The self-immolation of a US environmental activist reveals the dark reality of ‘climate anxiety’

A Colorado man who set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court on April 22, 2022 in an apparent Earth Day protest against climate change has died, police said.ANNA MONEYMAKER/The New York Times News Service

The lives of Wynn Bruce and David Buckel were separated by the distance between Boulder, Colo., and New York City, and the professional gulf between a photographer who worked at a natural foods store and a pioneering lawyer.

What they held in common was a conviction that climate change poses a grave threat to society, as well as an admiration for Buddhist tenets of full commitment to a cause. Both men died by self-immolation – Mr. Buckel in 2018 and Mr. Bruce last Friday, on Earth Day. They accomplished less in death than they could have in life, family and psychologists said.

“It was a terrible mistake David made,” Terry Kaelber, his husband, said in an interview this week. But “these are two people who cared massively about sending a message.”

The final acts by the two men came after years of warning from psychologists that a changing climate is upending not just the physical Earth, but the mental well-being of its inhabitants. Some call it “climate anxiety.” Others suggest despair about looming catastrophe – forests on fire, reservoirs without water, seafronts inundated and people rendered homeless – amounts to a kind of “pre-traumatic stress.”

Bleak climate thoughts can place an additional burden on those already struggling, said Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist who specializes in the mental-health effects of climate change.

“Usually we can say ourselves, ‘Today a bad day, but will get better.’” The it is evident reality suggests of a warming planet, instead, that “it’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse,” she said. When that idea takes root, “that’s when you start getting into treacherous territory.”

That existential anxiety some people feel can be compounded by a sense “that government is not looking out for them. So this institutional betrayal is also a part of the wounding that causes a feeling of hopelessness,” Dr. Van Susteren said.

A 2020 study published by Yale researchers found feelings of disgust or helplessness on climate issues in more than 40 per cent of surveyed Americans. A 2021 survey of 10,000 children and young people in 10 countries, including Brazil, France, Nigeria, India and the US, found more than half reported climate-related feelings of, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt. Nearly half said those feelings “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.”

Mr. Bruce’s death in front of the US Supreme Court was not the first time he sought to take his life by fire. He had made a previous attempt in 2017 in New York City, his father told The Washington Post.

Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the US Supreme Court on April 22, 2022, prompting a national conversation about his motivation and whether he may have been inspired by Buddhist monks who self-immolated in the past to protest government atrocities.Jeffry Buechler/The Associated Press

For both Mr. Bruce, aged 50, and Mr. Buckel, 60, ecological angst combined with an interest in Buddhism, whose adherents have, in different parts of the world, used self-immolation as a form of protest. In China, 159 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. The 1963 self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon brought global attention to persecution in South Vietnam.

Mr. Buckel had spoken with friends about such acts, saying “that he really admired that level of commitment,” Mr. Kaelber said.

I’m not sure I would agree with that. I would argue the ultimate commitment is to stay in the fight. There’s a side of me that thinks” what Mr. Buckel did is “like giving up.”

But in a note he sent to several media outlets shortly before his death, Mr. Buckel, a notable champion of gay and transgender rights, had sounded a note of despondency. “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,” he wrote.

Mr. Bruce, too, had grappled with climate change. He lived since 2000 in Boulder, Colo., not far from where the Marshall fire, The most destructive in the state’s history, 1,084 residential structures were destroyed in late December, 2021. A few days later, he posted to Facebook a quote from Buddhist environmentalist Joanna Macy from her book Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age: “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”

Mr. Bruce grew up in Minnesota, where he developed a love for the outdoors through frequent trips to a family home in Lutsen, on the north shore of Lake Superior. As a boy, he paddled with his father, Douglas Bruce, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, just south of the Ontario border. “He enjoyed the outdoors very much,” his father said in an interview.

A car accident as a teen left him with a traumatic brain injury, and “it was difficult for him to be able to have a full-time job,” his father said.

Mr. Bruce’s great-grandfather worked as a director of photography in Hollywood, and about a decade ago Mr. Bruce enrolled in a graphic-design program at Front Range Community College in Longmont. Colo.

“He was studying, I believe to be a photojournalist, but because of his head and leg injury he couldn’t drive, so that was limited,” instructor Pauli Driver-Smith said. He opened a photo studio instead.

He also worked at a natural foods store, where he befriended Brian Grossman, a local sculptor with multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Grossman recalled Mr. Bruce saying it is “atrocious” that governments “ignore global warming and pollution.” It was something “he believed with all his might,” said Mr. Grossman, who last spoke with Mr. Bruce roughly a week before his death. Mr. Bruce commended him for his perseverance as an artist working with a degenerative condition. “I think our connection was based on our mutual hardships, doing what we believed in,” Mr. Grossman said.

Mr. Bruce found other social connections through Buddhism, attending events at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center. The center offered “meditation in nature together with dharma teachings for ecological action,” according to Kritee Kanko, a founding board member.

After Mr. Bruce’s death, Ms. Kanko wrote on Twitter that he had “been planning it for at least one year.”

“This act is not suicide,” she wrote. “This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to the climate crisis.” She and other Buddhist leaders later released a statement saying none of them “knew about his plans to self-immolate on Earth Day.”

But “this has been on his mind for some time, I can say that,” his father said. Mr. Bruce’s death “reflects his concern about you and me and everybody else here on the planet,” his father said. “He could not have done that if he were despondent or in some kind of spiral.”

Still, Mr. Bruce’s death has renewed Mr. Kaelber’s own feeling that the conversation around climate change should expand beyond its effects on the Earth.

While he himself still holds hope there remains time to take action – and says the only viable solution is to address root causes of a warming Earth rather than symptoms – he also said he believes that “making sure we take care of each other emotionally and mentally “must become part of addressing the climate. “Because it seems life is becoming so much more complicated everywhere.”

And, he added, “the long-range picture is dark.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or visit http://www.kidshelpphone.ca

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