This post/episode is a part of series I’m doing called “Facing Extinction: Trying to do the right thing in a climate emergency.” What does it have to do with Zen and Buddhism? Sometimes the connection may not be so explicit, but my own Zen practice feels shallow and inauthentic unless I talk about the climate and ecological crisis we’re facing. I feel a significant amount of worry that posting this episode on the Zen Studies Podcast will alienate some of my listeners, and I really, really hope that’s not the case. It does feel like a risk, though… but if I’m not willing to risk my reputation and livelihood when I believe we’re in a crisis, why should I hope anyone else is going to risk or sacrifice anything in order change things?
I sincerely hope the fact that I’m a long-time Zen practitioner will inform and shape these reflections such that they will, indeed, reflect Dharma practice, and won’t seem irrelevant to you. Still, I won’t be offering Dharma lectures on this topic; I’m testing a theory that I can make a bigger difference as a Zen teacher and writer by honestly sharing my own struggles and experiences with “trying to do the right thing in a climate emergency” than by trying offer answers to others. Visit facingextinction.net, which exists as a separate blog, to find out more, or to sign up for notifications of new posts by email as they’re released. If this subject is not of interest to you right now, please know I will be releasing “normal” episodes of the Zen Studies Podcast as usual – so I hope you don’t mind just skipping these posts/episodes as they appear; they will always be labeled “Facing Extinction.” – Domyo
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.
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 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, to be 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?
I designated today, a Wednesday, as a “day off.” When you’re self-employed, like me, there’s never really a time you can put work down with complete mental ease. There’s always something you should be doing, and it’s only your self-discipline and hard work that will allow you to make a go of it. However, I’ve found it’s useful, when possible, to designate a day “off” – when I do all kinds of stuff, just not the stuff I do the rest of the time. And, ideally, “day off” stuff does not involve sitting at the computer.
This day off began with meditation and a leisurely breakfast. While eating my cereal I read the news. Sure, I read the news online, but somehow sitting at the dining room table and reading it on my phone is a special treat, as opposed to eating and reading in front of computer, which inevitably leads to more time at the computer. Today was warm and sunny – not the kind of weather we really ought to be having in Portland in November, but it instilled in me a hope that I might be able to spend some time out in the yard.
I never got out in the yard, however, because I spent the bulk of my day meeting with a local climate activist, Ken Ward. Ken’s a bit of celebrity in climate activist circles because he’s the subject of a short but very good documentary called “The Reluctant Radical.” The documentary follows, among other things, Ken’s attempt to shut down an oil pipeline as part of a coordinated action by the “Valve Turners” on October 11, 2016. Across the country – in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Washington – the Valve Turners broke into enclosures and shut down the valves on five different oil pipelines, more or less simultaneously. This stopped the flow of about 15% of US crude oil imports for the better part of a day. The action was symbolic, because they knew the pipelines would be turned back on almost immediately, so they didn’t try to hide their actions and expected arrest. In fact, so the action was safe, they phoned the respective energy companies ahead of time, informing them of where and when the shut-downs would happen. Part of the action’s strategy was to get into the courts and argue for the right to present a “necessity defense.” That allows a defendant to present their motivation, including the presentation of climate science and testimony from expert witnesses, and argue that their action was necessary in order to prevent greater harm. Ken won the right to use the necessity defense in Washington state, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be acquitted or avoid jail time. He’ll find out in February.
I had very briefly met Ken before, at a climate rally in downtown Portland, but I really didn’t know what to expect when meeting him again. I’d sent him a message online saying I was interested in maybe starting a chapter of Extinction Rebellion over here on the “Westside” – the western suburbs of Portland, and surrounding wine country – and I knew he also lived over on this side of town. I didn’t know whether he’d respond at all, but I was excited that he was, indeed, interested in what I was thinking about, and was happy to meet. Although I was excited to meet Ken, I didn’t know what to expect. I tried to emotionally prepare myself for an awkward conversation, a lack of rapport or connection, or a basic lack of interest in whatever I might be able to offer to his ongoing effort to find the most effective form of climate activism. After all, Ken’s in the big leagues. He’s spent his life in the field of environmental activism, most of it in paid positions. He took part in one of the highest-stakes climate actions ever. He’s the subject of an award-winning documentary that will soon be featured at a film festival in Ireland, where he’s going to be on hand to speak. I’m an idealistic Zen priest who has fantasies about civil disobedience but has never done anything more than carry clever banners at rallies.
I was sitting on a curb in the sunshine when Ken arrived, and as I stood up I knew this meeting would go much better than my consciously-lowered expectations. He smiled openly and seem enthused to be there. We grabbed a snack at the nearby fancy grocery store, took a seat in their bright and airy cafeteria, and proceeded to talk for almost three hours. By the end of our conversation I had to pee so badly it hurt, but I couldn’t bear to break it off… there was always one more thing to add…
It’s relatively rare for two people to meet who both have a conviction that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and who feel a deep sense of despair about that fact (as opposed to the strange, emotionally-disassociated resignation expressed by some people), along with a passionate sense of responsibility for doing something about it. Neither Ken nor I are newcomers to these feelings. We weren’t converted by the IPCC’s recent conclusion we have only until 2030 to radically alter business-as-usual, or else face a significant possibility of runaway global heating. We’ve felt like this all of our lives as we watched our society rape and pillage the Earth as if there would never be any consequences – at least, no serious consequences to the comfortable lives of those of us with wealth and privilege.
Those of us who walk around with this sense of existential angst and responsibility with respect to life on this planet are pretty damned lonely much of the time. Daily life is a careful dance between authenticity and learning to shift into an adaptive mode more in harmony with the people around us. Because we love those people, and we love our lives, and we love the sunlight filtering through the fall leaves, and we love art and laughter and pointless pastimes like reading mystery novels. If we spend too much time focusing on injustice, destruction, and impending doom, we succumb to depression, despair, anger, and bitterness. And we alienate our loved ones, who do their best to sympathize but just don’t see things the way we do.
Ironically, then, the increasing number of people in society convinced we’re in an ecological and climate emergency means some of us are less lonely that we used to be.
Certain things tap into that well, and as a result, tears flow from my eyes. Stories of human kindness. Good writing that points toward the ineffable experience of being alive. Things that are noble and true. Occasionally a sentimental commercial.
Sometimes I hate how thin the layer is between my ordinary daily reality, and this vast, still reservoir of heartbreak. People who know me are familiar with my tendency to choke up when deeply touched by something – and it can happen at any time: While I’m giving a public talk, while I’m describing an article I read in the news to my husband, while I’m driving, while trying to present my competence in a job interview. I once interviewed for a position that might have changed the course of my life; I suspect I was a pretty great candidate, but they asked me a question in the interview that tapped into my reservoir of grief and I shed some tears. I didn’t lose my cool, and I thought they would give me some points for openness and authenticity. They didn’t. The main interviewer afterwards suggested I had some “grief work” to do.
Grief work? What does that even mean? That I process everything with a therapist until there’s a thicker layer between my everyday mode of operation and my grief? That’s ridiculous. I’m not incapacitated, or even struggling in my daily life. I just cry easily sometimes, and not because my feelings are hurt. Maybe “grief work” means draining the reservoir of heartbreak that’s accumulated, drop by drop, over a lifetime – a drop falling in every time the indescribable beauty of life is juxtaposed with an ugly, dead, cynical argument for why the status quo can’t be changed.
Today, while driving to visit a dear friend, I listened to an episode of the Extinction Rebellion podcast. It featured audio from an event that happened during the recent October actions in London: Writers rebel. Writers from all over the UK assembled and offered their own new works, or relevant older ones, or read the works of other authors, such as Ursula K. LeGuin. Several times I was moved to tears, and I don’t just mean moist eyes, or a single tear tickling the cheek as it slid down to my chin. I’m talking weeping, copious tears streaming down my face. A swelling in the chest. A determination to stand up for the beautiful things in this world or die trying.
Writers. Even having written three books, I don’t consider myself a writer because of them, because they were Idiot’s Guides. I don’t know if I count as a writer even though I produce 5-10 pages of material 3 times a month as part of my Zen Studies Podcast, because it’s all nonfiction, and specialized. But I do consider myself a writer because I don’t understand myself unless I write, and I can’t communicate what I really think or feel except by writing. I hope this humbling offering helps someone, somewhere, somehow.
Today my little Extinction Rebellion group met at the Beaverton Farmer’s Market to stage a very mellow “action.” Six of us wore sandwich board signs with tombstones, each one reading “RIP” something-or-other. We had RIP birds, RIP forests, RIP coasts, polar bears, bees, and the last sign read “RIP Humans?” We processed solemnly and slowly through the farmer’s market, which was pretty busy considering it’s already November. At the end of the procession, someone not wearing a tombstone greeted anyone who looked interested, and offered them a flyer about how to get involved in the fight against climate chaos.
You may think this sounds cool, or you may think it sounds inconsequential. Maybe you don’t have an opinion, but its seems most people do these days. The reality of it was poignantly mixed.
You had basically sympathetic people looking for locally produced or organic vegetables, fruits, and various other neat products. As one observer commented quietly, “You’re preaching to the converted.” But many of these folks, while generally supportive, still lack a sense of urgency about the climate crisis. At least we were demonstrating that some people really care, and we were inserting a reminder into an ordinary weekly activity.
The coolest thing about the action might be the reactions of children and parents. Children, naturally curious, ask their parents what this procession means. Adults say something like, “They’re reminding us about climate change. That’s why we always recycle, or turn off the lights.” For once, as I heard this explanation while processing along, I wasn’t frustrated by the idea that climate chaos could be averted by recycling. Kids have to start somewhere, and you don’t want to squelch their aspiration from the get-go. Although I was trying to be somber while wearing my tombstone, I couldn’t help but smile when I overheard a mother reply to her son, “No, volcanoes aren’t causing climate change, people are.” I couldn’t hear exactly what the boy’s further comment was, but he clearly argued with his mom, somehow convinced the problem really lay with volcanoes. I’m guessing there was some kind of superhero comic involved in his thinking.
But of course, how much good did we do today? Who knows? We only processed for about a half an hour, and most people were more interested in procuring artisan jams or fresh pastries than contemplating the climate crisis.
As we walked, my brain struggled to contain the dueling realities before me. On the one hand we were in the midst of a peaceful community celebrating the harvest. The produce was truly exquisite, laid out in artistic arrangements that would inspire the lamest cook to try to make dinner from scratch: Purple cauliflower, broccoli grown in the shape of a fractal, copious bunches of carrots with delicate roots still attached, squashes in an practically infinite variety of shapes and colors. Why would anyone think there was anything awry in this world?
At the same time, in my heart I hold the comments of a friend of mine who has been an organic farmer for 20 years. She shared recently, with the stoicism I imagine you need to have as a farmer, that her farm just had its worst season since it began. Apparently, small farmers plan their crops very carefully, depending a wide variety of crops to carry them through; if one crop doesn’t do so well in a given year, another one will. This is the standard and sacred practice. But it didn’t work this year.
I chose the sandwich board saying “RIP birds.” I’m a big fan of nature, but birds really get me. They’re like perfect jewels, living miracles. Especially the tiny ones, no heavier than a watch, but more elaborately decorated than a cathedral. At times a certain part of me wondered, “What are we doing? What difference does this make?” But then, hidden under the sandwich board, I put my hands over my heart and thought about the birds.
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