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Against All Odds: A geologist revels in the unlikely reality of life on Earth November 4, 2016

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, history of science, science.
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This post reproduces a book review that I wrote for Science. (4 NOVEMBER 2016 • VOL 354 ISSUE 6312).


W hen esteemed geologist Walter Alvarez and his colleagues searched the lowlands of Eastern Mexico for ancient debris that had been ejected from the Chicxulub impact crater, they were following in the footsteps of renowned early-20th-century paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. In his own time, Walcott wandered the Canadian Rockies seeking Cambrian-aged fossils that could shed light on this crucial time period when multicellular life began to flourish. As recounted in his obituary, “One of the most striking of Walcott’s faunal discoveries came at the end of the field season of 1909, when Mrs. Walcott’s horse slid in going down the trail and turned up a slab that at once attracted her husband’s attention. Here was a great treasure—wholly strange Crustacea of Middle Cambrian time…. Snow was even then falling, and the solving of the riddle had to be left to another season.” Serendipity combined with persistence eventually led Walcott to one of the most important discoveries in the history of geology—the softbodied fauna of the Burgess Shale.

In the case of the Alvarez group, two broken jeeps on the last day of the field season of 1991 nearly prevented the researchers from reaching the strange sand bed that Alvarez had chanced to read about in a book about the geology of the region published in 1936. As they “bounced along the rough road following the Arroyo el Mimbral, worrying as the Sun got lower in the sky,” they came upon a layer of glass spherules exposed in a steep bluff along the dry river bed. They suspected that the spherules were droplets of impact melt—“the most wonderful outcrop I have seen in five decades as a geologist,” writes Alvarez in his new book, A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves.

Alvarez is best known for helping to establish that a meteor struck the Yucatán, causing the mass extinction of half the genera of animals on Earth. In A Most Improbable Journey, he tells the story of the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity using the interdisciplinary approach of Big History, which combines traditional historical scholarship with scientific insights. Alvarez aims to instill in his readers a sense of wonder that, despite enormous odds, there exists a planet (Earth) supremely suited for life. At the same time, he seeks to cultivate an expanded view of the nature of history, replete with contingency and consequent improbability, and to foster appreciation for the enormous stretches of time and space across which history has unfolded.

In each section of A Most Improbable Journey—“Cosmos,” “Earth,” “Life,” and “Humanity”—Alvarez uses both broad questions (have there been recognizable patterns, regularities, cycles, and contingencies in the history of continental motions?) and “little Big History” (how did the Spanish language come to dominate the Iberian Peninsula and then much of Latin America?) to help us comprehend “our whole situation.”

Throughout the book, Alvarez uses evocative phrases and images: History is “violent and chancy,” rocks “remember [their] history,” and mountains “are not wrecks—they are sculptures.” Compelling images of rock and architectural engravings, relief and sketch maps, and historical photographs and drawings enrich the discussion but, unfortunately, are not referred to directly in the text.

Alvarez invites his audience to read the book chapters in any order. Though I chose to read the book cover-to-cover, each chapter does indeed stand alone and therefore lends itself to this type of engagement. The book contains an appendix of resources that Alvarez annotates thoroughly, and it acts as an additional chapter that readers will likely enjoy perusing.

The paleontologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould wrote in an essay about the discovery of the Burgess Shale fauna, “So much of science proceeds by telling stories…. Even the most distant and abstract subjects, like the formation of the universe or the principles of evolution, fall within the bounds of necessary narrative” (1). In A Most Improbable Journey, Alvarez harnesses such narrative, enabling readers to experience the power of Big History.

REFERENCES 1. S.J. Gould,“Literary Bias on the Slippery Slope,” in Bully for Brontosaurus (Norton, 1992).


After Earth Day, Active Hope April 30, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Joanna Macy, mineral resources, science.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala Sunspace and truthout.org

With its numbered teachings, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012)a new book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, pays tribute to its Buddhist roots. However, instead of the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the five hindrances, and the four brahmaviharas, readers of Active Hope get three stories of our time, five signs of the great unraveling, four stations of the work that reconnects, and three dimensions of the great turning. In their book, Macy and Johnstone update the repertoire of teachings that will enhance our abilities to acknowledge disturbing ecological truths and respond with creativity and resilience.

According to Macy and Johnstone, Active Hope is a practice—we do it rather than have it—with three key steps: obtaining a clear view of reality, identifying the values and directions we hope for, and taking steps to move our situation along that path. In their view, since it requires no optimism, but simply intention, we can apply it even in seemingly hopeless arenas.

Good thing. Macy and Johnstone name resource depletion, mass extinction of species, climate change, economic decline, and social division and war as five signs of the great unraveling, but the signs also bear striking resemblance to the Book of Revelation’s four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, Death, Pestilence, and War. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Macy and Johnstone say it themselves:

“We can no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on—food, fuel, and drinkable water—will be available. We can no longer take it for granted even that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.”

Scientists’ take on Earth’s vital signs suggest such an imminent reality.

The author of numerous books, Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Hers is a deservedly respected voice for peace, justice and the environment, honed over fifty years of activism. In this clear and practical book, physician Chris Johnstone joins her to articulate her approach to activism and empowerment, which she calls The Work That Reconnects.

I first learned of Macy in 2007 when I googled “deep time” and “Buddhism” in a search for a meditation teacher who might help me integrate my preoccupation with contemplative practice and geologic time.  Reading Active Hope gave me a window into Macy’s Work that Reconnects and fueled my inclination towards it. Here’s why.

Other recent books on global change focus on dire, dispiriting problems and offer sweeping seeming-solutions. Macy and Johnstone’s manual strives to equip us with a “transformational mindset.” Conceptualized as a journey, the book takes readers along a stream of thinking that, in the authors’ words, flows toward a way of life that enriches rather than depletes the Earth. Chapters in the book guided me through the four stages of the spiral of the Work that Reconnects: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. I could tell you more but I’d rather you read the book.

What I will say is that this book offers poetically scientific and accurate renderings of feedback loops and geologic time that will, I think, be helpful as we work little by little toward radically reconfiguring life on Earth. I love that Macy and Johnstone devote a chapter to helping readers develop that critical “larger view of time.” I think the book will refresh environmentally-minded Buddhists who suffer from what I’ve come unfortunately to think of as environmental change fatigue. In Active Hope, Macy and Johnstone teach us how to focus on our intention and strengthen our ability to respond happily to the vexing global crisis in which we live.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm 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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Food for Thought: Exercising the compassion muscle January 17, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, food justice, Jonathan Safran Foer, Vegetarianism/veganism.

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Last week, amidst the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake and the senseless killings in Arizona, just prior to the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., I finished reading Eating Animals, the most recent book by the gifted writer Jonathan Safran Foer—who up until this point was well known for his acclaimed novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (both of which I relished). In Eating Animals, Foer highlights the cruel abominations associated with factory farming of cows, turkeys, chickens, pigs and fish and the suffering these cause. Part investigative report and part memoir, a personal question motivates Foer’s exploration: How will he explain to his son why we eat some animals and not others? His search for answers reveals a path that will interest Buddhist readers.

I can relate to Foer’s conundrum; I discuss food production and consumption regularly with my children. When we lived on a tiny island in the Atlantic last year, I ate fish caught by folks down the road from my house who used a hand-thrown seine net or single fishing line. In Foer’s schema, while living on the island I was a “selective omnivore.” But my children found my behavior unacceptable. My 13-year old—a self-declared vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, since the age of seven—and my 10-year old, who asserted the same identity when still in the single digits after a visit to a NY farm animal sanctuary—both deem it hypocritical to kill some animals for food but to exempt others. That’s Jonthan Safran Foer’s conclusion as well.

Foer finds fault with Michael Pollan’s critique of vegetarianism in The Omnivore’s Dilemma—one in which Pollan states that he pities vegetarians. I side with Foer and I think that his intelligently passionate investigation provides at least food for thought for Buddhist practitioners. In reading Eating Animals, one can tell how much Foer enjoys sumptuous food; like others he admits being tempted by comestibles like sushi and steak. But he reminds us that “virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals.”

As a scientist who thinks about interconnections of the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere and biosphere, I know the truth of Foer’s assertion that the decision to avoid factory-farmed products will reduce global warming, limit deforestation and consequent soil erosion, prevent air and water pollution, and eliminate systematic abuses of human and animal rights. But as a Buddhist practitioner, I’m captivated by his question, “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?” Buddhist practitioners know the truth of Foer’s statement: “compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use” and I think most would agree with his coda “the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us.”

Foer quotes Martin Luther  King Jr. from his speech “A Proper Sense of Priorities”(February 6, 1968): “And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Foer aptly points out that King was referring to the suffering of humans not animals but adds that it’s worth noting that Coretta Scott King was a vegan, as is her son Dexter.

I will celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr by reminding myself that with our practice, we help to heal the Earth and the beings who live here. How about you?

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and the 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).

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

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

Bringing a “Whole New Mind” to the BP Oil Catastrophe July 28, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Dalai Lama, fossil fuel, neuroscience, oil, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and truthout.

I recently picked up — and couldn’t stop reading — Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, because I reside with three of his so-called “R(ight brain)-directed” thinkers, and as a scientist I’ve lived most of my professional life in a “L(eft brain)-directed” world. So, though I was motivated by personal reasons to entertain Pink’s hypothesis, I was surprised to find currency in his book for two domains that preoccupy me: Buddhism and earth science.

Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, argues that we now live in the dawning of the “Conceptual Age”—that which has succeeded the Information and Industrial Ages respectively—and that the skills necessary for survival in this age are, roughly put, art and heart.

Pink draws on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, well-known to Buddhists interested in neuroscience, that show how the left and right hemispheres divide their labor: the left hemisphere handles logic, sequence, literalness and analysis while the right hemisphere processes and synthesizes emotional expression, metaphor, context, and “the big picture.” Pink uses these data to argue that L-directed aptitudes while necessary, are no longer sufficient for leading satisfactory lives in the Conceptual Age. R-directed talents including artistry, empathy, taking the long view, and pursuing the transcendent — which were undervalued during the Information Age — are now essential. Pink asserts that the requisite abilities—he characterizes them as “Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning”—are fundamentally human attributes, things we do out of a sense of intrinsic motivation, that reside in all of us and need only be nurtured into being.

In the chapter titled “Meaning,” Pink refers to the Dalai Lama’s comment at a Mind and Life Institute press conference: “Science and Buddhism are very similar,” he said, “because they are exploring the nature of reality, and both have the goal to lessen the suffering of mankind.” Pink aims to urge the importance in the Conceptual Age of taking spirituality seriously. He offers up examples of ways of doing so—medical schools that teach their students to take “spiritual histories” of patients; village greens, prisons, universities, and hospitals with incorporated labyrinths; employees who articulate hunger for bringing spiritual values—meaning and purpose—to their workplaces as documented in a University of Southern California business school report (A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America).

I bring up spiritual values and business because BP is replacing Tony Hayward, the company CEO who presided over attempts to cap the Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil gusher, with a new CEO: Bob Dudley, who says he will put safety at the center of future exploration. Dudley has spoken of the need to restructure and reorganize in order to advance this goal.

But safety is a value—a deeply held belief that is beyond compromise; if my reading of Pink is on target, BP’s new CEO, and other oil professionals are going to have to enlist “whole minds” to embrace truly safety as a value. Robots run by computers — inventions of the information age — have worked to cap the well but it took months. Many reasons explain the absence of a fast fix, among them the fact that robots and computers can feel no empathy, don’t see “the big picture,” can’t handle context, and don’t work creatively; and approaches to the calamity sprang primarily from L-directed thinking of oil professionals—logic, sequence, and analysis.

If BP enlisted R-directed thinkers and got the benefit of what Pink calls their “high concept-high touch” abilities—emotional intelligence, imagination and creativity—could the company (and others like it), move “Beyond Petroleum,” (BP’s recent and now-ironic) marketing slogan? In The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane write that the future belongs to people who excel at expert thinking (solving problems for which there are no rules-based solutions) and complex communication (persuading, explaining, and conveying information). The solution to the BP disaster and future crises like it will not be a new design for deepwater drilling. Rather we’ll need imaginative, emotionally intelligent, R-directed professionals working alongside L-directed professionals in the oil industry. But that’s not all. And in order to make my point I’ll refer to the myth of Pandora, a story I’ve previously found useful in connection with the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe.

According to the legend, Pandora opened her jar—a gift from Zeus—and the evil it contained escaped and spread over the earth. Pandora hurried to close the lid, but the entire contents of the jar had escaped, except for hope. I’d like to argue that the analogous gift that “Pandora’s Well” might still release is the human valuing of right hemisphere brain functions—synthesis, emotional expression, metaphor, and context; if so, with regard to human use of fossil fuels, we have the possibility of acting on “the big picture” with a whole new mind.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on July 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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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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Adventures with Wind on Water March 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, book review, Buddhist concepts, earth cycles, geology, learning differences.

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Earth Dharma: “Planned Outage”

Yesterday I stepped onto the volcanic terra firma of St. Vincent, though I hesitate to call it that given the spate of earthquakes in the first quarter of 2010, after having sailed down the Grenadine islands with my partner, our two kids, and their grandparents. Chris, the skipper of our Barefoot Charter, was a forty-something nice guy who had recently checked out of Washington (state), left behind television, telephone, and internet connection, to follow his dream of skippering sailboats in the Caribbean Sea. When I saw that the name of our fifty-foot monohull was Planned Outage and glimpsed Chris reading The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, I felt delighted about the experience we were about to have.

The book I’d taken with me on the three-day sail was Saltwater Buddha, Jaimal Yogis’ memoir about learning the lessons of Zen Buddhism while living a surfer’s life. I have to admit that after reading a brief excerpt I didn’t see immediately the appeal of the book. I thought to myself, “What is this guy going to teach me about lessons learned along a meandering course of thrill seeking?” I’d done my own share of thrill seeking and meditating and I’ve lived a lot longer than Yogis, encountering my own piece of disillusionment. But as Charles Darwin surely thought about James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, his choice of reading material aboard the Beagle, “this book is great!”

I didn’t know Yogis’ tale and had no idea he ended up at the Columbia School of Journalism but I wasn’t surprised to find that out because Saltwater Buddha is a good story. From California to Hawaii to France, India, Brooklyn and finally back again, with richly described characters like a sagacious Hawaiian insurance agent immobilized by Elephant Man disease, leather-skinned commercial fishermen in dock-side bars in Montauk, red rubber-suited Santa Cruz “Surf Nazis”, and a hilarious caricature of Yogis as a bliss-seeking surf bum who gets closest to having a real job when as a barista in San Francisco he gets “really good at making the thick foam with the little leafy designs,” Yogis shows his readers how lessons of dharma abound in life experiences that range from the mundane—caring for a sick friend—to the absurd—surfing in a snowstorm in Brooklyn.

I was attracted to the book because I’m living seaside, having run away from professional responsibility with my family at the age of 50, so that we all could recover from the two-year ordeal of dealing with schools, psychologists, doctors and lawyers while negotiating the rough surf that’s called education for kids with learning differences in the U.S. Not to mention the exposure of our difference as a family with queer parents. I’ve been seeking the healing balm of the sea spray myself—an escape from the samsara caused by narrow conceptions of intelligence—meditating daily and interspersing my days and those of my kids with windsurfing and sailing. My whole family has taken to living in the present, and the blue waters surrounding this chunk of coral in the eastern Caribbean have certainly helped. As my friends say, it’s been a skillful move.

What I loved about Saltwater Buddha is the way Yogis easily accesses earth dharma. His observations about wind and water resonated for me as a geoscientist who alternates periods of sitting and adventures with wind on water. For example, Yogis describes the earth science related to surfing: creation of tides as the moon tugs at the ocean; materialization of waves as water feels the seafloor on its coastal approach; and, formation of wind owing to temperature differences between land and sea. Yogis sees the poetry of the earth system.

Of the four spheres of the earth system—rock sphere, biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere—the latter two, as fluids, are especially available to sentient beings as dharma teachers because they move and change in time frames quick enough for us to perceive them. Living this year at the edge of the sea, I walk daily along the shore and watch the fluctuating character of the air and water. When previously I’d been for short periods to places where I’d hoped for placid seas, it always seemed that my timing was off—according to the locals the sea was calmer or the wind more gentle just before I’d arrived. But living at the waters edge this year, I see that the ocean—the biggest reservoir of the hydrosphere— and the atmosphere change constantly. They manifest fluidity.

In Saltwater Buddha, Yogis quotes Suzuki Roshi: “waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves, is delusion.” My shore walks reveal that we can say the same for the atmosphere; wind is the habit of air and to speak of the two apart from one another is fantasy. The ways of water and air bring home the Buddha’s fundamental teaching of impermanence. As Yogis recognized, each different face of the sea offers episodes of samsara and nirvana. Lately Caribbean breezes have taught me lessons that Brooklyn surf taught Yogis.

Huge swells and shifting winds have caused me to be caught up “in irons” on my dinghy and capsized in a mooring field; but I’ve also had the chance to ride winds on a beam reach while hawksbill turtles lift their heads for subaerial breaths above teal blue waters. As the surfer merges with his medium, so the sailor melds with hers. Connecting with our surroundings in these ways fosters the natural inclination to live with harmony on Earth.

Too, both pastimes are good metaphors for life. Since environmental conditions are mutable, attachment to any one set of circumstances causes suffering. Yogis’ book in combination with my Caribbean sailing adventures reminds me of a slogan on the door of the West End Racing Club in Provincetown, Massachusetts: “You can’t direct the wind but you can adjust the sails.” Or, as my dyslexic sailing instructor cautions, “you can only sail where the wind will let you.”

Read-aloud sessions are my family’s book habit. These past three days aboard Planned Outage we listened to sections of Saltwater Buddha. As sharp-eared dyslexics, my kids recognized a good story. They said they’d like to see the movie and were delighted to learn that the visual version is in production. No doubt we’ll all relish seeing the film when it’s released, but for the time being, we’re living Yogis’ lessons together in the present.

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

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This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Green, Inc. March 11, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, John Burroughs.
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Democracy Now has a good piece on Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, by Christine MacDonald. 

In short, MacDonald is a journalist who worked for Conservation International (CI), an organization whose stated mission, paraphrased, is to build on a foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration in order to empower societies to care responsibly and sustainably for nature for the well-being of humanity. Though founded in the late 1980s, I hadn’t heard of this environmental nonprofit; from information on its website, it seems to strive towards a people-focused environmentalism.

In her interview with Amy Goodman however, MacDonald charges that CI and other major environmental groups, essentially operate satellite public relations offices for polluting corporations. I’m not surprised by the claim. Robert Gottlieb, years ago pointed out in his book Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, that there was an “Iron Triangle” between government agencies, corporations, and congressional leaders that sets the framework for policy based largely on economic interests. It sounds to me like MacDonald in Green, Inc. might offer some 21st century proof of Gottlieb’s contention.

What MacDonald had to say reminded me of the fact that President Teddy Roosevelt took nature writer and bird enthusiast John Burroughs on a camping trip to Yellowstone in 1903  in order to soften TR’s image as a large-mammal slayer. Burroughs seems to have allowed his persona to be used by Roosevelt, as well as by industrial titans E.H. Harriman, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Thomas Edison on other excursions into Nature. Perhaps Burroughs justified being coopted in the same way that environmental organizations today soft-pedal their ‘collaboration’ with corporations, as being for the greater good.

In any case, I want to read this book.

Buddhist Survival in the Andes February 5, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, book review, Buddhist concepts.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

I just finished reading Nando Parrado’s account of his 72-day ordeal of pain and suffering in the South American cordillera, Miracle in the Andes (2006). It’s an extraordinary testimony of his survival, along with 15 out of 45 people, most of them rugby teammates, after their privately chartered airplane crashes into the side of a volcano en route from Montevideo, Uruguay to San Fernando, Chile and comes to rest on a glacier at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. Instead of having these members of the Old Christians rugby team play an exhibition game in Chile, the boys—most of them no more than 23 years old—find themselves relying on each other and their most intimate interior selves as they struggle to survive after the Argentine, Uruguayan and Chilean rescue teams have given up the search. Parrado’s observations about the exterior landscape in which he survives impressed me as a geologist. Even more amazing however were his remarks about the interior landscape of survival because to me they resonated with Buddhist thinking about living with suffering.

I’d read Alive (1975), Piers Paul Read’s gruesome and sensational tale of this disaster replete with charges of cannibalism and ostensibly heroic feats, as a high school student in the late seventies; as much as I can remember, it bears little resemblance to the book I just read.  In this book, Parrado details the mountainous landscape that hosts the plane’s fuselage including notes about the appearance of glacial ice, volcanic rocks, sedimentary strata, skin-shredding talus slopes, and house-sized boulders reposing in braided streams.  Even more noteworthy is his deep appreciation of the Earth’s vast scales of geologic time. Parrado writes: “I felt an involuntary sense of privilege and gratitude, as humans often do when treated to one of nature’s wonders, but it lasted only a moment. After my education on the mountain, I understood that all this beauty was not for me. The Andes had staged this spectacle for millions of years, long before humans even walked the earth, and it would continue to do so after all of us were gone” (203). Parrado has the eye of a naturalist. Benefiting from the gift of time more than 30 years after his hardship he describes with poetic accuracy this remote, inaccessible high-reaching cordillera, a terrain that most people will never encounter.

Parrado’s description of this trek to salvation on his own behalf, as well as that of other survivors, hints at the truly remarkable interior landscape to which his trial allowed access:

On the morning of December 8, the seventh day of our trek, the punishing snow cover began to give way to scattered patches of gray ice and fields of sharp loose rubble. I was weakening rapidly. Each step now required supreme effort, and a total concentration of my will. My mind had narrowed until there was no room in my consciousness for anything but my next stride, the careful placement of a foot, the critical issue of moving forward….

I would feel an apprehension of the age and experience of the mountains, and realize that they had stood here silent and oblivious, as civilizations rose and fell. Against the backdrop of the Andes, it was impossible to ignore the fact that human life was just a tiny blip in time, and I knew that if the mountains had minds, our lives would pass too quickly for them to notice. It struck me, though, that even the mountains were not eternal. If the earth lasts long enough, all these peaks will someday crumble to dust. So what is the significance of a single human life? Why do we struggle? Why do we endure such suffering and pain? What keeps us battling so desperately to live, when we could simply surrender, sink into the silence in the shadows, and know peace? (212-213)

Parrado’s depiction of his interior journey resonates with Buddhist approaches to a life of suffering. Central to Parrado’s ability to survive was his emphasis on breathing. More than once he recounts how his reminder to focus on the breath was the key to his survival. He writes:

I drew a long breath and then slowly, richly, I exhaled. Breathe once more, we used to say on the mountain, to encourage each other in moments of despair. As long as you breathe, you are alive. In those days, each breath was almost an act of defiance… Again and again, I filled my lungs, then let the air out in long, unhurried exhalations, and with each breath I whispered to myself in amazement: I am alive. I am alive. I am alive. (233)

What’s more, Parrado exhorted himself to pay attention for he saw that ability as life-saving. In puzzling over whether his survival was an act of God or of self-reliance he wrote:

It was not a God who would choose to save us or abandon us, or change [us] in any way. It was simply a silence, a wholeness, an awe-inspiring simplicity. It seemed to reach me through my own feelings of love and I have often thought that when we feel what we call love, we are really feeling our connection to this awesome presence. I feel this presence still when my mind quiets and I really pay attention. (263)

Parrado described how, by being present for every step and every breath, he was able to survive each moment of pain, loss, and suffering: “These moments bring time to a stop for me. I savor them and let each one become a miniature eternity, and by living the small moments of my life so fully, I defy the shadow of death that hovers over all of us, I reaffirm my love and gratitude for all the gifts I’ve been given, and I feel myself more and more deeply with life.” (262) Though Parrado gives no indication that he studied Buddhist teachings, he sounds as if before the crash he’d been meditating for years. He tells his readers that something in the mountains wanted him to be still: “I gazed at this place: we had upset an ancient balance, and balance would have to be restored. It was all around me, in the silence, in the cold. Something wanted all that perfect silence back again; something in the mountain wanted us to be still.” (188)

In these trying times that to some may feel as difficult as survival in the high Andes, Parrado offers well-tested advice—breathe, pay attention, be still.

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

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‘Natural’ Disasters, Suffering, and Joy December 11, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, disasters, earth community, geology.
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This is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

In an interview published about her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009) in The Rumpus, a new online magazine focused on culture, Rebecca Solnit comments that “there are disasters that are entirely man-made, but none that are entirely natural.” In the book, Solnit examines five disasters and the behavior of regular people in the aftermath of the events: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Solnit’s interview comment caught my eye because as a self-proclaimed jubugeoscientist I recognize the truth of her important observation. I teach a course on Geohazards at Vassar College, so named to help students avoid the misperception that any modern-day disaster is completely ‘natural.’ The causes of so many of Earth’s disasters—not least among them climate-change augmented hurricanes—have roots in actions we humans undertake on the planet to satisfy our desires; the effects of our activities result in suffering among all living beings.

Even more remarkable to me than Solnit’s accurate observation about the agents of disasters is her assertion that while hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes are not to be wished for, they are among disastrous events that elicit our best responses and provide common purpose. Solnit maintains that “fleeting, purposeful joy fills human beings in the face of disasters. Everyday concerns and societal strictures vanish. A strange kind of liberation fills the air. People rise to the occasion. Social alienation seems to vanish.” Solnit’s affirmation causes my Buddhist heart to swell with joy because I see that she has unearthed evidence of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion) in unlikely events and places. It seems to me that Solnit shows us that in these moments of crisis, human beings become awake.

To describe the responses of ordinary people during these episodes, Solnit uses phrases such as: spontaneous caring, rational generosity, courage under duress, brave altruism. They illustrate Solnit’s main point that in these circumstances people are mostly kind, generous, brave, resourceful and creative. Rather than seeing civilians acting during times of crisis as, at best, a merely frightened and disoriented mass of humanity and at worst, a dumb, thieving, murderous mob, Solnit reveals invigorated and capable citizens. Solnit writes:

“Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound. Of course one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often at the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved. Surrounding them, often in the same city or even neighborhood, is a periphery of many more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted — and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.”

Solnit’s message echoes the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In the aftermath of disaster, people wake up to the reality that suffering is inevitable and also recognize that the way we respond to the suffering in our communities dictates whether that suffering will be alleviated or exacerbated.

An August 2009 New York Times book review calls A Paradise in Hell, an optimistic book and The Rumpus recommends that one read it with Solnit’s earlier work, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities because together these books reassure us that our actions are important even when we don’t see—or can’t recognize—results in our lifetimes. I’ll be reading these books during the Copenhagen climate change meetings in the hope that negotiators will be able to wake up before the next wave of disasters roll in from the rising seas.

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).

For more about Buddhism and Green Living, visit our special page on the topic here on ShambhalaSun.com.

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