Sam Mickey

Climate is not just a statistical average of interlocking dynamics of temperature, wind, air pressure, humidity, and precipitation. A changing climate involves more than a change in a long-term average pattern of atmospheric conditions. As the climate scientist Mike Hulme puts it, climate change as a planetary system of dynamic, interconnected weather patterns is a part of a more complex whole, and not only in the sense that the global climate is connected to all the systems of water, land, air, and life on Earth. More than saying that climate change is about the whole Earth and not just the atmosphere, Hulme’s point is that climate exceeds the limits of definitions articulated in the natural sciences, and that a wider field of inquiry is needed, which includes cultural meanings and understandings of climate along with theories and observations from natural sciences.[1]

In the same way that an atmosphere can refer, on one hand, to a mood, and on the other hand, to a system of gases surrounding a planet, a climate has physical and sociocultural dimensions. As part of a whole, Hulme describes climate change as a synecdoche that stands for 1) a modern social system, 2) an economic ideology, 3) a loss of nature, and 4) a new geological epoch.[2] For Hulme, that social system is best described by Ulrich Beck’s analysis of the “risk society” of modernity, which is based on the management of hazards and uncertainties that society produces through its never-ending pursuit of progress and wealth.[3] Hulme follows Naomi Klein in identifying capitalism as the economic ideology of climate change.[4] It is an ideology for which the accumulation of wealth for the few happens at the expense of the many, thus producing social and ecological disasters, which then become justification for the further deployment of capitalist tactics, producing yet further disasters in an accelerating loop of what Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”[5] Liberalism and conservatism are both complicit in disaster capitalism. The liberal face of this ideology is the identity politics that incorporates people of diverse identities (races, ages, abilities, genders, etc.) to participate in the system, as if bringing more people closer to the wealthy top will eventuate in justice for the myriad beings at the disastrously impoverished bottom.

Along with the risk society and capitalist ideology, Hulme’s definition of climate change also includes the end of nature, which has been a topic of increasingly frequent discussion among environmental thinkers, with notable contributions like Carolyn Merchant’s classic ecofeminist text, The Death of Nature, and Bill McKibben’s book on climate change, The End of Nature, which were first published in 1980 and 1989 respectively. Many recent explorations of this topic refer to Timothy Morton’s theory of ecological criticism in his 2007 book Ecology without Nature. Climate change is part of the loss of the relatively regular, stable, ordered ground of nature, which is also a loss of ideas and fantasies of Nature as a big Other, whether friend or foe, sacred or profane. The regular patterns and ordered systems of nature have gradually become displaced as humans have extended their environmental impacts all around the planet, becoming an Earth-shaping force. The loss of nature is thus entwined with a new geological epoch.

As modern humans began adding high amounts of carbon, plutonium, plastic, Styrofoam, and a wide assortment of artificial chemicals to Earth’s crust, the geological epoch of the last 12,000 years (the Holocene) gave way to a new one that bares the indelible stamp of Homo sapiens, the Anthropocene. It is a controversial name, to be sure. It is not clear if this is indeed a new epoch or merely a boundary event between epochs. Furthermore, humans did not all participate equally in facilitating this geological transformation. Humans in WEIRD social locations (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) seem particularly responsible, yet that specificity is erased by the general humanity of Anthropos. The problem of nomenclature notwithstanding, the loss of nature marks the end of a natural Earth and the beginning of an Earth where the natural and the artificial have imploded. It is an Earth become artifact, “Eaarth,” as McKibben puts it. In sum, along with a change in average atmospheric conditions, climate change also stands for the end of nature, a change in geological epochs, and a society that, for the sake of progress and wealth accumulation, is willing to risk unprecedented scales of destructive change.[6]

With its sociocultural and biophysical dimensions overlapping in cause-effect cycles that extend from humans through the land, life, air, and water of Earth, climate change can be understood as a change in karma—the Sanskrit word for “action,” denoting a cause-effect principle found in Hinduis, Jainism, Indian philosophies (e.g., Vedanta, Yoga, Jainism, and Buddhism). Karma includes all the cause-effect dynamics of all energy (psychological and physical) circulating on Earth and throughout the cosmos. Consider these remarks from the Tibetan Buddhist, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

All the processes that take place in the universe are dependent on the environmental situation of karma. It is rather like the atmosphere that the planet requires in order to function, in order for things to grow. When we talk about the karmic situation, we are speaking about the sense of individual relationship to the given situation, whatever it is. Any given situation is bounded by cause and effect, dependent on some cause and effect. […] So, altogether when we discuss karma, we are discussing energy.[7]

Karma includes enlightened action, such as the activity of the Buddha, as well as the action of one caught in samsara—the cycle of confusion, suffering, and rebirth. The difference is duality. In the samsaric condition, karma is “energy that moves from here to there and then bounces back,” which is “the definition of duality,” more specifically, it is “duality in the sense of the neurosis of dualistic fixation.”[8] Enlightened energy undoes the dualistic fixation through compassion.

The duality that separates self from other, or human from nonhuman, brings suffering into our karmic atmosphere. That dualistic fixation is driving many of the systems causing the climate crisis, such as processes of globalization, industrialization, capitalism, and technoscience. What if too much carbon in the atmosphere is caused by too much dualism in our karma? Can compassion help us escape this crisis? Not really. The desire to escape is the neurotic dualism that separates me from my situation. Looking for something to do to ensure a safe escape from ecological crisis is the very fixation driving the crisis. However, this does not mean that we should try to escape from our tendency to escape. That is obviously just more of the same problem, more of the same neurotic fixation.

What if efforts to get out of the ecological crisis were preventing us from getting out of ecological crisis? It is like a Chinese finger trap—a puzzle that you play with by putting a finger from one hand in one end of a small, finger-sized tube, and putting a finger from the other hand in the other end. Once your fingers are inside, you cannot pull them out without the trap tightening around your fingers and thus further entrenching you in the trap. To continue struggling against the trap is the dualistic fixation of the self who is opposed to the other, the fixation of humankind struggling against intimacy with nonhumans. The only way out is through—to let go, to release the fixation, to go with the flow. Samsaric energy mutates into compassion. If you let your fingers move further into the trap, the trap relaxes its grip and you can effortlessly free your fingers. Liberation comes from accepting the trap, letting beings be.

            A compassionate response to the climate crisis does not mean that you have to worry yourself with obsessive questioning, “What should I do?” It means letting things be, letting yourself be in unbearably intimate relations with nonhumans, letting samsaric energy mutate. It means trusting the process of letting things be, trusting your solidarity with nonhumans, and accepting imperfection. We all make mistakes. Striving to escape that basic impurity only intensifies samsaric energy but does not let it transform. Rather than micromanaging your life or giving constant attention to every single problem, compassionate action lets things be. The courage to be compassionate constitutes a mutation of the karma driving the climate crisis. Chögyam Trungpa puts it simply: “Part of compassion is trust. If something positive is happening, you don’t have to check up on it all the time. The more you check up, the more possibilities there are of interrupting the growth. It requires fearlessness to let things be.”[9]


[1] Mike Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2017), xiii.

[2] Mike Hulme, “(Still) Disagreeing About Climate Change: Which Way Forward?” Zygon 50.4 (2015), 897-899.

[3] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1992).

[4] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[5] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (London: Picador, 2007).

[6] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010).

[7] Chögyam Trungpa, The Future Is Open: Good Karma, Bad Karma, and Beyond Karma (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2018), 3

[8] Ibid., 3-4.

[9] Chögyam Trungpa, Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends with Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awareness (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2015), 56.

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