“You have to understand,” said Cherokee elder Stan Rushworth as he sat across the table from me at a downbeat Santa Fe breakfast joint last week. “All this,” he continued with a sweep of his arm that encompassed the café, the high-end boutique selling Native-themed knickknacks next door, the city, the state and indeed the entire country from sea to shining sea, “is occupied territory to us.”
At Stan’s right arm sat my friend Hannah, an artist who moved to Santa Fe from New England 10 years ago. To Stan’s left was Truthout’s climate reporter Dahr Jamail, who was in town to deliver a lecture on anthropogenic climate disruption for the Lannan Foundation. Stan was there for Dahr. I was there to introduce Dahr at the beginning of the lecture and then get out of the way. Little did I realize how transformative the experience would be, beginning at that table over a plate of huevos rancheros and a cup of coffee.
We were there together because of Dahr’s new book, an essential yet harrowing read titled “The End of Ice.” The lecture he would give that night detailed his long journey around the world to places where climate change is not an argument, but an indubitable, constantly evident fact. From the retreating glaciers of Denali to the methane bombs lurking beneath the permafrost just south of the Arctic Circle to the dying coral of the Great Barrier Reef and beyond, Dahr saw and touched and tasted the climate of this world even as it radically shifted before his eyes.
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Every place he visited, Dahr met experts from those specific areas, people who had dedicated their lives to the life and science of the region. He went deep into the Amazon, dove the coral in Australia, trudged the tundra near the top of the world, all with people who knew that place best, who could explain to the last inch the damage being done. Their data, combined with his eyewitness testimony and deep experience with nature, is more than compelling. It is flatly undeniable.
The Amazon rainforest, the lungs of our planet, is disappearing at a rate of 1.5 acres per second. You can no longer get a 30-year mortgage in Miami because the ocean is coming, and that city’s freshwater aquifer is in mortal peril. The Great Barrier Reef will be a graveyard in as little as 10 years. These are but some of the things we learned that night in Santa Fe.
The effort to document these tragedies did Dahr deep damage. His sorrow at the loss and devastation he bore witness to is profound. It was not the first time his reporting came at a physical and spiritual cost. For eight months between 2003 and 2005, he went to the war zone in Iraq as an unembedded reporter because he was fed up with the lies being peddled by the profiteering corporate news media. He saw with his own eyes the deliberate targeting of ambulances, pregnant women and young men by U.S. forces. He saw with his own eyes what General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis did to the city of Fallujah as commander of U.S. forces there, years before Mattis temporarily became the “adult” in the Trump administration.
Dahr first decided that he needed to go to Iraq while he was in the mountains, where he says he best hears the song of the Earth. It was that song again which compelled him to travel the world and stand beside the vivid ecological sick beds that exist now not as warnings of what might come, but as billboards for what is inexorably coming. His lecture for the Lannan Foundation was an exercise in silence; save for the occasional gasp, you could hear a pin drop in the room, and Dahr had to pause more than once to collect himself as the enormity of what he was saying gained mass around his heart.
“It’s now far too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe,” said Dahr during his lecture. “We are currently in the middle of what is on track to be the warmest decade since record-keeping began. We’re already in the sixth mass extinction that industrial civilization has caused, injecting CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate ten times faster than occurred during the Permian mass extinction event 252 million years ago that annihilated 90 percent of life on Earth.”
“The business-as-usual economic paradigm continues,” said Dahr, “and there is nothing to indicate it is going to change in the radical way necessary to maybe bring about even just a little bit of mitigation. Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 412 parts per million are already in accordance with what historically brought about a steady state temperature of 7°C higher. We are just waiting for the Earth to catch up to the harms that have already been done to her.”
A dry recitation of doom-struck facts was not why he stood before that muted audience. Compiling them was not why he wrote his book. With quiet dignity, Dahr Jamail turned himself inside out that night so those in attendance could bear witness to his pain, and through that witness begin to experience for themselves the genuine grief that awaits us all. We all must feel that grief, he counseled, if we are to function in our lives. Before we can fully encompass the truths before us, we must mourn what we are losing and what we have done.
It was not all darkness, however. Cherokee elder Stan Rushworth, a Vietnam veteran, teacher and activist, helps treat soldiers suffering from PTSD through the traditional spiritual teachings of his people. He and Dahr found each other when Dahr was staggering through the depression that overtook him after he had seen too much.
Through Stan, Dahr came to a full understanding of the damage done to this occupied territory the colonialists gruesomely claimed as theirs, an understanding of the vast differences between the white man’s “rights” (read: “plunder”) and the Native sense of “obligations,” and how ignoring those obligations to the life of this world in pursuit of those “rights” has brought us to calamity. Stan was in Santa Fe to stand in spirit with Dahr, to help him speak these truths so others might hear.
With Stan’s help, Dahr was able to put a name to the singer of that song he heard in the mountains, the song he has heard all his life. At the conclusion of his lecture, he shared its name with us, and bade us listen while we still can. Mis Misa, Dahr explained, is “a small but powerful spirit that inhabits Akoo-Yet (Mount Shasta), located at the southern end of the Cascade Range in north-central California.” The story of this spirit comes from the Achumawi and Atsugewi tribes, who live under the sentinel shadow of Akoo-Yet.
“Mis Misa,” said Dahr, “is a spirit force that balances the Earth with the universe, and the universe with the Earth. It maintains the proper seasons and the proper atmosphere for life to flourish as Earth changes seasons in its journey around the sun. The mountain, the story tells us, must be worshipped because Mis Misa dwells deep within it. For as long as Mis Misa’s instructions are followed with sincerity, society will be sustained. The most important of all the lessons, it is said, is to be so quiet in your being that you constantly hear the singing of Mis Misa.”
“However,” Dahr continued, “the story also warns that, by not listening to Mis Misa’s song, the song will fade. Mis Misa will depart, and the Earth and all the societies upon Earth will be out of balance, and the life therein vulnerable to extinction.”
The damage is here, Dahr Jamail told that Santa Fe crowd. The damage is now. It can be mitigated to a degree, but it cannot be stopped. Anthropogenic climate disruption, to use a term Dahr heard from a climate scientist, is now “baked in” to the Earth. It is facile to say a child born today will see a very different planet than the one we know. Everyone living today will see that different planet.
Open yourself to grief, because climate change is more than a math problem or a scientific dilemma. It is a spiritual affliction, a sorrow of the mind and spirit, a truth that speaks past all denials which cannot be bargained with or wished away. Grieve. Become quiet in your being within nature as it still exists. Do what you can within reach of your arm. Hear the song of Mis Misa for yourself. It is not too late for that.
This article has been updated.