Engaging With An Impermanent Earth
There’s a fundamental quality to life—Buddhists call it anicca, or, impermanence. Essentially, things are always arising and disappearing. Nothing is permanent. These changes arise and disappear according to karma, or, the idea of cause and effect, but we should be careful about applying a lens of morality or punishment around them because that’s not necessarily the context these ideas come from.
Especially in the West where we haven’t been taught to perceive things as intrinsically impermanent, we can hold a lot of baggage around change. These sorts of moral discussions around whether a given change is good or bad can be exciting and interesting, but they aren’t what I’m writing about today. Instead, I just want to start with a recognition that all of life is in a constant state of change. This idea has profound meaning for how we perceive climate change, and how we choose to engage with the social and ecological injustices of the world.
In answering this week’s Deepening Resilience prompt—What does your community need to do to prepare for climate change?—I believe the answer starts high level with our perception of the problem and approach to action. The little concrete steps that follow necessarily must be determined at a niche ecological level. And for folks nearby or in similar environments to me, I invite you to check out my other blog posts for more information on how I am engaging at this level too.
Earth is Impermanent, But Our Actions Have Consequences Too
So if all life is impermanent, does that mean climate change is natural?
No, not exactly. Climate change is ‘natural’ in the sense that our planet exists in constant transition. But these transitions don’t just arise out of ‘natural’ness, they are the effect of other inputs. With regards to this period’s ecological changes, it is a well-known and well-documented fact that climate change is driven by human inputs into the biosphere. Critically, this is different than assessing moral qualities to this experience where bad human behavior leads to change (which is also perceived as bad), and then by extension, good human behavior can lead to a cessation or reversal of change, which is perceived as good or desirable.
Our problem isn’t that the Earth is changing. Our problems are that humans are causing many unsustainable and destructive Earth changes, and that the vast majority of humanity and other life on this planet are unprepared to adapt to these changes at the necessary pace.
In the same way that all oppressive regimes are toppled, all pipelines leak, and all plants go to seed, our environment is impermanent. Change is a fundamental feature of existence. This matters in our responses to climate change, because very often we are caught up in this nostalgia for either an imagined past or one we lived through. For instance, when presented with the facts of agriculture’s impact on the planet, many of us want to just ‘go back’ to small family farms instead of global industrial operations. In this daydream, we misunderstand how the scale of our problem is proportionate to the demand, consumer lifestyle, and colonial-capitalist economics we have put into it. We position the problem as being supply-side only, and having nothing to do with our own inputs as individuals (we’ll come back to this). We position change as something bad to be reversed, rather than something neutral (although consequential) which we must adapt to.
We cannot go backwards. We can only move forward.
But this does not mean that our fate is sealed, or that we must passively accept the future arising before us.
The reality of an impermanent Earth runs contrary to some of the more fixed mythology we put around both it and the civilization we create over it. In this sense, addressing climate change through a lens of adaptation rather than domination can feel like submission, passivity, or failure. But this again is a distortion in our perception. Change is natural. The permanence of societies built on domestication, oppression, and exploitation is false. The seemingly unending realisms of the world’s injustices are false.
And we shatter the illusions of these forces by responding to them with the same perception needed now in this era of climate change. We remember our role in the future that arises tomorrow, and we take intentional actions to adapt to and change the world for the better.
Acting With Responsive Intention
There is a common nihilistic response to climate change which goes something like: what is the point? or, given our powerlessness in the face of nations and corporations driving climate change, why bother?
This is an understandable response because it is precisely what we are conditioned to believe. Think about how long human civilization has known about its impact on climate change and yet refused to make substantial changes. Even my generation, the millennials, for all our social consciousness didn’t straight up strike from school to demand action from world leaders as generation Z is doing. We find comfort in this kind of nihilism because it is the attitude we have grown comfortable in, sheltered by the shadow of generations chasing profit and status. It’s a learned powerlessness. And ultimately it is the safest choice we can make for the powers that be.
Inaction—whether out of science denialism or philosophical radicalism—does not remove us from the equations that create tomorrow. Inaction instead declines our power. It better permits other people—capitalists and world leaders—to act without resistance to their agenda.
When we scoff at vegans or at individuals engaged in plastic-free living, boycotts of goods obtained from slave labor, or other consumer-driven lifestyle changes, we are choosing to remain small and powerless. Sure, we can call it realistic if we’d like, but our thinking is still oriented around that one person as a singular, context-less instance relative to a much larger problem. In reality, our power together can move mountains. Presently, the Earth is even showing us that we can melt the ice caps, eradicate coastal cities, and make other parts of the world so intolerably hot that they are uninhabitable.
Just as we do not have to choose inaction and thus give our power away, we also do not have to use our collective power for the planet’s destruction. We have the agency to respond to the future arising with new intentions of our choosing.
The magnitude of this power is humbling, and perhaps even disorienting. It makes sense to fear being powerful, or to fear making the wrong choice. Here again, it is critical to remember the fundamental quality of impermanence. No one of us has power for a permanent time—not even the capitalists, not even world leaders. Likewise, no action of our choosing need be our only choice. To be intentional in our actions at this time is to be open and responsive to the way they affect the world. And in that knowledge, we can evaluate our past choice and discern better choices in the future. This flowing chaos is where existence happens.
In Buddhism, attachment is thought to generate suffering. And unfortunately, from nostalgia to pessimistic powerlessness, our responses to climate change are often attached to either a static perception of the Earth or a static perception of ourselves. Neither is fully accurate. This moment before us is unlike anything humanity has yet faced. We have an opportunity for deep healing of all life here just beyond our attachments to so much status quo.
Push through and reset to reality.
Whatever we choose to do in response to climate change, we should take from the magnitude of this moment that we individuals do have tremendous power and tremendous influence in the futures still coming.
This essay appears as part of the Deepening Resilience community blog project. Project coordinator Syren Nagakyrie and the project’s contributors are creating conversation on climate change and human responses to the issues our ecological crisis raises. Learn more or even submit your own thoughts at the blog project’s home page or Facebook group page.
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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.
Get connected with him via email to email@example.com