In this episode I talk about why it’s so important to face the truth of our climate and ecological emergency. Then I walk you through a practice I call “Bearing Witness.” When we Bear Witness, we mindfully choose to turn our awareness toward suffering – our own, or that of others – and give ourselves the time and space to absorb what’s going on. We temporarily set aside any effort to assign blame, avoid the discomfort, or plan a response. We just witness… and, surprisingly, doing this as a regular practice can help us face the truth without feeling overwhelmed, numb, or depressed.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Why Is It Important to Face the Truth?
The Practice of Bearing Witness
An Example of Bearing Witness
Closing Verse for Bearing Witness


Why Is It Important to Face the Truth?

There are at least two reasons we need to face the truth of our climate and ecological emergency.

The first reason is that we need to inform ourselves as citizens, so we take appropriate action to preserve life on this planet. We can’t trust those in positions of authority to do the right thing while we ignore the problem. We need to influence who is in positions of authority and let them know the will of the people. The climate emergency demands big changes and bold action – something few governments are going to do unless the people insist.

The second reason we need to face the truth is that we’re not living fully unless we do. We might think it’s possible to ignore the climate and ecological emergency and just go about our personal lives, but increasingly this is not the case. In order to avoid facing the truth, we’ll need to live lives of denial, avoidance, and ignorance. We’ll need to turn away from the suffering of others and lie to ourselves when our own suffering is exacerbated by climate change. Such a life is emotionally repressed, limited, and lacking in compassion.

Assuming we want to face the truth, though, how do we do it? The sheer quantity of information available on the climate and ecological emergency and all the terrible effects it’s having on people is overwhelming. We won’t be able to absorb it all even if we constantly watch the news, listen to podcasts, read informative books, and observe the changing weather around us – and if we do all of this, how do we avoid getting completely discouraged and depressed, if not panicky and fearful? How much information is enough? What are we supposed to deal emotionally with what we hear or see?


The Practice of Bearing Witness

To face the truth of the climate crisis – or, actually, any other source of suffering in your life or in the world – I recommend a practice I call “Bearing Witness.” Bearing Witness means you allow yourself to be aware of suffering. The suffering might be something you’re reading about that’s happening on the other side of the world, or it might be suffering in your community, in the natural world, or in your own experience. When you Bear Witness, you accept the emotional burden of perceiving suffering without turning away – and also without trying to lessen the burden by assigning blame, forming opinions, or making plans for how the suffering can be fixed. For at least a little while – for a few minutes, while the suffering is in front of you, you just witness it. You just let it be. You let it touch you.

Bearing Witness is just one practice in a larger toolkit we need for living compassionately and sustainably in a climate crisis. We also stay strong by taking care of ourselves, and manifest our compassion and determination by taking action. But while we are Bearing Witness, we just bear witness. Temporarily we set aside taking action, or even trying to figure out what kind of action needs to be taken. Temporarily we set aside worrying about our own comfort and happiness in order to be with the reality of suffering.

We try to Bear Witness mindfully, paying attention to when we’re starting to feel too overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or angry. When this happens, we spend some time taking care of ourselves and our lives, some time strengthening ourselves, because Bearing Witness takes energy. Notice, however, I say we take care when we get too overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or angry. Bearing Witness can be uncomfortable, if not painful. Some of these negative emotions are bound to arise. However, if we want to face the truth, we benefit from building up our tolerance for discomfort, and from strengthening our practice of Bearing Witness.

We Bear Witness for its own sake. You may wonder why you should bother to spend time making yourself aware of things you can’t do anything about if they bring up painful and confusing emotions for you. What’s the point of that? First of all, you don’t know there’s nothing you can do. Maybe a useful course of action isn’t evident now, but you don’t know what will happen in the future.

Second, we practice Bearing Witness even if there really isn’t anything we can do to help because it ends up being healthier to face reality, even if it hurts, that it is to live in denial. Third, Bearing Witness is just the right thing to do. If you’re the one suffering, do you want other people to turn away? Even if someone is dying of a terminal illness, don’t we hope someone is by their bedside? We manifest compassion and connection by being willing to witness, by making sure living beings aren’t alone in their suffering.

One of the good things about Bearing Witness is that you can develop a strong practice of it without having to expose yourself to every terrifying prediction or situation of misery in the whole world. If you make a practice of regularly taking the time to absorb just one thing about the climate and ecological emergency – one fact, one event, one set of circumstances, one reliable prediction about the future, one person’s lived experience of being negatively impacted by the emergency, one aspect of your own fear – it can transform you. Truly Bearing Witness to one thing a week would be a very strong practice.


An Example of Bearing Witness

When we bear witness, it’s good to spend some time absorbing a situation, observing whatever details are available about it. It’s good to consider the impact on people and other living creatures. What was (or is) their experience like, both in a moment of crisis, and afterwards? Can we let the real meaning of the suffering touch us for a moment?

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let me walk you through Bearing Witness to the reality of the heat wave we experienced in the Pacific Northwest of North America last June. As I share this with you, this is the first time I have consciously chosen to spend some time Bearing Witness to what I experienced. I certainly had reactions at the time and since, but now I’m turning toward the experience in a reflective way, to better absorb it.

I live in Portland, Oregon, which has a temperate climate characteristic of land located between a tall mountain range (in our case, the Cascades) and the ocean. Before climate change, we received so much rainfall each year that many areas in the Pacific Northwest are categorized as temperate rainforest. When I first moved here 30 years ago, I got used to living under almost constant cloud cover and drizzle from mid-October through June. The lack of light during the winter can depress some folks, but the payoff is a lush landscape featuring every shade of green imaginable. From the ubiquitous moss to the towering pines, plants thrive in the mild temperatures. We get occasional freezes, but usually winter temps average around 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius).

Summers are glorious – dry and mild. The sun comes out, but it rarely gets above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). Plants continue to benefit from the winter rains. The main challenge in a suburban yard isn’t getting plants to grow, it’s keeping them trimmed back so they don’t make it impossible to walk down the sidewalk without crouching over. Species that are difficult to grow elsewhere – like roses or fuchsia – grow like weeds. Rosemary bushes become 6-foot tall shrubs if allowed to.

When I moved to my current home 7 years ago, I immediately started removing grass and planting native trees and shrubs. Gradually my back yard has transformed into something of a jungle with quaking aspens, wild roses, wild strawberries, red-twig dogwood, Indian plum, thimbleberry, and horsetails. Through a local program, my yard was given a “Backyard Bird Habitat” gold certification. One of the crowning glories of the habitat is a western hemlock tree, planted as a sapling in our first summer in our home, which is now 15 feet high. This is a slow-growing tree with small, soft needles that give it a velvety appearance.

Last June, in 2021, there was an unprecedented heat wave in the whole Pacific Northwest, from northern California to western Canada, which the weather folks called a “heat dome.” The heat built up over the course of 4 days. In Portland, the average high temperature over those four days was 112 degrees F (44 degrees C). This was at a time of year when 90 degrees F would be considered incredibly remarkable.

Few of us in the Pacific Northwest have central air conditioning. This is rarely a problem, because even when it gets hot (occasionally up to 100 degrees F in the middle of the summer), it cools off at night and you can open your windows, get the fans blowing, and be all cooled off by the morning. Then you seal up your windows and stay relatively cool throughout the day. During the heat dome, though, it didn’t cool off at night much at all, staying around 85 degrees F. By the last night, it was over 90 degrees in our house, and our poor dog lay prone, panting constantly. And we were lucky; around 150 people died in the heat wave in Oregon alone, and many more died in Washington and Canada.

On the last and hottest day of the heat wave, it was 120 degrees F (49 C) in my backyard. As I write this, a chill runs down my spine and tears well up in my eyes. How easy it is to lodge a fact in one’s mind and then, when the situation is over, allow it to become a mere word or number! One hundred and twenty degrees, a temperature considered extreme even in the hottest places in Arizona. One hundred and twenty degrees, a temperature I have never experienced before in my life. But at least I could go inside, where a small portable air conditioning unit was at least keeping one room of our house comfortable.

The beautiful native plants were not so lucky. They could not move out of the heat, or out of the sun. At one point on this hottest day, I was taking a quick tour of my yard to see how everything was doing. I noticed needles on the sunny side of the western hemlock turning brown. This had not been evident the day before, and I had been watering the trees and shrubs to help them through. I also noticed the leaves on my red alder and red-twig dogwood turning brown and shriveling up. Throughout the course of that single day, this die-back process continued until about half of the western hemlock’s needles and all of the leaves on the alder were dead.

Thankfully, the heat wave broke that night, and since then the trees in my yard have slowly recovered. Kind of. About a third of the branches of the western hemlock were killed, and the alder had to shed and regrow all of its leaves.

I will never forget the sadness, horror, and helplessness I felt as I watched the trees dying before my eyes. Not only was I watching the suffering and death of living things I cared about, but I was also painfully aware that this was not just a one-time, freakish event. This insane heat dome was a sign of things to come. And I wasn’t concerned primarily about my yard, I was concerned about the incredible Pacific Northwest forest ecosystems as a whole. If my trees were getting fried alive, so were the forests.

My western hemlock before and after the June 2021 heat dome

Our forests moderate our climate, capture moisture, retain soil, provide habitat for countless species, and shade our waterways. They provide us with clean water and air, and with timber, mushrooms, and recreation. For many of us, the forests are like a kind of cathedral – a place we visit in order to find peace and renew our faith that life is good. Even when we can’t visit them, we breathe easier knowing they surround us.

People are fond of remarking how adaptable nature is, and how eventually the planet will recover from anything we do to it. In a sense that’s true, and reassuring in a grim kind of way. But how many of us have really contemplated what it will be like to watch the collapse of the ecosystems that surround and support us? Even if human beings find some way to survive, what will it be like to watch our forests die?

I had hoped that maybe the heat dome just fried the trees in my yard, that perhaps my plants fared worse because the suburbs are hotter and because I hadn’t planted species perfectly adapted to my location. But alas, about a month after the heat dome I drove from Portland to the ocean. It’s about a 90-minute drive through the coast range mountains and forests. As I drove by whole hillsides of trees bearing scorch marks, I sobbed. A single heat wave had gotten hot enough to cook the needles right on the trees. This was not normal. It was not okay. It was tremendously frightening.


Closing Verse for Bearing Witness

When we bear witness, I think it’s good for there to be a way to bring the practice to a respectful close without reverting to denial. Ideally, we shift our attention on to other things, but carry with us a certain tenderness that comes from allowing ourselves to experience empathy for suffering beings (including ourselves). Although the details may slip from our conscious mind, the truth of what we have witnessed remains with us. To facilitate this, I offer these words for closing a period of consciously bearing witness:

We (I) bear witness in order to face the truth and open our (my) heart(s). Suffering beings, you are not alone. As we (I) go about our (my) daily lives (life), part of us (me) remains aware of you. May conditions change to alleviate your suffering and bring you health and happiness. May all of us awaken to our interdependence and care for one another and for all life.

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