An Honorable Life, With Honor in Death

David Buckel made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of protecting the only planet we call home.

To quote Arthur Miller’s famous words, attention must be paid to the New York Times profile of David Buckel, the prominent civil-rights attorney who died earlier this spring in an act of self-immolation to protest America’s refusal to lead on climate:

It is impossible to know all the reasons a person commits suicide. Mr. Buckel suggested one: He was trying to call attention to pollution and global warming. “My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves,” he wrote in his email.

His suicide is one of the few known cases of political self-immolation in the United States since the 1960s — when demonstrators set themselves on fire to protest the war in Vietnam — and perhaps the first one anywhere in the name of climate change.

But his political message still left Mr. Buckel’s friends and family at a loss: Why would someone in his position resort to such a drastic measure to make his message heard? Why would someone who was committed to the quiet, daily work of making change — and who was notoriously private — stage a dramatic public suicide? He told no one of his plan, not his husband and partner of 34 years, Terry Kaelber, nor the lesbian couple with whom they raised their college-age daughter. He did not say goodbye to them.

That was obviously a planned part of his protest. Buckel obviously figured that those who have perished in extreme weather events caused by the carbon pollution of the fossil-fuel industry—pollution that the industry knew damn well would take lives—never had a chance to say goodbye: the symbolism of death without farewell would not be lost upon those who knew him best.

The Times makes it clear that his fatal protest was not rashly decided:

In his suicide letter, Mr. Buckel alluded to recent cases of self-immolation in Tibet. The letter was also laced through with phrases used by Buddhist monks to explain the spiritual roots of the protest tactic.

Mr. Buckel used to end every day with a routine: thanking volunteers for doing something good for the earth. But around February, that ritual changed. When volunteers circled, he shared grim news. “More than 90 percent of the world’s population breathes polluted air,” Mr. Morales recalled him saying. “The Arctic Circle is experiencing record-breaking temperatures.”

Later, as they left, Mr. Buckel said about climate change, “Nobody cares, why does nobody believe it?”…

Mr. Buckel’s husband and the women with whom they lived said he had been increasingly distressed over the environment and the state of the national debate, but had not been ill or shown signs of depression. To honor his wishes, they said in brief telephone interviews that they wanted to focus on the message he left behind.

Mr. Buckel’s suicide letter was a few pages long and touched on many subjects, revealing a man who had grown deeply despondent. But it made his cause clear: “Pollution ravages our planet,” he wrote. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result.”

He concluded: “Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded action.”

David Buckel did what he sincerely believed he had to do. He believed that his protest was a necessary act to shock the conscience of the American people, a moral statement against the willful destruction of our planet by the fossil-fuel industry and its lackeys and lickspittles in Washington. His actions should not be second-guessed. What he did was not madness. It was heroism.

What’s madness—what’s truly insane—is our continued refusal to wake the hell up about the climate crisis. How much more evidence do we need? The nearly 5,000 corpses in Puerto Rico aren’t enough? The devastating flooding in Maryland isn’t enough? Even Trump-appointed NASA head Jim Bridenstine, formerly a Congressman from oil-obsessed Oklahoma, gets it now. What about the rest of us? This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of James Hansen’s plea to Congress to stand up to the perfidy of the fossil-fuel industry and its violence against our democracy. Why didn’t we stand with him? It was one year ago yesterday that Trump made the treacherous and catastrophic decision to walk away from the Paris climate agreement. How many of us simply shrugged our shoulders once we heard about the decision?

David Buckel made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of protecting the only planet we call home; he surrendered his humanity in the name of humanity. Are we really going to call that crazy? Aren’t the folks whose actions prompted his protest the real crazy ones?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.