On his first day in office at the beginning of this year, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, launched an assault on the Amazon rainforest, nearly 60 per cent of which lies within Brazil. In May, responding to data showing that the polar ice caps are melting at an unprecedented rate, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posited that this is a good thing as it will open up new trade and economic opportunities. And in August, Australia, a country largely beholden to coal-mining interests, worked to block efforts by Pacific Island nations to clearly communicate the extent of the climate change crisis in their collective Tuvalu Declaration.
In an age in which our collective wisdom has brought about unprecedented material gain, instead of sharing prosperity and bringing widespread peace, many world leaders are instead turning to ever-deeper levels of greed to hoard wealth and resources in the hands of a powerful few. Buddhist psychology tells us that greed as a mental state never exists in a vacuum—it feeds off of ignorance and, in turn, fuels further ignorance. And when confronted by truth, there is an opportunity for either a momentary realization or reactive anger, which then feeds back into ignorance and the ongoing wheel of samsara continues to turn.
In his movie An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017), Al Gore tells us that there is no “Planet B.” There will be no terraforming of Mars. There is just this one planet: Earth. One senses how forlorn Gore is as the documentary is being filmed in 2016, 10 years after An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which laid out more than 40 years of climate science along with contemporary issues and potential solutions for the growing climate crisis. Gore also speaks about how critics laughed at his predictions. In particular he warned that a “superstorm” could hit New York with a storm surge so powerful that it would flood the streets and even the World Trade Center memorial with sea water. “Ridiculous,” they said, “that would never happen.” Then it did. In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City with a four-meter storm surge, supplemented by a high tide, and winds gusting at up to 155 kilometers per hour, washing floodwaters into the memorial site.
While Hurricane Sandy and a long list of other devastating weather events have led many to increase calls to declare a global climate emergency, some quarters instead seek to capitalize on the crisis. In New York, for instance, a wall to hold back the ocean has been proposed, at an estimated cost of US$10–23 billion.* While that is only a fraction of the estimated US$5.7 trillion needed for a “Green New Deal” to transition the entire US economy to renewable energy sources, it is also merely a single tiny stop-gap measure against the oncoming damage from climate change if global temperatures continue to rise.**
The idea of building a wall to treat a single part of an entire suffering system, while ignoring the deeper underlying causes, might seem highly irrational. In 2007, however, activist and political analyst Naomi Klein introduced the “disaster capitalism” thesis, “which contends that neoliberal capitalism both precipitates disasters and employs these same disasters (and others) as an opportunity to facilitate its expansion.” (Ephemeral Journal)
Returning to Buddhist terms, we might say that systems built on greed and delusion invariably create suffering and then harness that suffering to grow further. No matter where one looks today, one cannot help but think that we have entered into a particularly dark and cynical age of politics and economics. Gone are so many of the more enlightened leaders of the past who had the ability to look beyond personal gain, party politics, and national borders to percieve the humanity of their own citizens and the rest of the world, who embodied ideals of greater democracy, compassion for the planet, and a desire to reach beyond narrow self-interest.
In one of the early Buddhist discourses, the Buddha exhorts: “Monastics, human life is very short. One must move on to future states, so you ought to do what is virtuous, and live a spiritual life. No one who is born can avoid death. The more years one has lived, the fewer years one has left.” He continues: “A good person lives as if their head is on fire.” (SN 4.9)
Practicing as if one’s head is on fire often means undertaking a high degree of world-renunciation. And that is key to the lives of some Buddhists. However, many monastics recognize a calling to engage with this world to promote social harmony. Myanmar’s Myawaddy Sayadaw is one such recent example, actively working to quell the fires of hatred that have arisen in his country: “We, the religious leaders, need to play a greater role in promoting harmony among the various religions instead of sowing hatred against minorities. We are fighting for the truth and will challenge nationalist monks openly so that their voices are not louder and the tone of nationalism is decreased.”
Speaking truth to power in this way requires courage as there is always the risk that the powerful will deny or even seek to quash the truth. Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa knows this better than most, as he has twice been driven into exile from his home country and arrested on two other occasions while in Thailand. His autobiography is even titled, Loyalty Demands Dissent (Parallax Press 1998). In 2014, Sulak was charged with defaming the monarchy for simply doubting the accuracy of a 400-year-old story about a long-dead king.
From the outside, this seems ridiculous—like building a US$20 billion wall around a city instead of addressing the underlying issues of climate change that have led us to this perilous juncture. However, in both cases one can question the fundamental dogma of a society by simpy expressing doubt. Sulak Sivaraksa did this, as a scholar and man of moral integrity: shining the light of truth on the nation. In the end, truth prevailed and Sivaraksa is a free man today.
While few of us are religious leaders on a national stage, we can still find ways to play a role in engendering social harmony. As British journalist Stuart Jeffreys writes: if we forego our moral responsibilities, we risk entering into a “Century of Moral Feebleness” in the face of intimidation, be it economic or military. (The Guardian) The truth of our own complicity is indeed inconvenient, but seeing that truth openly and mindfully gives us an opportunity: cling ignorantly and continue our own roles in the great drama of samsara, or step outside of the system for a moment of realization and take the freedom to act creatively, perhaps even defiantly and with loyal dissent, against the forces of disaster capitalism and political malice.
* “Cost estimates for ﬂood resilience and protection strategies in New York City,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (Researchgate)
** What it Costs to Go 100 Percent Renewable (American Action Forum)
Capitalizing on chaos: Climate change and disaster capitalism (Ephemeral Journal)
Buddhist Monk Stands Firm Against Hatred and Violence in Myanmar (Buddhistdoor Global)
China: A New World Order review – are we conniving with a genocidal dictatorship? (The Guardian)