On Earth Day 2022, Wynn Alan Bruce, a 50-year-old practicing Buddhist from Boulder, Colorado, self-immolated on the steps of the United States Supreme Court. He died the next day, succumbing to the injuries he sustained from being on fire for 60 seconds. 

Bruce’s self-immolation occurred less than three weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest solemn, but largely ignored, report warning that humanity is at a “now or never” point to avert full-fledged climate catastrophe. 

The earliest news accounts offered no context for Bruce’s act and few details about Bruce the man. But that didn’t last long. Soon, he was being pathologized as someone whose life was defined by “head injuries” and who lived with a cat. These selected and scornfully curated facts echoed pejoratively throughout the media coverage, reinforcing a predetermined notion of Bruce as a dismissable figure, one who should be at best pitied, or at worst mocked. His motivation, mental acuity, and emotional stability were all called into question, and, along with his social media posts, were dissected by phlegmatic strangers probing the innards of a defenseless specimen pinned to a tray in a junior-high-school science lab. 

He was damned by neighbors with faint praise as someone “with potential” but who was “easily-led.” Buddhists, called upon to weigh in on the ascetic practice of self-immolation, distanced the more “optimistic” philosophy from the hopelessness said to afflict some climate activists. Even when his friends and family seemed to settle the matter of his alleged despair, explaining that Bruce had acted out of a principled conviction married to an abiding love of the natural world, the familiar verbiage of suicide prevention PSAs was inserted over and again. “If you or someone you love…”

As the news cycle churned and spewed, one could draw a straight line due south from Bruce’s Boulder home to the fires currently raging in northern New Mexico. The blaze had already started to spread before Bruce left the West for Washington, DC. As the flames consumed him, the largest of the New Mexico fires, Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon, converged into one insatiable inferno that has since destroyed entire swaths of Hispanic villages and small ranches,“the last refuge of the rural poor.”  

While jaded pundits and elder onlookers either refuse to see or fail to comprehend Bruce’s final, open-ended message to the world he loved so much—turning his very being into a torch that cast its light onto the rapidly closing path to a future that’s still worth living in—many youth climate activists perceived that message with a flash of recognition, and were sparked by it.

Since 2008, through his business—“Bright and True Photography”—Bruce’s professional gaze, transmuted into a candid documentary style, had been focused on children, human beings who are wholly innocent of service or fealty to the fossil fuel criminal class, but who will be forced to live with the dystopian consequences of its utter turpitude. While jaded pundits and elder onlookers either refuse to see or fail to comprehend Bruce’s final, open-ended message to the world he loved so much—turning his very being into a torch that cast its light onto the rapidly closing path to a future that’s still worth living in—many youth climate activists perceived that message with a flash of recognition, and were sparked by it.

For The Real News, I spoke to members of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) in New Mexico and Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming—members who, like Bruce, live in states bedeviled by prolonged drought, terrifying wildfires, and governing leaders hellbent on accelerated fossil fuel extraction (the major contributing factor to today’s record high emissions).

Climate activists all, they told me that they respect Bruce and they respect his act. They have little trouble reading Bruce’s ritual enactment like an illuminated manuscript illustrating the unacceptable climate future being drawn for them by distant denialist draftsmen. In their view, the drastic nature of said act points to the necessarily drastic scale of collective sacrifice that will be needed to cut emissions in order to maintain a modicum of human habitability on Earth. Having lost whole generations’ worth of time wasted trying to convince older people that climate change is real, they solemnly accept what they see as a demonstration of intergenerational solidarity in Bruce’s final act, and they appreciate it. 

Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo, a 19-year-old from Laguna and Isleta Pueblos, is on indefinite leave of absence from the University of New Mexico. He stepped out of the classroom committed to overcoming the business-as-usual politics in his state that fuel and fund climate inaction, greenwashing, and false market-based solutions, often with cover provided by big green environmental organizations. “Groups such as the Sierra Club and 350.org. It’s infuriating,” he says.

Juarez-Alonzo is part of the cadre of YUCCA activists who used satire to disrupt Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s January 2022 “State of the State” address. They floated balloons filled with helium gas over the pomp and circumstance of the performative political rite, openly mocking her plan to advance a hydrogen manufacturing scheme to capture part of the 8 billion federal dollars made available through the infrastructure bill. These funds are set to establish four “hydrogen hubs” across the US, even though greenhouse gas emissions, like the balloons the young activists let fly over the governor’s esteemed guests, will certainly rise. Trained in community organizing by Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, Juarez-Alonzo now serves as YUCCA’s Policy Lead.

“Pueblo people are one of the only tribes in this country that still stand on our ancestral homeland because we repeatedly and actively resisted and fought back against relocation and conquest. To have it all—our sacred sites, the places our ancestors are—be destroyed for short-sighted profits and bad decisions is unthinkable.”

Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo, 19-year-old Indigenous climate activist from Laguna and Isleta Pueblos, member of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA)

When we spoke about Wynn Bruce, he was still angered that the initial news had been so muted, and that it hadn’t been the Earth Day story. “I’m not really sure this is the response anyone is looking for, but I didn’t really find out about this until the day after he’d passed; and just that fact in itself makes me infuriated… Why wasn’t this covered more widely? Why wasn’t it on every front page?” he asked. “To hear about and learn of that beautiful but also really painful act of self sacrifice—it’s hard to even put words to,” Juarez-Alonzo said. “But I think it really describes where we’re at as a society in the climate crisis; and it describes where so many people are at, as well.”

He points to over 1,000 climate scientists worldwide who  engaged in civil disobedience in early April, including chaining themselves to banks funding fossil fuel infrastructure projects; or, closer to home in Indian Country, to the water protectors standing against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, which poses a direct threat to pristine wetlands where Anishinaabe peoples harvest wild rice in Minnesota; or to the multitudes who stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016-2017, where, despite never being properly permitted, oil now flows under Lake Oahe, which sits behind Oahe Dam on the Missouri River; and to the militant resistors before them who fought against the KXL pipeline. These are struggles that have been going on non-stop since 2011, for over half of Juarez-Alonzo’s young life.

“As an Indigenous person, to see the endless extraction—the sense of urgency has been felt across our communities for so long,” Juarez-Alonzo said. “Things have reached a ‘boiling point.’”

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the largest currently burning fire in the US, has burnt over 259,810 acres in northern New Mexico. One of seven active fires in the state, it was only 20% contained on the evening of May 4, when President Biden declared an emergency. Since then, with 1,300 firefighters working against winds sometimes gusting over 65 mph, it’s currently reported to be 33% contained. But another smaller fire, the Cerro Pelado fire in the Jemez Mountains, is only three and a half miles away from the property of Los Alamos National Labs (LANL), which is gearing up for plutonium pit production. LANL sits on land formerly belonging to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, one of 19 Indigenous Pueblos in northern New Mexico.

A firefighter works to combat the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfire, near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 4, 2022. Photo by Kevin Mohatt/REUTERS.

“We’re talking about our mother who has sustained us,” Juarez-Alonzo said. “Pueblo people are one of the only tribes in this country that still stand on our ancestral homeland because we repeatedly and actively resisted and fought back against relocation and conquest. To have it all—our sacred sites, the places our ancestors are—be destroyed for short-sighted profits and bad decisions is unthinkable.” 

He says if he could speak to Bruce he would start off by thanking him. “But ultimately I think I would have to apologize that our government and our society is so tied to the fossil fuel industry, to carbon, and to the sense of hyper-individualization and capitalist ideals that have taken over, that this act hasn’t been seen as something larger.”

Years before answering the Standing Rock Sioux’s call to stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Big Wind (pronouns: they/them), a Northern Arapaho tribal member from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, had been fighting oil and gas companies’ intrusions on their own tribal lands since age 13.

“Ours is an oil and gas tribe, and our people have an average life expectancy of only 48 years old,” Big Wind says. “It was imperative that I figure a way out of it.” 

Witnessing direct action in North Dakota, they saw the contrast with their more conservative community, and the slow, sometimes immeasurable, gains often achieved by conservative tactics such as circulating petitions and drumming up interest in public comment periods. 

“I was amazed by how quickly you could see results,” says Big Wind. “People taking their power back.”

Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) leaders and allies march on Earth Day, April 22, 2022, calling for immediate climate action and accountability from industry and government as wildfires, aided by record winds and dry conditions, scorch vast swaths of land in New Mexico. Photo Credit: Bianca Sopoci-Belknap.

After Standing Rock, Big Wind migrated to the Line 3 struggle, living with the activist Ginew Collective in a tented encampment, spending five years, including winters, without running water, bathrooms and electricity. At camp, Indigenous lifeways were practiced—tapping maple syrup, harvesting wild rice, chopping wood, building traditional structures, holding sweat lodges.

“When you’re participating in those lifeways, everything slows down,” they say. “It’s all about the repetitive motion. It’s taught me a lot about patience, about myself, has helped me be a better water protector and better understand what’s at risk.”

In the past five years, they’ve been arrested ten times for climate interventions. But just like in North Dakota, the oil started flowing under their feet.

“They were building this thing right in front of our face,” Big Wind said. “I think a lot of us are feeling helpless, like what we’re doing isn’t enough, not in this amount of time.”

A student of resistance, they’re aware of the example of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk in Vietnam who self-immolated in 1963. They imagine Bruce was caught between a rock and a hard place, and that through his spiritual practice he was ready to let go of his physical vessel. “I think he understood that this would make an impact and that it would cause a lot of people to be having these conversations that they’ve never had before.”

 “A lot of us are stuck in this position right now… you see a man burn himself on Earth Day, simulating what’s happening to the earth, showing people this really enduring image that we don’t want to see. But his message is clear: Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working.”

Big Wind (pronouns: they/them), climate activist and Northern Arapaho tribal member from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming

Big Wind predicts that more people will self-immolate on behalf of the climate crisis.  

“This is one of the largest sacrifices that you can make,” they said about Wynn Bruce. “A lot of us are stuck in this position right now… you see a man burn himself on Earth Day, simulating what’s happening to the earth, showing people this really enduring image that we don’t want to see. But his message is clear: Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working.”

“People will say this is a very extreme sort of protest, and that could be your opinion,” Big Wind said. “But we’re going to need [to] sacrifice… a lot of things to be able to even curb the climate crisis.”

“I’m not asking you—and I don’t think he would either—to do what he did. But I think, in remembrance of somebody who would do something as noble as this, that we owe it to them and future generations, to move out of our comfort zones. And to act.”

Jazmin Rodriguez Lopez, 17, is a high school senior living on the south side of Santa Fe, not far from a smelly water treatment plant. Sometimes she wants to relax in her bedroom near an open window and catch a breeze, but the odor is too disgusting. 

She used to think it was normal to live like this, that everyone did; now that she knows better, every inhalation is an oppression.

“This Earth Day was really important because we have already reached a point where the consequences of the climate crisis are irreversible,” she said. “And they’re just going to be more and more detrimental, especially to our low-income communities of color suffering that reality right now; and it’s completely unjust.”

Rodriguez Lopez is from a first-generation immigrant family from Aguascalientes, Mexico, where her relatives struggle to access clean water because of drought and scarcity. At a certain point, she put things together: not everyone has, or will have, clean air and clean water in this life.

“I think sometimes the powerful people who are hurting us think it will never escalate, that we will never break from the same forms of protest. But we will.”

Jazmin Rodriguez Lopez, 17-year-old high school senior and climate activist with Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) living in Santa Fe, New Mexico

“It was a very disturbing awakening for me to realize that this was my future here, because there’s nothing that was stopping it,” she said.

That’s when she joined YUCCA. “Once you know that there’s something you can do about it,” she explained, “you just have to be involved more and more, because it’s such a detrimental situation, and there’s so much that we need to demand.”

She read an article about Bruce, but didn’t understand.

“I had never heard of somebody setting themselves on fire, so I didn’t have a concept of how he set himself on fire. Did he jump in a fire? I couldn’t grasp it.”

As she contemplated it more, she came to feel that this was not a protest: It was a call, a beacon, to which every single person in earshot will have to decide how to respond.

“I think sometimes the powerful people who are hurting us think it will never escalate, that we will never break from the same forms of protest,” she explained. “But we will, and this would be an example of that.”

Photo of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) Steering Committee members. Photo Credit: Bianca Sopoci-Belknap.

She thinks Bruce should be remembered the way that his loved ones would want to remember him.  

“He showed us our grief,” she said, “that our world is dying. Wynn Bruce will serve as a reminder that this situation is fatal for all of us. We cannot beat Mother Earth, there’s no way around it. And we can’t keep pretending that there is.”

If given the chance to address Bruce directly, she says she wouldn’t have words for him so much as questions.

“I would ask him, without judgment, why he chose this, what it meant to him, what pushed him to do this for us? Truly, for all of the world’s youth.”

Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson writes about liberation struggles and the arts that inspire them. She is the author of the comic political novel Cooperative Village. Follow her on Twitter @FrancesMadeson.