Marching on Behalf of the Planet

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Photo credit: jomilo75 via Flickr / Creative Commons

Walking in unison can be a powerful means of social and political transformation. Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 challenged British authority in India and began the long process of civil disobedience that culminated in India’s independence. African Americans in the 1960s won their civil rights by undertaking long walks and marches through the South and in the nation’s capital. Millions of people in the 1960s marched against the Vietnam War, and again in 2003 to protest U.S. plans to attack Iraq. Just two years ago, almost half a million people converged on New York City to join the Peoples’ Climate March, showing that climate consciousness was no longer the concern of a minority. The March for a Clean Energy Revolution, to take place in Philadelphia on July 24th, continues this practice of using our legs to express the ideals that stir in our hearts.

As a Buddhist, I see our commitment to march as an expression of the two cardinal virtues of Buddhism: wisdom and compassion. It is, firstly, an expression of compassion. Compassion means being moved by the suffering of others, and if our approach to stemming climate change continues at the present gradualist pace, millions of people around the world will be forced to face catastrophic suffering, suffering on a scale we can scarcely imagine. We’ve already started to see the impact of the slow heating of the planet, and what we’ve seen should stir in us a sense of urgency. We’ve seen people overwhelmed by unprecedented heat waves, torrential floods, uncontainable wild fires, and long droughts. Millions have lost their homes, faced crop failures, exorbitant food prices, vanishing water supplies, and rising sea levels. Millions of climate refugees migrate in search of more temperate lands. Several island-nations will soon be swallowed up by the sea.

Unlike other natural catastrophes—an earthquake, a hurricane, a volcano eruption—climate change affects everyone. We are all immersed in the same web of life; we all live within the fold of the same terrestrial climate. The devastation threatened by climate change will reach us all; there is no escape. The impact extends far beyond the human sphere, as we move into what has been called “the sixth great extinction,” whereby 25–30 percent of all species of animals and plants may be forever lost.

The March for a Clean Energy Revolution is, for me, an expression of compassion, but it is also an expression of wisdom. The function of wisdom, according to Buddhism, is to pierce through the darkness of delusion that conceals the true nature of things. In the case of climate change, it’s all too easy to wallow in the darkness of delusion because the most treacherous changes in the climate do not occur suddenly and dramatically but slowly and gradually, beneath the threshold of perception. Thus, until and unless disaster strikes us personally—or those dear to us—we can become complacent, thinking, “It won’t happen to me.”

BGR at Peoples Climate March, September 22, 2014

We have been engulfed in this delusion, not only because of our own complacency, but because we have been deceived. We’ve been deceived by the titans of the energy corporations and their compliant political agents. They have long known the truth about the dangers posed by escalating carbon emissions, but because they profit from our ignorance, they have endeavored to hide the facts from us beneath a barrage of lies, doubt, and denial.

When the light of discernment dawns, we clearly see that climate change is real and understand that it is not occurring through purely natural causes—because of solar activity or periodic fluctuations in the temperature—but because of human choices. It occurs because we have treated the earth as a mere source of resources, turning its atmosphere into a death trap and its landscapes into mountains of waste. It occurs because we have relied on fossil fuels to power our gargantuan economy, an economy built on the premise that the good life is to be achieved through the endless, ever-expanding production and consumption of commodities.

True wisdom points us in a new direction. It shows us that happiness is to be found, not in an infinite variety of ever-novel consumer goods, not in extracting the resources of the earth and exploiting others for our own profit, but in a life of simplicity and contentment, of sharing and caring for each other—in human solidarity and harmony with nature. Wisdom also shows us that the means for powering a new, sustainable economy are already at our disposal. They lie waiting for us to tap them, in the wind and sun, in the movement of the tides, in the natural heat of the earth.

In one of his discourses, the Buddha compares the heedful disciple, who learns his message and puts it into practice, to a horse that begins to run as soon as it sees the shadow of the goad. The heedless disciple, lazy and negligent, is like the horse that moves only when it is struck by the goad. We have been bad disciples. For decades we’ve been warned by the best climate scientists about the risks we are taking; we’ve already felt the first blows of a changing climate, yet we’ve delayed taking action, finding it more convenient to deny the facts or settle for tepid half-measures, including those adopted in the Paris Agreement forged last December.

“We must act with an unprecedented sense of urgency”

When the U.S. entered World War II, if we had sent just a few thousand troops to fight against Japan and Nazi Germany, the Allies would likely have lost the war and tyranny would have prevailed. We won because we fully mobilized for the war, and we gave it all we could. Similarly, if we settle for compromises and half-measures in addressing climate change, we will see carbon levels rise to 450, 500, and even 600 ppm, and we’ll experience a rise in global temperature of at least 4 degrees Celsius—which means utter catastrophe. To avert the worst consequences, we need a complete climate mobilization comparable to our commitment to fighting World War II. We can’t despair, thinking the challenge is too great, the levers of control too remote from our hands. We need the conviction that by uniting, “We can do it.”

While time is running out, we still have a slim chance to prevail, to avoid the complete demise of human civilization. The March for a Clean Energy Revolution is a way of saying: “Let’s not settle for minor reforms but go all the way.” We must act with an unprecedented sense of urgency if we are to save everything that we hold dear, to preserve human life on this planet along with the earth’s rich multiplicity of other life forms.

Note: Links to sources of further information were added by the editor of the website of the blog.

The “We Can Do It” poster was made by J. Howard Miller, an artist employed by Westinghouse. The poster was used by the War Production Coordinating Committee during WW II. The image is from the scan of a copy belonging to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, retrieved from the website of the Virginia Historical Society. Public domain from Wikipedia.

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