Senator Rubio: Between Rock of Ages and a Hard Place December 4, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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Here is my unpublished Letter to the Editor of the New York Times in reference to NIcholas Wade’s piece on Senator Marco Rubio’s statement “I’m not a scientist.”
To the Science Times editor:
Fossil Rock Anthem November 30, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time, geology.
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For those of you who like your science set to music here’s the latest from “science populariser” Tom McFadden who is on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Time Travel at Ausable Chasm November 23, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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Today I traveled back to a time 500 million years ago. At Ausable Chasm I descended 150 feet through layer upon layer of sandstone. Carved by glacial meltwater a mere few thousand years ago, the Ausable river now flows along the bottom of this slot canyon into Lake Champlain.
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.
Ecological Buddhism July 3, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time, Buddhist concepts, Anthropocene, science, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, mindfulness practice, 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.
Turtle Liberation in the Anthropocene June 13, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist practice, earth community, Evolution, geologic time, Hudson Valley, science, Turtles.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.
Earth Dharma: Turtle Liberation!
In some Buddhist traditions, liberating captive animals is an act of compassion, a way to “make merit” for long life. Releasing turtles, in particular—symbols of patience and resilience—is considered an auspicious act.
This morning I woke up and let our household dog Molly outside in the backyard. She ran down the path towards the pond and stopped abruptly to sniff at something dark at the corner of our garden. I’d gone out with her to prop up the tomatoes that have been growing well, protected by the scents of bee balm, borage, sage and mint, as well as a delicate mesh netting I’d wrapped around four posts to exclude grazing deer and woodchucks.
What at first I thought might be a dark muskrat shocked into stillness turned out to be a snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina—New York’s state reptile. During the night, it must have crept out of the muddy, shallow pond behind our house, crawled up the brushy bank, and asserted itself beneath the netting into the garden.
Now although the so-called common snapper is not listed as an endangered or threatened species—the species is a prominent member of many North American ecosystems—this particular individual was struggling against the mesh that entangled her.
Having spent nights observing nesting sea turtles in the southern Caribbean and tracing the tracks they leave in the sand after laying eggs, I was able to make out the path this snapping turtle had taken through our garden.
She had buried her eggs in one of our raised beds but the netting that I’d used to protect the plants barred her return to the water.
The opportunity to engage in the Buddhist practice of releasing this trapped turtle felt not so much like an opportunity to make merit as it seemed a privilege to encounter this remarkable being of ancient lineage. But most importantly the experience provided a vivid reminder of the tenuous position of some living beings at the juncture between the deep geological past and the uncertain future of the Anthropocene.
Nature essayist Bil Gilbert vividly described snapping turtles as “creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads.” From the look of the one in the garden, I could see why: with sharply clawed feet; hard, pointed beak; dark and dented carapace; sharp, bony-plated jaws; and thick, spiky tail she certainly looked related to the dinosaurs—yet they’re gone and her branch on the tree of life still thrives.
Chelydra serpentina has barely changed in the 210 million years since the first appearance in the fossil record of Proganochelys, the most primitive turtle we know. The most substantial difference between Proganochelys and our garden snapper is that she could pull her head and legs into her protective shell—clearly a helpful innovation as snapping turtles are the ancestors of about 80% of all turtles alive today.
Whether or not the motivation to release trapped endemic animals is the desire to make merit, the traditional act can serve positive ecological purposes. For example, in some rural communities as seasonal bodies of water shrink during the dry season, aquatic creatures trapped in isolated water bodies make easy prey. By returning some of these critters to larger year-round bodies of water villagers help individuals and species to survive. Although compassionate acts, such releases also help to protect the food supply into the future.
I brought Molly back to the house and called up to my partner and ten year old to come down to the garden. Together with our neighbor and her young child we gingerly and respectfully separated the turtle from the netting then silently marveled at the size and apparent age of this being.
After a short while, we went up to the house to get a ruler intending to measure the length of her shell; but when we returned she had gone leaving us to admire her swift stealth—that, and her family’s ability to survive asteroid impacts and ice ages. We wished her good fortune in the Anthropocene and hoped that the merit that had accrued from her release would benefit all living beings.
This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on June 13, 2011 at 11:42 am and tagged Environment, Nature, Science. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
From the Being Blog May 18, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Cape Cod, contemplative practice, earth cycles, earth system science, geologic time, glaciation, Krista Tippett on Being, satellite images.
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by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Sand dunes at Wellfleet. (photo: Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
“If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
—Sherry Turkle, from “Alive Enough? Reflections on Our Technology”
The founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self made this remark in the context of describing the awe she feels when she walks among the magnificent dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. I know well those sand dunes and the extensive tidal mudflats that mark the tip of the Cape.
Dr. Turkle thinks of these places as sacred spaces, and I agree. I take my earth science students there to witness the work of wind, water, and sand. And, for a week or two each summer, I go with my children so we can experience the flow of the tides. These are indeed remarkable places in the landscape ripe with possibilities for self-realization.
I take my geology students to the dunes and mudflats of the Outer Cape so that they can experience the vast time scales and spaces of earth system processes.
A satellite view of Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of NASA)
The Cape itself, as some readers may know, owes its existence to the great ice sheets that extended as far south as Long Island during the late Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. The mud of the tidal flats and the sand of the dunes are the glacial debris, reworked and sorted by the wind and water long after the ice sheet retreated north.
Other reminders of the presence of the massive ice cover in the region are cliffs above the dune fields — the edge of the glacial moraine (a pile of boulders pushed along as the ice pushed south) — and freshwater ponds of neighboring Truro and Wellfleet (“kettle holes” formed when stadium-sized chunks of ice broke off the glacier, became engulfed by glacial sediment, and then melted). All of these features stretch for miles and remind me and all my geologically time-traveling companions that 18,000 years ago — a seemingly long time — this portion of the Earth was covered by a one mile-thick sheet of ice.
Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary. (photo: Susan Cole Kelly/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Encountering this landscape cultivates in me, and I hope in my students, what Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” For me, this is a soothing feeling of awe and connection. Walking in the dunes or across these mudflats puts me in touch with deep time — for the particles that compose them may themselves be millions of years old, silt and sand moved there merely thousands of years before.
Although we walk among them today, the particles have been through many cycles of existence. Formerly they were part of a mountainous land mass; subsequently they were eroded, transported, and deposited at least once. Each grain has an individual history. Collectively they tell a story that encompasses swaths of time that hold all of humanity. I find this reality comforting.
The sands of Provincetown’s dunes. (photo: Leonarda DaSilva/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Dr. Turkle worries helpfully about the inner effects of digital objects. Though she acknowledges the benefits of digital connection, Dr. Turkle laments what people lose as they take to the dunes and mudflats with their earphones in and handheld electronic devices on and open. To her mind, people lose the ability to feel at peace in their own company. I agree, but also would like to suggest that by unplugging from the electronic world in such sacred spaces we increase our capacity to encounter entities larger than ourselves — vast time scales, and past and ongoing earth processes. Thus we enhance our ability to connect with the earth system of which we are a powerful part, and this experience lessens loneliness.
This Month in the Earth Year: April April 26, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in cyanobacteria, earth community, earth system science, geologic time, geology, science, stromatolites.
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The last bits of snow have disappeared from the piles we plowed this winter and the daffodils have poked up through the defrosting topsoil, so it’s relatively easy to get a sense of time passing in our day-to-day lives. And at this time of year, when some readers may think that, as is often said, the only things certain in life are death and taxes, I’d like to add to that expression the existence of an ever-evolving Earth. For if we take the calendar year as a metaphor for the age of this planet, using January 1 as the date of its formation, by the end of April only 1.5 billion years of Earth history will have transpired. That may seem like quite a bit of time but if we gauge the passing of geologic time by looking for milestones in Earth history, it’s easy to see that Earth time is deep.
April is an auspicious period in the planet’s metaphorical history. The Archean. If you time-traveled to April of the Earth year it’s likely you wouldn’t recognize the Earth as the same planet we inhabit today. The Earth’s crust would have cooled enough so that continents had begun to form, but the similarities to today’s Earth would have ended there. To sustain a visit to the Archean, you’d need to have brought with you a supply of oxygen, for the atmosphere would have been unbreathable. Consisting of methane and ammonia, among other gases, the Archean atmosphere would have been toxic to most of the life that exists on our planet today.
Nonetheless, the first life that appeared on Earth—cyanobacteria– lived in the Archean. In fact, the oldest known fossils date to this slice of time. The bacteria that grew in the Archean seas left behind large layered mounds called stromatolites that formed as the colonies trapped sediment and secreted calcium carbonate. Though stromatolites don’t commonly develop in today’s seas–because too many other organisms are around to eat them–those simple bacteria are still here, like death and taxes.
White Flags for Earth Day April 22, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, earth community, earth cycles, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Vassar College, White Flags.
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As I’ve said before, I am somewhat cynical about Earth Day because it seems to me a travesty to focus on the Earth’s well-being just one day out of every year. It makes it seem as if Earth is some kind of static entity that we must pay tribute to whereas we know it to be a system of overlapping spheres (hydrosphere, atmosphere, rock sphere, and biosphere) whose interactions over extended time have made possible life on this planet. This is a fact that, in my opinion, we all should pause to appreciate every day.
So this Earth Day I’d like to call attention to “White Flags”–a project of Vassar’s 2010/2011 artist in residence, Aaron Fein. “White Flags”–all 192 flags of United Nations member states hand-made in white and installed on the College’s Chapel lawn–showcases the power of a physical environment that changes over time to illumine the transcendent connectedness of all living beings on this planet.
I’ve seen the flags and have been privileged to participate a bit in the project which is at the confluence of art and science. If you’re in the area, come see it between April 24 and April 29 at the College. It should be a magnificent sight.
The Anthropocene March 3, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, geologic time.
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I’m about to head out to West Texas on a geology field trip with a group of sedimentology students, a colleague, and my 10 year old child in order to look at sedimentary rocks formed hundreds of millions of years ago. If I weren’t leaving shortly I’d take more time to write about the February 27 New York Times editorial that broadcasts what should be (but is not) widely known. We live in a geological time period that we used to call the Holocene (the Recent). The New York Times echoes what a few scientists have been saying for a while now: it’s not the Holocene, it’s the Anthropocene. I explain this further in my May 20, 2010 comments on this blog.