“The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963,” explained the Venerable monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his June 1, 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., “is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand.”
To King’s “Western Christian conscience,” the practice of self-immolation was indeed incomprehensible. Therefore, King “turned to” Thich Nhat Hanh (whom he considered a friend) for help in understanding this practice, which to King appeared to be suicide driven by despair about our nation’s war on Vietnam. “The Press spoke then of suicide,” Hanh continued in his letter, “but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” Steeped in their Buddhist practices, the nuns and monks who burned themselves thus performed an “act of construction” rather than “an act of destruction,” Hanh wrote, because to die in this way is “to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”
This letter came to my mind when I heard that David S. Buckel had doused himself in gasoline and then set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last Saturday. Like the Buddhist monks and nuns about whom Hanh wrote, Buckel, too, wrote letters in which he explained why he self-immolated, letters he sent to the press and to the police. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Though he fought so ardently in the courts for what seemed, just two decades ago, impossible to achieve–the right of LGBTQ people, like me, to marry–David Buckel looked upon our climate politics and determined that, unlike the case of LGBTQ rights, litigating climate change would not be enough. It would not be enough, that is, to save us from climate catastrophe. Given his choice of protest, Buckel clearly believed as well that nothing we are doing now will save us from catastrophe.
So like the Buddhist nuns and monks of the Vietnam War era (Buckel actually likened his protest to that of Tibetans who self-immolated to protest the Chinese occupation of their country), Buckel set himself on fire. He set himself on fire to alarm us, to awaken us, to move our hearts, and to call our attention to the suffering we are causing because we continue to burn fossil fuels. He set himself on fire so that we would see ourselves, and our planet, on fire.
Yet, Buckel also set himself on fire because he held us in hope–hope that, as witnesses to his death, we would take action that actually reflects the scale of the environmental crisis we are facing. “This is not new,” Buckel said of his protest, “as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see. Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
After he explained to King the meaning of the nuns and monks’ self-immolation, Thich Nhat Hanh turned his full attention on King himself. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent…You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action.”
Speaking to his friend, Hanh made clear to King that ultimately what he needed to grapple with was not the fact that the monks and nuns burned themselves. Instead, King needed to come to terms with the fact that he and other well-meaning people looked upon the suffering our government inflicted upon the Vietnamese people and nevertheless remained silent. Though King had been “engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” he was relatively quiet concerning the war on Vietnam, and so Hanh’s words were a gentle rebuke. Two years would pass before King would finally stand up and, in his own words, “break the betrayal” of his “own silences and…speak from the burnings” of his “own heart” regarding our nation’s war on Vietnam.
And speak he did.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones,” King declared in his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
David Buckel decided on the protest that best suited his convictions. While we might declare, in spite of Buckel’s explanation, that his act is incomprehensible; and while we might get caught up in debates about whether or not his self-immolation was wrong-headed or dangerous or crazy or ineffective or brilliant, all of that is of no matter. In the end, we have to look at ourselves. We have to attend to our own silences or, rather, our relative quiescence in the face of what we are doing to one another, to other beings, and to our planet–silences that equal death, as Buckel’s burning body proclaimed. Moreover, if we are to survive our own folly–if we are to avoid setting ourselves on fire–then we will need to break, finally and decisively, the betrayal of our own silences. We will need to protest with as much conviction as our climate crisis demands.
This post originally appeared in Counterpunch.
The Wretched of Mother Earth: The Handbook for Living, Dying, and Nonviolent Revolution in the Midst of Climate Change Catastrophe
“Let’s just assume our grandchildren are fucked.”
My new book is out.
Inspired by Sogyal Rinchope’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Leela Fernandes’ Transforming Feminist Practice, The Wretched of Mother Earth is a mixed-genre Buddhist, feminist, post-colonial, anarchist manifesto about climate change that is also a meditation on dying and death. It is a work in which I argue that if we hope to save ourselves from climate change catastrophe, we must face not only the prospect of human extinction; but also we must radically confront what produced the climate crisis in the first place: the “colonial power matrix” and our deadly attachments to it.
“This [book] is an invitation to experience the transformative power of heartbreak that weaves a healed earth community out of the raw material of grief and fear.” ~Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center for Nonviolence
Good, bad, or ugly: I invite your reviews of my recent work.
What do you get when a climate-change denying president appoints a climate-change denier as director of the Office of Management and Budget?
You get a climate-change denying budget.
The Trump administration’s “Taxpayer First” (FY 2018) is the epitome of climate-change denial. Not only does it propose draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, eviscerate federal climate change-related programs in all federal agencies, reduce federal spending on science research, and cut all funding of international climate change programs; but it also shreds the social safety net, severely reduces infrastructure spending, and guts foreign aid that has helped (however problematically) lift people out of severe poverty.
In other words, it is a budget that guarantees the federal government – at a moment when we actually need to take collective, radical climate action – will function neither as a force that can galvanize us all to meet effectively the climate crisis, nor as the people’s protection against climate-change related catastrophes of our own making.
Taxpayer First instead reaffirms the “three policy pillars of the neoliberal age – privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending” – all of which, as Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything, are “incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels,” and in an equitable and socially just manner. These actions include wartime-level public spending on infrastructure repair; massive investment in wind, water and solar energy; the transformation of our mega-agricultural systems that are major sources of emissions; and, the reordering of our emissions-intensive system of trade. They are actions that must of necessity be taken hand-in-hand with the expansion of the social safety net, for the economic consequences of our need to reduce drastically emissions (8-10 percent a year) over a relatively short period of time are far-reaching.
The denial in Taxpayer First goes even deeper, however, for this indecent document makes clear that the cuts proposed actually constitute the framework by which the denialist Trump administration (with a little help from congressional and corporate fellow travelers) hopes to make climate-change denial itself not only structural — a process helped already with the appointment of deniers like Jeff Sessions, Ben Carson, Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, as federal agency directors — but also the logic upon which the federal government operates. Indeed, the administration seeks to free up the government so that it can perform – and encourage us to perform – as if there is no climate change cliff that we are dangerously approaching.
But that is not all. Through this cruel budget the deniers in charge are effectively asserting that a robust, people-centered and climate-responsible government is itself a climate change hoax that must be thoroughly exposed, debunked and abandoned. In its place must stand the “truth,” i.e., a government that gives free reign to corporations, rewards the wealthy with significant tax cuts, makes citizens responsible for their own welfare, and considers environmental regulations wholly unnecessary. In its place, in other words, must stand a government that is the triumph of truth over climate change fiction, the heroic unmasking of a grand and expensive lie perpetrated by the left (and colluding scientists) that, in the end, has wasted everyone’s money (to paraphrase OMB Director Mick Mulvaney).
Of course, such a government cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, honor the Paris Accord (given the denial in which the budget is steeped, it should not have surprised anyone that Trump pulled out of the agreement).
The cynicism of Taxpayer First cannot be overstated. It is, quite simply, a declaration of war on all life, waged by people for whom climate-change related catastrophes (like the floods in Sri Lanka) and even human extinction are acceptable risks in the quest for profit and power. It is further proof that deniers would rather see a scorched earth than admit the failures and destructiveness of their neoliberal gospel of wealth, consumption and trade – that they would rather, in fact, destroy everything than see a world organized around the redistribution of wealth and the protection of our only home.
And it is further evidence, finally, that we will have to be the radical climate action we have been waiting for.
A version of this article also appears in Counterpunch.
We should dispense once and for all with the term “climate-change deniers.”
Because “climate-change deniers” keeps us from calling out these women and men – and most especially those who occupy the White House, Congress, and state houses – for performing disbelief about something that, more likely than not, many of them actually accept as true: our climate is changing radically due to human activities.
Most of them, I would wager, believe the science and need us to believe that they don’t. And they need us to believe them, or at least to take seriously the possibility that they honestly disbelieve, not only because they derive benefits from pretending and sowing doubt; but also because the last thing they want is for us to fashion a politics that contends with the frightening truth that even though they know, They Don’t Care.
They don’t care that our glaciers are melting.
They don’t care that sea levels are rising.
They don’t care that the permafrost is thawing and will likely release unsustainable amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.
They don’t care that our oceans are acidifying.
They don’t care that our water tables are decreasing.
They don’t care that “extreme weather” is becoming the new normal, that resource conflicts due to climate change are turning children, women and men into climate refugees, that species are dying off at an alarming rate.
They don’t care.
And they don’t care that we can actually save ourselves, as well as other beings with whom our lives are inescapably intertwined, from the catastrophes climate change will produce.
This includes the unthinkable catastrophe of human extinction.
They don’t care because caring does not serve their interests.
H.R.673 – To prohibit United States contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund.
115th Congress (2017-2018)
On January 24, 2017, Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer [R-MO-3] – who has argued that “for far too long, American tax dollars have been sent to the United Nations to produce controversial science and feel-good conferences” – introduced H.R. 673 to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill expressly forbids “any Federal department or agency” from making contributions to, or for, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Green Climate Fund.”
Not only would this legislation undercut both international efforts to assess “the science related to climate change” (IPCC) and the legal framework within which the international community is addressing the climate crisis (UNFCCC); the bill would also significantly weaken efforts both “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries” and “to help adapt vulnerable societies to the unavoidable impacts of climate change” (GCF).
To introduce such a bill goes beyond disbelief in climate science, for its purpose is to make impossible our capacity both to reach a level of certainty about climate change and its impacts, and to act upon what we discover. It is to silence.
But even more to the point: to introduce such a bill – and to then sign on and make it the law of the land (which this Congress will probably do) – is exactly what you do when you believe in the science and you don’t want the people to know the truth.
Representative Luetkemeyer is a true believer who simply does not care.
Neither do the co-sponsors of his bill. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, for example, is himself the sponsor of the Stop the EPA Act. Both Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona have regularly questioned the science of climate change. The other co-sponsors – representatives Louis Gohmert (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Ann Wagner (R-MO), Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and Robert Latta (R-OH) – are equally as problematic. None of them score more than 7% on the League of Conservations Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard.
And all of them are recipients of energy sector dollars, the very fact of which should cause us to question their doubts and disbelief – especially since these can be so easily purchased by petro and other energy interests.
If these “climate-change deniers” who populate the halls of government are actually true believers of climate-change science, then we should be clear that the policies they produce and enact in such areas as, for example, health care, civil rights, immigration, labor, international relations, education, and taxes necessarily bear (and will bear) the weight of their nihilistic disregard. After all, men and women who do not care about the looming catastrophes of climate change knowing full well that they are looming, are by and large unlikely to propose health care legislation that is good for us or craft fair labor policies or offer legislation that recognizes the humanity of immigrants. And certainly they will fall short in proposing anything that protects our rights as a free people.
In other words, these faux climate-change deniers can be counted on to pass legislation that expresses their disregard for the vast majority of us.
And even if we take them at their word and suppose that they are true nonbelievers, their inaction concerning (if not indifference to) such phenomenon as sea level rise and melting permafrost suggests a profound lack of concern on their part for what is happening now, before their very eyes. It’s not as if these self-identified nonbelievers are championing mitigation plans or are trying to figure out how to support people increasingly displaced by drought and floods and extreme weather events. If anything, they’re trying to clear the way for more fossil fuel extraction and dependence. This is how nonbelievers operate.
Whether they are believers or nonbelievers is thus really of no matter. In either case, they do not care.
So let’s dispense with the “climate-change deniers” nomenclature. We are up against men and women in power – from corporate board rooms to the White House – who are willing, and happily so, to drive us over the cliff of climate catastrophe. They know that that is where they are driving us while believing, all along the way, in the science that is warning us that we are steadily and dangerously approaching that cliff.
They could really care less.
Climate activism, then – hell, all of our activism – must change accordingly.
UPDATE: Representatives Glen Grothman (R-WI), David Rouzer (R-NC), and Brian Babin (R-TX) have added their names to the list of co-sponsors.