As my beginner’s Buddhism encounters the climate crisis, I have been vexed by the paradox of change: If we are supposed to recognize the impermanent nature of all things, how do we also raise hell to keep the climate from changing? Isn’t this foolhardy attachment, illusion? Perhaps better to meditate on fearlessness for the changes that are coming, and the changes that are already all around us.
But like many well-reasoned plans of inaction, this is a false paradox that arose for me out of the inadequacy of language. What is happening has been called global warming, global weirding, global climate disruption, climate change, etc., but these terms are all just gesturing at something so big it seeps out the edge of comprehension. Pedants who deny it point to these several terms and say ‘See? You keep changing your terms!’ as if that could obscure what is happening. The crisis is in every inch of the natural world, every moment of our lives, even if we can’t fully predict or describe what’s coming. If we value action– if we’re not just on the fast track to eliminate all karma, but wish to generate some good karma first– then it’s time to define the relationship between change, fear of change, and the climate crisis.
The first matter is distinguishing between the cyclical heating and cooling our planet does of its own accord (we’re due for another ice age in just 30,000 years…), and the unprecedented, dramatic rise in atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel combustion since the industrial revolution. Rising atmospheric carbon correlates with a rising average global temperature. And as we see, even the 1.5 degree global temperature rise we’ve already incurred has resulted in unpredictable, increasingly hazardous changes in our natural environment.
Although the crisis could also be part of a cosmic cycle that we can’t perceive, it seems like an accumulation of bad karma that we need to tackle ourselves. I believe that one of the major forces behind carbon emissions is America’s growing fear of change. We (and others influenced through our cultural export) believe that experience should be as standardized, reliable and consistent as possible:
- We don’t want to rely on our bodies for strength or endurance. Few of us do professionally. Few of us do recreationally. We don’t like to walk or carry things, perhaps because these abilities are variable. So we rely on fossil-fueled machines to do this work.
- We like to mediate social engagement through technology, turning neutral activities into power-sucks.
- We want to be only hours away from our friends and families, even if we are 3,000 miles away, or more. Jet fuel closes the distance.
- We don’t want to rely on informal networks of support like roommates and joint-family homes. We’d rather live alone in record numbers, and pay for consistent services. Instead of sharing power and resources, now each of us needs the full amount for ourselves.
- We want to avoid awareness of illness and discomfort, so we’ve outsourced our care-giving/taking to hospitals, assisted living, prisons, big pharma. We don’t want to be reminded of, or linger near, death and dying. It takes a lot of fuel (and a lot of bad-news chemicals flushed into our waterways and pumped into our dead bodies) to keep these central aspects of living away from our daily lives.
- We want our bodies to remain at 68 degrees F no matter where we are, any time of the year.
- We want to choose from the same vast array of fine looking foods at any time of the year, no matter where we are. We prefer not to prepare them ourselves, relying on industrial machinery and packaging instead.
- We want to encounter the same packaged products and prices, with enough slight variation to keep us buying and replacing ‘durable goods’ at pleasing intervals. We want to rely on shopping as a constant pleasure, and we want our shops to be our major public spaces.
I’m not making claims about the forces that shaped these preferences, or whether individuals would hold or articulate them this way, but they are general, observable, American preferences. However we have arrived here, we have a predicament: we’ve taken out a loan against change, and the interest is out of control. For the price of 150 years of increasing comfort, consistency, and the ignorance of death, we’ve arranged to render the planet inhospitable to future generations of humans (and many other species).
So when we fight the climate crisis we are not opposing change, we are reckoning with our fear of ordinary changes, and taking actions against great suffering. This process begins and is sustained with our daily practice of mind-body integration, self-study and discipline.
The consistency of my practice is important insofar as it creates a window through which to observe my own fluctuations, changing needs, and deep rhyming similarities to every other person and natural system. The physicality of my practice is important to regulate, observe and defuse the needs and suffering of the body, to increase its strength and dependability. When I arrive at my practice every day with no expectations beyond observation, I build a trust in my own dependability, and an awareness of my strengths and limitations. I don’t need the external world to be consistent or standardized; I see that it is not, and it doesn’t scare me.
But fear of climate change is a whole different animal. If we practice acceptance of hard work, illness, death, decay, inconsistency, loneliness, and responsibility, then fear becomes radicalizing, not paralyzing. The way things have become is not how they have to be, or how they will be. We challenge ourselves and others to shine the light on avoidant practices, bringing the cyclical, workaday changes back into our lives, so that we can stop the big, brutal changes from coming, unwelcome, to us all.