I remember visiting Los Angeles as a child and choking on the gray and deadly smog that had turned the city of angels’ skies murky brown. I saw similar smog years later in Chengdu and Beijing, China, and recoiled. Over many years, The Environmental Protection Agency of our country, through hard work and strong legislation, has protected our precious atmosphere and protected our health. Yet just this week, the Supreme Court, in an ill-informed decision, has narrowed the breadth of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.
You do not have to be a scientist or environmentalist to realize that the secondary cause for climate change is fossil-fuel dependent economic growth, primed by the primary cause, human greed and ignorance, including governments and corporations who turn their backs on the climate emergency out of pure avarice. We also are aware that fossil fuels are a finite, dangerous, dirty, and destructive source of energy. Look at the broken promises and broken pipelines. We also know that continuing to develop fossil-fuel dependent economic growth models makes no sense, no matter how you look at it, whether it is pipelines cutting through wilderness and indigenous lands or highways cutting through poor neighborhoods.
Recently, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, stated that affluent economies and corporations “are not just turning a blind eye; they are adding fuel to the flames… They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security, and greater price stability.” Guterres urged us to move forward with action: “if you care about justice, and our children’s future, I am appealing directly to you: Demand that renewable energy is introduced now — at speed and at scale. Demand an end to coal-fired power. Demand an end to all fossil fuel subsidies.”
We recognize it is not simply about changing institutional and systemic structures. We also have to address this suffering in terms of the human heart and mind.
It is absolutely necessary that we transform our entangled energy and economic structures. And we must do this from a space of courage, wisdom, and compassion. We also know that these wholesome, life-giving qualities are cultivated through views that are reflected in most indigenous knowledge, Buddhist philosophy and practice, and in various other traditions. We recognize it is not simply about changing institutional and systemic structures. We also have to address this suffering in terms of the human heart and mind.
We live in an interdependent world and cannot deny how profoundly damaging fossil fuels are to individual and collective health and that it is absolutely necessary that our global community commit to reforming the entangled energy and economic systems now. This is a moral and economic imperative.
Clearly, we must act now and many are. We know that if there is to be a viable, morally grounded, and healthy future, beneficial and committed social and environmental action is essential, as is psychospiritual transformation. Fortunately, we see that more and more individuals are cultivating the qualities of heart and mind that make it possible to see the destruction we have wrought on this earth, have cultivated the courage to recognize unacknowledged grief and shame, and are taking action to transform the habits of mind that bind us to consumerism, racism, and elitism, and blind us to the harms we have caused.
And many are holding accountable the petrochemical, corporate, military, and political forces endeavoring to rob the future from our children and grandchildren. We are seeing that more of us are taking a stand to end the direct, indirect, structural, corporate, and economic violence associated with this climate catastrophe.
Lawyer Mariel Nanasi, Executive Director and President of New Energy Economy, writes: “We are at a crossroads. We either face the very real possibility of a planet on hospice, driven by an energy system that is the epitome of capitalism on steroids with extreme exploitation and racism at its core. Or a profound opportunity to shift at the very basis of our economic system that we haven’t seen since the abolition of slavery. And it’s really up to us which way we go.”
We can look at it this way: in relation to the United States, the first 200 years of capitalism were based on slavery; the second 200 on fossil fuels; and the next 200, I believe, must be based on renewable energy sources if we are to survive. If we could abolish the slavery on which our country was built and which took the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives, we can also do this. Just as the abolition of slavery was the morally right thing to do in 1861, ending fossil fuel use is the moral crisis and imperative of our time. Even though it may seem that our climate catastrophe touches only people who are materially impoverished, who live in coastal areas, or are refugees fleeing climate driven wars, we are beginning to realize that our climate devastation affects every single species on this earth and will profoundly affect the coming generations. In the final analysis, ending climate devastation is as much about self-interest as it is about compassion.
And it’s good to know the facts. Solar and wind power are now less expensive than coal and gas. The cost of batteries has dropped over the past few decades. Billions of dollars are being allocated to clean energy by governments and businesses. And many nations are adopting sane climate policies and moving forward on renewable energy. This is because of the demands of people like you for countries and corporations to decarbonize, to end emissions from deforestation, agriculture, and factory farming of animals or so-called animal agriculture. This is happening not only to restore broken eco-systems but also to restore health and integrity to the human heart and to this beautiful earth.
The call is now for all of us to abandon futility, to stand at the edge, so the horizon of possibility becomes visible, not lost in the smog of ignorance.
The challenge is before us, right now: Global warming will slow down once humans stop adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. To do this, we must engage in practices that cultivate the Bodhisattva attitude, which includes the ability to be morally sensitive in order to identify moral conflicts and dilemmas. We must also nurture our capacity for moral discernment and the ability to assess what actions are morally justifiable; this takes attentional stability, insight, and a motivation that is based on compassion. And we must develop moral nerve, a term used by the author Joan Didion to describe someone who has non-negotiable virtue when standing above the abyss of harm, so we can be guided by our deepest values, be conscientious, and connect to who we really are.
As Bill McKibben has recently written: “When all the people without a vested interest—Guterres, the pope, climate scientists—have dropped their usual habit of caution, it should tell you something. Instead of diplomacy they are engaged in all-out advocacy—because we are scarily close to the brink, and because it’s become clear to them that our governments and corporations simply aren’t willing to change with anything like the speed required. We must all join in.” The call is now for all of us to abandon futility, to stand at the edge, so the horizon of possibility becomes visible, not lost in the smog of ignorance. Truly, it is up to us.
This article was originally published on the Upaya Institute and Zen Center blog. It is reprinted here with permission.