Extinction Rebellion and Buddhist Ethics

The two biggest Buddhist magazines in America both recently featured articles about a guy named Mark Ovland from the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). Ovland has been described as a Buddhist teacher in some articles, although the piece in Tricycle magazine says he “left behind his Buddhist teacher training earlier this year to join the Extinction Rebellion movement as a climate activist.” 

In any case Ovland says, “The practice, action in the world, and values of XR are really dharmic.” The Buddhist magazines appear to agree with that assessment.

But are Extinction Rebellion’s actions in the world really in line with Buddhist principles?

Recently Mark Ovland was among a group of Extinction Rebellion members who were dragged off the top of a train by angry commuters at Canning Town Station in London. The police had to intervene to save the protesters from the crowd. The group has since apologized for their actions. According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, Ovland has been arrested and released several times. Scotland Yard has placed a blanket ban on all protests by Extinction Rebellion. The activist group is challenging this ban.

It seems that the Extinction Rebellion group as a whole were very divided about the commuter train protest action. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, 72 percent of the membership opposed the commuter train protest. An XR member said, “Our fear was that targeting public transport, an environmentally friendly way to travel, would alienate the public and muddle what we were trying to say in the minds of the public.” 

It does indeed seem idiotic to me for a group whose stated goal is raising awareness about climate change to target the very people who are already doing something to help reduce pollution by using public transportation. I can’t see anyone who might be on the fence about the issue being won over by that kind of protest. Indeed another activist is quoted by The Guardian as saying, “We were vehemently opposed to it. We feel that the actions of a handful of protesters have jeopardized our movement, turning public opinion against us and creating a potential schism within our ranks.”

This was the group’s first action targeting commuter trains. Before this they blocked roads. At least blocking automobile traffic seems more thematically in line with their aim of reducing carbon emissions. But is blocking roads in line with Buddhist principles?

I don’t think so.

You have no idea who is using those roads. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars rushing to an assault in progress. And beyond that. There are women and men whose jobs depend on getting to work on time, who’ll be fired because they couldn’t make it. There could be someone on the way to a hospital to see their mother one last time before she dies. You have no idea what sort of pain you might be causing for someone when you block a road. As one Guardian writer put it, “Halting the climate crisis is obviously urgent – but for most people, being able to pay the rent is a different degree of urgent, and failing to acknowledge that is arguably the single biggest threat to this campaign succeeding.”

But my main concern here is not about how these actions affect the movement to raise awareness of climate change — although I wholeheartedly agree this stuff is not helping. I want to address why this this kind of action is not in accord with Buddhist ideas about ethics.

Speaking to the Guardian, Ruth Jarman, one of those involved in the commuter train disruption said, “People are dying now because of the climate crisis and it threatens all we love. I am deeply sorry for disrupting the lives of ordinary people – it was not our intention – but we have to raise the alarm and are desperate and don’t know what else to do.” XR’s Ronan McNern said, “This action has created a disruption. Now conversations will be going on about what we are doing – and hopefully why we are doing it – at dinner tables and in pubs up and down the country.”

This is an example of ordinary ethical reasoning. Essentially the argument here is that the ends justify the means. The climate crisis is urgent. A woman losing her job, or a son missing the death his mother, or a young girl getting assaulted because the police couldn’t make it on time is a small price to pay to save the planet.

That isn’t how Buddhist ethics works. The ends do not justify the means. The action you take right here and right now matters in the here and now. Bad action now in order to produce a better result in the future is unacceptable in Buddhist terms. 

For one thing, you have no idea if your road block really will lead to more awareness of the climate crisis. The fallout from the commuter train disruption seems to argue against that theory.

From the Buddhist point of view there is no bigger picture. There is only you blocking the street doing yoga and the guy in his car who will lose his job because of you. It is your action that causes him pain. It’s just you and him. It’s just right now. This action. This moment.

The future and the so-called “Big Picture” is not how Buddhist ethics looks at things.

The folks at Extinction Rebellion appear to be trying to use Buddhism as a way to brand themselves. But it seems to me that they barely comprehend even the most basic Buddhist ideas. It also seems to me that they’re not alone in this misunderstanding.

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