Climate Corner: Thank you, Mr. Bruce

Apr 30, 2022

Aaron Dunbar

I’d like to take a moment to honor the sacrifice of the late Wynn Alan Bruce, who departed this life following an act of self-immolation outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building this Earth Day. Bruce, a Shambhala Buddhist and photojournalist, is described by friends and family as having been a kind and compassionate man, as well as deeply concerned about the environment and the ecological breakdown of Earth’s biosphere.

“This guy was my friend,” wrote Zen priest and climate scientist Kritee Kanko. “He meditated with our sangha. This act is not suicide. This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis.”

Unsurprisingly, Bruce’s final actions have been met with criticism from some, mockery from others, as well as questions regarding the legitimacy of self-immolation as a form of demonstration. I neither endorse nor condemn the act of self-immolation, but I would strongly argue the attempt to delegitimize it as a form of demonstration is, itself, illegitimate.

Bruce’s actions appear to have been inspired in part by the demonstrations of Vietnamese monks throughout the 1960s and 70s. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, of whom Bruce was an admirer, once wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King of such individuals:

“The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The Press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one, or more, small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.”

What Wynn Alan Bruce had to say with his final act in this life was indeed of the utmost importance, expressed in as stark and compassionate a way as possible. Aside from nuclear war, there is no greater threat faced by civilization today than runaway, irreversible climate change

Day by day, the prospect of an unlivable planet for future, and in many places present generations, becomes more a reality. On the same day Wynn Alan Bruce’s life came to an end, U.N. Secretary General Anonio Guterres made it clear the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters must begin drastically reducing emissions within the next 36 weeks, in order to have a hope of averting climate catastrophe.

This comes as the U.S. Supreme Court, the apparent intended recipient of Bruce’s message, considers the case of West Virginia v. EPA, a suit pertaining to the Clean Air Act, with the court’s right wing extremist judges appearing poised to slash the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

As the crisis of climate change grows more and more alarming, and as the stakes become higher and higher, the industrialized world proves itself not only incapable of adapting to difficult circumstances, but indeed, bound and determined to exacerbate and accelerate its destruction every step of the way.

It is my sincerest hope the actions of Wynn Alan Bruce are not relegated to the misguided efforts of an insane man, but are instead accurately seen as the deeply compassionate actions of a kind and clear-eyed individual, as we, the living, continue with the true insanity of setting the world aflame, relentlessly fanning the fires as we watch our only home burn to the ground around us.

Thank you, Mr. Bruce, for your sacrifice. May you rest in peace, and may we keep your message forever at heart as we consider what manner of world we wish to create for ourselves, and for the children of future generations.


Aaron Dunbar is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.