Avid mountaineer and former war reporter Dahr Jamail visited bleaching coral reefs, melting glaciers, and shrinking forests to chronicle the world’s environmental crisis for his new book, The End of Ice. Jamail talks to Hal Atwood about how meditation has helped him bear witness to what’s happening to the planet.
Why did you take on the painful task of directly reporting on the harms that climate change is doing to the earth?
I believe the fundamental cause of climate disruption is human disconnect from the planet. That disconnect was created by the spread of industrialization. My goal for The End of Ice was to present climate disruption as descriptively, personally, and accurately as possible in order to inspire people to explore nature and the earth. If we all start doing that, I think we will feel the injuries that are being done to the planet. People who spend a lot of time outside have a very personal and visceral understanding that we are of this earth. They know that what we’re doing to the earth, we’re doing to ourselves.
The subtitle of your book is Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption. What does “bearing witness” mean to you in regard to the climate crisis?
To me, bearing witness means trying to figure out how to process climate disruption and all the feelings that come along with it.
The first step is being completely present with what’s happening on the planet and giving it my full attention. Then I pay attention to how that impacts my body and mind. For example, when I was snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef during a massive coral bleaching event, I felt the tightening around my heart and tears coming into my mask. It was important to process what feelings were elicited when seeing the collapse of this incredibly important living ecosystem.
Another example was when I visited Utqiagvik, Alaska—the northernmost town in the United States—to speak with a village elder in his early nineties. When he was a kid, the Arctic sea ice was visible ten to fifteen miles offshore in the late summer. Now the ice is 180 and 250 miles offshore. In one lifetime that’s how much has been lost. Hearing this, I felt a sense of overwhelm and dread. I also felt deep sadness for the Inuit who had spent their whole lives relying on that ice for their hunting and their culture.
In each case, I was able to be emotionally present and honest, which helped me write the book. I don’t think that would’ve been possible without a meditation practice.
Tell us about your meditation practice and how it helped you do this difficult work.
I don’t meditate every day, but it’s definitely a big part of my life. A long time ago I realized how busy my mind was. Then I came across a Thich Nhat Hanh book that said even doing the dishes can be a meditation. That resonated with me. I started sitting for just a few minutes at a time, and then slowly began working my way up to twenty minutes. In moments of crisis as a war reporter, I learned to watch my breath and remember to be present.
Writing The End of Ice brought meditation back into my life. I had got away from it, but I needed something to ground me because of the intensity of the subject matter. I started sitting every morning before I worked, and I coupled that with spending more time in nature.
You write about the time you fell into a glacial crevasse. While you waited to be rescued, you stared at the ice in front of you to stay calm, instead of looking straight down into the darkness. Were you meditating then?
I was! There was so much fear coursing through me. I knew how close I was to death, and I knew that panicking would not serve me. I just had to sit there and wait. As time went on, I noticed my body starting to exhibit signs of hypothermia—such as uncontrollable shaking—so I knew I needed to save energy, stay focused, and stay calm. The one thing I could do was meditate.
Having seen all these problems first-hand, what do you do in your day-to-day life to be gentler to the planet?
The single biggest thing I learned was from an indigenous elder of Cherokee descent, Stan Rushworth, who reminded me of the difference between a Western settler mindset of “I have rights” and an indigenous mindset of “I have obligations.” Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I am born with obligations to serve past, present, and future generations, and the planet herself.
If I wake up each day with that sense of moral obligation, no matter how bleak things might appear to be, it’s easy to see that there’s much I can do. I can consistently work to reduce my own carbon footprint. I can continue raising awareness through my writing and talks. I’m very grateful that I have this work to do.
For people who want to know more about climate disruption, where do you recommend they start?
Go spend time on the planet. That’s the first and most important thing any of us can do. We need to be moved to action from a deep place of love for the earth, instead of a place of fear and concern. I’m watching what’s happening to the planet and I’m being present with it. I love this place, and from that love stems my motivation.