Three suicides and climate change

It’s been a bad week. First Kate Spade, the fashion designer. Then Anthony Bourdain. And then news of a man I had never heard of. All died by their own hand.

I can only imagine that Kate Spade succumbed to an unbearable sense of sadness and despondency. Depression is an illness that I find difficult to understand.  I’m a glass-half-full guy.  But I know that not everyone sees the world through my rose-tinted glasses. I didn’t know Kate Spade. But a suicide always brings terrible sadness to everyone who is touched by it—not just to her family and loved ones.

That was June 5.  She had hanged herself.

Then Anthony Bourdain.  This was such a shock.  It still seems inexplicable.  He seemed to have everything. A dream job. A beautiful girlfriend who loved him and who was relaxed and supportive about his constant traveling.  Money, fame, travel, amazing food: Surely he had it all?

I won’t speculate on what was going on in Anthony Bourdain’s mind when the cameras were turned off and he was alone in his hotel room.  Clearly, something wasn’t right. And like millions of people who loved the guy, I wish I could have helped. Done something.

Anthony Bourdain chose the same way of ending his life–hanging himself.

And then there’s David Buckel.

The death of this man happened in April this year—but I only read about his suicide in the Toronto Star on June 9. Four days after the death of Kate Spade; a day after the suicide of Anthony Bourdain.

David Buckel lived in Brooklyn.  He cared deeply about the environment. He created one of the largest composting sites in the US—all operated without machinery and using electricity generated from wind power and solar energy.  It was a substantial business—processing around 16 tonnes of organic waste a month.

“Think global—act local”.  It’s a good slogan–because it motivates us to start work to protect and conserve the environment in our communities when, at the national level, government policy seems so wrong-headed, irresponsible, and offensive.  It drives us to vote out politicians who cover up huge conflicts of interest and nestle in the pockets of big oil.

But there comes a time when acting locally isn’t making any kind of impact outside of the local context. It’s not enough.  Frankly, it’s depressing.

David Buckel’s suicide letter tried to explain what he was about to do.

Pollution ravages our planet. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result.

On this point he was right.  Fossil fuels don’t just cause climate change through their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and the other greenhouse gases. The urban smog from gasoline and diesel vehicles drags millions of people in the largest cities down to an early grave.  Only recently is that message getting through: that fossil fuels are a catastrophic global health hazard that kills several million people a year–and not just in the sprawling metropolises in China and India.  But also in London and Paris, and in all the supposedly environmentally-conscious cites of western Europe and North America where diesel vehicles spew nitrous oxide and carbon particulates into the atmosphere where pedestrians, cyclists, and school children all breathe in what they assume is clean air.

A few weeks before David Buckel’s death, Scott Pruitt, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, had proposed to roll back the standards on vehicle emissions that Barack Obama had passed into law a few years earlier. Buckel was despondent. I can imagine that many people get to the point where they cannot see that anything they do will ever make a difference. You may think global and act local. But at the end of the day it’s just all local.  It just doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Some time before dawn on April 14, David Buckel left his house on the edge of Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  It was a Saturday–and usually on Saturdays he would leave early and walk to work  But on this day he went into the park and stopped.

He had with him his cell phone, a can of gasoline, and a lighter. At 5.55 am he sent an email to the news media explaining what he was about to do. He said in his email: “My early death from fossil fuels reflects what we are doing to ourselves.

The first 911 call was made at 6.11 am.  A man was on fire.  In Prospect Park.  No; no-one else was there.

When the first responders arrived, the flames were going out. David Buckel was already dead.  He had burned himself to death. He poured the gasoline; he lit the flame. An act of self-immolation.

His death occurred on April 14; I learned about it on June 9. Almost two months later.  As far as I know, his death was not widely reported at the time. If it had not been reported in the Toronto Star, I may never have heard of his name.

Men have done this before. When I read about David Buckel my mind went back to the origins of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2010—when a young man called Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and burned himself to death in protest against a society that mocked and exploited the poor, and only cared for the rich and powerful. He scraped a living by selling fruit and vegetables in the local markets of Sidi Bouzid—a poor town 300 km south of Tunis. But his license had expired and his goods were confiscated.  Refused entry at the provincial headquarters, and humiliated as he sought to pay his fine, he doused himself with gasoline and set fire to himself at the entrance to the building.

The community reaction to Mohammed Bouazizi’s death was swift, fierce, and contagious. There was widespread outrage and violent protests.  Within days, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was driven from power.  It was the start of the Arab Spring.

Self-immolation is the most extreme form of protest. But it is much more than a suicide. It is a sacrifice.  A self-sacrifice. And sacrifices are intended to serve a purpose.

Did David Buckel’s act of self-immolation serve a purpose?  In his mind, burning himself to death using gasoline, a fossil fuel, was integral to the message.  He ended his email by saying: “Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded action.

But I don’t think he should have done it.

Because now, there is much more than hope out there.  Increasingly, there is confidence that change is happening. In fact, there is proof that change is happening. The expanded action that David Buckel hoped for is everywhere in sight.

One huge advantage of the digital age is that we can all see the numbers.  And all the spin doctors, nay-sayers, denierdom shills, and big oil oligarchs cannot obscure and suppress the truth of what is taking place: there is an immense global transformation occurring in the way in which we produce, distribute, and use energy.

Renewable energy is not just an idea whose time has come.  Fossil fuels are an anachronism whose time has passed.  As someone once said: the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.  We simply discovered something much better.

It’s the same with fossil fuels: we now have something else that’s so much better. In a few year’s time, Scott Pruitt and his EPA will be just a footnote in the reports that chart the transition to enormous arrays of offshore wind turbines, terawatt-scale photovoltaic power plants, and cities that generate more power from the sun and geothermal energy than they actually use.  Apart from district heating and cooling, everything is electric.

Eventually, maybe around 2050, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will start to decline. But the world is in for a very rough ride between now and then.

For me, David Buckel’s sacrifice was both inspirational and demoralizing.  No-one should be driven to the point where they are willing to sacrifice their life in the hope that climate policies will change for the better. Yet what courage it took to flick open the lighter and touch it to his clothes—knowing that they would instantly explode into flame.

Three suicides in just one week.


Note: The article about David Buckel appeared in the Toronto Star on 9 June 2018–titled: An American Self-immolation.


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