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‘Eaarth’ Gay on ‘Eaarth’ Day 2010 April 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, Buddhist concepts, climate change, contemplative practice, earth community, environmental justice, LGBT concerns, Vassar College.
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Sometimes I feel blasé about Earth Day because I grow tired of talk without action. As a bujugeoscientist (that’s a Buddhist, Jewish, geoscientist) I’m inclined towards Right Speech and Right Action among the steps of the eightfold-path. As a result, I am unmoved by the verbiage of Earth Day.

Founded with good intentions by Senator Gaylord Nelson forty years ago today, it was designed as an environmental “teach-in” to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth’s environment. But I think it’s time for the speechifying (and partying that sometimes goes with it) to be supplanted by serious (right) action.

So, I’m pleased to share my delight today at having stumbled upon a new organization, OUT for Sustainability that aims to engage and mobilize the LGBT community around progressive environmental thinking. In my opinion, environmentalists like those running Earth Day events can learn plenty from LGBT activists who have had to mobilize swiftly to fight life-threatening illness and counter gross civil rights injustices.

The current state of Eaarth should move Eaarthlings as the AIDS-crisis moved LGBT activists. Started in 2009, OUT for Sustainability seems to me to represent the type of alliances this planet and its living beings need now. My queer Vassar College students get this connection; for example, they are OUT working on advanced degrees in epidemiology and environmental science; serving as educators about climate change; directing films about the effects of Hurricane Katrina; and promoting organizations that focus on issues of environmental justice, including food justice and health.

Thank you students! Thank you OUT for Sustainability. On Eaarth Day 2010, this Eaarth Gay feels inspired.

Awaken, Eaarthlings! An Earth Day Missive April 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Anthropocene, Bill McKibben, book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth cycles, geologic time, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace, CommonDreams.org, and Truthout.

In his recent book, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008), the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that Buddhism, as a robust type of humanism, allows people to learn how to live on our planet not only responsibly, but with compassion and lovingkindness. Every Buddhist practitioner, he says, should have the capacity to “protect” the environment and determine the destiny of the Earth.

Though I would argue that we have moved beyond the point at which the planet can be protected and that we must join with Earth as kin, Thich Nhat Hanh contends that if we awaken to the environmental reality of our planetary circumstance, our collective consciousness will shift.  He declares that Buddhists must help rouse people on Earth, stating “We have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.”

Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” has devoted much energy to this project of awakening. McKibben may not be a Buddhist, but his interview with Krista Tippett, host of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith, reveals him to be a spiritual thinker. His most recent effort to bring about this tectonic shift in the collective human mind and heart is his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

McKibben argues that humans have changed Earth in such fundamental ways that it is no longer the planet on which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. Seawater is becoming acidic as oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere; the cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realms of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is in the process of doing so; tropical regions of the globe have pushed two degrees further north and south changing patterns of rainfall and causing droughts, fires and floods.

What’s more, these geographically vast features are changing rapidly. As I tell my students, we humans have acted as geologic agents at non-geologic time scales. McKibben’s central point is a corollary to this formulation: global change is no longer a threat, a changed globe is our reality. Hence, McKibben’s homophone: we live on Eaarth, not Earth. His book is the call to stir that Thich Nhat Hanh prescribes. In the service of helping to rally the populace to such awareness, I’d like to add some Buddhist geoscience to McKibben’s already excellent reality check.

The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things and in The World We Have, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the sixth-century Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said that because a river changes constantly, we never step into the same river twice. Hanh writes, “Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have the insight of impermanence, we suffer less and we create more happiness.” According to Thich Nhat Hanh, people resist two types of impermanence: instantaneous and cyclic. Using the analogy of water set to boil, he teaches that the increase in water temperature from moment to moment manifests instantaneous impermanence. However, when the water boils and turns to steam, we witness cyclic impermanence—the end of a cycle of arising, duration and cessation.

Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that we must look deeply at cyclic change in order to accept it as an integral aspect of life and as a result, not startle or suffer so greatly when we endure shifts in circumstances. Looking deeply at cyclic change—for example the transformation of rocks to soil and back again—is what we geoscientists do. We gaze deeply at impermanence and know that without it, life would not be possible.

McKibben avers that we have passed the geological moment when we might possibly have avoided the mutation from Earth to Eaarth. Though he doesn’t name it as such, we have moved from The Holocene Epoch—the most recent 12,000 years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into what Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist called the Anthropocene—a new geological epoch denoted by novel biotic, geochemical, and sedimentary effects of global proportion induced by human activity. To a Buddhist geoscientist such as I, this formulation of our current planetary predicament makes deep sense. In order to understand why, I must mention a few monumental concepts in Earth history, namely evolution, punctuated equilibrium, and extinction. Impossible a task as it is to explain such big topics, since we humans seem to excel at taking in more than we can digest, I’ll give it a try.

Evolution—commonly misrepresented as improvement or progress—is, quite simply, change. Most familiarly, species evolve; they do so by punctuated equilibrium, a fancy phrase that means that organisms mostly stay the same but when they do change, they do so quickly and in spurts of geological time. Or they die.

Which brings us to extinction events. The geological record is replete with them, their intensity ranges from the small and local to the massive and global—the ones that shattered Earth’s biological order. Like the episode 65 million years ago that famously wiped out dinosaurs as well as numerous other species across the spectrum of life in all habitats sampled from the fossil record. Seventeen percent of families (the taxonomic unit above genus and species, a family can consist of a few to thousands of species) were lost in that extinction event. Or the greatest mass extinction as yet, the one 245 million years ago that marks the end of the Paleozoic Era; it rid the Earth of trilobites, those early marine invertebrates with a segmented body and exoskeleton that belong to the same group (Phylum Arthropoda) as modern-day crabs, insects and spiders as well as fifty-four percent of all living families.

These and other mass extinction events happened concurrently with vast climatic and physical disturbances on Earth that were outside the norm of what species and ecosystems ordinarily survived.  Such extreme physical changes doubtless had something to do with the occurrence of the extinctions in the first place. Lest I embark on a far-reaching lesson in Earth history, I’ll make the point simply, that over geological time life on the planet and Earth itself have morphed from one form to another. Our seas were acidic in the Archean and our atmosphere was oxygen-poor in the early Proterozoic (“age of first life”). This is the way I see our situation: all beings now live on Eaarth during the Anthropocene. Like other organisms before us we are challenged by changed environmental circumstances and must adjust to Eaarth in its current state.

To this Buddhist geoscientist the planet and its life forms epitomize impermanence. When I read the history of our planet I can’t help but see it as fitting with the concept of cyclic impermanence in particular. I ask, how will the species homo sapiens fare as we make our way across the epochs from Holocene to Anthropocene? Will humans and other great apes be counted among the taxonomic families that succumb in this latest great extinction? Will the record of our one-time presence on the planet comprise only an early Anthropocene stratum of bones, tools and garbage? Both McKibben and Thich Nhat Hanh give us reason to believe that human beings, if we wake up in the Anthropocene on Eaarth, instead may persist as one of the long-lived multicellular species on the planet (think horseshoe crab).

In the second part of Eaarth, McKibben argues that the catalyst for the evolution of Earth to Eaarth has been insatiable, fast growth. He says that any hope for our future on Eaarth depends on “scaling back” and “hunkering down”—creating communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth. He provides inspirational examples of neighborhood windmills, provincial currencies, corner markets, and local internet communities. Thich Nhat Hanh does the same, describing the efforts of his Sangha to practice mindful consumption. Both visionaries advocate proximal, small-scale ways of living.

By looking back in Earth history as we geologists do, I’d like to support with geological evidence the soundness of McKibben’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach to surviving on Eaarth. The Earth’s most successful and abundant life forms are prokaryotes (organisms that lack a cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles). They appear as fossils in 3.5 billion year old rocks and persist today in nearly all environments where liquid water exists. Some thrive in harsh regions like the snow surface of Antarctica while others persist at marine hydrothermal vents and land-based hot springs. Some use photosynthesis and organic compounds for energy while others obtain energy from inorganic compounds such as hydrogen sulfide.

Prokaryotes keep things pretty simple and make do with what exists in their immediate surroundings. Lots of them live together. They’ve survived numerous extinction events. Can it be that the collective simplicity they represent suggests a way forward for awakened Eaarthlings?

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

See also our Shambhala Sun Spotlight on Buddhism and Green Living.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 13, 2010 at 10:25 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Earth Observatory Images of Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland April 21, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Iceland, learning differences, satellite images, volcanic hazards.
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NASA’s Earth Observatory project is one of my favorite sources for images of earth processes. In my opinion, images of Earth, rather than words about it, often make the strongest statement about the place of human beings in the larger scheme of things. And for visual learners, rather than text-based learners, these images can’t be beat!

Earth Observatory images of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland, taken between March 24 and April 19 show development and movement of the ash plume over time.

Regarding Iceland: Of Course Volcanic Eruptions May Disrupt Air Transport! April 19, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in volcanic hazards.
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Flight Engineer Jeff Williams contacted the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) on May 23, 2006 to report that the Cleveland Volcano, as photographed by Williams, was emitting a column of ash.  The AVO reported that the ash cloud height might have achieved a height of 20,000 feet above sea level.

Cleveland Volcano, one of the most active of the volcanoes in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain, is a stratovolcano, composed of alternating layers of hardened lava, compacted volcanic ash, and volcanic rocks. Northwestward movement of the Pacific lithospheric plate beneath the North American lithospheric plate generates magma that results in the eruptions of ash and lava from the volcano.

Watch Dina Venezky, Ph.D., a geologist for the United States Geological Survey’s volcano hazards program in Menlo Park, California, explain lucidly this type of hazard.

And check out Iceland-specific information via Scientific American’s reliable coverage.

After Yushu, Hindered by Doubt April 19, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, disasters, earthquakes, geology, Iceland, mountain building.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

With the earth functioning for me as an object on which to meditate, or at least as a source of teachings that resonate with Buddhadharma, doubt is the hindrance that shakes my ability to use earthdharma to cultivate equanimity in light of the April 13 earthquake in Qinghai Province, China. Scientific understanding of earth processes has enhanced my capacity to access Buddhadharma, but at this moment it’s hard for me to regard the earthquake dispassionately and simply as a manifestation of the earth’s dynamism and propensity to change.

It’s true that this earthquake occurred because of the sideways slipping between two lithospheric plates—the same kind of motion that caused the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake I’ve previously written about for this blog. The eastern Tibet Plateau is a geologically complex region where the Indian and Eurasian lithospheric plates converge; you can picture what’s happening in the earth’s crust there by imagining the configuration and forces that result when you eject a seed from between the thumb and pointer finger of your left hand, the Tibetan plateau being the seed.

Enormous forces are at work there. The Indian plate is moving northward, toward the Eurasian plate—your thumb and forefinger in my analogy, respectively—at a rate of 46 millimeters per year. It’s that convergence that drives the uplift of the magnificent Himalaya at a rate of 10 millimeters per year to form what we geologists refer to as “the roof of the world.”

I know with my geoscientist’s mind that the 6.9 magnitude temblor likely reflects the interplay among the major tectonic (mountain building) forces along the Kunlun fault system that runs approximately 300 kilometers north of the epicenter of the seismic event. This tremor is one of the largest known quakes within several hundred kilometers of this location; one with similar magnitude occurred nearby in 1738.

Regardless, my scientist’s heart feels the vicissitudes of pain and loss when I read that hundreds of people have been killed and thousands injured and buried under debris, many of them peaceful ethnic Tibetan farmers and herdsmen like those I encountered on excursions in Qinghai province in the summer of 2008, just after the devastating Sichuan earthquake. I experience the unpleasant feeling tone that accompanies my geoscientific knowledge. And my heart doubts what my head grasps.

I’ve been asked often in 2010 if the frequency of earthquakes is increasing. My mind comprehends that although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that quakes of magnitude 7 or greater have remained essentially constant. I accept the partial explanation that, according to the USGS, in the last two decades we have been able to locate more earthquakes because of vast, improved and rapid global communication systems and the higher number of seismograph stations in the world than ever before. These conditions cause a 21st-century population that is already quite concerned about environment and hazards to learn about these earthquakes as they happen. Historical records suggest that we should expect annually one great earthquake (above 8), 15 major quakes (7-7.9) and 134 tremors of 6 to 6.9 magnitudes. By this accounting, the year 2010 has offered no greater seismic hazard than usual.

I try to see this latest earthquake as evidence of cyclic impermanence and Earth renewal. Still, my scientist’s heart aches. I set down my pen to sit so that I might cultivate both compassion in my heart for the living beings of that region, and equanimity that can help me along the path of using geoscientific insight to reduce suffering.

Previously:

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 18, 2010 at 11:14 am and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Bill McKibben on Democracy Now April 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, fossil fuel.
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Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, interviewed Bill McKibben today. Bill makes his points well.

Household Garbage to Energy April 13, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth community, fossil fuel, incinerators, landfills, municipal waste (household garbage), recycling.
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Today’s New York Times article (“Europe Finds Cleaner Energy from Trash) explains how incinerators that burn household garbage, ones that are much cleaner than conventional incinerators, are being used to turn local trash into heat and electricity for neighborhood homes in Denmark. Multiple filters on these incinerators trap toxic pollutants such as mercury and dioxin. Over the last ten years, these plants have become the main means of garbage disposal and an important source of fuel in areas of varied land use and economic class.  Use of these incinerators has minimized the country’s need for fossil fuels for energy and has reduced the use of landfills, thus diminishing the country’s carbon emissions. In Denmark, garbage is a clean alternative to fuel, not a disposal problem.

It’s a remarkable story and one that seems a good tribute by which to acknowledge today’s release of Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Living on a Tough New Planet. Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” has devoted much energy to rallying awareness about climate change.

In Eaarth, McKibben argues that humans have changed Earth in such fundamental ways that it is no longer the planet on which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. Seawater is becoming acidic as oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere; the cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realms of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is in the process of doing so; tropical regions of the globe have pushed two degrees further north and south changing patterns of rainfall and causing droughts, fires and floods. It’s a new planet he says, hence Eaarth, not Earth and we’ve got to wake up and start living on it differently.

What to do? Steer away from the path of insatiable growth that has caused Earth to morph into Eaarth, says McKibben. “Scale back” and “hunker down.” Create communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth.  He provides inspirational examples of neighborhood windmills, provincial currencies, corner markets, and local internet communities to jump-start this endeavor.

Let’s add to his list of changed behaviors, the use of Danish garbage incinerators. Today’s New York Times article notes that no new waste-to-energy plants are planned for the United States, even though the federal government and twenty-four states currently classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel. We have 87 trash-burning power plants in the U.S., almost all built at least 15 years ago. Right now, we send most of our garbage to landfills. New York City sends 10,500 tons of residential garbage to Ohio and South Caroline every day. Why? The worst trend in traditional environmentalism is responsible for this situation. Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism.

As McKibben urges in Eaarth, it’s time for a change folks. In Denmark, garbage to energy plants are placed deliberately in the communities they serve so that the heat of burning garbage can be most efficiently sent to homes. In the community highlighted in the NYT article, Horsholm, 80% of the heat and 20% of the electricity comes from burning trash. As a result, homeowners’ bills as well as carbon dioxide emissions are lower.

It’s this type of thought and action that Mckibben urges us towards in Eaarth, an inspiring read.

Ruptured coal ship + Leaking heavy fuel oil = Devastated reef April 5, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in coal, coral reefs, fossil fuel, Great Barrier Reef, oil, oil spill.
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(Image from Australian Maritime Safety Authority / April 4, 2010)

In attempting to address the question of how humans should behave as actors in the system of environmental change, I’ve been thinking and writing about writer Rob Nixon’s concept, slow violence. To use Nixon’s words, slow violence is an oxymoron because acts of slow violence are those with lethal repercussions that sprawl across space and time. (For more on the concept read Nixon’s remarkable paper “Slow Violence, Gender and the Environmentalism of the Poor” in Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, 2007)

Nixon has said that it’s hard to get people to recognize slow violence because the effects are so much greater than the space and time of one human life time. He says we need graphic images that can serve as icons to motivate us to stop perpetrating such acts.

So, my vote for an icon of slow violence is the sad image above that was printed in the Los Angeles Times today. It shows the more than 700-foot long, Shen Neng 1 , carrying 65,000 tons of coal striking the Great Barrier Reef (note that coral reefs cover less than 1% of the world’s oceans) and leaking heavy fuel oil from the 300,000 gallons it carries to run its engines.


Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas April 4, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in fossil fuel, hydraulic fracturing.
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Despite the fact that we humans must curb our use of fossil fuels, the technique of hydraulic fracturing (aka ‘fracking’) is being touted as an innovative way to extract natural gas from shale deposits. In my home state of New York, much attention has been paid to the issue because of the presence of an extensive sedimentary layer, the Marcellus shale, that could serve as a substantial source of the fossil fuel. For a balanced treatment of the potential promise and peril of this technology see the Scientific American report, “Fracking to Free Natural Gas”

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