The Untellable Nonstory of Global Warming
Can We Really Be Allowing Our Planet To Die?


My own response to global warming is still uncomfortably close to feeling frozen in the headlights of the juggernaut, that I also know I'm part of. It seems to me we all are in some measure, almost helplessly, 'living by damage' as Aboriginal elder Hobbles Danaiyarri put it, while the Dharma we convey is the deepest possible injunction against living carelessly. The contradiction feels increasingly powerful to me.

Climate change, the carefully neutral substitute ('Say, a change might be fun!') for the more pointed 'climate damage' or 'global warming', is unmistakably underway, with potentially catastrophic effects upon all current species adapted to viable climate niches, including us.  Arguing the toss feels uncomfortably close to deferring facing an emergency that will demand extremely challenging, close to unthinkable changes in how we think and act.

I think all people right now sense that the present abuse and despoiling of the life resources of the planet by our species are approaching intolerable and unsustainable levels. Why not begin with the issue most in our faces which also happen to be the primary driver of this process - the likely effects of our massive over-consumption of carbon upon planetary heating; the demonstrable effects of it on acidification of the oceans, pollution of the atmosphere, and accelerating loss of species; as well as the obvious speed at which it is at present driving population growth and propelling a mentality of economic growth that seems entirely willing to turn a blind eye to destruction of people, animals, rivers, oceans, the air we breathe?

The whole world just watched an Olympic Games staged in a city shrouded in unbreathable air. This cannot go on. Up to now we've been like Auden's man on a runaway horse - asked 'Where are you going?' we shout back, 'I don't know, ask the horse!' When will we get round round to asking the horse? And ourselves.

In one way, every trauma on such a scale, in which the secondary and subsequent 'intergenerational' nature of the rippling effects of traumatization are so massive, is by nature a kind of untellable nonstory. Almost impossible to get our heads around because the anxiety and shame it arouses is so strong it confiscates the issue from thought for much of the time. We simply haven't got our minds and tongues around it yet, we're too much inside its toils. And yet, or and so, we have no choice but to live trying to wrestle it to painful  consciousness and some ability to act effectively, offering whatever can find in our means, and certainly bringing Dharma to bear as powerfully as we can on thinking into this, and lifting it as skilfully as we can into the light of Dharma. What else is really possible?

Climate damage constitutes an act of harm towards all sentient beings on such a scale that it surely must rivet the urgent, critical attention of anyone who takes the Bodhisattva vows on a regular basis - or teaches Dharma. The climates and corresponding agricultural practices to which huge human populations are now minutely adapted and to which we have geared vast expectations and massive infrastructure of human lives, are merely the provisional, semi-stable climate 'settings' of the latest of a series of geologically brief interglacials--the one in which the critical move of human agriculture, and all that it has set in train in terms of prevailing upon nature, was able to occur. But climate right now has become the most striking exemplum of 'this too shall change', not just in daily fluctuation but progressive dramatic transformations across time. We seem as humans strangely able to live both as if there is no tomorrow, and as if we have a just right to demand that tomorrow shall be guaranteed to arrive. We surely must do whatever we can to disturb this terrifying sleep and wake ourselves up. That's the first move of any kind of response to the emergency. But it has to be a waking up to sobriety and coherence, not the arousing of panic or shame, which leads only to further dissociation.

Does it finally matter to what extent CO
2 levels are the cause of the rapid loss of ice and glaciers, the increase in night-time temperatures, rise in sea levels, onset of drought and more frequent catastrophic storms, etc? In any case, conserving limited fossil fuels as much as humanly possible, and putting ourselves out to do it, instead of falling over ourselves to release this vast reservoir of sequestered carbon as rapidly as we can into planetary circulation, surely makes its own strong sense. Isn’t it an inherently good thing right now, to actively pay its custodians to keep in the ground?

The transformation wrought in the past 110 years by feeding the dense energy of oil into the economic bloodstream of change and 'development' has been beyond anyone's dream or control; but now we are hooked, in just about every capacity: agriculture, medicine, clothing, transport, defence, housing, technology, furniture, cosmetics, are all intricately woven through with dependency on petroleum, and in grave danger of collapse if the fix is withdrawn - or even threatened with withdrawal. It seems anything, everything in fact, can be put at stake to ensure supply. And while we have almost no life(style) sustaining system that can now do without it, yet we are drilling and burning it as if there is no tomorrow - with a haste that implies we want to make sure of it.

Wouldn't we - to the extent that a functioning 'we' still remains in a time of mass individualism - want to be as conservative as possible towards remaining stocks while doing all we can to propel and steer an urgent transition to a new energy economy, that must become as weaned and independent as possible from oil, coal and gas? And to carefully conserve stocks of coal, for the production of longer-term needs like steel production, rather than for the momentary generation of power? As Australians, we live in a shameful, ostrich-like avoidance of acknowledging our truly crushing national carbon footprint, when you factor in the furious mining and export of our huge coal reserves, for someone else to burn. The present fat commodity boom - that's all that matters.

How do we set about rigorously weighing up the relative harms between  different courses of action and inaction? This is a huge set of nested questions, that will exercise every part of us and grow us up mightily, if we take it on, as an exercise in greater self-awareness. And what moral ground do we still possess to try to check the kind of ecologically damaging behaviour in developing industrial economies that 'we' in the post-industrial world have already profited by for generations, happily jeopardising the life-world as we leveraged ourselves to massive advantage? Meanwhile scrambling after Canadian tar sands, the sudden possibility of Arctic Sea oil, any possibility at  whatever cost. It seems we'd kill our mother and our grandmothers too, and even by implication our grandchildren’s world as well, to keep up supply. Addiction is a too forgiving account for this behaviour.

If we, as a species were to be truly guided by the appropriate primary goal of removing the gross injustices of global poverty - rather than maintaining our own accustomed gravy train while trying to let only as few new passengers as will keep it rolling nicely but not upset it for us - what would those energy choices and efforts towards innovation really look like? Might they not turn out to be the most creative and productive and economically energising nnovations of thought and practice possible for our time and for global well-being? Many would by their very nature involve a turn back towards local sourcing, local awareness, local community, more frugal mindset. Could the sheer exigencies of this moment be exactly the force needed to squeeze such valuable legs from the snake?

And since this is not the priority being presently set very much at any  high level of decision-making, how do we begin to address the vast institutionalization of greed that every one of us now lives within, however uncomfortably or unwillingly, that sets this so low in the sights of the juggernaut of every 'growth economy'. When you look to your own life, there's an immediate problem. Many facets and activities of your life can you actually find that are truly independent from 'the system'? Well, meditation, along with making music, expressing love, jumping in the ocean, looking up at the sky, walking in the bush and hugging your children - there's still a handful of precious things not yet invaded... What opens up from this?

Dharma is in one sense the earth speaking us directly, with our own noise no longer overwhelming the signal, and it is our response as natural and immediate as the perfect timing of every drop of rain falling onto the verandah beside me as I write. As teachers, our covenant is surely with the Earth and our Dharma has to rise to meet this occasion of planetary moral emergency. Do we have any choice but to face what is and try to respond with the mind of saving the many beings?  The obvious first priority in an emergency to address, relieve and forestall trauma with every means at our disposal as far as we are able?

It's easy to sound a bit ratty and shrill, when the shape and vocabulary of the change so needed in such a dire moment is not yet fully in reach. This is one of the things that shuts us all up at exactly the wrong moment. In the old, wise fairy story, though, a woman who has had her hands chopped off by the Devil regains them in the sheer extremity of the moment that her child falls into a well. I take some heart from what this points to, about how to proceed. In my heart I feel every human on the planet must surely be raising a powerful lament right now, enough to deafen every world leader. Can we really be allowing our planet to die, as a place that can continue to host even our own species? Perhaps it is still a wholly inward cry. But the relative planetary silence scares me deeply. Does it alarm you too? How are you handling it?


Susan Murphy Roshi is a Zen teacher, award winning filmmaker and writer based in Sydney, Australia.
She trained primarily with John Tarrant Roshi and Ross Bolleter Roshi.  Her Zen teaching is focused through the koan tradition -  but also includes  artistic practice, dreamwork, and exploring the resonance  of the  Dharma in Australia with Aboriginal spirituality.