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Truth and Consequences: Capitalism, Climate Change, and the World We Created

I lost my cool in class recently. I was so upset, I almost cried.

We were discussing a Buddhist text about fear. It led to discussions about the future, student worries, life outside of academic walls. One student declared that his goal was to make millions. Everyone, after all, can be of service in their own way, “whether you are a waiter pouring water for a customer, or a millionaire creating business opportunities,” he declared. When I expressed misgivings, he pressed his argument, connecting it to the Buddhist text we had been reading: “As you said prof, everyone is focused on their own desires, right? A monk’s desire is to reach awakening and mine is to make money. What’s the difference?”

I could not deny the point he was making. It was logical. We are all directed by our desires, so what is the difference? Normally, I would have explored this question and used it to go further, but after a full semester of similar debates, of pouring my heart into the classroom in every conceivable way, his response cracked something inside me. I listened to him make his case and watched my own self dissolve.

How could he really make such an equivalence? His capitalistic shoulder shrug is at the heart of our current climate disaster. This is the worldview that is killing us today. Ice fields are melting and rising temperatures are having an impact around the world. Wildlife is going extinct and the oceans are dying. We have hoarded resources to such an extent that we ourselves may be on the brink of extinction. As my student charged into the intellectual arena with enthusiasm, I found myself increasingly silent. All I could think was, why doesn’t he see?

“The problem is that your desires are 30 years out of date,” I responded finally. “They are understandable, of course—everyone wants financial ease. But the capitalist bubble is over. We (in the West) have eaten up the resources of the entire planet.”

He disagreed and we went back and forth, the conversation eventually getting heated, before breaking into laughter, and finally melting into sadness. When it felt like the right moment, I offered a different perspective.

“The education system that you find yourself in was built for another era,” I explained. “It was built to prepare students for a world we could predict—at least to some extent, a job market we could anticipate. But the world is changing, more than it ever has before. Even if we take climate change out of the equation, the economy is undergoing unprecedented shifts. We don’t know what the job markets are anymore. AI is galloping toward us and we don’t know which jobs to prepare you for.

But we can’t take climate change out of the equation, because climate change is at the forefront of everything. If the economy is not overtaken by AI and there are jobs for you to grab, how long will you be able to hold onto them? Every climate change study that emerges tells us the same thing: it is so much worse than we think. The process is already underway and it is moving at a terrifying speed. Climatologists have given us 11 years to reverse our major policies before it is all too late. Eleven years! You are entering a world with an expiration date. You won’t even be 30 when we hit it.”

To say those words aloud was devastating. Student faces fell all around me.

But to leave them unsaid . . . that is criminal. Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering and that the only path to freedom is to face it. But what do we do when life has too much suffering? When the prospect reality presents us with is so immense, so absurdly devastating, that we feel compelled to look away? What does Buddhism say then? How do we look at climate change directly and not go blind?

This is why I wanted to cry. I looked around the room and felt profound sadness. We are not the first generation to feel apocalyptic. Many generations have. For the first half of the 20th century, disasters struck so repeatedly it must have felt like an ongoing assault. I am sure many felt the end of the world was coming then too.

Pyramid of Capitalist System, a 1911 Industrial Workers of the World poster.

But today, even scientists are yelling into loudspeakers about this, begging us to listen to their conclusions, telling us that the world is imploding into itself. And what do we do? We scroll past the new report, change the channel, close the book. We worry about the little things, just as we always have. We worry about our job prospects, our mortgage payments, our mundane realities. Because worrying about the big picture is too hard. It is too big. We can’t take it in.

And yet, I looked at my students and thought, we have to take it in. We have to face our reality and we have to do it now. The clock is ticking and time is running out. We have to shatter normalcy and wake up. We have to stop dreaming about becoming millionaires and start dreaming about solutions to our inane political obstacles. We don’t even need to discover new technologies, because we probably have all that we need already. We just need to find the will and the momentum to move society in a better direction. 

I felt an urgency in the classroom that day that I have never felt before. The purpose of an education system is to prepare young people for the world they will inherit. And right now, that means—to me at least—that we must awaken their sense of urgency, challenge old narratives that do not serve their future, and encourage new narratives that will bring life to a dying world. We need the courage to look at the suffering we are creating, because if we don’t, if we continue to look away, we will destroy ourselves.

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