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Listen! The Earth Breathes! November 8, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, climate change, earth system science, Ecozoic, environmentalism, global warming, Hurricane Sandy, hydrologic cycle, science, sea-level rise, Teilhard de Chardin.
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This piece appears in Shambhala SunSpace.

Like many millions of people around the world, I was captivated by President Barack Obama’s election night victory speech. And my heart cheered when I heard the President say, “we want our children to live in an America that…. isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Maybe the Earth has now, finally, made itself heard on the issue of the disastrous implications of global warming for all beings that live on this planet.

I’ve always favored scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating complex system that contributes to maintaining conditions for life on the planet. And I’ve also been a big fan of Vice-President Gore’s book,   An Inconvenient Truth, especially because he makes so clear that the Earth actually breathes. “It’s as if the entire Earth takes a big breath in and out once each year,” he wrote in referring to the Keeling Curve, the diagram by scientist Charles David Keeling that shows not only the overall increase in CO2 in the atmosphere starting in the late 1950s based on measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii but also the annual cycle of increase and decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere that results from the growth and decay of vegetation.

And now at the risk of committing the sin of anthropomorphism (attributing human motivation to an inanimate subject), I’ll suggest that Earth itself cast a vote in this election.

Some pundits say that “Superstorm Sandy” helped the President win the election partly because of his compassionate and competent response to the crisis. I’m no poll, so I don’t know. I hope only that this election marks our movement into a new geologic Era thatJesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) once proposed:  the Ecozoic, a new era of mutually enhancing human-earth relations.

In The Long Road Turns to JoyThich Nhat Hanh wrote:

You will be like the tree of life.
Your leaves, trunk, branches,
And the blossoms of your soul
Will be fresh and beautiful,
Once you enter the practice of
Earth Touching.

May the re-election of Barack Obama usher in the Ecozoic Era, a period in which we listen attentively to what the Earth tells us and live the understanding that we breathing humans are the breathing Earth.

Buddhism and Science: Kin by Water July 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, contemplative practice, earth cycles, earth system science, Francisco Varela, hydrologic cycle, hydrosphere, ice cores, meditation, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace


Dr. Francisco Varela (1946-2001), a neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner involved intimately in the initiative to foster dialogue and collaboration between modern scientists and Buddhist contemplatives, commented that Buddhism, as an outstanding source of observations concerning human mind and experience accumulated over centuries with great theoretical rigor, is an uncanny complement to science.

Appreciating this, Varela and others were able to cultivate a unique forum, the Mind and Life Institute, that for two decades has led conversations between the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists and scientists, first from the realms of cognitive psychology and neurobiology and more recently, from physics and cosmology. In his essay “The Importance of the Encounter with Buddhism for Modern Science,” Varela wrote that the natural meeting ground between science and Buddhism is the place where we put together the data from scientific empiricism with the inner examination of human experience. When writing this, Varela had in mind particularly neuroscience, but I believe that earth science may also provide a fertile commons. Allow me to elucidate.

The other day, the sea drew me down the coral escarpment behind my apartment in Barbados for my morning sit. I walked downstairs and across the lawn, now turned emerald with the arrival of the rainy season. I swung outward the heavy iron gate—hinges squeaking—that opens onto the blue water of James Bay. The tide, on its way out, exposed squat, wave-washed pedestals of coral. I walked south with the sea on my right glittering aqua in the early morning sunshine, and found my seat—the water-worn stump of a tree whose girth suggested old age. I rooted my “sit bones” in the sand, my back touched gently what remained of the tree trunk, and I focused my attention on my breath.

Per instructions from my mindfulness teachers, Rabbis Sheila Peltz Weinberg and Jeff Roth, I had reflected all week on the question “Who am I in relation to sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise and pass from moment to moment?” It arose in shortened form as a mantra during my meditation. With my eyes lightly shut, I saw the waves pulling the coralline sand and cobbles back into the sea, reclaiming that material—the solid calcium carbonate—that it had itself once produced collaboratively with the invertebrate organisms whose home is the sea.

My breathing felt fast and shallow. Was I anxious? Would I be able to settle myself here without my cushion? Worried mind hindered me. I began again. After some time my breathing came more slowly and from deeper down in my body. Along came another distraction familiar to any beachgoer—bugs. Were ants crawling on my leg? Had a fly landed on my neck? I felt annoyed and chastised myself for having chosen an inappropriate place to meditate. Had I deliberately set myself up for failure? Recognizing that I was again beset by another hindrance—doubt—I began again, again.

As I brought my awareness to my body, I discovered that the prickly sensation on my skin was not caused by crawling insects but by my own sweat—droplets of water leaving me. An answer to the question “What am I” became clear; I am part of the hydrosphere. The realization startled me. I already understood myself and other human beings as part of the biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere—the three of the four great interacting spheres that make up the Earth System. As with any living organism, some day I will become part of the solid substrate at the earth’s surface. Through my respiration I participate in the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the atmosphere. But I had not previously conceptualized myself as part of the hydrosphere—surprising, given that more than half of the human body is water.

Of course I know intellectually how we humans interact with the hydrologic cycle—how we commandeer water for industrial, agricultural and domestic purposes. But during this sit I realized myself to be one of the reservoirs of the hydrosphere, albeit a miniscule one. The hydrologic cycle is simple: precipitation falling from the atmosphere as snow accumulates in glaciers and ice caps—though these days there’s more melting than accumulating going on; rainwater from clouds along with meltwater from glaciers become streams, rivers, and lakes—“surface water” in geological parlance; that water soaks into the soil and percolates downward to become groundwater and soil moisture, or it gets incorporated into living matter; ultimately it all flows back to the oceans. Evaporation of water into the atmosphere occurs throughout the hydrologic cycle, but especially from the ocean—the largest of all the reservoirs—and the cycle begins again.

Geologists know empirically something of the history of fossil waters—essentially water entombed for long periods of time in one part of the hydrologic cycle, most typically in the form of groundwater —from studying the oxygen isotopic composition of fluids in geological artifacts such as slices of Antarctic ice (H2O) cores and calcite (CaCO3) in sand-sized deep marine fossils called foraminifera. Put simply, some elements—isotopes—occur as two varieties of the same substance one of which is slightly heavier than the other. Remember Goobers and Raisinets? As chocolate-covered fruits, they are arguably the same confection. (I’m one to pass on the raisinets, preferring the goobers, but this isn’t the venue for detailing their respective virtues). Yet, the goobers are heavier than the raisinets because their insides differ. The same is true for oxygen. One variety of oxygen is the light “oxygen-16” (O16) while another is the heavy “oxygen-18” (O18); they are isotopes of oxygen just as raisinets and goobers are isotopes of chocolate candies—sort of. And if you’ve persisted in following me this far, thank you, and hang in there for I intend to make good on the promise of linking earth science and Buddhist thought.

When water evaporates from oceans, it’s the lighter H2O16 that gets incorporated preferentially into clouds. Therefore, during cold periods in the geological past, when more water is stored in ice caps, seawater concentrates H2O18 in it. That is, since it’s harder for H2O18 to get lifted up into the atmosphere, so to speak, it gets left behind in the ocean. By analogy, think of whether you’d rather heft your jacket or suitcase into the overhead compartment in an airplane and you’ll understand why some heavy items—not all—remain “stowed beneath the seat in front of you” while the lighter ones go into the upper bins. When paleoclimatologists investigate the cold periods in earth history—glacial ages— when more of the hydrosphere’s water stays sequestered in ice, they find that ice core samples from these cold times have more H2O16 in them than they do H2O18. In like manner, calcium carbonate from ice-age foraminifera, tends to be relatively enriched in O18 (as well as the heavier of two carbon isotopes). Paleontologists analyzing their composition find they have relatively more CaC(O18)3 than CaC(O16)3 . It’s clever science but unarguably esoteric business, this isotope geochemistry. It requires ice cores kept frozen from Antarctica to lab, analysis of fluid bubbles enclosed in the ice, and specialized machines called mass spectrometers that can measure miniscule differences in the weight of oxygen atoms. It also requires mathematical calculations that I found tedious in graduate school. Still, all of that is not as difficult as staying focused on my breath.

I sat sweating, and the water droplets from my body connected me to the hydrosphere. Where had that water been before—the water that makes up me? Was part of me once a glacier? Was I a mountain stream? What tale might the oxygen isotopic signature of my bones, calcium phosphate (PO4) tell?

As the perspiration dripped down my shins, it disappeared in the pores between unconsolidated beach sand. Water from the reservoir of me meandered to the sea as moisture between sand grains. The sweat trickling down my spine slid down my back and disappeared into the wood of the tree stump. This “Jillwater” will remain for some time in the soggy wood and won’t soon join the vast oceanic reservoir of the hydrosphere. I finished my sit and rose slowly.

I walked to the water’s edge and felt its cool wetness envelope my toes, the soles of my feet, my ankles and shins. The sea sipped directly the sweat from my skin. These droplets that have eked out of me flowed unimpeded to the ocean. As seawater may one day become part of an ice cap, the water from me will be a drop in the sea.

The dialogue between science and Buddhism has the potential to develop specific interventions that could promote not only psychological and physical wellbeing but planetary health too. Modern earth science allows that human beings interact with the earth system and, to a degree, try to serve as stewards of the planet. But Buddhism offers earth science the possibility of a more unified understanding of the Earth, a science that frames humans as kin rather than stewards of the planet.

See also:

Ocean as Carbon Sink January 9, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, earth cycles, hydrologic cycle.
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Dan Laffoley, marine ecologist and a vice chairman of the World Commission on Protected Areas at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, had an important op-ed in the  New York Times on December 26, 2009 regarding the importance of the world’s oceans as sinks for carbon dioxide.

Dr. Laffoley stated that despite the disappointments of the Copenhagen climate talks, an agreed upon program in which developing countries would be compensated for preserving peat soils, swamps, fields and forests that are efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide, is an economical and promising way to store large amounts of carbon. However he points out that the program is limited because it aims to protect only land-based carbon sinks. We should mind his injunction to seek out marine-based options for curbing climate change as well.  Here’s a link to the full op-ed: “To Save the Planet, Save the Seas”.

Melting Glaciers December 10, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, geology, hydrologic cycle.
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Though the New York Times chose not to publish it, I’m posting my letter to the editor regarding Thomas Friedman’s December 9, 2009 Op-Ed about ‘Climategate.’

To the editors,

In “The Odds of Disaster,” (12/9/09) Thomas Friedman writes, “…evidence that our planet has been on a broad warming trend has been documented….” With the brouhaha about hacked data from East Anglia’s Climatic Unit looming over Copenhagen, I recommend the online archive of glacier photographs from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (http://nsidc.org/data/glacier_photo/index.html).

The collection contains photographs taken from the same vantage, at the same season, but separated by decades. Witness:



With regard to the Muir Glacier, according to U.S. Geological Survey scientists,  the glacier retreated more than seven miles and thinned by 875 yards over a sixty year period.

One need not have a degree of any sort to see the melting. Whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the cause hardly matters; as the crysophere melts, meltwater expands, flows into oceans and sea level rises.

‘Climategate?’ I agree with Tom, “be serious.”

Jill S. Schneiderman

Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College

Poughkeepsie, NY

Image used by permission: NSIDC/WDC for Glaciology, Boulder, compiler. 2002, updated 2006. Glacier Photograph Collection.
Boulder, CO: National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. Digital media.

On Contemplative Times August 15, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, earth cycles, hydrologic cycle.
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NEWOPEDWATER9950A recent New York Times Op-Ed (August 14, 2009) contained the piece “Thirsting for Fountains.” According to the editors, they asked eight illustrators to observe for one hour the activity at a local water fountain. Their rationale: “If drinking fountains were as ubiquitous as fire hydrants, there would be no need for steel thermoses, plastic bottles or backpack canteens. Thirsty folks could just amble over to the next corner for a sip of free-of-charge, ecofriendly, delicious water.”

I’m fresh off a week-long retreat on contemplative pedagogy sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society so I am able to see clearly that the NYT editors challenged these illustrators with a contemplative exercise. Sit and behold. From what I can tell, the illustrators played to their strengths. All drew the fountain where they observed passersby. They made other observations: temperature and taste of the water; number, age, gender identity, garb, even species, of consumer. With words also, each painted a picture of activity at the fountain. What emerged was a cross-sectional slice of life. And the idea that a more harmonious and just means for human interaction with the hydrologic cycle as we attempt to procure drinking water is the fair and fluid one of fountains not bottles. Simple truth from a simple exercise.

Omega Institute Makes “Wastewater” an Oxymoron July 22, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, hydrologic cycle.
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This is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Omega Institute’s Earth Dharma

By Jill S. Schneiderman
Department of Earth Science and Geography
Vassar College

ocsl

Yesterday I went to the opening ceremony and ribbon cutting at the Omega Institute’s new Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL). Omega calls the Center a “Living Building,” an “Eco-Machine.” Essentially a wastewater treatment facility for the five million gallons of wastewater generated on the Omega campus each year, the Eco-Machine “closes the loop” on water use at Omega. Designed with the Hudson Valley’s ecological characteristics in mind, this building that is incidentally just up the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie, site of the nation’s first water filtration plant, produces all its own energy with renewable resources and captures and treats all its water.

As a result of the project, waste flushed down toilets on the Omega Campus flows into septic tanks where microbes begin to decompose it anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen). Then, water is pumped through two constructed “wetlands” where plants metabolize the waste and into two aerated ‘lagoons’ in a greenhouse, where plant roots suspended in the water provide surface area for bacteria to break down additional nutrients. Finally, the clarified water circulates through a sandy filter field where particulate matter and any remaining nutrients settle out. Single-celled and multicellular organisms including algae, fungi, bacteria, protozoans, zooplankton, invertebrates (e.g. snails) and vertebrates (e.g. fish) representing all the major groups of life are present in the Eco-Machine. The processed water is currently dispersed into groundwater but eventually will be reused to flush toilets and irrigate gardens.

OCSL’s Eco-Machine is remarkable, not only for closing the loop on water usage at Omega, but for producing all its own energy, controlling building temperature geothermally, utilizing solar and photovoltaic power, and collecting and utilizing rainwater. Additionally, it was built with materials made within a limited distance from the structure itself. Omega intends for it to be certified as the first “Living Building” in the United States. Regardless of whether the building achieves that official status, Omega’s construction project is not only consistent with the institute’s orientation towards holistic and sustainable living; it is a model for the present and future.

As a contemplative earth scientist, I love that Omega refers to its facility as an Eco-Machine. James Hutton, the 18th century Scottish physician and gentleman farmer, considered the founder of geology, derived a principle of an endlessly cycling “World Machine” and used it along with his belief in the existence of a benevolent God, to convince thinkers of his day that the Earth was ancient-millions of years old. The “paradox of the soil, ” he said, was that in order to sustain life, soil depleted by farming must have a mechanism to refresh itself, replenish depleted nutrients, and survive to grow crops once again. This cycle, he knew, would take time. And to his mind, a benevolent God would never craft an earth that did not have a mechanism by which to recycle itself. A closed loop of soil recycling, would take vast amounts of time-hence an ancient Earth-and would be an eternally cycling world machine that would forever sustain every living being. In Hutton’s most famous words the earth shows, “no vestige of a beginning,  — no prospect of an end.” (Theory of the Earth, 1788, 304).

In his remarks at the OCSL’s opening, Robert ‘Skip’ Backus, the person who vision and effort helped bring the project to fruition spoke of the oxymoronic phrase ‘wastewater.’ Indeed, there is no such entity as wastewater and an understanding of another of the Earth System’s cycles, the hydrologic cycle, reveals this to be true.

In a continual cycle of condensation, precipitation, runoff, surface flow infiltration, subsurface flow, and evaporation, water circulates on and through the Earth-it is the original closed loop. Leaders at the Omega Institute have skillfully listened to the Earth and acted on what I like to think of as Earth Dharma-fundamental principles that show the path to right action in terms of abstaining from taking what is not given. Earth Dharma reveals how we, as one minute portion of the Earth System, should behave in light of our status as small but strong component of that System. I see Earth Dharma as a corollary to the first line of the Metta Sutra: “This is what should be done by all those who are skilled in goodness, and who know the path of peace.” The Earth is a storehouse of lessons consonant with the Buddha’s teachings. So it seems fitting to me that Omega has stepped forward once again to lead people in the direction of mindful living on Earth.

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. This year she received a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet (Westview Press, 2003).

Learn more about Omega’s Center for Sustainable Living here.

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