The World Is Burning and Yet I Garden: Reflections after a Session on Climate Change at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference

The World Is Burning and Yet I Garden: Reflections after a Session on Climate Change at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference October 6, 2016

I feel that it is very important to say something right now, but it is very difficult to do so. I don’t think it’s so much that I can’t find the words. That’s not usually a problem for me. What’s difficult is to even get in touch with my current experience. Part of me is reeling from overwhelming shock and grief, another part of me is dumbfounded with confusion and disbelief, and yet another part of me continues to energetically and joyfully live my life as if the other two parts don’t even exist.

Let me explain. Last week I attended a conference for Soto Zen Buddhist priests. Like all professional conferences, our meeting included organizational business, informational sessions, and lots of stimulating and inspiring conversations with peers. Our gathering also included a moving ceremony in which we welcomed new priests into the organization. In other words, we had a wonderful time.

We also had sessions devoted to discussing climate change and ways we can respond to it as priests. I was very impressed with the level of thoughtfulness, concern, heart, and creativity shown by my fellow priests around this issue, but inevitably these sessions included a certain level of reporting and statistics in order to ground the discussion in reality.

During one such session, taking place in an intimate setting around a table where we could all see one another, I was repeatedly moved to tears (as was the speaker, notably). I tried to hold it back (I get tired of the concerned attention tears tend to cause in others) but they kept on erupting. I left shortly before the end of the discussion so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. I couldn’t bear the prospect of pretending to be cheerful, but I knew that if anyone spoke to me in a sympathetic tone I would burst into an episode of sobbing.

The situation is dire, folks. I too been holding a wait-and-see / these-things-are-complicated / maybe-the-scientists-are-wrong-about-the-details / we’ll-eventually-figure-this-out kind of attitude, but I’m finding it harder and harder to do that. I could crowd this post with troubling statistics (instead I refer you to the climate change websites of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency) but here’s one fact that has really stuck with me ever since I heard it: Glacier national park in Montana is expected to be glacier-free by 2030.

The scariest predictions, of course, are about the probability that we will soon pass – or have already passed – major tipping points in the process of global warming and environmental destruction, past which the negative effects will not only be unstoppable but will also accelerate. Many things are likely to contribute to this tipping point effect, but one of them is the thawing of Arctic permafrost. Permafrost is ground that has remained frozen (0 degrees Celsius or lower) for more than two years in a row, and a full 24% of the exposed land in the northern hemisphere is permafrost.

Mean temperatures in the Arctic are increasing at least twice as fast the as the global mean temperature, and when permafrost thaws, the organic matter trapped in it begins to decay, producing carbon dioxide and methane. Methane is approximately 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere (over the course of a 100 years; it’s about 84 times more potent in the first 20 years after release). So thawing leads to the release of methane, leading to further global warming, leading to more methane… it’s easily within the realm of possibility that feedback loops like this will make life on earth impossible within our lifetimes.

I realize this prospect is basically incomprehensible. I mean, many of us blithely talk about the possible extinction of our species as if we’re basically cool with everything: “Heck, I don’t want humans to go extinct, but you know, shit happens.” (Even worse: “Oh well, humans deserve it.”)

Of course this is bullshit. None of us is really okay with this. Or, if we are, we’re seriously screwed up and need to see a psychiatrist. When societies and infrastructures start disintegrating throughout the world (and not just in certain areas), and people even in wealthy nations start starving and dying by the millions, our world’s crisis will no longer be a subject for armchair philosophy.

As I contemplate the possibility of all life on earth burning up within 20 years or so, I find the prospect even more devastating than the unimaginably horrible results of a worldwide nuclear war (the gloomy potentiality I grew up living with). I could go on and on, but this pretty much sums it up: it’s not just that certain bird species will be lost, but that there will be no more birds. Substitute peoples, cultures, language, art, music, dancing, poetry, children, or love for “birds” and you get my point. Birds are just my thing. When I look at a bird I see the miracle of life itself.

So… as I said before, part of me is traumatized by hearing a pretty damned credible prediction that life on earth is about to get incalculably more difficult for everyone, and part of me is just struggling to believe, process, and comprehend the crisis our world is facing. At times it feels like my head might explode.

And yet… tomorrow I will go out and tend to my garden. It’s autumn but there are a few heirloom tomatoes still on the vine, promising to surrender their lusciousness to my salads. I’ve planted native wildflowers outside my office window, and water them carefully because it’s their first year after transplanting. I hope they will thrive, and they give me a wonderful excuse to touch the dirt with my fingers. I’ve also planted trees in hope they will start providing shade in 10 or 20 years. I continue to do all the other things in my life that are based largely on the assumptions I’ll be able to continue them far into the future, and can leave lasting benefits for future generations.

I can’t do otherwise. Part of me thinks I should throw all of my energy into doing whatever I can to stop or mitigate the damage we are doing to our biosphere, but I can’t. Not because my life circumstances prevent me, but because I just can’t make myself do it. Things just don’t line up in my head. Things don’t compute. There’s a conviction-foreboding-grief ball somewhere in my brain with very few neuronal connections to the other parts. Climate change books live on one of my bookshelves, right below my cookbooks. The world is burning, and yet I garden.

I can’t do otherwise, at least not yet. If my garden was burning, I would naturally be very busy putting the fire out. If my neighbor’s garden was burning I would be just as engaged in the effort to mitigate damage. However, it doesn’t look like the fact that California is burning is quite enough to jolt me out of my peaceful life, even though I live in Oregon. Hmmm. An even better way to put it requires the use of a term from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land: It looks like I have to be personally impacted before I can grok the situation.

Just to avoid confusion, I should say this post is not expressing spiritual despair. I would never be so bold or foolish as to claim I am immune from such despair, but I do have a deep and abiding faith that even the total destruction of life on earth will not mean the destruction of Being Itself. Note that “being” is an even broader category than “life.” There will remain light, stars, planets, patterns, forces, and who knows what else. Suns will continue to illuminate multi-colored clouds of star dust light years across. The miracle of being will not end. It can’t. And chances are extremely high that the miracle of life won’t end either.

It usually takes spiritual work for this continuance of Being to be a sincere and deep source of spiritual solace rather than a merely intellectual palliative. Even when it does provide solace, however, it doesn’t negate any of the other things I have mentioned in this post. When I contemplate a bird I see the Divine. When I contemplate the possibility of no more birds, the tears flow. When I contemplate what to do, I can’t yet see a way to make my life match a state of emergency that isn’t yet manifesting – at least in an obvious way – in my immediate surroundings.


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