Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (2)

Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court toward the end of Earth Day. He was evacuated by helicopter and died in a hospital the next day.

Concerned with government inaction on climate change, and deeply immersed in Buddhist traditions, Bruce chose a dramatic and painful death to demonstrate sincere convictions.

The picture, at right, is from The Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, where Bruce was a frequent volunteer and participant in meditation retreats. The Center posted a memorial–and will post more about his life and efforts. His friends say they knew about his concerns, but not about his plans to self-immolate. Had they known, they stress, they would have tried to stop him to prevent pain and suffering.

Surely, Wynn Bruce knew that, and didn’t tell in advance. He also knew that, despite commitments to avoid suffering and violence, there had been dramatic instances of religious people self-immolating to protest mistreatment of the Vietnamese and Tibetan people.

He surely knew that Norman Morrison, a Quaker, had burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon in 1965, protesting the war in Vietnam, and that David Buckel, a civil rights attorney, had self-immolated in Prospect Park in 2018, protesting climate change. And he must have known that the Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation in 2011 had been the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.

On his Facebook page, Bruce had written about irreversible climate change and threats to the earth, quoted Martin Luther King, and praised young activist, Greta Thunberg.

It’s hard to describe a suicide as strategic, but it’s very clear that Wynn Bruce’s death was purposeful. By choosing an extremely painful way to send a message, he meant to demonstrate commitment and sincerity, as well as a sense of urgency.

So, here’s the dilemma of escalation: Decades of science, political action, cultural struggle, and protest have–as yet–failed to generate anything approaching an adequate response to the reality of climate change. Whatever you’ve been doing hasn’t been enough, so there’s a search for something more. Self-immolation, thankfully, will not be a common choice, but the search for a way to demonstrate commitment more effectively doesn’t follow a predictable or obvious path. Wynn Bruce chose to take the pain on himself rather than imposing it on others.

In the aftermath, the rest of us can argue about impact. Every bit of speculation on Bruce’s frustrations or mental health suggests that his message missed the target. But, to the extent that conversation moves to threats to the Earth, Bruce has left a mark.

Many others are searching for, and trying, other ways to escalate.

Much more to come.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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