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From Science and Art, Global Warming is Real November 2, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, art, climate change, disasters, global warming, Hurricane Sandy, science, sea-level rise.
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Friday, 02 November 2012 13:14 By Jill S Schneiderman, SpeakOut | Op-Ed

So what if global warming isn’t directly responsible for “superstorm Sandy”? Let’s not get hung up on that minor detail.

Because the planet has warmed–the average surface temperature of the Earth rose 1.08°F to 1.62°F (0.6 to 0.9 °C) between 1906 and 2006– the cryosphere has melted, moving H2O from the ice caps to the oceans.

Markers show the dramatic retreat of the
Athabasca Glacier, photo Judd Patterson

And seawater has literally expanded. As a result, sea level has risen—worldwide measurements of sea level show a rise of about 0.56 feet ((0.17 meters) during the twentieth century.

Earlier this week Hurricane Sandy pushed the sea onto land in coastal regions that are today more “low-lying” than they were a century ago. Images are still coming in of the devastation caused by such mass movement of water along parts of the northeastern coast. Earth behaved as predicted and revealed the increased risk to which we have subjected ourselves.

At a time when scientists have been convicted of not making good predictions may I be the first to congratulate Dr. Jianjun Yin, a climate modeler at the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS) at Florida State University, and colleagues Michael Schlesinger of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Ronald Stouffer of Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University? In 2009 these folks published their analysis of data from ten state-of-the-art climate models and warned that, considering its population density and the potential socioeconomic consequences of such changes, the northeast coast of the U.S. is one of the areas most vulnerable to changes in sea level and ocean circulation.

Yin and his colleagues advised that, since much of the New York City metro region is less than 16 feet above mean sea level—with some parts of lower Manhattan only about 5 feet above it—a sea level rise of eight inches could be catastrophic. New York City would be at great risk, they added, for damage from hurricanes and winter storm surge (emphasis mine). Yin et al are the Hurricane Sandy analogs of scientists at Louisiana State University whose models of storm tracks led a reporter for Scientific American to presage in 2001 “New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Yin’s study, “Model Projections of Rapid Sea-Level Rise on the Northeast Coast of the United States,” produced this artist’s rendering of a flooded Manhattan.

But the images below are no artist’s rendering. They are photographs of water inundating the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new South Ferry Terminal.

The trees and map along the walls are part of a site-specific art installation, See it Split, See it Change (2005-2008) made of fused glass, mosaic marble, and stainless steel by Doug and Mike Starn. The work of these artists has articulated themes of impermanence and transience.

Let’s heed the message from both science and art. Can we all just pay attention to the Earth?

What Pema Chödrön (Unwittingly) Taught Me About Climate Change March 30, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, climate change, disasters, earth community, earth system science, mindfulness practice, slow violence.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Recently, when I opened my copy of Offerings: Buddhist Wisdom for Every Day for a bit of early morning inspiration, as has become my habit, I found the following insight from Pema Chödrön:

Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but think how relevant her comment is to the situation of North America in March of this year, a month that has felt downright summery. On the college campus where I teach, students have been gallivanting about in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, basking in the warm sunshine, and asking me to hold class outdoors.

It was unseasonably warm around the Ides of March 2012 and I’ve had an appropriate sense of foreboding. On that day The Washington Post reported that hundreds of temperature records had been broken; and the pattern continued for days with unprecedented record heat spanning much of the continental U.S. and Canada. In some places, temperatures were more than 30-40 degrees above normal — breathtaking.

The extent and intensity of the heat wave can be seen on the diagram below, courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory, a map that shows just how out of the ordinary these temperatures have been.  It shows temperatures of the land surface compared to the same eight-day period of March since the millennium turned. The red color represents areas with warmer than average temperatures while the blue reflects areas that were cooler than usual.

During this balmy spell, I’ve been teaching a course on so-called “natural” hazards. Pema Chödrön’s comment helps me realize how important it is that I enable students and other fellow beings to awaken to the seriousness of this unseasonal surprise. Though in my class I’ve concentrated so far on the more dramatic disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions — the truth is that more human beings died from exposure to heat and drought in the period 1986 to 2008 than from any other type of hazard including floods and tornadoes, among the others I’ve already mentioned. Not far behind heat and drought in the list of leading causes of hazard-related fatalities is winter weather.

Weather-related disasters are unspectacular and slow-moving so they are easy to not notice. We can get caught up in the elation of a summer day seemingly gifted to us ahead of schedule or an October storm that causes celebratory whoops among school children who are seeing their first snow day of the season.

But if we slow down and take notice we learn from studies such as one completed by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last ten years across the continental United States. This shows that climate is shifting for if the planet was not warming, there would be roughly equal numbers of record high temperatures and record lows over the last few decades.

Despite the fact that teaching about such hazards can sometimes erode hope, I’m motivated by the desire to do no harm. I realized the other day that there is virtue in paying attention to not only the wrenching disasters but the slow-moving, potentially catastrophic ones. Doing so provides the opportunity to integrate mind and heart, understanding and behavior.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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This View of Earth: A Call to Attention September 8, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, disasters, earthquakes, Larry Rosenberg.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks here on the eastern edge of the North American continent, despite the fact that we are situated in the middle and therefore relatively stable portion—speaking tectonically—of the North American lithospheric plate.

I felt the 5.8 magnitude Virginia quake on August 23 while sitting in a flimsy camp chair perched on Precambrian bedrock just inches above the ground surface in western Massachusetts. As readers of reports after that quake will know, the old and rigid rocks of the east coast of North America propagate seismic waves very efficiently so this geologic event was felt hundreds of miles away from the epicenter.

Just a few days later, the approach of and preparations for Hurricane Irene truncated the opportunity to marvel at the fact that Earth shook in surprising places. These were two different kinds of earth events: the earlier one a phenomenon of the solid earth possibly rebounding from the melting of Pleistocene ice sheets and the latter, a spectacle produced by the interactions of hydrosphere and atmosphere in the Anthropocene. They had in common the vast spatial scales that are an every day matter for planet Earth. Fortunately casualties among the living were few and we can be grateful for that. Nonetheless this planetary activity serves as a reminder that the earth is alive, and like any living being, deserves compassionate attention.

Aropos of these events, I recently finished a one-day sit with Larry Rosenberg at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. Larry’s instructions, very helpful on the cushion, are useful to me now as I reflect on the earth’s dynamism in preparation for my introductory earth science course. Seasoned meditators will relate to Larry’s instructions: to be present rather than to wallow in an unchangeable past or become lost in an uncertain future.

His words have a direct geological analog in the famous saying by James Hutton, considered the founder of geology, the earth shows “no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.” Hutton penned the words in an attempt to convey to a populace yet unacquainted with radiometric dating what he believed to be the vastly ancient age of Earth. But after sitting with Larry, I also read Hutton’s statement as an invitation to be present in the moment. The Earth’s past is indeed unchangeable and it’s future uncertain. All we can do right now is pay close attention to the communications we receive from this living planet.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on September 6, 2011 at 10:10 am and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Radioactivity, science, and spirit March 31, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, disasters, earth community, Japan, meditation, radioactivity, science, Tsunamis.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and at Being.

Radioactivity. Life. Death. These are front-and-center in my thoughts these days as I contemplate the fallout from the nuclear plant meltdown generated by power outages, triggered by a tsunami, set off by an earthquake in Japan. Amidst these events, I turned my attention to reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.

Currently, the book is on exhibit at the New York Public Library. The author, an artist, teaches documentary, drawing, graphic novels, and printmaking at the Parsons School of Design, so one might be excused from not immediately recognizing the logic of her having written a book on the Curies (who shared with Henri Becquerel the1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation.) But there’s little that is logical about the way this story reveals itself and that’s what makes it beautiful and such a pleasure to read. The book is a piece of art composed of images and words. Although told in roughly chronological fashion, mostly the story has long tendrils of other tales. In this regard as well as others, I suspect it will be of interest to people fascinated by the intersections of science and mind.

Here’s what I liked about it. To me, the format ofRadioactive mimics the way a mind—mine at least–works. All of us dedicated to a regular sitting practice know that just a few breaths into a sit, the mind is likely to take an excursion, follow an idea. After some time we wake up to the fact of our distraction and come back to focusing on the breath. It is in this manner that the story of the Curies, their colleagues, friends, enemies, lovers, and offspring unfolds. Unlike histories of science or biographies of scientists that are so often linear and wordy, this one provides multiple pursuable pathways.

Even if they know little else, most people know that Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. They may also know that her first Nobel in physics was followed by a second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. But the story of Marie and Pierre Curie is much more interesting than that plain fact. It involves a stimulating partnership of spouses engaged by the same scientific questions; infatuation with the invisible; Marie’s scandalous love affair after her husband’s accidental death by horse-drawn carriage; an ongoing commitment to scientific and medical investigations that ultimately killed her, and offspring—both biological and scientific—who have carried on their work.  And in Radioactive, entwined images and prose create a fabric that relates the stories of the Curies to more modern-day concerns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and two World Wars. Redniss indulges her readers with haunting cyanotype and archival images offered up in nonlinear fashion; this is a boon for right-brainers such as I whose minds tend toward wandering.

A most fascinating facet of the book tells of the Curie’s explorations in Spiritualism—a movement that suggested the possibility of contact with the divine. As Redniss tells it:

Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity—at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic….Spiritualists claimed that clairvoyants possessed “X-gazes,” and that photographic plates placed on the forehead could record vital forces of the brain, or “V-rays.”

The Curies and their circle—including leading artists, writers, and scientists such as Edvard Munch, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henri Poincare, Alexander Graham Bell—participated in the Spiritualist séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and considered it possible to find in spiritualism the origin of unknown energy that might relate to radioactivity. In fact, as Susan Quinn recounts in Marie Curie: A Life, just prior to his death Pierre Curie wrote to physicist Louis Georges Gouy about his last séance with Palladino “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”

Both scientists and spiritualists believed that there was much that exists in the world that cannot be seen by the naked eyes of humans.

Radioactive is a story of mystery and magic as well as a history of science and invention. It shows how science, so often thought of as motivated by passionate rationality, is equally about marvelous ambiguity. The Curies, perhaps influenced by their encounters with spiritualism, devoted their lives to the search for evidence of phenomena they could not see but that they believed existed. The implications of what they found—the good and the bad, medical innovation and nuclear proliferation—they couldn’t fully anticipate.

A recent New York Times article about nuclear energy, “Preparing for Everything, Except the Unknown,” states the obvious: experts say it is impossible to prepare for everything. As a mindfulness practitioner I’d like to offer a corollary to that statement: when we sit seemingly doing nothing, plenty happens—we don’t see it, but we sense it. Redniss’s history of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie inspires me as a scientist to continue to pursue my mindfulness practice.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post

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Japan in my thoughts March 17, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in disasters, earthquakes, geology, Japan, Tsunamis.
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For those of you interested in the science of earthquakes and tsunamis, you may be interested in this recent piece from Scientific American. It features an interview with my colleague Greg Valentine, geology professor and director of the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York Center for GeoHazards Studies. Also, if you would like to follow developments in the science of tsunamis, I recommend my colleague Brian McAdoo’s  The Tsunami Project: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Disaster Risk Reduction.

The Japan Earthquake: Healing After Trauma March 14, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in disasters, earth community, earth system science, earthquakes, geology, Japan, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and Common Dreams.

I just returned from a weeklong spring break field trip in West Texas with my geology students to news of the 8.9 (now upgraded to 9.0) magnitude earthquake, and related 30-foot tsunami, nuclear reactor explosion and meltdowns, and oil refinery fire in Japan. In the El Paso airport on March 12, I picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal to find out more about the events. The images of buildings, boats and other transport vehicles tossed willy-nilly by seawater—like toys swept aside by a frustrated child—took my breath away; they impressed on me yet again the spatial magnitude of Earth’s powerful forces.

I appreciated the clear rendering of the mechanisms of the quake and consequent tsunami— subduction of the Pacific plate beneath this outpost of the North American plate with massive uplift of the seafloor and displacement of voluminous amounts of seawater. Reporters for the Journalcontextualized the historic proportions of the seismic event (the fifth-largest recorded earthquake in the past century and the biggest in Japan in three hundred years); they lauded the country’s high degree of earthquake preparedness.

What struck me most, however was the extensive coverage of the economic implications of the quake for the global economy and speculations about how quickly life in and beyond Japan could get back to normal especially in terms of industrial and technological production. Of course I realize that business and financial news is that paper’s focus, nonetheless, I’d like to take the opportunity offered by this recent cascade of events to highlight a lesson that I think the Earth offers about reactions to stresses that can traumatize all living beings.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a seeker of Earth dharma—examples of Earth processes that resound with the wisdom of dharma teachers. For me, this recent temblor echoes teachings related to the devastating effects of the build-up of stress on a body and mindful approaches to healing.

In this seismic event, a locked fracture at the juncture of two lithospheric plates caused strain to accumulate in the rocks beneath the sea near the east coast of Honshu, Japan. It was released catastrophically as images of demolished landscapes and towns continue to show. As one geophysicist put it, “the rocks cracked under the pressure.”

I find it impossible not to take this as a metaphor for the effect on the human body of stress accumulated over the long-term and extract from it ideas about the delicacy of healing after such crises on earth. I’m sure others must have the same impulse but I feel especially inclined to it just coming off this field trip which took me to, among other places, Carlsbad Caverns (in New Mexico, just over the Texas border).

The moist, cool, subterranean world of Carlsbad Caverns beneath the rugged, desert landscape is an unparalleled realm of colossal chambers and extraordinary cave formations (known to geologists as speleothems). Formed a few million years ago by the dissolution of parts of a much older reef—the remains of sponges, algae and other marine invertebrate organisms that lived during the late Paleozoic—and then decorated beginning around 500,000 years ago, drop by drop, with crystals of calcite, steep passages connecting horizontal levels provide access to the Earth’s shallow interior.

While walking along the dimly lit paths through the caverns, I pointed out to one my medical school-bound students, “popcorn” speleothems precipitated so as to resemble, in my view, the alveoli of human lungs.

She marveled at the formation along with me. Then, further down the trail commented, “I feel like I’m walking inside the body of the Earth.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Upon learning of the Japan quake, President Obama said at a news conference, “Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be.” Ostensibly sturdy, our Earth and all living beings on it are really quite delicate. The Prime Minister of Japan asserted that the current situation is the most severe crisis the country has faced since World War II and one that, in his words, will require people to join together in order to overcome the catastrophe. I agree that people will need to cooperate with one another but I think also that the current situation requires honesty (what is happening at those damaged reactors?) and patience. Is a focus on the possible effects of the catastrophe on the global economy a compassionate first response?

This portion of the Earth and the people who live there have experienced what my colleague David Applegate, senior science adviser for earthquakes at the U.S. Geological Survey has called a “low probability, high consequence” event. Foremost among my responses to the crisis, fresh from my recent intimate encounter with the Earth, is the wish that all living beings effected by this trauma be healed over the course of time.

The Earth trembles Down Under February 24, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, geology, science, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece  is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

When asked in an interview for Third Age, what is mindfulness, Sylvia Boorstein answered, “The practice of mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in every moment of one’s day. It’s the balanced recognition of the truth of the moment.” I find this comment especially relevant in the aftermath of the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on the South Island of New Zealand that has caused havoc in Christchurch since it occurred on February 21.

The images of crumbled buildings, the injured and dead, remind me to pay attention to the truth of the moment: human tenancy on Earth is tenuous. The latest news reports state that at least 76 people died in this event — a small number when compared to the thousands hurt and killed after the January 2010 Haitian quake or the April 2010Yushu quake in Southern Qinghai. Nonetheless, this devastating aftershock of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake in New Zealand on September 3 reminds me that the earth behaves consistently and, as in words attributed to historian Will Durant, “civilization exists by geological consent subject to change without notice.”

As I have written previously for this blog, earthquakes occur at lithospheric plate boundaries, the relatively flexible seams that connect pieces of essentially inflexible crustal material that constitutes the Earth’s surface. New Zealand seismicity is associated with deformation as the Pacific and Australia plates interact. When the Earth’s rigid crust moves, energy stored in crustal rocks is released and the rocks rupture. But the Earth’srigid crust always moves.

Rates of lithospheric spreading and convergence — science-speak for the pace at which continents and ocean basins get torn apart or crash together — on the order of centimeters per year are perhaps so slow that human beings don’t notice the relentless motion or the associated smaller magnitude releases of energy. Other living things, however, are more sensitive than we. In southern Guangxi province of China, the director of the earthquake bureau reports that as they pursue the elusive goal of earthquake forecasting scientists monitor the behavior of snakes.

In the first half of this month, Earth has experienced at least 8 (February 2) and as many as 26 (February 4) earthquakes each day! Usually only the bigger ones involving human casualties and economic losses get reported. By paying attention to what the Earth tells us daily in myriad ways via varied processes, seismic and otherwise, human beings can, in Sylvia’s words, recognize the truth of the moment — all life on this planet is fragile.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on February 24, 2011 at 8:32 am and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.     

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Breathing With Dolphins August 14, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, Carl Safina, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, meditation, ocean pollution, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace

During August, for my Institute for Jewish Spirituality Meditation Teacher Training program, we were to focus on breathing. During the first week of the month our teachers directed us to get back to basics—to use the breath actively as a concentration practice, experimenting with techniques such as labeling, counting, and paying attention to specifics such as beginning, middle and end; long, short, rough, and smooth.

We should set the intention to let the breath saturate our experience—to invite whatever pleasure arose, to grow and be sustained. We were to utilize this exercise to explore ways of deepening concentration. During the second week we worked with a sense of receiving the breathing and letting the attention be more on the whole body. I had hoped to establish mindfulness of the body so that the breath would simply come to me.

I dedicated myself to breathing in this receptive way, but I had trouble. My attention kept getting pulled to a recollection of a recent TED talk by Carl Safina about “clean-up” efforts related to the BP Gulf of Mexico oil gusher. Dr. Safina — an ornithologist, MacArthur Fellow, winner of the 2003 John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, and president of the Blue Ocean Institute who was named by the Audubon Society as one of the hundred leading conservationists of the twentieth century — began to cry during his talk as he recounted a story of a bottlenose dolphin in the Gulf. Now, I’ve seen men cry and I’ve witnessed the occasional scientist expressing profound sadness, but seeing Dr. Safina’s seemingly uncalculated and public emotional response that arose from compassion was a first for me. In fact later in the talk, Safina explicitly referred to compassion as the most important quality we humans have to offer.

But it wasn’t this that kept tripping me up in my efforts to deepen my concentration around the breath. It was the story of the dolphin. Safina said:

I heard the most incredible story today when I was on the train coming here. A writer named Ted Williams called me. And he was asking me a couple of questions about what I saw, because he’s writing an article for Audubon magazine. He said that he had been in the Gulf a little while ago — like about a week ago — and a guy who had been a recreational fishing guide took him out to show him what’s going on. … he told Ted that on the last day he went out, a bottlenosed (sic) dolphin suddenly appeared next to the boat. And it was splattering oil out its blowhole. And he moved away because it was his last fishing trip, and he knew that the dolphins scare fish. So he moved away from it. Turned around a few minutes later, it was right next to the side of the boat again. He said that in 30 years of fishing he had never seen a dolphin do that. And he felt that — he felt that it was coming to ask for help.

Then he choked up, looked away from the audience momentarily, turned back to them and excused himself. “Sorry,” he said.

Dr. Safina, if you read this, please know that I thank you and think no apology is necessary.

Now, I’m a geologist, not a cetologist, so Dr. Safina’s story caused me to feel the need to do a bit of research on how bottlenose dolphins breathe. An article in Science told me that these athletic marine mammals show numerous physiologic adaptations to life in a dense, three-dimensional medium—that is, seawater—and as air breathers they are inseparably tied to the surface of the water. According to the website of the Dolphin Research Center, dolphins breathe air directly into their lungs via the blowhole, which is essentially a nostril that leads to two nasal passages beneath the skin. The blowhole is naturally closed and must be opened by contraction of a muscular flap. It opens briefly for a fast exhalation and inhalation. Air sacs under the blowhole help to close the blowhole.

Much to my amazement I learned also that dolphins are “conscious breathers” who must deliberately surface and open the blowhole to get air—that means they think about every breath they take; they concentrate on the breath. Bottlenose dolphins typically rise to the surface to breathe two to three times per minute although they can remain submerged for up to 20 minutes. How do they sleep, I wondered? Apparently, dolphins breathe while “half-asleep”; during the sleeping cycle, one brain hemisphere remains active in order to continue to handle surfacing and breathing behavior, while the other hemisphere shuts down. I tried to do my assignment, to focus on my breath, but I kept wondering if the recreational fishing guide to whom Safina referred had witnessed a dolphin, panicky, because it couldn’t breathe.

I’ve had asthma myself and have been through bouts of croup and asthma with my children. I know that suffocating feeling. I wondered if Corexit, the dispersant used to break up the oil in the Gulf, might affect the geophysical fluid properties of seawater so as to make breathing more labored for dolphins there. It’s been hard to find any information about this. Much of the bad news around Corexit relates to its geochemistry—not it’s physical, but its toxic chemical effects.

As many people know, seawater contains not only sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) but magnesium sulfate, magnesium chloride, and calcium carbonate which taken together as the “dissolved salts” in seawater are called “salinity.” It’s measured in parts per thousand (‰) which is equal to grams per kilogram. The salinity of freshwater is 0‰; normal seawater has a salinity of about 35‰. Salinity makes seawater very different from freshwater. Most animals have a specific range of salinities that they can tolerate partly because salinity, along with temperature, determines water density. Density and pressure are related to one another. In my research I’d read that dolphins can detect very small changes in pressure. Could a pressure sensitive organ such as a blowhole membrane be affected by changes in the chemical and physical properties of seawater?

I watched as Safina conducted a science demonstration on TED; he showed that dishwashing detergent (a dispersant) added to a glass of oil floating on water and stirred causes the oil to break up into small globules that remain suspended in the water. The water became cloudy, and I would bet that if I tried to measure the density and viscosity of the Corexit-induced mixture of oil and sea water, those parameters would have changed from what the dolphins are accustomed to for their voluntary breathing process. Does the changed physics and chemistry of Gulf seawater owing to Corexit-dispersed oil in the seawater affect the breathing experience of dolphins?

Since the blowhole is supposed to contract tightly to ensure complete closure when the dolphin dives, would oil dispersed in the water make the seal slippery and less secure? Could oily water get into a dolphins respiratory system? I’m sure that some scientists would say that these effects are “negligible” so I had to leave these questions to the cetologists.

I finished an unsatisfactory sit because I couldn’t easily receive the breath. My chest and heart felt heavy. I turned to one of our reading assignments for this month, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by “Zen Rabbi” Alan Lew, of blessed memory, who had been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco as well as founder and director of Makor Or, the first meditation center connected to a synagogue in the U.S. Lew wrote:

We all share the same heart. We penetrate each other far more than we are ordinarily aware. Ordinarily we are taken in by the materialist myth of discrete being. We look like we are separate bodies. We look like we are discrete from one another. Physically we can see where one of us begins and another of us ends, but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn’t this way. Our feelings and our spiritual impulses flow freely beyond the boundaries of the self, and this is something that each of us knows intuitively for a certainty (Lew 81).

Maybe Carl Safina’s heart ached because we all share the same heart. And perhaps I’m having trouble receiving the breath because we and the dolphins share the same lungs.

Naomi Klein on Pandora’s Well June 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, Naomi Klein, oil, oil spill.
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Naomi Klein has an insightful piece in the U.K. Guardian (reprinted in The Nation) about the BP oil disaster. She highlights some of what I think are the reasons we are in the situation we are in with regard to the unstoppable oil flow. She smartly quotes foremother of feminist environmental history, Professor Carolyn Merchant (Cal Berkeley, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management) on how we came to view the Earth as a machine rather than a living organism. It’s a long and well-written piece, worth the read. (And I’m thrilled that she quotes me as well. Thank you Naomi!)

Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is not just an industrial accident – it is a violent wound inflicted on the Earth itself. In this special report from the Gulf coast, a leading author and activist shows how it lays bare the hubris at the heart of capitalism

Naomi Klein The Guardian, Saturday 19 June 2010

Oil-soaked pelicans huddle in a cage at a research centre in  Buras, Louisiana

‘Obama cannot order pelicans not to die (no matter whose ass he kicks). And no amount of money – not BP’s $20bn, not $100bn – can replace a culture that’s lost its roots.’ Photograph: Lee Celano/Reuters

Blame Game in the Gulf June 16, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill, poetry.
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This piece is crossed-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

As I was driving my children to their school in Bridgetown Barbados today—my partner is a Fulbright Fellow at the University of the West Indies on the island—I stopped the car to allow some older people to cross the street. One woman wore a shower cap, a bathrobe swaddled another member of the group of five, and one of the men had on swim trunks and carried a bath towel. It was 7:30 a.m. and the assemblage had just emerged from Payne’s Bay, a stretch of calm, blue Caribbean Sea after their morning sea bath.

Sea bath is a daily ritual here, mostly for older folks who I suppose grew up with the tradition—and without household plumbing—or the younger underemployed. Regardless, I was reminded, as I am every morning when I see bathers along various stretches of Barbados’ coastline of how important the sea is to the life of Bajans. Of course, there are more obvious relationships between people and the sea here, in the form of fishmongers, water sports purveyors, and boat makers. But the ritual of sea bath holds a level of intimacy with the earth that to my mind is matched only when Spiritual Baptists worship in “open air” services involving “living waters.”

As I paused for the bathers to cross the street and return home to continue their daily activities, my mind drifted to the residents of southern Louisiana whose way of life is currently rent asunder by the oil oozing from the BP/Transocean puncture wound to the Earth’s thin skin—the ocean crust is no more than 35 km thick and can be visualized accurately in scale if pictured as the shell on a hard boiled egg. Had the Deepwater drilling accident taken place off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, a fossil fuel-rich island nation off the coast of Venezuela and roughly 150 miles from Barbados, the crisis we Americans confront in the Gulf of Mexico would be disrupting the sea-based life of Barbadians today.

I listened carefully along with others last night as President Obama addressed the nation on the topic of the oil disaster. I’m glad that our President has been to southern Louisiana four times already and that he will meet with the head of BP to hold that company responsible. But I was disappointed to hear our intelligent and well-intentioned President in our current predicament resort to the familiar military metaphors. He talked about our “siege,” “battle,” and “assault” on the oil. As feminist geographer Joni Seager pointed out many years ago in her fine book Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis, it seems that our government must always conjure an enemy with which to fight. Whether it’s a war in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a “war on drugs,” we resort to martial images when crisis arises. Do we do so because such representations prop up masculinity? Does this type of depiction make us feel more secure in uncertain situations?

As much as I was glad to hear President Obama assert that we must pay attention in this moment and move forward on alternative energy initiatives—renewable ones like solar and wind—I was sorry to hear the commander-in-chief’s lingo. What would our relationship with the earth be like if we approached it from a position of unity and love rather than separation and aggression? The sea birthed life on this planet. Before the first land emerged—while we know the planet to be 4.6 billion years old based on the ages of meteorites and the concomitant formation of our solar system, our oldest record of solid ground is rocks that are only 4.28 billion years old—there was no outer rock sphere, only a hydrosphere and thin atmosphere. The sea is our ultimate source. Does it not require our reverence?

I’m reminded of the poem “In the Salt Marsh,” by my friend, Nancy Willard:

How faithfully grass holds the shape of the sea it loves,
how it molds itself to the waves, how the dried salt
peaks into cowlicks the combed mane of the marsh.
Tousled by tides, it pitches tents, breaks into turrets
and cockscombs and whorled nests and green baskets
for the bleached armor of fiddler crabs, like earrings
hung by the sea on lobes of darkness. Could I lay my ear
on that darkness where the tide’s trowel smooths islands
and scallops the sand, moon-tugged, till it slows
and turns? Could I keep the past in the present’s eye?
Could I know what the grass knows?

Living on this tiny coral island I’ve felt fortunate to be among people whose daily lives acknowledge our debt to the sea. Despite the money to be made if excessive development were allowed on Barbados’ east coast, as it has been on the west coast of the island, Bajans mostly stand against such coastal augmentation. They already live with plentiful trash that washes up on the island’s eastern shores from transoceanic vessels that dump all sorts of waste–including oily bilge—into the sea. Can we know what old-time Bajans know?

Preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:

Everything is based on our own uptightness. We could blame the organization; we could blame the government; we could blame the food; we could blame the highways; we could blame our own motorcars, our own clothes; we could blame an infinite variety of things. But it is we who are not letting go, not developing enough warmth and sympathy—which makes us problematic. So we cannot blame anybody.

Since the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began in April much talk has focused on the question of who is at fault? Of course we want to avoid another incident of this type and I’m glad that President Obama has banned such drilling for at least six months. But the question that will stay with me as I ponder this latest insult to the Earth System is “Can we know what the grass knows?”

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on June 16, 2010 at 6:53 pm and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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