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The Keystone XL Pipeline Project: Extremely Unskillful? November 9, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, climate change, Dalai Lama, earthquakes, fossil fuel, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, Jack Kornfield, Keystone XL Pipeline Project, tar sands.
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 This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and Truthout


As thousands of people circled the White House to make known their objections to the multibillion dollarKeystone XL Project, I was again reminded of a comment by Jack Kornfield:

“Ours is a society of denial that conditions us to protect ourselves from any direct difficulty and discomfort. We expend enormous energy denying our insecurity, fighting pain, death, and loss, and hiding from the basic truths of the natural world and of our own nature.”

The dedicated activists who gathered to communicate their views to the President and many others are trying to alert the world’s population to a critical basic truth about the Earth: fossil fuels are an exhaustible resource whose extraction is a perilous and foolhardy enterprise. What’s more, they are trying to wake us up to the fact that in our pursuit of energy sources, greed prevents us from acting skillfully.

The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion (Keystone XL), operated by Calgary-based TransCanada, is the southernmost geographical component of the Keystone Project that will carry crude oil derived from Alberta, Canada tar sands through Saskatchewan, across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to southern Texas where it will be refined along the Gulf of Mexico. In a recent interview TransCanada CEO Russ Girling commented

“We never expected to be the lightning rod for the development of the Canadian oil sands. At the end of the day we build a conduit from A to B.”

What’s wrong with this attitude? The idea that this complex enterprise can be reduced to as simple a notion as connecting two points by a line can only arise from a profoundly confused mind. Here’s some geoscience in the service of clarity.

Tar sand” is a generic term used to describe petroleum-bearing rocks exposed at the Earth’s surface. Because petroleum is hydrocarbon its combustion for energy contributes significantly to well-established global warming. Geologists know tar sands as natural bitumen which means basically that it is a very viscous (sticky) petroleum. This stickiness distinguishes it from heavy crude oil, another type of petroleum. Tar sand is more like a flowy (if you will) solid whereas crude oil looks more familiarly like a liquid. It’s the stickiness that makes tar sands particularly problematic as technically recoverable resources.

 

Two different methods are used to produce oil from tar sands – surface mining andin-situ (in place) production. Only about 20 percent of all tar sand resources are recovered via surface mining. The rest is obtained through the later technique of in-situ processing which involves pumping steam underground through a horizontal well to liquefy the bitumen and pump it to the surface. Despite publicity about Canadian oil sands from the American Petroleum Institute intended to inform and assure those with well-founded worry about pipeline leaks and water contamination of western aquifers, such processing may be simple but it’s not easy. We need only look at theDeepwater Horizon fiasco to see how difficult it can be to stop simple flow from a pipe. (And the mind of this New Yorker not only is tempted to go to the past but also to project into the future concerns about hydrofracking in the Marcellus shale for another type of petroleum–natural gas). But let me stay in the present.

The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion which has attracted so much attention will involve among other components construction of new pipeline in Oklahoma (Keystone Phase III — 435 miles from Oklahoma through Texas). Okay, pay attention. On Saturday November 5, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake was centered six miles southeast of Sparks, Oklahoma. I’ll reframe this geographically: the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma struck about 40 miles south of Cushing, Oklahoma which is the point of origin for Keystone XL’s phase III.

The recent earthquake and its continued aftershocks occurred on the Wilzetta fault. It is one of many faults in the area that formed during the Carboniferous Period (around 300 milliion years ago) during an episode of mountain-building activity ultimately leading to the formation of the Rocky Mountains. But we don’t understand the relationship between these recent earthquakes and this old geologic structure. We do know that Oklahoma’s east and west borders are 280 and 750 miles from New Madrid, the namesake of ahigh seismic zone responsible for several of the largest historical earthquakes to strike the continental United States (1811-1812).

H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama has taught that

 “a balanced and skillful approach to life, taking care to avoid extremes, becomes a very important factor in conducting one’s everyday existence.”

Our efforts to force sticky hydrocarbons out of the Earth’s sedimentary rocks in Alberta, Canada (A), then transport them thousands of miles across a critical aquifer while skirting a high seismic zone (conduit), so we can refine them in Texas (B) only to burn them to create energy and incidentally warm the planet seems to me extreme, unbalanced, and unskillful.

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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.

Ecological Buddhism July 3, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, geologic time, mindfulness practice, science, slow violence.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

 

Earth Dharma: “Awake in the Anthropocene”

The Indus and the Karakoram highway in N. Pakistan

By Jill S. Schneiderman

Because of the extended time frame over which they occur, human-induced environmental changes—increased temperature, rising sea level, high-energy storm patterns, desertification and drought—are out of sync with human lives lived in an age of short attention span. The violence exacted on all living beings by these changes poses real representational challenges to our abilities to address it. Are there any tools within Buddhist view and practice that can help us work progressively at the intersection of violence and environmental degradation? How can Buddhism facilitate the work of awakening human beings to violence that is potentially catastrophic, but so slow that it’s difficult to discern and counter?

 

The Realm of the Eternal Moment
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From perches that encompass great swaths of space, geologists view changes of landscapes over vast sweeps of time. In outcrops of rocks, forgotten fossils, and minute mineral fragments, they find evidence of earlier events on Earth. It is a cultivated skill that requires patience, grown from sitting still or walking slowly in the field, and watching nothing happen rather than observing processes in “real time.” Yet geoscience can also  elucidate the interrelation of all existences and phenomena, enriching a compassionate, time-transcendent vision and Buddhist-inspired systems thinking.

Mircea Eliade retold how Indra, King of the Gods, came to understand the importance of engaging compassionately with the responsibilities of the historical moment, while keeping in mind the perspectives of Great Time. That time and timelessness can lose their apparent opposition has a geological resonance, for in some ways geologists experience the flow of time differently than other people. They let the earth teach them. I have walked up arid slopes on the Caribbean island of Barbados that reveal that the land underfoot once was beneath the sea. Old coastal features some distance above the modern coastline tell of tectonic uplift, changed climate, and sea level fluctuations that caused the extinction and succession of coral reef colonies. A mountain exemplifies equanimity, because it remains unwavering amid the tumultuous activity of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere. Those coral reef paleo-communities also display geological equanimity and tenacity.

In the 13th century Zen master Dogen devoted The Time-Being, an important fascicle of his Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, to the recognition that “time itself is being, and all being is time.” For him, time consisted not of the past, present and future so much as events, moments and movements: “See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time… Do not think that time merely flies away… In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments.” It is in the realm of eternal moment that the thinking of geology and Buddhism overlap.

Slow Violence & Environmental Degradation
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Robert Nixon has written evocatively about slow violence, acts whose “lethal repercussions sprawl across space and time;” oblique, unspectacular and amorphous. Its results are “attritional calamities” with “deferred consequences and casualties” that “pose formidable imaginative difficulties…(since) they star nobody.” The most ominous example is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and consequent climate change.

Slow violence is synonymous with global environmental degradation in general. How do we bring to life catastrophes that are “low in instant spectacle” but “high in long-term effects”? They pose overwhelming representational challenges, and we must summon exceptional creativity. It is out of sync with human lifetimes, difficult to represent, and presents motivational challenges—yet we must render slow violence both actionable and visible.

Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung pointed out that personal violence entails an immediate connection between the perpetrator and recipient of violence, but structural violence involves no direct relationship between perpetrators and recipients. It is built into economic, political, or social systems at multiple levels. It occupies the interstices of a system’s framework, often manifesting as unequal power and unequal life chances.

Galtung also described a cultural violence that obscures both personal and structural violence. This operates through norms or ideologies that promote a culture of impunity among perpetrators: as in racism, sexism or homophobia. The slow violence of creeping environmental degradation endures because it is supported by cultural violence. Here we are talking about an ideology asserting that greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change are “inevitable” products of modern society.

Scientists have been heard most loudly on the subject of global warming, and because of a professed divorce of head from heart in the scientific enterprise, ethical conduct has not been at the forefront of the conversation. But compassionate heart, a fundamental element of Buddhism, is important for people to attend fully to the slow violence of climate change. Society today also requires startling icons to vivify environmental degradation, and narratives that communicate urgency. A film like Avatar imaginatively, if imperfectly, communicates the slow catastrophes of deforestation, extreme resource extraction and ecological collapse.

Awakening to the Anthropocene
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In 1990, I worked with colleagues to geologically map part of the Karakoram Range in North Pakistan. There I saw Nanga Parbat, at 26660 feet, the ninth highest peak in the world. The Raikot glacier yawned beneath its north face. The glacier, more ice than moraine, was healthy and frozen so that we could walk across portions of it in search of outcrops that would give us clues to the history and rate of uplift of the Karakorams.. Twenty years later, I drove from Lhasa to Shigatse, just north of the crumpled zone where the Indian subcontinent smashes into Asian lithospheric plate and saw the glaciers of the Himalaya once again.  I dared not approach the Kharola glacier. Feeble in extent, this shrunken and dripping remainder of a once sturdy sheet of ice and rock manifested the slow violence exacted by human beings on the planet. We need no further data to confirm what is visibly evident. We must awaken to it.

With the greatest concentration of glaciers outside the poles, and rising at geologically rapid rates (near ten millimeters per year) to the highest elevations on Earth, geologists call the meeting of mountain ranges of the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Himalayas the Earth’s Third Pole. Its height affects atmospheric circulation, the breath in and breath out of our planet. How shall we, with head and heart, regard the melting glacial reservoirs of fresh water for the great rivers of the world?

A skillful approach to our environmental woes can emerge from combining scientific knowledge with compassionate ethical conduct. The first decade of the 21st century gave us record-breaking temperatures and huge breakaways from continental ice sheets. Yet the Copenhagen climate conference produced no signed agreement—the distance between the expectations of developing and developed countries was purportedly too great. That nations are so far from one another when it comes to the ethical conduct of right speech, right action, and right livelihood is itself a manifestation of slow, structural, and cultural violence.

In geological terms, we are living in the Holocene epoch which began with the ending of the last (Pleistocene) ice age. Some have suggested that we have moved into another epoch called the Anthropocene, after the dominance of human effects on this planet. The Hindu concept of Kali Yuga suggests that we live in the fourth and last of a complete set of cosmic cycles of periodic creations and destructions of the Universe, in which humans and society reach the extreme point of disintegration. The 21st century already provides us with many examples of disintegrative power: Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean and Japanese tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, and the disastrous “technological accidents” of Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima-Daiichi. If we are to counter slow violence with skill, courage and creativity, we will need to combine the discipline of “beginner’s mind” with wisdom learned from modeling the Earth system and with heartfelt ethical conduct.

Originally posted at — and published here with thanks to — Ecological Buddhism.

Awake in the Anthropocene May 12, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, earth cycles, geology.
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Indus Karakoram highway.jpg
The Indus and the Karakoram highway in N. Pakistan

Because of the extended time frame over which they occur, human-induced environmental changes—increased temperature, rising sea level, high-energy storm patterns, desertification and drought—are out of sync with human lives lived in an age of short attention span. The violence exacted on all living beings by these changes poses real representational challenges to our abilities to address it. Are there any tools within Buddhist view and practice that can help us work progressively at the intersection of violence and environmental degradation? How can Buddhism facilitate the work of awakening human beings to violence that is potentially catastrophic, but so slow that it’s difficult to discern and counter?

Read the rest of this piece, a featured article from Ecological Buddhism: A Buddhist Response to Global Warming, here.

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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Letting Go of Mental Formations — Images from Geophysical Fluid Dynamics December 27, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, fluid flow, meditation, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

For some people, this time of year offers especially good opportunities to practice the Buddhist art of letting go of mental formations—our conditioned responses to the objects of experience. Whether waiting in line at an airport, inching along in a traffic jam, sharing a festive meal, or sitting quietly alone, one’s mind lunges towards distractions on familiar themes.

The challenge is, of course, to awaken to the moment, release that pattern of thought, and return to the present. I’d like to suggest the visualization of a geophysical process that may help in this endeavor.

The thought came to me in that semi-conscious, pre-awake state, just before the early morning bell at a recent silent retreat; a picture of fluid flow manifested in my consciousness. Later in the day on the cushion, I put it to use. I pictured the transition from laminar to turbulent flow in a fluid medium. Allow me to explain.

Laminar flow, also known as streamline flow, occurs when a liquid or gaseous fluid flows in parallel layers with no disruption between them. It’s the opposite of turbulent flow which is a fluid regime characterized by chaotic particle motion. In the simplest terms, laminar flow is smooth while turbulent flow is rough. In turbulent flow, eddies and wakes make the flow unpredictable. You can see it in the cascade of water over rocks…

….or in the upward flow of a plume of smoke.

We sedimentologists ponder “flow regimes,” from laminar through transitional (a mixture of laminar and turbulent flow) to turbulent, because they affect the erosion, transport, and deposition of rock particles, large and small, from one environment to another. They bear on the magnitude of devastation associated with floodwaters and debris flows like those brought on by recent rainstorms in California.

Turbulent fluid flow with its high velocity moves material in apparently random, haphazard motion. Upwelling, swirling eddies entrain sediment and keep it moving not only along the fluid but also up and down within it. Most natural fluid flow is turbulent like the motion of broad, deep, fast moving rivers. Only very slowly moving fluids—think maple syrup or asphalt–exhibit laminar flow. Although laminar flow can help transport material down current it moves material less effectively than turbulent flow because it lacks the ability to keep particles of sediment lifted up in the moving current.

And here’s where the business of letting go of mental formations enters the picture. On the mat, “by and by” as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein likes to say, my mind drifts away from the breath to a thought, and the thought begins to lead me far away from my cushion and my focused attention on the breath. But I’m more able to let go of those mental formations when I picture them flowing away. They are my streams of thought, literally. And I feel them move away from my body, first in laminar fashion and ultimately dispersing into the turbulent flow regime where they scatter in eddies and swirls.

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.

“Humans Have a Spiritual Obligation to Care for Our Earth” September 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Buddhist concepts, earth community, satellite images.
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Whether is it ‘our Earth’ or not, I certainly agree with James Coffin, member of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, that we humans have a spiritual obligation to care for it. You can read Coffin’s informative opinion piece here.

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.

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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Slow Violence in the Gulf of Mexico: A Buddhist Response June 4, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, contemplative practice, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, geology, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and Common Dreams.org

The U.S. government and reporters have gone from calling the BP/Transocean calamity an accident to referring to it as an environmental crime. In my opinion, that’s an improvement in verbal accuracy but it misses an even larger and vastly important point. We are now witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico slow violence. Writer Rob Nixon coined the phrase, which he acknowledges as seemingly oxymoronic, to describe acts whose “lethal repercussions sprawl across space and time.”

Would anyone argue that the exploits of oil professionals in the Gulf haven’t caused deadly outcomes that continue to sprawl spatially and temporally? If the implications of the words Nixon uses to help us understand his concept were not utterly devastating, I’d relish their richness: “attritional calamities” with “deferred consequences and casualties;” “dispersed repercussions” that “pose formidable imaginative difficulties.” The explosion, fire, and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon was a small spectacle and only the initial phase of a protracted series of events with severe ramifications. I believe that Nixon would call the BP Earth Day Oil Catastrophe a “convoluted cataclysm”; it’s vivified by the tortuous patterns of unspectacular brick-colored sludge and oblique oily sheen not anywhere but everywhere. The crude oil coats birds, porpoises, redfish, marsh grasses, and people. It’s dispersed in the water column and currents, and sends fumes into the air.
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Oil in the Gulf. Image via NASA.

It’s difficult not to be heartbroken. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, reported from coastal Louisiana the sentiments of people whose lives and livelihoods are wrecked.  When asked to talk about the damage, fifty-one year old Dean Blanchard, owner of the largest shrimp business in the area of Grand Isle responded, “It’s not the damage. It’s a way of life. They destroyed a way of life.” In the parking lot of his tattoo parlor Bobby Pitre displayed a sculpture of an adult and child, both wearing gas masks, holding a dead fish by the tail and a sign, “God help us all!” When talking to Goodman he said, “I don’t think there’s anything that man can do at this point to really prevent the spill from reaching us, reaching our marshes….we need a miracle, is what we really need, you know? That’s how I see it. It’s going to kill everything in our marshes, our whole way of life. It’s just going to kill us, you know?”

Devastated communities and environmental refugees, dead or injured living beings, and absolutely altered land, water, and air. We should recognize the BP Earth Day Oil Catastrophe as a bellwether of slow violence—brutality in the guise of slow-moving and spatially extensive environmental transformations that are out of sync with the nano-second attention spans of the 21st century. But what will enable us unflaggingly to confront slow violence?

In her memoir, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Sharon Salzberg writes, “When we stand before a chasm of futility, it is first of all faith in this [the] larger perspective that enables us to go on.” Some might scoff at the idea that faith has any place as a healing quality, a refuge, during this calamity and in the future it foreshadows. But human beings must begin to live and act in accordance with the reality of connectedness famously articulated by John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe. ”

Salzberg advocates for an enduring faith in, among other things, the recurrent workings of nature. She reports after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, panic erupted as rumors spread that grass, trees, and flowers would never again grow in the city. She writes:

“Had the disaster been of such proportions that the laws of nature had exploded with the bomb? As we know, even in the face of massive human intervention, the grass and trees and flowers did grow again in Hiroshima. Several people, describing their experience of that time, say that it was only once they learned that natural law was still intact that they had the faith to go on.”

Natural law still operates amidst the ineptitude and corruption in the Gulf of Mexico. Distributary channels on the Mississippi delta continue to carry sediment to the Gulf despite human efforts to channelize the flow of the river; tides and currents dole out the sediment to the sea; fine-grained particles settle to the seafloor. It’s the modern day continuation of processes that first formed the oil. The petroleum—“rock oil”—now gushing forth from the earth’s crust is a natural substance, albeit unleashed in an unnatural time frame. It formed from the remains of marine organisms interred in mud beneath the sea. Over millions of years, the mud compressed and heated to form the sedimentary rock, shale. In that process the contained organic matter broke down to form oil. In the record of rocks, like those that spew oil, I read rhythms of deep time and the renewal they imply.

James Hutton, the 18th century Scottish medical doctor and gentleman farmer, is considered the founder of geology and remembered as having likened the earth to a perpetually self-renewing machine.  But as essayist Loren Eiseley reminds us in The Firmament of Time, for his doctoral dissertation Hutton studied blood circulation. At the same time, the medieval idea persisted that Man reproduces in miniature the outside world. What has been called Hutton’s secret—the fact that as a physician he applied his biomedical perspective to the earth—allowed him to use an organismic analogy for the earth.  He conceived of the planet not simply as a machine but as a living organism with circulation and metabolism. In this way of seeing, it is possible to recognize dynamic qualities of the earth’s crust that facilitate decay and renewal.

As Sharon Salzberg advises, “with faith we can draw near to the truth of the present moment.” So, for the time being, as I follow the ongoing reports coming from coastal Louisiana, I’m clinging to my faith as a geoscientist that we and the Earth together can begin again.

Click here for more of Jill S. Schneiderman’s “Earth Dharma” posts for Shambhala SunSpace.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on June 4, 2010 at 10:32 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.