Book Review: ‘The Burning House: a Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency’ by Shantigarbha, Windhorse publications, 2021
The Burning House is the second book by Shantigarbha, a Buddhist and self-described activist.1 He introduces the book as his witness statement and response to the alleged climate and ecological emergency. The reader is promised practical ways to ‘work with doubt, overwhelm, grief and anger; engage with the science of the climate debates; free oneself to align with life; and act with courage, humour and generosity’. These are important themes and sincere offerings, as I can vouch, knowing the author.
Shantigarbha takes us on a journey from ‘ignoring the reports of an emergency, to coming to terms with the science, to making connections with Buddhist values of wisdom, compassion, and interconnectedness, to recognising the social justice implications of the climate and ecological emergency’. Along the way, readers are invited to strengthen their connection with the earth, participate in some humour, transform their anger, acknowledge their grief and celebrate their gratitude to the earth. The book is faithful to this choreography as the themes unfold.
Written with eco-activists in mind, and offering practical suggestions for avoiding burnout, Shantigarbha goes as far as to suggest, ‘if you are following the Buddhist path, I’m guessing that you’re looking for ways to make the climate and ecological emergency part of your practice.’ He guesses wrongly in my own case, but nevertheless, I decided to read the book for three reasons.
Firstly, I’m open to education. I have a longstanding interest in wise policymaking, and Shantigarbha clearly discerns a problem. He is enthusiastic about a UK activist group called Extinction Rebellion, which exerts pressure on the public and policymakers through disruptive and illegal actions. They feature throughout the book, with several vignettes of Shantigarbha’s proxy support for them. He was drawn to their slogans of ‘tell the truth’ and ‘act now’. I wanted to learn about Shantigarbha’s assessment of the climate problem, and how far it explains his support for the policy responses favoured by Extinction Rebellion.
Secondly, I anticipated the book would contain practical resources and teachings on how to respond skilfully to a given crisis.2 There was the promise of how to catalyse helpful behaviour change in oneself and others. Thirdly, I was drawn to The Burning House because I agree with Shantigarbha that wise consideration of the climate and ecological emergency is one of the most crucial issues of our time. Like the author, I consider the topic important, though for very different reasons. More about this later. Let us return to the book and its promise of resources for those who perceive an emergency.
A fifth sight
Chapter one, ‘a crisis of empathy’, elevates the ‘climate and ecological emergency’ to the rank of a ‘fifth sight’, comparable with the ‘four sights’ of old age, sickness, death, and the vision of a wandering seeker. These four sights are said to have jolted Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, out of his slumber. Shantigarbha suggests that the climate crisis should similarly jolt us awake.
The elevation of the alleged climate crisis to a fifth sight may appeal to those who believe we are facing an avoidable mass extinction. But even from that viewpoint, it is a misunderstanding of the archetypal significance of the four sights. Old age, sickness and death are universal phenomena. No living being can escape them in this world, or plausibly in any other realm. In contrast, the threat of a ‘climate crisis’ does not represent a universal existential truth even if you suppose that threat to be real at the present historical juncture. It is a hypothesis that is limited to a particular point in time and space.
The fourth sight, the wandering mendicant, points to the possibility of transcending these existential sufferings to discover a liberation unbounded by time and space. For Buddhists, the teaching of the four sights can fairly be called ‘sacred’ — worthy of that special reverence we reserve for the most profound and liberating truths we possess. Shantigarbha risks demeaning this archetypal vision by associating with it a historical crisis — one, moreover, that subsists more in anticipation than in fact, and to which so much uncertainty still attaches.
Shantigarbha, whilst hopeful that the climate crisis will jolt us awake, opines that many will be tempted to allow their minds to bounce away from this alleged existential threat. He suggests that we are in a different situation to that of the Buddha. Whilst the ancients believed the gods controlled the weather, it is humans who now have the power of gods to influence the weather. 3 In other words, what we had regarded as superstition is now proclaimed as the new reality. Whether or not, in truth, we have the power of weather gods, few could disagree that care and concern for the environment are intrinsic to ethical living. It is appropriate that we reduce habitat destruction and minimise discharges into the atmosphere, rivers, and seas. Whilst engineers have made remarkable progress in all these areas, there is always further to go.
Protection and gratitude towards nature
The theme of care for the earth is further developed in chapter three, ‘touching the earth’, where the ‘aliveness’ of all nature is evoked, eliciting a response of protection and gratitude. Shantigarbha asserts ‘protecting the natural world is in the general interests of humanity’, and ‘has a particular value in supporting the possibility of Enlightenment.’ It is difficult to imagine any Buddhist disagreeing with the latter, or any sane person with the former.
Subsequent chapters explore the territory of the environment as an opportunity to care for ourselves by caring for the world. He invokes a sense of solidarity with the natural world and perceives an opportunity for compassionate action to benefit all. The reader is invited to express ethical regret for harm caused by habitat destruction or endangering lives. The author emphasises that changing the world starts with changing our states of mind. He writes helpfully about five ethical training precepts and cultivating compassion without falling into horrified anxiety or sentimental pity. For Shantigarbha, engagement with the world’s problems is not a distraction from the spiritual life, and who would disagree with that?
The parable of the burning house
Chapter seven, ‘The Burning House’, provides the book’s title. Shantigarbha is here introducing us to a second sacred image, a classic parable from the Lotus Sutra. 4 It tells the story of a wise father who wants to rescue his numerous children from a burning building. Absorbed in play and heedless of their danger, the children must be tempted out of the building by promises of wonderful gifts. The promises are various because the children differ in their desires. Thus, an element of deception is involved in the father’s stratagem because he provides all of them — once they are outside the building — with the same supreme gift, not the lesser gifts that he promised.
Shantigarbha describes this as a white lie amounting to a protective use of force. Applying the parable to the climate crisis, he ventures the analogy that we are the children, with scientists taking the role of the father. Being creatures of comfort, we, the children, lack awareness of our predicament and need something better to draw us out of the burning building. Shantigarbha recommends a supreme gift, the Buddha Dharma values of wisdom and compassion and the virtues of Enlightenment: ‘If we want to address the climate and ecological emergency, we’re going to need a change of heart.’ Thus, in Shantigarbha’s vision, an impetus towards the Dharma might be helpfully prompted by the scientific foresight that will save us from the climate crisis. The scientists’ ‘cry of anguish’, together with the Dharma’s ‘cry of inspiration’, will summon us out of the burning house.
My problem here is that the parable of the burning house has the same essential meaning as the four sights. The burning house itself really symbolises the Noble Truths of suffering and the cause of suffering. 5 But Shantigarbha has commandeered the image to impress upon Buddhist readers the scary prospect of a climatic ‘burning’ — and thus to enlist our support for the package of economic and political measures supposedly necessary to avert that prospect. His intention is undoubtedly good, but when so much about both the prospect and the package remains uncertain, I can’t help wondering if this appropriation of a canonical text is justified.
In the same way, the wise father in the parable really symbolises all those — beginning with the Buddha — who have the power to draw us towards the Dharma. In Shantigarbha’s application of the parable, the climate scientists of our time are cast in the role of the wise father, at least in so far as they can see the danger that the children cannot (they utter the ‘cry of anguish’). Presumably then, those who choose to stay in the burning building are not just spiritually complacent but also unwilling to heed the message of the wise scientists. In this way, the transcendental significance of the Lotus Sutra is pressed into the service of an essentially mundane political project, however worthy that project might be in the eyes of its proponents.
Building on his version of the burning house parable, Shantigarbha urges us to notice the ‘smoke’ and the fire alarm sounded by scientists, saying we need to engage in a risk assessment of not acting to mitigate climate change. He offers help with this process, including chapters on anger, grief, and gratitude. The chapter on gratitude is notable and particularly helpful. It includes an important practical exercise and a commendable list of effective questions. The book can be recommended for these aspects of Dharma practice.
Shantigarbha has risked conflating the transcendental perspective of Buddhism on universal suffering with the so-called ‘scientific consensus’ on climate dangers. Whilst I think that is unhelpful, there may nevertheless be a real problem with climate change — one that requires a response. Staying with the metaphor of the house, we need to visit the foundations of Shantigarbha’s house and his depiction of the problem. Similarly, we need to visit his formulation of the solution. It is a central tenet of Buddhism that the diagnosis of a problem needs to be in line with reality. We see this very clearly, for example, in the Four Noble Truths. If our ‘problem’ statement is founded on untruths, then the proposed solution is unlikely to bring benefits and may even lead to unintended harm.
What exactly is the problem?
So, what is the problem? ‘Crisis’, ‘threat’ and ’emergency’ are mentioned frequently. Although we are urged collectively to grasp and respond to this threat, the source of our plight remains in the shadows. It proves difficult to find in Shantigarbha’s book a definitive statement of the problem to which he demands an urgent response. The best I could find was ‘the climate and ecological emergency confronts us with the consequences of our actions and offers us the opportunity for collective awakening. Do we still have time to decarbonise our economies and decarbonise the earth?’ In the absence of specific detail, it is assumed that the mere mention of a climate change crisis will inform the reader of what is at stake.
But what exactly is the problem we are urged to solve? Is it a real problem or a fantasy psychodrama? Or somewhere in between? And what is the wisest response? The remainder of the review explores these questions, with comments on whether they are sufficiently addressed within the book.
‘Climate change’, the two-word meme, is now accepted by many as a clarion call for action. The short phrase has an assumed meaning with the following embedded assumptions:
- Assumption one – Average global temperatures are increasing
- Assumption two – Rising temperatures are harmful to humans and the ecosystem
- Assumption three – CO2 causes a temperature increase in the atmosphere
- Assumption four – CO2 emissions from humans are the principal contribution to rising temperatures
- Assumption five – A practical response is possible to mitigate against rising temperatures, without adverse consequences that outweigh the alleged problem
In the present context, I can comment only very briefly on these assumptions. My investigations have led me to largely agree with assumption one. The global average temperature has been increasing slowly, with pauses, for several hundred years. I do not agree with assumption two, that this is harmful. Cold is by far the bigger killer, and throughout history populations have prospered during warmer periods. I agree with assumption three that CO2 does contribute to a minor temperature increase within the atmosphere, although other greenhouse gases have more significant effects. I disagree with assumption four. The contribution of anthropogenic CO2 to warming is minimal compared with that created by other natural processes. Assumption five — the likely efficacy of current mitigation responses — is the most seriously flawed of all, for reasons too complicated to summarise here. But the crucial point here is that, whether or not my conclusions are sound, if only one out of the five assumptions is incorrect, then the whole climate change narrative collapses. More significantly, if embraced dogmatically, it becomes a false view.
Some readers will be astounded that anyone could disagree with the self-evident reality of the claimed crisis. Apramāda will contain future articles on this subject, laying out in more detail the many errors within the five climate change assumptions, but to do so now would take us too far from the review of ‘The Burning House’. I will make a few concluding remarks on why it might be appropriate to suspend any such astonishment and invest some time in examining assumptions afresh.
Uncovering the root of a problem
It is essential to clarify the roots of a problem before suggesting solutions. Antidotes and strategies need to be wise and effective. This is not just a practical suggestion, but a moral imperative before we start imposing ‘non-violent disruption’, as advocated by Buddhist activists within this book. The Buddhist Kālāma Sutta touches on this territory, mentioning the need for trustworthy learned persons with persistence and rigour, un-muddled mindfulness, and good discernment. Practical wisdom is needed before venturing pronouncements on what is good for the earth and how others should live. Concern and empathy alone are insufficient.
I anticipated the author would be aware of this moral and intellectual obligation. He confirms my guess but only up to a point. He tells us he was challenged by someone who said, ‘if you are going to claim that climate change is anthropogenic, and start disrupting people’s lives, then you are morally obliged to do the work and check out the science.’ He accepted that challenge and decided to check his assumptions. So far, so good, but I would add that a responsible activist is also morally obliged to examine the applied physics of energy production. For anyone intent on diving into the deep waters of policy recommendations, it is imperative to develop some practical knowledge of that subject too.
Consequently, chapter two, ‘crisis, what crisis?’ is pivotal. Here Shantigarbha describes the process of checking his assumptions. He starts with the assertion that those who are ‘sceptical of the science, to the point of denial’ may have biases at work, tend to be right-wing, and reject the issue because they see anxiety about climate change as being of left-wing origin. He speculates that those with less cognitive bias accept climate change as an emergency. Furthermore, he suggests that oil companies have misled the public and influenced politicians. It is not clear how his explanation applies to someone like me who, in the past, accepted and responded to the climate change narrative. I moved from acceptance to rejection of that narrative when I examined the physics of the atmosphere and the applied physics of energy production. 6 Applied physics, engineering and power generation are my professional background.
Nevertheless, despite his reservations about the politics and unconscious bias of those who do not share his views, and despite his confidence in the climate change narrative, he did resolve to check the integrity of his assumptions. How did he go about that? He consulted with a friend, Bjorn Hassler,who had studied in fields adjacent to climate science. 7 Their conversation centred on some NASA graphs showing an increase in temperature correlated with increases in CO2, which Bjorn described as a ‘convincing presentation’. 8 Bjorn said it made sense that CO2 causes this increase, adding that the main problem is the rapidity of temperature increase because of the stresses it places on humans and other species. Bjorn also suggested that, because we cannot be certain, we should exercise the precautionary principle and assume a catastrophic future unless we act. 9
Having spoken to a friend he regarded as qualified, Shantigarbha decided he saw no good reason for not ‘trusting the science’. The 2018 IPCC report is quoted, postulating that human emissions have raised temperatures by one-degree centigrade over a century. The report suggests a policy goal of limiting further warming to 0.5 degrees Centigrade. Assuming the theory is correct, this goal would mean cutting CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. Shantigarbha asserts that this can be trusted because computer climate models have recently been refined, despite having proved inaccurate in the past. He mentions a ‘2019’ model that is holding up well so far. He claims that the models conform with good science under the principle of falsifiability. 10 He further states that there is no credible evidence of anything that would discredit the scientific community. 11 In any case, he continues, things can only get worse because of positive feedback, which will progressively amplify warming. It is speculated that this warming will cause rising seas and force the degradation of ecosystems and a mass extinction event.
This alarming prospect is bolstered with ‘facts’ such as the oft-stated decline of polar bear populations and the destruction of coral reefs by the acidification of the oceans. Perhaps not wishing to burden the reader with detail, Shantigarbha steers clear of the controversial aspect of some of these claims. Changes in the polar bear population, for example, are difficult to verify, but overall it is clear the population has increased over recent decades (the specialist work of Susan J Crockford gives supporting data). And what of the coral reefs? In 2015 the noted physicists Doctor Roger Cohen and Professor William Happer of Princeton wrote a short note looking at ocean pH. They found that doubling atmospheric CO2 from 400 to 800 parts per million (ppm) only decreases the alkalinity of ocean water from a pH of about 8.2 to 7.9. They went on to note: “This is well within the day-night fluctuations that already occur because of photosynthesis by plankton and less than the pH decreases with depth that occur because of the biological pump and the dissolution of carbonate precipitates below the lysocline.”
The chapter evaluating the truth of the emergency finishes by mentioning a Buddhist epistemology based on the Kālāma Sutta, which advocates trust in behaviour that leads to welfare and happiness and is praised by the wise. 12 The argument goes full circle, stating that, in the matter of climate change, the scientists are wise, and we should therefore accept what they say.
The moral skill of practical wisdom – phronesis
Why such a focus on Shantigarbha’s efforts to verify his assertion that there is a climate emergency? For ethical reasons. Buddhism has an ethical training principle that teaches abstention from violence, direct control or subtle coercion, sometimes described as avoiding the ‘power mode’. The use of power is apparent, for example, in Extinction Rebellion’s paradoxically named ‘non-violent disruption’. 13 It is also apparent in the laws and policies currently being enforced by governments in relation to climate change and energy production: actions that will have enormous impacts on the lives and livelihoods of perhaps everyone on the planet. If we do resort to the power mode, which is arguably necessary from time to time, then our actions must be informed by care, empathy and compassion. But also – and here is the heart of my argument — our actions need to be informed by practical wisdom, which in the present context means the skill of making accurate assessments of consequences. The Greeks named this skill phronesis. They distinguished this aspect of wisdom from intellectual virtues. Phronesis is the practical wisdom necessary for practical action.
Ethical behaviour needs to be grounded not just in empathy and love, but also in practical wisdom, which includes awareness of the relevant facts and telling the truth about them. In my experience, we western Buddhists generally know that this is true at the level of personal communication. However, it is also true at the level of public policy — where it is arguably even more important, but certainly much more difficult. At this level, how well do we recognise the importance of phronesis?
Wise policymaking is a hard-won gift, especially in complex realms. There are few realms more complex than climate science. There are also formidable complexities — in terms of technology and economics — in imposing a top-down revolution in energy production. Therefore, one needs to proceed carefully when making prophecies and advocating policies. Otherwise, all our empathy and concern, together with the power-mode interventions that spring from them, will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Dharma reflections on climate change
Whilst ‘The Burning House’ has done nothing to remedy the general lack of phronesis on climate change, the book contains some interesting Dharma reflections and, in that regard, is a worthy read. However, a conscientious reader will leave with more questions than answers. Shantigarbha suggests Buddhists find ways to make the climate and ecological emergency part of their practice. I agree. For those so minded, I suggest reflections on the five assumptions buried within the climate change narrative. It could be the start of an interesting journey into truth, and spell-breaking insights.
Paradoxically, seeing through the unexamined assumptions within the mainstream climate narrative may prove to be liberating. And, because truth and liberation are at the heart of the Buddhist path, you will have taken the author’s advice… but arrived at a very different place.
- Buddhist mediator and activist, ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order, teacher of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), studied classics and philosophy at Oxford University, England.
- ‘Skilful’ (Skt. kuśala) is Buddhist parlance for ethical or moral. Skilful actions, including thoughts, speech and bodily actions, are devoid of greed, hatred and delusion.
- Amusingly, whilst humans affecting the weather might be regarded as a superstition, it has not been uncommon throughout history to blame political enemies for the weather. One candidate for USA president, Barack Obama, made this claim when he suggested that a vote for him would stop the oceans rising: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal …”
- The parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra takes up the image of fire from the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (made famous as ‘The Fire Sermon’ in T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’) in which the Buddha declares that the world of our sense experience is burning with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. The image therefore suggests not just the danger of suffering to the children, but also the ultimate cause of all suffering.
- For a helpful introduction to climate matters, try the book ‘Mirrors and Mazes: a guide through the climate change debate’ by Howard Thomas Brady.
- Hassler, Bjorn — Linkedin profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/bjoernhassler
- This is a puzzling assertion. A scientist would know that correlation does not prove, or even necessarily suggest, causation.
- The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle stated, ‘When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.’ However, the precautionary principle may contain the following informal logical fallacies: appeal to fear, an argument from consequences, false dilemma, and slippery slope.
- A model is a form of a hypothesis. A model is not a scientific fact or scientific law. With climate models, an evaluation needs to be made by assessing the accuracy of predictions over a period of thirty years. Climate models fail with most of their predictions and are therefore falsified. Interestingly, if a model does succeed in its predictions, this does not prove the causal assumptions within the model. For a recent assessment of model accuracy, try Scafetta, N. Testing the CMIP6 GCM Simulations versus Surface Temperature Records from 1980–1990 to 2011–2021: High ECS Is Not Supported. Climate 2021, 9, 161. https://doi.org/10.3390/cli9110161
- For those wondering if scientists have kept their integrity, and if the IPCC suffers from political corruption, read the book by Donna Laframboise, ‘The delinquent teenager who was mistaken for the world’s top climate expert’ by Donna Laframboise.
- Kālāma Sutta AN 3.65
- Ecological activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion emphasise persuasion and non-violence, but their techniques include disruption such as blocking highways, described with the oxymoron ‘non-violent disruption’.