Zen & Solving the Climate Crisis?

Zen & Solving the Climate Crisis? June 13, 2020




Zen & Solving the Climate Crisis?

Tom Bowman

June 13, 2020

Empty Moon Zen

Now, you might wonder why climate comes to mind at a time when so many other crises consume our attention: the pandemic, the economic meltdown, and all that surrounds the horrific murder of George Floyd.

About fifteen years ago, I was working with climate scientists on a project. It was my second time. And, in the course of a meeting, one day, one of them made an off-handed comment that triggered a real and traumatic epiphany for me.

It was as if she’d flipped a switch without even knowing it, and I suddenly realized just how far into this changing world we have already come, and that there was no going back.

All of the risks and impacts and horrors and grief for what’s been lost that I’d thought were still far away were suddenly present and alive in that room.

And, I found it difficult to breathe. But there was no turning away. Not from something like that. And, out of all the troubles that it foretold, the one that still stands out above anything else is that climate change isn’t really one crisis at all.

It gives us multiple crises all at once. They compound and recur, and together, they can overwhelm people and communities and entire societies. Fires and floods, plus heat waves and smog, drought and storms, pests, extinctions, crop failures, economic collapse, failed states, you know the list, and it goes on.

Not all of it, not all the time, and not everywhere all at once. At least, not yet. But these things do happen in combinations already. They cause a lot of harm, especially in low income communities; especially in communities of color.

These crises can force people to migrate, often in poverty, and often to places where they are not welcome; places where the people already feel stressed themselves.

So, when I look around at what’s happening this spring, it’s easy to think, hey, welcome to our dress rehearsal.

One crisis is compounding another and forcing people to make tough choices. For some, there is rush to authoritarianism, a desire to amass and protect power and wealth, and there’s a cult of personality that props it up.

There’s impatience and indignation, and hostility and violence. There is outright denial.

And there is also courage and self-sacrifice, and stories of kindness and generosity.

Kind of the whole package, really, like we see ourselves reflected in the world around us.

So, what shall we do?

Questions of privilege and adversity recur for me from time to time. In my twenties, I lived in a part of central Los Angeles where the African American, Hispanic and Vietnamese communities all converged. The summers were brutal. They were hot, smoggy and relentless, and nobody had any money. I remember thinking that I’m white and male and educated, and I had options that a lot of my old neighbors still don’t have.

And, in that climate epiphany, it occurred to me that I live in the wealthiest society on earth; a society where we have means that others just don’t have.

And we’re living in multiple crises.

I should confess that I’ve developed a perverse curiosity about the rationales people use to avoid solving the climate crisis. One says that we can’t really do anything about it because it’s too big and we’re too small. The good news, I guess, is that we’ve just seen the world turn on a dime and shelter in place. Who thought that could ever happen?

Another one says that we shouldn’t act until other countries act. The good news, there, is that the whole world just proved it can react in unison. It’s been messy, but it’s also been fast.

And, there are those who say we can’t solve climate change because it might put our economy at risk. Well, enough said.

So, what shall we do?

What do you think would happen if we decided not to believe any of these ideas? What if, instead, we decided solving climate change is easy? What can we do then?


  • We can ban fossil fuels or tax them so much that nobody wants to buy them. That would flood the market with cheaper, cleaner products. Economists like this idea a lot.


  • We can invest more in clean energy tech.


  • We can give incentives for things like electric cars, which are getting cheaper already.


  • We can reorganize cities so we wouldn’t have to drive around so much.


  • We can even be generous toward developing countries and help them make faster and more just transitions too.


In other words, people know how to do this stuff. We might not follow any of these steps exactly, but there’s no great mystery to where the path leads or how to follow it.

So, what about you and me? What can we do if we decide we can solve the climate crisis ourselves?


  • We can talk about it as much as we talk about COVID-19 and racism. Talking just breaks the ice and it brings everything to the forefront to be solved.


  • We can vote for people based on their climate platforms and whether we think they’d make good crisis managers. Not many of us do this, and politicians know it.


  • And, we can cut our own carbon emissions for the same reasons we wear face masks. We can do it for others and to show that this is important to everyone. Turns out it’s pretty: we’d just find ways to buy less gas and buy less electricity. Let me know if you need ideas.


That’s the list. It’s pretty simple. So, what shall we do?

There some interesting literature on how people respond to emergencies like a first aid crisis or being adrift at sea, and it turns out that not everybody is very good at it.

The same is true for slow-moving emergencies like COVID-19 and climate change, where we know there’s real danger, but everything around us still looks more or less OK.

Some people just feel uncomfortable getting involved. They might not have the temperament or the skills to help us out. That’s OK. I’ve been in emergencies with people who don’t want to help. Forcing or shaming doesn’t work. It seems better to let them be or give them something to do that doesn’t make them feel awkward.

The idea that everybody has to share the same actions or beliefs, or knowledge or values is just another myth.

Then there are people who get overwhelmed by the strong emotions that emergencies trigger, such as fear and rage and the panic that leads to despair. These are exhausting emotions. They wear people out. Exhaustion almost always leads to bad decisions or to just giving up, and that makes things worse.

Some of the people who respond this way are also naysayers who object and disbelieve, often very loudly, which makes them a distraction too. But trying to persuade naysayers is a waste of time for everybody. It seems better to ignore what they’re saying and try to make them feel heard, and as comfortable as they can be.

But there are people who have the experience and training and perspective to respond much differently. They see an emergency for what it really is, not through a cloud of rage and despair, or through rose-colored glasses.

They don’t get overwhelmed by emotions. In fact, they tend to put the power of emotions to work in constructive ways. They make smart choices, even if the steps can only be very small, and they keep on making smart choices over and over again as events unfold.

And there’s one other thing too. It’s that people who respond well almost always do it for the sake of somebody else. It might be someone in particular, like a spouse or a child, or it might be for the sake of others in general.

Who does this? According to the literature, some people gain these skills and perspectives through lots of different kinds of experiences. Coping in crises becomes a lifestyle, and a practice of engaging with the moment.

I find this intriguing in light of meditation practice. I mean, here I sit, practicing the relaxed presence to experience this moment, just as it is. Strong emotions and enthralling ideas, and that grasping thing that we all do; these happen all the time. And some of my thoughts seem so insightful, and some are just distracting, I get lost in them, and then I don’t, and I know that none of them are the “truth.” Right?

I don’t mean to suggest that meditation practice boils down to emergency response training. We gain those skills mostly in other ways. But here on the cushion, we do practice being present. We practice witnessing our reactions without being attached to their content, and we practice being fully present in the reality we find ourselves in, whether it’s pleasant or not.

I like this because we’re going to be dealing with climate change for the rest of our lives. We are going to experience tragedies and suffering, over and over again.

If we make this challenge our own, we experience triumph and joy too.

And the so-called “new normal” that we hear so much about is constantly going to change, and change again, and again, and again for longer than we’re alive.

When it all hit me in that moment of epiphany, I couldn’t help but ask a scientist, “How do you cope with knowing what you know?”

There have been times, ever since, when I’ve wondered if I’ve wandered down some strange, imaginary crisis rabbit hole that isn’t even real. That’s like asking, “Can I please just set this whole thing aside and not have to deal with it anymore? Can I go back to my life as it was before I knew all this? Can the pandemic be over now? Can Mr. Floyd please go home and see his family again?”

We know the answers.

There’s a sweet little story in a book about surviving emergencies that speaks to me in moments like this. A light plane crashed in the Sierra Nevada some years ago, and the only survivor was a young woman. The pilot and her fiancé both died in the crash, and she had to climb down off a rocky peak and hike for miles with a broken arm and nothing but high heels and a light summer dress.

That’s not the sweet part. The sweet part is that along the way, she found herself on a ledge above one of those gorgeous high Sierra basins. There was a pool of water on that ledge, so she got undressed and washed up and soaked for a while, and then she sat in the sun to dry off. She spent some time just enjoying the silence and the sunshine and the beauty before getting dressed again and hiking out of the mountains. She made it.

She made it, partly, because she was able to surrender to her predicament. Most crisis survivors do. She could appreciate the beauty and even feel grateful in the midst of a life-threatening tragedy.

From what I understand, Buddhism throughout the centuries has largely been disengaged from crises like these. Not exclusively, I’m sure, but the Buddha’s teachings were delivered to a community of seekers who renounced the world.

That’s not where we live. Our moment is different. We are living in a time of multiple, compounding crises. It’s been going on for a while too; the Great Recession, hurricanes, wildfires, mass extinction, COVID-19 and systemic racism. We can solve these things, too, or at least the harshest parts.

And, this practice seems suited to where I live.

If I make these crises my crises — and if we make them our problems and not somebody else’s problems to solve — then other people will start feeling comfortable doing something about them too.

If my life, as messy as it is, can be responsive to these emergencies, if I can surrender to them and find ways to be constructive and happy, then constructive and compassionate action will belong to a larger and growing community of people.

Who knows, there might be liberation in these emergencies too. The sunrise is almost always beautiful. The climate impacts are almost always tragic. We know exactly what to do about them. It’s not very complicated.

And, we know who to do it for.

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