By Zen priest and Climate scientist Kritee (Kanko), Ph.D.

(Working draft based on invited talk during the “Interfaith Reflections on Just Transitions: Linking Climate and Economic Justice” event organized by World Council of Churches in Bangladesh in January 2019.)

I am very grateful to the organizers for inviting me to offer a Zen Buddhist perspective today. To set the context, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report issued three months ago warns that unless humanity halves net carbon emissions by 2030, and end them by 2050, we face a global catastrophe. Net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 require “rapid and far-reaching transitions that are …unprecedented in terms of scale…” (*see examples of nearly impossible transitions needed in the footnote). 

But each desired transition raises a question: who is suffering right now (hint: poor people of global majority), who will pay (Hint: Rich nations and people aren’t paying), whose interests will suffer, who will mandate the change, and are the ambitions consistent with democracy?“

Essentially, “just transition” advocates are asking, “How do we make the changes required to avert climate catastrophe in a way that is democratic and the poorest and the racially marginalized are not the ones to suffer the most.” In my remarks today, I will touch upon two of the three guiding questions for this gathering, which are: “what are the ethical, moral and spiritual undergirdings of just transitions?” and “how can we as faith communities contribute in practical and concrete ways; and what resources do we have to empower transformation?”

Dr. Najma Mohammed, in representing International Labour Organization (ILO), has just elegantly explained to us how at least a quarter of the current human population on the planet is facing an “existential crisis”. Ongoing climate emergency is worsening this existential crisis; I will, however, explain in a moment why changing planetary ecology is not the primary cause of this crisis.

Dr. Mohammed, an environmental scientist herself, has given us facts vetted by ILO: globally, around a billion people live below $2 daily income. And a total of over 2 billion people work in informal sectors and have no work contract with their employers. These people and their families struggle every day to make their ends meet. One sickness, birth or death, one leaking roof due to extreme rainfall event or one failed crop due to a drought year can throw them into existential crisis. They are currently facing what privileged Euro-centric world is afraid to face in the future: migration due to lack of water, food, jobs and/or fundamental physical safety. Do you see why I say they are currently facing existential crisis? (For further reading, my friend Mary Heglar beautifully explains why Climate isn’t the first existential crisis here and one of the cofounders of Extinction rebellion (XR) explains why XR is fundamentally not about climate here.)

Dr. Mohammed has argued that creating regenerative economies that will allow “just transition” will require a fundamental redistribution of power. I will offer just one statistic to make a point about how extreme the current distribution of power is: In 2017 alone, 44 human beings inherited $190 billion. To put this in context, Paris agreement promised $100 billion for climate adaptation to countries who are facing environmental disasters due to climate crisis but the developed world raised only $2.7 billion for this purpose in 2017.

So, like everyone present here, I do not believe at all that we can deal with the current existential crisis faced by a third of humanity AFTER we have tackled climate induced-crisis. We need an integrated approach that makes enormous changes while distributing power and avoids climate apartheid. The central question I will wrestle with today is: what kind of heart-minds and communities are faith traditions going to help create that can enable power redistribution? I will also pose the question to the leaders of faith traditions: are we willing to change ourselves and our communities as a part of just transition?

At the deepest level, I trust that “just transition” will require working through “systems of separation” or what is more commonly referred to as “systems of oppression”. I’m going to spend some time to explain what I mean by “systems of separation”. I will offer how I think Buddhism or spirituality in general deal with the issue of “separation”. I will end with some practical questions that I’m wrestling with to be able to compost the systems of separation into systems of non-separation in my own life.

In my view, the phrase “systems of separation/oppression” is interchangeable with the phrases like systems of domination, hierarchy or superiority. These systems are myths that breed themselves such that one group of living beings is permanently separate, more normal, superior and/or powerful, and as a result have the right to dominate over another set of living beings. For example, teachers have power over students. Men are superior than women and should control the decision-making process for everyone. Humans have power over and can systematically steer and exploit other non-human animals and ecosystems which are home to millions of other kinds of life forms. Heterosexual people are more normal than gender conforming people. In India, upper castes have the divine right to dominate dalits and other lower castes. In Iran, Shias dominate over Sunni muslims.

By Kenyan artist Jim Chuchu

And then there are two potentially most crucial and interconnected systems of oppression: White people of European descent have power and supremacy over black, brown, yellow and indigenous people all over the world. In the U.S., white families own 10-20 times more assets than Black or Latino families. Globally speaking, this racial domination and associated neoliberal economic systems has helped in most cases white folks to amass enormous wealth, steal land and enslave people for hundreds of years. Top three wealthiest human beings in the world own more wealth than bottom 50% of the population. We systematically and legally guard the concentration of power and money with militarization – both domestic and international.

We may have made progress on some fronts in parts of the world (e.g., marriage equality in the U.S), in general we take these systems of domination to be a given. Our hearts and minds have gotten used to the paradigm that one human being can and should have control over “other”. This is our default. This status quo value system of wanting and compulsively needing to dominate (even if not oppress) others has infected all parts of our psyche.

Now let us contrast the default with what I feel we can and must learn from our faith traditions. In Zen Buddhism, there is no notion of God. Buddha was a human being. Through meditation and other transforming disciplined practices, Buddhists aspire to reach states of heart-mind that Buddha embodied (the human being). These states of heart-mind bring Buddhists close to “the reality as it is”. When one sees the reality as it is, there is no individual human being. No separate entity. There is what is called Interdependent co-arising. I am you. You are me. I am a monarch butterfly that is going extinct, the black woman five generations of whose family were lynched and hung on a tree, and also Hitler and present days fascists. All is me. Richest and the poorest. We are inter-us. These states of mind bring simplicity, contentment & compassion. Buddhists frequently say “Separation is a myth”.

It is important to note that while Buddhism has devised many skillful practices to deal with the myth of separation in the consciousness of an individual practitioner, it has only just begun to grapple with systems of oppression. An individual cannot beat a system. To beat one system, it will require another system. We certainly cannot win systems of oppression with new systems of oppression. Systems of oppression or separation require systems of non-separation or systems of non-duality. Opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy where women are more powerful than men but rather deep equality and solidarity. We are used to systems of oppression that we have forgotten how to systematically live in a way that is not-separate.

Over time, I have come to respect that unless the wealth accumulated by the proverbial upper class white man is consciously moved/transferred from those who have been marginalized in multiple intersectional ways, neither just transition nor societal healing will be possible. In other words, the top down hierarchical systems that are rooted in oppression systems need to make way for systems/institutions that are rooted in compassion and sacred care of all beings (e.g., worker co-ops without big income inequality baked into salaries).

While we do need strategic and well-designed plans to redesign our economies, the role of spiritual, moral and faith-leaders has to lie in changing our hearts and changing our values away from the status quo systems of domination, and towards systems that embody genuine solidarity, inter-dependence and friendship. The legal arrangements for redistribution of power Dr. Najma was talking about will not be honored without the change of hearts – both in the oppressed and the oppressor. We definitely need to talk about how much spiritual harm and vicarious trauma is faced by those who apparently benefit from systems of oppression (e.g., white upper class people) due to concentration of money and power.

I trust that guided by our theology and spiritual realization, faith based institutes can help our society break the tyranny of domination based culture. But before faith institutions can guide the larger society, the congregations, sanghas and communities might have to change ourselves. What do I mean? I made a new friend recently, Lynice Pinkard. She is an African American pastor, orator par excellence and writer. In her brilliant essay called Revolutionary Suicide, she challenges us as individuals and institutions to understand our own relationship with the systems  of oppression. She asks, “To what extent does any one of us identify with the forces of domination and participate in relations that reinforce that domination and the exploitation that goes with it? In what ways and to what extent are we wedded to our own upward mobility, financial security, good reputation, and ability to “win friends and influence people” in positions of power? Or conversely, do we identify (by putting our lives on the line) with efforts to reverse patterns of domination, empower people on the margins (even when we are not on the margins ourselves), and seek healthy, sustainable relations?” She argues that this want for upward mobility is killing us spiritually. It is like we all know that the tree of this civilization is rotting but we still want to climb to the top!

I trust that all people of faith can stand their ground, standing up in full integrity of what we know, and put their lives on the line to help heal our civilization. Even when we are not ready to put our lives on the line, we can ask many important questions:

— Who is in our sangha? Even if our sanghas are not diverse, do we have relationships with black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC)? Having these relationships often means facing the racial trauma lodged in the bodies of everyone involved. (I am indebted to the systematic exploration of racial trauma for all races by Resmaa Menakem in his seminal book My grandmother’s hands. He explains how white people carry trauma of having suffered brutality of European wars and criminal justice system as well as the vicarious trauma of having watched BIPOC suffer due to white supremacy. BIPOC (and also lower class white people) have had the trauma of having watched their needs trampled over by supremacy of cultures and economic systems which are decided in rooms where they don’t have a presence and/or say.)

— Whose donations are we accepting to build our sangha? Are we more invested in building large Buddhist temples, synagogues, mosques, cathedrals, or are we open to directing the money to building movements and transferring power and money to the frontline communities?

— Are we divesting from pathways that concentrate power and then investing in those that redistribute power. How can we share power? How can we break the status quo systems of domination within our sangha/community?

— Are we making more than medium income of our county? Why do we want to have a standard of living different from most of the people in our state or country?

— Could we hire the most marginalized? What do we have to learn to be able to hire and retain the most marginalized?

These are not easy questions. I asked several more in an article written two years ago. I wrestle with all of them myself: I face the fear of letting go of my own privilege, wealth and assets. I do feel in alignment with the values that are dearest to me when I don’t suppress these questions but I certainly don’t have all the answers. I have to forgive myself for not having enough courage today but I am committed to keep asking these questions.

I have found friends who are asking similar questions by being involved in the formation of a new direct action network at the intersection of climate justice and racial healing. It is called “Yet to be named network”. While the details of this spiritually-rooted decentralized network are still being worked upon, here is an older template of our values and practices.

Will you also join me in asking these questions? Because when we ask these questions together, all of us could walk farther and more easily than I will ever be able to do with just one human body.

* I quote Andreas Malm and Paul Mason here: “At a minimum, we should: stop building carbon-burning power plants; shut the existing ones down; end the expansion of air, sea and road travel and introduce a rationing system for transport; expand mass transit systems; switch urgently to locally grown food; dismantle the meat industry and switch to plant-based proteins; and pour money into carbon removal technologies.