Earth Love: Phenomenon

BlackSludgeLake(Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Have you seen this man-made toxic lake before? This phenomenon is a small token of the price we are willing to pay to have our smartphones and other high-tech gadgets. The BBC recently wrote about The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust. We outsource the pollution, hire the cheapest labor on earth we can find and then decorate our pockets and wrists with the products of so much suffering.

Don’t take my word for it. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has been touring universities in the United States for the last few weeks. He stated at Stanford, “…we only see what we have in our hands when it comes to technology. We only see the new iPhone that we have acquired. We do not see directly with our own eyes all the natural resources and all of the human hardship that went into the production of that iPhone. Our attention tends to remain just at the surface with what we can see with our own eyes even though all the information about what went into the production of the iPhone for example is available to us… we seem to get stuck with just seeing what’s before our eyes and not looking at the larger picture of where this is all coming from.” (Time ~35:00)

At Harvard he stated, “Interdependence is not just about the sharing of information or an understanding we might arrive at in our brains, in our heads. It is about sharing the feelings in our hearts and about our real experience.” (Time ~24:00) At Yale he taught, “I think that in order to understand the necessity of environmental protection we need to understand how connected we are to one another and to our environment… We often feel at some distance from our environment, we divide the world into subject and object and we feel that the external environment is an object separated from us by some kind of boundary and at some distance from ourselves as subjects. We need to dissolve this artificial boundary and decrease the distance between ourselves and our environment.” (Time ~27:00 and ~30:00)

While on this tour he also mentioned that we humans are “shockingly selfish.”  Those words have haunted me, tearing away at the veil of normality my culture tries so hard to hide behind. Phenomenon created by our overdeveloped greed, like that toxic lake in Baotou China, does not disappear because we cover it up in slick advertising jingles and corporate logos. In today’s post I want to look at what kinds of phenomenon someone who carries a deep love for the earth in their hearts can become mindful of. Please do not take this as a holier-than-thou tirade; I own an iPhone and spent my engineering career in the computer business. The point is we are all in this together.

Another phenomenon to consider: the recent earthquake in Nepal. Close to one million Nepali workers are virtual slaves to the companies that employ them throughout the gulf region. Many would like to return home to check on their families and properties, but most cannot. They must seek permission from the corporations employing them to leave the countries in which they work, a feudalism-like law clause known as kefala. We don’t much care to know the details of how the oil infrastructure of the world works, just so long as gasoline comes out of our pumps and our store shelves remain properly stocked. It brings to mind Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy in which she investigated how the Lisbon earthquake was a manifestation of evil for eighteenth-century Europeans. Her point was that it shook their conviction that the world made some sort of sense. Part of my haunting wonders what might be in store for the overdeveloped world if the countries less enthralled with greedy consumerism are paying such horrendous costs in seeing their traditional monuments crumble and centuries of traditional lifestyles overturned.

A final phenomenon to consider; a letter published last month in Nature Climate Change updating research first published in that journal in 2013. The research concerns the disconnect between many of our climate models and the surface temperature increases as they have been measured in the last 15 years or so. The climate models have been agreeing that the mean global temperature should be warmer than what we are experiencing given the current carbon content of the atmosphere. Skeptics and denialists have made much of this discrepancy while those seeking understanding have worked hard to find what factors are not being properly included in the models that might explain the discrepancy.

Model makers have added numerous factors to their models in the attempt to have stronger correlations between their simulation runs and the temperature data. Simply put, the models track well for close to a century of data but then around the year 2000 something goes a bit awry. The models find that we should be suffering an even greater degree of mean surface warming than we are. Does this mean the science has been crying wolf and we can all forget about those dark and dismal prognostications and go back to increasing our numbers and shopping at Wal Mart forever? Not quite. As so often happens when dealing with fallible human intelligence, what first seems one way turns out to be another. In this case what seems to be some slightly good news, that the warming is less drastic than our best science considers most probable, is most likely not good news at all. Quite the contrary.

Which illustrates the first point I want to make about waking up in our age of ecocrisis as it concerns our relationship with the phenomena unfolding in the world around us. I have mentioned before that I think those who let their despair over the depressing reality of a civilization committing suicide to commit suicide themselves are making a mistake. Humility suggests we should be wary of any one way decisions like this since however much our current analysis might support our conclusions, it is the nature of intelligence to evolve and change.

Here is not where I insert “the happy chapter” and anyone who thinks I might needs to read our kitchen table conversation. What I am getting at is more subtle, perhaps something only us older folks can really appreciate. It comes from looking back on all those things we were so certain about in past decades and how, if we avoided the temptation of shutting down thinking through one fundamentalism or another, those certainties changed from one decade to the next. When considering the meaning of the phenomenon our earth presents we would do well to recall the wisdom in the Taoist tale of The Lost Horse:

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

As told by Ellen J. Langer, in The Power of Mindful Learning

To return to the climate modeling – a few weeks ago the mystery just might have been solved. The researchers examining oceanic factors knew these great bodies of water had the proper magnitude of influence on climate to cause the variations encountered but could not figure out just how such an influence might be accounted for. Most people have heard about the El Nino in which the temperature of the Pacific Ocean changes for a year. There is a similar phenomenon that causes variations in the surface temperature that stretches across decades. It is known as the ‘Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation’ (IPO) and when it’s known variations were added to a climate model the researchers discovered it explains the temperature discrepancy between the simulations and the measured data. They were able to model back to 1920 and found the fit significant.

Frighteningly what this means is that as the IPO ceases, once this natural reprieve from our climate forcings ends over the next little while, the most probable outcome will be a rapid acceleration of warming. Quoting the abstract, “Recent history suggests that the IPO could reverse course and lead to accelerated global warming in the coming decades.” In other words our time right now – this time since the year 2000 characterized by record breaking drought and wildfires on the west coast and storms like Sandy and Katrina on the east and south coasts, not to mention bark beetle infestations, accelerated species extinctions and the rest of the list of horrors – this time has actually been a moment of mercy. It is as if we had been given one more opportunity to slow down the train heading over the cliff. That same period saw the global peak in conventional oil production which now looks to have occurred around the year 2005. Not unrelatedly, global financial games desperate to prop up currencies that require growth in a world where the oil-fed engines of growth have stalled have dominated the headlines since 2008. At a time when we know it is unsafe to burn the oil and coal we already have, we indulged in an orgy of tar sands and shale oil development, new coal trains and pipelines, and now new deep sea drilling in the Arctic if Shell gets its way.

That finding in climate science should have dominated headlines world-wide. The deafening silence in the media brings me to the second point I want to make about phenomenon in the age of limits. The overdeveloped world inherits a combative attitude towards the natural world; the wilderness is to be tamed, the frontier to be settled. Our Faustian cultural ambition of increased scientific understanding is based on the belief that knowledge is power. Not just any power but power over, as illustrated in the uses we have put our sciences to in our technologies. We have already looked at how we turned away from appropriately human scaled use of technology to embrace that which has made us Homo Collosuss.

Events are conspiring to teach us that in this hubris we were quite mistaken. The ‘forces of nature’, the ‘acts of god’, the ‘phenomenal world’ is much larger than we are and farther beyond our control than we imagined in our feverish dreams fueled by the oily devil juice. Phenomenon will proceed along the ways of cause and effect as it always has, regardless of what we might think about it. We can choose to focus on the latest Hollywood scandal and ignore the ecological sciences but phenomenon like the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation we have been discussing will inevitably run their course.

As practitioners learning to transform the poison of this ecological darkness into the nectar of an enlightenment, this humble assessment of our true position seems to me very fundamental. Our lives and those of others are as threads in a tapestry. They will be shaped by, and of necessity will need to deal with, the phenomenon of their environment.

Seen rightly, fully accepting this allows us to set aside a crushing burden that was nothing but delusion anyway. Our job is not to save the world. Our job is to spread kindness and happiness as opportunity presents itself. Whatever phenomenon appears moment by moment is our path. There is already enormous suffering in our world and rational analysis can only conclude much more is probably coming. Collectively we have chosen not to take advantage of this time which could well turn out to have been a lull before the storm. Due to interdependence you and I and everyone else will have to deal with that. Yet ultimately, what is more important is how we as individuals choose to use this time. I suggest we use it to strengthen our skills of empathy and personal freedom of choice. In this way we are properly preparing for the trials to come.

The future holds sickness, old age and death. These are coming to the globalized industrial system just as assuredly as they are coming to each of us and our loved ones. Making peace with that, perhaps we can teach one another a better way to live than this endless and futile flight from death we enslave ourselves to. Those who can be happy even while accepting the world of phenomenon just as it is have plenty of work to do.

The battlefields are spreading. We need people trained in triage.

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