jump to navigation

Falling in Love with “Other” Earth February 27, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, mineral resources, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
add a comment

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Photo by Don Farber

In his recent interview with Guardian editor Jo Confino, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanhsuggested that a spiritual revolution is needed so that we might avoid living in a future world torn asunder by societal stresses related to climate change. He characterized such a spiritual revolution as one in which we fall back in love with the planet and see the connection between the Earth and ourselves. In doing so, he says, we will heal the planet.

I had just heard Christian Parenti, contributing editor at The Nation and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) speak about the “catastrophic convergence” of climate change and increased social and political violence, and as a result felt convinced that Thich Nhat Hanh’s radical prescription for repair is precisely what we need. But how does one fall back in love with the Earth?

For me, learning about this remarkable planet is an important means to that end. And though I’ve studied the earth for three decades, I continue to understand it in new ways that inspire my devotion. For example, currently I am enamored of a new and unusual framework within which to think about the Earth’s minerals.

In 2008, geoscientist Robert Hazen with collaborating colleagues proposed a radical revision to the way we think about minerals. In the past, mineralogy was considered an ahistorical subject, one in which formation of minerals was viewed as unlinked to the twists and turns of history. In this view, the quartz of today is the quartz of yesteryear, relatively unaffected by the moment in time when the mineral grew.

But Hazen and his colleagues suggested that minerals have evolved over time along with the Earth. Why? As we know from studying meteorites, only about 60 different minerals existed in the materials that came together to form planets and asteroids in Earth’s solar system. Hazen’s group pointed out that today we count more than four thousand minerals on Earth. Through processes such as the formation of oceanic and continental crust, melting, and volcanism, mineral diversity has increased over geological time.

At first, the notion that minerals have evolved in concert with life seems surprising. Since nearly one hundred elements make up the periodic table you might think that an almost infinite number of crystalline compounds might form from the get-go. But different minerals develop only under very particular conditions of pressure, temperature, and concentrations of specific elements.

After initial accretion, the numerically small array of Earth’s minerals were affected by rapidly changing internal temperatures and pressures and external fluctuations in the chemistry of surface waters and atmospheric gases. Thus, according to these researchers, the first minerals combined to birth new mineral species.

Then when life originated on the planet, even more possibilities arose for the evolution of new mineral species because even the simplest organisms– colonies of microbes– metabolized minerals. As life evolved, organisms directly made minerals that served good purposes like shells, bones and teeth. And by the time that photosynthesizing plants caused the atmosphere to have an overabundance of oxygen, indirectly they were responsible for the formation of a multitude of new oxide minerals at the surface of the Earth.

If Hazen and others are right, then minerals evolve along a linear arrow of time; there is no going back to bygone Eons of a limited number of mineral types.  Minerals diversify in irreversible manner just as organisms do and I’m excited to think in this new way about these mostly inorganic substances!

What’s more, although reports from the Kepler mission to survey near realms of the Milky Way galaxy and find Earth-size planets around other stars have inspired dreams of finding an Earth-like planet, it seems unlikely that any such planets would look like our blue-green home.

As reported in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience, an array of research contends that ostensibly original environmental features of the Earth in fact appeared late in the planet’s history and were brought about by evolution in the three domains of life with unpredictable contingencies.

These recent developments in the way we think about both minerals and life have caused me to fall in love again with this planet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has urged.

But though I agree with this beloved teacher that we must develop that “insight of inter-being” which concedes the connection between the Earth and ourselves, I differ with this teacher whom I respect and admire, when he refers to our planet as “Mother Earth.”

I believe that harm may come from referring to our planet as “Mother Earth.” Instead, I think it is critical to acknowledge that well into the 21st century we have rendered the planet Other Earth, a system separate and apart from ourselves. In academic parlance, we have “Othered” the Earth–made it into an object rather than a beloved subject. Such acknowledgement is part of the “real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things” which Thich Nhat Hanh advises.

We have distanced ourselves from the Earth. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we are the Earth. And,

When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of (M)other Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.

The complex interactions between minerals, life, and landscapes of our host planet have enabled our wellbeing. It is up to us to love it in return.