Climate and Environment: What's Compassion Got To Do With It?

Feb. 15, 2019

Gregg Garfin shares his journey in environmental science and conservation with his personal contemplative practice.

woman on mountain peak


Developing an awareness of the vast array of connections between the living and non-living parts of our planet—minerals, insects, rivers, wildlife, people, to name a few— and cultivating compassion for each part of it, has been the result of the beautiful accident of my birth into a loving Jewish family, in a country and time of great wealth and opportunity, the Buddhist mindfulness practices that I adopted as an adult, and the brilliant insights imparted by the scientific community in which I have participated during my career. The most fundamental activity in all of this is simply connecting the dots. The most profound is contemplation, looking deeply. Let me explain… 

During my childhood, each summer my family visited my grandfather’s home in the verdant Catskill Mountains in New York. This mountainous place, with its clear, cold streams and lakes, exotic-sounding trees (horse chestnut!), and rocky, forest trails over time became associated in my mind with the freedom of summer vacation, the old-world manners of my grandparents, and a wildness not found in suburbia.

I fell in love with that place: the forests, which were full of wonders (encounters with wildlife, or discovering a flower blossom in the dense woods), the rushing Beaver Kill stream (never the same in two places throughout its course), and the ruggedness of the landscape (always a treat for a flatlander). That mountain retreat, which my grandfather named “Paradise Villa,” was a doorway to adventure and to intimacy, where I could experience amazement with the intricacies of the natural world, and where I could settle down and appreciate something beyond myself. Love of that place seeded a passion for experiencing and understanding the mysterious other—tall trees, scurrying critters, the beautiful landscape as seen from a rocky ledge, the rock itself.

Through the next dozen or so years, I followed roads winding through dalliances with art and music, and forged enduring formal relationships with climate and environmental sciences. All of these perspectives on our world awakened within me an appreciation for the irregular (ahh…that’s why that landscape was beautiful), the surprising (an unexpected burst of melody from a wood thrush), and the provocative (humans can cause weather patterns to change, really!?). They also informed me, through tangible and credible evidence, of the connections between distant phenomena such as the simmering central Pacific Ocean during El Niño and their proximate effects on our local environment, such as the lingering May 1992 snowpack in the Santa Catalina Mountains…or the cascade of events emanating from the seemingly trivial—like the runoff of nitrogen from the fertilizers we use to help grow our food crops, stimulating a bloom of algae in a pond, which then cuts off sunlight and oxygen, and ultimately stifles fish life beneath the pond’s surface.

These powerful connections in the physical world fascinated me, igniting a passion to protect places like the forests and streams near Paradise Villa which served as a proxy for all the other stunningly beautiful wilderness places I’ve visited since, and the many that I have yet to see. It was easy to develop a compassionate attitude for those rich places. But, for the most part, my world view at that time lacked people, until I was fortunate to explore contemplative practices that guided me to look more deeply into myself and into these connections.

Through Zen meditation and by applying practices to cultivate an appreciation of interbeing—yes, seeing the nitrogen and the algae, the pond and the fish, but also the farmer, the wheat in his farm field, the baker and the warm bread from her oven—I could better appreciate and feel compassion for all the parts of the complex web of life. In Judaism, I also learned to weave together the many strands of environment and humanity into the tapestry of the universe, through the prayer that affirms the oneness of Creator and creation. My work as a scientist working with people to address and inform decisions about the environment, society, and management of our resources, requires listening and looking carefully at these relationships with an open mind. Maintaining a mindful and compassionate attitude can only help.

All of these practices reinforce my understanding and appreciation of the complexity and connectedness of humans and environment, and humans with each other. They help me to maintain a fascination with the contradictions that I see in myself—sparks of creativity meshed with frustration and boredom, wanting to engage with others and isolate myself from them, the seriousness and the frivolity—and this awareness deepens my recognition that others share these same qualities. They help me to embrace contradiction and complexity.

These practices inspire me to maintain an attitude of compassion toward everyone engaged in trying to find solutions to difficult environmental issues, to find common ground. They help me maintain an appreciation for the whole complicated, awful, beautiful intermix of humans and environment. 

About the Author

Gregg Garfin, Ph.D. is Deputy Director for Science Translation and Outreach for the Institute on the Environment at the University of Arizona. His research and outreach focuses on climate variability and change, drought, and adaptation to a changing climate. His work includes bridging the science-society interface, through dialogues and collaborative projects with scientists and decision-makers. Gregg is a long-time practitioner of mindfulness meditation in Zen, and Jewish Renewal traditions.