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Man on Fire

April 29, 2022

Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide, depression, and climate grief. 

On Earth Day 2022, 50-year-old Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the United States Supreme Court, apparently motivated by the climate crisis. He died the following day of his injuries. Members of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, where Bruce regularly attended events, responded to the controversy over his actions in a statement a few days later, as part of a tribute to their friend:

We have never talked about self-immolation, and we do not think it is a skillful protest. Nevertheless, given the dire state of the planet and worsening climate crisis, we can try to understand why someone might do that. While there has been self-immolation in Buddhist history to highlight atrocities committed against Tibetan and Vietnamese people, that is not something that we would ever encourage. We hope we can hear Wynn’s message without condoning his method.

Bruce’s self-immolation was not the first such act of climate—outcry? Protest? Rage? Sacrifice? I suspect and worry that it won’t be the last.

Four years ago, 60-year-old David Buckel, a long-time civil rights lawyer, community compost organizer, and environmental activist, who had also become a practitioner of Buddhism, ended his life in similar fashion and with apparently similar motivation, on a grassy spot in Brooklyn, New York. In a letter emailed to local media, friends, and loved ones explaining his actions, Buckel wrote: 

As an attorney, I worked eight years for others’ freedom from poverty, and thirteen years for others’ freedom from discrimination. But work for freedom fails as we slowly turn Earth into a prison.     Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather . . . .   Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.

According to The New York Times, that email was sent at 5:55am. “The first 911 call came at 6:08 a.m.: man on fire.” By the time emergency responders reached David, it was too late. 

If you can, I strongly encourage you to read the full article, which provides a glimpse into the life and impact of a man who had dedicated himself to the wellbeing of others and the planet. Post Carbon Institute also received permission from his widower to publish David’s full letter, which as far as I know has not been published elsewhere. We’ve shared it below. 

We made the difficult decision to write about Wynn and David, and to share David’s letter, because climate anxiety, climate grief, climate depression, climate anger, and climate desperation are as real as the climate crisis itself. And just like the climate crisis, they are likely to worsen. David and Wynn were middle-aged but if anything, anxiety, grief, and depression are disproportionately affecting young people. A recent survey of 10,000 16-25 year-olds in ten countries found that: 

Respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. More than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change (eg, 75% said that they think the future is frightening and 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet).

And who can blame them? 

Obviously, the most important thing we can do to address these feelings is to take immediate, drastic action to mitigate further climate system breakdown (along with the other dire environmental and societal systems undergoing unraveling). 

But there is also an acute need to shed light on the psychological and emotional toll that ecoanxiety and depression are taking on a growing number of us, to bring these feelings out into the open, and to provide people suffering from them with support and resources. Our friends at All We Can Save have thoughtfully compiled a few of these resources, including ways to find a therapist, peer support networks, retreats, and online resources. 

Letter from David Buckel (1957-2018)

a life giver

            Ending a life of privilege can give life to others.  Privilege usually comes in some way from others’ pain, whether intended or, more often, not.  The pain may be from exploitation, as is often true in the making of clothes and food crops, and our choice to buy such clothing or food supports the harm to exploited humans, animals, or the Earth.  That harm can live on through so many other choices we make, not just with what we wear and what we eat.  A life of privilege requires actions to balance the harm caused, and the greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility.  For if one does not leave behind a world better for having lived in it, all that remains are selfish ends, sometimes wrapped in family or nation.  When in history selfish ends are wrapped in nation, the noble young among us often serve as soldiers and return home knowing they were used wrongly, honor squandered, asking “what was it all for?”  Seldom are we more despicable than when we misuse honor.  Not so when the noble are needed for an honest defense against human aggression.  But more vast than human aggression is human selfishness, and against it a larger army of the noble must stand.

            For those of us with long lives of privilege, it is not enough to say we have lived for family or nation — that is still at the cost of other beings on the Earth or the Earth itself, to one degree or another, one family or nation at the cost of another family or nation.  Of a thousand consequences, one terrifying example of our times is the suicide vest — an instrument for life takers, to kill oneself as a way to kill others who are seen as exploiters.    

            Of course trying to make the world a better place does not mean that the world may in fact be a better place, but just better than it would have been had we not lived in it – sadly, as we live many other humans live and leave the world a worse place for having lived in it.  And for the honorable effort, it’s not enough to donate money to strike the balance.  Rarely can the money match the effect of privilege, and the recipient organizations who claim to reduce harm are subject to the same selfish human nature underlying the harm they seek to address — the human tendency toward comfort and its partner, exploitation.  That leads many groups (not all) to use the money more for their own salaries and benefits than to achieve their mission, and many groups’ leaders to see the work more as a matter of personal legacy than meaningful positive change for others.  Government can be similarly prey, choosing to help but losing the way, pulled along by human nature’s tilt toward selfishness.  

            Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help.  Endless bandaging does not stop future wounds.  Even victims, once harmed and then empowered — thus enabled to choose how to treat others less privileged — too often choose to exploit.  

            Thus the challenge for the privileged young is to navigate wisely and change course timely to stop future wounds, rather than be consumed by bandaging.  Find the path that helps lead humans toward unselfishness.  On that, many religions have failed, most obvious when religious groups harm each other, or most hidden when religious leaders build a bureaucracy to serve and protect themselves.  But many individuals have succeeded, most often in obscurity, and that is a reason for the privileged young to live and strive on in service to the less privileged.  There is no shame in privilege if it is used in service to those without privilege, and beware those who shame the privileged more to make themselves feel good than genuinely to work for and benefit others.         

            All sorts of actions may help strike a balance between anyone’s weight in privilege and corresponding weight in responsibility to others.  A quiet selflessness, strengthening community while diminishing one’s own negative impact, can help balance.  A loud selflessness, on a large stage, will likely over time tilt back toward the selfish.  The larger army of the noble tends to blend in, and ego stays in check.    

            It is likely necessary in the struggle toward balance to give it a lifetime, however much time is clocked for giving rather than taking.  But after long years of effort it may be clear that staying in the world is doing more harm than good because the balance can no longer be struck through to the natural end of one’s life, for one or some of a hundred reasons.  Just as it is not enough to live merely for family or nation, and not enough to give money, it may be not be enough to take as much responsibility as one can, day after day.  A lifetime of service may best be preserved by giving a life.  Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.

            This is not new, as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see.  Witness one example: self-immolations in support of a free Tibet, sometimes by parents forced to the heart-breaking conclusion that a parent dying creates more value for children than a parent living.  But those parents were not privileged. I am privileged, with a nice life at 60 years of age, and good health to the final moment.  Privilege is feeling heavier than responsibility met. 

            Obviously there are countless ways that humans harm other humans, animals, and the Earth, and thus countless causes to serve by giving a life.  I choose just one, not because I claim that it is more important, but because it happens to give me the courage I will need to die in the hope it is an honorable death that might serve others. As an attorney, I worked eight years for others’ freedom from poverty, and thirteen years for others’ freedom from discrimination.  But work for freedom fails as we slowly turn Earth into a prison.  Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather.   Some have already lost houses, family, and nations, a fate that waits for all as the decades pass.  We’re killing humans and other beings slowly by killing our shared home.  Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.  Our present grows more desperate; our future needs more than what we’ve been doing.  Although solutions lay partly in laws, no power will match that of individuals in large numbers who change their everyday choices and reduce the harm they cause.  Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded action, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard. 

David Buckel

If you or someone you know in the US is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.