TOO LITTLE TOO LATE: Zen and Climate Change
There are few issues raising as great a concern, and few as assiduously avoided, as that of climate change, and its potential impact on the world we live in. Of course, proximate causes — seemingly intransigent and intractable threats such as posed by mass shootings, particularly of schoolchildren — must take priority in our daily lives over relatively distant and invisible ones such as global warming.
LOOKING TO OUR LEADERS
Watching the Democratic debates for the looming presidential campaign, and the Republican response, such as it is, is a bit like watching a flock of ostriches squabbling with each other, while trying to keep their heads firmly ensconced in the sand. The only candidate who ran on an unashamedly platform putting climate change first and foremost resigned from the race after gaining too little traction in the early going.
Disappointing is a cosmic understatement. All issues are not equal. We need a sense of priority that is in line with reality. All opinions are not equal. We need the information to make a decision, at least as much as we need to make that decision. Making decisions in the absence of information, or based on faux facts, may be very much in vogue, but is fraught with unintended consequences, also cosmic.
Speaking of which, meanwhile the other party is partying like it’s 1999. Or rather 1959. The relatively wealthy, and their handmaidens, are happily exploiting the resources of the planet they happen to own or control. Regardless of the fact that their very consumption is fueling the decline of the environment. Regardless, but not oblivious, in my judgment. Although if believing a lie is necessary to looking at yourself in the mirror, you tend to become a true believer.
Speaking of which, the older of a famed pair of anti-climate-science billionaire brothers — who, not incidentally, made their fortunes in fossil fuels — died recently. His assets are estimated at fifty billion dollars. That’s billion with a “B,” as we used to say, when billionaires were not so commonplace. I look upon this particular life-and-death story as a fifty-billion dollar failure.
By that I mean, what good did it do for this person to die with fifty billion dollars in pocket change left over, so to speak? On what projects might that money have been spent, projects that may have been beneficial or productive? If not to himself, then to others? Where will that wealth go now? Left to his heirs, who are most likely already well-fixed? It would sponsor one hell of a first-class funeral.
If you are hearing class envy, listen again. The wealth is no longer enjoyed by the man, who is dead. He no longer owns it. He never did, really, other than in the Marxian sense that ownership is determined by utility. To what utility, what grand purpose, did he put the power of all that wealth, during his lifetime? Conservative causes is the conventional answer. What is conservative about denying climate change? What are we going to conserve, if not the planet?
The Metta Sutta admonishes “Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.” We tend to think that if we win the lottery, all our problems will be over. Even fifty billion dollars could not buy off aging, sickness and death.
One of our lineage teachers, Okumura Roshi, was asked about the heedlessly expanding population of humankind. He remarked, with a certain melancholy and irony, that he is afraid that, with all our success, we may be like a cancer, one that is killing its own host.
I would not fear that we are killing our host. That is, the planet will survive us. But we (or the powers of Nature, or God, if you like) are definitely stretching, to the breaking point, the ability of the planet — particularly the infrastructure of human civilization — to support seven-and-a-half-billion people, and counting. As a result, more people than ever in history are now in migration or ensconced in camps.
If we think a bit about how cancer works, suppressing our usual fear and loathing for a moment, we can see that while cancer can and will kill its host — if unimpeded by medical remedies — it will only kill the one human or other being that is its host. It is not contagious. Thank goodness (or God, if you like) for small favors. Imagine what it would be like, if you could contract cancer from contact with a patient. Or worse, if it were airborne, like Ebola. Hazmat suits all around.
Similarly, while natural disasters may kill off large groups of people in the area of impact, they do not typically harm those fortunate enough to be elsewhere on the planet. At least not directly. But we are all interconnected, as Buddhism teaches, and as we are all learning, to our chagrin.
THE FOUR ELEMENTS REACT
The biblical injunction is “the fire next time.” We are seeing the first embers of that conflagration, along with increasing heat waves parching large swaths of forest and grasslands around the globe, with consequent loss of crops to feed the locals, or to export to other countries, including the privileged “first world.” The latest to go up in flames is the Amazon, which has too many fires, and too little resources to combat them. Do not hold your breath waiting for other countries to come to the rescue. The world threatens to become one big food desert. Some of these fires may be set intentionally, as seems to be the case in the Amazon. Hopeful farmers and potential developers of the land (more golf courses) gleefully setting the “lungs of the planet” (the Amazon is estimated to provide up to 20% of our breathable atmosphere) ablaze in order to reap short-term benefits. The Tragedy of the Commons writ large.
But wait, there’s more! Along with fire this time comes water. Ice melting on land masses drains directly into the ocean, like filling a bathtub, but without the retaining walls. Greenland, which our current POTUS lusts after as real estate for yet more golf courses (the only sport that requires consumption of acreage of real estate), is the current poster boy. Icebergs already floating on the ocean will not raise the level, like ice cubes in your drinking glass. But the loss of the reflective white cover on the “blue marble” will heat up the more absorbent, darker waters underneath. Which will, in turn, contribute to greater storms making landfall, and flooding of surface waters.
Throwing in the other two of the Four Elements: Earth is doing its part in the form of increasing frequency and severity of quakes, thanks to fracking, as well as tectonic plate movement. Wind fills out the quartet in the form of increasing power, duration, and frequency of perfect monster storms. It is becoming more likely that all four — earth, wind, fire, and water — may hit at one and the same time and place, or in rapid succession. Maybe we will get lucky. Maybe storms will extinguish fires.
AND THAT’S NOT ALL
As if all this gloom and doom is not enough, there is something else, even worse, to worry about. A recent article reminds us, just in case we were becoming complacent, that there is a gigantic, active super-volcano underlying Yellowstone Park, one of twenty such around the globe. I’m betting that it will blow at just about the time all the coastal cities have been flooded, causing massive in-migration seeking safety on the higher ground of the heartland, where, Surprise! It appears that if God still has His hand in it, as Theists believe, he is a remarkably perverse and vengeful Guy. Or maybe He just has a wicked sense of humor.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Conquest, War, Famine, and Plague — with their relatively puny, human-driven calamities, will be put to shame by the scale of damage done by the insentient forces of Nature, no respecter of persons. In this context, it really doesn’t matter whether human beings are contributing significantly to the engine of climate change driving the destruction, or whether we could do something to stop it, because we are obviously unwilling to do so. Just witness our so-called leaders in Congress, and around the world.
It also matters little who wins the next election cycle in the so-called free world.
If climate change is true, it is really game-over for the human race as we know it. But we have had a good run, enjoying dominion over the Earth, and stewardship over its non-human denizens, for some time now. But we blew it.
The other “critical” issues of the day — immigration; inequality; promiscuous use of guns and ammo; the so-called “rise” of white supremacy (when did it ever decline?); and the resultant carnage, food and water shortages — all pale in comparison to inexorable climate change. Again, if it is really true.
Proposed solutions to these problems, such as the much-lampooned southern wall, are equally inconsequential. We are going to need a wall, alright, but one to hold back the ocean — which estimates forecast may rise as much as 23 feet. That is going to have to be one heck of a “beautiful wall.” If you think immigration is bad now, imagine what it will be like when all the coastal cities in the world have to be abandoned.
These social difficulties, and the human-caused atrocities that accompany them, including any and all tribal conflicts — up to and including genocide — are intimately interconnected with climate change. And, to a great degree, driven by it. But IF climate change is true, the other threats of the day simply do not compete, and are not worth the hot air, let alone the time, money and energy being devoted to them, in the so-called war of ideas.
ALL IS INTERCONNECTED, UNFORTUNATELY
Candidates for high office, presenting supposed solutions, are like ants in a nest being threatened from without. They turn their attention to those things they can do — like trying to save the eggs, or the queen — because their vision is limited to what is in front of their eyes. Meanwhile, the colony is swamped by the flood, consumed by the fire, blown away by the hurricane, or buried in the avalanche. They cannot, or will not, acknowledge the worldwide tsunami creeping up behind them, looming over all other disasters.
If we assume that the oceans will continue rising, and the other elements will continue to vent their wrath on the continents, we can predict that millions of people, including those privileged by first-world status to enjoy living on the coastline — where most of the population of the USA now dwells — as well as those in the poorer, lower-lying coastal planes in second-, third-, and so-called s-hole countries, will have something in common, at long last. They will all have to flee the rising tide. Which means that they will move inland, first to the cities enjoying higher elevations, but with already inadequate and crumbling infrastructures; or, in fewer numbers, to those forests and plains where the fires increasingly rage.
What this will do to demands on the already failing interior cities, the parched breadbaskets of America and other nations, not to mention factory farming, and the fishing industry — which meanwhile has lost its ports and docks along the coastline — is unimaginable.
As Buddhism teaches us, all is interconnected. Which is wonderful when it works, but disastrous when it falls apart.
This does not mean, however, that those benefitting financially from the identified multipliers of the aggravating effects — such as emissions from fossil fuels — really do not believe that global warming is actually happening, their protestations to the contrary. In fact, I suspect that the wealthy are even more convinced of the coming apocalypse than the man on the street. I assume this is one reason they are attempting to secure even more of the gross output of the world economy than they already receive. If the world is going the way it seems to be going — if the worst-case scenario is the inevitable reality, or simply the most likely outcome — it behooves the powerful to salt away all the capital they can, because it is going to be very expensive to survive the coming holocaust. Not everyone will survive, and like all good fathers, we want to make sure that we and our loved ones get ours, let the devil take the hindmost. But there is an obvious fallacy in this thinking.
WEALTH WILL NOT SUFFICE
Even if you manage, individually, to control trillions of dollars in liquid assets, they will be insufficient to hold back twenty-plus feet of ocean, or triple-digit heat every summer. The infrastructure you would ordinarily depend upon to respond to and facilitate your massive 11th-hour investments in your own safety, or that of your family, will have long since crumbled in disarray. Manufacture and distribution of the various necessary materials and parts will have been fatally disrupted. Mobilization of the entire military will prove inadequate to the challenge, let alone your measly private army.
The truth of our past president’s admonition, “You did not build that.” will become increasingly clear. You may have built your own fortune, through ill-gotten or other gains, but you relied on your connection with the grid to make it work. Off the grid, we are left to our own devices, which reduce to survival mode.
This is one example of the Mahayana (greater vehicle) view that no one individual can be saved, while leaving others behind, contradicting the Hinayana (lesser vehicle) view. Which latter seems to inform the worldview of our so-called leaders.
I am not suggesting that the one-percent are fully cognizant of the import of global warming, or that there is some vast, anti-99%, corporate conspiracy, though corporations seem congenitally competitive with real persons. The captains of industry, like most of us, are probably just reacting — on a knee-jerk, monkey-mind level — to seeming threats to their sense of entitlement and hegemony over the economy, their vaunted control over their fate, and, to a lesser degree, that of their progeny. So-called conservatives are very consistent in wishing to conserve themselves first and foremost, along with their status quo. They may not feel the need to conserve much of anything else, for anyone else.
We have already seen, all over the globe, the tendency of the haves to wall themselves off from the have-nots, the dreaded hoi polloi, the untouchables. The gated community is the familiar local, seemingly innocuous, current example of this trend. But it has roots deep in the history of human civilization, examples being the ancient walled cities, castles of the Middle Ages, the Great Wall of China, and the feckless French Maginot Line. Everyone agrees that in an age of air travel, these attempts at walling out the enemy, or simply excluding the “other,” are laughably ineffective.
But there is more than one way to build a wall, notwithstanding the present, lamentably retrograde questionable activity around the southern border of the USA. For example, we have the technology to wall off the atmosphere itself, with mega-scale geodesic domes, including internal atmospheric controls. The structural aspect of this is an engineering reality, proposed by R. Buckminster Fuller (one of my heroes and mentors), himself a vital advocate of sharing the world’s resources fairly. Checkpoints at all entries can provide the desired security, allowing in only the birds of our own particular feather, creating the ultimate of inner circles, members of which lord over not only energy resources but the very air we breathe, along with the water and food needed to survive. Which is every oligarch’s dream come true.
The cartoonish, coal-and-oil consuming caricatures of leadership in our country, as well as the other great powers around the world, including the do-nothing, dithering Congress, have been accused of being traitors. They have arguably betrayed their own citizens, but in this matter they are not only traitors to their nations, but to the human race itself. Other species will survive — they are more agile, and already migrating to safer climes. Many are more nimble evolutionarily. They adapt more rapidly, gestation periods between generations being much shorter than ours (think chickens), much larger litters and broods. Think fleas.
BACK TO BASICS
We humans think we need huge, immovable infrastructures — called buildings — just to ward off exposure to the elements when Mother Nature is on her best, most benign behavior. What are we going to do when they fail to resist the huffing and puffing of the biggest wolves ever to howl at our doors? We can’t take them with us, like the much-ridiculed teepees of the native plainsmen. The old chiefs will get the last laugh, but none will be exempt from a fate brought on by their conquerors.
The old spiritual describing the Final Days may finally be coming true, quite literally:
Oh sinner-man — where you gonna run to (repeat 3x)
All on that day?
Run to the rock — rock was a-meltin’ (repeat 3x)
All on that day?
Run to the sea — sea was a-boilin’ (repeat 3x)
All on that day?
Or more contemporaneously, “You can run but you cannot hide…this is widely known.” Trouble is, the true extent and implications of climate change are not widely known, and not even acknowledged by those who should know better. The old saw — that it is impossible to accept an inconvenient truth when your income depends upon your not accepting it — holds truer when stakes are higher.
The wealthy are usually able to buy themselves and their loved ones out of trouble. They imagine that they can always just move to higher ground. In this case, however, there ain’t gonna be no high ground — no mountain high enough, no valley low enough, no river or ocean wide enough — to escape the cosmic karmic consequences of tipping the delicate balance of Nature, disrupting the Samadhi of the planet.
A rumor being bruited about whispers that the mission to Mars — I am not making this up — is actually a plan to abandon our burned-out planet for a brand new one, giving new meaning to the “throw-away society.” Guess who the Lords of Mars are destined to be? First, of course, we must colonize the moon, just as we colonized the earth. While all this is surely possible — and for a sci-fi fan like myself, an exciting prospect, and maybe even the ultimate destiny of the race — it is not likely that we can move fast enough to stay ahead of the wave of destruction that is pursuing us. As Satchel Paige warned, “Don’t look back — something may be gaining on you.” In light of what is gaining on us, and the speed at which it is moving, all such speculation of hopeful salvation through space exploration is just another distraction, a new and dangerous (to humanity) form of lunacy.
The rabid denial of climate change and global warming on the part of our glorious leaders may simply amount to another piece of prestidigitation, sleight of hand, to keep the rubes looking over there, whilst we do our dirty work over here. Keep them thinking that we really do believe our own propaganda, shining the light on climate change, race relations, immigration, or war, so that they keep fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile we can make progress on saving ourselves.
At some point the thought has to cross your mind: Well, if worst comes to worst, I will be long dead and gone. May I remind you of the principle of rebirth, to pop that bubble. It is not only that our children — and their children; and, possibly their children, if the denouement manages to last that long — will be here to face the consequences. But according to Buddhist rebirth, they will be us. The Bodhisattva Vow reminds us that no one individual can be “saved” — whatever that means to you — until and unless all beings are saved. Take that for what you like, another way of putting it is that there is no escape, not even for first-class passengers or private jets. No one gets off scot-free in the realm of karmic consequence.
I am not asserting that I know for sure that it is too late, but we can all agree that the response to the potential is far too little, so far. The better part of valor is discretion, on any scale. If we must err, let it be on the side of assuming that any effort to reverse the tide of history is doomed to be too little, that it is already too late to stop the deluge. Otherwise we are just postponing the inevitable.
I am not a doomsayer, or an alarmist, nor do I tend to be pessimistic. I like to think that I am a realist, much like Shakyamuni Buddha was, in his time. But different times call for different tacks. We may be facing suffering such as the historical human world has never seen, or at least been conscious of. And the coming crisis may be the first of its scope to be fully documented and televised all over the world, to those who still have access to the power grid, and media reception. That normal people are aware of this possibility, if not inevitability, is testified to by the popularity of disaster films coming out of Hollywood. But they are not the most extreme of fans of future dystopia. There are apparently many believers of extreme biblical prophecy that actually look forward to the apocalypse. They fancy that they will be saved, while the rest of us can go to hell.
What I do know is that, while we may want to point to past instances where people, including the denizens of the USA, came together to confront a crisis — WWII being the go-to default — there are at least as many instances in history where the crisis du jour precipitated a massive failure on the part of humanity: WWII. Political revolutions in particular have a peculiar habit of reinstating the same old same old system of class-ordered domination, only the players have changed places, like musical chairs.
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END
So while it would be wonderful to be able to assert a panglossian view of this best of all possible worlds, doing so would require ignoring what we know of human nature. As my grandmother would often say, “Someone is always coming along to take the joy out of life.” In Zen, we aspire to buddha-nature, not human nature. As more and more humans occupy the planet, the side-effects of people doing what people always do, and what only people can do, can only increase — i.e., get worse — especially as conditions deteriorate. Like putting more and more rats into the same maze: at one point they begin to turn on each other. Or tying two cats’ tails together and throwing them over a clothesline: they tend to take it out on each other.
As a conjecture, just consider seven billion people (now past 7.5) enjoying an average of seventy years’ life expectancy. The total life experience of the present population approximates 490 billion years (70 x 7). The universe itself is only a little under fourteen billion years old. Thus the current life experience of the human race, in the aggregate, is 35 times the age of the entire universe. Seventy years ago, one average lifespan, the world population was about 2.5 billion. At that time the population represented 175 billion life-years in toto. But nearly 100% of those people are no longer living. So the 175 adds to the 490 to arrive at 665 billion. Going back another 70 years to another extinct generation (remembering that average life expectancy trends downward as we regress), in 1880 the world population is estimated at about 1.5 billion. So that would add another 105 billion life-years, bringing the total in the past century and a half to 770 billion. And so on, in a finite regress to the diaspora out of Africa.
Could it be that we are approaching the ignominious end of the glorious human story? I invite you to do the math on rebirth, as another example, taking these numbers into account. Perhaps everyone who has been reborn, or is to be reborn, is now living — or will be in the next generation or two, when the world population is projected to reach 10 billion by the middle of this century. Assuming that fears regarding the climate turning malign turn out to be unfounded, which is definitely not a given. Perhaps the intent driving rebirth peters out if those reborn keep repeating the mistakes that led to rebirth.
MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY
The Metta Sutta presents a microcosm of this dilemma, if the backstory is to be believed. Ostensibly, Buddha delivered this sermon because the trees in the forest where monastics of the Order camped out (J. sorin) were unhappy. Why would they be unhappy? Just imagine what it had to be like for hundreds of human beings to camp out in the same small area of the woods. No indoor plumbing, remember. No sewer lines. The stress on the natural environment had to be overwhelming. Remember the aftermath of Woodstock? They had porta-potties, and it was still a huge, hot mess. This teaching may represent the first sermon on ecology every recorded in history.
So what’s a Zen person to do, when all the signs seem to be there, portending that, indeed, this is probably not going to end well?
First, we must remember what Buddha actually taught, and its relevance to today. The contrasts are stark. In his day, the power of the few to inflict damage on the many was severely limited by today’s standards. The ego of those in power was not inflated by the global reach of media, exacerbated by an international cult of celebrity worship. But the fundamental truths of suffering (S. dukkha) hold true throughout time, in spite of stark differences in local and global circumstances. The three marks of dukkha — impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality — have not changed. The Four Noble Truths are noble because, like the noble gases, they do not interact with changing circumstances in the environment, however drastic. The Existence of suffering, its Origin, Cessation, and Path, hold true.
But the worldview propagated by Buddha and his followers was in many ways less constricted than that of our present philosopher kings, fiddling while the world fumes. For example, let it be known that Buddhism has always proposed that there are beings on other planets, namely the buddhas and bodhisattvas who came to Earth just to hear him teach (talk about drawing a crowd!). The flat-earthers were all in Europe. So there may be hope yet, somewhere out there, beyond this third rock from our little sun. Maybe the aliens will finally take pity on us and save our bacon. Maybe the lucky ones will be reborn on a planet led by sane people. May all beings be happy indeed, but with reality as it is, not as we would try to remake it. Buddha did not live in a fantasy world of his own imagining.
THE INCONVENIENT TRUTHS JUST KEEP COMING
Let me conclude this necessarily inconclusive essay with some timely if scary reference material from the world beat. The following are up-to-the-day-of-this-writing quotes from the Washington Post online, for your reading pleasure. If you can take pleasure in calamity. They document some of the telltale signs of potential impending doom, suggested above. This publication predated the massive fires now consuming the Amazon. It is impossible to keep up.
The comparison between ice melt in 2019 and the last big one in 1912 is telling, as regards our human perspective on things. On a geological time scale, the heat domes occurring over that span may as well be happening on the same day. Seven years is the blink of a gnat’s eyelash. Nature is not cutting us any slack. You can read the entire report at:
The Greenland ice sheet is in the throes of one of its greatest melting events ever recorded. As a result of both surface melting and a lack of snow on the ice sheet this summer, “this is the year Greenland is contributing most to sea level rise,” said Marco Tedesco, a climate scientist at Columbia University. The Danish Meteorological Institute tweeted that more than half the ice sheet experienced some degree of melting on Tuesday, according to a computer model simulation, which made it the “highest this year by some distance.”
Already this year, the ice sheet has endured exceptional melting. Between June 11 and 20, the ice sheet lost the equivalent of 80 billion tons of ice, the National Snow and Ice Data Center computed. Melting covered about 270,000 square miles, the most on record so early in the season. Temperatures leaped nearly 40 degrees above normal at the time. The current record-setting heat dome parked over the ice sheet is bringing nearly cloudless skies and temperatures up to 30 degrees above average. Given the ongoing melt event, “there is very good chance we will have a record-breaking [low] surface mass balance,” Tedesco said. The depleted surface mass on the ice sheet is directly tied to its contribution to sea level rise.
Twila Moon, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, says the bigger picture of Arctic warming, permafrost melt, spring snow melt, ice loss and other trends are the major concern, as compared with short-lived melt events. “Any individual melt event is not the thing that is putting Greenland over a tipping point,” Moon said. The Arctic overall is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the globe, which is a trend that has been firmly tied to human emissions of greenhouse gases. “It’s a direct consequence of human-caused climate change,” Moon said. There’s still time to take action and limit Greenland ice loss, she emphasized, saying that decisions we make now about greenhouse gas emissions will “have an influence on how much and how quickly we lose ice in Greenland and all around the world.”
WHAT WOULD BUDDHA DO?
Nice to end on a somewhat optimistic note. But again, Buddhism is not overly optimistic, just as it is not pessimistic, in spite of its emphasis on suffering and karmic consequences. Buddhism is simply realistic, and zazen is its realistic, down-to-earth method. Zazen lends practical application to our lives, whatever straits, dire or otherwise, we may find ourselves facing.
The despair that we feel when we sense that we cannot do anything about these threats to the very existence of the human race must be tempered by the fact that we can do what Buddhism teaches, summed up at the end of the Heart Sutra: “Know this as truth and do not doubt. Proclaim the Prajna Paramita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom) that says ‘Gone gone to the other shore; attained the other shore; to beyond the other shore (having never left)’”. The other shore is right here.
Zen’s solution begins at home, with each of us, in our personal practice. The social dimension stems from there. Zen does not promote top-down solutions. In terms of engaged Zen, zazen is “The most you can do,” according to Matsuoka Roshi. In your zazen you can determine your own resolution to the impermanence and imperfection of life. Then, leaving the cushion, you will be enabled to do your part to effect those around you. Zen may be our best hope for saving the world, but that is not its mission. Its mission is to save us from our own ignorance. It does not relieve us of suffering at the hands of Nature, nor that inflicted upon us by our ignorant fellow humans, or our shared karmic consequences.