Please, let's not set ourselves on fire like Wynn Alan Bruce. But more of us need to take extraordinary measures to confront the extraordinary crisis of climate change.
Wynn Alan Bruce reached the point where he felt he had nothing left to burn. So he set himself on fire.
Since learning of this man’s self-immolation on Earth Day, I can’t shake the mental picture of him sitting in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, dying in unimaginable pain, his flesh consumed by flames he himself ignited.
How could someone do this to himself? Why?
The answer, best I can tell from media accounts, was that he was passionately committed to fighting climate change and despairing over the world’s inability and unwillingness to mount a response appropriate to the enormity of the crisis. It was not suicide so much as a statement or protest, an act of extreme self-sacrifice to dramatize the threat and jar people into facing it squarely.
In doing so, Bruce—who identified as Buddhist—follows in a tradition seared into public memory by the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc during the Vietnam War. In a stunning act captured in an iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by journalist Malcolm Browne, Quang Duc self-immolated at a busy Saigon intersection in 1963. His intent was to protest the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists.
As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of Quang Duc’s death, “The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest … To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity.”
In the days since Bruce’s death, the Buddhist community in the U.S. has been speaking respectfully about his life and sacrifice while being careful not to encourage imitation. In that I am with them, 100 percent.
But I want more of us to do something.
Last week, I received a series of news releases from the group Extinction Rebellion reporting on the non-lethal forms of protest in which its activists were engaging on and around Earth Day. At the conclusion of a mass march in New York the group blocked traffic on 6th Avenue and unfurled banners that shouted truths like “It’s time to wake up!” During this “Spring Rebellion” campaign, the group occupied Citigroup’s corporate headquarters and impeded the distribution of major newspapers by blocking the roads in and out of the New York Times‘ College Point Printing Plant, among other acts of civil disobedience.
Extinction Rebellion activists are known for gluing their bodies to stationary objects in spaces they occupy in protest—a method employed by animal-rights activists during the current NBA playoff series between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves. Protesting the agri-business practices of Minnesota owner Glen Taylor, an activist named Alicia Santurio attempted to glue herself to the Timberwolves’ floor during one game. During one of the series’ games in Memphis, another activist chained herself to the basket.
If right-wingers were taking these actions to dramatize right-wing causes, I would think they were annoyances and fools. But especially when such disruptions are focused on the climate emergency, my sympathies are with the protesters. And I wonder, “Why the hell am I not there with them? Why aren’t more of us going to extremes to call attention to an extreme threat to our planet?”
As I have written elsewhere, the way we compartmentalize our climate dread is a strange feature of life today. I get it. It’s something we must do as we fulfill our duties to our families and employers, as we do our best to get through the day. Yet however necessary it might be, our compartmentalizing reinforces a business-as-usual complacency that blocks the dramatic action that is so urgently needed.
In one of their best songs, “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” the indie-pop group Stars declares, “When there’s nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire.” I’ve learned while writing this column that it’s singer Torquil Campbell’s father who voices the dramatic line on the record. I choose to interpret it not as a call to literal self-immolation but as a summons to do something dramatic, outside of business as usual, when the situation is dire, the proverbial chips are down, and no one else is doing anything.
Let’s not set ourselves on fire. But, yes, please, let’s glue ourselves to something, literally or figuratively. Let’s block traffic, in the real or metaphorical sense. Let’s chain ourselves to baskets on NBA courts or whatever they symbolize for us. Let’s do things that are out of the ordinary and commensurate with the stakes.
Because what needs to be said right now is, to use Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, of the very utmost importance.