Saying "S-Hell No!" as a Buddhist peacemaker

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Our flotilla of several hundred kayaks was appropriately led into the Duwamish River waterway - Chief Seattle's home ground - by five native canoes representing Puget Sound First Nations people. On Saturday, May 16th, I joined a flotilla of several hundred "kayaktivists" to  say "S-Hell No!" to Seattle's back room decision to provide home port facilities to Shell Oil's fleet of Arctic oil rigs. Shell's first rig - the "Polar Pioneer" - arrived on Seattle waterfront on Thursday. It's progress down Admiralty Inlet past my home on Whidbey Island, under tow of several large tugs, had the feel of Mordor itself arriving in our midst.

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It is difficult to describe the scale or the audacity of this venture by Shell to profit from the destruction of the Arctic ice cap - a catastrophe that is itself the direct result of our runaway addiction to fossil fuels. In his guest editorial in the Seattle Times last week, titled Shell and high water: the climate battle of SeattleKC Golden of Climate Solutions put it this way. "If you had to pick a logo for the campaign to wreak climate havoc, you could hardly do better than Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the “Polar Pioneer.” Climate denial has reached its fullest expression when the melting of the Arctic ice cap is greeted as a signal to drill for more oil where the ice used to be."

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As a city, Seattle has staked its identity on leading the nation in its quest toward carbon neutrality, and Shell's deal with the Port of Seattle has generated a storm of moral outrage here. As Golden put it in his editorial, "Shell has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Their lease to establish a “home port” in Seattle was negotiated under a “verbal nondisclosure agreement,” which allowed Shell’s hired guns to campaign aggressively for approval, while opponents were kept in the dark. Citizens are incensed, and the mayor and City Council are trying to assert the overwhelming opposition of the community they represent. Even Port of Seattle commissioners who approved the lease profess to oppose Arctic drilling."

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My experience on the water last Saturday brought home to me more viscerally the truth in these words. Gazing up at the towering monstrosity of the Polar Pioneer from my tiny perch on the water in a kayak, I was able to connect more directly to the towering hubris that is behind it. I felt much less alone in my sense of moral violation. I was both appalled by what I was seeing, and uplifted by being part of this spontaneous outpouring of resistance.

Yet as a practicing Buddhist, my motivation for being there was more complex than simply outrage. I cannot know whether my presence there, or this creative expression of moral concern by so many, will actually make a difference. I cannot know whether Shell's audacious plan to continue profiting from the climate chaos it has been instrumental in creating will pay off, even in Seattle. I don't know if our technological hubris will once again win the day.

Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has three tenets for his Order of Zen Peacemakers. They include, 1) Not knowing, 2) Bearing witness, and 3) Compassionate action. I was there primarily to bear witness. My Buddhist practice tells me that these are wise precepts, and I do my best to live in this spirit. I have a commitment to show up without attachment to outcome. I do my best to show up without fixed ideas about who is to "right" and who is to "blame". My experience tells me that we are in this fix for reasons that are far more complex than anyone can fully understand, and that no one is exclusively to blame. It tells me that compassion is more powerful than anger and outrage as a motivation for action - and ultimately more effective. This is often hard to explain to other activists.

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I hope we win this historic battle with Shell and the Port of Seattle. I hope this marks an important moment of turning away from the economics of self-destruction that has us all in its grip. I am fully with KC Golden in his hope that Seattle chooses not to "service drilling operations that recklessly stoke the climate crisis and mock our community’s values." I passionately agree with Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray that, “It’s time to turn the page. Things like oil trains and coal trains and oil-drilling rigs are the past. It’s time to focus on the economy of the future.” In support of that vision, I will continue to show up. But I refuse to do so in a spirit that breeds animosity and discord in my own heart, and spreads that dischord to others.

It's not easy, in these times, to keep compassion at the center of our efforts to show up. The losses are so great. The heartbreak so palpable. The anger and outrage so alluring. The delusions of grandeur so infuriatingly dominant in our culture of endless growth and consumption. Holding to a compassionate center in relation to our climate debacle is one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to do. But bearing witness in a spirit of of compassionate action - actually keeping my heart open, when I am able to pull it off, has consistently left me feeling more powerful, rather than less so. It has shown itself to be the most effective strategy for opening new doors of possibility and of connection. And, frankly, it just feels better, and is more fun.