Harbingers—How to read about the end of the world

Harbingers—How to read about the end of the world, by Bhante Sujato.


Link to the IPBES report mentioned in the essay.

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I was unable to grasp Sujato’s argument. It all seemed to be leading up to some point, but then didn’t really make one.

I think the last sentence said it well.

If anything is to save us, it will not be the potted incantations of positive thinking mantras.

Uncritically engaging with journalism on climate change etc. would lead one to believe there’s still hope. Harbingers seems to make the case that this hope is largely illusory, an artifact of language rather than a genuine possibility.

We don’t know how much can be done about the future. We don’t know whether we can mobilize dramatic change to save a lot, or only some mitigating change to save a little. But people are working and doing the best they can about the approaching deluge. Buddhist teachings can help provide the peace and equanimity to deal with whatever comes.

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It would be nice to find an article or PhD thesis that investigates how change in civilization has historically occurred and uses statistics and socio/psycho-logical knowledge to make suggestions as to how we might best go about changing things.

I’d agree with @DKervick that abandoning hope is a bad idea and that it is unethical to persuade people that giving up is the most reasonable option. Even if our efforts ultimately fail, even if one saves a single insect for a single hour or a minute or even a second, then some good was done. There’s a kind of bias or cognitive error called Psychic Numbing that often leads to neglecting problems because one can’t solve them completely.

Psychic numbing is a psychological phenomenon that causes us to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people. The quote attributed to Jospeh Stalin “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” is an illustration of psychic numbing.

Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue “the one” whose plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of “the one” if that person is just “one of many” as part of a bigger problem. We know that one life is very important, but the difference between 87 and 88 lives at risk feels insignificant. - Arithmetic of Compassion


I recently re-watched the movie The Third Man, based on the Graham Greene Novella of the same title. It presents people facing moral dilemmas in very difficult circumstances in a devastated and military occupied postwar Vienna. Even in those circumstances, some people carry on and do the best they can to prevent the cruel suffering of children and stop the perpetrators. The climax of the film literally takes place in the sewers.

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Wait, I thought this was all tongue in cheek.

He seemed to me to be saying that (a) no leaders in the public space are taking the current threats to the planet seriously, (b) there’s nothing that they can do about it anyway, and © nobody has the courage/clarity to say this directly in the public space.

Being serious, it could be added that:

  • Buddhism teaches impermanence.
  • Buddhist cosmology teaches aeons of endless change.
  • Change is inevitable, so why not accept it as a fact?
  • The only satisfactory way out is for individuals to achieve Nibbana and stop the cycle of rebirth.

Being less serious (perhaps because humour is a useful way of refusing to face unpleasant facts):

  • There was a report on the radio last night that dna research into bed bugs has discovered that the species is twice as old as previously thought and was around at the time of the dinosaurs. I think cockroaches are considered to be this old too. So seeking rebirth as a bed bug or cockroach could be another possible strategy for circumventing the catastrophe and being able to stick around.

If these are indeed his arguments,

There are monks who leave the world, and live peacefully and cheerfully in their kutis. There are people who live in the world, and do the best they can trying to make whatever good can be made of it. And then there are people who sort of leave the world, but then sit outside the window looking in, yelling at everybody about how they are all doing it wrong.


Just a reminder that this forum exists to debate ideas and not personalities.


Frankly, social science isn’t sure whether hope or fear based messaging is more effective, but political scientists are fairly certain that divisive speech breaks up a movement and spoils momentum.

So, instead of wagging fingers condescendingly at people doing something to raise awareness (whether that be Sujato or The Guardian or scientists or anyone talking seriously about the climate), you should instead save your energy for where it matters: elections.

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You should address Bhante Sujato, not me, since he has decided raising awareness and advocating global climate policy agendas is obsolete and delusional, and that we should instead resign ourselves to scouring ancient prophetic scriptures and legends for advice on coping with the End Times.

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To be clear my reply was addressed to both of you. I agree with you that his speech was divisive and uphelpful.

But in trying to beat that fire out, you’ve only ended up fanning the flames of division, as @karl_lew beautifully put it:

The best thing to do is just chill out. If Ajahn wants to cry that the sky is falling, or fossil fuel executives want to burn the planet, that’s their karma.

I just want to make sure we all die friends :slightly_smiling_face:


That’s a good aspiration.

So your reaction is to… write a toxic and pernicious reaction essay to infect everyone else with your own resentment about him?! :joy:

¯_(ツ)_/¯ ok, friend! :slight_smile:


Well right speech includes, sometimes, timeliness. It can’t always be yielding and sweet. I’m not going to just passively sit by and let somebody use the authority of robes to turn the impressionable into apocalyptic cult followers.

Closed temporarily.