David Buckel hoped his death would catalyze action. But what is individual responsibility when confronted with the crisis of a rapidly changing planet?
(April 15, 2019) — On a recent Saturday in Brooklyn, against the unlikely backdrop of a huge blue-and-white Ikea outlet, several dozen volunteers hand-churned compost. Decomposing food scraps emit considerable heat, and the 6ft-tall compost heaps were warm to the touch. As shovels and pitchforks pierced the compost, gusts of steam rolled off like fog.
A three-acre lot-turned-urban farm, the Red Hook Community Farms contains the largest compost site in America powered entirely by sustainable sources. During an orientation for new volunteers, one of the site managers explained that the operation was the brainchild of a lawyer-turned-environmentalist named David Buckel, who supervised it until his death last year. He designed the site’s processes so it would run like clockwork, even in his absence.
A woman asked, hesitantly: “Is he the one who … self-immolated?”
“Yes,” the manager said.
He didn’t elaborate but said he considered the site Buckel’s legacy, and that he and the other two managers felt honored to carry on its work.
As the manager talked, a small wind turbine whizzed overhead. Energy from the turbine, plus several solar panels, fed into a generator that pumped air into the compost heaps not being churned by hand. On the other side of the lot grew rows of spinach, kale, tomatoes and other crops, which the farm sells or donates to food pantries.
Terry Kaelber, Buckel’s husband and companion of 34 years, often volunteers at the compost site. When I asked him about the site, he thought carefully, then said: “There is something very simple and pure in coming together, in giving up your time, to take people’s food scraps and do the work that will enable those scraps to be turned back, over time, into food.”
The site was a microcosm, he said, of the kind of self-sustaining, harmonious society Buckel wanted to build—the kind “I think in some ways we all subconsciously long for”.
“I only wish,” he said, “that David had stuck it out.”
Early on the morning of 14 April 2018, Buckel—a 60-year-old retired gay rights attorney—left his cozy, garden-surrounded Brooklyn house and walked to nearby Prospect Park. He made his way to a stretch of grass, where he emailed media outlets a statement decrying humanity’s passivity in the face of pollution and global warming.
A few minutes later, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire.
“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result,” his statement said. “[M]y early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
With characteristic care, he also left a short note at the scene for emergency personnel. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “I apologize to you for the mess.”
None of Buckel’s family or friends were aware of his intent, and we will never know for certain whether pre-existing mental distress may have contributed to his decision to take his life. But his writing made it clear he viewed his death in political terms and hoped it would galvanize mass action.
His statement referred to the Buddhist monks who have burned themselves to death to protest against the occupation of Tibet. As someone who came of age during the Vietnam war, he was also surely familiar with the iconic photograph of Thich Quang Duc, a Saigon monk who self-immolated to protest against South Vietnamese persecution of Buddhists. He may have also known of Norman Morrison, a Quaker who killed himself in front of the Pentagon to protest against the Vietnam war.
Around the same period, Jan Palach, a university student in Prague, self-immolated in an attempt to rally Czechoslovaks against Soviet occupation. Before he died of his burns, Palach said his target was less the Soviet regime itself than the fatalism and despair he feared had overcome his fellow citizens.
Despite the risk of copycats, most people who have committed political self-immolation have indicated that they hoped to inspire mass mobilization, not further death.
Sometimes mobilization does come: when Mohamed Bouazizi, an impoverished fruit vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire in 2011 to protest government corruption, it catalyzed a mass protest that toppled the country’s dictatorship and inspired similar movements across the Arab world.
It is difficult to say why some incidents of self-immolation are perceived as mental health tragedies and others as considered political acts; why some became enduring political iconography and others are relegated to obscurity; and why some catalyze change and others don’t.
Buckel had led a distinguished legal career, and worked on famous cases including the Nebraska hate crime that inspired the film Boys Don’t Cry; for that reason, as well as the shocking circumstances of his death, his death received national news coverage. But in a reactive 24-hour news cycle, the story was rapidly buried by the ongoing drama of the Mueller investigation and airstrikes on Syria.
The mass action Buckel had hoped for did not come. There was no Prague spring or Tunisian revolution for the planet. Writing in the New York Times less than a week later, the novelist Nathan Englander asked why Buckel’s death received so little attention compared with the “AR-15-level attention that we give the very worst among us”, mass killers.
The muted response was probably, in part, an understandable reluctance to glorify suicide. A profile of Buckel in the Times, investigating what might have driven a seemingly healthy man to set himself on fire, acknowledged that the question was mostly impossible to answer.
But perhaps there were even more fundamental, unresolvable questions making otherwise sympathetic people uneasy: was Buckel’s death an act of optimism, or surrender? And what is individual responsibility, when confronted by the seemingly insurmountable crisis of a rapidly changing planet?
Buckel grew up in upstate New York, one of five children; his father was an agricultural consultant and his mother a florist. As a child he spent some time working on his relatives’ farm, but he was troubled by the slaughter of animals and later became a pescatarian.
He met Kaelber while living in Rochester, and they later moved to New York, where they eventually settled near Prospect Park. They shared their home with a lesbian couple with whom they were co-raising a college-aged daughter.
Buckel loved the natural world and had a lifelong commitment to environmental issues. His work as a lawyer, however, focused on poverty law and LGBT rights. He spent the bulk of his career at Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights organization based in New York.
In the 1990s, when Buckel joined Lambda, LGBT rights were on shaky and sometimes non-existent legal footing. Homosexuality was banned in the military; some states still enforced sodomy laws; and most LGBT rights organizations were focused on securing basic employment and housing protections for gay people and fighting HIV/Aids discrimination. Marriage was far, far away.
The legal arm of the gay rights movement was a long-shot insurgency, and attorneys working on LGBT issues sometimes felt as if they were in a jurisprudential wild west.
“At the time it felt like, ‘There is no law here, there is no opening for this—so we’re just going to make one,’” Beatrice Dohrn, a former Lambda colleague of Buckel’s, told me. “Once gay rights had more legal footing the landscape changed. But at the time we really were kind of outlaws.”
It would be easy, and not totally incorrect, to describe Buckel—fastidious in his habits and devoted to his work—as a strait-laced but formidable lawyer who excelled at working within the system to change it. In one sense, Dohrn said, he was. But that image would obscure his anti-establishment streak. “That suit he always wore?” she said. “That wasn’t David. That was something he forced himself into.”
“David was a funny person with a wry, and sharp, wit,” Suzanne Goldberg, another former Lambda colleague, told me. In a parody of the conventions of legal correspondence, he sometimes signed his documents “DB/afq” — “David Buckel/another fucking queer”.
But he was also “a careful and deeply committed lawyer”, Goldberg said—a “meticulous” person who brought intense sense of purpose to his work. “He never lost sight of the fact that we were representing real people, often with serious difficulties in their lives as a result of discrimination or harassment.”
Although a private person, he radiated sincere interest in others. When you were in conversation with him, Dohrn said, you felt as if you were “the only person in the room”, so intense was his attention. He would ask question after question about your life and interests, listening carefully to the answers, then asking more. You could talk for ages, and only later realize that you never learned anything about him.
At the time, advocating for LGBT rights meant navigating a legal framework in which anti-gay logics were “baked in”, Dohrn said. Lawyers and activists were sometimes forced to accept homophobic premises in order to achieve tactical wins. “A lot of lawyers would look for loopholes in the law, but we were like, ‘No, I don’t want to win that way.’”
Buckel exemplified the second attitude. He believed in the righteousness of the cause, and seemed buoyed by faith in human nature. His refusal to compromise and his tendency to embrace uphill battles sometimes vexed his more pragmatic colleagues.
Evan Wolfson, a former colleague, praised Buckel’s work but said he sometimes tended to “categorical” or “rigid” thinking. He could be “very black-and-white, very un-nuanced in his initial appraisals of things, and because he was also very methodical and very serious, we would have to kind of reel him back in, or open up a gradation, or try to persuade him to see a more flexible alternative”.
His support for pursuing cases in conservative states—Utah, Iowa, Nebraska—considered poor soil for gay rights activism did, however, lead to several landmark victories. And he was also ahead of the curve in embracing issues—such as rights and protections for LGBT youth—regarded at the time as tangential or tactically risky.
At the time, “the right wing was still very fixated on this idea that we—gay people—were trying to indoctrinate young people”, Dohrn said. To avoid encouraging that trope, gay groups tended to steer clear of issues involving youth. Buckel, however, urged Lambda to take more cases defending young people.
They included Nabozny v Podlesny (1996), which determined that schools have a duty to protect students from bullying because of their sexuality; and East High Gay Straight Alliance v Board of Education of Salt Lake City (1999), which overturned the school district’s “unwritten policy” against gay-friendly student groups. He also worked on Dale v Boy Scouts of America (2000), an unsuccessful attempt to force the organization to end its then ban on gay members.
He was also an early advocate for transgender rights, which Wolfson said he views as Buckel’s signature achievement at Lambda.
In 1993, in Nebraska, two men raped Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old trans man. Teena reported the crime to the local sheriff’s department. The sheriff not only failed to take the allegation seriously, but tipped off the rapists, who murdered Teena and two witnesses.
The events inspired a 1998 documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, and the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, for which Hilary Swank, portraying Teena, won an Academy award for best actress.
With the support of Lambda and other organizations, Teena’s mother, JoAnn Brandon, sued the sheriff’s office and county government. In 2001, the Nebraska supreme court ruled that the sheriff had violated a duty to protect Teena.
On the Teena case and others, Buckel’s talent for listening was crucial to earning clients’ trust, Dohrn said; his most powerful weapon was often his empathy.
Buckel had always been a conservationist and he had “a revulsion for excess consumption”, Dohrn said. He brought his lunch to work every day in the blue plastic bag in which his morning paper was delivered. When he was looking for a home in Brooklyn, he was determined to find one near a park. He loved gardening and gave plants as gifts.
When he retired from Lambda in 2008, it seemed like a good time to devote himself to the environment. While working on grant applications, he became interested in the Red Hook Community Farms. The lot had a small compost site that he believed was underused. With the aid of a grant from the sanitation department, he began expanding the operation into one that could process several tons of compost a week.
He was determined to run the compost site, now supported by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the city government, using only human power and sustainable electricity. At the time it was generally considered difficult, if not impossible, to run a large-scale composting operation without significant help from machines. He threw himself at the challenge of proving that thinking wrong, and succeeded.
“David often said that if he hadn’t become a lawyer he would have become an engineer,” Kaelber said. “He loved puzzles. In this case the puzzle was how to create a community composting site that didn’t have rats and vermin, that didn’t smell, that didn’t have the negative things people associate with composting. He believed it could be done.”
Domingo Morales, now one of the site’s managers, considers Buckel his mentor. “He was the most intelligent person I’ve ever known,” he said. His meticulousness was key to the site’s sustainability and scalability. “Whenever David sent an email to someone it was always a page long. He would answer all these questions that you might have.”
Buckel was always upbeat when talking to volunteers, but privately he expressed more doubt. “He was realistic, in the sense that he knew we were barely scratching the surface,” Morales said.
“There were times we would get into these discussions on the environment,” Morales said, “and they would get very dark. I got the sense from David that he didn’t really blame other people, but that he kind of considered himself to blame. Any environmental injustice, anything going wrong with the world—he didn’t just get mad at other people, he was mad at himself.”
He walked a mile to work every day, to avoid using fossil fuels. He was painstakingly frugal in his habits. He tinkered with the compost processes for ever-greater efficiency. He seemed almost embarrassed of his own life on earth—the space he occupied; the resources he expended—and constantly sought new ways to offset what he viewed as his cost. But it never felt like enough.
“I think some of David’s distress was just all that was going on,” Kaelber said. “The gutting of the [Environmental Protection Agency] since the election of Trump; the complete denial of climate change and the science behind it; the fact that they want to open more and more land to oil and gas drilling, instead of focusing on sustainable solutions.”
During a conversation about two years before he died, Buckel asked Morales what he thought of the self-immolating Tibetan monks. They argued about the ethics of killing oneself as protest. Morales felt it was a foolish method of protest, especially if someone is a parent or spouse with obligations to living people, but Buckel felt it was an honorable act, maybe the most honorable act one can do.
None of his friends or family noticed anything unusual in the days leading up to his death, but Kaelber said he was upset by news that Scott Pruitt, then head of the EPA, was rolling back numerous environmental regulations.
Saturday 14 April was a mild day, good weather for composting, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Early in the morning, Morales remembers, “he texted me: ‘Hey, Domingo, I’m going to be out sick today.’ The past couple months he had been training me to run the site without him, but I thought nothing of it. So I said: ‘OK, cool, hope you’re all right, feel better.’
Then a few minutes later, he emailed me the letter he sent the news outlets, with an additional note at the top to me. He apologized for leaving the way he did, and leaving me with this responsibility. He told me he was proud of me, personally and successfully, and he ended with a little joke, saying I should hire some temps. He was basically saying ‘the site must go on.’”
Those who knew and loved Buckel wrestle with how to talk about his death. At his memorial service, one of the women with whom he and Kaelber were co-raising their daughter articulated the dilemma: they didn’t want to ignore the deep personal desperation they believe influenced his decision, but they also didn’t want to detract from his dedication to causes that meant a lot to him.
His statement explaining his death is not a tightly argued, lawyerly brief, peppered with dire statistics about global warming; although it mentions pollution, the actual words “climate change” or “global warming” do not appear. The letter often feels more like a statement of frustration with human nature than about climate change, and reading it buttresses the sense, expressed by some who knew him, that he might have been using his political anxieties to rationalize a decision he had already made.
“[My] privilege,” he wrote, is “feeling heavier than responsibility met.”
But his concerns about the planet are clear; and, whether or not one agrees with the decision, so was his explanation for his self-immolation.
“You know, it was a very conscious, deliberate choice he made,” Kaelber told me. “Not that I was aware of it beforehand. But he never did anything that wasn’t deliberate.”
Dohrn, his former colleague, said: “I don’t think we can treat his death like it was a valiant, valid decision unaffected by things that hopefully people will get care for.” But “if his death is going to garner attention outside the immediate circle of people who are grieving—if it is going to have a public component—then I think that public component should reflect the issue he connected his death to”.
During her eulogy, Buckel’s niece, Carrie Bryant, said: “David, I promise you—wepromise you—that we will give voice to those who have been silenced; we will give love to those who need it; we will tend to this, our beloved great Earth; and we will honor you,” through “simple, individual acts, as you so courageously did to make this world a more loving and just place”.
She added: “This much we owe to you.”
Buckel hoped his death would catalyze immediate action. It didn’t. By apparent coincidence, however, the anniversary of his death, however, will overlap with what could be the largest-ever direct action over climate change. Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group, is planning a global wave of civil disobedience the week of 14 April.
Extinction Rebellion, and similar groups such as the Sunrise Movement, believe mass civil disobedience is the most effective way to break through passivity and pressure governments to take concrete action on the climate.
As a dry run of sorts, members of Extinction Rebellion were recently arrested in New York for blocking Fifth Avenue. In London, members stripped partly naked in parliament. Eve Mosher, a spokewoman, told me that the group hopes for hundreds of headline-grabbing arrests this month.
The climate movement may be gaining momentum after all, even if Buckel didn’t live to see it. Yesterday, at the site where he died, Extinction Rebellion held a “funeral” for the species that have gone extinct because of climate change.
From everything we understand, climate change is a tragedy of the commons on a vast scale. Addressing it will require human beings do a lot of things they aren’t naturally inclined to do, like make short-term sacrifices for the sake of long-term common good: the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that as early as 2030 the earth may warm 1.5C (2.7F) over pre-industrial levels—and that 1.5C is the highest level the planet can sustain without entering the realm of the catastrophic. Just limiting warming to that level will require, the IPCC said, mobilization of a scale with “no documented historic precedent”.
It’s a sobering thought, and it invites the kind of fatalism that Buckel hoped to fight against.
“I don’t think you can say he was either ‘pessimistic’ or ‘optimistic’” about human nature, Kaelber said. “He was more complicated than that. He understood that humans are deeply flawed. I think what drove him was how to inspire people to be their best selves.”
He added: “If people want to honor David’s life they should look at how they can get involved, politically and in their own personal lives, in combating climate change.” His voice cracked with emotion. “In the thing that David wrote, the most meaningful part, to me, was: in the aggregated acts of millions of individuals, that is how change is going to occur.”
Guests of the memorial service received tree saplings. Perhaps in 10 years, Kaelber told me, he will go visit them all and see what they have become.
Buckel’s friends and family are also building a grove of trees on the space where he died. They have planted some dogwoods, staggered to bloom at different times. Kaelber hopes it will become a gathering place for contemplation, but also a place where people might hold community meetings to organize against global warming.
“He always loved trees,” Kaelber said. He hopes the site will become known as David’s Grove.
Beatrice Dohrn also told me a story about Buckel’s love of plants. “You know, in 1997 I had a breakup that I grieved very hard, and David, as if to cheer me up, gave me a jade plant. I’ve kept it for many, many years, and at some point it almost died,” she said.
“It was down to a stump. But for some reason I didn’t give up on it.”
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