The Capacity to Care About More Than Ourselves

Susan Bauer-Wu explains that in order to find solutions to the climate crisis, we must first prioritize compassion. 

Susan Bauer-Wu
14 June 2023
Photo by Alexander Cifuentes.

My personal experience, and I know I’m not alone, is that it takes considerable courage to look the climate crisis in the eye. People dislike the climate crisis, to put it mildly, and people are afraid. I am afraid. People who lived through the Cold War are once again living with a kind of existential dread that they had hoped was in the past. It takes courage to see clearly these days, knowing what we now know and feeling how we now feel about the future. It takes courage not to be paralyzed by climate anxiety, to live with climate-related suffering in the world and not ignore it; courage to keep thinking, talking, protesting, and voting—and keep believing that it matters that we do. It takes courage to ask, “What can I do?” not as a helpless rhetorical question. It takes courage to keep trying to imagine a future we can love and do something about it.

Where do we find this courage? My friend Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s longtime translator, says a key insight of His Holiness is that fear is often rooted in our selfish concerns, as when we fear being judged, disliked, rejected, or otherwise hurt. Remembering our shared humanity, on the other hand, and choosing a standpoint of compassion leaves little room for fear or alienation. As Jinpa puts it, compassion “instantly opens up space for courage, not to mention a kind of deep-down relaxedness that comes from the lack of self-agenda.” Deep-down relaxedness—I like the sound of that.

Jinpa was a Tibetan Buddhist monk himself until the age of thirty-seven when he left the monastery with plans to have a family. He recalls fearing at the time what the Dalai Lama, among others, would think of his decision. I’m not surprised to hear that His Holiness was kind, understanding, and accommodating when it came to it—he is the Dalai Lama, after all. But the general point Jinpa is making is well taken, that shifting his perspective from what would people think of him to how his decision would affect others and what he could do to minimize hurt and reassure them gave him courage.

We fear what’s going to happen to me; how climate change is going to affect me and my family, my property value, my air quality, my comfort. When we consider how our quality of life depends on access to limited resources, it can stir up fears of them versus us, too. Again, it helps to think instead about others. As the Dalai Lama said to Greta and the rest of us, “Other animals, you see their daily life: eat, sleep, sex; but we are not so simple. We have much desire, worries, and concerns, urges and cravings and feelings. And too much sense of ‘we’ and ‘they.’ I think among the different species of mammals on this planet, we human beings create a lot of good things, but at the same time, we create a lot of problems.

“So now the question is why the human brain, though wonderful, gets so stuck in narrow thinking—firstly, about ourselves as individuals; secondly, of our own family; and finally of our own nation, our own country. This thinking is a very small circle. The reality is, individual human beings’ best interests depend on the community. Entire seven billion human beings are one human community, you see, so now the time has come, we have to think in terms of all humanity. Individuals’ best interests depend on humanity.”

It’s easy for some people to be dismissive of compassion when we talk about the climate crisis. It sounds soft. It sounds like a feeling, and the climate doesn’t care about our feelings. But this conversation has helped me see that compassion is critical to coping with our fear and is fundamental to a whole new way of thinking required to turn things around.

What happens when we change our thinking in this way? Jinpa has written a whole book about compassion, and he says one thing that happens is we get brave. (The book is called A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.) The Dalai Lama observes, “Compassion is by nature peaceful and gentle, but it is also very powerful.”

I think about Greta’s courage to raise her voice to the United Nations assembly, global leaders, and the entire world of grown-ups who maintain the status quo. “How dare you,” she said. I marvel at how, when she started her school strike for climate with the power of a giant compassion, she was a fifteen-year-old girl concerned with the well-being of no fewer others than every living being in the world. Greta admonishes politicians for not speaking honestly about the climate crisis because they’re afraid of being unpopular. “But I don’t care about being popular,” she says. “I care about climate justice and the living planet.” And though she began her skolstrejk (school strike) alone, by the time she spoke to the United Nations, it felt like most of the world had her back. I hope it felt like that to her. I hope that she feels supported by the courage of everyone who joins this conversation, just as we have felt encouraged by her.

The word in Buddhism for a person who lives with Greta’s and the Dalai Lama’s kind of other-orientation and courage is bodhisattva. The term comes from the Sanskrit for enlightenment (bodhi) and sentient being (sattva), but in Tibetan “courage” is built right into the word, because when Tibetan Buddhists translated sattva, they gave it the extra meaning of “courageous” being.

Jinpa tells us that traditional texts speak of two main aspects of what a bodhisattva does—namely, developing themselves  and working for others. Self-development how, exactly? “Self-development partly happens through the practice of Six Perfections,” Jinpa says, “including morality, diligence, concentration, wisdom, generosity, and patience.” Self-development also comes through working for others, specifically “helping others with their immediate material needs, communicating with others in a pleasant way, sharing insights on how to live in a virtuous way, and embodying such teachings by way of personal example.” Our celebrity-obsessed society puts modern-day examples of bodhisattvas like Greta Thunberg and the Dalai Lama on a pedestal, and I can see how if we’re perfectionistic about it, we could fail to recognize what these two heroes have to do with us. They’re so good at what they do that their lives may seem out of reach. But Jinpa says bodhisattvas aren’t superhuman; that is not the point. The point is that we all have the capacity for compassion. However unenlightened we may feel in a given moment, we can remember that each of us has bodhisattva potential, an inner bodhisattva if you will, and we can tap into—or wake up to—this. In Buddhism, it’s our buddha nature; in Judaism and Christianity, Jinpa says (he has a PhD in religious studies), it’s our inner divinity or inner spark; in Islam, it’s spirit, the aspects of the human psyche that reflect the aspects of the Creator. 

Taking inspiration from Greta and the Dalai Lama’s examples, finding courage in my climate compassion to join this conversation, though it is scary and hard, my inner spark burns a little brighter and I feel excited that I, in turn, in some way, could be an example for someone else.

The climate scientist and communications specialist Katharine Hayhoe points to our capacity for compassion by appealing directly to it. The climate, she says, affects everyone, “no matter who we are and where we live. But it disproportionately affects those who are poor, those who are marginalized, those who are disabled, those who are already living on the edge.”

I have a sense of this, but she makes it vivid: “Imagine there’s a heat wave that is bigger and stronger and longer and more intense than it would be otherwise,” Katharine explains. “Who is most affected by that heat wave? People who have low-income jobs who have to work outdoors, people who cannot afford to pay their air-conditioning bill, people who don’t have well-insulated homes or might have broken windows who can’t protect themselves from the heat, people who live in unsafe neighborhoods so they don’t feel like they can open their window at night to get a little bit of relief from the cool air. These are the people who are most affected.” It’s true within the United States, she reminds us, as well as around the world.

“People who lack access to basic health care, people who live in extreme poverty below one or two dollars a day, when their crops fail, when their wells dry up, where do they find food for their family?” Katharine asks. “Where do they find water? Climate change affects us all, but it affects the poor and the marginalized more than anyone else. And that is not fair.”

Again and again, Greta calls for climate justice: for rich countries, rich people, and corporations with the luxury of choice to do more and pay more while poorer countries and communities raise their standard of living and build some of the infrastructure that comfortable people already have.

Katharine reminds us that the flip side is also true: “Climate solutions benefit us all, just as climate risks harm us all. But climate solutions benefit the poor and the marginalized the most. And that is fair.”

She gives us another example: “A lot of rich countries are rich because they have massive fossil-fuel resources that they use to industrialize. Most low-income countries do not have large amounts of fossil-fuel resources. And the few that do, like Nigeria and Venezuela, those resources are typically extracted by large multinational corporations, and the revenue is used to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor. But many low-income and tropical countries have a lot of sun and a lot of wind. And so in 2020—and remember, electricity is highly correlated with human well-being, more so than energy use in general—of the new electricity installed around the world, more than 90 percent was clean energy. Why? Because in many parts of the world, solar and wind energy is cheaper.”


Katharine mentions a program called Solar Sister in sub-Saharan Africa that empowers women to become entrepreneurs, selling solar lanterns and solar cells that people can use to light their homes. She mentions places where people are turning human waste into fuel, for example an organization in India that has built nearly two hundred plants that use waste from public toilets to create renewable natural gas or biogas that replaces fossil fuels. She is animated about agricultural solutions, too: “Putting carbon back into the soil where we want it instead of in the atmosphere where we don’t, through conservation agriculture, agroforestry, water conservation, through empowering and educating women and girls, especially in low-income countries, through restoring and preserving ecosystems so they support rural economies.”

It’s easy for some people to be dismissive of compassion when we talk about the climate crisis. It sounds soft. It sounds like a feeling, and the climate doesn’t care about our feelings. But this conversation has helped me see that compassion is critical to coping with our fear and is fundamental to a whole new way of thinking required to turn things around. Maybe it’s easier to dismiss compassion than to practice it. Let’s take that as a challenge.

In 2022, the year of the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report on climate change over thirty-four years and the year after the twenty-sixth United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP), we have the knowledge. The question is what do we do with that knowledge? Do we have the capacity to change? How do we turn that knowledge into “right action,” as Buddhists put it? For one thing, perhaps the most important thing, compassion. More than a feeling, compassion is a call to action because it taps into a sense of responsibility and requires us to think beyond the immediate and beyond ourselves. It takes courage to open our eyes and unplug our ears to hear this call, let alone answer it. But at the same time, having compassion for one another and all the beings that share this planet will make us brave. As Jinpa says, compassion takes courage, but it also makes courage, because having compassion for others frees us from fearing for ourselves. Plus, with this orientation toward others comes the realization that we have eight billion teammates. As the Dalai Lama says, “One humanity.”

As Greta says, “Imagine what we could do together if we wanted to. Every single person counts. Just like every single emission counts. Every single kilo. Everything counts.”

From A Future We Can Love: How We Can Reverse the Climate Crisis with the Power of Our Hearts and Minds by Susan Bauer-Wu © 2023 by the Mind & Life Institute. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Susan Bauer-Wu

Susan Bauer-Wu

Susan Bauer-Wu is an organizational leader, clinical scientist, and mindfulness teacher, who since 2015 has served as the President of the Mind & Life Institute, an organization co-founded by the Dalai Lama to bring science and contemplative wisdom together to better understand the mind and create positive change in the world. At Mind & Life, she has championed “human-earth connection” as a priority focus area. Early in her career she was an oncology and hospice nurse and then received a PhD specializing in psychoneuroimmunology, and has since held leadership and academic roles in nonprofits, universities, and health care. Susan is the author of A Future We Can Love and Leaves Falling Gently.