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System Change, Not Climate Change

After a week on the streets of London with Extinction Rebellion, the chants still ring in my ears. They mingle with the steady hum of traffic, the police helicopters buzzing overhead, and the ever-present high-energy samba band. These chants don’t just pass our message on to the public, they remind us why we’re here. Rebelling is hard: long days outside in all weather, a constant standoff with police, including arrests for some, facing the wrath of passers-by and the press, and doubts about whether any of it makes a difference anyway. There are many moments of beauty, fun, and solidarity, but most of us would agree that we’d rather be relaxing on a beach or walking in the Lake District than using our holiday to sound the alarm. When I chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” or “Whose planet? Our planet!” alongside hundreds of other ordinary people, it reminds me of my right to protest.

Our governments are asleep at the wheel and untold suffering is ahead of us. It has already begun: the islands of Tuvalu are sinking, the hurricanes in Haiti are growing fiercer, and albatross are being killed by the freight of plastic in their stomachs. These chants give us the courage to continue.

One of these chants is, “System change, not climate change.” Since returning from the rebellion, I have been contemplating the meaning of that word “system.” What a system we have! I only have to click away from Microsoft Word to Google Chrome to encounter it in all its magnificence. Our preoccupation with the economy at all costs. The increasing polarization of society between those of us with different political views, different opinions about mask-wearing, or any difference at all. The people with immense power and influence who flex their enormous muscles to hold on to what they have, and never mind if that means releasing another billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

As a Buddhist, I understand that this system is built from the same “raw materials” that I have inside me. Greed, hate, and delusion, swirling over huge pockets of fear. Knowing this is helpful and not helpful. It is helpful because it allows me to—mostly—remain compassionate toward those people who are disproportionately responsible for much of the harm being done to our planet. I know that the director of the oil company is holding on to his power just as I hold on to mine. I know that the denial, the blaming of others, and the people-pleasing operating in politicians is the same as mine. I know that the fear of impermanence driving some of the worst victims of capitalism is the same as mine.

It isn’t so helpful when I examine how hard it is for me to change these things in my own life. I only “woke up” to the reality of the climate and ecological emergency a year or so ago, at the age of 45. In retrospect, one of the reasons I didn’t wake up to the crisis earlier was that I was worried about being forced to give things up as a result of my new knowledge. My lifestyle was already reasonably ethical—I was vegan, I bought secondhand clothes, we lived simply. I was able to give up flying without it feeling like a terrible sacrifice. Yet I was still reluctant to truly examine the state of the planet because I was afraid of looking at my excesses and then surrendering them. If I’m afraid of giving up things with my already simple, ethical life, how much more so for those who eat meat at every meal, those who only feel okay about themselves in new designer clothes, or those who depend on their work in the banking or aviation industries?

We all rely on our beliefs, habits, and practices to keep our psychological systems stable. It’s important that we don’t underestimate how difficult it is to shift these practices. If it has taken me 20 years to give up social media, despite the truly detrimental effect it was having on my life, then how long will it take us as a society to give up our addiction to fossil fuels? If I can’t resist overdosing on sugar when I’ve had a hard day, how can I expect those with more expensive or eco-damaging compulsions to resist theirs? As individuals and as a society in the Global North, many of us are addicted to consuming. How can we kick the habit of taking more than we need, when our media, our advertising companies, our friends, and our family members are telling us that we should carry on and keep aspiring for more, more, more? 

Sometimes system change seems almost impossible. Thankfully, being a Buddhist also provides me with the antidote to this despair: faith. I don’t know whether humanity will be able to turn things around. I don’t know whether we will manage to make the drastic changes that are necessary to avert the worst of the coming catastrophe. I do acknowledge the scary reality, feel the appropriate grief, and trust that I will be okay, even when I’m not okay. I am reminded that I can rely on the three jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—regardless of what happens in the wider world. My faith is a place of permanent refuge in a crazy world.

In the meantime, rebelling—despite the hard work it entails—makes me feel good. It allows me to join with others and to speak up to our prevailing systems: you need to change drastically and now! If you don’t, the seas will continue to rise. I’m glad to be speaking up, even as I make bad ethical decisions in my own life; we are all hypocrites and it’s hard not to be when you live in a broken system. I’m glad to be speaking up, even as I face the apparent immovability of our political, social, and financial systems. I see the formation of organizations such as Progressive International, who want to encourage worldwide organization around democracy. I see ordinary people around the globe rising up and I feel the power of this grassroots activism. I hold on to my little flame of hope, but more importantly I get on with the task at hand, whether that’s organizing a local vigil for the Earth, writing this article, or dropping climate change into a conversation about the weather with a stranger. Small actions can add up to big differences if we are motivated by love. What small thing will you do today?

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