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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.

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George Kenney on the BP Oil Catastrophe May 16, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer who resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict, is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C.  He produces and hosts a podcast at Electric Politics and is on the Board of Editors of the magazine In These Times. The following comment is from his blog where, in addition to the kind words about my post, he states that he will not use the word “spill” to describe the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf:

Word Power

Deepwater Horizon rig burningEvery now and then — well, probably more often than that — public discourse settles upon the wrong word to describe something important. Using the wrong word makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, to have an intelligent and productive exchange of ideas. Such is the case with the Gulf catastrophe. At some subliminal level I had hesitated a fraction of a second before using the word “spill,” but mentally shrugged and went ahead and used it anyway. Like everybody else. That was a mistake. As Jill Schneiderman points out, in an absolutely brilliant, perfectly simple observation, it’s not a spill: It’s a gusher, or a blowout, or something along those lines. The earth’s crust is cracked, a mind-boggling volume of oil has started to leak out. It might even leak a billion barrels. We just don’t know. And we really don’t know how to fix it… Thanks, Jill, and Kudos to you! The word “spill” shall now be retired, at least on this blog.

The Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe: When Do We Say “Dayenu” (Enough)? May 14, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

“What counts is not the enormity of the task, but the size of the courage,” says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and confidant of the Dalai Lama who was dubbed “Mr. Happy” after U.S. neuroscientists declared him the most content man they ever tested. Ricard’s statement resonated for me in light of continued developments in what I’ve come to think of as the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe. We’re going to need this kind of inspiration in order to deal with the Gulf of Mexico mess because the magnitude of the task before us—stopping the forcefully gushing oil, cleaning up devastated habitat, caring for injured or soon-to-be-harmed living beings in the path of the petroleum, protecting as yet unaffected regions—boggles the mind as it stirs the heart.

Since I’ve just returned from a weeklong Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training retreat, I’ve been away from the news of this calamity. But sad to say, my geologist’s perspective leaves me unsurprised by broadcasts of impotent efforts of oil industry professionals to handle the tragedy. Why? Because I’ve been sitting for the last week paying attention to body sensations, I’ll just say that we earth scientists feel in our guts the vast scales of Earth time and space; (it’s why I write about them). As Congress and a federal panel in Louisiana begin their inquiry into the situation not one person should be perplexed by the sequence of events that follow the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig. Here’s why.

First of all, this event is much more than just another “oil spill.” To me, the word spill suggests flow from a confined space and implies a finite amount of liquid. The monster in the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher, a blowout, an uncontrolled flow of oil from a well bored into the earth, what drillers call a “wild well.” Dr. Frankenstein has put a spigot in the Earth and can’t shut it off.

When in September 2009 BP announced its discovery of the Tiber oilfield—what the workers on the Deepwater Horizon were boring into when it exploded—they characterized it as “giant” and meant to convey that their find contained between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill. Basically we’ve tapped into a source of oil that will not be exhausted quickly. Isn’t that ironic?

It’s impossible to conceptualize such vast quantities, and as the crude oil continues to spew for the 24th consecutive day at daily rates reported to be 210,000 gallons, I’d like to help. Check out a Google Earth map website by Paul Rademacher that will allow you to compare the horizontal extent of the oil with the geographic size of your city, county or state. I checked Barbados, the tiny island on which I currently live; the crude oil would blanket it completely.

Ditto my home county—Dutchess in New York. It’s way bigger than Rhode Island, our convenient measuring rod for environmental disaster (Remember the Larsen Ice Shelf? The 220 meter thick—three football fields—chunk of ice “the size of Rhode Island” that disintegrated in 2002 after having been stable for up to 12,000 years.) Check the places that matter most to you and sense in your gut the feeling caused by the spatial comparison.

And speaking of space, oil and gas executives crowed about their record-setting achievement, touting it as one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry—drilled 35,055 feet deep into the Earth’s crust beneath 4,132 feet of water. You may wonder, “Just how deep into the earth is that?” Let’s put it this way, transcontinental flights cruise at that elevation above the Earth’s surface. Next time you are in an airplane, picture a pipe connecting your jet to the surface of the Earth and you’ll have a picture of the distance that BP went to access the Tiber Oilfield black gold.

Would that these innovators had gone to such extremes in order to apply to their work an ethical code that includes the Precautionary Principle:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Regrettably, precautionary action has been the exception rather than the rule in U.S. environmental policy. Perhaps it has operated to the frustration of some in decisions concerning disposal of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, but the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe demonstrates the virtue of Vorsorgeprinzip, German for “precautionary principle.” Literally, Vorsorge means “forecaring” and conveys forethought and preparedness—not simply “caution.” I say that a plan to bore “the deepest well ever” into the Earth, should be accompanied by accurately scaled and well-tested models for responding to unexpected contingencies. Ahimsa, first do no harm.

The first homework assignment of my Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training program was to read Jack Kornfield on the five basic Buddhist training precepts. Number two, “we undertake the precept of refraining from taking that which is not given,” strikes me as particularly apt given the circumstances in the Gulf. We consent to not take that which does not belong to us. We agree to bring consciousness to the use of all of the earth’s resources in a respectful and ecological way.

When will we, like Job, clap our hands to our mouths with the realization that human beings occupy an infinitesimal place within a divine whole? When will the “knowledge” of modernity succumb to the wisdom of the ancients? Could the answer to Job’s question of how long must his people suffer, “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people; and the ground lies waste and desolate (Isaiah 6:11),” be also the answer to the question, when will the oil stop gushing? The chutzpah of humans got us into this mess; humility will help us out of it. We will need clear mind, wise heart, and sizable courage to say dayenu, enough.

Click here for more of Jill S. Schneiderman’s Earth Dharma posts.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on May 14, 2010 at 11:17 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Pandora’s Oil Well May 11, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, geologic time, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at truthout and CommonDreams.org.

It has also be re-posted on Peninsula Peace and Justice Center.

Technical jargon conceals by confusion. The immense scale of the problem surrounding the sinking of the Transocean drilling rig, “Deepwater Horizon,” requires that the public stay alert when confronted with slick lingo.  So, I’d like to help readers understand from a geologist’s viewpoint the sad absurdity of the Gulf of Mexico situation—one that is much more than yet another “oil spill.”

In September 2009 BP announced their discovery of the “giant” Tiber oilfield and crowed that drilling a 35,055 foot deep well into the earth’s crust under 4,132 feet of water made it one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry. Less than one year later, BP had to alert the public to an explosion and fire onboard the semisubmersible drilling rig—a “unit” floating above the seafloor that when flooded causes the contraption to submerge a desired depth and produce relative stability while drilling for oil and gas in rough waters. The rig was mining oil from the “Mississippi Canyon 252 well” that British Petroleum (BP) owns. And on Earth Day 2010, we learned that BP had “activated an extensive oil spill response” and was working with Transocean using remotely operated vehicles to assess the condition of the Tiber well and the “subsea blowout preventer.”

A critical distinction here is between an oil spill and a blowout. I tried to look up the definition of “oil spill” in OilGasGlossary.com and found the following: “Sorry, but we can’t found (sic) the definition of Oil Spill in our Oil Gas Glossary.” I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I really just wanted to have confirmed my instinct that the vernacular meaning of spill, to flow from a confined space, implies a finite amount of oil. In contrast, the Glossary told me that a blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil, water, or gas from a well bored into the earth. It suggests to me a comparatively unlimited quantity of the black gold. When BP announced their discovery and termed it “giant” they meant to convey that the Tiber oilfield contained somewhere between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill.

What we have beneath the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher folks. Only unlike 1859 when drillers greeted gushers with celebratory hoots, in 2010 BP confronts the Mississippi Canyon blowout with a relief well—that’s another well drilled near and into the well that is out of control. BP doesn’t use the phrase but drillers call the continuously spewing wells, “wild wells.” Forgive me, but it’s hard to feel reassured by the company’s assertion that they’ve begun to remedy the subsurface problem—oil escaping with great force from inside the earth to the planet’s watery surface—in this manner.

I’m reminded of the Centralia, Pennsylvania underground coal seam fire that has been burning since 1962. Like other coal seam fires, it may continue to burn underground for decades or even centuries until the fuel source is exhausted.  So too the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979 yet still leaking into the Hudson River three decades later from fractures in rock beneath the General Electric facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York where the company utilized PCBs in the manufacture of capacitors.

The time and space scales of the earth dwarf those of us mere humans, yet we tinker with the Earth’s resources, manipulate them for our purposes, and underplay the risks we take. We scramble at the surface of the Earth to curtail the disastrous upshots of our inane technological “achievements.”

When Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to people living on Earth, he angered Zeus. The king of the Olympians exacted revenge on humans by ordering the creation from earth of Pandora who would be a vehicle for bringing misery to mortals. According to the myth Pandora’s box (jar)—a present from the Gods—loosed upon earth all the sorrows and plagues then known to humanity. In 2010, we’ve opened Pandora’s well—Mississippi Canyon 252—spewing oil, sowing suffering, and defying control.

After Yushu, Hindered by Doubt April 19, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, disasters, earthquakes, geology, Iceland, mountain building.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

With the earth functioning for me as an object on which to meditate, or at least as a source of teachings that resonate with Buddhadharma, doubt is the hindrance that shakes my ability to use earthdharma to cultivate equanimity in light of the April 13 earthquake in Qinghai Province, China. Scientific understanding of earth processes has enhanced my capacity to access Buddhadharma, but at this moment it’s hard for me to regard the earthquake dispassionately and simply as a manifestation of the earth’s dynamism and propensity to change.

It’s true that this earthquake occurred because of the sideways slipping between two lithospheric plates—the same kind of motion that caused the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake I’ve previously written about for this blog. The eastern Tibet Plateau is a geologically complex region where the Indian and Eurasian lithospheric plates converge; you can picture what’s happening in the earth’s crust there by imagining the configuration and forces that result when you eject a seed from between the thumb and pointer finger of your left hand, the Tibetan plateau being the seed.

Enormous forces are at work there. The Indian plate is moving northward, toward the Eurasian plate—your thumb and forefinger in my analogy, respectively—at a rate of 46 millimeters per year. It’s that convergence that drives the uplift of the magnificent Himalaya at a rate of 10 millimeters per year to form what we geologists refer to as “the roof of the world.”

I know with my geoscientist’s mind that the 6.9 magnitude temblor likely reflects the interplay among the major tectonic (mountain building) forces along the Kunlun fault system that runs approximately 300 kilometers north of the epicenter of the seismic event. This tremor is one of the largest known quakes within several hundred kilometers of this location; one with similar magnitude occurred nearby in 1738.

Regardless, my scientist’s heart feels the vicissitudes of pain and loss when I read that hundreds of people have been killed and thousands injured and buried under debris, many of them peaceful ethnic Tibetan farmers and herdsmen like those I encountered on excursions in Qinghai province in the summer of 2008, just after the devastating Sichuan earthquake. I experience the unpleasant feeling tone that accompanies my geoscientific knowledge. And my heart doubts what my head grasps.

I’ve been asked often in 2010 if the frequency of earthquakes is increasing. My mind comprehends that although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that quakes of magnitude 7 or greater have remained essentially constant. I accept the partial explanation that, according to the USGS, in the last two decades we have been able to locate more earthquakes because of vast, improved and rapid global communication systems and the higher number of seismograph stations in the world than ever before. These conditions cause a 21st-century population that is already quite concerned about environment and hazards to learn about these earthquakes as they happen. Historical records suggest that we should expect annually one great earthquake (above 8), 15 major quakes (7-7.9) and 134 tremors of 6 to 6.9 magnitudes. By this accounting, the year 2010 has offered no greater seismic hazard than usual.

I try to see this latest earthquake as evidence of cyclic impermanence and Earth renewal. Still, my scientist’s heart aches. I set down my pen to sit so that I might cultivate both compassion in my heart for the living beings of that region, and equanimity that can help me along the path of using geoscientific insight to reduce suffering.

Previously:

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 18, 2010 at 11:14 am and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Chile, Haiti, and “Govinda’s Bridge” March 4, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, Buddhist concepts, Chile, disasters, earth community, earth cycles, earthquakes, environmental justice, geology, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

When I turned as part of my daily practice to today’s page of Offerings, a compilation of Buddhist quotations, I read a comment by Lama Anagarika Govinda that registered as particularly meaningful in light of the recent earthquake in Chile:

“A bridge is revealed which connects the everyday world of sense perceptions to the realm of timeless knowledge.”

Oddly enough, given the topic of collapsed infrastructure as a result of recent high magnitude earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a visible viaduct has emerged which connects the agonizing reality of these events to the timeless truth that economically and educationally impoverished people are disproportionately vulnerable to risks posed by life on a dynamic planet.

How is it that these two seismic events in the first quarter of 2010 have together exposed Govinda’s bridge?

In order to answer that question we must compare geologically these natural events. Both earthquakes occurred at lithospheric plate boundaries. Geologists have come to expect earthquakes at these locations because such boundaries, which are delineated by earthquakes and often volcanism, are the relatively flexible seams that connect pieces of comparatively inflexible crust comprising the skin of the earth. When rigid crust moves, it releases energy stored in the rocks causing them to break abruptly. This is a fundamental geological reality that all human beings must understand, as a starting point, if we are to lessen the catastrophic human consequences that follow from such natural events. Both temblors were massive — Chile magnitude 8.8 , Haiti 7.0. In fact, the Chilean event ranks among the largest quakes ever measured.

A substantial geological difference between the Chile and Haiti tremors was that the former originated deep in the Earth’s crust, 35 km, while the latter one had a shallow focus, 13 km. The difference in the depth of the rupture relates to the type of plate boundary at each site — sideways sliding in Haiti versus downward thrust in Chile. And though to the geologically uninitiated the difference between 8.8 and 7.0 may seem negligible, the Richter scale is logarithmic, not linear, and that means that the Chilean quake was substantially stronger than the Haitian one. These geological details beg the human question, why do the numbers of Haitian deaths and catastrophic injuries eclipse Chilean ones?

The answer to the question has socioeconomic, rather than geologic roots. An adage well known to geologists reads, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Many Chileans were spared crush-injuries and death because Chile constructed quake-resistant buildings after experiencing a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in 1960. In this recent event, buildings shook but did not collapse into stacks of flattened concrete, minimizing the chance that Chileans might be killed or trapped inside them. Too, the Chilean quake struck near Concepcion, a region of much lower population than Port-au-Prince.

We can build earthquake-resistant structures with adequate know-how and financial resources. Concrete, a common and relatively strong masonry material consists of cement — primarily heated limestone that is finely ground and mixed with the mineral gypsum—that binds together sand and gravel. But concrete doesn’t stretch or extend very well when stressed by shearing horizontal forces. It can be reinforced with steel bars or pre-stressed for use as an earthquake-resistant building material. Other elements of an earthquake resistant building include a good-quality foundation and high quality cement.

Living on land prone to shift, Chileans endure constant reminders of the need to utilize high quality building materials and enforce strict building regulations. Haitians also receive portentous jolts. But Chile, not Haiti, is one of the most earthquake-ready countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Why are buildings in Chile more stable than those in Haiti? While 98% of Chileans are literate and 18% of the population lives in poverty, the respective numbers for Haiti are 53% and 80%. These numbers may explain why Haitians have used brittle steel without ribbing and poor quality cement to hold together concrete. And using cement too sparingly for mortar between concrete blocks or in the production of the concrete itself reduces the earthquake resistance of the structure built with it. In Haiti inferior building materials and poor building practices have been replicated from the foundation up. As a result, the Haitian earthquake left more than 200,000 people dead, nearly one million people homeless, and an indeterminate amount of pain and anguish; in Chile we may hope that the death toll will not reach four digits.

When we examine a geologic map of the world, an unfortunate reality becomes clear: the earth’s most populous cities exist along plate boundaries. Plate boundaries coincide with shorelines and sources of water hence our earliest civilizations arose there and grew to be villages and towns. Today large population centers in places like Tehran and Istanbul are disasters waiting to happen. Though geologists cannot predict when an earthquake will occur, we can forecast, in decades-wide windows, the inevitability of such events. Haphazardly constructed communities in vulnerable mega-cities put millions of people at risk for the suffering that ensues after a large earthquake in a poorly prepared region. The Buddha taught that suffering is endless yet one must vow to end it. Anyone who subscribes to this principle must reject as unacceptable the disproportionate vulnerability of the poor and under-educated to the earth’s perpetual processes.

Caribbean Awakening January 28, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Jack Kornfield has commented that Suzuki Roshi captured the essence of Buddhism with the words: “not always so.”

Reports of earthquakes and tsunamis in the Caribbean region continue to shake my world in Barbados and remind me of Suzuki Roshi’s wisdom.

A 6.0 earthquake sixty miles southwest of Guatemala City shook the Guatemalan countryside and parts of El Salvador on January 18. The next day, one week after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the Cayman Islands. And though it was underreported, the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake did in fact trigger a localized tsunami. It swept at least seven people to sea and drowned portions of the Haitian coastline in the village of Petit Paradis, located on the south side of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system that ruptured to produce the January 12 magnitude 7.0 temblor. (More on this here. )

As a geologist my mind knows that the Caribbean is a tectonically active region that poses volcanic, seismic and tsunami hazards. The hazards result from the subduction of the American Plate beneath the much smaller Caribbean Plate; it generates the overlying chain of volcanic islands as well as lithospheric crustal movement along the subducting plate boundary and in the region of intense folding at the plate margin.

Tectonic map of the Lesser Antilles showing plate boundaries, rates of plate movement, active volcanoes, major faults and regions of strong deformation (from Day et al. 2008, Issues in Risk Science: Tectonic Threats in the Caribbean; http://www.abuhrc.org/rp/publications/Pages/issues.aspx)

But aside from the volcanic activity ongoing at Soufrière Hills, Montserrat since 1995 and eruptions in 1979 from Soufrière in St. Vincent and in 1976 from La Soufrière in Guadeloupe—Soufrière means sulfur in French, hence the large number of volcanoes that bear the name — the area has been relatively quiet, volcanically speaking. And though earthquakes have caused the second and third most destructive geological disasters in the Caribbean as a whole, they occurred in 1692 — an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Port Royal in Jamaica and more than half the inhabitants died in the event itself or later of disease — and 1843 when an earthquake severely damaged Guadeloupe and nearby islands. Relatively minor earthquakes in 1761, 1823, and 1918 caused tsunamis on various islands but none resulted in devastating disaster and death. So, when I read reports warning that the “long-sleeping Caribbean” has awakened — that the ruinous quake that struck Haiti could be the first of several in the region — I experience cognitive dissonance.

I’ve come to the eastern Caribbean with my partner and our two children on a family sabbatical of sorts so that we might rest, rejuvenate, and live with ease. While so engaged the earth stirred and reminded me that, in the words of Kalu Rinpoche:

Nothing is permanent:
The sun and the moon rise and then set,
The bright, clear day is followed by the deep, dark night.
From hour to hour, everything changes.

But I’ll also take the advice uttered by Jean Frank, a Haitian fisherman in Petit Paradis making a fishing net in the shade away from the heat. Having already lived a long life, the fisherman said in Creole “Me? I’m not afraid. I’m old … I take life as it comes.”

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This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on January 28, 2010 at 12:32 pm and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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After Haiti — Remixing the Mind & Heart January 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, geology, Haiti.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Recent reports from different media on the Haitian earthquake illustrate the human proclivity to separate mind and heart in response to so-called ‘natural’ disasters.

In two U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) CoreCast 10-minute audio programs, using accessible language, Michael Blanpied, USGS Earthquake Hazards Program Coordinator, discusses the January 12, 2010 Haitian earthquake. In “Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake Strikes Haiti” (episode 117), Blanpied explains the science of the earthquake and related hazards, such as landslides. In “The Haitian Earthquake-A Week Later” (episode 118), Blanpied provides an update on the current situation in Haiti and answers questions about aftershocks. Additionally, perhaps as a means to assuage fears with knowledge, an article in the Christian Science Monitor explains clearly the January 20, 6.1 magnitude aftershock (Haiti Aftershock).

Note that in the USGS CoreCast programs, Blandpied comments not at all about the suffering and human dimension of the  earthquake. Therefore, because I believe that technical science talk alone will not sufficiently address the current situation, I was glad to hear host Tania Larson “Magnitude 7.0 Earthquake Strikes Haiti” (episode 117) express compassion for those who are suffering as a result of the earthquake. Blanpied’s talks are wise-minded. Larson’s concluding comments are kind-hearted.

But what will be most helpful in this and future disasters will be a remix of mind and heart that I’d like to characterize as kind-minded and wise-hearted responses. An E-Bulletin (No. 47, January 2010) from the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), whose motto is “Earth Science for the Global Community” illustrates such a blend of heart and head. Since it is not yet available on the IUGS website I quote it here:

TRAGIC EARTHQUAKE HITS HAITI
As we were going to press with this latest IUGS e-Bulletin, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, near the city of Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010 causing immeasurable loss of life and damage to critical infrastructure. As we usher in the year 2010, we are humbly reminded that many tragedies around the world often relate to the dynamic nature of planet Earth. As Earth Scientists, we all well appreciate the need to better understand the causes of natural hazards. It is terrible and unfortunate that events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and volcanic eruptions continue to impact such significant numbers of people around the world. Our collective efforts through geoscience education, practical field research and innovative studies can help to minimize the risks of natural hazards, reduce human vulnerability and enhance the safety of the global society. On behalf of the many geoscientists represented by the IUGS, we send our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the many people affected by this recent catastrophe.

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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