Clinical scientist and mindfulness teacher Susan Bauer-Wu shares her thoughts on how to create a future we can love through both social action and optimism.
Susan Bauer-Wu is an organizational leader, clinical scientist, and mindfulness teacher whose lifework has been dedicated to alleviating suffering and fostering wellbeing through contemplative wisdom. She is the president of the Mind & Life Institute and was previously the Kluge professor of contemplative end-of-life care at the University of Virginia. Her latest book, A Future We Can Love: How We Can Reverse the Climate Crisis with the Power of Our Hearts and Minds, is inspired by a conversation between the Dalai Lama and climate activist Greta Thunberg.
A Future We Can Love is such an appropriate title for your book, as it captures the essence of what the book is all about. How did you come up with this title, and were there other titles you considered?
The title came easily. It just felt right, as it captures why I wrote the book. We all want a future we can love for our children and grandchildren, not a future filled with fear and anger. Love is easeful; love connects. It helps us to be better versions of ourselves, which is so essential for this moment in history.
The concept of “feedback loops” is addressed quite extensively in your book; you refer to them as “both the bad news and the good news.” Can you help us better understand what feedback loops are and the role they play in both causing and healing climate-related concerns?
Climate feedback loops are the emergency; they are self-reinforcing cycles set in motion by global warming that accelerate and amplify the warming. An example is the forest feedback loop whereby trees fall prey to drought, forest fires, and insects due to hotter temperatures. When trees die and decay, the carbon they’ve locked away for years is released back into the atmosphere.
Also, with fewer forests, trees’ natural cooling effect on the planet is diminished. Loss of trees—particularly large, old trees—adds to the release of greenhouse gasses and temperatures getting hotter, and the cycle continues. The good news is, collectively, we have the potential to slow and eventually reverse the feedback loops to create cycles of cooling through swiftly moving away from fossil fuels, stopping deforestation, and re-greening the earth.
References to a mindset focusing on “fixing the environment” are often reflected in initiatives designed to address the climate crisis. Yet you state that “the environment does not need fixing.” Can you elaborate on this?
Mother Nature does not need fixing, as she’s our greatest ally in helping to cool the planet. Technological advances may help the climate crisis, yet they alone won’t “fix” it. As the Dalai Lama has said, what needs fixing is our mindset and behavior in relation to the environment. Each of us is part of the climate problem and the solutions.
Our modern society has an extractive mentality. We mindlessly buy and consume, extracting natural resources as if they will last forever. We need to shift our mindsets from “business as usual”—frivolously buying, using fossil fuels, and expecting a quick technological fix—to recognizing that we are enough and have enough and that our lives and this planet are precious. How we show up every day, to everything, matters.
Urbanization and “back-to-nature” initiatives are sometimes viewed as opposing forces in our society. Yet Part Two of your book includes a section on the city as a place ripe with opportunities for “collective altruism.” How might cities promote such altruism and what does this have to do with the climate crisis?
At its best, city living provides an example of humans’ capacity to hurt the planet less by pooling resources, putting up with one another on the subway, and sharing space. In big cities, like New York, residents exhibit lower energy use and greenhouse gas emissions compared to smaller cities and suburbs because they drive less and use mass transportation.
Thoughtful city planning can promote collective altruism, an economic system based on compassion and measured in terms of ecological sustainability. By going beyond profit to include planet and people (wellbeing) as the bottom line, such a system promotes the common good. The vision is to create denser, greener, more walkable, and more equitable cities with trees, parks, and electric transit systems for all.
There are several places in the book where awareness and consciousness are emphasized. It’s not hard to understand that the path to action starts with awareness. What may be more challenging to comprehend is how we are all connected through consciousness and that “consciousness is the currency of a sacred universe.” Can you also help us see how awareness, consciousness, and mindfulness are connected?
Awareness, consciousness, and mindfulness are related terms, often used synonymously. They all relate to noticing one’s experiences—thoughts, feelings, sensations, and surroundings—and seeing things as they are, including the ever-changing, interconnected nature of everything.
As the ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva says, “Consciousness is the currency of a sacred universe.” What she means is that we are more than simply material beings. Different spiritual traditions recognize this sacredness and our profound connection to the natural world. Our food, our breath, and water are sacred and life-giving, literally and metaphorically.
The examples of “to-do lists” for addressing the climate crisis include a focus ondoing less (driving less, eating less meat) and doing more (growing, giving, gathering). What kinds of activities would you include on an ideal to-do list? Would you emphasize doing less or doing more, and why?
There’s not a single “one-size-fits-all” to-do list. As environmentalist Paul Hawken says, there is no one common list, and the best one is what you can, want, and will do. Our personal circumstances and where we live vary, so come up with a list that is most meaningful to you. The list ought to include both activities to do more of and to do less of. Both are important and make a difference. For example, my list includes buying local more often and traveling less. It also includes talking more with others, continuing this kind of conversation with my web of relationships.
Read our review of A Future We Can Love here.