This essay is part of our July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum on the topic: “If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” We invite you to comment below, and to read the other essays here.
I was asked recently to give the sermon at our local Unitarian Universalist (UU) church, primarily in order to bring a climate-crisis reality check to the congregation. Kees Kolff, the long-time member who invited me, understood that while most of the parishioners were acutely aware of the climate crisis, the majority of them (like so many throughout the country) had little idea how far along we truly are.
But not everyone believes we should be completely forthright with the general public about the depths of our crisis.
Off the Cliff
Around the same time I met a high-ranking member of the Canadian military. Impressed with my latest book and ongoing climate reportage, he visited me in my home and invited me to come speak to his community. But a few weeks later—coincidentally, the morning before my sermon at the UU church—he emailed to dis-invite me.
I absolutely believe you are speaking the truth in the scientific sense of the current state of ecological affairs. Few people have the knowledge and courage to speak in such a way. As we discussed at your place, I really had to dig to find out how bad things were. I felt like a dog possessed, digging for a bone. It consumed me…
From that point forward, I would guess it took me at least a year to come out of that negativity and rebuild a vision for the future of my son. That was a long and dark year, as I know you understand. I came out of it by feeling the sorrow, by finding my deep-seated tendency to face extremely difficult problems head on, from finding and having long discussions with an eco-psychologist, from reading Joanna Macy and her wonderful books, and from reconnecting with Mis Misa [a Native American spirit said to live within California’s Mt. Shasta] through meditation grounded in the earth, water and air.
But it was a long and difficult process. My family struggled, my health struggled, my world was very dim. I now know, this is not the process that most people need or should go through.
I could not more vehemently disagree with his last line. To me, that is utterly dis-empowering to people, as well as, I believe, unethical.
The next morning, I read his message to the UU congregation, and went on to speak to them honestly about how it is now far too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe. I reminded them of some facts that they surely already knew, but which we are often too uncomfortable to sit with for long:
- 2018 was the fourth warmest year ever recorded, with the only warmer years being 2015, 2016, and 2017. We are currently in the middle of what is on track to be the warmest decade since record keeping began.
- We are now in the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history, this one caused by industrial civilization. Compared to the Permian mass extinction event 252 million years ago (in which 90 percent of life on Earth was annihilated), carbon dioxide is being injected into the atmosphere ten times faster and the extinction rate is already faster. That last fact was underscored by the conclusion of a recent United Nations report that at least one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction.
- Global tropical rainforests, which are critical to biodiversity, are already so degraded that they now release more carbon annually than all the traffic in the United States. In 2010, a drought in the Amazon rainforest released as much carbon dioxide as the total annual emissions of Russia and China combined. At some point in the not-so-distant future, the Amazon rainforest will regularly emit more carbon than it absorbs…yet another critical tipping point for Earth. All of this on top of the fact that Earth is losing a stunning 1.5 acres of rainforest every second.
It is easy to be critical of the climate crisis deniers of the political right. Yet there is a soft-denialism across much of the political left as well. The reality is, no government on Earth is currently willing to take the dramatic measures necessary that might begin to mitigate what is coming our way. Had governments responded accordingly to the threat over the last few decades, perhaps a degree or two of warming could have been shaved off the worst-case projections. But that window has long since passed.
Meanwhile, the business-as-usual economic paradigm continues, and it, too, shows no indication of changing in the radical way necessary. In the U.S., hopes spring eternal that the Green New Deal, or one of the candidates for the 2020 election, or geo-engineering might save us. Yet none of these take into account that we are already off the cliff. Every single one of them is an attempt to try to fix something that is unfixable.
Some more uncomfortable facts:
- The oceans have absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere since the 1970s. If the oceans had not absorbed all the heat we’ve produced since 1955, global atmospheric temperatures would be nearly 54°C hotter (97°F) than they are today. Today’s average carbon dioxide level of 415 parts per million (ppm) is already in accordance with the conditions that can bring about a steady-state temperature 7°C (12.6°F) higher. The oceans are now, literally, overheating—as well as deoxygenating and acidifying.
- Insects are essential for the proper functioning of all of Earth’s ecosystems, as they are pollinators, food for other creatures, and recyclers of nutrients. Without insects, humans cannot survive. But a recent series of studies informs us that there will be no more insects within 100 years, given that we are currently losing 2.4 percent of global insect biomass annually.
- Since just 1970, the size of vertebrate populations (mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles) has declined by 60% on average.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenario is a 4–5°C increase over pre-industrial temperatures by 2100. This would be catastrophic, and it is challenging to see how humans could survive long-term on a planet that warm. But it is worse than that. The International Energy Agency has stated that preserving our current economic paradigm guarantees a 6°C rise in the Earth’s average temperature before 2050. Analysts at fossil fuel giants Shell and BP expect the globe to be 5°C warmer by mid-century.
A sober reading of the latest climate change science indicates that we are now genuinely in free fall, and are in a non-linear situation of climactic disruptions, runaway feedback loops, and their effects. We are locked on a course towards uncontrollable levels of climate disruption, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war.
There can no longer be any question that life as we know it, at least for those of us in the privileged West, is now ending.
So, how do we cope with this information?
The Need to Grieve
Before my sermon at the UU church, Kees invited everyone in the crowd to attend a discussion group later that evening. He knew all too well that many people would likely be traumatized by the intensity of the information I was to share with them, most of which is written above.
Nearly a decade ago, he—along with a scientist, another parishioner, and the pastor at the time—provided a grave warning to the congregation of the climate apocalypse to come. So many people struggled with the information that they held a gathering that same night, which 30 people attended. At that time, Kees told me, what most people had trouble with was the fact that the climate crisis was already at a dangerous stage. This time around, however, the crisis was never in question; when we met that evening roughly 50 people showed up.
Kees took an informal poll to see how many in the group wanted to discuss their grief over the climate apocalypse now upon us, versus how many wanted to discuss action steps geared towards what to do. Most of us, including myself, raised our hands for action.
I did this, despite years of experience that had proven to me it was the wrong thing to do in this moment.
I reported from occupied Iraq over a ten-year period starting in 2003, spending over 12 months total in the country writing about the widespread suffering of the Iraqi people, war crimes carried out by the U.S. military against them, and other aspects of the devastation. I was traumatized by this experience, to put it mildly. More accurately, I had severe PTSD.
This personal crisis forced me to learn to deal with my grief—unexpressed grief that was, in effect, the bedrock of the perpetuation of my trauma. This unexpressed grief was, quite literally, killing me.
I learned to seek out community—people with whom I could process the deep grief, including the sadness, rage, numbness, despair, and every other emotion that arose. Over the years I have become better at doing this on a regular basis, even just via conversations with trusted friends. Another key aspect for me is to remain as deeply rooted in nature as I’m able, spending most of my free time in the mountains near my home; or, at the very least, in the trees surrounding my house.
Yet there I was, raising my hand for action. Again, I was following the surface-level impulse to “do something” instead of pausing, listening to, and feeling what was within me that needed my attention—and then using that as a starting point.
How to Be
The next day, while on a hike by myself up a nearby mountain, I realized, again, the need to turn within, and begin taking the measures necessary to dance with my grief about all that is happening to the planet—just as I’ve needed to dance with my grief from my experiences in Iraq.
I’ve learned that I need to work on my own grief because it’s the only way I can access the depths within myself that are requisite of these times. Only then am I able to be clear about what is most important, and what my next right step should be. Only after fully taking in the gravity of our crisis and the impending collapse of civilization are my eyes cleared of any delusion, or any fantasy of hope.
I remember my obligations, taught to me by a Native American elder of Cherokee descent, Stan Rushworth: that we are born onto this planet with the obligations of caring for it, and of making decisions based on what will be best for the future generations of all species.
So each morning, I awake and engage in my morning practice, part of which is pondering what I shall do each day to serve Earth and all her species. When I approach my life from this perspective, no matter how bleak the future appears, I always have work to do and services to perform.
Are we not morally obligated to do everything possible to serve and protect the Earth, no matter what, and even against all hope? As Czech dissident, writer, and statesman Václav Havel has said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” And, as indigenous wisdom reminds: We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
I find that I can’t keep running from one action to the next, or cling to the false sense of security that hope provides. In order to remain true to the convictions of my work as we move further into these ever-darkening times, I must dig deeper.
For me it begins and ends with being connected to the Earth.
Each time that I’ve been brought into grief by facing what is already upon us, I find solace outside. In my talks as of late, I encourage people to do the same. Even if it is just to go sit on the grass in a local park, or spend time underneath a tree, this reconnects one back to the Earth, and brings perspective.
Chief Luther Standing Bear once said:
There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled, which leads to an unknown, secret place. The old people came literally to love the soil, and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power.
Their teepees were built upon the earth and their altars were made of Earth. The soul was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing. That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life-giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly. He can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.
This never fails me. And as tragedy strikes, either in my immediate life, or by reading of it afar in the news, I again must remember to be still, get quiet, and listen—listen to the Earth—for what to do next.
“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage,” Chief White Eagle once said. “So long as mists envelop you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists, as it surely will. Then act with courage.”
It is only by consistently re-grounding ourselves to the Earth, silently in order to listen, that we can allow the grief of these times to wash through us. And then, may we be clear-eyed and able to act with the conviction required by these times.
Dahr Jamail is a recipient of numerous honors, including the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism for his work in Iraq and the Izzy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Independent Media in 2018. Jamail’s work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Foreign Policy in Focus, among others. He’s been a frequent guest on BBC, Democracy Now!, and NPR. His newest book, The End of Ice (The New Press), has just been published. He is also the author of Beyond the Green Zone and The Will to Resist. He is a staff reporter for Truthout.