I guess “Lit” is the new “Woke.”
On April 14, David S. Buckel, a prominent attorney renowned for championing gay rights and environmental causes, doused himself with gasoline and burned himself alive in what he called a “protest suicide” to bring attention to our lack of action on the environment. His suicide note, appropriately found in a garbage bag next to the carbon refuse of his charred remains, read:
I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide. I apologize to you for the mess.
An attention-grabber to be sure, but Buckel didn’t stop there. In a longer epistle marked “left for police,” which Buckel also emailed to various news outlets he continued:
Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather . . . Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.
I suppose he forgot about all the fossil fuels that help produce and provide the ability to create efficient supply chains for the medicines and medical devices responsible for saving millions of lives, or the music and art that make our lives meaningful. Most good people, on either side of the political divide, have the desire to alleviate human suffering. The differences and disagreements between us arise in our proposed solutions to the question of how best to alleviate that suffering.
David Buckel, however, in his zealotry didn’t seem interested in seeing how human suffering over the past century has been alleviated, in no small part, thanks to the very technological advances and fossil fuels he killed himself protesting. That, overall, human beings are living longer, and existential human misery and fear of an early death is at its lowest point in human history.
Since the use of fossil fuels exploded during the Industrial Revolution, infant mortality has plunged while the average lifespan has increased tremendously. Further, countries that use the most fossil fuels, that have the easiest access to cheap, efficient energy, have longer life spans and happier populations than those without.
But never mind all that. The attorney’s missive continued :
My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves. A lifetime of service may best be preserved by giving a life . . . Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purchase in death. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.
Buckel’s suicide is thus the apotheosis of a hardly new idea—human beings are a virus. Academics, the media, and intelligentsia for years have been peddling the notion that humanity itself is a vermin on the earth and that salvation can only come about by extreme action: privation on the part of the poor, indulgences on the part of the rich via carbon taxes or credits, and acts of extreme physical repentance by people like Buckel.
The activist’s suicide might easily be dismissed as the last acts of a crazy person, but because he was such a prominent public figure in the progressive community, his death certainly widens the Overton window for environmental activism. Now that it’s been done by someone so prominent, it’s no longer merely theoretical. Suicides like this one will happen again, and with increasing frequency.
In his letter, Buckel humbly compares himself to the Tibetan monks who self-immolated in protest of China’s continued occupation of their country. Setting aside possible issues of cultural appropriation, his suicide is already being lionized and its mythos framed in this light on Twitter. What’s even more disturbing is that it’s only a small skip to move from the zealotry of self-destruction to the externalization of that impulse. Pray that the next evolution of this type of thinking—destroying sinners against the environment—doesn’t develop too quickly; because it’s really only a matter of time.
The difference, of course, is that the Tibetan monks were protesting oppression of people by a tyrannical regime. They were protesting the diminution of the people’s rights by actual oppressors. They were protesting man’s inhumanity to man. Buckel’s protest, on the other hand, is designed to convince people to live lives of privation and to pressure governments to create more restrictions. Unlike those who sacrificed themselves to draw attention to tyranny and oppression, David Buckel killed himself because he apparently thought governments aren’t oppressing people enough. He immolated himself because you and I have too many rights and luxuries that, to his thinking, are harmful to the planet. Ultimately, he was a martyr for tyranny, not against it.
Buckel’s suicide does not appear to be a result of losing any documented struggle with mental illness or depression. When asked by The New Yorker whether Buckel was suffering from depression, his husband Terry Kaelber answered with a resounding no. Buckel was “distressed more than depressed,” Kaelber said. “He was also trying to figure out what’s next—what someone can do.”
Evidently, the suicide was what he thought he could do. The suicide was one of passion for a cause he increasingly identified with and found meaning in fighting for and not a result of mental illness. As such, compassion isn’t warranted . . . at all. As a matter of fact, it is our natural inclination to feel compassion that Buckel hoped to use against us.
The suicide should, however, serve as a warning as we move forward in increasingly divided and insular waters where digital media amplifies our insecurities and inflames our passions. As our society continues to move away from the intimacies and civility that arise due to the nature and requirements of physical proximity and instead gives primacy to the virtual, social media-created echo chambers, as well as the symbolic and tribally political, we shouldn’t be surprised as people begin to fetishize and even worship the symbols with which they become increasingly connected.
As people move toward defining themselves as the sum of their likes and sloganeering on Facebook, do not be surprised by an increased incidence of seemingly crazy behavior. In Buckel’s case, this was environmentalism.
Let’s not mince words. David Buckel burned himself alive to protest our success as a species. His suicide note is nothing short of guilt-laden jeremiad from death’s pulpit that takes aim at humanity’s amazing and steadily improving ability to thwart, or at least make less severe, nature’s unstoppable, seemingly malevolent, impulse to kill us at every turn. His screed condemns our capacity to find comfort in an environment that is, ultimately, hostile.
Buckel’s note attempts to paint as abhorrent the mechanisms by which life in our times has been made longer, better, and easier for billions of people around the globe. Ultimately, his suicide was a cheap, puritanical and cynically nihilistic scold made visceral. David Buckel’s suicide deserves nothing but scorn, condemnation, and mockery and it should be held up as evidence of the increasingly religious and dangerous nature of the environmentalist movement he sought to advance by weaponizing guilt and our capacity for compassion.