Saint Greta’s Flames


Last week, on Earth Day 2022, a gentleman called Wynn Bruce, an American Buddhist, set himself on fire at the US Supreme Court to protest the lack of action on – and lack of education to prepare people for – ‘the climate crisis’.

Only one small newspaper reported Bruce’s death as being associated with climate issues.

On social media many have been harsh, suggesting that such extremists are only one matchstick away from similar salvation and that only one newspaper associating Bruce’s death with environmentalism is the height of publicity such cranks merit via their extreme and attention-seeking actions.

Still, the fact is that a 50-year-old man is dead. Why is he dead? What were the radical influences that fused leading up to the day of Bruce’s death to cause his extreme suicidal act? Or was Bruce so mentally ill that he was beyond intervention?

In the years before his self-immolation, Bruce expressed intense concern about climate change on his Facebook account, sharing related news articles and praising activists including Greta Thunberg. From April 2020, he used the account to decry public inaction in response to the climate crisis:

On October 30th 2020, Bruce posted a link to an edX class focused on the science of climate change. In April 2021, Bruce commented “4-1-1” (the number for information/directory enquiries in the US) on the post; in October 2021, he edited the comment, adding a fire emoji. Then, in January of this year, Bruce posted a photo of antiwar activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, who wrote in 1965 on the self-immolation of Buddhist monks that “to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance”.

Bruce later commented on the post with a quote he attributed to Hanh:

“The most important thing, in response to climate change, is to be willing to hear the sound of the earth’s tears through our own bodies.”

Bruce described himself as a climate activist more than as a Buddhist suggesting that he was more affiliated to the religion of climate change than Buddhism. Choosing Earth Day as the day of his suicide somewhat underlines this point.

Dig a bit deeper and you get to see the vulnerable adult some more…

Bruce graduated from high school in 1989 and planned to join the US Air Force, but an accident in a car driven by one of his friends killed the friend and severely injured Bruce; he suffered a traumatic brain injury as well as damage to one of his legs. According to some of Bruce’s friends and neighbours, he often had difficulty making decisions as a result of his traumatic brain injury; two described him as “suggestible”.

While self-immolation can be a Buddhist trait, it hardly seems the driving force here. So what made Bruce cross the line?

To the keyboard warrior supporters of Greta Thunberg and other eco chuggers, dead Bruce is a hero. Bruce Almighty died for the world to see that we are on the edge of climate catastrophe. His martyrdom merited an Extinction Rebellion vigil – not Buddhist, more Wiccan.

To those who care more for facts, Bruce was a vulnerable adult, at worst another useful idiot of ideologues who care less for human beings, let alone their woolly jumper wearing adherents, than for the planet. They argue the two are inextricably linked and of course, for now, they are right but there is a tendency in them to care little about blocking ambulances while they protest on bridges, making people late for work by gluing themselves to train doors or closing off motorway junctions. Extreme disruption is their extreme marketing, something Bruce must have known and comprehended.

Therefore one can argue that Bruce’s death is merely an extrapolation of these climate emergency absolutists’ disregard for the striving majority, their obvious disrespect for most human life. Not dissimilar to the animal rightists who happily firebomb humans to save monkeys or divert valuable police resources ‘protecting’ badger setts because they care more for the badgers than the human beings or meat-eaters’ cattle involved. They share the common belief that there are too many humans on their planet – following in the footsteps of George Bernard Shaw and Ernst Haeckel.

Instead of focusing the world’s eyes on climate change, Bruce’s death by burning should remind us that today’s green ideologues, however mentally ill and vulnerable they claim to be themselves, owe a debt of responsibility to the vulnerables who are inevitably drawn to their black and white, fear-driven fundamentalism and show devotion to them.

Maybe mentors such as Thunberg should now come with a health warning just as the exhortations of Covid deniers and Russian propagandists get embossed with a fake news alert? Take down the dodgy pastors with private jets and the wannabe ‘religions’ with the same shot? Those who fan the flames into which the gullible step owe a basic level of responsibility.

In the UK, Prevent is there to spot and intervene on such extremists before they cross the line to negatively effect the rest of us. Maybe its remit should also be to protect the extremists – to prevent suicides for the cause such as Bruce’s. Also, to watch closely the exhortations of their possessed and ideological leaders, who may well be preaching hatred of humans while wrapped in their watermelon green.

Someone has to tell the cranks when their ideology is overstepping societal boundaries; when causes mutate from positive purpose to antisocial and sometimes illegal conduct. Above all, in a more ideal world, someone should be there to tell the Bruces when they are becoming a danger not only to others but to themselves. Frankly the planet does not care much if at all for the Bruces – let alone shed any tears for them – even if the Bruces think they are giving their lives for the planet.

Rest in peace, Mr Bruce.

Dominic Wightman is the Editor of Country Squire Magazine.