Today a report was published in the journal Bioscience, signed by 11,000 scientists from around the world, declaring “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” Today was also the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference, where scientists “agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act.” Despite 40 years of warnings from scientists, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising rapidly, and the current report concludes, “An immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis.”
Forty years we’ve been ignoring the warnings about climate change… and still I find myself saying things like, “I believe we’re in a climate emergency.” Because we all check out the evidence and make up our minds, right? At some point we feel the evidence is strong enough and we become convinced. But then other people express skepticism, and point out past predictions that didn’t come true. Once upon a time, back in the seventies or so, experts were worried the world’s population would keep increasing exponentially and all hell would break loose with mass starvation and whatnot. However, although our global population has increased steadily, in many areas of the world, fertility rates have declined below replacement rates. If the scientists were so wrong about catastrophic overpopulation, they’re probably wrong about this, too. Right?
A couple days ago, I sent an email to a list I belong to for Zen priests and teachers. I asked if people were finding ways to address the ecological and climate crisis as Zen teachers – particularly whether anyone had found skillful ways to motivate their Sanghas – congregations – to take action. I suggested interested folks might get together for an online video discussion about this topic at some point. A good fifteen people or so responded that they were interested in further conversation.
But someone, a Zen teacher I don’t know, responded with one, short line: “The climate crisis is an illusion.”
My one-line response to him was, “I hope so. I really do.”
Oh, how I want to believe this is all an illusion, that 11,000 scientists are wrong and just jumping on some crazy bandwagon. How I would love to return to my life-as-usual, content to write about Zen and love my Sangha members and dogs, and grow native plants in my backyard. How I hope future generations look back and chuckle at our mass hysteria.
I haven’t been quick to come around to concern about climate change, let alone develop a sense of urgency about it. I never even watched All Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth when it came out in 2006. I’ve been gradually converted by an unrelenting stream of awful news about the state of our biosphere. Occasionally I still think, “Maybe the scientists are wrong. Maybe it’s not all that bad.” But what if it is?
Tonight was the biweekly meeting of my fledgling Extinction Rebellion group. We meet in the community room of a local environmentally-conscious grocery store – a big, beautiful place, the kind with exquisitely arranged piles of perfect, organic produce and myriad products that are green in ways you didn’t even know could be a problem. The store lets us use their room for free, asking only that any food or drink we partake of we buy from them.
This week there were only four of us. Me, Sally, Doug, and Mike. (Names changed for sake of privacy.) Sally is an incorrigible 80-year-old woman who joined Extinction Rebellion (commonly referred to as XR) in part because her son was suffering from Ecological Anxiety, a condition recently recognized by psychologists as increasingly common, and he had joined XR. Doug is an older gentleman suffering many health problems and no longer able to work, but passionately dedicated to doing whatever he can to help save the planet. Mike is a gentle soul in his early 20’s still finding his way in the world, but deeply disturbed by the wholesale destruction of the earth’s ecosystems.
We were all pretty bummed tonight. We did our best to raise each other’s spirits, especially Doug, who responded to expressions of discouragement with little pep talks customized to whoever he was talking to. Frankly, facing extinction takes a lot out of you, especially when you’ve got the rest of life to contend with: Loss of close friends, physical pain, mysterious health problems, not-so-mysterious health problems, loss of housing, family conflicts, sick dogs…
Here we were, gathered together under the banner of XR, having placed our hopes in this new movement. It’s not at all that we expect miracles. Heck, I don’t even know how hopeful we really are that we’ll manage to actually avert climate and ecological catastrophe, especially seeing as it’s already happening in many places. We place our hope in XR because it’s a simple movement trying to get people and governments to wake up to the truth that we’re barreling down a course headed straight to extinction. Even if some humans survive in some sad, constrained circumstances, we’ll have driven most other forms of life to extinction. And that’s probably a best-case scenario. XR is about finding any ways we can, within the strict discipline of non-violence, to sound the alarm and demand action appropriate for an emergency. I’ve heard it said, somewhere, that XR is the fire alarm, while other groups, scientists, and movements, many of whom have been working on this issue a long time, can serve as the fire department – once we get people to even admit there’s a fire.
Lofty ideals, though, are one thing, and working with other people to actually make something happen is another. I’ve definitely been a “ideas” person for the vast majority of my life. Ideas are so awesome. They’re so inspiring, so full of potential, so powerful, so pure. In my mind, I can picture being arrested for a noble act of civil disobedience while wearing my Zen priest’s robes. As it says in Zen scripture, “No sentient beings, no Buddhas.” If we all end up struggling just to survive, there won’t be many people studying Zen.
But it turns out it’s not that easy to run out and engage in civil disobedience that’s going to be thoughtful, strategic, and impactful. There’s a lot you should learn, take into consideration, and plan first. You have to set the stage for a meaningful action, and if you want it to make a difference, you can’t do it alone. And because you can’t do it alone, you have to deal with other people. There are relationships to be built, and organizations to keep from imploding because of bitter disagreements about tactics, communication, power-sharing, justice, and goals.
I’ve heard that engaging in activities that stimulate your brain, like doing crossword puzzles, can help stave off dementia. In that case I’m postponing my old-age dementia by at least a few years by trying to figure out how to participate in a movement for climate and social justice. My mind and heart are being stretched and twisted like a rubber band in the hands of someone suffering from extreme anxiety. I read 20-page critiques of the movement I’ve gotten involved with, and, humbled, become grateful there are activists out there with decades of experience I can learn from. I feel good about making time to get out of my house to at least try to do something about the climate crisis, but I know the time I devote to the cause will put a strain on my most precious human relationships.
The most inspiring thing, at this point, is probably the experience of being in room with a small handful of other people bringing their pain, outrage, confusion, love, hope, and determination out in the open. We’re relative strangers, but we’re bonded by the urgency of the task at hand. Tonight, Mike confessed his strong aversion to walking into grocery stores, where his heart and mind are assaulted by aisles up on aisles of products in plastic packaging. In most settings, such a comment would either have been met with no response at all, or an argument about how great it is plastic is recycled – as opposed to it ending up clogging our oceans, filling the bellies of wildlife, and permeating all of our fresh drinking water. In our little Extinction Rebellion group, just a little band of people refusing to take no for an answer, we just held Mike’s comment in a respectful and sympathetic silence tinged with grief.
Today was a beautiful day. By that I mean it was sunny, and the temperatures were mild. After a full day, I took my dogs for a walk around the block and relished the trees with fiery colors.
In the meantime, California’s on fire.
How is it I can let my heart be still and calm, while I let my dogs speed me up and slow me down as they wish? They trot along for a while, then stop suddenly, attracted by some scent. The two of them vie for the best spot to sniff, rapt and unmoving – except for slowly wagging tails – for minutes at a time. My mind empty of any compelling thoughts, I just stand and watch, breathing.
Here in this suburb, far from the fires, dusk is falling. Everyone is snug in their homes. We are at peace. Primary concerns are what to do with all the leftover Halloween candy, and whether to rake up all the leaves or blow them into piles with a loud machine.
But I also know our planet is dying. Or, I should say, the living things and systems on the planet are dying. Every day I read something new that tells me we’re in the middle of a climate and ecological catastrophe, and I believe it. In fact, it’s starting to sound pretty stupid to me to even say something like, “I believe it.” It’s like saying, “I believe germs cause illness.” Or, “I believe electricity can power a light.” So in the midst of my pleasant evening walk, I also think about extinction now and then.
I think about how, when my beloved dogs pass away, I may not get another dog, even though dogs are one of the great joys of my life. To get another dog under these circumstances feels irresponsible… I know the carbon footprint of pet ownership is considerable. And besides, if I have no pets I’ll be more available for the struggles to come.
Okay, so my mind wasn’t entirely empty of compelling thoughts as I walked… but these morbid contemplations related to our planetary ecological emergency were rather light and dreamlike, feeling no heavier in my mind than my speculations about whether anyone has moved into that blue house yet. And yet I wonder about the state of my heart, really.