29 – Getting Active Again

29 – Getting Active Again

After a hiatus of almost a year (with the exception of my trip to West Virginia to protest at Joe Manchin’s power plant), I feel the need to get active again. The daily atmospheric carbon dioxide reading at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for Sept. 13th, was 416 ppm. Despite all the legislation, despite all the technological innovations, despite all the scientific reports, despite the United Nations conferences of the parties, despite all the green living and good intentions, we are not succeeding in cutting our global greenhouse gas emissions. The atmospheric CO2 reading does not lie.




active againWhen I first started my Zen Studies Podcast five years ago, I bought myself a magnet that still hangs on my fridge, saying, “I couldn’t afford a therapist, so I decided, hey, why not start a podcast?”

Of course, my Zen Studies Podcast doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of a self-revelatory, confessional, personal kind of podcast. I’m not interested in Climate and YOU becoming such a thing, either. I appreciate the support and experience of other people, but I hate advice and try to avoid any situation where I could be perceived as asking for it.

However, I feel like I’m at a turning point with this podcast and need to be honest about it. In case it hasn’t been obvious, my main motivation when I started the Climate and YOU podcast eight months ago was to help people make the challenging transition from caring about the climate crisis to doing something about it. Growing numbers of people are not just concerned about our climate and ecological emergency, they are deeply distressed, angry, overwhelmed, and fearful about the future. And yet the vast majority of us continue to go about our lives as if nothing much is happening. Because “We the People” aren’t insisting on commensurate action, our governments dawdle, and moneyed interests obstruct change.

The entire world’s response to COVID-19 proved beyond a doubt that we are fully capable of overnight, drastic change in order preserve human life and prevent the breakdown of our systems. Yes, that shutdown was painful, expensive, and in many ways damaging, but the world survived. How is it we will take such radical action in response to a pandemic, but not in response to the greatest threat to human survival we have ever faced?

The daily atmospheric carbon dioxide reading at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for Sept. 13th, was 416 ppm. Preindustrial levels hovered around 280 ppm, and we passed what was considered a relatively safe level of 350 ppm around 1980. Our emissions continue to rise precipitously, just when they should be not just leveling off, but declining just as precipitously as they have been rising for the last 60 years. Despite all the legislation, despite all the technological innovations, despite all the scientific reports, despite the United Nations conferences of the parties, despite all the green living and good intentions, we are not succeeding in cutting our global greenhouse gas emissions. The atmospheric CO2 reading does not lie.

It’s time for all moral and capable citizens to do their part to push for commensurate action on our climate and ecological emergency – “commensurate” meaning “action matching the scale of the problem.”

Including me. I’ve had my forays into climate action, and I’ve talked about some of them on this podcast. For a while, I participated with a group, and we kept up a regular schedule of meetings and actions. From that place of engagement, I hoped to encourage other ordinary folks to give action a try.

Alas, it can be very challenging to find something meaningful to do. I talk to so many people now who confess deep concern about the climate plus a sincere desire to help, but almost everyone I know is at a complete loss about what to do. I used to think I had an answer, but apparently it wasn’t the answer people wanted to hear and the movement I was part of fizzled out. Now people hope I will have some suggestions for what to do because at least I’ve been trying to be active for a few years, I’ve done some stuff, and I produce this podcast. But I’m also at a loss.

The problem is no one trying to push for commensurate action on climate knows what to do. This should be obvious because we haven’t achieved commensurate action yet!

You may encounter the rare activist who has managed to stay committed and inspired for a long time – someone who believes in what they’re doing, and who continues to do it even though their successes are incremental, and road ahead is daunting. This is awesome, and we all need to follow their example if we’re going to prevent the complete breakdown of our planet’s life-support systems. However, the truth is that no activist, no organization, no politician, no movement has – yet – figured out what can magically overcome the tremendous inertia of business-as-usual.

So I don’t have a convenient list of things you and I can do, beyond what I’ve already offered on this podcast through things like sharing Margaret Klein Salamon’s “Facing the Climate Emergency.” I don’t even know what I’m going to do.

But after a hiatus of almost a year (with the exception of my trip to West Virginia to protest at Joe Manchin’s power plant), I feel the need to get active again. You might say this podcast is a kind of action, but really, it’s just talking about action. Valuable, perhaps, but not the same thing. It does not keep me engaged with other people. It doesn’t keep me plugged in to what’s happening in the climate movement – the kinds of things that don’t make it into mainstream media sources. The podcast doesn’t require me to step outside the door of my house and move my body in ways that put my actions in harmony with my convictions.

Hopefully, I will be able to maintain this podcast as well as get active again. Perhaps I can regale you with stories about what I try, who I talk to, what works, and what doesn’t.

In the meantime, I’m going to take the next month to reconnect with climate activists in my area and find a way to participate. I’ll return in October with a report, unless I feel inspired to update you sooner.

28 – The Tragedy of Climate Injustice

28 – The Tragedy of Climate Injustice

Developing nations are particularly vulnerable to impacts of global heating, including widespread destruction and death from storms, droughts, and floods. This is not just bad luck, it’s tragic climate injustice. Wealthy countries have run up a vast planetary and ecological bill with a century of resource extraction and greenhouse gas emissions. The bill has come due, but whenever possible we leave the bill at the door of developing countries – countries which are least able to pay, and which have done almost nothing, relatively speaking, to contribute to the climate and ecological crisis. Central to humanity’s attempt to save itself must be a massive effort by wealthy nations to take responsibility for paying the cost of the comforts they now enjoy.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Climate Crisis As a Bill That Has Come Due
Reparations for Climate Injustice
Seeing Our Connection to the Fate of Developing Nations
Taking Responsibility for Paying the Cost of Amassing Wealth


climate injustice

Pakistan floods – Displaced people fleeing Sindh streamed into Balochistan. PHOTO: Abdul Majeed Goraya / IRIN | www.irinnews.org

As of yesterday, September 7th, 2022, almost 1/3 of the country of Pakistan was under water.[i] 33 million people are affected, 6.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, 1.7 million homes have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 1,355 people have died.[ii] As flood waters abate, it will take years for Pakistan to rebuild schools, hospitals, homes, and infrastructure, and for its agriculture and businesses to recover. Even before the flooding, Pakistan was in danger of economic collapse, appealing to the International Monetary Fund for a $1.7 billion relief package. The costs of the recent flooding are expected to be well over $10 billion.[iii]

The primary causes of the massive flooding in Pakistan are heavier-than-usual monsoonal rains and accelerated glacial melting. Both causes are exacerbated by global heating, making the people of Pakistan victims of the climate crisis even though they have done relatively little to contribute to the problem.


The Climate Crisis As a Bill That Has Come Due

Ironically, wealthy countries have driven global heating and ecological breakdown with their resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution – but they now tend to be more insulated from catastrophic climate-related impacts due to their northern locations, wealth, and far superior infrastructures. Even when wealthy countries experience terrible climate-related events or conditions, they are far better able to prepare for, mitigate, and recover from them.

For a hundred years or more, industrialized nations have plundered our planet’s natural resources as if there was no cost to paid for this – beyond that incurred while extracting, processing, and consuming them. But there was a cost, just a delayed one. Our bill has come due, but whenever we can, we leave it at the door of developing nations. Not only that, as the developing nations struggle to cope, they fall deeper in debt to wealthy ones, thereby making the imbalance even worse.

There is more and more discussion about how wealthy countries owe reparations to the developing ones now on the frontlines of the climate crisis. This seems not only fair and just, but also, of course, humane. How wonderful it would be if the richest countries in the world – including the U.S., Canada, European nations, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan[iv] – quickly mobilized a massive rescue effort in Pakistan, just as they would for their own citizens. Because developing nations in particular are paying the price for the comfort the wealthy nations now enjoy.


Reparations for Climate Injustice

However, the discussion about climate reparations has largely remained just that – discussion. Starting in 2009, the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) set a goal of providing $100 Billion a year to assist developing nations by 2020 – not just for climate change compensation, but to help them develop in climate-friendly ways as possible. At COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, it was acknowledged that wealthy nations had increased their contributions in this area but had fallen short of the $100 Billion a year goal.[v]

$100 Billion may sound like a lot of money, and we can hope that this kind of assistance will be happening soon, but consider that Pakistan’s recent flooding could eat up 10-20% of that amount – and that would simply be for recovery, not for investment in climate-friendly development. And that’s just one country facing unprecedented and destructive climate-related events (think also of millions of people facing food shortages in the Horn of Africa due to their worst drought in 40 years[vi] and recent floods in Bangladesh that some called the worst in 100 years,[vii] to name just a couple current situations in developing countries).


Seeing Our Connection to the Fate of Developing Nations

It’s human nature to care most about what it close to us – to feel concern about and generosity toward our families, friends, and people in our immediate communities. To be focused on what’s happening within our own country, or within the groups with which we identify. It’s easy to look through pictures of floods in Pakistan and feel sorry for the people affected, but then to stash our knowledge of this situation away in our minds, along with subtle, semi-conscious rationalizations like, “They always have monsoons in that area of the world,” or “They’ll get over it.”

Despite the extremity of the situation in Pakistan, when I went to search for the latest reports on the flooding, I found the issue was no longer on the front pages of the digital editions of the New York Times, Guardian, or Washington Post. I had to search for “Pakistan Flooding” in Google and set the time frame for the search to the last 24 hours in order to get anything current.

Imagine having lost your home and livelihood in a flood, even though you lived in an area that has never flooded in living memory – even in the monsoon season. When the waters finally rose far enough to force you to evacuate, you were utterly shocked. Imagine huddling with your children and elders in a leaky, makeshift shelter, without enough food or clean water, skeptical that any help will be coming any time soon. All support systems are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people affected by the floods. You talk with other refugees, and some of them say the crazy weather over the last 5-10 years is caused by the greenhouse gas emissions from rich countries like the United States. You wonder if anyone in those rich countries is thinking about how their way of life has destroyed yours. You see no end to the difficulties you are facing.


Taking Responsibility for Paying the Cost of Amassing Wealth

Bearing Witness to the tragic injustice of the climate crisis is not meant to make you feel guilty, although guilt may be an appropriate emotion when we have participated in something wrong. However, as I’ve discussed before on this podcast, no one of us is responsible for our climate crisis.

I think it’s valuable for us to face the injustice of the climate and ecological crisis because it shifts our sense of the problem. We see it not as a merely physical matter of finding sources of energy that don’t emit so much greenhouse gas and mitigating the effects of pollutants we’ve already emitted while enriching ourselves. Instead, we see it as an issue of humanity, justice, and fairness. Almost any indigenousness culture of the world could have told us that carelessly and greedily plundering earth’s natural resources would have a cost, but we couldn’t help ourselves. Now that the bill has come due, it is our duty to pay it – to mitigate, correct, and repair damage caused by global heating, wherever it occurs. We do this NOT because poor people in a foreign country need our charity, but because it’s our responsibility – and to dodge our responsibility in this case is reprehensible.

Over the coming years, you will probably hear more about climate justice, climate reparations, or climate compensation. I hope any of us with blessings like shelter, food, safety, and education will be open to seeing these matters as part of our responsibility as moral and respectful global citizens.



[i] https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/09/07/pakistan-floods-dire-millions-children

[ii] https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/pakistan-floods-fact-sheet-3-fiscal-year-fy-2022

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/07/opinion/environment/pakistan-climate-change-floods.html

[iv] https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDPDPC@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD

[v] https://ukcop26.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Climate-Finance-Delivery-Plan-1.pdf

[vi] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/7/droughts-and-hunger-what-is-happening-in-the-horn-of-africa

[vii] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/22/bangladesh-floods-experts-say-climate-crisis-worsening-situation


Photo Credit:

Pakistan floods – Displaced people fleeing Sindh streamed into Balochistan. PHOTO: Abdul Majeed Goraya / IRIN | www.irinnews.org. Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

27 – Are We Powerless?

27 – Are We Powerless?

Are we, as individuals, powerless when it comes to preventing the breakdown of our earth’s natural life-support systems? When I talk to people about the climate and ecological crisis, many people confess feeling powerless beyond their personal consumer and lifestyle choices, which they are aware is not enough to save us. In this episode I explore what we often mean by “powerless” and how we might change the way we think about personal efficacy.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Our Cause for Alarm
A Feeling of Powerlessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis
Embracing Ordinary Power


Our Cause for Alarm

First, I want to acknowledge that, as I write this, parts of China are experiencing record-breaking heatwaves in the context of drought and low water levels, causing serious concerns about food production.[i] In the US, one of the main sources of water in the southwest, the Colorado River, is drying up after a 20-year drought. About 40 million people rely on water from the river but face new use restrictions, and next year there may not be enough water to produce hydropower from the river’s Glen Canyon dam, which forms Lake Powell.[ii] Five 1,000-year rain events have hit the US in the past five weeks, causing destruction and death.[iii] (Links to articles about these events can be found on this episode’s page at climateandyou.com.)

When I started paying close attention to the climate and ecological crisis about 7 years ago, I took special note of news articles that I could categorize as describing “dire circumstances.” I might encounter one a week. Now I can find at least one a day, describing a new storm, flood, drought, or heat wave, or a new situation where people are significantly impacted by global heating or ecosystem degradation. It could be, of course, that the news is simply reporting on such things more often, but I doubt it. News agencies love stories about weather and natural disasters.

Any one of these articles, taken in isolation, could be seen as a story of difficulty or tragedy no different from what our ancestors regularly experienced. Terrible things happen sometimes, and people recover. However, taken together, these articles add up to a serious cause for alarm. You know things have changed when the terms “unprecedented” and “record-breaking” and “1000-year event” apply to situations all over the planet, every day. The disaster of global heating is no longer on the horizon, it has arrived – but, we need to remember, this is just beginning, just the leading edge of the storm.

Anyone who pays attention to relatively unbiased news sources – or, frankly, anyone who is paying attention to changes in their own climate – is bound to be developing a growing awareness of our crisis. Once we learn a little about the situation, we become aware that even our recent landmark climate legislation in the US – a wonderful start which should be celebrated – falls far, far short of what’s needed to prevent catastrophe.


A Feeling of Powerlessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis

Naturally, most of us start wondering what we can do about it. We tend to start by learning how our consumer and lifestyle choices can be changed to minimize our contribution to the problem. If we get a chance to vote for a politician who advocates for climate action, great. But beyond that? Most of us feel pretty powerless.

But what do those of us who confess to feeling powerless really mean by that?

I can’t see inside of other people minds, of course, but I suspect that most of us mean that we can’t think of anything we could do, as individuals, to prevent our looming climate and ecological catastrophe. Or even to make a significant difference.

Now, if we reflect on it, we know it’s unreasonable to think we could, as individuals, prevent climate and ecological catastrophe. Maybe some of us who are really ambitious daydream about such things as starting a movement that mobilizes the world, or inspiring a new religion that focuses on a sustainable relationship with nature. But even those of us who have ambitious daydreams eventually come face to face with our limitations as individuals.

Sooner or later, we realize that the world-as-it-is has tremendous inertia. Even the most passionate, dedicated, inspired, talented, clever, self-sacrificing, and privileged individuals fighting for change – people much more motivated, selfless, and skilled than I am – usually spend their lives toiling away on some issue few people even pay attention to, and see only incremental improvement despite their best efforts.

Massive social and political changes like the one we need to survive global heating – which have happened over the course of human history – often have had remarkable individuals as figureheads, but those individuals simply ended up riding on top of a tidal wave of change. They may have helped start that wave, but it extended far beyond them, and they were only a small part of the whole story. Based on a review of history, it seems like the chances that any efforts we make will contribute to a tidal wave of change seem about the same as the chances we’ll win the lottery.


Embracing Ordinary Power

Once we embrace our ordinariness (or if you’re someone who has been aware of it all along, and eschew delusions of grandeur), what then? The word “power” means the ability to control or influence people and events, or to produce an effect.[iv] As an ordinary individual, we definitely don’t have the power to control the whole world’s response to the climate and ecological crisis. Heck, the American president is sometimes called the “most powerful person in the world,” and Biden just struggled mightily to pass a much-watered-down version of his climate legislation.

If no one is really in charge, then – that is, no individual has the power to impose sweeping, radical change – and the world-as-it-is presents tremendous inertia, are we all doomed to float passively down the stream of causation and just send the world thoughts and prayers? Do we just have to hope the politicians and corporations will suddenly do what they have failed to do over the last fifty years (the amount of time we’ve seen the climate crisis coming), because they have power and we don’t?

If we do have any power at all with respect to preventing complete climate and ecological breakdown, surely that makes us responsible for doing something to help. But what do we have the power to do?

I think we’re all aware that we can control or influence some things around us. We have some limited power. I’ve described the kinds of things we can do on this podcast, including participating with groups like The Climate Mobilization, Sunrise, or Extinction Rebellion, getting involved with local environmental and climate-related issues, and campaigning for candidates who strongly advocate climate action.

However, I suspect that one of the main things that keeps people from getting involved in the climate movement this way, or that makes it likely people will burn out quickly after they start, is a sense of limited efficacy. Any activity has a cost in terms of our time, energy, attention, emotional investment, and perhaps also financial investment. When we conclude our effort isn’t making much of a difference, or that it’s not having the effect we wanted it to have, it’s very easy to feel discouraged and give up.

I’m speaking from personal experience here. At times in the past, I have been very active in the climate movement. At one point I was working on it almost full time. Now, besides this podcast, I do nothing. I don’t think this is permanent state, I just haven’t decided what to get involved in again. But I am very familiar with the frustration, burnout, and despair that arise when you’re doing your best to exercise what little power you have to snuff out a candle while the planet is engulfed in a raging fire. It seems natural to ask, “What’s the point?” and just retreat into enjoying our lives and trying to ignore what’s going on.

When I’m trying to give myself a “take action” pep talk, I remind myself that massive change can come about if each of us does our little part. That there are billions of us, and billions of small contributions actually add up to an incredible effort. I remind myself that we can’t know the true impact of our actions – that a small thing may appear to go largely unnoticed by the world, but quietly set off a chain of events that make a huge difference. That gradually changing minds and hearts – including our own – is as important as any tangible success.

Still, it’s awfully hard to make the effort sometimes when it feels like our power is so extremely limited. I aspire to be more selfless in this regard: To make my contribution without requiring evidence that it’s worth it. To add my droplet to ocean without knowing if I will live to see it become part of a tidal wave of change. To patiently do something good because… well, because it’s good, without constantly asking whether we’re there yet. To exercise what little power I have, at the very least as an antidote to the anguish of feeling powerless.



[i] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2022/aug/24/china-heatwave-scorching-temperatures-and-severe-drought-in-pictures

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/04/opinion/drought-climate-colorado-river.html

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/08/23/flood-united-states-climate-explainer/

[iv] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power


26 – The Trauma of No Longer Being Able to Depend on Nature

26 – The Trauma of No Longer Being Able to Depend on Nature

I think it’s important we Bear Witness to the fact that we are losing the luxury of depending on nature, and that this is deeply traumatic – although the trauma is happening to us relatively slowly, and we’re not yet sure exactly how it is going to manifest for each of us, or in our wider societies.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Nature as Eternal, Dependable, Ever-Present
No Longer Being Able to Depend on Nature
Bearing Witness to Our Loss


I missed giving you a new episode last week because I went on a short backpacking trip into the wilderness. That’s a lame excuse, I know, but it was very restorative. I am the teacher and executive director of a Zen center with 80 members and also maintain a Zen podcast from which I make part of my living, so I’m usually burning the candle at both ends in order to also do the Climate and You podcast. I really wanted this podcast to be weekly, but what I can actually maintain is probably three episodes a month. I hope you will continue to listen!

Nature as Eternal, Dependable, Ever-Present

One of the things I find most rewarding about getting out in the wilderness is encountering settings of striking beauty – like an alpine meadow, a cool forested glade, a quiet spot along a river, a waterfall, or a whole mountain when it comes into view – and contemplating how this scene endures serenely year after year, decade after decade, human lifetime after human lifetime. The character of the scene changes with the seasons, but seasonal cycles also continue in a steady and predictable way while all kinds of human dramas unfold elsewhere. At any given moment, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, this waterfall continues to flow and put on a show, regardless of whether any human is watching.

We know a given tree might die and fall, or a fire may temporarily alter the ecology, or successional changes may result in a different mix of species in a given area, but as a whole, nature endures. Compared to our human sense of time, nature seems eternal and dependable – a vast field surrounding and supporting us at all times, whether we’re aware of it or not. And when we’re able to set aside our human affairs for a while and enter those places where nature takes up more space than humans do, the alpine meadow and forested glade are there for us, calming our hearts and expanding our perspectives.

Of course, nature isn’t always serene and pleasant. There have always been terrible storms, fires, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. We understood that nature could be cruel sometimes. However, if we survived these relatively rare disasters, we knew nature would settle back down and make her bounty available again, as she has for as long as humans can remember. Nature’s occasional departures from the expected, however distressing, happened in the context of climate and weather patterns that had been more or less stable for millennia. Whatever misfortunes befell us in our personal lives, or to our families, clans, or societies, nature went on – implacable, predictable at least over the time scale of multiple years, ever-present, more or less unchanging.

No Longer Being Able to Depend on Nature

I think it’s important we Bear Witness to the fact that we are no longer able to depend on nature the way we used to, and that this is deeply traumatic – although the trauma is happening to us relatively slowly, and we’re not yet sure exactly how it is going to manifest for each of us, or in our wider societies.

Farmers can no longer count on water from lakes, streams, and water tables that have been providing for centuries but are now drying up. Farmers can no longer be sure that the crops they have grown for generations are suited to the new climate of their farmland. Extreme droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves are coming too often for people to cope with and still maintain their homes and livelihoods. The forest and grassland ecosystems that filter water, sequester carbon, and provide humans with lumber and grazing land are unraveling. The vast ocean is permeated with garbage and plastic and is acidifying, threatening the survival of the fish populations on which so many people depend. Whole villages – inhabited by people and their ancestors for as long as anyone can remember – are being lost by rising water and melting permafrost. We can no longer count on our favorite birds passing through our yards every year, and the flowers and trees that used to be just right for our area are dying.

When I contemplate making a trip to the wilderness ten years from now, I fear I will see the breakdown of natural systems even in the remote meadow and glade. I fear I will watch a trickle of water over a waterfall while hearing people reminisce about how it used to be a torrent. That the rivers will be empty of insects, frogs, and birds. That the forests will be dying, diseased, or burned. That the seasons will be nothing like what we remember, and that even the mountains will start wearing away, deprived of their blankets of snow and vegetation.

Thinking of this loss of nature as we have known it, this loss of stable and predictable natural systems, I touch a grief more profound than I am capable of embracing. It’s just too big. Integrating such a grief leaves you facing an abyss of further loss, rather than allowing you to recover and appreciate the steady ongoing pulse of life. There’s not only grief, there’s also a sense of being disoriented, adrift, lost, without context. And, of course, there’s fear.

Bearing Witness to Our Loss

We can hope that humanity is going to course-correct quickly enough that not all will be lost. That we will put the brakes on this accelerating climate and ecological breakdown and give nature the space to recover. She has amazing powers of recovery! I plan to talk about just that in some future episodes.

In the meantime, though, in many ways we have already lost the luxury of depending on nature the way we used to. The term “solastalgia” was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in his 2003 book Solastalgia: a new concept in human health and identity. He defined it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home,”[i] because your environment is changing in rapid, negative, and probably permanent ways. It’s often used to talk about the experience of people and populations dealing with the loss of their homes, livelihoods, communities, and culture due to climate change or destructive practices like mining.

People who are less directly connected to and dependent on the natural environment in their daily lives are less likely to report experiencing solastalgia, but I wonder if anyone is going to be able to escape it in the coming years.

It’s important to acknowledge if we’re feeling something like solastalgia. Turning our mind toward such an experience can be painful… but we can’t avoid our feelings by ignoring them. Ignored, our grief, anxiety, anger, fear, and solastalgia can fester quietly until they undermine our health, decrease our openness to life, and compel us to speak or act in ways that don’t necessarily reflect our values. Bearing Witness to our feelings, though, can encourage us to connect with others who are feeling likewise, and motivate us to help protect what we love.


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solastalgia


Picture Credit

Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay


25 – Living in Terrifying but Exciting Times

25 – Living in Terrifying but Exciting Times

Watching our planet’s natural life-support systems disintegrate is terrifying, but our climate and ecological crisis may be the catalyst for a global transformation beyond our imagining. It’s a fallacy to believe things will inevitably get better, but it’s also a fallacy to conclude radical change is unlikely. To find our situation somewhat exciting – as opposed to overwhelming or paralyzing – requires us to challenge our limited views about the capacities of humankind.



Quicklinks to Content:
The Climate and Ecological Crisis Is Terrifying
Reality Is Not What We Think It Is
Challenging Our Own Views and Certainty
Terrifying – and Exciting?


The Climate and Ecological Crisis Is Terrifying

Last month I was on sabbatical. I took the opportunity to go visit a dear friend, Debra Seido Martin, with whom I share a great deal – we’re both Zen teachers, and we’re both deeply concerned about the climate and ecological emergency and constantly exploring how to best respond to it. I featured a statement from Seido about her experience of the climate crisis on her organic farm in Episode 9 – We’re Not Destroying the Earth, We’re Destroying Ourselves.

On the two-hour drive to Seido’s farm, almost no insects hit my windshield. It’s easy for such a thing to escape your notice entirely, but when I reflect on it, I find it absolutely terrifying. I’m old enough to remember when road trips in any part of the country required regular stops at the gas station to wash your windshield clear with a big soapy squeegee. You really had to scrub hard to remove the debris from the dozens – if not hundreds – of insects that had met their demise on your windshield since it was last cleaned. You still find squeegees and soapy water at gas stations, but now they’re more a matter of aesthetics than necessity.

terrifyingTo contemplate the dramatic, worldwide decline in insects is to face some of the clearest evidence we have that something is seriously wrong in our biosphere. It’s funny because few of us personally miss insects. They’re usually just annoying. Of course, they’re also an essential foundation of any ecosystem – they maintain soil health, decrease the spread of disease by aiding decomposition, pollinate all flowering plants, and serve as the base of the food chain, among other benefits. We literally can’t live without insects. And yet a study published in the journal Biological Conservation in 2019 found “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”[i] You know things have gotten bad when we don’t need fancy studies to verify the absence of insects, we can prove it to ourselves just by driving really fast for an hour or so.

Surrounded as we are by floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires that global heating has made more extreme, extensive, and frequent, it can feel like we’re in the middle of the ocean in a lifeboat that is disintegrating before our eyes. How do we avoid getting stuck in fear, denial, or despair? If that happens to enough of us, humanity is doomed.

Reality Is Not What We Think It Is

Fortunately, the world is not what we think it is. Whether you’re an optimist who figures everything will work out, an alarmist who believes we’re approaching a point of no return on our inexorable march toward extinction, or somewhere in between, reality is infinitely bigger than what’s contained in your mind. Of course we have to make judgment calls when we’re making decisions, but the individual human mind is notoriously ill-equipped for accurately assessing large-scale, complex situations.

Just becoming aware of the limits of my own mind helps give me hope that humanity will transform its relationship to nature over the coming years – and that our civilization will not just survive but be better for the transformations we’ll have had to make.

I’ve been humbled by the biases and limitation of my own views and opinions recently by reading the book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker. Pinker is sometimes reviled by progressives because they think his message amounts to saying, “Humans have made incredible progress along every measure of well-being over the last 200 years or so, so there’s no need to worry or take action because everything will work out fine.” Some people see Pinker as dismissive of current injustices and challenges in his efforts to point out how far we’ve come. However, I find myself wondering whether these critics have read Pinker’s work at all, because he repeatedly makes the point that we can’t take progress for granted.

Progress us not something that happens all by itself, it’s something human beings achieve through hard work, and by championing the values of reason, science, humanism, and progress. Humanism, to use Pinker’s words, “privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion.”[ii] In other words, he explains, it’s individual human beings who are sentient and feel pain or pleasure, not groups, and the lives, experiences, and well-being of individuals is important. Belief in progress means “with our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity [can] make intellectual and moral progress. It need not resign itself to the miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age.”[iii]

In fact, the whole point of Pinker’s book is that we’re in danger of abandoning the enlightenment era values of reason, science, humanism, and progress if we conclude these values have failed to deliver. So, he goes about methodically cataloguing the incredible progress humans have made over the last 200 years or so with respect to a wide array of measures of human well-being: Longevity, health, sustenance, wealth, equality, civil rights, peace, safety, democracy, knowledge, and quality of life. He does this to combat our human tendency to conclude the world is going to hell in a handbasket. All kinds of mental biases and shortcuts lead us to focus on current misery and forget about how much better things have actually gotten. For example, we usually think we and our families are doing okay, but if you ask us about society, we get much more pessimistic.[iv] This is called the “Optimism Gap.” The Availability Bias means we draw conclusions based on the data we happen to encounter – such as what events a news program chooses to feature, or what anecdotes we hear about from friends – and thereby often end up wildly off-base.[v]

Only hard evidence – that is, relying on science and reason – allows us to gain an accurate sense of reality. For example, although we may dwell on our losses to cancer and heart attacks, and modern medicine seems to fall short in many instances, Pinker puts this into perspective with a chart listing the estimated millions and millions of lives saved by innovations including water chlorination, vaccines, penicillin, and angioplasty. Sometimes you don’t even need charts and numbers to get the point – you just need to be reminded of what you’ve been overlooking. For example, Pinker comments on the progress we’ve made in human health by describing the state of affairs in recent history:

“Before the 20th century, cities were piled high in excrement, their rivers and lakes viscous with waste, and their residents drinking and washing their clothes in putrid brown liquid. Epidemics were blamed on miasmas—foul-smelling air—until John Snow (1813–1858), the first epidemiologist, determined that cholera-stricken Londoners got their water from an intake pipe that was downstream from an outflow of sewage. Doctors themselves used to be a major health hazard as they went from autopsy to examining room in black coats encrusted with dried blood and pus, probed their patients’ wounds with unwashed hands, and sewed them up with sutures they kept in their buttonholes, until Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865) and Joseph Lister (1827–1912) got them to sterilize their hands and equipment. Antisepsis, anesthesia, and blood transfusions allowed surgery to cure rather than torture and mutilate, and antibiotics, antitoxins, and countless other medical advances further beat back the assault of pestilence.”[vi]

Challenging Our Own Views and Certainty

While absorbing the evidence Pinker offers that human society is, indeed, capable of significant and transformative progress, I was embarrassed – and surprised – to realize what a negative and pessimistic view I often have of humankind. It’s difficult not to conclude we’re hopeless when insects are disappearing and working people are struggling to make ends meet while fossil fuel companies rake in record-breaking profits.[vii] It’s difficult not to conclude that greed runs the world, and the juggernaut of consumption will drive us right over the cliff of climate catastrophe. I find myself thinking radical change is impossible. That there’s nothing we can do. Pinker calls such viewpoints “progressophobia,” an unwillingness to conclude that significant progress is probable, even though historical evidence strongly suggests that it is. Pinker notes that progressives and intellectuals tend strongly toward this attitude.

Letting the truth of the history of human progress wash over my brain dislodged some of my limiting views and assumptions – views and assumptions, after all, I have based on my extremely limited experience and knowledge, influenced by the optimism gap and the availability bias and tribal thinking and all kinds of human foibles Pinker outlines.

The truth is I don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do you. This “not knowing,” however, isn’t a befuddled, paralyzed, ignorant, irresponsible state. It’s a state full of a sense of possibility and potential. It even includes some – dare I say it? – excitement, because we need to rise to task of negotiating risks, meeting challenges, innovating solutions, and re-envisioning our future. Humankind is at the point where it has to adapt or die, so our climate and ecological crisis is likely to be the catalyst for global transformation we can barely imagine at this point.

I’m always wary of optimism that leads to passivity, so I appreciate Pinker’s words: “We don’t have a catchy name for a constructive agenda that reconciles long-term gains with short-term setbacks, historical currents with human agency. ‘Optimism’ is not quite right, because a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than the belief that things will always get worse.”[viii]

I feel my mind and heart stretching, trying to make sense of things, trying to find a way forward as we watch earth’s natural life-support systems breaking down. Certainty feels good – when I know what’s happening, or I know what needs to happen – but is certainty the most helpful attitude right now? And more important, does it reflect reality?

Terrifying – and Exciting?

My friend Seido helped stretch my heart and mind even further with our recent conversation about the climate and ecological crisis. I’m going close this episode by sharing some thoughts that came out of our conversation. Most of these ideas came from Seido so credit should go to her, but I can’t remember her exact words and I’m sure what I remember is biased by my own thoughts on the matter. With that disclaimer, here’s my offering:

“Those of us who are deeply concerned about the climate crisis keep hoping we’ll figure out what to do and be able to rest in satisfaction that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re living the right way. But that’s just not going to happen. Ever. So, we might as well let go of that hope and get used to this being a moving target.

“The sense of individual responsibility can be empowering but is also very limiting. We are part of an unimaginably large, living system that is undergoing rapid change. Many positive changes are going to happen more or less naturally as humankind responds to and adapts to our environment out of necessity, and as we learn painful lessons about how live sustainably on this planet. We are active participants in this sometimes-terrifying adventure, but we are also along for the ride. Chances are very good that ten years from now we will look back at this time and shake our heads, marveling at how much has changed, and how we never could have imagined it all.”



[i] Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A.G.Wyckhuys. Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320718313636

[ii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 10). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 11). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 40). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[v] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 48). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 63). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[vii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/03/big-oil-fossil-fuel-non-proliferation-treaty

[viii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (pp. 344-345). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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