Climate Collapse: When the butterflies have gone…

It’s September and my garden, dishevelled as it is, is looking beautiful. There are super-ripe figs hanging on the figtree, too high for me to pick, which are attracting a freakishly large number of red admiral butterflies. The sun is mild but bright. The lawn is dappled by the leaves of the thinning ash tree and the sun bright-foliage. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

But there’s a undertow.

How to enjoy all this when I also know that in my lifetime the red admiral butterflies will probably stop existing? That the sun will get hotter and hotter and my lawn will run dry with no rain? That the strong likelihood is that the social safety of this country and every country on the planet will be increasingly stretched and buckled and broken by the impact of the climate catastrophe?

Things are going to be violent, scary, less civilised – and I’ll be here

As a Buddhist who made the bodhisattva vow to come back over and over in human form to help suffering beings, there’s no convenient exit at death either. I had a shock last year when it suddenly dawned on me that there’s no escaping the hard times ahead, whether I’m in this body or another. As dwindling water supplies and food sources are fought over with more and more brutality, the next 100 years is going to be more violent, more scary and less civilised. And I’m going to be involved, over and over.

I had always unconsicously subscribed to the ‘things are going to get better’ narrative. A blithe buy-in to the ideology of perpetual progress. But it seems like I was deluded. It’s almost certain that things are going to get a lot worse.

Coming back to a future world is a sobering thought

And shrugging my shoulders and saying, ‘Well, I’m glad I don’t have children who are going to inherit this mess’ is not an option for me any longer. As a ‘bodhisattva-wannabe’ I have made a strong commitment to come back precisely when the world is drier and drier. When the salty sea is higher and angrier. When the weather has turned against us. And when human beings have been driven to baseness by the ferocity of the ransacked planet.

Whether you subscribe to reincarnation or not, the idea of coming in the future world is a sobering thought. Perhaps we do come back into the same planetary system that we blithely destroyed? Perhaps there’s no fast exit from this mess?

As the Extinction Rebellion poster say: “This is not a drill”

The excellent direct action of the Extinction Rebellion has woken me up like nothing else. I remember seeing the polar bears of course. Remember, David A’s sobering thoughts over the closing credits of Planet Earth. But it never really sank in. I remember looking at Naomi Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everthing’ and subconsciously thought it was a passing fad. It’s embarassing to admit it but it’s true.

Only the diligent and incredibly brave work of the XR has really punctured the bubble. It’s only in the last few months that I have touched into the reality of the situation. Two thirds of the Barrier Reef gone. 70% of insects gone since the 70s. Lake Chad in Africa now 1/10th of its size 50 years ago. The Artic will likely be snow-free in a few years. As the XR posters say: “This is not a drill” .

Like children of alcoholics, we pretend it’s OK when it’s not

We are, of course, programmed to ignore such overwhelming bad news. Like children growing up in a scary, alcoholic world of abuse, we pretend that everything is fine and find ways of dissociating. Similarly, I imagined that I grew up in a care-free world of biodiversity, stable weather patterns and mostly benign nature. I was completely and deeply unaware of the destruction, decline and communal eco-crimes that were happening all around me in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Glaciers vanishing. Plastics. Less birds. Toxic fertilizers and pesticides. Fewer bees and butterflies. Distant rainforests burning, burning, burning. All in my lifetime. All pretty much out in the open. But I chose not to see it. Of course. We are all programmed to ignore that inconceivable horror.

The Buddha wasn’t living on a planet that was burning

The Buddha taught about the centrality of transience. Living with it is a central strategy in his process of waking up. I don’t like the fact but: I am going to die. The people I love are going to leave me, in some way or another. The sun is going to disappear behind a cloud. And then the cloud is going to pass. This painful reality is too much for most of us, but is weirdly enlivening when we do embrace it.

When I accept that this body of mine is going to become a corpse, then the present seems more vital. Similarly, a butterfly is beautiful partly because it doesn’t live long and seems to flutter more brightly in a transient flash. Embracing the fleetingness of life can make everything seem more precious. But can we do the same for a whole dazzling biosphere that is faltering and dying out?

I might argue that the Buddha did not live in an age where the whole framework of life on earth was set to disappear and vanish into barren, hostile dust. He spoke of the passing of emotions, of human forms, but there was always the comfort of the flowing rivers, the growing forests, the peaceful men and women who found a harmonious way of being in the world. But what if the whole system of life is scorched and ruined? What if our communal greed, aggression and dissociation has destroyed the beauty that we long to return to?

Most of the universe is barren and empty with one sparkling jewel

Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson of transience? Planetary life rises and passes. Who knows how many desert planets in our galaxy, let alone far galaxies, are desert now but were verdant with life a hundred million years ago? But how painfully poignant that makes it to live in this still stunning and beautiful world. Can humans live with that sort of grief?

To know that most of the universe is lifeless, toxic emptiness and there is this one sparkling jewel in the midst of it. And I’m complicit in killing it. That’s almost unbearable.

But sitting with the almost unbearable is my training as a meditator. It’s so easy to veer away from the truth of the 6th mass extinction and slump down into more movies, more internet, more pleasure, more whatever. But all those things, those desperate moves to distraction, become undermined by what I’m avoiding. They become ‘dirty (dis)comforts’ to borrow a phrase from ACT Therapy. I feel that they are what I want, but actually they are just distracting me from what I don’t want. But what I actually really need.

Climate collapse is not the evil 1% – that’s too easy a get-out

Perhaps I need to find a way, as Joanna Macy urges, to sit with the ‘pain of the world’. Not to cling to airy hopes for scientific salvation or strong leaders, but to accept the horrible side effects of human greed, destruction and dissociation.

And that’s not the Brazilian loggers’ greed, or President Trump’s dissociation. That is the accumulated weight of my unthinking greed, my complicit destruction and over-arching dissociation. All the thousands of times that I have bought into ‘constant growth’, bought a new iPhone, shopped with Amazon, stonewalled the suffering of others, scapegoated politicians, flown in planes, bought disposable clothing, eaten murdered animals and the by-products of murdered animals. Climate collapse is not the work of the evil 1%. That’s far too easy a get-out. It is the culmative result of generations of unthinking exploitation and lotus-eating dissociation.

I, along with most people in the consumer-crazed Global North, have happily sleep-walked through the decades of affluence – comfortably and semi-consciously unaware of the inordinate cost of our lifestyle. And gradually accepting that communal responsibility allows for a sense of connection which may become essential in the coming decades.

Hiding my head in the soft green grass is not an option

It is probably too late for life as we know it to continue on this planet. I have accept that we have ruined something incredibly beautiful and that my personal future is going to be intertwined in that reality.

I don’t really know how to process that. But I am turning towards it and that seems to do something. Something like a stirring. Things will most likely become much more brutal and horrible in the coming decades and I have to wake up to that. I know that my meditation practice will come in handy. Will perhaps be central. I also know that knowledge and clear-seeing is the only way to improve things. Hiding my head in the soft green grass is not a comfortable option, long-term. So I’m going to continue exploring. Continue connecting. Continue sharing the questions and discussing the options.

Please let me know what you are doing? Perhaps we could find a way through this together?

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3 Comments

  • Sue Bolton says:

    I resonate so much with what you have written. My process echoes yours. Though I don’t subscribe to reincarnation I somethings imagine myself 20 years in the future and what I would say to the folk who are living then when they ask me why I did not do more.
    think about how we look back on what happened to the Jews in Germany or the Slave Trade and wonder HOW COULD THEY LET THAT HAPPEN? And now I know. Life. I am busy, Immediate things so seem much more important in the moment.

    However, fortunately I have my meditation practice to bring me back to what really matters again and again. And I am particularly grateful to be involved in Extinction Rebellion as it offers a way to push for the changes in policies that are needed.

    Being in touch with other Buddhists is also important as we explore holding the grief, shame, anger that comes up as we look at these things. This aspect is particularly important as it is out of acknowledgement of how deeply we feel all this stuff that effective and appropriate action comes.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thanks Sue. I agree the future-dated backwards look is very activating.
      And I think the Buddhist emphasis on compassion (especially from a bodhisattva viewpoint) makes the need for compassionate action even more emphatic. As things fall apart we need to step up and be there to help.

  • I sincerely hope that as many people as possible read your thought provoking words.So often, I receive emails for donations or signatures, regarding the devastating destruction of our beautiful planet. Anything from plastic pollution to rainforest devastation. It’s heartbreaking and shaming, to realise we humans are systematically destroying our world. Can anything, or anyone, wake us up, before it’s too late? Sir David seems to think it can be turned around, if we take action now but are the powers that be, listening? If they are not,the future looks bleak and terrifying.

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