Sit down and wake up! On Buddhist theory and planetary crisis

Mention Buddhism and you’ll often get a response shaped by its recent commodification into a self-care trend. Mindfulness apps, cheerful Buddha incense holders and the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up have led many to assume that Buddhism, like deep breathing and scented candles is primarily a technique for managing stress. Do I even need to tell you that these assumptions are wide off the mark? Probably not, yet even those who are aware ‘Buddhism’ goes deeper than these stereotypes may be surprised to hear it paired in the same sentence with ‘post-humanism’ ‘decoloniality’ ‘deconstruction’ and even ‘anarchism’.

Yet I’m about to embark on research linking just these streams of thought. This October I’ll be studying for the MSc Society & Space with plans to continue to PhD study through the ESRC 3+1 route in 2021. My research will ask how Buddhism can help us reconceive the politics of the more-than-human world in an age of planetary crisis. Buddhist thought has a unique contribution to make here, yet it’s frequently overlooked as a source of theory for approaching these questions (and other social science questions more generally).

A statue of Jizo (Kṣitigarbha) or the Earth-Womb boddhisattva glimpsed through a doorway at the Koya-san temple complex in Kansai region, Japan.

Just like other non-Western philosophies, perceptions of Buddhism have been framed through the colonial encounter. Whilst nineteenth century explorers to Tibet, China, India and Japan, did much to inspire fascination with ‘Oriental religions’, early translations of Buddhist texts often understood Buddhism through a Christian lens, equating the Buddha with Jesus. This, and the general imperial refusal to take other ways of thought and life seriously have ensured that Buddhism is yet to receive much serious academic attention outside of religious studies and history departments.

For this reason alone, Buddhist perspectives can and should be mobilised as a source of decolonising critique. But it’s not just valuable as a perspective from which to criticise.  Contemporary Buddhisms brought to the West by Tibetan refugees and modern Japanese scholars such as D.T. Suzuki from the 1950s onwards have demonstrated the breadth, diversity and originality of Buddhist scholarship and practice. And more recently, excellent work has been carried out demonstrating historical Buddhism’s clear pertinence to contemporary philosophical and political concerns more broadly.

In fact many of most disruptive (and productive) concepts shaping contemporary humanities study today were anticipated by Buddhist thought by literally thousands of years. Put it this way – if names like Derrida, Deleuze, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers are more familiar to social scientists today than Nagarjuna, Dogen, and Candrakirti this is not because the latter have nothing relevant to say on topics such as deconstruction, non-representational theory, subjectivity and self, embodiment, the symbolic order or the production of knowledge (although of course the way they mobilise and describe these concepts is completely different.)

Post-human concepts of relational networks and assemblages, which have so radically re-shaped geographical approaches to understanding human/environment relations, find close resonance in pratitya samutpada, or the doctrine of mutual causality, an ontology of radical relation. Pratitya samutpada sees reality as process – patterns of self-organising physical and psychological events which have no fixed structure or semiotics. This interdependence logically implies an ethic of care and kind-heartedness (towards all sentient beings), a cornerstone of Buddhist practice common to all traditions.

A moment of contemplation at the D.T. Suzuki centre in Kanazawa, Japan.

In an age of climate crisis the ethical imperative to try to relieve suffering is being interpreted increasingly to include ecological care for the more-than-human world (including heterogenous and complex ‘sentient beings’ such as watersheds, bio-regions and radioactive waste) and the resulting politics of this ‘Eco-dharma’ have many similarities to activisms inspired by deep ecology, indigenous, ecofeminist and anarchist philosophies. This global wave of ecologically-informed Buddhist practice is the starting point for my research, but I’m hoping to use it as a springboard for bringing Buddhist critique into geography more generally – applying Buddhist ideas to questions of political ecology, inter-species relationships, care-giving, and environmental governance.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to disrupt some assumptions along the way – including the idea that Zen is primarily concerned with minimalist interior design and esoteric catchphrases. For me, it offers something much more radical and ultimately subversive – a philosophical commitment to experiment with risky ideas and relentlessly question the foundations of your knowledge (as well as a strong suggestion to not take yourself too seriously, and to always be prepared for absurdity and impossibility!) I hope that these will be useful qualities for a new postgraduate researcher to bring into their academic practice and I’m sure that both Deleuze and Nagarjuna would agree.

And of course, Buddhist psychology and meditative practice do offer highly effective methods for understanding the mind, cultivating equanimity and un-learning habitual patterns of thought. It’s exactly this refusal to sit neatly in disciplinary boxes that makes Buddhism such a fascinating area of study – a philosophy of the mind and world which is simultaneously theory and practice. Buddhism asks us to move beyond dualisms of self/world, human/non-human and thought/reality which is exactly why its perspectives are essential to understanding our entangled, inter-dependent and precarious life in the age of the Anthropocene. It offers us an injunction to both sit down (learn to change your mind through meditation) and wake up (liberate yourself through taking ethical action), demonstrating beautifully Marx’s dictum that the true purpose of philosophy is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Courtenay Crawford who is undertaking a new MSc and PhD project, funded by an ESRC 1+3 grant through the South West Doctoral Training Partnership. This blog was reposted with kind permission from the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities. Read the original blog.

Courtenay Crawford

Five satellite images that show how fast our planet is changing


Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy

You have probably seen satellite images of the planet through applications like Google Earth. These provide a fascinating view of the surface of the planet from a unique vantage point and can be both beautiful to look at and useful aids for planning. But satellite observations can provide far more insights than that. In fact, they are essential for understanding how our planet is changing and responding to global heating and can do so much more than just “taking pictures”.

It really is rocket science and the kind of information we can now obtain from what are called Earth observation satellites is revolutionising our ability to carry out a comprehensive and timely health check on the planetary systems we rely on for our survival. We can measure changes in sea level down to a single millimetre, changes in how much water is stored in underground rocks, the temperature of the land and ocean and the spread of atmospheric pollutants and greenhouse gases, all from space.

Here I have selected five striking images that illustrate how Earth observation data is informing climate scientists about the changing characteristics of the planet we call home.

1. The sea level is rising – but where?

Map showing global sea level rise
The sea is rising quickly – but not evenly.

Sea level rise is predicted to be one of the most serious consequences of global heating: under the more extreme “business-as-usual” scenario, a two-metre rise would flood 600 million people by the end of this century. The pattern of sea surface height change, however, is not uniform across the oceans.

This image shows mean sea level trends over 13 years in which the global average rise was about 3.2mm a year. But the rate was three or four times faster in some places, like the south western Pacific to the east of Indonesia and New Zealand, where there are numerous small islands and atolls that are already very vulnerable to sea level rise. Meanwhile in other parts of the ocean the sea level has barely changed, such as in the Pacific to the west of North America.

2. Permafrost is thawing

Source: ESA

Permafrost is permanently frozen ground and the vast majority of it lies in the Arctic. It stores huge quantities of carbon but when it thaws, that carbon is released as CO₂ and an even more potent greenhouse gas: methane. Permafrost stores about 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon – twice as much as in the whole of the atmosphere – and it is incredibly important that carbon stays in the ground.

This animation combines satellite, ground-based measurements of soil temperature and computer modelling to map the permafrost temperature at depth across the Arctic and how it is changing with time, giving an indication of where it is thawing.

3. Lockdown cleans Europe’s skies

Source: ESA

Nitrogen dioxide is an atmospheric pollutant that can have serious health impacts, especially for those who are asthmatic or have weakened lung function, and it can increase the acidity of rainfall with damaging effects on sensitive ecosystems and plant health. A major source is from internal combustion engines found in cars and other vehicles.

This animation shows the difference in NO₂ concentrations over Europe before national pandemic-related lockdowns began in March 2020 and just after. The latter shows a dramatic reduction in concentration over major conurbations such as Madrid, Milan and Paris.

4. Deforestation in the Amazon

Credits: ESA/USGS/Deimos Imaging

Tropical forests have been described as the lungs of the planet, breathing in CO₂ and storing it in woody biomass while exhaling oxygen. Deforestation in Amazonia has been in the news recently because of deregulation and increased forest clearing in Brazil but it had been taking place, perhaps not so rapidly, for decades. This animation shows dramatic loss of rainforest in the western Brazilian state of Rondonia between 1986 and 2010, as observed by satellites.

5. A megacity-sized iceberg

Source: ESA

The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains enough frozen water to raise global sea level by 58 metres if it all ended up in the ocean. The floating ice shelves that fringe the continent act as a buffer and barrier between the warm ocean and inland ice but they are vulnerable to both oceanic and atmospheric warming.

This animation shows the break-off of a huge iceberg dubbed A-74, captured by satellite radar images that have the advantage they can “see” through clouds and operate day or night and are thus unaffected by the 24 hours of darkness that occurs during the Antarctic winter. The iceberg that forms is 1,270 km² in area which is about the same size as Greater London.

These examples illustrate just a few ways in which satellite data are providing unique, global observations of key components of the climate system and biosphere that are essential for our understanding of how the planet is changing. We can use this data to monitor those changes and improve models used to predict future change. In the run up to the vitally important UN climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow this November, colleagues and I have produced a briefing paper to highlight the role Earth observation satellites will play in safeguarding the climate and other systems that we rely on to make this beautiful, fragile planet habitable.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Physical Geography, University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jonathan Bamber

Bristol Mock COP Negotiations – Mobilising Imaginations for Ambitious Outcomes

Screenshot of Mock COP26 hosts and facilitators (Master’s students)

On 30 March, Jack Nicholls, Emilia Melville and Camille Straatman from the Cabot Institute for the Environment hosted an online simulation of the COP26 that will happen in Glasgow in November this year. It was set to be in equal measures a playful exercise of the imagination, and deep dive into the acronym-filled world of global climate politics. Students from 11 school groups would represent various state and non-state actors, and 12 Master’s students would facilitate the negotiations, myself included.

It was the first public engagement exercise of its kind for a University in the COP26 Universities Network,  an experimental activity that hoped to lead to a replicable blueprint for other Universities could follow. So, whilst it was all carefully planned, some questions lingered after the training pre-session for facilitators, which would go unanswered until the students appeared on screen the following day:

How will the school groups engage with the exercise? What will they say relative to what we think the real negotiations will be like, and how will they navigate representing actors with values that don’t align with their own? What kind of knowledge and insights will they bring to debates on a broad range of climate resolutions? How might their votes and outcomes differ from those emerging from the real thing in November?

My preparation for facilitating the group of ‘UK delegates’ consisted of re-reading Boris Johnson’s ‘10 point plan for a green industrial revolution’ and the information Cabot Institute members have shared about financing a green transition. The briefing letter we’d received from the ‘PM’ staunchly asserted our actor aims: to protect home economic interests and industries, green or not, avoid any aid obligations to other countries that may hinder our progress towards achieving our own ambitious climate goals, proving that we are indeed on track to achieve these, and convincing others to follow our lead.

The first thing I asked the group once we’d arrived in our breakout room was whether or not they were ready to put their floppy blonde wigs on, eliciting an amusing collective groan. But, they’d done their research on climate action in the UK, and it showed. Students were clearly up to date on climate action in Bristol, updating me on the upcoming diesel ban in Bristol’s Clean Air Zone, which was passed last month and will be implemented in October. This was great for framing the UK’s ambitious Net Zero Emissions (NZE) goals in terms of their impact at city level and on our own lives.

Their background knowledge of issues like nature conservation, sustainable agriculture, and the refugee crisis meant that they took a more progressive stance on some resolutions than one might expect from our conservative government to do so in November. For example, whilst protecting natural assets in the British countryside is often positioned as simply a point of national pride, and agricultural reform hasn’t been a priority. When one student told us that there are only ‘60 growing seasons left in the UK,’ in our current intensive agricultural model, a shocking number that I hadn’t heard before, they decided to vote strongly for a sustainable agriculture transition.

I prompted them to consider the economic concerns that may shape discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the USA in the upcoming rounds, like the Green Industrial Revolution, job security and funding for achieving UK’s ambitious NZE goals. I almost didn’t want the group to step into the more pro-economic and nationalistic agenda they’d been briefed with but was as amused and impressed as the rest when our spokesperson and many of the others dazzled us with compelling impressions of the leaders they represented.

Despite their dramatic flair and feel for the roles, all groups demonstrated an open-minded ambition that I hope we are fortunate enough to find amongst the attendees of the COP26 Blue Zone.

The IMF was represented by two Master’s students, Lucy and Tilly, who had stepped in when one school couldn’t make it to the negotiations. They lobbied hard. But we met consensus on pretty much all the resolutions: a combination of their assertiveness, the UK group’s willingness to be flexible, and their own values meant that resolutions previously not outlined as top priorities (like climate refugee protection) were seriously considered. Their reservations on this resolution, due to needs for job security in a just transition, as well as pre-existing population density, were met with deliberations on ‘why not, then, commit to welcoming as many refugees as we can? If all countries collaborated on this resolution, wouldn’t the ‘burden’ be reduced? So, why not?’ 

Thanks to a successful first round, we had the IMF’s support for resolutions on phasing out coal and non-electric vehicles to mobilise against the USA, who we anticipated might be hesitant to make bold fossil-fuel energy and vehicle phase outs. Spurred by the decisive negotiating they’d witnessed, the UK took the front foot in their following negotiations, securing agreements in both.

Unlike in the pre-arranged 1st and 2nd rounds, the groups got to list which groups they wanted to meet with in the 3rd round. The UK were hoping for Brazil, or Shell. But a ‘wildcard’ meant that the group were surprised to meet with the International Working Group Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and had to think on their feet. IWIGIA were lobbying for votes to amend the resolution on protecting nature and biodiversity so that Indigenous peoples living on areas designated as protected would be in charge of their management. The UK group voted against this amendment, deciding that the UK’s stance would probably be that top-down governance is necessary to reach ambitious climate goals. In my opinion, the best outcome was that Indigenous people’s rights to agency in decision-making on unceded, threatened lands was brought to the fore. I was very happy to see that the students could discuss decolonising the climate movement on the fly like that.

Throughout the negotiations, the UK shelved the staunchly independent rhetoric in their briefing letter about avoiding other countries’ climate burdens as they realised as a group that interdependence was at the heart of most of the issues they discussed. Whilst decisive action from the UK might spur other countries to follow suit, our futures also depend on reaching consensus with them.

Before we had started, I’d thought I could anticipate what role the student’s imaginations would play: getting into character and arguing in line with the actor’s values. But, the group showed me that their imaginations were fit for different purposes: for interrogating why not vote for best case scenario outcomes, and for thinking through problems-as-solutions. For example, the UK may not yet have a strong stance on biodiversity, nature and sustainable agriculture, and our climate obligations seem to represent a point of national pride rather than our collective planetary futures. But, amongst these ‘delegates,’ the intra-group discussions sounded a bit like ‘why not walk away from COP26 with strong commitments to reinvent our food systems, and to protect our wildlife? Wouldn’t these be positive outcomes and proud new communication points for the UK?’

It wasn’t just the ability to debate – not to be downplayed amongst this informed, passionate and articulate group – but to listen, and situate themselves in the perspectives of the groups with whom they were negotiating, that led to agreements for addressing collective problems. What I had assumed would be rapid-fire negotiation rounds seemed to become a crash-course in consensus decision making, a skill I’m sure they’ll go on to hone.

In the debrief session, students were asked if they had participated in any peaceful protests or intended to in future. It’s fair to say that a new spirit of rebellion is rising amongst the nation’s teens, who are increasingly realising their stakes, power, and responsibility in shaping the future. But, what’s missing from most of these demonstrations is inclusion of manifestations of what this future could be, look like, and feel like. Activities like the Mock COP provide a momentary glimpse at the world they chant is possible when they do take to the street. One in which global leaders are open-minded, co-operative and ambitious, and agreements between them are shared wins.

Of course, meeting consensus is just the first step. There’s a difference between promoting and delivering on climate targets, and our leaders must be held accountable. Meaningful youth engagement exercises like this might be a good starting point for ensuring that outcomes of the real COP26 are in line with young people’s visions of sustainable, viable futures. Because, what we hold global leaders accountable to is up to us. And our youth are natural visionaries. That much is clear.

As Donella Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth asks, ‘who’s idea of reality forces us to “be realistic”? The UK group’s vision of the best-case scenario always took up the centre of the virtual negotiation rooms they entered, rather than the behemoth of brokenness that usually takes up this space and stalls our leaders. If we are to learn something from this Mock COP and the youth voice for climate action more broadly, it’s that “being realistic” about our planetary future does not contradict committing to the best possible outcomes. Quite the opposite, and our leaders need to do both this November.

As COP26 approaches, it’s important that young people are able to engage and to have some insight as to what is happening in the negotiations. A Mock COP is an excellent way to do just that.  Jack Nicholls and Emilia Melville have designed and run a Mock COP26 event for school students ages 16+ which can be run online or in person in the lead up to COP26.  If you would like to run a Mock COP in your university, with local state schools, please join the training session on Tuesday 30 June at 2pm. Register here


This blog is written by Dora Young, Master’s by Research (MScR) student at Cabot Institute for the Environment.

Dora Young is an MScR student and human geographer developing participatory mapping methodologies for environmentally just, inclusive ecological management strategies in Bristol. She is interested in how human lives intersect with urban nature, both in policy and in everyday landscapes facing climate and ecological crises, and reads and writes about these themes in her spare time.





Interested in postgraduate study? The Cabot Institute runs a unique Master’s by Research programme that offers a blend of in-depth research on a range of Global Environmental Challenges, with interdisciplinary cohort building and training. Find out more.

Turning knowledge of past climate change into action for the future

Arctic sea ice: Image credit NASA

It’s more helpful to talk about the things we can do, than
the problems we have caused.

Beth Shapiro,
a molecular biologist and author of How To Clone A Mammoth, gave a hopeful
response to an audience question about the recent UN report stating that one
million species are threatened with extinction.

I arrived at the International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA) 2019
conference, held in Dublin at the end of July, keen to learn exactly that: what
climate scientists can do to mitigate the impact of our rapidly changing
climate. INQUA brings together earth, atmosphere and ocean scientists studying
the Quaternary, a period from 2.6 million years ago to the present day. The
Quaternary has seen repeated and abrupt periods of climate change, making it
the perfect analogue for our rapidly changing future.
In the case of extinctions, if we understand how species
responded to human and environmental pressures in the past, we may be better
equipped to protect them in the present day.

Protecting plants and polar bears

from the University of Finland and colleagues are using the fossil
record to better understand how polar bears adapt to climate change. The Arctic
bears survived the Holocene thermal maximum, between 10,000 and 6,000 years
ago, when temperatures were about 2.5°C warmer than today. Although rising
temperatures and melting sea ice drove them out of Scandinavia, fossil evidence
suggests they probably found a cold refuge around northwest Greenland. This is
an encouraging indicator that polar bears could survive the 1.5°C
warming projected by the IPCC to occur sometime
between 2030 and 2052
, if it continues to increase at the current rate.
Protecting animal species means preserving habitat, so it’s
just as important to study the effects of climate change on plants. Charlotte
from the University of Southampton studies the diversity of plants
during times of abrupt climate change, using Russian lake records. Her results
show that although two thirds of Arctic plant species survived the same warm
period which forced the bears to leave Scandinavia, they too were forced to
migrate, probably moving upslope to colder areas.


If we understand how ecosystems respond to climate change,
we will be better prepared to protect them in the future. But what will future
climate change look like? Again, we can learn a lot by studying the past.

The past is the key to the future

To understand the impact of anthropogenic CO2
emissions on the climate, we must disentangle the effect of CO2 from
other factors, such as insolation (radiation from the Sun reaching the Earth’s
surface). This is the mission of Qiuzhen Yin from UC
Louvain, Belgium, who is studying the relative impact of CO2
on climate during five past warm interglacials
. Tim Shaw, from
Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, presented work on the mechanisms driving
past sea level change
. And Vachel
from the University of Utah is using charcoal as an analogue for
past fire activity
in the Rocky Mountains. By studying the pattern of fire
activity during past warm periods, we can determine which areas are most at
risk in the future.

The 2018 fire season in Colorado was one of the worst on record.

So Quaternary scientists have a lot to tell us about what
our rapidly changing planet might look like in the years to come. But how can
we translate this information into practical action? ‘Science as a human
endeavour necessarily encompasses a moral dimension’, says George Stone from Milwaukee
Area Technical College, USA. Stone’s passionate call to action is part of a
series of talks about how Quaternary climate research can be applied to
societal issues in the 21st Century.

One thing scientists can do is try to engage with
policymakers. Geoffrey
of the International Science Council
is hopeful that by partnering with INQUA and setting up collaborations with
Quaternary scientists, it can help them do that. The International Science
Council has a history of helping to integrate science into major global climate
policy such as the Paris

What can we do ourselves as scientists is to portray
scientific results in a way that is visually appealing and easy to understand,
so they are accessible to the public and to policymakers. Oliver Wilson and
colleagues from the University of Reading are a prime example, as they brought
along 3D printed giant pollen grains which they use for outreach and teaching
as part of the 3D
Pollen Project

Given that it’s easier than ever to publicise your own results,
through channels such as blogs and social media, hopefully a new generation of
Quaternary scientists will leave inspired to engage in outreach and use their
knowledge to make a difference.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Jen
, a PhD student in the School
of Earth Sciences
at the University of Bristol.

Jen Saxby