J Henry Fair’s photographs document a chilling array of environmental threats, including petroleum extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands, mountaintop removal coal mining, brown coal mining, hydraulic fracturing, fertilizer production, coal ash disposal, factory farming, and the Gulf oil spill. In some of his photographs, the destruction is unmistakable; in others, it’s transformed into abstract art, hauntingly beautiful and, on first glance, divorced from its context. His work brings the viewer face-to-face with the truth of the way things are on our planet.
In the interview below, we explore the visual koan of beauty, scale, and destruction represented by Fair’s work. What is the role of “looking” in waking up to the truth?
One Earth Sangha (1ES): Images in your Industrial Scars project seem to take the ugliness of environmental catastrophe and transform it into beauty. How do you think about the role of beauty in these images?
J Henry Fair (JHF): You know, the pictures only work because they’re beautiful. Beauty is something that stimulates a sympathetic, pleased response in the viewer. Only if these images stop people and make them pause from using their smartphones for one second, from that text that’s coming in, only then will they take the time to think about them, and the cognitive dissonance that’s created by seeing something which is horrible but compelling at the same.
1ES: So you’ve got to have the beauty to pull the person in and hold them there . . .
JHF: Sure—for them to even consider the message.
1ES: Right:“Wow! That’s beautiful! What is that?”
JHF: Exactly! And as soon as they say, “What is that?” I’ve got them. That’s exactly what I’m after: “Hey, what is that?” And then hopefully we can also stimulate the question, “Well, what’s my part in that?”
1ES: When we look at the deep interdependence of all of life, including the Earth, as one entity, then that’s part of who we are. So when we look at your images, we experience a wounding, not as something out there, but of our own larger self. Your work seems to illustrate this understanding for when we look at these images, it can hurt. And the fact that it hurts is proof that we’re deeply connected. Do you personally have any sense that you’re telling that story, that this is the wounding of our larger body?
JHF: Very much. I have started referring not to the environment—and I really don’t like this phrase, “Oh, we’re destroying the planet.” No, we’re destroying ourselves. This idea of humans being separate from nature is of course a ridiculous idea, and totally unworkable on any level.
1ES: One of the unique aspects of your images is how they convey the shocking scale of industrial wounding. In viewing a single image, we might get a felt sense of the harm we’re doing to the Earth, from the microscopic to the landscape level. How does scale factor into your images?
JHF: Well, that’s one of the reasons why the images are so effective, is trompe l’oeil, that they do play with our perception of space, which I do purposely of course by looking for abstract patterns, and then including one small detail to give the viewer a clue as to what’s happening there. So yes, I’m playing with those things—those senses of scale—purposefully. … I want to create something that is on the first glance abstract, but beautiful, using these Renaissance rules of perspective and light and dark to create an abstract piece that pleases the eye. But then I will include some little reference to reality that brings the viewer back to understanding that, no, this is real, this is happening . . . And also to give some inclination that something is amiss. So maybe it will be just a little barrel floating in this ocean of waste. Or maybe a tiny little bulldozer. Or pipes lying on what could be an abstract mountain range, and then suddenly you see this detritus of pipes.
1ES: Your Industrial Scars project shows us how human activities such as petroleum extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands, mountaintop removal coal mining, hydraulic fracking, and factory farming are harming the Earth. For many of us, these activities are occurring far away, out of sight. Buddhism as a practice invites us to look at things as they really are, with the full understanding that just doing that is a courageous practice. And that once we see how things are, then it falls to us to make the connection between insight and action. Does this perspective express something of what you’re after in your images? Are you looking for people to change their actions as a result of actually seeing what’s happening?
JHF: Yes, my long-range goal is to get people to change their actions. Because we know that the flap of the butterfly’s wing on one side of the planet causes a storm on the other. That smartphone that I decide not to buy saves the life of a lowland gorilla in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [where a metallic ore used to make cell phone capacitors is mined]. This chain exists. We can’t see this chain—our economy hides it from us—but this causal chain exists. It’s a fact: If you buy a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant, you’re supporting deforestation of the Amazon—and a whole bunch of other stuff—by virtue of the fact that that cow was raised by cutting down Amazon forests. But these are very long chains of causality, and we’re not trained to see them, and they’re certainly obscured from our view. So I try to make art which hints at those chains of causality.
These are very long chains of causality, we’re not trained to see them, and they’re certainly obscured from our view. So I try to make art which hints at those chains of causality.
1ES: As one looks at a chain of cause and effect, it compels a different kind of response. It sounds as if this connects with your long-term vision. What is your hope for your work?
JHF: That people viewing my work will first change their individual behavior—not buy that smartphone. I want them to change their individual behavior and do what’s right for them, for the planet, and mostly, for their children. I mean, that’s what we’re really talking about here, is what are we going to hand to the grandchildren? So I would first like for people to look at my work, consider their involvement, and become concerned, and therefore change their behavior . . . and then speak up and be very, very noisy about what they have learned. I figure we need 5%–7% of people who are radically sustainably-minded citizens, who spend every dollar as if their grandchildren depended on it. If we had 5% or 7%, I think we could really cause change. And everyone must find their own . . . I can’t say, “Buy this toilet paper,” even though I can tell you that if you buy one of the big-name toilet papers, I can show you the old-growth forests in Canada where it’s cut down, and I can tell you about the climate change that it produces. I can tell you about the habitat that was destroyed and the carbon that was released. But it doesn’t work if I say buy green toilet paper. People have to understand and realize that everything matters; every little thing matters.
1ES: So examining our individual choices, and then continuing to make this a larger and larger social conversation. . . . Yet many of us find it difficult not to turn away from the realities you photograph. How do you personally cultivate hope while facing these realities? Is beauty part of what nourishes you as an artist?
JHF: There is beauty. And humankind is a wondrous species, and so mysterious. The land that killed 6 million Jews is also the land that produced Bach, Mozart, and Einstein. It’s the same people. Miracles happen. You just basically can’t give up hope. Without hope, there is no light.
1ES: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close?
JHF (laughing): Turn out the lights when you leave the room! Think about the consequences of everything you do. Before you buy that next smartphone, think about the consequences. And if you see any consequences, send me an email, and I’ll go photograph them!
View more of J Henry Fair’s work on our artist profile page.
There are two kinds of suffering: suffering that leads to more suffering, and suffering that leads to its end.
With the release yesterday of the National Climate Assessment, the Obama Administration is naming climate suffering. For U.S. citizens, the report clarifies that climate change is not just a problem for future generations or far away people; its effects are with us, here and now. It also shows that the choices we’re making now will indeed have great impact on our children and their children, near and far. How is it that we have and might continue to remain disconnected from these truths? And how can we respond from a place of wise discernment and great compassion?
Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, has studied and practiced Buddhist meditation under eminent teachers from India, Burma, and Tibet and has been leading insight and loving-kindness meditation retreats since 1974. In the article below, he reflects on the forces that keep us in denial about the climate crisis — and the awakening that can lead to change.
When I was invited to write a short essay on the climate crisis, my first thought was that I didn’t have much to contribute on the subject of global warming. Although I am aware of the magnitude of the problem, perhaps like many others, I have not spent much time reflecting on it or seriously considering what I could do about it. It was this response that then piqued my interest. Why hadn’t I spent time thinking about one of the major problems confronting our planet? Why had it slid to the back-burner of my interests?
Two related teachings from quite different traditions began to shed light on these questions, light that illuminates other important issues in our lives as well. The first is a teaching from the great 12th-century Korean Zen master Chinul. His framework of teaching is “sudden awakening/gradual cultivation.”
Although we have awakened to original nature, beginningless habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained. So how could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening? After awakening you must be constantly on your guard. If deluded thoughts suddenly appear, do not follow after them.… Then and only then will your practice reach completion.
We have probably all had moments of what we might call a sudden awakening to the truth of global warming: reading different newspaper accounts, watching Al Gore’s impactful film An Inconvenient Truth, times even of deriding those who don’t believe it’s happening— “How could they not believe the obvious scientific truth of it all?” Yet those moments can quickly pass, and the beginningless habit energies of forgetfulness, other desires, and basic ignorance resurface once again.
Here is where Chinul’s emphasis on gradual cultivation can be a template for our own awakening. We need to repeatedly remind ourselves of the situation and not settle for a generalized understanding that climate change is a problem. We need to be willing to make some effort to keep ourselves informed, over and over again, so that we don’t fall back into deluded thinking: “How could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening?”
What might motivate us to make this effort? A powerful motivation for doing this is the feeling of compassion. In the Buddhist understanding, compassion arises when we’re willing to come close to suffering, not as an abstraction, but in the reality of how lives are affected. What do people do when unusually strong and more frequent hurricanes devastate their homes and means of livelihood? How do people find food when traditional rain patterns are disrupted, when glaciers melt and rivers dry up, when island nations are submerged? Are we willing to open to these situations of suffering with an immediacy of feeling? The poet Mary Oliver expresses the challenge of this in her poem “Beyond the Snow Belt”: “…except as we have loved, / All news arrives as from a distant land.”
A second teaching that offers insight into the problem of rationalized disinterest is found in the words of Shantideva, an eighth-century Indian adept. He wrote, “We are like senseless children, who shrink from suffering but love its causes.” None of us desire suffering, whether it be the consequences of climate change or other painful circumstances of our lives, yet we are often addicted to the very causes of that suffering.
What is the way out of this unhelpful cycle? Ajahn Chah, the great Thai forest meditation master, said that there are two kinds of suffering: suffering that leads to more suffering, and suffering that leads to its end. If we can learn to understand the suffering and open to the reality of it, then instead of simply being overwhelmed by it, we can investigate its causes and begin to let them go. Here is where we can be a support for each other. Individually, we might feel that global problems are beyond our capacity to solve. What I have noticed, though, in the Insight Meditation Society community is that if one or two people take the lead in making even small changes, it energizes the whole community. And if, for whatever reason, we don’t feel ready to take a leadership role, it is helpful to acknowledge that and encourage those who feel inspired to do so. We can then be carried along in the slipstream of their energy, strengthening our own commitment in the process.
This article originally appeared in Tricycle Magazine, vol. 18, no. 4, Summer 2009. It is reprinted here with the generous permission of the author.
Since its inception in 1970, the annual celebration of Earth Day on April 22nd has been a call to respond to the growing ecological crisis. As the 44th anniversary approaches, the urgency of that call has only grown. But practitioners often ask, “I am just one person so what can I do?”, “How can I know that my actions will make a difference?” or “Isn’t it too late?” In the face of a challenge as ominous as global climate change, it can be difficult to experience and sustain our own power. Joanna Macy and the Work that Reconnects offer skillful means.
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. Joanna is the author of eight books, including Active Hope, and the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, a transformation framework for confronting personal, communal and global challenges.
The Work that Reconnects, now a collaborative workshop methodology, deeply informs the intention and theory-of-change at One Earth Sangha. Specifically, we are inspired to
- View our response to global climate change as practice, both inner and outer. We aspire to manifest the compassion and wisdom of the Buddhadarma in service of life.
- Recognize and emphasize the role of Sangha as essential to transforming our situation and sustaining our well-being along the way.
In recognition of one of our most powerful teachers and of the work that she and others have developed, we dedicate this, our first celebration of Earth Day as One Earth Sangha, to Joanna Macy and the Work That Reconnects.
Approaching 85 years old, Joanna offers us a body of work that is vast and luminous. To give you a sense of her person, her great heart and mind, we offer two pieces. First is an excerpt (less than 7 minutes) of a 2009 conversation with filmmaker Leanne Allison wherein Joanna clarifies that uncertainty can actually be our ally.
We follow with a 2012 interview from Tricycle Magazine illuminating how we can respond to the ecological crisis without getting trapped by despair, hatred or overwhelm. We, the aspiring Bodhisattvas, can begin with seeing and honoring all that arises within in us as part of our belonging, as part of our love for this world.
Conversation with filmmaker Leanne Allison in 2009
Interview with Tricycle Magazine’s associate editor Sam Mowe in 2012
This interview is republished here with the generous permission of Tricycle Magazine.
Sam Mowe: I’m devastated about the state of the Earth. What’s the first step I take?
Joanna Macy: By knowing that you’re devastated about the fate of the Earth, you’ve already taken the essential first step. And that first step is directly related, in my mind, to the First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught: the truth of suffering.
It’s a funny way, isn’t it, to start a major religious tradition by saying there is suffering? But that’s what the Buddha did. And it helps us be totally present to what is, not to what we wish were there, not to something we would approve of, but present to the way things are now. Daring to open your eyes and open your mind in that local way, is that powerful.
Sam Mowe: What’s the next step?
Joanna Macy: Well, then I’d say, look at where that’s coming from. Look at what you’re feeling. You may be feeling sorrow, you may be feeling outrage. You may be feeling dread and fear. You may be feeling futility and powerlessness. But whatever it is that you’re feeling, just take a look at where that’s coming from. It’s not coming from an attitude of “How do I get ahead as a separate person?” but rather from my caring for life itself. Those feelings of grief and despair or panic don’t come out of some personal craziness, but out of our caring for life. And that caring, in turn, comes from a sense of belonging. I care what happens to this Earth because that’s where I come from, that’s my larger body. I need the air to breathe; I need clean soil to grow food. I’m not just disembodied out there in outer space.
Feeling alarm or devastation can guide us to a deep sanity, reminding us of who we are and what we need. It can remind us that we belong to this larger body and that we care for it. Our power to act, our power to take part in the healing of our world, our power to bring things back into balance, comes from the same source as that devastation. Our pain for the world, and our power to take part in the healing of our world, both come from the same place.
Sam Mowe: Even if there’s a great sanity and intelligence in being in touch with that pain, often it’s a very painful and numbing experience.
Joanna Macy: It seems that it’s not the grief or the anger or the sorrow or fear that are numbing, it’s our reaction to them. We don’t want to feel the pain, and so we pave it over. We turn away, we distract ourselves, we have all kinds of strategies not to feel them. But it’s what we do with those feelings that causes the numbing. It’s not the pain that causes the numbing, it’s our trying to anesthetize ourselves to the pain.
Sam Mowe: If we face our pain, does it ever transform into something else?
Joanna Macy: Yes, because when you recognize the pain for what it is, where it is coming from, you see it arises because you care. You give a fig, you know? It matters to you. You’re devastated about the state of the Earth, and you’re worried about climate change. In Oakland, we just closed 23 schools, and one of them is being turned into a police station. That just breaks my heart. Who likes to feel that? I hate feeling that. But I can look at where it’s coming from. It’s like the roots of that pain grow out of my caring that kids have an education. My caring that those teachers, those wonderful teachers, have kids to teach. My caring that they have books to learn from and notebooks to write in. And so that caring is beautiful, and I can affirm, “Okay, thank you.” It’s a good thing that we feel pain, because then it wakes us up to the situation we’re in, and to the fact that we care about it.
That caring comes from our belonging. That’s the power that comes from our interdependence. A lot of that is drawn from the Buddha’s teachings. He was very interested in social change, even though our anthologies of the Buddha’s writings don’t feature that particularly.
Sam Mowe: Right. Much of the Buddhist tradition seems to emphasize detachment—that samsara is a miserable place that we need to get out of. However, the aspects of Buddhism that you use in your approach emphasize connection. Are these views contradictory?
Joanna Macy: That’s the reputation that Buddhism has acquired. But the Buddha never asked us to be nonattached to the world. He just asked us to be nonattached to the ego. It’s our own selfish desires that he invites us to view with detachment. But he never asks us to be unattached to the world itself. It’s our clinging that we need to let go of. It’s wanting things to go our own way that he asks us to release.
Look at the teachings about the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the heroic figure who was modeled on the Buddha, one who really gets how interconnected we all are, like cells in a larger body. Then, when something affects that larger body, and other people are suffering, the bodhisattva is the one who is described as having a boundless heart, a huge heart—a compassionate one who feels the suffering not only of herself or himself, but of other beings, too. So the bodhisattva experiences a shift in identity or an extension into a larger self.
Sam Mowe: I’m intrigued by what you write about the widening sense of self. Is a widening sense of self consistent with the Buddhist idea of “no-self”?
Joanna Macy: To me, frankly, it’s the same thing. First of all, the Buddha never said there was no self. He just said you can’t prove there is a self. And he kept inviting us to enlarge our perceptions to see how we are interconnected with all beings. He’s inviting us to keep moving beyond clinging to your own success. “How did I do?” “Did I win in that encounter?” You can move ahead from that competitive sense of having to be number one in your own eyes, needing the approval of everybody, to move into a much larger identity, where you’re feeling glad in the welfare of others. You can take joy in people having a good time.
Sam Mowe: Two of your main influences are the Buddhist idea of dependent origination and general systems theory. Both of these approaches show us different ways of looking at causality. We usually approach problems in a linear, analytic way. Your approach emphasizes mutual causality. How are these different?
Joanna Macy: Linear causality means that any important change moves in a linear chain from A to B to C to D. That translates socially and politically into a top-down notion of power.
One example would be in relating to people who see things differently than you do. In the linear view of causality, which is really a linear view of influence, we would say A wants to change B’s mind. I want to impose information onto another person. It’s a one-way street. You get that in a lot of social environmental activists, that they’re preaching at you and they’re telling you what’s right, and they’re telling you how bad this is, and you’re supposed to swallow it all. Are you with me so far?
Sam Mowe: I’m doing my best.
Joanna Macy: [Laughs.] Okay. So let’s look at mutual causality. For one thing, the direction of influence is a two-way street. So if I, person A, want to change person B’s mind, I can’t do it. I recognize that I can invite the other to entertain certain questions. I can invite the other person into conversation. I can ask questions that the other person will answer.
There is, fundamentally, more respect and humility in this approach. It goes with a view that many Buddhist teachers have espoused and called “don’t-know mind” or “beginner’s mind,” as Suzuki Roshi put it. I don’t have all the answers, but together, we can find them out in conversation. Once you try to impose your view on another person, they will only say yes if they’re scared of you, or bored with you, and want you to go away. That is just one example, and is one that the Buddha himself was very strong in articulating to his disciples. He said, “Watch out for thinking that there is a correct dogma.” There isn’t. Instead, we have to find a way to live in mutual respect in a field of uncertainty. We must relieve ourselves of having to have the answer. We can do this by linking arms with each other.
Sam Mowe: How you can embrace doubt and also keep your convictions about important things? Sometimes my “don’t-know mind” can question things that I need to know.
Joanna Macy: I see your point. But then we could come back to the first knowable—as well as noble—truth. You can know that the Greenland ice sheet is melting. You can know that the ocean is becoming more acidic. What you can let go of is knowing what other people are supposed to do. You can know that we’re heading for continued emission of CO 2 methane and other greenhouse gasses—science says that they’re leading us to a raise in temperature of over two degrees Celsius. And you can know that they say this will cause flooding and drought. So you can look at this and sort of feel a kind of solidarity or bond with other people and say, “Gee, look at this. How are we going to respond to this?” You’re not telling people necessarily, you’re not dictating what they’re to do. But you’re asking them to look. But you can know that you want life to go on. That knowing is basic to your very existence.
Sam Mowe: So “don’t-know mind” only applies sometimes.
Joanna Macy: I think it applies to tactics. It extends to our self-righteousness, to think that I have the answer of what everybody should do. But that’s a very good point. “Don’t-know mind” does not extend to our allegiance to life.
You can learn more about Joanna Macy and the Work that Reconnects at workthatreconnects.org.