Tag Archives: climate change

Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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Environmentalism and the Qur’an

Throughout the Qur’an, it is repeatedly stressed that God created the heavens and the earth. The impression I got from reading the text is that God expects the believers to show the same honor and respect to the earth, which God created, just as God expects the believers to respect and honor the words he has passed to humankind through the various prophets. There is also an emphasis on the Garden where the faithful will be taken following the Day of Judgement. The Garden is described as a place of beauty with clear streams and abundant fruits and vegetables, clearly an indication of the joy, comfort, and blessings that a healthy environment provides.

There is a strong passage in the text where God points out the interconnection between things in the natural world, and warns of the destruction that will come if humans thought their arrogance come to believe that they have power and dominion over God’s creation.

The life of this world is like this: rain that We send down from the sky is absorbed by the plants of the earth, from which humans and animals eat. But when the earth has taken on its finest appearance, and adorns itself, and its people think they have power over it, then the fate We commanded comes to it, by night or by day, and We reduce it to stubble, as if it had not flourished just the day before.

(p. 130)

The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of heeding the signs and warnings that are made clear.

Ever closer to people draws their reckoning, while they turn away, heedless: whenever a fresh revelation comes to them from their Lord, they listen to it playfully with frivolous hearts.

(p. 203)

As I read this, I immediately thought of the climate change deniers, who scoff at the prophetic warnings of the scientific community and forge ahead heedlessly, impelled by greed and short-sightedness. We bring destruction upon ourselves when we fail to heed the warning signs that present themselves to us. In my opinion, God (however you interpret God), science, nature, are all presenting us with a prophetic warning: we do not have power over the earth and we need to act respectfully and nurture this planet. The choices we make right now will determine whether we inherit the Garden, or a place of desolation and suffering.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 18” by Lao Tzu

LaoTzu

When the Great Tao was abandoned,
There appeared humanity and justice.
When intelligence and wit arose,
There appeared great hypocrites.
When the six relations lost their harmony,
There appeared filial piety and paternal kindness.
When darkness and disorder began to reign in a kingdom,
There appeared the loyal ministers.

This is a very short but powerful passage describing something that I see manifesting every day. This chapter describes how nature is constantly adjusting itself to maintain a balance.

In the passage, Lau Tzu provides examples of instances where things happen—whether they be positive or negative—and as a result, the opposite occurs to a degree equivalent with the original occurrence. The reason for this is because yin and yang must remain in balance; one cannot assume dominance over the other. Nature maintains a perfect equilibrium, regardless of what we as humans do.

We see examples of this in our present world. Politically, one party moves farther to an extreme, and consequently, the opposing party moves farther to their extreme. Environmentally, humans attempt to subjugate nature, and nature in turn unleashes more powerful storms. Economically, wealth increases for some, and proportionally decreases for others. The examples go on and on.

I used to be very concerned about what was happening in the world; but now, I am less concerned. It is not that I am apathetic or do not feel sadness when I see what humans are doing to themselves and the planet, I just also see nature responding and correcting. Humanity may not survive in its current state, or may not survive at all, but nature will continue and maintain harmony. I hope we can realize this and learn to live in balance, but whether we do or not remains to be seen.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XX – Signs and a Vision

Prophet

Benjamin West, Artist

This episode serves to build tension and prepare for the moment when Odysseus will strike down the suitors and reclaim his home. Throughout this section, divine signs are provided which foretell the events to come.

I figured for this post I would provide an example of one of the omens. The following is the vision which is bestowed upon Theoklymenos.

O lost sad men, what terror is this you suffer?
Night shrouds you to the knees, your heads, your faces;
dry retch of death runs round like fire in sticks;
your cheeks are streaming; these fair walls and pedestals
are dripping with crimson blood. And thick with shades
is the entry way, the courtyard thick with shades
passing athirst toward Erebos, into the dark,
the sun is quenched in heaven, foul mist hems us in…

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 386)

It’s a very dark, apocalyptic vision, and one which the suitors in their folly laugh at. I find this sadly similar to the warnings given by scientists regarding the coming impacts of climate change and the reactions by those who deny the inevitable. There have always been and always will be those who refuse to pay heed to the signs, until it is too late.

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“Enlightenment and Common Sense” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco2

This is a short essay included in Turning Back the Clock that addresses the question: What is an enlightened thinker? While he lists several traits that are found in the modern enlightened thinker, he asserts that two essential qualities are common sense and skepticism.

While I am in complete agreement regarding Eco’s assertion about common sense, I am somewhat more skeptical when it comes to his claim on skepticism (a pun is intended here). While it is true that healthy skepticism promotes inquiry and testing of claims that are posited as fact, in the information age where a quick Google search can turn up supporting “data” for any claim, regardless of how ridiculous it may be, skepticism has opened the door to the denial of proven information that is crucial to society and humanity. The perfect example is climate change. The theory of biological imperialism asserts that a species will alter its environment to make it more conducive to its survival and comfort. It’s a hard theory to refute. If you accept this premise, then it stands to reason that humans, in modifying their surroundings, have changed the environment. When you consider this fact in conjunction with scientific evidence of changes in the climate and their connection with human activity, then our impact on climate change should be evident and not disputed. In spite of this, there is no shortage of “skeptics” who reject scientific findings and bolster their views with supporting data from “experts” in the field (often hired by corporations). And there is the problem with associating skepticism with enlightened thinking.

While I agree with 99% of what Eco asserts, I feel he is off in this area. There is a real danger in skepticism and I feel that common sense is much more important than skepticism. Hence to quote the old adage: Common sense is not all that common.

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“The Wolf and the Lamb: The Rhetoric of Oppression” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

I read this essay yesterday and it took a day to digest this fully, even though the impact of it was immediate. In this piece, Eco explores how rhetoric is used to justify tyranny and the oppression of others by leaders and governments. He backs up his arguments by examining speeches and documents from various sources to demonstrate how the various techniques are employed.

Eco defines rhetoric as “a technique of persuasion, and persuasion is not a bad thing, even though, reprehensibly, you can persuade someone to act against his own interests.” (Turning Back the Clock: p. 45) He then presents Phaedrus’s fable of the wolf and the lamb as the classic example of the rhetoric of oppression. In the fable, the wolf and the lamb meet at a stream to drink. The wolf wants to eat the lamb and goes through a series of arguments with the lamb until the wolf can justify his attack on the lamb.

Eco points out that these arguments become more effective when they are aligned with a shared public opinion. As an example, he uses a passage from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which he argues against the inferiority of other races, specifically blacks. The quote, while disturbing and lengthy, is worth including since it demonstrates how logic can be used in an attempt to promote ideas that are clearly deranged and racist.

From time to time our illustrated papers publish, for the edification of the German philistine, the news that in some quarter or other of the globe, and for the first time there, a Negro has become a lawyer, a teacher, a pastor, even a grand opera tenor or something of that kind. While the bourgeois blockhead stares with amazed admiration at the notice that tells him how marvelous are the achievements of our modern educational system, the more cunning Jew sees in this fact evidence in support of the theory with which he wants to infect the public, namely that all men are equal. It does not dawn on the dull bourgeois mind that the published fact is a sin against reason itself, that it is an act of criminal insanity to train a being anthropoid only by birth until the pretense can be made that the being has been turned into a lawyer—while millions who belong to the most civilized races have to remain in positions unworthy of their cultural level. The bourgeois mind does not realize that it is a sin against the will of the eternal Creator to allow hundreds of thousands of highly gifted people to remain floundering in the swamp of proletarian misery while Hottentots and Zulus are drilled to fill positions in the intellectual professions. For here we have the product only of a drilling technique, just as in the case of a performing dog. If the same amount of care and effort were applied among intelligent races, each individual would become a thousand times more capable in such matters… It is indeed intolerable to think that year after year hundreds of thousands of young people without a vestige of talent are deemed worthy of a higher education, while other hundreds of thousands who possess hugh natural gifts have to go without any sort of higher schooling at all. The practical loss to the nation is incalculable.

(ibid: pp. 48 – 49)

Eco asserts that one of the most effective forms of oppressive rhetoric is to employ the conspiracy argument, positing the idea that there is a plot by another person or country that threatens one’s safety.

In general, in order to maintain popular support for their decisions, dictatorships point the finger at a country, group, race, or secret society that is plotting against the people under the dictator. All forms of populism, even contemporary ones, try to obtain consensus by talking of a threat from abroad, or from internal groups.

(ibid: p. 52)

I have seen firsthand just how effective this rhetorical tool is. In the United States, the threat of terrorist attacks against American targets has led to the loss of individual freedoms and the implementation of oppressive laws such as the Patriot Act. It is also used profusely by media groups such as FOX News or MSNBC to polarize support for a particular political side. For example, if we consider something like the controversial Keystone Pipeline, FOX News would claim that liberals have fabricated evidence of climate change to push through their agenda which could have a negative impact on jobs in this country. Conversely, MSNBC would assert that right-wing legislators are being paid off by the oil lobby and seek to benefit financially at the expense of everyone else. Without taking sides here, we can see that both sides are using the same type of rhetoric, each claiming a conspiratorial plan by the other side.

Toward the end of the essay, Eco cites a speech by Pericles included in the writings of Thucydides where Pericles justifies an Athenian assault against a neighboring city state because it is their right.

This is another figure, perhaps the shrewdest, of the rhetoric of oppression: we have the right to impose our might on others because we embody the best form of government in existence.

(ibid: p. 62)

I cannot recall the number of times I have hear it said that we are invading a country to free the citizens from a dictator or to install or protect democracy. This argument strike deep in every American because we are conditioned to believe that democracy is the best form of government. And why wouldn’t people in every country want to share in the freedom afforded by a democratic country? But if we think about it, we must accept that this is only rhetoric used to persuade us to accept the decisions made by leaders. It is a way for leaders to justify their actions so that the majority of citizens will acquiesce. As Eco points out, it is a shrewd form of the rhetoric of oppression.

There are other examples in this essay that are worth reading and considering. I strongly encourage you to buy a copy of Turning Back the Clock and read this essay in its entirety. It is powerful and sobering, and after reading it, you will notice just how insidious this form of rhetoric is.

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Magneto: Issue #7 – Personal Development and Adaptation

Magneto_07

In this issue, Magneto is in Hong Kong investigating the disappearance of mutants there. He uncovers a ring of people who kidnap mutants and force them to participate in gladiatorial fights to the death while humans cheer and place bets. He also discovers that these individuals are using advanced anti-mutant technology and harvesting mutant cells to inject into humans who seek to enhance their abilities. It is a fairly dark and violent issue.

There is a section of this comic that I found particularly interesting. As Magneto is in the pit getting ready to fight, he is contemplating the nature of adaptation and how it affects an individual’s personal development.

It is a common misconception among humans… and even among many mutants… that we are defined by our powers. Mutation, though, is adaptation. I was born with the power to shape metal. But I was forged into the man I am today. It is my conviction… not my abilities… that makes me who I am.

I have always felt that a person’s determination and perseverance is what actually allows one to achieve success. I have seen plenty of people who are talented fail because they lack the drive or the confidence needed to reach their goals. That said, one cannot deny the impact that innate abilities and environmental conditions have on a person’s development. As I see the effects of climate change manifesting in the world and I envision how humanity must ultimately evolve in order to adapt, I wonder what it is that will enable some people to survive while others perish. I don’t have the answer to this, but there is one thing of which I feel fairly certain, that the abilities which will allow our species to survive the impending global changes will not the same as the ones that have allowed us to dominate the evolutionary scale for so long. I suspect that we will soon witness, first hand, Darwin’s theory played out.

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