As a metaphor for the destruction of the planet, David Buckel doused himself in fossil fuel before starting a fire. He hoped his macabre death would lead to increased action on climate change.
“Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard.” (…)
“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.” (…)
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Our present grows more desperate, our future needs more than what we’ve been doing.”
~ Excerpts from David Buckel’s protest suicide note
Climate change is killing people. And not always in the ways you maybe had imagined it would happen.
“Why didn’t I take the issue more seriously? Why didn’t I talk with my children about it? Why didn’t I help them with finding solutions?”
You may start asking yourself that kind of questions if one morning you are woken up by Police knocking on your door to inform you that your daughter has killed herself as a way to call for increased action on climate change.
I say that because in the city where I live, residents generally seem to think that “climate change is something what will happen somewhere else to someone else” and that they don’t need to even know about it, or talk about it, or respond to it, because “we are busy people around here” and “who cares!”
I’ll try to explain in this blogpost why I think you need to wake up and start paying attention. In particular if you are a parent, or someone who has family or community leadership responsibilities.
An incident in New York on Saturday, that you most likely haven’t even heard about triggered me to write this blogpost – but the topic as such is not new. It has been around for years, and we have talked and written about it often. It’s been one of those phenomenas that seemed destined to happen sooner or later.
The only question today is how far it will go in the months and years to ahead of us.
To illustrate what I am talking about, for a moment let’s travel back to the uprising in the Middle East seven years ago. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was ignited in December 2010, when a young fruit vendor in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, poured paint thinner over his body and lit himself aflame.
His desperate protest act lit a fire that burned across the Arab world in the months to follow.
This video, recorded with a mobile phone by a relative of Bouazizi, when a small group of protesters gathered in front of the city hall, went viral on Facebook shortly after. A month later, there were uprisings in several Arab countries. Powerful images of crowds that gathered at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, went around the world in January and February 2011.
Self-immolation, the act of suicide by setting oneself on fire as a form of political protest, is a desperate, but well-known way to call for international attention on a topic. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Vietnam War, Buddhist monks burned themselves to death to rebel against a repressive regime in South Vietnam.
Inspired by suicides of Tibetans
At 5:30am on Saturday morning, David Buckel – a 60-year-old high-profile US gay rights lawyer and environmental advocate living in New York – sent a message to one of his trainees, calling out sick. 25 minutes later, Buckel sent him an email where he elaborated:
“I apologize for leaving this world early and leaving you with some big challenges to tackle. But I have to at least tried to make this planet a better place for having lived on it.”
He stapled his business card to a handwritten note which he put in inside an envelope marked “For the police” along with a longer typed letter where he expanded on his motivations.
Via email he sent that same letter to the newspapers NY Daily News and the New York Times.
In Prospect Park in Brooklyn at 6:40am, he lit himself on fire. The dramatic method he used to kill himself was intended as a metaphor for how fossil fuels are destroying our planet.
“I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” read the hand-written suicide note he had put it in a nearby shopping trolley near the scene of the suicide.
In his letter to the newspapers, David Buckel compared his demise with the suicides of Tibetans who set themselves afire to protest China’s occupation of Tibet.
Time will tell whether David’s self-immolation was one single incident in the history of climate policy – or if it is going to be the start of something that grows to become a movement, as it happened in Tibet.
“This is not new, as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see,” he wrote and also included photos of Tibetans who has used self-immolation.
If the topic of climate change worries you, talk with someone about how you feel. In Australia, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. That’s a crisis support service ready to give you advice and support. International suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
The news generally does not report much about suicides for fear of creating a ‘copycat’-effect. Exceptions are made, however, for public knowledge cases and extremely famous people. And when it comes to suicides involved with terrorism, news media for some reason has a tendency to forget all about any code of conduct and reports with excitement about the act and the planning of it in every little detail – disregarding that this creates exactly the kind of publicity that was the objective of the terror act, and which potentially feeds the copycats.
At The Sustainable Hour, we believe David Buckel’s case belongs to the ‘public knowledge’ category. It calls for an exception because there is a need for public knowledge and education about his motivations, and which kind of reality it is that drove him to turn his own death into a protest statement. He’d have hoped the story of his death to be told around the world for the unselfish reason of protecting the environment.
As much as we discourage suicide, responsible parents, caretakers and politicians need to educate themselves about this topic. Climate change is not just a question of scientific measures and various debates back and forth about renewable energy targets in the parliaments. What David Buckel have just shown this weekend is that the global climate crisis has now reached that level of danger and scope, where it shakes people in their foundations.
We now live in a world where there are members of our community who are ready to “give their lives” as a way of protesting against the unacceptable situation that this collective, public inaction on pollution is creating.
There are no records that he should have suffered from any mental illness. “Buckel never appeared depressed or hopeless,” said Erik Martig, a compost consultant who worked closely with Buckel between 2001 and 2015. On the contrary, Buckel underlined in his last letter that he was privileged with “good health to the final moment.”
“Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” Buckel wrote, adding that “donating to organisations is not enough.”
Only a question of time
The bottom line in this is that we can no longer claim to be surprised if there are people out there who get inspired from what David Buckel did. And since climate change is a direct result of our own governments’ mismanagement of their responsibilities to protect us, we have every reason to hold our governments accountable for each climate-related killing – those where people get killed in climate change-infused weather events, as well as those who died at their own hand as an act of protest.
The last five years, as we have seen the scientific data about climate change and global warming get worse and worse, while governments and industries keep ignoring the consequences of their inaction, we have talked quietly and off-air in The Sustainable Hour’s editorial room about that there will come a day when people begin to do more desperate things. This sort of thing.
We have also at times talked about it on air in the program, as we did for instance in June 2014, ‘Climate ignorance responsible for teenage despair’, in May 2016, ‘How we repond to the spiraling climate emergency’, and in September 2016, Benefits from understanding the connection between climate and mental health.
When some people are willing to do detonate a suicide-bomb for their religion or to promote various political agendas, obviously there will also be people who eventually are prepared to do it for the biggest threat of all to the future of human life on this planet.
You may not have noticed. But in the climate activism space, that day has now arrived.
Of many news stories – see the media coverage list below – Fortune Magazine is the only news-provider that, while reporting on Buckel’s death, takes a moment to describe to the reader what is going on with our climate, and in that way reflect on why Buckel was so concerned about it.
The magazine writes:
“Recent years, and even recent days, have seen alarming signs that climate change is progressing even faster than scientists had previously projected. Climate scientists this week announced findings that an Atlantic Ocean current that helps equalize global temperatures has slowed drastically, in part because of human-caused climate change, potentially leading to disastrous climate shifts in Europe.
Meanwhile, U.S. political leadership has rolled back efforts to limit the carbon emissions that cause climate change. The Trump administration announced in June of last year that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Earlier this month, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency — led by the embattled, free-spending Scott Pruitt — announced that it would roll back fuel economy standards set under President Barack Obama.”
“David Buckel’s work was based in the belief that stories of real people’s lives and bodies could change minds, hearts, and policy.”
~ Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
Composting expert nominated for Unsung Hero Award
David Buckel has been described as “a committed activist who believed responsible management of organic waste could build stronger communities.” At the time of his death, Buckel was senior organics recovery coordinator with the NYC Compost Project. He previously was a volunteer coordinator of Added Value Red Hook Community Farm, where he practiced composting.
Buckel wrote a guide for compositing in urban areas, ‘Guidelines for Urban Community Composting’. He was nominated for a Solid Waste Association of North America Unsung Hero Award for his work in composting and for the environment.
By 11am on Saturday, the authorities had removed Buckel’s burned body, leaving a blackened patch of scorched grass and a circular indentation around which parks officials placed two orange cones.
“I apologize to you for the mess,” David had written in his note.
“A lifetime of service may best be preserved by giving a life … Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purchase in death. … I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others,” he wrote, hoping that his death would serve as a call to action.
Here’s the thing: David Buckel’s call is intensified by a call from 30,000 climate scientists who say we already too late in many areas. We need to step up tremendously to the challenge of reducing our climate pollution. Now.
And David, really, you shouldn’t have to apologise for anything. We are in a deep mess already. Collectively. Your call only stresses that we are not doing enough, and it underlines why we must commit to do more in the months and years to come.
We can’t do this on our own. We can only do it together. That is the curse of the wicked problem called climate change. But it can also turn out as a blessing, because it brings the communities together in new ways and with a common purpose.
“We knew David Buckel. He was a close family friend of one of my wife’s best friends. I always felt that he and his husband Terry were the epitome of what it meant to be an adult: gracious, considerate, good humored, friendly, open. I think of all the articles I’ve read over the past days about his sacrifice this one tells his story the best. I hope that his sacrifice has some of the effect that he wanted, and pray too that the possibility of that will somewhat ease the great sorrow and pain that is left.”
~ Dale Williams, 18 April 2018
I'm so saddened and heartsick over the death of David Buckel.
He asked that we be better humans. We must.
— Michael DeVito for Congress (@mdevitojr) April 15, 2018
“I’m so saddened and heartsick over the death of David Buckel. My pledge to the Off Fossil Fuels Act will continue in his honor. He asked that we be better humans. We must. Condolences to all who loved him.”
~ Michael DeVito, New York democrat
“Someone’s comment elsewhere: “Self immolation for a great cause is a tactic of last resort in struggles for social and in this case environmental justice. It was the self immolation of Thích Quảng Đức that first called the world’s attention to the injustices being perpetrated by the SOUTH Vietnamese government on its minority populations during the Vietnam war that first drew world attention on the questionable nature of the war to begin with. It was the self immolation of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi who ignited the Arab Spring and the fight for democracy in the Middle East, a fight which has had some successes (Tunisia), some failures (Syria) and some stalled progress, but nevertheless is ongoing.
David Buckel’s death must be seen in this light. (If this was not murder,) This was not a “suicide” and should not be treated as such, this was a political act meant to serve as a wake up call for the death and destruction that fossil fuels rain down on us every day, from particulate and chemical pollution of our air and waters to the scourge of plastic waste.
Do not let his death be in vain! (And do not belittle it, either) I for one, will honor him by being even more forceful in my advocacy for sustainable energy use, and for the banning of plastics and the recycling of plastic waste (as Germany does, into roads). David Buckel, I hear you.”
~ Michelle Matsumoto
“Buckel was all about justice, but he was also all about what it means to be human. He was a very smart and methodical lawyer. He knew his craft and his trade and was strategic in how to build the blocks toward a sweeping victory.”
~ Susan Sommer, general counsel for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York City
“He gave a statement, and that’s really what he wanted.”
~ Cindy Vail to NY Daily News
“I posted the BBC article on David Buckel’s suicide a few days ago but note that his death continues to receive considerable comment in a number of eco discussion groups.
My view is that our movement needs to do more to provide emotional support to those who may contemplate an extreme act, or suffer such despair that they give up the fight. If I could talk to activists this is what I would say: –
We are faced with very many reports indicating that humanity is on the cusp of complete and utter catastrophe and others that say we may have a bit more time before the runaway greenhouse effect overwhelms us and kills most life on the planet.
Despite the scale of the threat and the agonisingly stupid risks our species are taking, most people carry on their daily lives as if there is absolutely nothing wrong. We see that the world’s poorest are already dying in large number, we see the imminent danger of mass loss of life and we also see our friends and family carrying on regardless, often doing nothing to stop the crisis; indeed often living lifestyles that make matters worse.
It is this disconnect that can drive activists to a state of complete despair.
What we need to be saying to each other is not you’re stupid or senseless if you consider what David did, we need to respond to this act by talking to every activist and reminding them that we need them to live and to fight. We need every single one of you. We cannot possibly win if key people give up the fight, even if their final act was an attempt to draw attention to the crisis.
Fighting climate change is the most noble of endeavours because those who have the emotional strength to do it often have to stand alone, apart from their families and communities, and also face condemnation from the malicious, lazy, selfish section of society.
We need to celebrate the courage of the scientists who tell the brutal truth and the climate change activists who carry on despite the odds. And, as we fight to stop devastating climate change, we also need to change the mind-set of our movement; away from despair and to focus upon something that is incredibly positive. We need to celebrate that ‘inner strength’ that makes scientists and activists so unique and sets us apart; the courage to make a stand, and never give up in the battle to save our species and all species of life from extinction. What work could be a more vital or more noble than that?”
~ Jonathan N Fuller, 18 April 2018
“It’s such a desperate act … I’m devastated by what he felt he had to do. I don’t admire the fact that he killed himself. I just wonder how bad has it gotten? If this guy who has spent his life fighting the good fight has given up?”
~ Isa Cucinotta, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, New York
“Kneeling, David poured a fossil fuel all over his body. After numerous thoughts about his love for all of us, David struck a match. Though the fire was immense, it was no match for the fire that burned within him. In those moments, David Buckel shared his love with the world. I can still see his flame.”
~ Jeff Hood, Patheos.com
“It’s terribly sad, but I can imagine his frustration and despondency. It’s so crazy the way leaders and business are ignoring this mortal threat to us all. But it’s sad because I don’t think his suicide will change much, whereas his ongoing life of action would have achieved a lot more (by the sounds of what he did in the past). But i have to admit that most people (including myself) are guilty of avoiding this painful issue most of the time by just getting on with enjoying life – so maybe his suicide will wake a few more people up to take more action on climate change.”
~ Suzie Brown, Barwon Heads, currently California
“This was a person who cares deeply for all humans. Such a huge loss for our world. But he saw what is happening to it and did not believe anything is going to get better. He felt the earth is being destroyed and no one can stop it.”
~ DyAnn Sturgis, 18 April 2018
“I have mixed feelings on this one. I think it might even be counterproductive. I think a climate denier who sees someone commit suicide might just use that as evidence that “they’re all crazy.” It also makes me wonder if “woke-ness” inevitably leads to misery for the compassionate.”
~ Will Soule, 19 april 2018
‘Troll’ response in youtube comment-threads
“You killed yourself for nothing, because there is no such thing as global warming.”
~ Comment on Youtube
“Imagine how many of these nut burgers will “Self-Emulate” once President Trump get’s re-elected in 2020? I’ll be there filming every second of it. LOL”
~ mark lucca
“The religion of the left now has another martyr.”
“He used fossil fuel to ignite himself? What a fucking loon. The only purpose this guy served by doing this was burning a huge pile of shit, himself. This is NOT a honourable death. He died for no one. He solved nothing. I gotta go get some gas now, bye.”
~ M P.L
“And what did he use to set himself on fire? I guess maybe fossil fuels do have their uses.”
~ G MinK
“There is nothing like a suicidal hypocrite to really make you think, that with any luck this will be a trend amongst litigators”
~ lost on long island
Youtube videos with David Buckel
“David Buckel, an Added Value volunteer at the Red Hook Community Farm, explains how to build a windrow. This method is used to make rich compost for the local community.”
“David Buckel of Red Hook Community Farm reviews challenges and solutions for composting in urban areas with rat populations.”
» New York Times – 14 April 2018:
Prominent Lawyer in Fight for Gay Rights Dies After Setting Himself on Fire in Prospect Park
» New York Times – 15 April 2018:
He Called Out Sick, Then Apologized for Leaving This World
» NY Daily News – 14 April 2018:
Famed gay rights lawyer sets himself on fire at Prospect Park in protest suicide against fossil fuels
» NY Daily News – 15 April 2018:
Lawyer who killed himself in fossil fuels protest made the statement he wanted, partner says
» New York Magazine – 15 April 2018:
Shock and Grief After Gay-Rights Lawyer Lights Himself on Fire in Brooklyn
“A prominent gay-rights lawyer committed suicide by setting himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in early Saturday morning, leaving a note that lamented humankind’s role in creating ecological disaster.”
» The Guardian – 15 April 2018:
David Buckel, prominent New York LGBT lawyer, dies after setting himself on fire
“Buckel, known for case about murdered transgender man portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry, alluded to fossil fuel protest to New York Times.”
» The New Daily – 15 April 2018:
Famed US lawyer burns himself alive to protest global warming
» Mirror UK – 14 April 2018:
‘I apologise for the mess’: Famous lawyer and green activist commits self-immolation in New York park
» Hollywood Reporter – 14 April 2018:
‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Lawyer Dies by Setting Himself on Fire in Park
» Seattle Times – 14 April 2018:
Prominent gay-rights activist dies after setting himself on fire in New York
» Sydney Morning Herald – 15 April 2018:
Environmental advocate dies after setting himself on fire in New York
“New York City: A prominent gay rights lawyer has died after setting himself on fire in a New York park to protest against pollution and the use of fossil fuels”
» Agence France-Presse | The Jakarta Post – 15 April 2018:
Prominent US lawyer dies after setting himself on fire in protest
» Fortune – 15 April 2018:
Renowned Gay Rights Lawyer Self-Immolates in Protest of Climate Policy
» Huffington Post – 15 April 2018:
Prominent LGBTQ Lawyer Sets Self On Fire In ‘Protest Suicide’ Of Climate Change
“David Buckel said he killed himself with “fossil fuel” to show “what we are doing to ourselves”.”
» The Daily Beast – 15 April 2018:
Activist Found Burned to Death in ‘Protest Suicide’ in Brooklyn Park
» BuzzFeed – 15 April 2018:
A Famous LGBT Rights Lawyer Set Himself On Fire In New York As A “Protest Suicide”
» NCB New York – 15 April 2018:
Man Dies Setting Himself on Fire in Prospect Park, Leaves Note Nearby: Police
» Patch – 15 April 2018:
David Buckel, Famed Lawyer, Dies In ‘Protest Suicide’: Report
» The New Yorker – 16 April 2018:
Remembering David Buckel, the Pioneering Lawyer Who Championed L.G.B.T. Rights
» Mysanantonio.com – 17 April 2018:
Gay rights lawyer immolates self in NYC in ecology protest
» The Guardian – 17 April 2018:
More than 95% of world’s population breathe dangerous air, major study finds
“More than 95% of the world’s population breathe unsafe air and the burden is falling hardest on the poorest communities, with the gap between the most polluted and least polluted countries rising rapidly, a comprehensive study of global air pollution has found. Cities are home to an increasing majority of the world’s people, exposing billions to unsafe air.”
» TIME – 19 April 2018:
Climate Change Is Making Deadly Air Pollution Worse in Cities Across the U.S.
“Temperature increases linked to climate change are worsening air pollution in communities across the country right now contributing to a range of health problems from asthma to premature death, according to a new report from the American Lung Association.”
» Environmental Health News – 19 April 2018:
Why is the air getting worse instead of better?
“Pittsburgh scores all F’s on the American Lung Association’s air quality report card.”
» JPratt27 – 18 April 2018:
95% of world’s population breathe dangerous air
» Grist – 13 April 2018:
Trump’s new executive order spells disaster for our air quality
Polluted air: health risk
“It’s increasingly clear that the effects of air pollution aren’t constrained to body parts below the shoulders — they can hurt the brain in a whole host of ways, many of which researchers are still trying to understand. Polluted air can even affect the cognitive development of babies and children.”
“About 92 percent of the world’s population, and more than half the people in the United States, live in areas with unhealthy air quality. The World Health Organization calls air pollution the world’s “largest single environmental health risk,” and it leads to the premature deaths of millions annually. It’s a major public health problem for reasons you might expect: breathing in dirty air isn’t good for your lungs, and the the connection between the lungs and the cardiovascular system means it puts pressure on your heart, too.
But it’s increasingly clear that the effects of air pollution aren’t constrained to body parts below the shoulders—they can hurt the brain in a whole host of ways, many of which researchers are still trying to understand. One major area of interest? The way exposure to polluted air can affect the cognitive development of babies and children. Researchers aren’t shocked to find that an environmental toxin could harm young brains, because they’ve seen it happen before.”
» Popular Science – 5 April 2018:
Air pollution might be the new lead
“The parallel isn’t perfect, but studies suggest air pollution might have similar developmental effects. Scientists now think air pollution might put young brains at risk.”
Who’s to blame for climate change?
Everyone shares the climate change blame. As a whole we fail to do our part to curb climate change.
If David Buckel’s self-immolation doesn’t create a response similar to what happened in the Middle East in 2011, it would most likely be because – as the fossil fuel companies are arguing as well in court – we, the consumers of fossil fuels, all share a good part of the blame for causing climate change.
Who are we to protest against the oil companies as long as we keep buying their products? Who are we to point fingers at our government? We knew their sceptic stand on climate change action when we voted them in.
The public has been painfully aware of the climate threat for over a decade. The subject was popularised in Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ in 2006. Yet 12 years later, Americans and Australians are still buying gas guzzling trucks and SUVs, while hybrid and electric vehicles account for just three per cent of new car sales in the US and even less in Australia.
Our support to real climate policy is shallow. It’s not an issue that decides votes, so policymakers aren’t pressured to take action. We are not doing our part AT ALL.
The government was democratically elected. We do have a choice. We either vote for climate action or inaction.
Accountability is coming
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the mounting climate costs, but so far, taxpayers are footing the whole bill. There may eventually be a court case in which the fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry before it, is held responsible for its role in deceiving the public about the dangers of carbon pollution. During the last 50 years, fossil fuel companies, scientists and politicans have all been aware of the climate threat.
In Australia, voters will eventually punish the Coalition for its climate denial and policy obstruction. Accountability is coming.
» The Guardian – 16 April 2018:
The courts are deciding who’s to blame for climate change
“Oil companies? The government? The public? All of the above share the blame.”
If the topic of climate change worries you, talk with someone about how you feel. In Australia, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. That’s a crisis support service ready to give you advice and support. International suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org