What Can Buddhists Do About Climate Change

I think the best thing Buddhists can contribute to climate change activism is to offer climate activists a sense of even-tempered equanimity, patience, and cooperation even with those we disagree with.

It’s depressing to see Buddhists like Mark Ovland of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion participating in panicked reactions to the problem of climate change. If even the Buddhists can’t stay calm in this situation, how can we expect anyone else to?

When I look at the actions of a lot of climate change activists, I get the distinct impression that the thinking behind much of their actions goes something like this: Climate change is an urgent problem — an emergency! People will only take action to fix climate change if they’re terrified. Therefore, the best thing to do is whip up as much panic as possible.

Of course not every climate change activist thinks or behaves this way. And I’m sure most of the people who do think and act this way would deny it. But when I see people jumping on top of commuter trains in a misguided attempt to do something about the climate crisis, I can’t help but think that inspiring panic must be at least part of their mission.

But think about other situations in which people seem to have very good reasons to panic. If the building you were in was on fire and you were trapped in the elevator, even then any sensible person would tell you that the best thing to do is not to panic. 

Climate change is a big problem that took the combined actions of millions of people over the course of hundreds of thousands of years to develop. The solution to the environmental problems that mankind has created will require the cooperation of millions of people and may take many decades to put into effect.

Fixing man-made climate change is like trying to turn a big ship that’s moving very fast. It cannot be done easily and it takes the cooperation of a lot of people to make it happen. “When do we want it? NOW!” is not a useful slogan. We’re not going to get it NOW, and insisting that we must get it NOW makes us look like toddlers having a tantrum over something that their parents are doing their best to fix.

The solution to climate change will not be a left-wing solution or a right-wing solution. Without the cooperation of those on all sides of the political debate, we are not going to fix this thing. 

We Buddhists can help people talk to each other. We can do that by listening to what people are really saying. Often those who are labeled “climate change deniers” actually do believe that man-made climate change is a real thing that requires immediate action. But they are suspicious of the solutions that are offered by a lot of people in the environmentalist movement because those solutions tend to involve expanding the powers of centralized governments.

Those on the political right and even centrists are also suspicious of the ways that some environmental activists tie the cause of addressing climate change to any number of radical leftist positions whose connection to the climate problem is tenuous at best. Take, for example, Extinction Rebellion’s founder Stuart Basden who says that Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate but was established to address issues like white supremacy, the patriarchy, and heteronormativity. He says, “To focus on the climate’s breakdown (the symptom) without focusing attention on these toxic delusions (the causes) is a … racist and sexist form of denialism, that takes away from the necessary focus of the need for all of us to de-colonize ourselves.”

It’s fine if you think these issues are also important. But if our most urgent problem is climate change, we need to get a lot of people with a wide range of political views on board. Not everyone agrees with Basden’s take on the root cause of climate change and his characterization of Western civilization as inherently evil and oppressive. We need those people who see things differently to get on board if we honestly want to make real changes.

It’s important to stay on task and remain focused. This is also something that Buddhists are supposed to be good at. If we really are good at staying focused on the task at hand, that is also something we can contribute. So we Buddhists need to make sure we stay good at remaining on task and re-up our own commitment to not getting distracted from our real aim. To do that, we have to keep up our own meditation practice every single day.

We Buddhist can also contribute by helping people avoid apocalyptic thinking. Christianity began as an apocalyptic cult who believed the end of the world was right around the corner. It seems to me that many climate activists are substituting the fear of the religious-based apocalypse we grew up around with the fear of a science-based apocalypse. Much of our thinking as people from the Christian west has been influenced by Christianity’s apocalyptic point of view even if we say we reject it. 

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not apocalyptic. It sees things in terms of a far longer view of history measured in units of time so large the human mind cannot conceive of them. Western Buddhists often forget how much the Christian apocalyptic worldview has colored even our thinking. We ought to remind ourselves that Buddhism doesn’t take the view that the end of the world will happen at any moment.

I don’t think there is a specific form that Buddhist action concerning climate change must take. But I do believe we should always honor our commitment to ethical action. If we lose sight of this commitment to ethical action and try to take harmful actions now in the hope of creating a better future, then we have forgotten the most basic principles of Buddhism.

I am generally optimistic about the future of humanity. I think we can overcome the climate crisis and find ways to make the world a better place. It’s clear that humankind cannot continue as we have been in terms of how we treat the world we live in. I feel that changes are already underway that will have lasting effects. We have to make sure we don’t derail these positive changes by getting panicked that they’re not happening fast enough.

There is a big difference between having patience and being complacent. Buddhists are not complacent, but we are patient. We understand that real solutions take effort but they also take time. The “When do we want it? NOW!” crowd may not be able to see that difference, but that doesn’t mean they’re correct.

Buddhists also know that drastic action rarely produces good results. We know that the flashiest, sexiest, and supposedly quickest proposals for fixing a given problem are usually the worst. We ought to apply the way we think about meditation to the way we think about our environmental problems. Sometimes a boring solution that takes a long time to work out is the only one that’s actually going to be effective.

I think we Buddhists need to remember that the problem of climate change is not only real and urgent, it’s also a very big problem that requires tremendous cooperation and an even-tempered, un-panicked response. If we can contribute to people’s ability to cooperate and avoid panic, that’s how we can help best.

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