by Winton Higgins• wintonhiggins.org
Scientists who are neither charlatans nor in the pay of major players in the carbon economy are unanimous about the existential threat global warming poses for us. I don’t want to bombard you with facts and figures. Rather, I want to pay particular attention to our rulers’ and our own ostrich-like non-response to it.
In recent talks, I’ve suggested that responsible citizenship goes to the core of our ethical commitments as dharma practitioners. So the existential threat to ourselves and all other life-forms, that climate change poses, must stand high on our civic agenda. It mightily evokes the overarching ethic of the dharma – the ethic of care – understood both as concernful awareness, and as a prompt to action.
The great derangement
I want to follow the important argument that the Indian academic and novelist Amitav Ghosh presents in his highly influential 2016 book, The great derangement: climate change and the unthinkable. The ‘great derangement’ of his main title refers in the first instance to our failure – indeed, our culturally induced refusal – to grasp the catastrophe we face. We can start to grapple with its enormity by acknowledging that our carbon-driven economic activity has given rise to the geological concept of the Anthropocene epoch.
Geologists reckon the epochs of geological time in the earth’s formation in millions of years each. All the previous geological epochs arose from the planet’s internal dynamics. In the present epoch, its fundamental changes are being attributed instead to intentional human action. This epoch is variously reckoned from the agricultural revolution (12–15,000 years ago) at one end, to the more popular starting date of the first test of a nuclear bomb in July 1945. However you periodise it, it witnesses the fact that humans are now geological agents driving the planet’s changes. Not least the warming of its atmosphere and its knock-on effects: extreme weather events, droughts, rising sea levels, deserts gobbling up fertile land, and shrinking sources of fresh water.
Our current derangement starts with our failure to really admit to this human agency. As dharma practitioners we’re committed to ‘seeing things as they really are,’ so why do we engage in this suppression? Partly because our biosphere appears so vast and self-regulating that puny human activity seems not to matter. For instance, it would have been ludicrous for someone lighting their stove to cook their dinner 500 years ago to worry about their carbon footprint, as we today should be doing.
Yet in hindsight human activity has been measurably impacting the climate since the 1930s. Around thirty years ago climate scientists began to sound the alarm, and this coincided with what they came to call ‘the great acceleration’. Climate change was no longer a steady linear upward trend, but has become exponential.
It takes the form, not only of statistically measurable rises in average temperatures, but of the increased frequency and intensity of violent weather events that include droughts, superstorms, storm surges over coastal areas and estuaries, tornados, cyclones and hurricanes. The creeping catastrophe of global warming itself represents the most insidious threat as it inexorably raises sea levels that are already inundating low-lying land masses where millions of people live and eke out their living from land that will soon be inundated, such as in Bangladesh and many Pacific islands.
In the foreseeable future, millions of climate refugees will be on the move, looking for new homes and land to subsist on. At the same time, climate change is turning a great deal of usable land to desert, especially in Africa.
Global warming is also reducing aquifers and the vast store of fresh water in the form of snow and ice in the Himalayas. The summer melting from this reserve feeds the rivers of the northeast of the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia. 47% of the world’s population depends on these rivers and the intensive cultivation they enable.
The great acceleration since the 1980s expresses the surge in trade and carbon-intensive development under the auspices of the neoliberal ‘Washington consensus’, and rapid Asian industrialisation over this period, especially Chinese and Indian.
In spite of three decades of clear scientific warnings of this gathering catastrophe, at the cultural level, we have simply not registered it. As a novelist himself, Ghosh expresses horror and bafflement over the silence about climate change in our culture. As readers and viewers, we remain fixated on traditional themes of individual predicaments and dilemmas – not shared, collective ones.
Where, for instance, are the novels that explore the climate crisis? We have plenty exploring other disasters, such as wars and massacres, invasions and colonisations, but none about climate change. This is where we reach into the heart of our derangement. Alongside the entirely inadequate gestures and posturing of nation states and international agencies to meet the threat.
Climate change and justice
Social justice is also a vital strand of dharmic ethics. Especially as citizens one of the world’s leading per capita producers of greenhouse gases, Australia, we should note the global pattern we exemplify. Historically, global warming arises primarily from the development of the affluent western world (commonly referred to as ‘the global north’), while its principal victims live in ‘the global south’ (the third world).
Inevitably this leads to calls for ‘climate justice’ from representatives of the actual and potential victims, and non-deranged commentators in the global north (the west, mainly). These calls pose the question: how will the damage already done be apportioned, as well as the costs of slowing climate change from now on? As dharma practitioners we need to ponder these questions deeply.
When we look at how most western countries (in particular the Anglosphere) are responding and pretending to respond, we see no willingness to acknowledge the magnitude of the threat and the changes that would blunt it. And especially, we see no readiness to own the problem historically, or to address the issue of climate justice, by for example opening our doors to climate refugees.
On the contrary, many right wing and populist politicians deny or ignore climate change. They reject suggestions of reducing carbon dependency as a threat to our way of life, as un-Australian (or un-American). Prominent climate scientists in our countries receive abuse and death threats as if they were traitors when they denounce fossil fuels, and coal in particular. Coal in particular appears to enjoy a hallowed place in our compatriots’ and the US Trump-belt’s sense of national belonging.
The less extreme form of refusal to face the magnitude of climate takes the form of vague optimism that a few dollars allotted to research into renewables and investment in future technological fixes will make the problem go away. A huge ethical-spiritual issue is thus reduced to a mere technological lag that market-driven progress will effortlessly overcome, as long as do-gooders don’t interfere.
Neoliberal nostrums come into their own here. Whatever the problem, the market will fix it! Let us hear no more talk of market failure or systemic change! There is no need to change anything in qualitative terms: the crucial aim of the game is to maintain laissez-faire policy at home and abroad: the status quo, BAU or ‘business as usual’.
Significantly, as Ghosh points out, those organs of Anglosphere governments that don’t for a moment indulge in denial, trivialisation or Noddy-like optimism about climate change, are their military and intelligence establishments. They have to keep a close watch on the unfolding catastrophe so they can prepare to meet the security risks that climate change actually poses. Their surveillance follows climate activists and scientists closely, and they are rearming to meet the overseas threats that climate change will unleash.
The western military and intelligence apparatuses represent the Praetorian guard of neoliberal national governments and the neoliberal world economic order of the Washington consensus. Together they practise what Christian Parenti in his book Tropic of chaos: climate change and the new geography of violence calls ‘the politics of the armed lifeboat’. In his words, it combines ‘preparations for open-ended counter-insurgency, militarised borders, [and] aggressive anti-immigrant policing.’ This summary fits Australian and US policy since 9/11 to a tee. It shows the relationship between overseas military adventures and today’s massive spending on new military hardware on the one hand, and demonstrative demonisation of refugees on the other.
Two published responses to climate change in 2015
In 2015 Pope Francis issued his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which addresses the climate crisis in a way that witnesses to its proportion and urgency. He draws on the Catholic tradition, climate science, historical analysis, secular philosophy, and his care for language gained in his earlier career as a teacher of literature. His encyclical is couched in straightforward, natural language devoid of weasel words, cant and euphemisms. His response might just as well be seen as a dharmic one.
He takes his central theme from St Francis of Assisi, from whom he chose his papal name: we must address the care for nature and care for the poor together. His working vocabulary includes expressions like ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate justice’, ‘the sufferings of the excluded’, ‘denial of the problem’, ‘technocracy’, and ‘indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions’.
While the encyclical doesn’t mention neoliberalism by name it does so implicitly in paragraphs 56 and 59:
Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked… This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.
The encyclical represents a call to arms, an antidote to derangement. It calls for drastic, forthright global action to assert what it calls an ‘integrated ecology’ which addresses environmental, economic and social issues simultaneously.
Six months after the Pope’s message came out, world leaders met in Paris and hammered out the Paris Agreement on climate change. It was touch and go right up to the triumphant last minute, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when they agreed on some form of words. 195 countries signed up to it (though Trump reneged on behalf of the USA). We were right to celebrate the coming of the agreement: it prevents climate change shrinking once again to a minor also-ran on the political agenda, and it gives climate activists a little bit of leverage.
But if we stand the Paris agreement up against Francis’s encyclical, we can see that it’s precisely just a form of words, as Amitav Ghosh argues. Weasel words and neoliberal cant that exemplify precisely the omissions and intellectual dishonesty that the encyclical calls out. The Paris agreement nowhere refers to a crisis. It has nothing to say about how the ‘adverse effects’ of climate change came to pass in the first place. The word ‘justice’ appears just once, in the context of ‘climate justice’ – a term the drafters mention in scare quotes simply in order to dismiss it from the agreement’s remit. The socioeconomic status quo gets a free pass.
The Australian government exemplifies the hypocrisy seen in the Paris agreement. Its signing the agreement constitutes its fig leaf of climate decency as it fails to produce a policy that would satisfy even its own minimal undertakings under it. At the same time, it intends to give Indian billionaire Gautam Shantilal Adani another billion dollars to start the world’s biggest coal mine as a greenfield development.
On 14 August 2018 the Swedish novelist Lyra Koli published an article in Svenska dagbladet, one of her country’s leading dailies, on widespread individual responses to climate change. She was commenting on a steep rise in people presenting to psychotherapists with klimatångest – climate anxiety, and the willingness of welfare authorities to subsidise their therapy. While this neurosis constitutes some sort of acknowledgement of climate change, the sort in question has nothing to do with concern for the life of the planet – rather, the pain arises from the cramping of the individual ego’s grandiosity.
‘We live in a hyper-individualistic age,’ Koli writes. ‘Never before has the individual desired, dreamed of, and grasped after so much … to create more wealth. More happiness, more welfare, more success, more life.’ The theme of growth infuses our desires and thoughts. This is the promise that political parties endlessly dangle in front of us voters.
‘Climate anxiety’ refers to suffering due to the fear that our desire for more will be frustrated. It’s a derangement that builds on the original derangement. So it’s classified as a neurosis to be cured, thus allowing us to return to business as usual – the pursuit of more in the status quo.
The dharma offers an alternative cure – seeing through (and abandonment of) what Lyra Koli calls our ‘individualistic bubble of me, mine, and my dreams’ in favour of insight into true shared limits on this planet. And replacing that bubble with an ethic of contentment that spawns a sense of collective responsibility for life on this earth.
This talk was given to Bluegum Sangha in Sydney in October 2018. A member of The Tuwhiri Project editorial board, Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators.