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White Flags for Earth Day April 22, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, earth community, earth cycles, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Vassar College, White Flags.
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As I’ve said before, I am somewhat cynical about Earth Day because it seems to me a travesty to focus on the Earth’s well-being just one day out of every year. It makes it seem as if Earth is some kind of static entity that we must pay tribute to whereas we know it to be a system of overlapping spheres (hydrosphere, atmosphere, rock sphere, and biosphere) whose interactions over extended time have made possible life on this planet. This is a fact that, in my opinion, we all should pause to appreciate every day.

So this Earth Day I’d like to call attention to “White Flags”–a project of Vassar’s 2010/2011 artist in residence, Aaron Fein. “White Flags”–all 192 flags of United Nations member states hand-made in white and installed on the College’s Chapel lawn–showcases the power of a physical environment that changes over time to illumine the transcendent connectedness of all living beings on this planet.

I’ve seen the flags and have been privileged to participate a bit in the project which is at the confluence of art and science. If you’re in the area, come see it between April 24 and April 29 at the College.  It should be a magnificent sight.

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The Anthropocene March 3, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, geologic time.
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I’m about to head out to West Texas on a geology field trip with a group of sedimentology students, a colleague, and my 10 year old child in order to look at sedimentary rocks formed hundreds of millions of years ago. If I weren’t leaving shortly I’d take more time to write about the February 27 New York Times editorial that broadcasts what should be (but is not) widely known. We live in a geological time period that we used to call the Holocene (the Recent). The New York Times echoes what a few scientists have been saying for a while now: it’s not the Holocene, it’s the Anthropocene.  I explain this further in my May 20, 2010 comments on this blog.

Walkway Over the Hudson: Bird’s Eye Geology March 1, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth system science, geologic time, geology, Hudson Valley, The New Yorker, Walkway over the Hudson.
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In the February 28 issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has a lovely short piece entitled “Bridge” about the rejuvenation of the old Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad bridge into what we Poughkeepsie-dwellers like to think of as the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world. For those who don’t subscribe to the magazine, you can access Frazier’s piece at the Walkway Over the Hudson website.

In my opinion, Ian Frazier has captured in words the remarkable world that one enters into while strolling on the bridge high above the Hudson River. He concludes his piece by stating, “Every once in a while, people need to be in the presence of things that are really far away.”

I know that Frazier means far away in space but I also think that people need to be aware of the fact that they are often in the presence of things that are really far away in time. The Walkway facilitates that as well because high above the River we have a bird’s eye view of the millions of years of Earth history that the Hudson Valley exposes.

For those whose curiosity about the valley is peaked by Frazier’s column, here’s a short piece that I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal,”Rocks Serve as Snapshot of Valley’s Timeline” that explains some of what walkers can engage as they stroll along our magnificent pedestrian bridge.

Rocks serve as snapshot of valley’s timeline

By Jill S. Schneiderman

For the Poughkeepsie Journal

The names Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Billy the Kid, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Pete Seeger conjure up our region’s rich historic past.

But what of its prehistory? Rocks along both banks of the Hudson River and throughout its valley and adjacent mountains record a long and complex geologic history.

On this land, human history has played out. Much of the geologic drama occurred in prolonged pulses of activity during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras — 570 million years, but only the latest 13 percent of geologic time.

Though remarkable in the geologic scheme of things — uplift of Himalayan-sized mountains, spreading of inland seas of which there are no comparisons today save perhaps Canada’s Hudson’s Bay, tearing of continental crust, and burial by mile- thick ice — we read the record of these events in subtle clues from our area’s rocks.

Compared to human events over the last 400 years and those that will transpire in the next millennium, geology seems to provide a record of change whose pace requires patience.

As historians, geologists think from the past to the present — and so first we marvel at rocks of the Hudson Highlands. They begin near Anthony’s Nose, at the eastern edge of the Bear Mountain Bridge on the border of Westchester and Putnam counties. (It is named, according to legend, for the nose of Peter Stuyvesant’s trumpeter, Anthony Corlaer, who had a nose “of vast lusty size strutting boldly from his countenance like a mountain of Golconda”. Golgonda, India, the center of the diamond trade, denoted excess.)

The Highlands then run north to Breakneck and Storm King mountains, and they consist of more than 1 billion-year-old, coarsely crystalline granites and magnificent marble-cake gneisses. They are the bedrock of our area, the core of our continent, metamorphic rocks that tell us they’ve suffered intense pressures and temperatures from overlying rocks. Hard and unfractured — how remarkable it is that the deepest part of the Hudson River cuts through them.

Resources aid building boom

Cement from our region and crushed stone that have supplied New York’s building industry come from dolostones, magnesium-rich limestones north of the Highlands. New York Trap Rock at the Clinton Point quarry to this day mines this material, whose existence records the presence of a shallow sea that covered our area about 500 million years ago.

Closely associated with this carbonate rock is a shale that occurs throughout much of the Poughkeepsie area. This rock, too, is a marine sediment, akin to the material deposited in shallow offshore seaways. Though not especially rich in fossils, this rock unit, from the Ordovician period at least 435 million years ago, sometimes contains brachiopods, two-shelled marine organisms that superficially resemble but are substantially different from clams of today.

On both sides of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie’s vicinity, topographically elevated regions of the Taconic mountains to the east and the Catskill mountains to the west remain as reminders of a geologically active time in our region’s past. Approximately 450 million years ago, an island chain much like Japan collided with North America and raised up the Taconic mountains. What’s left of them today is their roots.

Heated and crumpled, the Ordovician shale previously laid down on the shallow sea endured a kind of pressure-cooking that turned the shale into slate, which becomes coarser-grained schist as one travels east from Poughkeepsie into Connecticut. Beautiful red garnets, elongated white needles of sillimanite, and lustrous brown staurolite crystals adorn mica schists that sparkle in the sunlight as we go east toward the Taconic mountains on the border of northeastern Dutchess County.

Not long after this, we believe that a meteor may have hit the Earth just west of the current-day Hudson River at Panther Mountain in the Catskills. There, a circular pattern six miles across is formed by the Esopus and Woodland creeks. For streams to travel in a circle is very unusual and has led some investigators to suggest the presence of an impact crater in 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock that had previously been laid down in a shallow sea.

Because sediments were being deposited in the shallow sea, the crater was buried and preserved much like a fossil. The streams have carved out a circular outline around it though the crater itself remains completely buried.

After the Taconics rose in a mountain-building event known as an orogeny, the North American continent collided with an even larger land mass farther east. This orogenic event raised up the Acadian mountains, a chain of perhaps Himalayan proportions just east of the Taconics. Sediments shed from the Acadian mountains accumulated as blankets of conglomerate, sandstone and shale in a delta. Sediments of the Catskill Delta were almost two miles thick.

Today those sedimentary strata are visible as the Shawangunk and Catskill mountains. The Devonian sandstones of the Catskill Mountains, at least 345 million years old, are what have supplied the Catskill bluestone, blue from feldspar grains in it, for curbstone and flagstones throughout the United States.

Devonian limestones forming the spectacular escarpment overlooking the Mohawk and Hudson valleys contain an abundant assemblage of life that teemed in the area’s seas 345 million years ago. Stream beds cutting through the limestones at John Boyd Thatcher state park in Vorheesville show that corals, crinoids, trilobites and brachiopods thrived during that time.

A period of quiescence followed in this area until the Atlantic Ocean began to form. The spreading of continent crust that accompanied its formation tore the crust so valleys formed. Into them poured sediments, like those which today fill the lake- and flamingo-rich valleys of east Africa.

As dinosaurs stomped atop these sediments, magma (molten rock) was injected into them. To this magma we owe thanks for the magnificent Palisades on the west side of the Hudson River. For the next 185 million years, things were quiet in our region.

The next major episode of activity reflected in our rocks is glaciation. Though glaciers began to advance on the North American continent around 2 million years ago, our area records only the most recent advance of ice.

Approximately 40,000 years ago, the last glacial advance scraped over the area’s bedrock and sediments. When the ice retreated, it left behind a trail of kettle holes, moraines — sediments pushed aside like a snow plow creates drifts of snow — and glacial striations, scratch marks that we can see atop Bonticou Crag in the Mohonk Preserve of the Shawangunks in Ulster County and across the river into Millbrook in Dutchess. Perhaps most significant to valley residents, the ice carved a deep fjord which today is the Hudson River.

River forms in glacier’s wake

After the ice departed, the Hudson River became Glacial Lake Albany and Glacial Lake Hudson. Influxes of clays into those lakes ultimately supplied materials for the brickyards of our area. Sediment-laden glacial meltwaters continued to course down the Hudson, across today’s submarine continental shelf, and gouged out the Hudson River submarine canyon in today’s New York Harbor.

Thousands of years after the valley’s glaciation, humans evolved. Clearly, we have been on this planet only for a geological instant.

Despite this fact, people have managed to scar the surface of the Earth. Pits from quarry operations, PCBs (toxic industrial oils) in the bottom sediments of the Hudson River, metal-laden landfills, acidified lakes and streams each testify to that. Such transformations of natural resources affect our ability to provide what every human being deserves: clean soil, water and air.

Since we live on the eastern, passive edge of the North American continent, a place unlike the quake-plagued West Coast, we can be pretty sure that no catastrophic geologic change will occur in our area in the next millennium. But how we treat the Earth will profoundly affect our lives. We cannot afford to treat this planet as if it were an unending cornucopia of natural riches here for us to take and haphazardly discard. As we strive toward a sustainable future, we must all come to appreciate how the Earth works.

The Earth and ‘Deep Time’ January 4, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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Listen to The Academic Minute at WAMC Northeast Public Radio or Inside Higher Ed.

The Academic Minute

Jan. 4: In today’s Academic Minute, Vassar College’s Jill Schneiderman defines “deep time” and explains just how different the Earth was in its earliest period. Dr. Schneiderman is professor of earth science at Vassar and author ofThe Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet.

Mind Maps, Climate Solutions, and the Earth Year November 16, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, geologic time.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation and a participant in a recent Garrison Institute retreat on climate, mind and behavior has commented that among the ways we can consider the brain in relation to climate change is by using maps. By way of example, he states that while you have a map in your brain of your body sitting in a chair you may or may not have a map of your relationship with the earth. Siegel avers that if human beings do not have the capacity to conjure mental maps of our relationship to the planet, we won’t make wise decisions regarding climate change. In the Garrison Institute’s autumn newsletter Siegel wrote:

We need to have experiences which create maps of “earth-relatedness,” just to make up a term. Without that it is irrelevant what is happening with the planet. With it, it’s vital. The maps determine what we do.

I couldn’t agree more. Earth formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago—that’s 4,600 million years ago—so it’s difficult to get a sense of this vast length of time. I think that a mind map of such deep time is invaluable to the project of responding sensibly to all types of global environmental change.

Therefore, to aid the project I’ve constructed a metaphorical map that can help others begin to foster their own “earth-relatedness” mind maps. I call it “This Day in the Earth Year” and hope that as a map of Siegel’s “earth-relatedness,” it will help us cultivate humility and behave accordingly as relative newcomers on the planet. We start with tomorrow, Nov 17th.

Using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4.6 billion years of Earth history and using January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, I calculate the current date’s location in the Earth Year and detail what was happening paleontologically at that moment in Earth history. For example, November 17 is day 321 out of 365. With so much of a calendar year having elapsed, one might think that at this point in the Earth Year, some familiar organisms might have been roaming the planet. Not so.

In geologic time, November 17 represents 555 million years ago, the latest Proterozoic. Many of the most important events in earth history took place during this era–formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere and evolution of eukaryotic cells for example. Still, at 555 million years—the moment in geological time just prior to the evolution early fishes—the only living things on Earth were ocean-dwelling, soft-bodied organisms.

In November of the Earth Year, humans are not yet even a glimmer in Earth’s eye. May we carry that map with us throughout the Earth Year.

 

Eaarth in the Anthropocene May 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Anthropocene, Bill McKibben, geologic time.
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In her recent piece in Yale Environment 360The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact,” New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert addresses cogently the official reflection among my colleagues in the geological community regarding the possibility of crowning the geological time scale with a new name to characterize this age on Earth. Kolbert explains that the International Commission on Stratigraphy—the scientific group that minds geological time by tracking discoveries that effect the perceived location of Era, Period, and Epoch boundaries of the time scale—is taking seriously the question of whether or not to dub this geological moment on the planet the Anthropocene. Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, an expert on ubiquitous microscopic algae (diatoms) used to study environmental change, proposed the designation at the turn of the millennium in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. By their report, since all components of the earth system (atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and rock sphere) had been changed, and would continue to be changed on global scales by human activities, an important step towards a maintaining a livable environment would be to acknowledge with nomenclature this fact.

When I served on the Council of the Geological Society of America, I was glad to learn that the wider geoscientific community was considering this action. But regardless of the results of the deliberations that Kolbert details—ones that will be difficult because, as Kolbert aptly points out we geologists designate periods of geological time on the basis of fossils enclosed in sedimentary rock strata that mark the extinction or new appearance of life forms—I believe that humankind can’t wait for the slow wheels of science to dub formally this new time period. Regardless of whether the legend of the Roman emperor Nero is true, this contemplative mode could be perceived as the geoscientific community fiddling while Rome burns. Indeed, in the past when geologists have worked to parse earth history into discreet episodes, extended debate perhaps arising from our understanding of deep time has characterized our thinking. Resolution of the Devonian controversy in which members of the London-based Geological Survey, Adam Sedgwick, Roderick Murchison, and Henry de la Beche argued over the disposition of sediments in Devonshire took years.

In fact, in his newest, no-nonsense book Eaarth: Making a Living on Tough New Planet, 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, the grassroots global warming awareness campaign, avers that we have passed through the geological moment in which Earth has mutated into Eaarth, a planet “not as nice as the old one” but one on which we still have to live. Though he doesn’t name it as such, McKibben rightly asserts that we have moved from The Holocene Epoch—the most recent 12,000 years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into Crutzen and Stoermer’s Anthropocene.

Of all the ideas I hope my geology students will grasp, the notion that humans have acted as geological agents at non-geological time scales is most important to me. Though I will watch with interest the attempts of my scientific community to codify and articulate the scale of contemporary global change, I feel comfortable calling this new Epoch the Anthropocene.  Here’s why.

Earth formed approximately 4500 million years ago, also known as 4.5 billion years ago. It’s difficult to get a good sense of this length of time but it is critical to the project of grappling with the reality of the Anthropocene Epoch, whether officially recognized or not. As all geologists know and as John McPhee following David Brower popularized, using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4500 million years of Earth history and employing January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, it’s possible to calculate the location of any calendar date in an Earth Year and detail the life and environment that existed at that moment in Earth history. “This Date in the Earth Year,” my name for this mental accounting, can help others develop an informed opinion on the issue of the Holocene/Anthropocene boundary.

For example today, May 17, is day 137 out of 365 days in this (non-leap) year. With approximately one-third of a calendar year having elapsed, one might think that at this point in the Earth Year, some pretty complex organisms might have been roaming the planet. Not so. In geologic time, May 17 represents 2811 million years ago, the Archean, when the only living things around were bacteria and the atmosphere was rich in methane and ammonia while oxygen poor.

Skip ahead to September 14, day 257 of 365; this date in the Earth Year brings us to 1330 million years ago, the Proterozoic —the second of the two eons that comprise the immense stretch of time called the Precambrian. Many of the most important events in earth history took place during the Precambrian including not only the formation of life, the accretion of the earth’s first tectonic plates, and the evolution of eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms with internal organization). Still, at 1330 million years—the middle Proterozoic—the only living things on Earth were ocean-dwelling single-celled organisms. It took hundreds of millions of years but single-celled oceanic organisms changed the composition of the atmosphere so that by this point in the Earth Year, there was enough oxygen to cause iron to rust.

Fast-forward to November 10, day 314, approximately 629 million years ago. You think, “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.” But that puts us only in the Vendian, the latest portion of the Proterozoic eon. Still, some rocks of this age, known most famously from the Ediacara Hills north of Adelaide, Australia, contain the earliest clear fossil evidence of multicellular animals; they indicate that these organisms, for the first time in earth history, have become a significant life form. Spindle-shaped, long and pointed at both ends; branching, tree-like or network-like structures; large, round, disc shapes; lumpy cabbage-like figures; and, frond-like leafy forms. The Ediacaran fauna was large and flat with lots of external surface area; their relation to younger life remains obscure. As a result, some paleontologists assign them to a completely separate kingdom of multicellular life.

“When do we get to us?” you ask. Well, November 17, day 321, marks the beginning of the Paleozoic Era when hard-bodied multicellular life began to proliferate and flourish. (Note that geologists also have debated the character and timing of this major boundary of the geologic time scale). But the entire Paleozoic Era, with its trilobites, brachiopods, and first land plants and animals is over by December 11, day 345. That’s 247 million years ago and we’re into the Mesozoic Era, the familiar age of dinosaurs. The Cenozoic Era began 65 million years ago on December 26. The Pleistocene, the epoch known as our most recent icy past—that which preceded the Holocene (now retired from my lexicon of the present)—occupies the waning hours of December 31. And that’s when we arrived and rapidly enriched Earth’s atmosphere in carbon dioxide, built mountains out of garbage, acidified the oceans, and melted the cryosphere.

Whether we place the Anthropocene’s beginning with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784 or the first atomic tests in the 1940s, we might well apply Henry de la Beche’s words from the Devonian controversy (as quoted by historian of science Martin Rudwick): “Let us hope that the day is past when preconceived opinions are to be set up, as good as arguments, against facts; because if they are, let that fact at least be clearly understood.” In our short tenure on Earth, we geological latecomers have swiftly and profoundly altered the planet. As McKibben asserts and Kolbert reiterates, we have built a new Eaarth. Like changes marking other divisions of the geologic time scale, whether tectonic, climatic, or organismal, Eaarth differs enough from Earth that we might as well acknowledge a new time as well as a new place.

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.

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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This Date in the Earth Year November 10, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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Today is day 314 out of 365 days in this (non-leap) year. In geologic time, November 10 represents approximately 629 million years ago. That puts us in the Vendian, the latest portion of the Proterozoic eon. What’s significant about the Vendian? Some rocks of this age, known most famously from the Ediacara Hills north of Adelaide, Australia, contain the earliest clear fossil evidence of multicellular animals; they indicate that these organisms, for the first time in earth history, have become a significant life form.

Spindle-shaped, long and pointed at both ends; branching, tree-like or network-like structures; large, round, disc shapes; lumpy cabbage-like figures; and, frond-like leafy forms—some with stalks; these fossils are the remains of soft-bodied organisms that lived in the sea and whose likeness to younger life remains obscure. Furthermore, geoscientists understand poorly their modes of life and their evolutionary relationships. Because they are typically large and flat with lots of external surface area, and therefore looking radically different from any known living animal, some paleontologists have assigned them to a completely separate kingdom of multicellular life!

Rocks along the White Sea coast of Russia and at Mistaken Point, a craggy, wind-swept promontory on the southern coast of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, also contain this type of ‘Ediacaran’ fauna. The idea that these fossils may represent another way of making a living, biologically speaking, —carrying out their bodily processes through one large external membrane— has inspired healthy scientific controversy.

This Date in the Earth Year October 11, 2009

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time.
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As indicated in an earlier post (September 14), using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4500 million years of Earth history and employing January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, I calculate the current date’s location in the Earth Year and detail what was happening paleontologically at that moment in Earth history.

Today, is day 284 out of 365 days in this (non-leap) year. Not even an entire month has elapsed since my last post on this subject, yet in geologic time, October 11 represents 999 million years ago.  Though we are still in the Proterozoic eon, at this point in earth history single-celled organisms have begun to live together in colonies. Protozoans living in colonies would have occupied more space than protozoans living alone and might have been less vulnerable to challenges of daily living in the late middle Proterozoic. Furthermore, colonial living would have enabled some cells to specialize in certain tasks such as reproduction or locomotion. As a result, colonial protozoans might have had a metaphorical ‘leg-up’ in the late middle Proterozoic over their relatives who lived alone!

Evidence of these ancient colonial protozoans occur as fossilized stromatolites (pictured above). Found in numerous places on earth today, stromatolites are the main sedimentary features of carbonate rocks from earliest Earth history. They are the products of sediment trapping by mat-building microorganisms, known most widely as cyanobacteria. Living stromatolites also occur today but are quite rare because they are subject to predation.