? Why is what Rushworth’s father told him so important to your understanding of your relationship with nature?
DJ: There are two parts to that. One is about indigenous cultures—I was reminded of this by conversations I had with Rushworth. In the Western paradigm, we have “rights.” In their way of living, in their belief, they have obligations. They have obligations to future generations, and obligations to the planet. That completely turns on its head our idea of life and what’s mine and how can I get what I deserve. It’s about how I can serve the planet, and how I can serve the generations that are to come. If we’re living from that place, we’re going to be making very different decisions as a society than what we currently see playing out before us that is literally consuming the planet.
The second part of the answer is another story Rushworth shared with me that was told to him by his elder, Darryl Wilson, also a member of the Pit River nation, about Mount Shasta, which his people refer to as Aku Yet. Within Aku Yet there was a very small but extremely powerful spirit called Nis-Nisa. And Nis-Nisa sang a song. Nis-Nisa singing that song kept the Earth in balance with the sun, kept us positioned the right way and kept the seasons timed the right way, and it kept all life in balance the right way. But that only occurred if people prepared themselves and listened to the song by going up Aku Yet and listening in the right way. As long as people were listening to that song, Nis-Nisa kept singing and everything stayed in balance. But the story warns that if people stop listening, Nis-Nisa will eventually stop singing, and everything will go completely out of balance, literally to the point of threatening life on Earth.
When I heard that story, I realized why I have always been drawn up into the mountains: because it’s where I go to listen. The importance now of listening to what the planet is telling us—it’s impossible to express how critical that is, even though it seems so late in the game (and it is). We have to listen. More people need to go to their place to listen—whether it’s in a park in the city, whether it’s staring up at the sky, whether it’s going to an ocean, whether it’s going to the mountains. However we listen, we have to listen. We haven’t listened for so long.
CM: You mention how you “relish that unfilled time.” How do you define unfilled time? Is it simply time that is not dictated by capitalism, that is not dictated by the market? And does that make getting in touch with nature a revolutionary anti-capitalist act?
DJ: I think it is, at this point. By unfilled time, I mean literally unfilled time. Anything that has a power button, don’t even have it on your person. Turn it off and leave it someplace else. No distractions. Go out and be right exactly in the place where you are, and have your mind right there and pay very, very close attention. I think it is a revolutionary act, and I’m really glad that you frame it that way, because it is the antithesis of this corporate capitalist culture that programs us that we have to work, we need more money, you have to buy shit, you’re not okay unless you buy this, you stink, buy this deodorant, you’re ugly, go do this workout taught by this fancy trainer, go buy these different clothes, go buy this car so that you can get to be with the person who you want to be with, go buy this house, get a mortgage, you need this, you have to produce, you have to buy, you have to consume, you have to spend, you have to make more money.
Instead, what if we just go out? We all know it’s the simple things, and the things that don’t cost anything, that are always the most meaningful. A really good conversation with someone who we care about. A really beautiful piece of time sitting out in a bunch of trees, watching them sway in the wind. These are the things that really matter. Even the corporate culture that sells us trips or cruises or vacations—it’s always an image of someone sitting out in the mountains or looking out over a beautiful landscape. That really is what really speaks to all of our hearts.
The reality is, we can all just go do that, for free. You can literally walk up and spend some time with a tree. I’m not trying to be corny, but that is really where we are. We need as much of any kind of connection we can get, we need as many people doing it as possible. Because if we really listen deeply to the Earth, we’re going to hear exactly what we need to hear; she’s going to tell us what we need to do for ourselves and for the planet.
CM: You write, “For decades, many of us have turned a blind eye to what is happening to the planet. But now, given that Earth may well be dying, we may be ready to stand up to protect what we love. And extraordinary alchemy can take place when people follow their inner directives to stand up and face squarely the dire odds of biosphere survival. These actions involve extraordinary outer and inner courage which can nurture a profound activism. The gifts provided by the crisis at hand are the conditions that make possible widespread shifts in political identity, purpose, and consciousness.”
You’re looking for outer and inner courage, but it seems that we instinctively view any change with fear. You seem to be saying that we should embrace change, as it will lead to a better life. Why does fear of societal change outweigh the fear of climate change? Why can we imagine, as people keep repeating, the end of the world more easily than we can imagine the end of capitalism as it exists today?
DJ: That is a great question. We should be asking that of ourselves, as a country and as a culture, on a daily basis. But the requisite change, shifting from this current power structure into the right way of living with the planet, would be absolutely revolutionary and radical. Everything has to change, literally. Our way of life, how we transport ourselves, how often and how far we transport ourselves, how we produce our food, how we get our food, how we earn money, how we take care of our families. It is that moment in history where absolutely everything has to change. Climate change is forcing this issue.
There is no question for me that this is going to happen. The question is whether we want to come willingly or be dragged kicking and screaming while things are collapsing around us. It’ll be too late for a lot of us, because the food and water crisis in the not-so-distant future is going to force all of these issues.
That’s it. Deep down inside, we’re all animals. Everybody really gets the scope of where we are in this process. Just like that period of depression and mourning that I went through when I first really connected all the dots—for me it was six years ago when I really got the depth of the crisis. I think people are afraid of that, and are afraid to come to terms with that. We have a grief-averse culture. You’re not supposed to show your feelings. If you cry in public you have to apologize and excuse yourself. We’re very sick in that way. It’s not okay to be a human being and feel anything other than great and happy and proud.
All of these are reasons why so many people are afraid to confront the change that I know without a doubt is upon us. It’s just that if you live in certain parts of the bubble of this capitalist experiment of the United States, and haven’t had to live in wildfire smoke or haven’t had your house burned to the ground, or haven’t had flooding that’s made it impossible to keep living where you are, you can still be in denial about these things.
CM: We’ve learned on this show that capitalism couldn’t have had the success it’s had without colonialism, and colonialism couldn’t succeed without slavery, and the British empire and the United States were superpowers that owe everything to capitalism, colonialism, and slavery. But could capitalism have succeeded without climate change?
DJ: I’m going to keep it very simple and say no.
CM: Dahr, thank you so much for all the support and every appearance you’ve done on our show.
DJ: You can count on it, Chuck, thanks, I really appreciate it.
Featured image: Australia, 1 January 2020. Source: Reddit