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Lions Roar : September 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN SepteMBer 2010 80 McKibben devotes the book’s second half to te- nets for durable existence on “Eaarth,” which he characterizes as living “lightly, carefully, grace- fully.” His prescription for a livable future calls for “scaling back” and “hunkering down”— forming communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth. We need to mature, jettison complexity, and get small. With characteristic élan, McKibben states: In the new world we’ve created, the one with hotter tempera- tures and more drought and less oil, big is vulnerable. We are going to need to split up, at least a little, if we’re going to avoid being subdued by the forces we’ve unleashed. Scale matters, and at the moment ours is out of whack with our needs. McKibben feels what geologists know—most of humankind is out of sync with its home. Thus, he advocates corner markets, provincial currencies, and neighborhood windmills. He prods us: food and energy must come from nearby sources. But he also asks, “If we’re staying home, tending the garden, working with our neighbors, won’t life be a tad...dull?” Therefore, he adds internet access to his formula for the fu- ture. McKibben admits that “renewing our link to nature” won’t completely satisfy people raised in the last half-century, whom he calls “novelty junkies.” So, he says: If I had my finger on the switch, I’d keep juice flowing to the internet even if I had to turn off everything else. We need cultures that work for survival—which means we need once more to pay attention to elders, to think hard about limits to rein in our own excesses. But we also need cultures that work for everyone, so that women aren’t made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places. The net is the one solvent we can still afford; jet travel can’t be our salvation in an age of climate shock and dwindling oil, so the kind of trip you can take with the click of a mouse will have to substitute. In short, McKibben declares that we can no longer indulge our restlessness and impulse for excitement with profligate ex- penditures of fossil fuel. So, I’d like to suggest a fourth compo- nent for McKibben’s mix: contemplative practice. In his 2008 book, The world we Have: a Buddhist approach to Peace and Ecology, Thich Nhat Hanh stresses that Buddhism, as a robust type of humanism, helps people acquire the skills to live on our planet responsibly and with compassion and loving- kindness. Every practitioner, he says, should have the capacity to protect the environment and determine Earth’s destiny. Though I (and McKibben) would argue that we have passed the point of planetary protection, Thich Nhat Hanh contends that if we awaken to the environmental reality of our planetary circum- stance, our collective consciousness will shift. He declares that Buddhists must help this to happen: “We have to help the Bud- dha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.” In my opinion, that’s what McKibben strives to achieve with Eaarth. people who maintain a contemplative practice know that it helps alleviate suffering by lessening desire, restlessness, and anxiety. I say, to ease our way forward on “Eaarth,” let’s draw from the tree of contemplative practices with its branches of stillness and move- ment, among others. To help rally others toward these intentions, I’ll add some Buddhist geoscience to McKibben’s instructions. The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, and Thich Nhat Hanh recalls in The world we Have that the greek philoso- pher Heraclitus said that because a river changes constantly, we never step into the same river twice. Thich Nhat 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.” In his view, people resist two types of impermanence: instan- taneous and cyclic. Using the analogy of water set to boil, he teaches that its temperature increase from moment to moment manifests instantaneous impermanence. However, when it boils and turns to steam, we witness cyclic impermanence—the cycle of arising, duration, and cessation. Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that we must look deeply at cyclic change to accept it as integral to life, so that we do not suffer so greatly when we endure shifts in circumstances. pondering cyclic change—for example, the transformation of rocks to soil and back again—is what we geoscientists do. We study impermanence and know that without it, life would not be possible. gone is the geological moment when we could have avoided the mutation from Earth to “Eaarth,” McKibben avers. Though he doesn’t name it as such, we have moved from the Holocene epoch—the most recent twelve thousand years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into what paul crutzen, the Nobel prize-winning chemist, called the Anthropocene epoch. This is a new geological epoch denoted by novel, human-induced biotic, geochemical, and sedimentary effects of global proportion. To explain why this formulation of our current global pre- dicament is so important, I must recount some monumental concepts in Earth history, namely evolution, punctuated equilib- rium, and extinction. Evolution—commonly misrepresented as improvement or progress—is, quite simply, change. As we all know, species evolve. They do so by punctuated equilibrium, a fancy phrase which means that organisms mostly stay the same, but when they do change, it happens quickly and in bursts of geological time. or they die. Which brings us to extinction events. The geo- logical record includes many extinction events, with intensities ranging from small and local to massive and global ones that shattered Earth’s biological order, such as the episode sixty-five million years ago that famously eliminated dinosaurs and nu- merous other species in all sampled Mesozoic habitats. Seven- teen percent of families (the taxonomic unit above genus and