The thing is…

I think we’re doomed. No, really. In the good old-fashioned apocalyptic sense. Not in the normal existential sense that death is a natural part of life. In the sense that we have taken this beautiful home and trashed it and soon it will all be gone.

I am talking about climate change. Sure, there are plenty of other sources of apocalypse—water depletion, pollution, peak oil, population—but climate change is the spectre that hangs over them all.

And I have struggled, and am struggling, with how to articulate this. I am, of course, not a scientist; so I want to avoid giving second-hand, inferior accounts of the facts. If you are wondering why I think this is so serious, when the mainstream media coverage hardly mentions the real problems, I cannot recommend a better article that Joe Rohm’s An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces. Read it, please. This is one of the few articles I have seen that unflinchingly looks at the actual scientific predictions, and considers the overall impact of runaway climate change. It is a little outdated now; but safe to say, things have not got better.

One of the knowledges the Buddha claimed to possess was that he could see “where all paths lead”. It doesn’t take any special powers to see that the path we are on leads to the end of civilization. We simply cannot survive in any meaningful way a temperature rise of 4 or 6 degrees, together with the myriad of other calamities wreaked by climate change. Civilizations collapse. It is normal. And they collapse because they overuse their resources. The difference is that we are doing it on a global scale.

So what are we to do? I have been involved in speaking out in conventional ways on this for a long time. But politics has failed us. Just recently I was part of an ARRCC interfaith delegation to Canberra where we spoke with Greg Hunt and a range of other politicians. It was depressing, as you might expect. Not a single one of the politicians, so far as I could see, was prepared to face the facts. I spoke to a series of them about this specific issue, saying that the course we are on leads to the end of civilization. Nobody said I was wrong on the facts, or too extreme. They were just unable to process the information. Even those most active on the issues, like Mark Dreyfus for example, simply had no intention to talk about making the kinds of changes that are really needed, like, say, leaving the coal in the ground. Many of those in the Government have simply no interest in or grasp of the basic science. We were told by a sitting member of the Liberal party that there has been no conversation on climate change in the party since 2010.

Our current government has launched what is probably the most single-minded, vicious attack on the environment and science of any Australian government in history. Yet we elected them.

The plain reality is that all of the activism that has been done for decades is a complete failure. No matter how many solar panels we put up, or how efficient our light bulbs become, the carbon in the atmosphere keeps going up, as fast or faster. Now we are at 402 ppm, higher than anytime in the past 800,000 years, at least. And so who cares? Who is actually prepared to change anything?

The IPCC claims that making the necessary changes would be incredibly cheap: the median annual growth of consumption over this century would decline by a mere 0.06%. Yet even this trifling sum is too much. To avoid paying it we have toppled governments and generated a whole new industry of denialism.

I simply don’t think that we will make the necessary changes. Of course, we can: that is not the issue. And perhaps we will. But I am an empiricist. I look at the evidence and try to make a reasonable extrapolation. And to extrapolate a survivable future, we have to assume a massive change in behaviour and values, and there is simply no evidence of this.

To forestall objections, I am not suggesting that we should do nothing. On the contrary, we should do much more. But I just don’t see any reason to think it will really make any difference, except that we get to make some good kamma. Which is reason enough, but is not the feelgood message that a good activist should be sending. So I’m not very interested in conventional activism, although I still do it. I think that we need to step back and look at the big picture, to realign our values.

In future articles I will go into details more. But here I want to just broach the basic issue. Regardless of what we think is the most likely outcome, there is at least a distinct possibility that we are headed towards the global collapse of civilization in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime. We need to find a way to talk about this, to accept it as a reality. To ask: “What are our values, our lives, if this is where we are headed?”

And these are, at their heart, spiritual questions. I hope that we can have a sane conversation about this. And I hope that we can begin to find acceptance.

Just one final point: I will not be tolerating denialists on this blog. You will be moderated. You are most welcome to exercise your freedom of speech here, here, or even here.

31 thoughts on “The thing is…

    • “Perhaps we must steer a path between the counsel to perfection of Gro Brundtland’s concept of sustainable development and the alternative counsel to perfection of the deep ecologist’s vision of a return to living a life balanced within the Earth system. This middle way, which was touched on by Lord Rees in his book The Final Century will require some difficult choices on what technologies to abandon and what to retain; we should look on our path as a sustainable retreat. My friend Sir Crispin Tickell says we need a climate catastrophe recognised as such by everyone and strong effective leadership.”

  1. HI Ajahn Sujato,
    First, just a word of great appreciation for your books and videos. You are a refreshing voice in your cultural and historical analysis of Buddhism.

    As for your recent blog about the climate change crisis, you say we CAN change. Really? I take this to mean that it is in the realm of possibilities. But I wonder if it truly is. I am stuck with a Canadian gov’t who has its own head just as buried in the oil sands as your gov’t has its head in coal. My point is that the majority of people don’t give a damn; it is this majority that rules (as they keep reelecting the same type of gov’ts over and over again). Is this a surprise? When greed (craving, clinging…and the rest of the cycle of becoming) is what drives most people on this planet, how can we rationally say or envisage that we CAN change?
    Buddhists and environmentalists are a minority who “don’t understand” the ways of the world. Politicians are interested in getting reelected, so they always end up falling into the laps of the guys with the big bucks. What you said elsewhere about your president (concerning climate change being the greatest challenge to human history) is similar to what Obama said with his “Yes we can.” They are either pious intentions or smoke screens, compared to what they actually do once they get in office.
    How can we change when these factors motivate humans from the moment they come into this world? The majority of people are just interested in their personal and immediate profit. One might think that we now have our backs against the wall…and yet, we persist in remaining blind to our immediate and collective interest in an environmental turnaround. This being the case – apologists would call it human nature – can the bulk of humanity change?

    • Hi Jacques,

      My sympathies to you, living in Canada. Curiously most Australians seem to be unaware of the horrific behaviour of the current Canadian Government—shackling scientists, burning climate records and so on—but I expect that we will see more and more of this kind of thing from our current “Liberal” govt. (For the non-aussies, our “Liberal” party is in fact conservative.)

      “Can”, I think is realistic in technical terms, also in terms of what humans can adapt to. It’s certainly not realistic in current political or corporate terms.

      Can the bulk of humanity change? I don’t know. Change is always possible, but it seems incredibly unlikely. I’m not sure that the bulk of humanity has to change, however. It is only the wealthy who cause the problem, and who will have to change. A rice farmer will keep doing what they do.

  2. Thanks, Bhante. Suddenly I don’t feel so alone. To avoid going completely mad I do try to keep in mind Krishna’s admonition to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita that he (Arjuna) should perform his prescribed duty without being attached to the result.

  3. Bhante, thanks for your article and the Trial to wake us up. Some of us will know where the path leads we are walking on. But my concern is as long as it doesn’t hurt, so Long nobody or too less move any finger. Politicians are only human too, like us, and they find satisfaction in their job and the concentration of power so they start to cling on it and want never miss this Feeling. That’s why they are not in the position to care because they don’t want to give up their power. Everyone can help by avoiding extreme use of resources but will everybody do it? Like politicians they say: why should I be the one who starts? The other people in the other contry should be Ideas and begin. On one hand I can sometimes understand what they think, for example: americans are world champions in water consumption and energy, but who should convince them? Our politicians? The company bosses which only look for money grow? I have no idea. I try my best to reduce energy, water consumption, waste but sometimes I feel helpless because I think I am alone doing so.

    • Hi Wilfried,

      You’re not alone! But I have come to more and more be suspect of the idea that we should be taking personal responsibility for changing what we do. The problem is systemic. I think of the story of the Bodhisattva, living sheltered from the realities of life. That’s what capitalism has done, except even more effectively: we hide the world behind our screens.

      There was a wonderful article in today’s Guardian by Naomi Klein. All should read!

  4. great article, and i’m with you. though I disagree with this statement “The plain reality is that all of the activism that has been done for decades is a complete failure.” We should take great care not to deny the ripples, however small.

    • Fair enough. Of course on a small scale there have been many successes, which have real results. My point was simply that this has done nothing to change the big picture: CO2 keeps going up, with all of its consequences.

  5. While I understand you needing a break from blogging for a while, it’s great to have you back in the seat, Bhante. The knowledge you’re talking about here is something that sits just beneath the surface for so many of us on a daily basis. Wise guidance from the Sangha is needed more than ever because of this, so thank you for writing about it. I hope it’s something you’ll write about more.

  6. Although I can’t dispute any of the information in the linked article, in comparison the information is like having the first noble truth just dumped into the reader’s lap. Where are the other three points? At a certain stage in my attention span the graphs and words stopped conveying meaningful information. What I would like as a reader/consumer/citizen is a directive of what to do, or avoid doing, to make the most meaningful impact… It doesn’t have to be eightfold.

  7. As someone pointed out this week, the US is not a democracy, but an oligarchy. Corporations decide policy, laws, and even influence our highest courts. One gambit now seems to be monetizing anything that these entities can get their hands on: water and food (ie Nestle buying up water rights from public lands; Monsanto patenting seeds so that farmers must plant only their zombie seed crops). Perhaps as our environment becomes more compromised, the corporate blood profits are in control and resale of once-public natural resources. Having delegated control over resources, safety, information (ie net neutrality rules crumbling), and policy to these multinational corporations, of course we are on a path of demise. I was dumbstruck when Tricycle (current issue) published my letter editorial that stated in part : “I, for one, feel that the Buddha’s teachings are timeless and that the example of the renunciant monk holds a relevant place in a modern world increasingly bent on greed, anger, consumerism, and delusion. Buddhism need not fundamentally adapt and change to the modern world; instead, the modern world should pay some real attention to what the Buddha taught 2,600 years ago.” Perhaps as private environmental activism has failed to some degree, maybe there can be a role for Buddhists to speak collectively, and in a loud public voice, for what Naomi Klein called the “three Rs.” I’d add a fourth: renunciation. We simply don’t need to consume and deplete ourselves into oblivion.

    • Just curious, why were you so surprised to be published?

      I agree absolutely, we need to put renunciation in the center stage. It’s not just a spiritual value any more; it’s a survival value.

    • Bhante, I remember the days many years ago when I would buy Tricycle at the Barnes and Noble and have it placed into a paper sack as though buying “Playboy.” 🙂 Where I live (Billy Graham’s Wheaton College area, GOP/Tea Party activism) Buddhism is seen as an anomaly in some respects. Renunciation? The bookstore is between a Victoria’s Secret and an Irish pub. So, when the very nice editor at Tricycle wrote me to ask my permission to publish my missive, I was gobsmacked. I no longer place my Tricycle in a paper bag. 🙂 I even have a Buddhist Peace Fellowship sticker on my car, and no one has taken a hammer to it. Yet.

    • Out and proud, I love it! I briefly passed thought the Bible belt a few years ago, and I was struck at how many people wanted something different. Obviously I was seeing a biassed demographic, but still.

  8. The thought’s scarcely original with me but it certainly seems apropos: We find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Curious, no?

  9. I am not particularly proud or even attached to the current industrial paradigm: although some of its fruits have been good — advances in science, medicine and civil rights — it seems as if Greed itself has been powering such advancements: fossil-fueled capitalism has been a Faustian deal and right now we begin to see the bottom of the infernal pit we are heading to. I just don’t know whether this is Marlowe’s or Goethe’s Faust though the evidence shows that powers-that-be are staunchly committed to the destructive path until the bitter end. This is unsurprising for anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. It seems to be a historical constant that the same forces that bring a civilisation to success also conspire to its downfall. Future historians will remember the current era as the “Fossil-Fuel civilisation.”

    I intellectually accept our doom. Any yet, I find it difficult to face the possibility of the destruction of everything which is familiar to me. It is even a bigger destruction than personal death. When someone dies, though they need to leave behind all, they depart knowing that life will continue for their children, that their culture, their religion will keep existing. The music they love. Our attachments do not die with our death. But now we are facing the virtual certainty that much of what constitutes our identity will be gone. I luckily have no children to worry about.

    Certainly meditation helps me accept and perhaps welcome this growing embryo born of helplessness and terror in my mind. I work to communicate environmental issues to the wider public. This also helps me sublimate. But this little tiny demon is always there at the back of my head, making me wonder what kind of world we are bequeathing to future generations. Morbidly wonder about the real nature of humanity. Of the humanity we have grown into. We see, and yet we act as if we were blind.

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