Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
Tags: environment, liberal arts college, lotus position, science
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Among my favorite cartoons is one my mom gave me by the cartoonist and author of The Soul Support Book, Deb Koffman. Entitled “Sitting with Awareness,” in each of sixteen small square frames Koffman depicts a person sitting in lotus position wearing, what we call in my house “at–homes”– in other words sweatpants. (Click here to visit Koffman’s site — you’ll find the image under “Mindfulness Prints.”) Phrases beneath each frame taken together constitute the following poem. I sure can relate to it, and maybe you can too:
I’m aware of my posture, I’m aware of my knees, I’m aware of my hands, I’m aware of a breeze.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware I feel cold, I’ve got a pain in my side, I’m getting old.
The clock is ticking, my eye has a twitch, my stomach is grumbling, my back has an itch.
My foot fell asleep, my pants are too tight, someone is coughing, am I doing this right?
Why do I relate to this poem? Because as I pursue my work as a geoscientist–educator at a liberal arts college — reading, teaching, and striving at the intersections of earth science, gender studies, environmental studies, and history of science — I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?”
In answer to that question, I’m encouraged by news that The University of Virginia received a multimillion dollar gift this year to establish a Contemplative Sciences Center. One purpose of the center will be to promote awareness about the potential benefits of training one’s mind and body. David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who will help lead the center commented, ”Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight.” Huzzah to that.
This means greater validation for the kind of work I try to do as a contemplative educator in my science classes. Not that I doubt the benefits of contemplative practices in higher education. Students continue to write to me post-graduation, amidst real-life struggles about how the contemplative approaches I’ve taught them while they were in college have been among the most sustaining practices they’ve used to deal with everyday living. It’s just that professional scientific societies offer much advice about the fact that geoscientists — as educators and Eaarthlings — must involve ourselves in addressing “critical needs for the 21st century.”
For example, we are urged to prioritize efforts to ensure reliable energy supplies in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; provide sufficient supplies of water; sustain oceans, atmosphere, and space resources; manage waste to maintain a healthy environment; mitigate risk and build resilience from natural and human-made hazards; improve and build needed infrastructure that couples with and uses Earth resources while integrating new technologies; ensure reliable supplies of raw materials; inform the public and train the geosciences workforce to understand Earth processes and address these critical needs. It’s a long and lofty list.
But critically absent from the “critical needs” list are endeavors equally critical to achieving this balance on Earth. For example, for my personal list of critical needs as a science educator, I’ve added the following imperatives:
- Tell a scientific story of the universe that has a mythic, narrative dimension that elevates the story from a prosaic study of data to an inspiring spiritual vision;
- Articulate our dream of the future Ecozoic era, defined as that time when humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner;
- Circumvent the problem of anthropocentrism that is at the center of the devastation we are experiencing;
- Allow acknowledgment that currently, human beings are a devastating presence on the planet; supposedly acting for our own benefit, truthfully we are ruining the conditions for our health and survival as well as that of other living beings;
- Promote hope through contemplation of how tragic moments of disintegration over the past centuries were followed by hugely creative moments of regeneration;
- Recover the capacity for subjective communion with the Earth and identification with the cosmic-Earth-human process as a new mode of interdependence;
- Nourish awareness for a vision of Earth-human development that will allow a sustainable dynamic of the modern world;
- Foster development of intimacy with the natural world.
I developed this list as a result of reading the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth. “The universe,” he said, “is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Berry, had a doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America, studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions of religion in India. One of his earliest books was a history of Buddhism. Having established the History of Religions program at Fordham University Berry published numerous prophetic books including The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and his last work The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. This last writing especially fuels my conviction that science done well is also a spritual discipline. Berry called himself a “geologian” and wrote:
Our new acquaintance with the universe as an irreversible developmental process can be considered the most significant religious, spiritual, and scientific event since the emergence of the more complex civilizations some five thousand years ago…. if interpreted properly, the scientific venture could even be one of the most significant spiritual disciplines of these times. This task is particularly urgent, since our new mode of understanding is so powerful in its consequences for the very structure of the planet Earth. We must respond to its deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us (The Sacred Universe 119-120).
The notion that that my geology may be at once both scientific and spiritual has me also adopting the moniker, “geologian.” And that the University of Virginia is moving forward with its Contemplative Sciences Center fuels my hope that engaging science as a spiritual discipline in order to encourage embodied paths to wisdom and social transformation is in itself a worthwhile practice.
We’ve almost arrived at the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere. On the year’s shortest day, the sun appears to halt in its progressive journey across the sky. From Earth it seems that the sun hardly changes its position on this day, hence the name solstice meaning ”sun stands still.” But despite appearances, the sun is changing its position relative to the Earth inasmuch as, speaking scientifically, the Earth circles the sun each year while it rotates on a tilted axis and creates the changing seasons (the hemisphere that faces the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight). For half of each year the North Pole is tilted away from the sun and on the winter solstice the tilt makes the sun seem most faraway. This astronomical event announces the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.
Speaking as a “geologian” I observe that these are indeed the darkest days of the year. But as I pause, as the sun seems to, at this point in my yearly journey around the sun, I note that in the darkness is the promise of the gradual return of more light. As you circle the sun and participate in the turning of the wheel of the year, what do you notice and to what do you bow?
Listen! The Earth Breathes! November 8, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, climate change, earth system science, Ecozoic, environmentalism, global warming, Hurricane Sandy, hydrologic cycle, science, sea-level rise, Teilhard de Chardin.
This piece appears in Shambhala SunSpace.
Like many millions of people around the world, I was captivated by President Barack Obama’s election night victory speech. And my heart cheered when I heard the President say, “we want our children to live in an America that…. isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Maybe the Earth has now, finally, made itself heard on the issue of the disastrous implications of global warming for all beings that live on this planet.
I’ve always favored scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating complex system that contributes to maintaining conditions for life on the planet. And I’ve also been a big fan of Vice-President Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth, especially because he makes so clear that the Earth actually breathes. “It’s as if the entire Earth takes a big breath in and out once each year,” he wrote in referring to the Keeling Curve, the diagram by scientist Charles David Keeling that shows not only the overall increase in CO2 in the atmosphere starting in the late 1950s based on measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii but also the annual cycle of increase and decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere that results from the growth and decay of vegetation.
And now at the risk of committing the sin of anthropomorphism (attributing human motivation to an inanimate subject), I’ll suggest that Earth itself cast a vote in this election.
Some pundits say that “Superstorm Sandy” helped the President win the election partly because of his compassionate and competent response to the crisis. I’m no poll, so I don’t know. I hope only that this election marks our movement into a new geologic Era thatJesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) once proposed: the Ecozoic, a new era of mutually enhancing human-earth relations.
In The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
You will be like the tree of life.
Your leaves, trunk, branches,
And the blossoms of your soul
Will be fresh and beautiful,
Once you enter the practice of
May the re-election of Barack Obama usher in the Ecozoic Era, a period in which we listen attentively to what the Earth tells us and live the understanding that we breathing humans are the breathing Earth.
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Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 by Common Dreams and October 25 by Truthout.
Militaries, Mammals and Spiritual Science October 14, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, science, slow violence, Thomas Berry.
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This piece is cross-posted at Truthout.orgThough not as closely related as they are to hippos, whales have much in common with elephants. Speaking scientifically, they belong to different taxonomic orders–whales to the taxonomic order Cetacea and elephants to the order Proboscidea, but they come from a common ancestor with hoofs and are therefore distinct from other orders of mammals such as primates or rodents. Of course, they both are large, intelligent, social mammals and they share a precarious existence.
Therefore, I was glad to read a New York Times op-ed this morning that condemned the plan of the U.S. Navy to carry out tests and exercises using explosives and sonar devices in the Earth’s major oceans during the five-year period 2014-2019. The Navy estimates that this military activity will negatively affect 33 million marine mammals. Reading this caused my mind to wander back to the stories I read in the Times last month about the widespread slaughter of elephants by members of African militias who remove the ivory tusks and sell them to purchase weapons. Though the butchery of elephants by African militaries is bloodier business than effects such as temporary hearing loss and ruptured eardrums of marine mammals that the U.S. Navy deems “negligible,” I can’t help but think that Earth is in the dire shape it is today because of this type of behavior.
Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Katy Payne, an acoustic biologist attributed with discovering that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs to communicate, and understanding that elephants communicate with one another across long distances by infrasound. One can’t help but be heartbroken at the suffering experienced by these sophisticated beings as a result of such unjustifiable military activities–legal and illegal, in the sea or on land, by developed or developing nations. Dr. Payne comments:
“My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.”
In my opinion, human societies must grow a generation of spiritual scientists who, like Katy Payne, respond emotionally to their scientific work and can try to help change the path down which this planet is headed.
I don’t know if he knew her but I bet Thomas Berry (1914-2009) would have loved Katy Payne. Berry, a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who called himself a “geologian”, spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth and urging humanity to save the natural world in order to save itself. In his last book, The Sacred Universe, he wrote that we must respond to its [the Earth’s] deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us. He dreamed of a new geological Era, the Ecozoic, in which “humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.”
When it comes to other beings on planet Earth, scientists must do more than articulate their observations of other organisms as if with objectivity. Elephants and whales, along with other marine mammals, are more than “stocks” of resources, as some governments would have us believe. They are living beings with systems of communications and social relations to whom we are connected. Recognition of such connection puts us in touch with the fact that, in Berry’s words, “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Can someone please tell the Navy?
Barry Commoner: A Feminist Environmentalist October 3, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barry Commoner, connectthedotsmovement.org, earth community, environmental justice, environmentalism, feminism, fracking, Precautionary Principle, Sandra Steingraber.
When, as a 21-year-old geology major I chose scientist and activist Barry Commoner as my presidential candidate, I was lambasted by some of my lesbian sisters at Yale for wasting my vote. But upon reading his obituary in the New York Times, I feel proud of the choice I made back then. Barry Commoner, who died September 30, deserves to be remembered as a visionary scientific thinker who advocated for connecting the dots between components in systems of oppression.Barry Commoner, who died on Sunday at the age of 95.
I’d like to remember Commoner as a feminist environmentalist. Why? For one thing, Commoner split with conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation who subscribed to Paul Ehrlich’s theories articulated in The Population Bomb. These organizations, at the time, essentially blamed women for enviromental degradation asserting that it was a byproduct of overpopulation. Commoner was a scientist of the Rachel Carson variety. As the Times put it, his overarching concern was “a radical ideal of social justice in which everything was indeed connected to everything else… He insisted that the planet’s future depended on industry’s learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up.”
This line of thinking leads directly to scientists and activists today who insist on seeing the connections between energy, transportation, agricultural and industrial systems that emphasize technological progress and financial profits disregarding consequences such as groundwater contamination, global climate change, and the health of all living beings. Too, Commoner could well be remembered as the direct ancestor of scientists today like Sandra Steingraber, a signatory of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, a scientist who has devoted her life to explaining the ways that chemical contaminants endanger health, and who currently leads the fight in New York against fracking. For Commoner planted the seed for precaution with his precept that ”Preventing a disease is far more efficient than treating it.”
And I don’t know if in his late years Commoner was aware of the work of activist Ashley Maier, cofounder of Connect the Dots, an organization that uses the social-ecological model, that individuals live within multiple spheres of influence, to address connections between environment, human and animal well-being. But I’d like to think that his longevity might have been connected to the hope he could have derived from the work of younger activists like Maier.
Though I never spoke with my graduate school mentor, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, about Commoner, it didn’t surprise me to read his comment in a review of Commoner’s book, Making Peace with the Planet, that it “suffers the commonest of unkind fates: to be so self-evidently true and just that we pass it by as a twice-told tale.” Though he eschewed the politics of science, Steve’s view that Commoner was “right and compassionate on nearly every major issue” rings true as we contemplate as obvious yet imperative Commoner’s prescription of solar energy, electric-powered vehicles, and massive recycling programs, among others, as components of a plan to reverse the formidable, “radically wrong” path of the planet.
After Earth Day, Active Hope April 30, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Joanna Macy, mineral resources, science.
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With its numbered teachings, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012), a new book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, pays tribute to its Buddhist roots. However, instead of the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the five hindrances, and the four brahmaviharas, readers of Active Hope get three stories of our time, five signs of the great unraveling, four stations of the work that reconnects, and three dimensions of the great turning. In their book, Macy and Johnstone update the repertoire of teachings that will enhance our abilities to acknowledge disturbing ecological truths and respond with creativity and resilience.
According to Macy and Johnstone, Active Hope is a practice—we do it rather than have it—with three key steps: obtaining a clear view of reality, identifying the values and directions we hope for, and taking steps to move our situation along that path. In their view, since it requires no optimism, but simply intention, we can apply it even in seemingly hopeless arenas.
Good thing. Macy and Johnstone name resource depletion, mass extinction of species, climate change, economic decline, and social division and war as five signs of the great unraveling, but the signs also bear striking resemblance to the Book of Revelation’s four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, Death, Pestilence, and War. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Macy and Johnstone say it themselves:
“We can no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on—food, fuel, and drinkable water—will be available. We can no longer take it for granted even that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.”
Scientists’ take on Earth’s vital signs suggest such an imminent reality.
The author of numerous books, Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Hers is a deservedly respected voice for peace, justice and the environment, honed over fifty years of activism. In this clear and practical book, physician Chris Johnstone joins her to articulate her approach to activism and empowerment, which she calls The Work That Reconnects.
I first learned of Macy in 2007 when I googled “deep time” and “Buddhism” in a search for a meditation teacher who might help me integrate my preoccupation with contemplative practice and geologic time. Reading Active Hope gave me a window into Macy’s Work that Reconnects and fueled my inclination towards it. Here’s why.
Other recent books on global change focus on dire, dispiriting problems and offer sweeping seeming-solutions. Macy and Johnstone’s manual strives to equip us with a “transformational mindset.” Conceptualized as a journey, the book takes readers along a stream of thinking that, in the authors’ words, flows toward a way of life that enriches rather than depletes the Earth. Chapters in the book guided me through the four stages of the spiral of the Work that Reconnects: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. I could tell you more but I’d rather you read the book.
What I will say is that this book offers poetically scientific and accurate renderings of feedback loops and geologic time that will, I think, be helpful as we work little by little toward radically reconfiguring life on Earth. I love that Macy and Johnstone devote a chapter to helping readers develop that critical “larger view of time.” I think the book will refresh environmentally-minded Buddhists who suffer from what I’ve come unfortunately to think of as environmental change fatigue. In Active Hope, Macy and Johnstone teach us how to focus on our intention and strengthen our ability to respond happily to the vexing global crisis in which we live.
Falling in Love with “Other” Earth February 27, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, mineral resources, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
Photo by Don Farber
In his recent interview with Guardian editor Jo Confino, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanhsuggested that a spiritual revolution is needed so that we might avoid living in a future world torn asunder by societal stresses related to climate change. He characterized such a spiritual revolution as one in which we fall back in love with the planet and see the connection between the Earth and ourselves. In doing so, he says, we will heal the planet.
I had just heard Christian Parenti, contributing editor at The Nation and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) speak about the “catastrophic convergence” of climate change and increased social and political violence, and as a result felt convinced that Thich Nhat Hanh’s radical prescription for repair is precisely what we need. But how does one fall back in love with the Earth?
For me, learning about this remarkable planet is an important means to that end. And though I’ve studied the earth for three decades, I continue to understand it in new ways that inspire my devotion. For example, currently I am enamored of a new and unusual framework within which to think about the Earth’s minerals.
In 2008, geoscientist Robert Hazen with collaborating colleagues proposed a radical revision to the way we think about minerals. In the past, mineralogy was considered an ahistorical subject, one in which formation of minerals was viewed as unlinked to the twists and turns of history. In this view, the quartz of today is the quartz of yesteryear, relatively unaffected by the moment in time when the mineral grew.
But Hazen and his colleagues suggested that minerals have evolved over time along with the Earth. Why? As we know from studying meteorites, only about 60 different minerals existed in the materials that came together to form planets and asteroids in Earth’s solar system. Hazen’s group pointed out that today we count more than four thousand minerals on Earth. Through processes such as the formation of oceanic and continental crust, melting, and volcanism, mineral diversity has increased over geological time.
At first, the notion that minerals have evolved in concert with life seems surprising. Since nearly one hundred elements make up the periodic table you might think that an almost infinite number of crystalline compounds might form from the get-go. But different minerals develop only under very particular conditions of pressure, temperature, and concentrations of specific elements.
After initial accretion, the numerically small array of Earth’s minerals were affected by rapidly changing internal temperatures and pressures and external fluctuations in the chemistry of surface waters and atmospheric gases. Thus, according to these researchers, the first minerals combined to birth new mineral species.
Then when life originated on the planet, even more possibilities arose for the evolution of new mineral species because even the simplest organisms– colonies of microbes– metabolized minerals. As life evolved, organisms directly made minerals that served good purposes like shells, bones and teeth. And by the time that photosynthesizing plants caused the atmosphere to have an overabundance of oxygen, indirectly they were responsible for the formation of a multitude of new oxide minerals at the surface of the Earth.
If Hazen and others are right, then minerals evolve along a linear arrow of time; there is no going back to bygone Eons of a limited number of mineral types. Minerals diversify in irreversible manner just as organisms do and I’m excited to think in this new way about these mostly inorganic substances!
What’s more, although reports from the Kepler mission to survey near realms of the Milky Way galaxy and find Earth-size planets around other stars have inspired dreams of finding an Earth-like planet, it seems unlikely that any such planets would look like our blue-green home.
As reported in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience, an array of research contends that ostensibly original environmental features of the Earth in fact appeared late in the planet’s history and were brought about by evolution in the three domains of life with unpredictable contingencies.
These recent developments in the way we think about both minerals and life have caused me to fall in love again with this planet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has urged.
But though I agree with this beloved teacher that we must develop that “insight of inter-being” which concedes the connection between the Earth and ourselves, I differ with this teacher whom I respect and admire, when he refers to our planet as “Mother Earth.”
I believe that harm may come from referring to our planet as “Mother Earth.” Instead, I think it is critical to acknowledge that well into the 21st century we have rendered the planet Other Earth, a system separate and apart from ourselves. In academic parlance, we have “Othered” the Earth–made it into an object rather than a beloved subject. Such acknowledgement is part of the “real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things” which Thich Nhat Hanh advises.
We have distanced ourselves from the Earth. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we are the Earth. And,
When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of (M)other Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.
The complex interactions between minerals, life, and landscapes of our host planet have enabled our wellbeing. It is up to us to love it in return.
Cherishing Living Beings — Seen and Unseen January 9, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Antarctica, Buddhist concepts, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, hydrosphere, ocean pollution, oil spill, science, yeti crab.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
(Image from the first-ever video footage of the newly found Yeti Crab.)
The first time I chanted the Metta Sutta — the Buddha’s teaching on lovingkindness — I was a retreatant at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and I got caught up in the inflection marks that appeared above the words; I couldn’t quite figure out when my voice should go up and when it should go down. I felt self conscious about not getting it right and awkward each time we chanted thesutta (in Pali, the language of the Buddha, sutta means “thread” and its presence in the title of a text indicates that it is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his major disciples). Still, at each sit I looked forward to the collective chant. I listened carefully and chanted along with the group following the rhythm, tempo, and pitch. Eventually the sutta seeped into my bones, resonated in my body. In short order, I loved it.
These days, one of my favorite aspects of a retreat with Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg is our coming out of silence by reciting together this sutta and discussing the lines we love. Usually my mind settles on “contented and easily satisfied” or “so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”
For there, seven thousand feet beneath the sea surface, are “black smokers” — hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor — that spew hot, mineral-rich water into cold deep and build chimneys of a sort. Around them, living beings seen and unseen, cluster–species of giant tube worms and clams feeding on microscopic organisms, species sharing this spot on Earth over millions of years.
Not that I’m trying here to suggest that either the microscopic organisms or the larger animals at the vents are sentient and feel what human beings call contentment; rather, these critters are simply eking out a living — making the best out of their (sub)station in life. And I guess that to me, this is another manifestation of the wisdom of the Earth System; at these black smokers we see other beings that live within the constraints of their situation –”contented and easily satisfied.”
I’m inspired by these beings that make their own food not from sunlight (photosynthesis) but from chemicals in the water (chemosynthesis)! They’re not grazing on golden hills like the deer Sylvia has described that wander near Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They are what biologists call extremophiles. They dwell under pressure, in the dark, making their food from the Earth’s hot effluent!
Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given that three-quarters of the Earth is ocean and we’ve explored precious little of the floor beneath, there seem to be plenty of living beings we’ve yet to meet. A few days ago, published research on newly discovered deep sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica revealed some entirely new species. Check out this previously unknown species of hairy-armed crustaceans called “yeti crabs” living tightly packed together on and around the vents.
In the aftermath of various insults to the salty portion of the Earth’s hydrosphere such as the recent oil spill off the Nigerian coast, and in anticipation of damage from hydrofracking to unknown beings that undoubtedly reside in deep regions of the lithosphere, I offer these observations.
Perhaps one day we may, in the words of the sutta, cherish with a boundless heart all living beings, omitting none.
Ecological Buddhism July 3, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, geologic time, mindfulness practice, science, slow violence.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
Earth Dharma: “Awake in the Anthropocene”
By Jill S. Schneiderman
Because of the extended time frame over which they occur, human-induced environmental changes—increased temperature, rising sea level, high-energy storm patterns, desertification and drought—are out of sync with human lives lived in an age of short attention span. The violence exacted on all living beings by these changes poses real representational challenges to our abilities to address it. Are there any tools within Buddhist view and practice that can help us work progressively at the intersection of violence and environmental degradation? How can Buddhism facilitate the work of awakening human beings to violence that is potentially catastrophic, but so slow that it’s difficult to discern and counter?
The Realm of the Eternal Moment
From perches that encompass great swaths of space, geologists view changes of landscapes over vast sweeps of time. In outcrops of rocks, forgotten fossils, and minute mineral fragments, they find evidence of earlier events on Earth. It is a cultivated skill that requires patience, grown from sitting still or walking slowly in the field, and watching nothing happen rather than observing processes in “real time.” Yet geoscience can also elucidate the interrelation of all existences and phenomena, enriching a compassionate, time-transcendent vision and Buddhist-inspired systems thinking.
Mircea Eliade retold how Indra, King of the Gods, came to understand the importance of engaging compassionately with the responsibilities of the historical moment, while keeping in mind the perspectives of Great Time. That time and timelessness can lose their apparent opposition has a geological resonance, for in some ways geologists experience the flow of time differently than other people. They let the earth teach them. I have walked up arid slopes on the Caribbean island of Barbados that reveal that the land underfoot once was beneath the sea. Old coastal features some distance above the modern coastline tell of tectonic uplift, changed climate, and sea level fluctuations that caused the extinction and succession of coral reef colonies. A mountain exemplifies equanimity, because it remains unwavering amid the tumultuous activity of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere. Those coral reef paleo-communities also display geological equanimity and tenacity.
In the 13th century Zen master Dogen devoted The Time-Being, an important fascicle of his Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, to the recognition that “time itself is being, and all being is time.” For him, time consisted not of the past, present and future so much as events, moments and movements: “See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time… Do not think that time merely flies away… In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments.” It is in the realm of eternal moment that the thinking of geology and Buddhism overlap.
Slow Violence & Environmental Degradation
Robert Nixon has written evocatively about slow violence, acts whose “lethal repercussions sprawl across space and time;” oblique, unspectacular and amorphous. Its results are “attritional calamities” with “deferred consequences and casualties” that “pose formidable imaginative difficulties…(since) they star nobody.” The most ominous example is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and consequent climate change.
Slow violence is synonymous with global environmental degradation in general. How do we bring to life catastrophes that are “low in instant spectacle” but “high in long-term effects”? They pose overwhelming representational challenges, and we must summon exceptional creativity. It is out of sync with human lifetimes, difficult to represent, and presents motivational challenges—yet we must render slow violence both actionable and visible.
Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung pointed out that personal violence entails an immediate connection between the perpetrator and recipient of violence, but structural violence involves no direct relationship between perpetrators and recipients. It is built into economic, political, or social systems at multiple levels. It occupies the interstices of a system’s framework, often manifesting as unequal power and unequal life chances.
Galtung also described a cultural violence that obscures both personal and structural violence. This operates through norms or ideologies that promote a culture of impunity among perpetrators: as in racism, sexism or homophobia. The slow violence of creeping environmental degradation endures because it is supported by cultural violence. Here we are talking about an ideology asserting that greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change are “inevitable” products of modern society.
Scientists have been heard most loudly on the subject of global warming, and because of a professed divorce of head from heart in the scientific enterprise, ethical conduct has not been at the forefront of the conversation. But compassionate heart, a fundamental element of Buddhism, is important for people to attend fully to the slow violence of climate change. Society today also requires startling icons to vivify environmental degradation, and narratives that communicate urgency. A film like Avatar imaginatively, if imperfectly, communicates the slow catastrophes of deforestation, extreme resource extraction and ecological collapse.
Awakening to the Anthropocene
In 1990, I worked with colleagues to geologically map part of the Karakoram Range in North Pakistan. There I saw Nanga Parbat, at 26660 feet, the ninth highest peak in the world. The Raikot glacier yawned beneath its north face. The glacier, more ice than moraine, was healthy and frozen so that we could walk across portions of it in search of outcrops that would give us clues to the history and rate of uplift of the Karakorams.. Twenty years later, I drove from Lhasa to Shigatse, just north of the crumpled zone where the Indian subcontinent smashes into Asian lithospheric plate and saw the glaciers of the Himalaya once again. I dared not approach the Kharola glacier. Feeble in extent, this shrunken and dripping remainder of a once sturdy sheet of ice and rock manifested the slow violence exacted by human beings on the planet. We need no further data to confirm what is visibly evident. We must awaken to it.
With the greatest concentration of glaciers outside the poles, and rising at geologically rapid rates (near ten millimeters per year) to the highest elevations on Earth, geologists call the meeting of mountain ranges of the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Himalayas the Earth’s Third Pole. Its height affects atmospheric circulation, the breath in and breath out of our planet. How shall we, with head and heart, regard the melting glacial reservoirs of fresh water for the great rivers of the world?
A skillful approach to our environmental woes can emerge from combining scientific knowledge with compassionate ethical conduct. The first decade of the 21st century gave us record-breaking temperatures and huge breakaways from continental ice sheets. Yet the Copenhagen climate conference produced no signed agreement—the distance between the expectations of developing and developed countries was purportedly too great. That nations are so far from one another when it comes to the ethical conduct of right speech, right action, and right livelihood is itself a manifestation of slow, structural, and cultural violence.
In geological terms, we are living in the Holocene epoch which began with the ending of the last (Pleistocene) ice age. Some have suggested that we have moved into another epoch called the Anthropocene, after the dominance of human effects on this planet. The Hindu concept of Kali Yuga suggests that we live in the fourth and last of a complete set of cosmic cycles of periodic creations and destructions of the Universe, in which humans and society reach the extreme point of disintegration. The 21st century already provides us with many examples of disintegrative power: Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean and Japanese tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, and the disastrous “technological accidents” of Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima-Daiichi. If we are to counter slow violence with skill, courage and creativity, we will need to combine the discipline of “beginner’s mind” with wisdom learned from modeling the Earth system and with heartfelt ethical conduct.
Originally posted at — and published here with thanks to — Ecological Buddhism.