The surprising antidote to climate despair
Picking up from last week’s newsletter about eco-anxiety, I thought I’d share an insight from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche — the antidote to climate despair, he says, isn’t necessarily finding hope but generating gratitude.
There’s a real paradox in that answer and it’s one I’ve been wrestling with ever since I sat down with him on a visit to Canada. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” If we’re living with dread about the ravages of climate change, if we’re attuned to the destruction of the living world around us, isn’t an effort towards gratitude a denial of reality? At best, a type of mental trickery? Maybe just some New Age psychobabble?
But you can’t accuse the Tibetan meditation masters of gurgling untempered platitudes. The compassion and joy they exude is so impressive precisely because they have survived tremendous violence and misery — the invasion and genocidal occupation, desperate escapes across the Himalayas. Tibet may have fallen from headlines but the Chinese Communist Party’s police state (one million Tibetan children in residential schools) continues to this day.
Advice from the lamas comes with vivid awareness of suffering and humanity’s potential for destruction. And Mingyur Rinpoche is extraordinary even among Tibetan teachers. Suffering from panic attacks as a child, he began meditation training at age 11, wrote several books, founded an international network of meditation groups and was put in charge of a series of monasteries. And then, one night he disappeared.
He spent four and a half years wandering incognito, begging for food on the streets of India and training his mind in caves below the melting Himalayan glaciers. I was eager to ask Mingyur Rinpoche what he’s learned about coping through catastrophe.
The real mental trickery, he said, arises from our mind’s tendency to fixate. Show the mind nine wonderful things and it will fixate on the 10th if that one’s negative. “All or none thinking becomes stronger and stronger in extreme crises.”
And so, it requires a deliberate effort to achieve any clarity and move forward making good decisions uncoloured by confusion and distress. The antidote he prescribes is the conscious cultivation of appreciation and gratitude. The traditional Tibetan practice apparently consists of collecting small white stones and moving one for every positive thought or feeling that arises — a way of making the ephemeral tangible.
Mingyur Rinpoche suggests an updated version of the exercise: keeping a gratitude journal. “Write down five things every day,” he recommends. It doesn’t matter what scale but he recommends appreciating small things, especially at the start.
But there’s no reason not to appreciate bigger items, too. His own list includes humanity’s collective action against the ozone hole — a possible prototype for broader action to defend our precious planet.
“Slowly, slowly you will make new connections in your body,” says Mingyur Rinpoche. “You will make neuronal connections and your brain will change.”
He’s not spewing pseudoscience here. One thing I left out of the mini-bio is that, before and since his wandering retreat, Mingyur Rinpoche has been collaborating with neuroscientists and psychologists, even acting as a test subject for studies scanning the brains of advanced meditators at the University of Wisconsin. As the neuroscientists say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
A gratitude journal can be one practice among several in cultivating gratitude. But however you proceed, “Don’t let your mind stick too tight on results,” he emphasizes, echoing millennia of Buddhist teachings.
“Let go, but don’t give up.”
Solid advice, whether we’re connecting inwards to transform ourselves or connecting outwards to transform the world.
After emerging from his wandering retreat, Mingyur Rinpoche published an unusually candid book about a near-death experience and the lessons he learned. He called it In Love with the World: A Monk's Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying.
That love for the world is something he clearly wanted to communicate to people grappling with climate anxiety. By cultivating a mind of appreciation and gratitude, we cultivate balance and clarity. And, as those neuronal connections strengthen, Mingyur Rinpoche says we’ll discover for ourselves that “if you love the world, the world loves you back.”
You’ve probably heard several variations on the saying, we protect what we love. Jacques Cousteau had a version and it’s often attributed to the Senegalese forester Baba Dioum who gave a famous speech to the UN General Assembly in 1968 declaring: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love.”
There’s a concerted effort underway to inject more of that approach into climate activism. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson pulled together essays by an amazing group of 60 women in their 2022 anthology, All We Can Save. That book catalyzed the ongoing All We Can Save Project and its All We Can Save Circles — “like a book club, but a cooler, deeper, extended version.”
There’s an annual Show the Love campaign in the U.K. run by the Climate Coalition. It was a dramatic shift in climate messaging when it first launched in 2014. After testing a series of possible messages, “the ‘things we love’ theme clearly emerged as the strongest overall message, and for conservatives, the only effective message.”
The Show the Love campaign rolled out based on a positive narrative of shared values and identity and the common experience of love and care. One notable result has been an influx of conservative organizations joining the Climate Coalition and similar campaigns have been picked up by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in the U.S.
One Canadian example is the Harm to Harmony Project, “a collaborative climate action art project” held in New Brunswick every year. If you’re an artist interested in exploring “a relational perspective to the natural world,” I’m afraid you’ve just missed the deadline to apply for funding and mentorship (but maybe if you show them some love, they’ll love you back).
The price of a pipeline
Trans Mountain hiked its estimate for the TMX pipeline expansion yet again. The taxpayer-owned project is now expected to cost $30.9 billion (the original forecast was $5.4 billion).
“It was always a disaster from a climate change perspective,” said Greenpeace Canada senior energy strategist Keith Stewart. “But this is now an economic crime that has stolen $30 billion of public funds from real climate solutions."
For that kind of price, Canada could build the “energy corridor of the future” — high-voltage direct current (HVDC) electricity transmission nationwide, calculates Michael Barnard in CleanTechnica.
“Canada could have had a massive 10 to 15 GW HVDC line linking Canadian provinces and linking down into the U.S. in multiple points to bring clean, renewable energy from wherever it happened to be in surplus to wherever it happened to be in demand.”
As a bonus, the transmission system “could run along the rail lines as part of an overhead catenary electrification of rail as a strategic national initiative, decarbonizing and eliminating noise and pollution from that key transportation segment.”
The toxic spills from Imperial Oil’s operations and months-long silence from the company and the Alberta regulator have revealed serious flaws in how Canada and Alberta look after communities and the environment.
"We have never taken this issue seriously," said Martin Olszynski, a law professor at the University of Calgary.
It’s “outrageous breach of trust” and “Canada should come down like a ton of bricks” on the offenders, writes Adrienne Tanner.
“A hundred Greta Thunbergs couldn’t do the sort of damage to the Alberta oil and gas industry’s reputation that it keeps doing to itself,” argues Max Fawcett.
Complaint filed against oilsands alliance
The Pathways Alliance (the six largest oilsands companies) has been advertising across social media, buying up billboards and airtime during events like the FIFA World Cup and the Super Bowl, as well as pages in some of Canada’s largest media outlets like the Toronto Star and CBC, claiming to be “on a path to net zero.”
Greenpeace Canada has filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau since the oilsands companies’ emissions are actually rising.
No more subsidies for carbon capture
One goal of all the advertising is to secure more subsidies for carbon capture. Industry argues it has to compete with U.S. incentives. But a new study by the Canadian Climate Institute and the Pembina Institute finds “no further government support is needed once key policy pieces like the (Investment Tax Credit) are finalized.”
Biden approves Alaska drilling
After months of controversy, the Biden administration approved a massive oil development in northern Alaska. ConocoPhillips’ Willow project “commits the U.S. to yet another decades-long crude project even as scientists urgently warn that only a halt to more fossil fuel emissions can stem climate change,” reports The Associated Press.
Biden campaigned against any new drilling on federal lands (“no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”) but softened that stance in office, particularly during negotiations over last year’s climate bill, agreeing to new oil and gas leases to win the support of Sen. Joe Manchin.
More LNG for B.C.?
The Haisla First Nation got a provincial environmental certificate to build a floating liquefied natural gas facility this week.
The Cedar LNG project still needs an impact assessment and other authorizations. The province approved the environmental certificate on the same day the B.C. government released a new energy action framework that says new oil and gas projects must fit within the province’s climate commitments. Premier David Eby said the province will impose an emissions cap on the industry and launch a task force within BC Hydro to accelerate electrification of the provincial economy.
LNG companies demand compensation
Two companies are demanding US$20 billion from the Canadian government after Quebec and the feds quashed proposals for an LNG terminal and pipeline in Saguenay, Que.
The companies filed their demand with the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, citing both NAFTA and the more recent Canada-US-Mexico Agreement.
EU agrees to push for fossil fuel phaseout
“EU countries have agreed to ‘systematically’ call for a global phaseout of fossil fuels as they prepare for this year’s UN climate talks in Dubai,” reports Climate Home News.
Volkswagen picks Ontario for batteries
Volkswagen announced it has chosen St. Thomas, Ont., as the location for a “gigafactory” — its first EV battery factory outside Europe, reports Adam Radwanski in the Globe and Mail.