To Act, or Not To Act?

National Headquarters  |  January 13, 2020

Op-Ed by Jimmy Yang
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

Tzu Chi USA in partnership with Living the Change will be bringing you stories of real-life journeys and struggles in reducing our everyday impact on the climate. You’ll find these accounts inspired by honesty, sincerity, faith, a deep love for the Earth, and the desire to embrace compassion – the way Living the Change seeks to engage every individual.

We’ve heard it all before. Annual wildfires in California. Extreme snowstorms on the East Coast. Tropical storms after tropical storms devastating coastal regions. Flooding and droughts worldwide. Multiple “once-in-a-millennium” events within a year. “Climate change is the greatest threat of our time!” And with all these signs of imminent danger, the world scrambles for a solution.

We turn to what we know best; marching, protesting, screaming into the ears of our politicians, “climate change ACTION!,” demanding our governments to do something about our predicament because if we don’t do something drastic right now (according to the IPCC’s Special Report, “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC”), we will miss our window to avert catastrophe.

“BUT,” we tell them, “we want to keep eating the things we want to eat. We want to travel conveniently for work and for leisure. We want cheap and affordable energy, and we will have as many children as we want. We refuse to compromise our way of life.”

“Y-yes…it is possible, I suppose,” our politicians respond, enthusiastically.

For the past 30 years, climate change has been in the news, and the phenomenon of “global warming” has been known for a while longer. It seems the more we “take action,” the less gets accomplished and the more resistance to environmental and ecological ideas we encounter.

Environmentalists are demonized; the mere mention of the word conjures up mental images of mentally unstable, unkempt, and barefooted teenagers rebelling against progress and industrialization, who tie themselves to old trees, screaming at loggers doing their job - images designed to infuriate the average Joe.

Sure, we see traces of progress here and there. A few coal power plants shut down worldwide, a few small countries have transitioned to 100% renewable energy, and even a few attempts at implementing carbon taxes – which were quickly met with more riots and protests. Yet, we’re still on track to even greater catastrophe than we’ve predicted.

Our global carbon emissions appear to be on the rise, and the message we have gotten ever since the adoption of the historic Paris agreement is “this is not enough.” Time is running out, and clearly, with the recent failure of negotiations at COP 25, more drastic measures must be taken before it’s too late.

What can we do, then? After all, Buddhist philosophy has always emphasized the acceptance of impermanence.

Shall we recognize that the climate will always be changing, and in the meantime seek the wisdom to accept the fate of our species?

Yet, as practicing Bodhisattvas, it is our duty to relieve suffering, to show the utmost compassion for the most vulnerable of sentient beings. If the climate crisis is not resolved, the suffering will be unprecedented.

Scientists around the world are united in the consensus that climate change is anthropogenic; the importance of recognizing that humans are the cause of this widespread suffering is the responsibility we all must bear, as human beings, to solve the problem – a responsibility so few of us accept.

We can trace the source of the climate crisis to each and every one of us: our consumer-driven lifestyles, our wasteful habits, and our destructive behaviors. It is in the way we live our lives, the society we have built upon the foundation of insatiable needs and wants. Dharma Master Cheng Yen teaches us that we must take responsibility for our own actions, that change must first come from within.

There is much that we can commit to changing within ourselves to mitigate our individual contributions to the climate crisis. We can reduce our energy usage: turn off lights when not in use, purchase energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, open the windows to let air in instead of using air conditioning. We can reduce the number of flights we take for work and for leisure, take public transportation whenever possible, or switch to hybrid or electric vehicles. Most importantly, we can reduce or, better yet, eliminate our meat intake and transition to a healthier, more sustainable plant-based diet. But, this is not new information.

This message has been repeated countless times, and those that are committed to walking the talk have already transitioned their lifestyles. Yet, doubts of our impacts still linger within the rest of us. We know full well these lifestyle changes drastically reduce our individual carbon footprints, and we would enthusiastically pat ourselves on the back at the end of the day after making these commitments.

But making these lifestyle changes is extremely difficult, with the only driving force being our own sense of responsibility of stewardship of the Earth.

Of course, it is much easier to justify our inaction, a route most would take in a nihilistic and a defeatist outlook. Would farmers really breed one less cow when just one person suddenly decides to become a vegetarian? What, exactly, would communicate to farmers to clear one acre less land, or raise one less cow, or grow just one bushel less feed? What about the amount of coal burned or fossil fuels extracted from the ground? How many people going off the grid would it take to make a difference? 

What if thousands of people make these lifestyle changes? What if millions? Would this make a large enough dent in the industrial agriculture and big oil industries for them to make the necessary changes to their business models? All around the world, we’re seeing a transformation towards sustainability.

Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are creating plant-based “meat” for those who are too accustomed to the taste of meat to become a vegetarian. Tesla is leading the way in electric vehicles for those who are unable to use public transportation to get to where they need to without a personal car. Advancements in communications technology now reduce the transportation required for in-person meetings. Global movements like Living the Change, which brings together people of all faiths to make these changes to their lifestyles, generate a shared sense of morality and responsibility to protect our common home.

Maybe, with enough people changing the way they live their lives and, more importantly, the way they spend their money, harmful business practices will change for the better, green policies will face less resistance, and governments will be more willing to take responsibility. Perhaps we can find the answer to this crisis within ourselves. We need to take the fate of our planet into our own hands. All of us.

Learn more about Ethical Eating Day and Living the Change to see how you can make a difference.


Jimmy Yang – Contributor

Jimmy Yang has an MS in Electrical Engineering, and until 2018 was a member of the Avionics department at Virgin Orbit. He currently works at Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Headquarters in San Dimas, CA as a member of the SDG Action Team, focusing on matters relating to climate change and refugees. He leads Tzu Chi’s delegation at the annual UN climate change conferences (UNFCCC/COP) and also maintains the US federal grant that funds Tzu Chi’s free medical program for refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok, Thailand.

More News Stories