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Occupy the Climate Emergency: Buddhist Reflections on Inter-generational Justice

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We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and the survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.
--James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia

You live inside us, beings of the future.
In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here...
You who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.

--Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self

Keeping up with the world's soaring carbon emissions is not for the faint of heart. In 2010, they reached a new high of 33.5 billion tons. This was 6 percent more than in 2009, the highest ever year-on-year increase -- despite a worldwide decline in economic growth.

China's yearly contribution increased by 9.3 percent, and now makes up over 24 percent of total global emissions. America, the former world heavyweight champion of carbon pollution, is still generating 16 percent of the total. India's emissions have jumped 9.4 percent to over two billion tons, placing it third in this game of existential "chicken."

None of these leading emitters has agreed to sign an international treaty that would obligate them to cut emissions. It's uncannily reminiscent of Professor Lovelock's prediction, cited above, from The Revenge of Gaia (2006). So is the worst indeed going to happen?

Denial, Disempowerment & Depression

Some of the answers can be found at the intersection of psychology, culture and politics. According to the Center for Disease Control, antidepressant use in the U.S. has increased 400 percent over the last 20 years. Antidepressants are now the commonest type of medication taken by Americans from their late teens to mid-forties.

Clinical psychologist Bruce Levine points out that people have been taught (through advertising) to understand demoralization or despair as a medical condition that requires a pharmacological cure. They "consume" medical treatment rather than ask pointed questions about the goals and values of their society. What if feeling demoralized is an appropriate response to deteriorating -- indeed, self-destructive -- economic and social institutions?

Levine suggests that depressive symptoms like helplessness, hopelessness and immobilization might often be better adressed through political engagement and activism that challenges unjust and exploitative social arrangements. For example, about one trillion dollars of student-loan debt now rests on the shoulders of young Americans. When we understand what's actually happening, we also see that it's more an issue of inter-generational justice than a reason for young people to take antidepressants.

Showing up for your life

People participating in the Occupy movement against corporate power speak of the invigorating effects of taking action together, and how much they enjoy being involved in non-hierarchical, truly democratic discussions. Genuine human communication is more satisfying than consumerism and its corollary, climate change denial.

Happily, Occupy continues to spread because it is more liberating -- and more fun -- than the media circus and electronic cabaret that usually divert us from looking deeper at hopelessness. It asks taboo political questions that expose the nature of the corporatocracy. It creates memes and messages that ring with relevance. As one sign put it: "Lost a job and found an occupation." To occupy something is the opposite of denial. We are the 99 percent and we are showing up for our life now!

Crunch time

Environmental scientist Lester Brown points out that humanity is in a race between tipping points. There is the social tipping point for taking urgent action to halt further global change. There is also the climate tipping point, beyond which global warming becomes self-sustaining (or "runaway") and human intervention becomes irrelevant.

This will not be a long race. The head of one large establishment institution, the International Energy Authority (IEA), has just announced that fossil fuel plants being built now will produce carbon emissions for decades, creating a "lock-in" effect leading to irreversible climate change. If we do not change this system within five years, the results will be disastrous.

The governments of the largest carbon polluter nations express no enthusiasm about signing a binding treaty at the current U.N. COP-17 climate talks in Durban, South Africa. Their excuse is the difficulty of squaring the historic carbon debt of the overdeveloped world with the need for developing countries to accept universal emissions reductions now. We are told we may need to wait until 2020--a date that is clearly too late for a safe-climate future.

So, have we reached the social tipping point? The Occupy movement did not arise in a vacuum. Like the "Arab Spring", it is led by young people who have lost what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls "ontological security" -- the mental stability that depends on a sense of continuity of the world and the future. Today Buddhism and all other religions must either demonstrate their relevance to this issue, or be consigned to history. Speaking about the "awesome responsibility of this political moment," author and activist Naomi Klein points out that the solutions to the economic and ecological crises are one and the same -- because they have a single cause, the mentality of corporate capitalism. We have to determine together what we want to build in the rubble of the present collapsing system.

Here are a few things we already know. Fossil fuels are responsible for 80 percent of global warming. Large fossil fuel corporations are so wealthy they dictate policy to governments. Amazingly, the world still pays them $409 billion a year in subsidies (according to the IEA), to extract the last oil, coal and gas. A recent joint statement by 11 national engineering institutes tells us we have all the clean technology needed to cut emissions 85 percent by 2050. What is required is that governments free themselves from the grip of big carbon companies and mandate this transformation. That will also solve another big problem: the only way to create millions of new jobs now is to build the new green economy.

Something of great moral significance is needed to complete this narrative. Since our time on this wondrous planet is brief, we must consider our responsibility to all those who will come after us, whose well-being will depend on the decisions we make today. Shall we sacrifice our children, their children and the next 50 generations for a zero-empathy corporate state? Or shall we "occupy" this climate emergency instead of denying it -- until the urgent truth of our situation is acted upon?

Around the Web

Business Law Prof Blog: Occupy Climate Change

Occupy Climate (@OccupyClimate) on Twitter

#Occupy Climate Change | Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters

#Occupy and the #Climate Movement | 350.org

Occupy Climate | Facebook

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