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Barry Commoner: A Feminist Environmentalist October 3, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barry Commoner, connectthedotsmovement.org, earth community, environmental justice, environmentalism, feminism, fracking, Precautionary Principle, Sandra Steingraber.
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This is cross-posted at CommonDreams.org, SpeakOut,  and RH Reality Check.

When, as a 21-year-old geology major I chose scientist and activist Barry Commoner as my presidential candidate, I was lambasted by some of my lesbian sisters at Yale for wasting my vote.  But upon reading his obituary in the New York Times, I feel proud of the choice I made back then. Barry Commoner, who died September 30, deserves to be remembered as a visionary scientific thinker who advocated for connecting the dots between components in systems of oppression.Barry Commoner, who died on Sunday at the age of 95.

I’d like to remember Commoner as a feminist environmentalist. Why? For one thing, Commoner split with conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation who subscribed to Paul Ehrlich’s theories articulated in The Population Bomb. These organizations, at the time, essentially blamed women for enviromental degradation asserting that it was a byproduct of overpopulation.  Commoner was a scientist of the Rachel Carson variety. As the Times put it, his overarching concern was “a radical ideal of social justice in which everything was indeed connected to everything else… He insisted that the planet’s future depended on industry’s learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up.”

This line of thinking leads directly to scientists and activists today who insist on seeing the connections between energy, transportation, agricultural and industrial systems that emphasize technological progress and financial profits disregarding consequences such as groundwater contamination, global climate change, and the health of all living beings.  Too, Commoner could well be remembered as the direct ancestor of scientists today like Sandra Steingraber, a signatory of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, a scientist who has devoted her life to explaining the ways that chemical contaminants endanger health, and who currently leads the fight in New York against fracking. For Commoner planted the seed for precaution with his precept that “Preventing a disease is far more efficient than treating it.”

And I don’t know if in his late years Commoner was aware of the work of activist Ashley Maier, cofounder of Connect the Dots, an organization that uses the social-ecological model, that individuals live within multiple spheres of influence, to address connections between environment, human and animal well-being.  But I’d like to think that his longevity might have been connected to the hope he could have derived from the work of younger activists like Maier.

Though I never spoke with my graduate school mentor, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, about Commoner, it didn’t surprise me to read his comment in a review of Commoner’s book, Making Peace with the Planet, that it “suffers the commonest of unkind fates: to be so self-evidently true and just that we pass it by as a twice-told tale.” Though he eschewed the politics of science, Steve’s view that Commoner was “right and compassionate on nearly every major issue” rings true as we contemplate as obvious yet imperative Commoner’s prescription of solar energy, electric-powered vehicles, and massive recycling programs, among others, as components of a plan to reverse the formidable, “radically wrong” path of the planet.

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Cherishing Living Beings — Seen and Unseen January 9, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Antarctica, Buddhist concepts, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, hydrosphere, ocean pollution, oil spill, science, yeti crab.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

(Image from the first-ever video footage of the newly found Yeti Crab.)

The first time I chanted the Metta Sutta — the Buddha’s teaching on lovingkindness — I was a retreatant at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and I got caught up in the inflection marks that appeared above the words; I couldn’t quite figure out when my voice should go up and when it should go down. I felt self conscious about not getting it right and awkward each time we chanted thesutta (in Pali, the language of the Buddha, sutta means “thread” and its presence in the title of a text indicates that it is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his major disciples). Still, at each sit I looked forward to the collective chant. I listened carefully and chanted along with the group following the rhythm, tempo,  and pitch. Eventually the sutta seeped into my bones, resonated in my body. In short order, I loved it.

These days, one of my favorite aspects of a retreat with Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg is our coming out of silence by reciting together this sutta and discussing the lines we love. Usually my mind settles on “contented and easily satisfied” or “so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”

For there, seven thousand feet beneath the sea surface, are  “black smokers” — hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor — that spew hot, mineral-rich water into cold deep and build chimneys of a sort. Around them, living beings seen and unseen, cluster–species of giant tube worms and clams feeding on microscopic organisms, species sharing this spot on Earth over millions of years.

Not that I’m trying here to suggest that either the microscopic organisms or the larger animals at the vents are sentient and feel what human beings call contentment; rather, these critters are simply eking out a living — making the best out of their (sub)station in life. And I guess that to me, this is another manifestation of the wisdom of the Earth System; at these black smokers we see other beings that live within the constraints of their situation –”contented and easily satisfied.”

I’m inspired by these beings that make their own food not from sunlight (photosynthesis) but from chemicals in the water (chemosynthesis)! They’re not grazing on golden hills like the deer Sylvia has described that wander near Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They are what biologists call extremophiles. They dwell under pressure, in the dark, making their food from the Earth’s hot effluent!

Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given that three-quarters of the Earth is ocean and we’ve explored precious little of the floor beneath, there seem to be plenty of living beings we’ve yet to meet. A few days ago, published research on newly discovered deep sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica revealed some entirely new species. Check out this previously unknown species of hairy-armed crustaceans called “yeti crabs” living tightly packed together on and around the vents.

In the aftermath of various insults to the salty portion of the Earth’s hydrosphere such as the recent oil spill off the Nigerian coast, and in anticipation of damage from hydrofracking to unknown beings that undoubtedly reside in deep regions of the lithosphere, I offer these observations.

Perhaps one day we may, in the words of the sutta, cherish with a boundless heart all living beings, omitting none.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on January 9, 2012 at 11:04 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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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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What would the Dalai Lama say about fracking? September 16, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Dalai Lama, fracking, natural gas, science, shale.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

In his book For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, “The actions of each of us, human or nonhuman, have contributed to the world in which we live. We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it.”

That is of course, a statement that applies to people of all kinds; not just Buddhists. As an earth system scientist, I feel the truth of that statement in my bones, every day. So, yesterday when I heard the news that ecologist, bladder cancer survivor, parent and activist Sandra Steingraber had been recognized this year with a Heinz award, I felt a surge of hope. Dr. Steingraber has written numerous books about the perils of a contaminated planet that are simultaneously scientific and personal.

Currently, she is working to prevent the unnatural disaster that will ensue if New York State proceeds with high-volume slick water hydrofracturing of shale gas — fracking — in the state. Steingraber puts it powerfully and renders the earth system science right when she avers, “we are shattering the very bedrock of our nation to get at the petrified bubbles of methane trapped inside.”

Sandra and I have had some supportive communication with one another over the years and so I dashed off a quick e-note of congratulations when I heard about the honor that carries with it a $100,000 unrestricted cash prize. Despite a very busy life, she got back to me quickly to share her statement subtitled “The Heinz Award and What I Plan to Do With It.”

In it, Dr. Steingraber acknowledged the connectedness of earth and all life, writing that “…the bodies of my children are the rearranged molecules of the air, water, and food streaming through them.” She announced her intent to devote her Heinz Award to the fight against hydrofracking in upstate New York where she lives with her family. And she implored others to join her in the struggle to fight fossil fuel addiction. In her opinion, dependency on these nonrenewable resources causes us to act irrationally — removing mountains, felling forests, drilling deeply — and to use these fossil fuels as raw materials for pesticides, solvents, and other toxic substances that insinuate themselves into the tissues of all living beings.

It seems to me that Dr. Steingraber’s thoughts and motives are as much informed by a sense of responsibility — one like the Dalai Lama wrote about – as they are by science. And that, as I say, makes me hopeful.

What about you?

Natural Gas and Horizontal Shale Drilling April 27, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in fracking, natural gas, Precautionary Principle, shale.
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Here’s a link to a short video from the American Petroleum Institute about hydrofracking of ‘tight’ shales in order to release and collect natural gas. I have not as much time as I would like to write about this video and I hope to do so in the future. The small point I would like to make is that though this video is designed to reassure the viewer that the technology is safe, I do not react to it that way. I watch this video and feel sad.

I think we must pay attention to lingo used by engineers when it comes to these so-called advanced technologies. Engineers and the public relations people who work with them come up with terms that attempt to make something terribly complex and uncertain seem simple and sure. Perforating rock by using explosive materials inserted deep into the earth is called “perfing”; Fracturing fine-grained rock that has lithified over millions of years is called “fracking’. The gas that is released is collected by a permanent well-head device called a “Christmas tree.” They make it sound not only simple but benign but to me this seems a good moment to practice the precautionary principle.