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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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Bill McKibben on Democracy Now April 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, fossil fuel.
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Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, interviewed Bill McKibben today. Bill makes his points well.

Ocean as Carbon Sink January 9, 2010

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

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

‘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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Melting Glaciers December 10, 2009

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

To the editors,

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

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

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

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

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

Jill S. Schneiderman

Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College

Poughkeepsie, NY

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

Island as Paleo-Sangha November 24, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, Buddhist concepts, climate change, contemplative practice, earth community, geology.
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This is cross-posted at  Shambhala SunSpace.


I’ve been thinking about the upcoming Copenhagen United Nations climate change conference—the opportunity to secure agreements to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions that will replace the Kyoto Protocol before it expires—because this year I’ve been living on a tiny coral island in the Atlantic Ocean. Here in Barbados, everywhere I look with my geologist’s gaze I see evidence of past climate change. And in the daily newspapers I read reports that record the nation’s worries about the effects of climate change on islander’s livelihoods. As is true for other small island nations, the future of all living beings on Barbados depends on productive conversations in Copenhagen.

Barbados is a coral island that rose roughly 1200 feet above sea level in the last one million years—in other words, Barbados is a geological infant. Still, it has much to teach us. I’m reminded of a verse from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet”:

“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us

As when everything seems dead
And later proves to be alive.” *

Though some sandstone and shale form a nucleus of the island, more than 85% of the exposed land consists of coral rock, known to geologists as limestone, naturally lithified from broken debris of ancient coral reefs. The island is unique in the Caribbean. Unlike the Bahamas that consist largely of windblown sand cemented together by the action of rainwater, or other Caribbean islands so vividly volcanic, Barbados today is comprised of nothing more than subaerial coralline remnants of dead communities and submarine fringes of currently living colonies of organisms—corals. Tiny animals called polyps that are related to and look like sea anemones, each coral encloses itself in a stony cup of limestone that it secretes. As they grow, the polyps divide to form coral colonies that build up on top of each other and manifest as a reef. Over thousands of years, coral reefs respond to fluctuations in sea level as well as changes in water temperature and other environmental conditions.

Abiding on this island I traverse slopes telling me that where I now walk, ocean waves once lapped. Hillsides shaped like treads and risers of a coralline staircase, coastal terraces in geological parlance, mark ancient shorelines. These old coastal features some distance above the modern coastline indicate that with changing climate and consequent sea level fluctuations some colonial organisms have become extinct while others have succeeded them. As a Jewish Buddhist geologist—or jubugeoscientist as I’ve come to think of myself lately—I think of these ancient reefs as paleo-Sanghas, communities that lived and died together.

In thinking about Buddhist responses to climate change, I’ve come to believe that Buddhist scientists must emphasize compassion and the ethical conduct components of the eightfold path—wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood. Though we scientists lead with our heads, I believe that we must add our hearts to our enterprise. From my observations of impermanent coral communities, my head knows that the living communities of Barbados will be vulnerable to inevitable sea level fluctuations. But as I behold the Barbadian’s Earth, I realize that scientist-negotiators going to Copenhagen must bring to conversations more than scientific wisdom; they must bring scientific heart.

Just before I left for an extended silent meditation retreat with Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg last week, I read that world leaders had concluded that it would be unrealistic to strive for a legally binding agreement at the upcoming climate conference. Instead, the Danes have suggested that some Copenhagen aspirations could be salvaged through a “first-stage series of commitments rather than an all-encompassing protocol.” I have an alternative suggestion for the U.N. climate conference organizers prompted by my recent sit with Sylvia and Sharon: let negotiators not speak; let them live together and practice karuna and metta meditation as a community of retreatants for the twelve days set aside for the conference. By the end of that period, perhaps negotiator-retreatants will feel connected enough to one another and the home countries they each represent so that true giving will be possible. In preparation for the retreat I’d be happy to send them a piece of Barbados limestone for the altar.

* Italics mine

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.

Copenhagen Climate Conference: Cyclic Repetition with a Difference? October 2, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, geologic time.


As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Harvard, 1987), “If moments have no distinction, then they have no interest” (80). Gould proposed this aphorism as a description of the troubled situation that pure visions of time’s cycle impose upon history.

This passage holds significance for me as the world anticipates the upcoming United Nations climate change conference to be held in Copenhagen this December.  Recently in Barbados’ daily newspaper, The Nation, a special two-page section drew readers’ attention to the country’s celebration of World Maritime Day (sponsored by the International Maritime Organization of which Barbados has been a member since 1970). The newspaper reported that the purpose of the day is to focus attention on the importance of the shipping industry, safety, and security, and the marine environment (24 September 2009, 20). The designated theme for World Maritime Day 2009 is climate change.

As an island nation with a heavily developed seashore and nearshore populated by locals as well as visitors, Barbados will face substantial challenges as sea level rises dramatically. Coral bleaching and depletion of seafood here also been linked to climate change. Furthermore, as a water scarce country, climate change also threatens drinking water supply of Bajans and their visitors.

So I’m struck by the overlap of the upcoming UN Conference,  the focus of World Maritime Day and the precarious future portended by unattended climate change. It has me thinking about the cycles and arrows of time. Gould wrote about the model of a large disk rolling along a railroad track  as a metaphor for intertwined arrows and cycles of time (81). Gould points out that cycles advancing as they turn allow for history. As his proposed aphorism states, moments without distinction have no interest. Without a way to distinguish between a particular stage in the cycle, we are unanchored in time. Everything comes round again, as Gould says (80).

For time  to be truly meaningful, it must be more than cyclic repetition. But “cyclic repetition with  a difference” as Gould refers to it combines time’s cycle with time’s arrow. Among the speechifying that may occur at Copenhagen, I would anticipate declarations of “now is the time,” exhortations to take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions immediately. It’s likely that speakers will extol the virtue of quick action because of our previous inattentiveness to increased greenhouse gas emissions and consequent global warming. Clearly time plays a significant part in this global conversation. The idea that there is urgency to the climate change talks, means the subject is climate change through time, not simply climate change in space.

My mind runs to the 1997 Kyoto Conference on Climate Change. How did the verbiage of that meeting go? Will verbiage at the Copenhagen conference sound the same as Kyoto? If so we will have nothing more than cyclic repetition or in Gould’s words, time’s cycle without time’s arrow.

Are we trapped in the view of climate change constrained by a dominant view of the Earth system as a system of endlessly renewing cycles? Carbon cycle, hydrologic cycle, nitrogen cycle, rock cycle, plate tectonic cycle. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? With such an emphasis on reusing and recycling, maybe we may have lost sight of time’s arrow– the role that distinctive events play in making history.

Many factors indicate that we are not at the same place in the decision cycle pre-Copenhagen as we were pre-Kyoto. Global temperature is warmer, weather more disrupted, sea level higher. We should behave at Copenhagen in a way consistent with this reality. With such a consciousness, we can act on the arrow as well as the cycles of time as they relate to climate change.