The bystander effect and the looming threat of ecosystem collapse

Below is an excerpt from Caitlin Johnstone’s article It’s Really Weird How Little We Talk About Humanity’s Imminent Doom which is an attempt to raise awareness towards the paradox we are living through. I think this is import for Buddhists as well because if insects and plankton die, the ecosystem collapses and the Dhamma dies.

Did you know the insects are vanishing?

They are. Land-dwelling insects like butterflies, ants and grasshoppers are now half as common as they were 75 years ago; that’s why those of you who remember catching fireflies on summer nights as kids don’t see them much anymore, and why car windshields don’t get covered in dead bugs like they used to.

This is a part of the animal kingdom that the rest of the ecosystem is built upon, and it’s undergone a drastic plummet that we’ve personally witnessed in our own lifetimes. If you were a sapient insect watching it happen, you wouldn’t be thinking in terms of a future armageddon, you’d feel that you were currently witnessing it.

People bicker and argue about global warming and what should be done about it and if it even exists, but climate change is only one of the many ways our biosphere is moving toward death. There’s also been a shocking loss of two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife in the last 50 years, ecosystems dying off, forests disappearing, soil becoming rapidly less fertile, mass extinctions, oceans gasping for oxygen and becoming lifeless deserts while continents of plastic form in their waters, and the aforementioned insect apocalypse. The way the debate fixates solely on temperature and carbon levels is like if someone had stage four cancer throughout their body and they were in a coma and their vital signs were dropping and the doctor said death is imminent, and everyone was stuck on arguing over whether or not low blood pressure is necessarily a bad thing.

And nothing’s being done about global warming anyway. Conspiracy types have been claiming for decades that it’s a hoax designed to advance this or that agenda, and during that time the only thing that’s advanced is the temperature of the planet and the ecocidal capitalist systems responsible for it. The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference has seen world leaders issue a non-binding pledge to achieve carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century” while taking naps and tossing coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain for “luck” in addressing the issue they could all solve quickly if they actually wanted to. “Carbon neutrality” is itself a highly misleading and potentially completely worthless neoliberal sham designed to allow the continuation of carbon output but attempting to fix it with more consumption.

Meanwhile methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon in the short term—has started hemorrhaging into the atmosphere from thawing arctic permafrost, and no one really knows what to do about it. This, like the albedo effect of polar ice loss and numerous other self-reinforcing warming effects that have been unlocking in recent years, can potentially cause the Earth to continue warming all on its own regardless of future human behavior.

That’s all on top of the western empire ramping up world-threatening aggressions against both nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed China simultaneously, a multi-front cold war the likes of which we’ve never seen before and which is only just barely getting started. And if we don’t wipe ourselves out by climate collapse or nuclear war, we could still easily do it fairly soon with weaponized AI.

So our species is facing existential threats on myriad fronts which could easily lead to horrifying extinction-level events that we could easily see unfold in our own lifetimes.

And it’s just so very strange how we don’t talk about that more.

It’s like if you knew you had a deadly but treatable disease, and not only did you not pursue treatment, you also didn’t think about it much and didn’t talk about it with anyone. None of your friends even brought it up.

The way we’re just sitting around going about our lives like this isn’t happening reminds me of that experiment where participants sit in a waiting room that’s filling up with smoke without knowing that the experiment is already underway. If the participants are alone they’ll generally take action to do something about the problem, but if they’re in the waiting room with other people who are secretly in on the experiment and have been told to ignore the smoke, the participant will also ignore it. The smoke machine can be billowing into the waiting room at levels that would have killed everyone in it if it were real smoke, and they’ll still remain inactive.

We’re all kind of doing that right now with humanity’s impending doom. Nobody else seems to be worried about it, so why should we? If it were a big deal then surely the news would be talking about it, and surely our leaders would be doing more about it. It’s the bystander effect in action, on a worldwide scale.

It’s what Bo Burnham calls “that funny feeling”, that peculiar experience of watching the smoke pouring into the room while no one does anything, of knowing we’re hurtling toward our destruction while the media run headlines like “Elijah Wood touted a newly acquired NFT. A racism scandal ensued.

A funny feeling indeed.

But of course it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can help our species fight its way out of our waiting room stupor by taking action to spread awareness of the problems we face and their underlying causes, since spreading awareness is the only thing that ever makes any real difference in such matters anyway. Whether we’re on our way to our doom or not, and whether struggle is futile or not, working to help as a gratuitous act of love is still the sanest possible response to this glorious mess.


To illustrate the issue further, here is a video made by a youtuber / science fiction author best known for obsessing over the Fermi paradox, but here he draws what I deem an important parallel between what is happening now and the greatest mass extinction in the history of our planet (where 95% of all marine species disappeared)

The Day the Oxygen Went Away

This is no joke.

I am 40. When I was 10, the fireflies in my suburban backyard were so thick you could take a step without bumping into 20 of them.

Now, if I can see 2 or 3, it’s a lucky day. Most nights I see none.


Thats a really dense thing to read and I didn’t find it pleasant. Thats with ‘no offence’ intended. It’s the nature of the problem to be tough but at least you’re facing it. At the end of the day it’s the threat of death that is so scary. So yeah you’ve noticed there’s a problem. Now we need to stay open minded to find effective solutions.

So one problem is that most things are out of control. Accept it because its true. Realise what you can control and take action on that. You are your own master so slowly train yourself to make the right decisions. You can make choices. The even if 7 billion other humans don’t make the right decisions you know you have contributed your best and that will probs make you happy and encourage you to keep going. People have free will and its not a good idea to control the world to make change because that done from the wrong place. Decisions made from wisdom are far more powerful than the willed power. Just do what you can do and thats great.

One point we need to accept is that its ok for the world to change. When the wind blows trying to stop it with your hand is ineffective. Its much more effective to embrace the change and go sailing or something. If the wind docent blow then play badminton. Adapt

So yeah if we are going to stay happy during these times of change we need to have preparations for slow change aswell as fast change.

I don’t know how much the sea might rise but one solution that makes sense is using our own resources and skills to build what we can for ourselves on higher ground. Build houses on stilts, have boats. Then when sea levels rise walk up the hill. Its rudely simple but issnt that a solution. Then the threat of death is much less.

Focus on what you can do and build relationships with people around you. Stay warm and act out solutions. Don’t wait to follow others because then you may never do what you think is right. What you going to do next? Think ‘how am I going to do this’ not ‘can I do this’


I googled how much of the world is 5 meters above sea level. Find out where those areas are and buy space for yourself and other ostriches who have their head in the sand. Then you will be more prepared. If you don’t have enough money yourself create opportunity’s through crowd funding to achieve what you want. If you can’t take any action then just forget about it and make merit in your life while you are still here. If you don’t make merit then just enjoy yourself and keep your fingers crossed :wink:

Yes, I agree. The following words by Dalai Lama I have found helpful ( the photo is of
a poster from Chuang Yen Monastery noticeboard, which I photographed in 2014):

So we don’t give up on cultivating the N8FP, and it includes helping to make this world better for everyone - cleaner, healthier physically and mentally. And there are many ways we can do so and encourage others also, and as we do we learn and get more ideas on what to do next. Given the prospect and dangers of rebirth, what else is there worth doing?


Right. So let’s imagine that I’ve just created a Go Fund Me page for £1,000,000 to buy me land 5m above sea level. I will invite my friends to come stay with me when my house floods in 20 years time. If you want to contribute thank you. If there is not space for you in the house because I have too many chairs I will let you use my Laser Dinghy. Kind of a joke but if it works happy days.

That is not what I had in mind - me, my house and raising money.

Rather, apart from one’s own personal way of life, contributing to United Nations Decade on Ecosystems Restoration, and other ways that do not require much money.

City of Sydney initiative is an example of a way to help transform cities from inside out, increase pollinators and other wildlife and help people reconnect with nature - part of a holistic approach. There is a book called “Creating Habitat for Urban Wildlife” that you can freely download. Principles given there can be applied anywhere.

“A bee takes the nectar
and moves on, doing no damage
to the flower’s beauty and fragrance;
and that’s how a sage should walk in the village.”

Dhammapada - Flowers

It looks like we have opposite perspectives on what to do to achieve to get to the same goal.

In my subjective world the thing that gets me going is looking after myself. I look after myself by looking after others. Then others look after me as we have a real relationship. It makes me happy to look after others and it makes other people happy too. Raising money for me (someone you have a weak connection with) is way weird im guessing because you think about yourself and the people who are significant in your subjective world. When people say be selfless and think of others first I say well come do what I want then. They never do. (im glad) They realise that their unselfish attitudes are actually hollow as just working for someone else and never themselves they never do. Im just guessing so if this is not the case I deeply apologise.

I looked on those websites and they are great ideas but what is there to do. Nod and then go drive to work.

If I combine my wholesome desire with adapting to change then I can make change in my own life. If I make change in my own life then I can help others make change in theirs.

I call it free market socialism driven by the wholesome desire of individuals. With snowballs one snowflake may start at the top of the mountain but as it rolls on with momentum going where it wants it brings together other snowflakes to make a ever larger ball of snow until at the bottom you have an avalanche. You could say the avalanche was started by one snowflake going in the right direction until there was an avalanche that moved the whole mountain. Avalanches never go from the bottom of a mountain to the top because of gravity. Movements never get going if they don’t go in the direction of our desires. We need to use our desires to achieve what we want because most of us are not strong enough to go against them.

Im not looking to shut anyone down. I want to know what your view is as together we are stronger.

I can’t say what others should do.

But there is a principle that Buddha gave to his son Rahula on what actions not to do, which I think is helpful for all of us:

MN 61
“When you want to act with the mind, you should check on that same deed: ‘Does this act of mind that I want to do lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? …’ …”

We have to make choices, accept the consequences and we learn through that.

If I have hurt anyone I apologise. It wasn’t said with that intension. So I don’t repeat actions that hurt others again may I ask what the actions were :pray: :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

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You haven’t hurt me. As I see it you were concerned and honest. :slightly_smiling_face: But looking back at human history, it will take change in view and attitude rather than buying a new home to save our planetary Home from flooding and to clean our Oceanic swimming pool. Perhaps like shift from geocentric to heliocentric view of Earth?

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What we really need is the fusion reactors of alien space craft. :crazy_face: Tom Delonge (Blink-182) seems to be the man for that. Maybe if we honour the gods they will bless us with the tech we need. Do you think the gods prefere coke or pepsi? :joy:

So how does a heliocentric world view of earth play out in my subjective way of doing things?

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Ok then, apart from living simply that others may simply live, please see some of my work mainly as volunteer to help in this direction.

May all beings be well and happy. :anjal:

Thats a gold mine. In my personal life I have problems with meat overcosumption and a heavy fossil fuel consumption. The problem I have with not being a vegetation is I get very thin if I just eat plant products. They don’t fill me up. I put my full stomach before looking after that aspect. I would change it if I felt it could work for me. Do you have any advice? Is there any way to get our appendixes working?

While nuclear potentially has a role in certain cases, in Australia we have a massive abundance of renewable sources that are much cheaper.

Generally speaking, renewables are now much cheaper than nuclear, and getting cheaper, while the cost of nuclear is rising.

It’s interesting, you can see from this graph that the rapid decline in cost of solar panels seems to be flattening. That’s how it goes, technologies get cheaper when they’re young, then they tend to stabilize.

Nuclear energy will never get significantly cheaper, because the majority of cost is in fixed and mature materials such as steel and concrete. In Australia, it is not a serious option, and is basically only mentioned because right-wing commentators think they can use it to annoy and distract progressives. :man_shrugging:

We know perfectly well how to cut our emissions. The government just doesn’t want to do it.

The only country that’s massively investing in nuclear right now is China, with plans for 150 new reactors. Obviously China is in a unique position, and is currently in a huge energy crisis.

But they have special reasons for wanting lots of reactors that have nothing to do with addressing climate change. This is an example of how authoritarianism cripples any effort to act in the common good. It looks like Xi is setting China on a path to becoming a nuclear power on a par with the US and Russia. And that introduces massive new risk factors in any future scenario.

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Concrete is cheap. At least in the US, the majority of the cost is regulatory coming from public paranoia with no basis in science.

There is a topic on Suttacentral D&D dedicated to “Dhamma, Veganism and Vegetarianism”. I think that is a great place to share and receive support on that topic. Also, you may find the list of vegetarians at Wikipedia interesting and inspirational.

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Thankyou for your knowledge but without it are we the weaker system compared to backup of the small scale of population n army defences on this island too we will all perish as soon as they get hold of this land as it is in wealth then the new government takeover will do what it pleases to all citizens that reside here ? can our parliament be trusted to keep us all safe or are all we going to perish in the massive destruction of the terror of war and economy crisis wealth decisions … renewable energy vs a load of chemical warfare which is close to our shoreline and what is would be the reason they would spare our lives when the land has more wealth in iron ore minerals than what we are made of ? has anyone considered this during our covid crisis situation ? Slavery is easy to be replaced in any field or country dont you think ? Or is my mind out of scale to be reached with obscurity theories? I would like to know when I die is there a future for the people that we try to represent to become better in livings than us … can the UN do better ? Or is it just false hope to dream on … my children are a mess on all that is concerned …if they choose to have children here in australia to become their future too ? from them too are they putting them into slavery too ? …without the hardship of just floating around and lost with inconclusive solutions ? Excuse me of my thinkings as its frustrating to read for most as stated :pray:t2::electric_plug::woozy_face:i do hope our unity of peace come threw all that support in solutions that you have addressed …but who picks up the tab once again ? All things are imperative to last a generation or so ? how will this be paid ? all this breakdown in our countries or another in land fill when the ships​:ship: dumps all the waste out of or in our shorelines ? As whats recycled ? In matters ? Tradies for profit isnt helping with the responsibilities we bring does it irrespectively if its not their waste is ours ? Whose responsible for it ? Taxes n goverment wastings once again ? Seems if we are all guessing along the way once again … where does the wind fall when there is adjustments to the nature of climate change can science predict the radical changes in our eco system to point the best possibility to use this energy rescources positions? wind water n warm n cooling temperatures change dramatically over the years what country is fit to see effectiveness in this scale ? Clearing lands chopping trees using streams on mountains :mountain_snow: its all to be adjusted accordingly in a sensitive hemisphere… can we do it can we all substitute without more damage to our eco system now and ten years time to see this being a possibility ?