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Activists’ Suicides Indicate a Wave of Climate “Doomerism” – Mother Jones
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Activists’ Suicides Indicate a Wave of Climate “Doomerism” – Mother Jones

Activists’ Suicides Indicate a Wave of Climate “Doomerism” – Mother Jones


Wynn Bruce vigil at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, April 29, 2022 Bryan Olin Dozier/AP

This story was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was breathtaking.This was a horrible act. A man, a climate activist, and Buddhist, set himself ablaze on the steps to the US supreme Court. He sat upright and didn’t immediately scream despite the agony. Police officers desperately plunged nearby orange traffic cones into the court’s marbled fountain and hurled water at him. It wasn’t enough to save him.

Wynn Bruce, 50, died in Boulder, Colorado. He was a photographer. “It was so upsetting,” April Lyons, a psychotherapist who knew Bruce from a therapeutic dance class they both took. “He was a solid person, a compassionate, kind person. We had no idea he’d do this.”

Bruce’s father, Douglas, said he was sure the self-immolation—on 22 April, which is Earth Day—was “a fearless act of compassion about his concern for the environment.” There is no explicit evidence of this, although Bruce had posted Add a fire emoji on Facebook along with the Earth Day date of his upcoming suicide.

Some believed the act was a sign that people are feeling the pain of the climate crisis. Bruce’s death felt hauntingly familiar.

Four years ago nearly to the exact date, David Buckel, a civil rights lawyer, walked to New York City’s Prospect Park early one morning, doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight. Unlike Bruce, Buckel, who was 60, left a two-page note emailed to media outlets minutes before his death stating that “my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

Bruce’s death “did make me think of what David did and also the incredible pain this sort of act causes the people who love them,” said Terry Kaelber, who was Buckel’s husband. They were both vegetarians and did their recycling diligently. Buckel, a keen composter, had become somewhat Get up and moving about environmental depredation. “You can never expect this, though,” said Kaelber. “My heart pours out to Wynn’s family.”

These deaths also sparked frustration at the fact that such horrible acts are not only considered but also have an ephemeral effect when they do happen. Kaelber said that after the flowers of condolence were cleared from near the scorched grass of Prospect Park, some climate activists took to wearing red ribbons to remind others of Buckel’s sacrifice. However, this too faded quickly.

“We have no leaders on this issue, none, no one,” Kaelber said. “So I get the despair people have, but the answer isn’t to do what they did. They could’ve had more impact joining with people who are driving for change. Imagine Wynn having chained himself with 100 Buddhists to the Supreme Court gates.

“They think doing this will galvanize people, and maybe it will a few people, but my first thought with Wynn was that no one on the Supreme Court will care. It will be a passing fad in the media. It’s tragic.”

Few people are motivated to self-harm by the climate crisis.

Climate activists marched in large numbers, joined divestment programs, glued their feet to the roads, and tied themselves to oil drilling equipment. “It’s just so clear to me that I have to take this stand,” said Peter Kalmus, a Nasa climate scientist as he handcuffed himself to a JPMorgan Chase building during a protest in Los Angeles last month. “We are heading towards fucking catastrophe—we are going to lose everything.”

Most of us worry about climate change discreetly, however. Studies Have been shown that while alarm over worsening wildfires, droughts, flooding and societal unrest is on the rise, not many of us talk about climate angst with others, to avoid political arguments or simply avoid bringing down the mood.

Those who do speak out are often younger activists—Research has shown that half of people between 16 and 25 years old believe the Earth may be doomed, while Three quarters of respondents feel anxious when they think or hear about climate change. Some people openly discuss climate change. Not wanting to bring your children into a hotter, more harsher world.

“Living in climate truth is like living in a nightmare. It’s absolutely horrible and I can understand why the vast majority of Americans don’t do it,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist turned climate activist. “But the worst part is that everyone’s acting normal—it’s like we are zombies. The sense of helplessness and hopelessness is holding back conversations and political action.”

Salamon leads an organization, called the Climate Awakening, that facilitates “climate emotions conversations” both in-person and virtually that encourage people to open up about their climate fears. Salamon said many describe living in a nightmare of unimaginable horrors where a clear catastrophe is occurring, but society blithely ignores.

“Some people have described it as like they are at a funeral but everyone else is treating it like a party,” said Salamon. “People are still going to college, planning for retirement, doing all the things as if the future will look just like the past when we know that’s not true. There’s a delusion of normalcy.”

There are regular attempts to jolt us free from political inertia, whether that’s the increasingly exasperated Excoriations of the Swedish school striker turned movement leader Greta Thunberg, the soaring success of the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, which satirized the blase attitude of politicians and the media toward scientific warnings, or the increasingly frantic pronouncements of António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, who has said continuing use of fossil fuels is “madness” and the work of “dangerous radicals.”

This desire to shake people from a pall of complacency may have also motivated Bruce and Buckel, although Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, cautions it’s risky to assume the full motivations behind a suicide. As social creatures who feed off each other’s cues, however, we are all affected by what Clayton calls “collective ignorance.”

“If there’s a fire and we look around us and see no one is doing anything, you can feel you are also expected to do nothing, not realizing that other people are looking to you for the same reason,” she said. “There’s this sense that people around us are not only doing nothing about this problem, but not even acting like it’s important.”

Despite all the efforts of activists and government promises to limit dangerous global warming, carbon emissions continue to rise despite all their efforts. Global leapt last yea as we reverted back to the polluting status quo before Covid lockdowns. Wildfires now All year long, a threat to the US west. On FridayIt reached 124F in Pakistan while India has baked in record heat, resulting in dozens of deaths and birds being endangered. Falling from the sky.

The UN has Warned that a broken perception of risk based on “optimism, underestimation and invincibility” is fueling such disasters. Companies that produce oil and gas are Planned, unhindered, a massive tranche of “carbon bomb” drilling Projekte that will propel us firmly towards climate catastrophe.

There is much to be anxious of, but some climate scientists argue we cannot let a wave of “doomerism” become paralyzing. There is still hope that concerted actions will prevent the worst and that momentum is building towards a cleaner, more sustainable world. Clayton stated that activism can be a release valve for climate concerns. It can help to confront the problem and provide a forum to talk to others with similar concerns.

“Climate doomerism can be harmful, because it robs us of agency, the agency we still have in determining our future,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University. “I fear that doomism and defeatism leads us down the path of inaction, or worse.”

“It would be much better for folks to channel those emotions toward the common goal of speaking truth to power and holding our policymakers accountable for addressing the mounting climate crisis.”

Two memorials were held last week for Wynn, one in Boulder and one Minnesota. His father still lives in Minnesota. Many people spoke of his kindnesses and friendship. Instead of digging into his motivations, the media quickly moved on to other topics and had only noted the manner in which he died. The planet continued to heat up.

“I don’t believe David or Wynn’s acts will drive change but maybe I’m wrong, and God bless them if it does,” said Kaelber. “But it really is no way to do things. There is a better way.”

Call the United States for help if you are experiencing a mental health emergency. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255—Online chat is also possible—or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.


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