17 December 2010

The Burning Building

I sometimes have the great privilege of working with youth leaders around the world. Prior to the COP15 Climate talks many of them were feeling disillusioned so I wrote this piece for them. I myself am not sure what to make of the Cancun talks. I frankly do not understand how the talks could both produce aid for adaptation of island nations and still not produce a meaningful result in terms of mitigation, before mitigation becomes militarized. Transcripts of the Copenhagen and Cancun talks reveal that leaders from the island nations have a very distinctive voice, which has apparently been heard, but only responded to in the most myopic fashion. My Chinese colleagues edited this and used it in a Chinese publication. Their version was better, but I cannot find it. In general, I am going to spend some time posting things I have already written while I create new posts.

J.M.W. Turner

The Burning Building
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.

The Localized Impersonation of Roger Burton


  1. I think this is a brilliant analogy. As always I am struck by the compassion with which you write about the predicament of the leaders of this world. But we are all leaders (or none of us are). We are all able to make changes and live in a way that is consistent with our knowing about the burning building.

  2. yes, roger, thank you for making this so clear.

    for my own sanity, i keep repeating to myself the story of what Jung said when people asked him, "do you think we will make it?", meaning, will the human race destroy itself? his answer was "if enough people do their inner work." for me, this is my hope, in doing my inner work...