ConsumerismEconomicsGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeSociety

The Burning Building

by Richard Burton

Among world leaders there is no longer an actual debate about climate change. It is clear that the CO2 molecule traps heat. It is clear that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere than at anytime in the past 50,000 years and the gross amount and rate of emissions are both growing. World leaders also recognize that we, humankind, are, if not the cause, at least a major contributor to this condition.

This is all well known and socialized. None of this is actually a debate among leaders. World leaders are now in a negotiation about it. In that negotiation it is strategic to assume certain positions, some of which are even counter to factual conditions. This is true for many corporate leaders in multi-nationals as well. They know we need to do something about climate change, but strategically, cannot say so publicly. Or conversely, they say something about this publicly and strategically, but are not engaged in really meaningful activity about it.

Consider the nature of the negotiation. It is simple. Who will bear the cost of the changes we must make? Who will own and reap the benefits of the solutions we must create? If this seems crazy to you, you are not crazy. Imagine it this way. There is a diverse set of people in a burning building. They all know the building is burning, but it seems to be burning slowly. They can see the smoke. Occasionally a wall collapses on some of the people, but they are not yet be consumed by the flame itself in any way they collectively notice. In some parts of the house people are more vulnerable and effected than others. I am sure the analogy is clear.

Now imagine that the people in the house are more concerned with who will benefit from putting out the fire than they are about actually putting out the fire. Many of the residents are doing things in their own rooms that they feel might help slow the fire, but the building as a whole is burning! They are arguing about whose fault this is. People in the building are increasingly upset at their situation which is more and more unstable. They are saying, ‘I will not promise to help put out the fire until you promise.’ Before they do anything serious together to put out the fire they want to know who will buy and sell the fire extinguishers. They want to know who will pay for the fire department. They are arguing about this even as the paint begins to peel from the walls. Many of them are simply trying to protect their own room in the burning building.

This analogy is not complete since it does not include that the building is not simply burning, but is being actively burned up by the very way that people are living in the building. This complicates things since it means that they not only have to put out the fire, but also fundamentally change the way they are living. Many of them do not want to do this. Many of them feel this is impossible. They can only imagine living in a way that requires burning the building. They may believe that they can simply burn some other part of the building in order to continue living in the way to which they have become accustomed. Or they may believe that someone else is burning the building, but it is not them and therefore they do not have to address the issue. They may believe that some way they trade with other people in the building will put out the fire, or that someone will invent a miraculous new fire extinguisher, never realizing that even their way of trading with one another and inventing things is itself involved in burning the building. All the while no one is doing much more than attempting to protect their own room and strategically position themselves, even though this is obviously futile given that the entire building is burning. No one is doing much more than strategically positioning themselves for the hypothetical case of putting out the fire. Many of the people in the building are far more concerned with their profit or loss, than with actually doing anything about the increasingly obvious fire that threatens all the residents of the building.

We were talking about world leaders, weren’t we? In talking about the inaction and strategic positioning of world leaders, there is something else we must consider. There is another reason they are not effectively in action. There is another reason they are paralyzed. They are paralyzed by fear. "Fear," you say, "but what could these very powerful world leaders be afraid of?" In short, if you are reading this, they are afraid of you. They realize the degree of change that is needed and they know how difficult this will be. They are simply afraid that you will protest the degree of change required. They will not get re-elected. You will create social unrest. Yes, you. They are afraid that you will not want, or be able to give up the very things that are causing the fire in the day to day way you live your life and in the dreams you have about your future. They cannot imagine living in a way that is satisfying without burning down the building. They do not believe you can imagine that. They believe that it is their duty to protect the room you live in, even though the entire building is burning. They are afraid of each and all of you. They are also afraid of the powerful institutions that profit from participation in producing the lifestyle you live or are learning to live that is actively burning down the building.

We must have some compassion for these world leaders. They are stuck. They are afraid that if they act to put out the fire they will create suffering and social unrest. They are afraid they will sacrifice the possibility of a full and meaningful future if they act to put out the fire, because they, like you, have not and cannot imagine a way of living that does not require burning down the building. They are also afraid of the consequences of not acting to put out the fire. They are navigating a very difficult passage, with fear of you on the one side and fear for you on the other. The history of humankind shows that they are right to be afraid. We must, together, reach a new moment and possibility of history.

What is your compassionate message to these trapped leaders? What would you tell them? How would you demonstrate the sincerity of your message? Threatening them will do little good. They are already threatened on every front. Where will you cooperate and collaborate about your message to them? Where will you cease to live and enact the burning of the building even in your day to day lives? If you realized you were not separate from all the other people in the building, what would you do differently? If you realized you were not separate from the building itself, what might you differently? How would you respond to such a realization in your day to day, moment to moment living together?

The point here is that some ‘they’ is not burning down the external building. True, the institutions of power and profit are failing to put out the fire. We, all of us together, are burning down the building, which is not in any way actually separate from us, in each moment of our lives. We must first and foremost resolve to stop and make that resolution real in the details of our lives together. Only in the enactment and moment of this collective cessation will we then be able to begin to see and feel the way to a full and abundant future together.

6 Comments

  1. “We must first and foremost resolve to stop and make that resolution real in the details of our lives together.”

    I’m so happy you say this! Just to change you and hope the rest will follow might just burn yourself out, most likely a waste of energy. Surely, resolution real in the details of our lives together!

  2. Congratulations Roger. An excellent analogy of the world situation, reflecting some careful thinking on the subject and presented clearly (to me at least) and concisely, without the unnecessary inclusion of any pretentious or divergent ideas.

    You ask a number of pertinent questions in the penultimate paragraph which people would do well to consider. I give below some of my own brief thoughts in response to these questions.

    Q. What is your compassionate message to these trapped leaders?
    A. I have written a number of letters to my own political leaders, most of which have been highly critical of their action/inaction on ‘burning’ issues. Your article has led me to decide that my future communications must be framed more compassionately to these people who are after all in many cases just reflections of me, you, us.

    Q. What would you tell them?
    A. I will tell them that there is a better way of doing the things they are trying to achieve and that the people they serve are awakening to ideas that will prepare them for making changes to the current order of things.

    Q. How would you demonstrate the sincerity of your message?
    A. I will tell them of the changes I am personally making in my life that will be in harmony with the decisions that they will need to make to facilitate and support myself and the other people they are elected/empowered to serve.

    Q. Where will you cooperate and collaborate about your message to them?
    A. I will offer to advise and work with them and other people around me in appropriate ways to cooperatively achieve sustainable outcomes.

    Q. Where will you cease to live and enact the burning of the building even in your day to day lives?
    A. I will cease (am currently working towards ceasing) to live in a situation of unsustainable resource consumption which is fuelling the ‘fire’, by moving away from a dense population area to where I can provide for myself locally and live simply but hopefully not frugally, with appropriate levels of technology.

    Q. If you realized you were not separate from all the other people in the building, what would you do differently?
    A. I do realise that I am not separate from all the other people in the building and I want to cooperate with any appropriate community actions, following the analogy, to ‘put out the fire’. This won’t happen effectively without global community response.

    Q. If you realized you were not separate from the building itself, what might you do differently?
    A. I do realise that I am not separate from the building (planet) itself. This is why I am taking steps to make my voice heard with the intention of influencing my political leaders. I am also working towards reducing my exposure to as much of the fallout from worst case scenario developments as possible. A passive approach of merely voting for the best available leadership, or implicitly following a business as usual future is not nearly enough and is not going to cut it for much longer.

    Q. How would you respond to such a realization in your day to day, moment to moment living together?
    A. All of the above. I could talk about putting myself out there to ferment revolutionary and widespread action to solve the huge problems facing us, but this is not my role. I will quietly operate in the situation around me to influence those I come in contact with.

  3. I love this analogy of the burning building.This is a hot topic at the moment (pun intended) in Australian politics and I keep wondering why someone just doesn’t say: “Hey, everyone, can’t you see you’re in a burning building with all your loved ones and we have to act quickly or you will all perish! Forget about trying to save the furniture, your cars, your ipods and computers! Just get the fire extinguishers out and start spraying!” If your life was at risk, you wouldn’t care about the costs (of carbon trading or new taxes to cover carbon costs); you’d be saying, “Yep, let’s get those fire extinguishers now!” Is it that everyone is in denial and the politicians are feeding that denial? What will it take to wake us all up? Or is it too late? It’s getting awfully warm in here…..thanks for a great article.

  4. In my opinion we should forget the word ‘climate change’. Lets not argue about if it exists or if it is a con. What is important is that we sequester carbon in the soil before it is too late and we can no longer grow crops to sustain the earth’s population. By doing this, we’ll be pulling carbon from the atmosphere and, in the event that climate change/global warming is actually real, we’ll be fixing it regardless!

    The subject of the article should be: “Keyline + Yeoman’s Plough + Compost Tea + Soil Food Web saves the world”.

    Nothing to do with governments, what we need to do is educate farmers about the truth. Demonstration sites are what is important. I’m about to do one, how about YOU? (Directed to everybody reading this)

    This knowledge should be free to access and distribute. At the very least to feed the hungry, at the most to stop us from boiling in our skins :)

  5. Excellent article!

    How would the current world be if political systems copied the relationships found in the natural world?

    One book I highly recommend “Kuan Tzu’s Supreme Secrets for the Global CEO” by William Bodri. I’ve read it often and the leadership lessons therein are profound.

  6. Thank you for these kind and encouraging comments. In response to dispensing with the language of climate change – I originally wrote this for youth leaders who were feeling disillusioned prior to the COP15 summit. One of these groups in Hong Kong ‘boycotted’ that summit and changed all their narrative away from ‘climate change’ in order to deal with the systemic questions to which many of you seem to be pointing. Climate change can be considered one of the surface level symptoms of what we are enacting and one of the easiiest to sense.

    For me the Cancun summit was an amazing demonstration of a kind of collective pathology in which it was possible to hear the reality and voice of island nations and grant aid for adaptation, while at the same time being unable to agree any real measures or steps to address mitigation. Consider the message that sends. This is amazing to me.

    In my own life I am taking steps, for some years now, to disentangle myself from participation in the systems of the industrial era and create a way of living that is meaningful in the case of collapse or in the absence of collapse. This includes my own immediate ‘sustainability’, but more importantly in my view, the enrichment and creation of a localized social fabric of participation and resilience. That journey for those of us in ‘developed’ economies is also a journey of identity crisis, ordeal and transformation. As such it has many of the components of a death and dying process: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. O have written about this elsewhere.

    As I am sure you all know, in the absence of human activity the planet generates many diverse examples in the face of monolithic collapse. I myself am working on building the capacity to generate and live such a diversity of responses within the context of a meaningful social fabric. The non-violent non-cooperation in the systems and institutions of the past several centuries and the capacity to generate social fabrc and diverse, lived examples seem of utmost importance to me.

    Thank you again for these thoughtful responses and the work you are doing. Thank you Craig for posting this.
    Roger

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