A view of the Never Summer Mountains in Colorado. (NPS/Public domain)
An act of self-immolation exposes the object of protest by matching horror inflicted at large with horror inflicted on one.
Other forms of protest, like a march, might be loud. They might inconvenience others and require little sacrifice on the part of the demonstrator. They might have theatrical qualities, like the Tiananmen Square Tank Man standoff, or be symbolic, as when nuns poured blood on missile silos, or defiant, like a lunch counter sit-in. They might result in arrests. They might involve police brutality, as they often did during civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960s, and the summer of 2020. They might even involve fatal self-sacrifice, as some hunger strikes do.
But nothing exceeds self-immolation for its capacity, through hideous shock, to claim attention.
The late Wynn Bruce, of Boulder, got our attention. On Friday, Bruce set himself aflame in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and he died from his injuries the following day.
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So profound was the physical pain and personal sacrifice Bruce chose in his final moments that its scope is beyond the grasp of normal comprehension. One does not have to agree with his politics, nor should one condone self-immolation, but given the facts and manner of Bruce’s death, his life and the meaning of its conclusion is owed at least a measure of reflection.
Bruce appears not to have left behind an explicit account of why he ended his life, but a preponderance of indicators points to his longtime concern about the climate crisis as a motivator. That is the view of Bruce’s own father.
“I agree with the belief that this was a fearless act of compassion about his concern for the environment,” Douglas Bruce said about his son, according to The Washington Post.
Friday was Earth Day. Bruce was regularly described as a climate activist. And, chillingly, 20 days before his demonstration he edited a climate change-related comment on Facebook so that “4/22/2022” appeared next to a fire emoji.
So, if Bruce gave his life for a moment of our attention, let’s not refuse him.
Bruce was 50. When he was born, the global temperature was 0.01 degree Celsius above the mid-20th century average. By the time he died the global temperature, having steadily increased, was about .85 degrees above the average — a destructive shift that’s not about to stop.
What is it that the world has failed to hear? Bruce insisted, in the extreme manner of a final warning, that we listen.
Nineteen of the Earth’s hottest years occurred in the last 22 years of Bruce’s life, and the seven hottest years have occurred in the last seven years. This warming is tied to dangerous and deadly outcomes, such as sea-level rise, extreme weather, drought and — as is all too apparent in Bruce’s adopted state of Colorado — wildfires.
The three biggest wildfires in Colorado history occurred in 2020. The most destructive wildfire in state history occurred in December. And the state, along with the Southwest, has endured more than two decades of severe drought.
We know why these conditions have befallen the Earth, and Bruce knew too. In NASA’s plain language: “Human activities (primarily the burning of fossil fuels) have fundamentally increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet.”
But — as Bruce, a frequent volunteer at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, also knew — humans have failed to respond to climate change with anything like the urgency the era demands. In a story about the latest, harrowing report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The Guardian said, “The world can still hope to stave off the worst ravages of climate breakdown but only through a ‘now or never’ dash to a low-carbon economy and society, scientists have said in what is in effect a final warning for governments on the climate.”
In December 2020, Bruce posted a quote to Facebook from Martin Luther King Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King was referring in a speech to riots in the 1960s that were a response to racial injustice, and his next line was in the form of a question, “What is it that America has failed to hear?”
Bruce’s death poses an analogous question. What is it that the world has failed to hear? Bruce insisted, in the extreme manner of a final warning, that we listen.
Self-immolation is not to be romanticized or encouraged. People who care as deeply about the environment as Bruce did can achieve substantial change through political engagement and other forms of protest. Those for whom his message fails to resonate might at least devote a moment to consider the implications of his death.
And everyone, regardless of political or cultural bent, should find common ground with one of Bruce’s last posts on Facebook. He might have given his life to protest the horror of a polluted planet, but in discussing what he had learned in the Shambhala spiritual tradition, he wrote, “Society is basically good.”
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