Transcending Climate Doom

In the Buddhist scriptures, there’s a passage where a student approaches the Buddha and accuses him of never talking about the “unknowable questions,” questions about the future, of heaven, hell, and what happens after we die, and so on. 

To paraphrase, the Buddha says this is like a man shot with a poison-tipped arrow, who won’t sit down to let the doctor pull it out. Instead, he’s too busy demanding to know who shot the arrow, what was his status, what family he was from, and so on. And so he dies, and still doesn’t know the answers to these questions. 

And this is why I’m not very keen on the various climate doomer movements populating the interwebs these days. “Worry about pulling the arrow out first,” says the Buddha. Quite appropo advice. 

The truth is, the climate is a very complex system and we’re finding out new elements, new stabilizing feedback loops, new moving parts all the time. A single volcanic eruption could buy us another few hundred years of livable climate! The truth is we can speak in terms of likelihoods and probabilities, but we really can’t be certain of near-term societal collapse, for example. 

I worked my first environmentalist job in the summer of 1992, so I’ve been exposed to environmental doomers absolutely certain of the imminent collapse of civilization for around 30 years. Kurt Vonnegut wrote of similar predictions in Cat’s Cradle in 1962. I’ve seen a lot of doomers live their lives on the certainty of imminent collapse and make decisions that didn’t help remove the poison arrow from themselves or society. With each shock to the system–the ozone hole, each low ice year, the Iraq war, the housing collapse, Trump, COVID– I’ve heard “this is it! It’s coming for sure this time!”

In the immortal words of Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet.” 

And, I’m not ready to go on the plague-cart of dying civilizations, species, and planets just yet. 

Now, I’m certainly not saying that everything is fine, either. We’re likely at the start of a mass extinction event that will continue to worsen unless things change dramatically. And each act of specicide we commit through our carelessness is a crime, the worst crime, a horrible crime against the whole of the universe. 

What I am saying is that we need to pull out the arrow first. 

We do not know the future. Yet we’re running around “adapting” in response to events we’re certain will come. With looming crises caused by plastics, nuclear disaster, resource wars, rapid soil loss, growing ocean dead zones, and ecosystems collapse, we can’t even be sure that it’s climate change that will shoot the fatal arrow, if and when that arrow is actually shot. 

But still, in our certainty, many of our climate adaptation strategies threaten to make many of these other problems worse. We have rich a-holes unilaterally spraying various chemicals into the atmosphere, hoping to become global heroes. Who cares how this will effect these other problems!

A few years ago, I was invited as a “sustainability leader” to a regional conference on community climate adaptation. The language was telling. Words like relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation appeal strongly to an environmentalist faithful who’ve prophesied that our wayword oil-fueled lifestyles would surely bring cosmic karma. For many of us, it actually feels JUST that we humans be punished now for our irresponsibility to this world. And so we must accept a lower standard of living, revive an older more responsible way of living, including hard work and physical toil. It’s like an environmentalist version of “Make America Great Again.”

I’m sorry, not everyone on this planet deserves punishment for overconsumption, so I for one am not ready to accept that. And this world of ours is dystopian to quite a lot of beings, and has been for a long time. Make it great again? Our goal should not be to restore some grand old past, but to move forward to a future that is finally great for all. I believe we can do that while actually improving the standard of living for everyone, if we only begin to see our connection to nature and each other is our real source of wealth.

So at this conference, first we discussed building more resilient systems and infrastructure. For example, shocks to the food system would be worse, so we’d need big fans to cool local crop fields, more irrigation systems, and more air conditioning to keep food cool longer, and more plastics to grow valuable tropical crops closer to home, and we’d need more local land taken out of forest and put into agriculture, and so on. In other words, building resilience meant we’d need to burn a lot more fossil fuels and get rid of a lot more trees and ecosystems! Luckily, we were told, this would all be very good for the local economy! When I asked “won’t all that added energy consumption add to atmospheric carbon?” there was a moment of dead silence, before we continued to discuss these economic opportunities. 

Next, we discussed “renunciation,” and the tone turned pious. We environmentalists knew some people out there would have to give up their luxuries! But what would we give up? Certainly not any of the energy expenditures or destructive activities necessary for local resilience and a thriving economy driven by us GREEN thought leaders! 

Now, please don’t think that I’m calling all these people foolish or selfish. For me the fault is not in these individuals. The fault is a very predictable result of a bad idea, of misplaced priorities, of not pulling out the arrow

When it comes to the science of decision-making we have an abundance of data showing that scarcity thinking like doomerism causes us to make poor, selfish, and short-sighted decisions–just like those I mention above. It causes exactly the sort of thought error where we prioritize our own local well-being at the expense of making the problem worse for all. Polluting the stratosphere with reflective aluminum particles is the exact equivalent of buying cheap boots that will fall apart because you’re worried about the cost, instead of buying long-lasting boots that will save a lot of money in the long term. 

And we have an abundance of understanding that making decisions based on fear causes bad decisions. 

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t wisdom in mourning. But let’s make sure we’re mourning things worth mourning. Let’s not be like the fabled general, worried about the loss of his status if a man from an unworthy family were to have killed him. There are a great many things that I would happily throw onto the plague cart of history. What are we worried about losing? An unjust dystopian economy? Detached, disconnected, stressful lives? Our caste system? That seems to be what a lot of the folks at that convention were worried about. “The American way of life (Consumption.)” Good riddens to history’s rubbish, I say. 

Meanwhile, we know very well what the arrow is and how to pull it out. 

We’ve known for a long time. Its shaft is our centralized, corporate economy. We know corporate, industrial agriculture is the leading driver of climate change, of soil loss, of ocean dead zones, of habitat loss, and mass extinctions. Yet, we’re talking of helping this system become “more resilient?” The corporate clothing industry is arguably the world’s most destructive industry, and relies heavily on literal child slave labor. The plastics industry is our fastest growing polluter of soil and water, and a growing cause of sickness world wide. Don’t even get me started on the energy and transportation industries. Pull out this corporate arrow and put it on the rubbish cart of history, I say. 

And the arrow head that keeps the shaft stuck is our own consumer lifestyle. And our fear and scarcity thinking, and our spiritual emptiness that keeps us buying our meaning from the companies we know are harming us and destroying the planet. It’s our work to build a world of abundance, beauty, connection, and community reliance, so that we can more easily rid ourselves of our corporate cages. 

Finally, the poison that is really killing us is the lie that we are powerless to take direct action and have a positive impact on the world. 

We know that we make the best decisions when we act not from fear and scarcity, but from a positive, beautiful, empowered place. We make better decisions when we act out of a vision of what we really want to see in this world. 

So we can pull out the arrow. We can pull out the arrow of our own enslavement to the rat race, which keeps us laboring to keep these insane destructive corporations running so we can buy their destructive products. We can build a world of beauty, abundance, and community reliance that runs off photosynthetic sun power and ecosystem services instead of fossil fuel and exploitation. And in doing so, we’ll be doing our part to pull out the arrow in the side of Mother Earth, too. 

Which brings me to a second Buddhist parable. A monk is being chased through the woods by a tiger when he comes to a cliff. With no place left to run, he climbs over the side of the cliff and hangs from some grasses, which begin to pull out of the ground. With the tiger growling above, and a fall to certain death below, he notices there, on the side of the cliff, a perfect, beautiful, ripe strawberry. This strawberry in this moment is all of the universe. It’s a perfect, beautiful moment. What a delicious strawberry.

I can’t say what will come in the future. But this time of crisis is our time, our unique challenge, our chance to shine and create a better world. Whatever comes, there will never be a moment, so long as we have breath in us, where we can’t take action to reduce suffering, and increase the happiness in the world.

So how can we take action? To start with, you can take the 10% pledge to start withdrawing your support from this insane suicidal global corporate system. And you can start investing in more life enhancing support systems from sun-powered, local sources. You can start transforming your landscape to help preserve biodiversity, sequester carbon, and most importantly, help break free from the industrial food system.

And, this site will help you do so in ways that target the most destructive corporations and industries.

Leave a Reply