Archive for the ‘native and indigenous philosophy’ Category

“Native wisdom” is young

May 2, 2011

It’s final exam day in NW. Many final reports are still to be delivered, we’ll need to be uncharacteristically brisk and bizness-like. Not so voluble. Time is of the essence. (There’s talk of a “pot luck,” bring it if you’ve got it.)

I’ve learned lots of “native wisdom” this semester, and have been buoyed to realize how passionately so many young people care about  the fate of our Earth. They believe our choices matter. I believe their wisdom will make a difference. We have a future.

Thus reassured, I’m ready to turn my attention once again in the Fall to Happiness 101 (this time flying under the banner “Happiness and the Secret of Life”).

So, one more time: mitakuye oyasin. We’re all related on this pale blue dot, we need to look after one another and after Gaia. I’m confident the Spring ’11 students of Environmental Ethics & Native Wisdom will show us how. Happy Mother’s Day.

Let’s have our last word of native wisdom from Ed Chigliac‘s friend Marilyn Whirlwind, who reminds us that Eagle didn’t always soar. The answer’s blowin’ in the wind, stop talking and you’ll hear: that’s her advice to an over-loquacious Mama, and maybe to some philosophers we know.

Eagle’s flight says it all? No. But it says plenty. “As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking.”

And that’s what I know about native wisdom. Take care of your Mother, she’s the only one you’ve got.

Maybe we’ll do another 3.5 billion

April 27, 2011

Whole Earth Discipline 9, Afterword

Plenty to think about here at the end of Stewart Brand’s turquoise manifesto, but we need to get on with talking about our various report topics on this last day in Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom class.

Why turqoise? Well, for one thing it’s a revered traditional indigenous color. We learned in the previous chapter that Brand loves native gardening. We already knew that he loves science and technology. Turqs love both, and think the best way to preserve our position in the pecking order with Mother Earth is through an intervention. “While Greens worship Gaia, Turqs bargain with Gaia.” That’s because her “live value” is incalculable, but our ignorance is leagues deep.

DSCOVR, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, would help to address that… and would just be so cool, besides.

So would “solar shades.” We’re already “experimenting with the whole planet.”

As for those other geoengineering proposals– dimming, brightening et al– I don’t know. But if they’re our last safety net we’d better get ’em on the drawing board. Amazonian biochar has already been tested, move it to the top.

Danny Hillis’s version of the Golden Rule makes a lot of sense to me, indigenous wisdom-wise: “Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you” (or wish it had done). Pay it forward.

Whitehead was right about the future too, but I’m sure he had no idea just how dangerous it could be. Have we?

Maybe I owe James Lovelock an apology, for thinking his “cheerful” apocalypticism had something to do with his advanced years. But is he really wishing another Battle of Britain on us all?

Brand concludes this book the same way he concluded the wonderful documentary film Earth Days [transcript], with an invitation to think longer-term than I can even begin to imagine.

While we are deeply engrossed with all of our little weekly issues, if we deal with them in this larger perspective, we are engaging a set of activities which go way beyond individual lifespan. Way beyond children and grandchildren, way beyond parents, grandparents, great grandparents, to the whole frame of at least human civilizational life. Once you get comfortable with that, then you start to go further out still to, 3.5 billion years back of life on earth, and maybe we’ll do another 3.5 billion years that’s pretty interesting to try to hold in your mind, and once you’ve held it in your mind, what do you do on Monday?

Well, I do know exactly what I’ll be doing this Monday: administering our last NW test. It won’t be Gaia’s last.

We went to the (bleeping) MOON!

April 25, 2011

Looking forward to three or four more presentations in NW today. It’s getting very near the end for our course. But optimistic eco-pragmatists like to think it’s near the beginning for our species.

In chapter seven of Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand (who considers himself a “green” as well as a pragmatist) complains of ideological narrowness among some environmentalists.

I saw a version of this narrowness played out after 1966, when I was inspired by a rooftop LSD trip to distribute buttons that read, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Everyone in the New Left opposed Kennedy’s space program, seeing it (correctly) as a cold war episode that they thought (incorrectly) was being carried out to no good purpose by crew-cut military squares. (Only Abbie Hoffman disagreed with his compatriots: “Are you kidding? We’re going to the fucking MOON!”) Environmentalists joined the leftist opposition to the space program: “We have to clean up the earth before we can leave it.”

That was a false dichotomy that got locked in as core environmentalist ideology. It’s not constructive, from an eco-pragmatic point of view. Is it?

We may differ about that, about “solidarity,” and about Brand, but I think most of us are glad his rooftop reverie inaugurated that first Earth Day in ’70 and has us thinking today about the future of life on this rock.

It takes all kinds. Romantics, scientists, and engineers are Brand’s “stock characters” but he knows there are countless, varied, particular, real people behind “the largest movement in the world.” They’re meliorists, not ideologues. They’re focused on results. Read Blessed Unrest and try to sustain a pessimistic mood, I dare you.

Biomimicry, I think we can claim to have learned in our course, is central to what we’ve been calling native wisdom. Ask not what we can extract from nature, but what she can teach us.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think the world is irreducibly complex, and those who think it can be explained strictly in terms (for instance) of hedgehogs and foxes. More stock characters. Contrary to the message of this clever little film, Einstein and Darwin both knew many things and had grand theories. The point Brand wants to make about successful politicians, statesmen, and friends of the earth is that they’re skeptical, flexible, and pragmatic, open-minded and experimental, not hidebound confirmation-biased ideologues.

Chapter Eight takes us back to the garden. Not to Eden, but to the pre-Columbian Americas of 1491 and before. “It’s All Gardening.” It’s not all a “bogus” tale of “native spiritual teachers who impart ancient wisdom.” Brand says beware The Education of Little Tree, The Teachings of Don Juan, and the like. Wonder what he’d think of our reading list this semester? More importantly, what do we think of it?

Yet, he (like Gary Snyder and Kat Anderson) claims to have learned important lessons from native Americans like “how to be an American in a way that had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance.” But it has plenty to do with the Conservation Pledge, both the Boy Scout and Buddhist versions. Give  life. Undo harm.

We’ve been planet-killers lately, and it’s hard to live sustainably in the Garden when our peers are trashing it. But the native wisdom we’ve been studying offers the encouraging lesson that we can “settle down” and pay closer attention to the conditions of life on our homeworld. We can protect it from ourselves and for ourselves, both tending the wild and leaving it alone as intelligence and empathy require.

We can do good work for the wild. We’re all native to this place, after all. We just need to “reinhabit” it, take the “Where You At” bio-regional quiz, and finally know our place. Then, we can explore other places without remorse. (Maybe even “boldly go” with Chakotay?) Call that the return of the native. And now we’ve come nearly full circle in our course.

technoparanoia will destroy ya

April 20, 2011

Stewart Brand identifies a recurrent question at the core of what he calls the “national-security perspective” on developing technology: “How can this new thing hurt us?”

Such technoparanoia has a way of being self-fulfilling. It institutionalizes distrust [and] sees only threat and only enemies, and thereby helps to create both. Whether you’re defending a nation or the natural world, a more useful assumption with any new technology is that it is neutral, and so are the people creating it and using it. Your job is to help maximize its advantages and minimize its harm… the best way for doubters to control a questionable new technology is to embrace it…

That’s an interesting perspective, coming from an old counter-culturist who became a confidante and adviser of the Governor of his state (who, btw, is Governor again, this time without the Moonbeam aura). What a long strange trip, for him and for us all.

So, synthetic life? Bring it on, Craig Venter. We’ll see if Gaia has any objections.

The future of life, says Venter, depends on our learning to program life’s software. He says we can bio-engineer everything. He and his privately-funded colleagues are working on applications in food, medicine, and a clean fuel that eats CO2. “Playing God?” No, he says, just trying to understand and apply the rules of life.

[Twain’s techno-optimismGenome by Matt Ridley… A Life Decoded by Craig Venter… Venter on Sixty Minutes Generosity by Richard Powers… generosity 2]

Nukes aren’t good just because coal’s bad.

April 18, 2011

It’s time again for report presentations in NW. Kayla, Harrison, & Josh C. will kick us off, followed by Colin, Meghan, Josh H., Paul, Jason U., Elizabeth, Jason C., Willie, & Garrett. We’ll be watching the clock this time, so let’s practice our TED-timing skills.

Meanwhile, as we continue plowing through Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand insists that the population bomb is not about to explode and the nuclear power industry will recover. In these debates he has been unwavering.

He’s still pro-nuke, in a new post-Fukushima interview:

What hasn’t changed is climate vulnerability and growing economic needs, especially in the developing world for clean, base-load electricity. And we’re learning some important new stuff on levels of safety under exceptional duress, which is what happened in Japan… Billions of people are getting out of poverty in the developing world. For that to go forward, one of the needs and demands they all have is for more electricity. So on those grounds alone I think there is a reason to proceed with nuclear.

Plus, nuclear energy could be put to much scarier uses again. Instead

we’re using the material in the warheads for nuclear fuel. Half of our nuclear electricity comes from recycled warheads. It’s kind of cool.

Cool? Sure, ok. But the fact that coal is really, really bad is hardly sufficient reason to believe that non-weapons grade nuclear energy is really good. I find Andrew Revkin’s recent  Dot Earth reflections on our nuclear ambivalence (Wall-E, Humanity as Assailant, Nukes Too Brittle?) more candid.

We are a young species with a short memory and only slowly-dawning awareness of three vital pieces of the challenge of meshing our aspirations with life on Earth: the planet’s dynamics, our capacity to jog the system and — perhaps most importantly — the distorting mix of rational, emotional and instinctual processes in our brains that shape our perceptions and actions.

So far, as I’ve written before, we’ve been in a full-tilt teen-style binge. But now we face the tough question: What do we want to be when we grow up?

As he asked earlier,”what policies and systems make the most sense as humanity’s growth spurt crests?” Maybe nuclear is the answer, but until we have a firmer sense of what’s happening in Japan [Fukushima update from the IAEA… robots venture inside…Guardian updates… nyt updates] it just seems ostrich-like to be as cockily confident as Brand has been in the nuclear solution. His glib endorsement of Roger Revelle’s glib statement that we ought to be more like the Japanese, who “haven’t got any phobias about [nukes],” may be in line for an update.

Brand did warn us, though, back at the beginning of this book: “my opinions are strongly stated and loosely held.” Unbending convictions are not constructive, beliefs finally are just tools. If he’s really the pragmatist he claims to be, he’ll honor that Conservation Pledge and “faithfully defend the natural resources of my country” against all enemies, nukes included, if that’s the way the wind blows.

Maybe the most interesting point to emerge from today’s text is the positive notice Brand takes of  “the ‘seven generations’ approach to future responsibility long credited to the Iroquois League.” Turns out 175 years may be a more responsible time-frame, at least for “planning” purposes, than 10,000 years. “We should not prejudge the needs and capabilities of the future.” No, but we’d sure better think about them.

So, welcome to Wall-E World. It’s not just elder-care those cute & clever bots are delivering.

“We are as gods and have to get good at it.”

April 13, 2011

Now that we’ve had our last longing look at Gaia’s “vanishing face,” we can invite Stewart Brand back to see if he can stiffen our spines with some Whole Earth Discipline. He started on-stage once before, in March, but was quickly yanked for James Lovelock. To repeat:

And so, let’s turn to the founder of Whole Earth and Long Now, the man who wanted to know why we hadn’t yet seen an image of Mother Earth in all her majestic entirety, even deep into the manned space program of the sixties.

Stewart Brand has always had a sense of the “greater organism.” Lately he’s also articulated his own version of “eco-pragmatism.” How well do they mesh? Do we really need dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, and geoengineering? What would Wildcat, Eagle Man, and Greg Cajete say? We’ll try to find out as we commence reading Whole Earth Discipline.

The text is helpfully updated and annotated online, here… with some of his slidesCity Planet slideshow…

Brand on “squatter cities”:

Robert Neuwirth also talked at TED about “shadow cities“… [Brand at Googleat RSARethinking Green]

What’s changed for Brand since his initial “whole earth” epiphany?

In [Whole Earth Catalog] I focused on individual empowerment, and in [Whole Earth Discipline] the focus is on the aggregate effects of humans on things like climate. And some of these issues are of such scale that you got to have the governments doing things like making carbon expensive. Or making coal expensive to burn and putting all that carbon into the atmosphere. And individuals can’t do that, individual communities can’t do that. It takes national governments.

Brand notes the curious “whiplash moment” many greens are feeling lately, tasked by climate change to defend the very civilization they’ve long contended is our greatest threat. There’s an alt-med cure for this condition: pragmatism, the anti-ideology concerned with practical results. Note: the patient is not the planet, it’s you and me.

So what shade of green is Brand?

No tree-hugging Luddite or apocalyptic doomsayer, Brand [in the ’60s] had an optimistic outlook shaped by “a love of good tools, thoughtful technology, scientific inquiry and a Western libertarian skepticism of the government’s ability to take the lead in these areas.”

He hasn’t really changed much. His admirers (like Andrew Kirk) find him one of those “prescient few” who “stay two steps ahead of their peers, creating and riding the crest of important trends.” His detractors find him wrong.

If we can’t count on the IPCC, we’re definitely going to need to consult other physicians. At about the time they were basking with Al Gore in the Nobel spotlight they were also failing to detect Greenland’s rapid meltdown. It won’t be our last “oh shit” moment, either. Beware the Big Drought.

We know that James Lovelock is now profoundly pessimistic, though he still thinks “we” can survive, in much smaller numbers on much less terrain. What to do, mitigate, adapt, or ameliorate? Pragmatists typically love that last option best.

Can we build “Renewistan“? All we need, as Mr. Gore loves to say, is the political will. Is that all? Not quite. We need a major climate change recalculation, says Saul Griffith, and major lifestyle changes.

Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

We’d all be better for it, for sure. But can we do it? “It’s damn near impossible, but it is necessary. And the world has to decide to do it.”

Greens and conservatives are mutually afflicted by an overweeing confidence in something they trust to run itself: planetary ecosystems and free markets, respectively. Pragmatists just want to see things run well, with assistance if necessary.

Gaia likes it cold and hot, without preference. She’s no Goldilocks.

Indigenous wisdom alert: native peoples are megagardeners. They can show us how to restore Gaia’s natural systems to health. But would they also show us how to move forward with technology? Brand says we dare not stand still. We’re going to need our infotech, biotech, and nanotech, along with the great harvest.

But gods cannot carelessly flout ecological integrity, they must be “benevolent ecosystem engineers”– like the beaver, the earthworm, and of course the native Americans.

[ “The idiocy of rural life“… Asia…  Kleiber’s LawPueblos… “woman power”…”On Point” interview… TED: “Four Environmental Heresies“… “Does the World Need Nuclear Energy?”… Counterculture Green nyt review… “Embracing New Heresies” (nyt)]

STUDENTS: I need to know today, if possible, if you’re planning to do a presentation for your final report. We’ll get started on those next week.

“We have to rid ourselves of the illusion that we are separate from Gaia in any way.”

April 11, 2011

We finish Vanishing Face of Gaia today in NW. I haven’t quite decided whether James Lovelock is wise in the “indigenous” sense, or if the native holism we encountered in Wildcat, Eagle Man, and Cajete is quite his. Disparaging references to our “tribal” limitations abound, and we already noted his reservations about shamanistic “alt-med.”

But I do think there’s a clear convergence of views here, between Lovelock’s Gaia and the natives’ Mother Earth. Like aboriginal peoples everywhere, he always simply “wanted to live naturally and respect wildlife and wilderness.” He, too, values balance and harmony. And, he and they agree that she— call her what you will– holds the key to our fate.

His native place was the gauzily-recalled, delight-giving countryside of Surrey, before it was decimated by industrial mechanized agriculture. Was it ever really so innocent? Maybe not, but it was so much more (and less) than a

life-support system for agribusiness farms, sewage disposal plants, reservoirs, and now vast alternative energy sites…  What is left of the countryside is fast becoming a set of theme parks with easy access to motorways.

Lovelock’s childhood taught him the names of plants and an intense love of the natural world. He was personifying nature long before he learned to call her Gaia. He was green when green wasn’t cool.

But then came the ’70s urban-centered environmental movement, which he thinks took a wrong turn towards anthropocentrism and away from close contact with real nature. He took a few wrong turns himself, with biofuels, grasses, trees, and potatoes.

Speaking of trees: did you see yesterday’s Times story on cloning redwoods? [slides]

“We want to get the biggest, best genetic representations of the species,” said David Milarch, the co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. “And make millions and millions and millions of them.”

Mr. Milarch, who preaches his love for all things arboreal with an evangelical zeal, says that his mission is simple, if grandiose: to reforest the land with a variety of the most interesting tree species from around the world, and by extension, halt and reverse climate change.

Don’t know if it will work, but the Lorax would be pleased. We’ve got enough thneeds. But Lovelock is suspicious of efforts to rush Gaia’s own deliberate, self-seeding pace. “Being an impatient man my next mistake was to assume that a return to nature could be hastened by planting trees.” (Cloned or not.) The point is, a forest ecosystem is biodiverse. If all you see is the trees, you miss that.

On the other hand… a tree is also an idea that, when rooted in your mind, helps you think longer-term. That’s what Arbor Day is for: transcendence. It’s the grandpa tree, the giving tree, “the ability to move beyond the end,” the trans-end-dance.

The concept of “environmentally friendly energy,” he says, is flawed, ideologically driven, and a boon to greedy profiteers. We can discuss this, but I’m not yet persuaded– except on point #3, and there we may just have to hold our noses and let the profit motive work for everyone if it can.

Rachel Carson’s “watershed” Silent Spring made Lovelock recognize himself as an Old School evironmentalist, less militant and partisan than today’s activists. He takes some blame for that, with his CFC-measuring ECD. In some ways Lovelock is responsible for Al Gore. (Or as George Bush #41 called him, “Ozone Man.”)

Liberal humanists like me think of environmentalism as a species of humanism– we think of everything that way– and we like the symbolism of windmills. Apparently we’re misguided, though not  for the usual reasons. Does wanting your species to flourish really make you a speciesist, if you also understand that your good is inseparable from that of your living host (the world)? Is it so bad?

Lovelock’s time in the American Bible belt impressed him with the “benign ethic” of Southern Baptists. “Benign?” But he just means that the treasured old southern institution of B-Y-O-B, in so-called “dry” establishments, makes that part of the world safe, though just to a point, for puritan moralism. You can have your temperance movement and your wine, too. Similarly, “Just as the Houston Baptists failed to save us sinners from the demon drink, so the greens are failing to save the planet.”

Having come this far in our course of native wisdom, most of us will mostly agree: “we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that we are separate from Gaia in any way.” That last unqualified phrase hangs me up just a bit, I’ll admit.

Does it then follow, though, that whatever remains of the pioneering spirit in our time must necessarily point in just one direction and one course of action (viz., getting out of town)? Or that we need to snuff our campfires? Or that we should give up on goals like “350“?

By the way,’s founder Bill McKibben says geoengineering is not the solution. It’s “junkie logic.” It refuses to acknowledge that we’ve already transformed our planet in ways we can’t hope to reverse. We’ve turned Earth into Eaarth. [McKibben on Lovelock: “How Close to Catastrophe?”]

Lovelock agrees, of course, doubting our competence “to take on what might become the onerous permanent task of keeping the Earth in homeostasis.” (Ch5) But he goes much further, in suggesting that all attempts to retreat from an imagined tipping point of no return are signs of our pathetic addiction to a way of life we’ve already destroyed.

But “perhaps I am too pessimistic”… perhaps Humanity 2.0 will succeed us, will abandon the worst tendencies of tribalism, and will extend Gaia’s declining years. Perhaps a Great Communicator will transform the post-human mob into an effective, less aggressive global intelligence. Perhaps we’ll live on as the revered “progenitors of a species closer to Gaia.”

But if James Lovelock is right, that won’t be for us to say.


P.S. The “critical thinking”/evolution bill now making its way through the Tennessee legislature includes climate change as one of the topics our reps think need “protecting” with targeted legislation. Here’s some of the “debate“… the call to order and prayer begin about five minutes in.

P.P.S. to STUDENTS: We’re not meeting today. On Wednesday we begin (again) Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline. Try to let me know then if you’re planning a final presentation.

Nature is always the final arbiter

April 6, 2011

They kept me out late again last night with the glee club, so this is going to be brief.

In chapter seven of Gaia, Lovelock makes what I’ve come to consider an “indigenous” point about the observational basis of good science.

Earth and life scientists used computers to model the cycles of the chemical elements or the evolution of populations. Computer models are so helpful that before long many biologists and geologists put their field equipment in store and began a new life working with their models pretending that they were the real world. This pygmalion fate– falling in love with the model– is all too easy, as generations of the young and old playing their computer games have found.

That’s a point to ponder: are we losing our grip on the reality of our vital relation to nature, as we spend ever more time modeling virtual alternatives? How are we going to regain a grip?

Gradually the world of science has evolved to the dangerous point where model-building has precedence over observation and measurement. In certain ways modeling by scientists has become a threat to the foundation on which science has stood: the acceptance that nature is always the final arbiter and that a hypothesis must always be tested by experiment and observation in the real world.

And that’s his answer to the critics who refuse to entertain the Gaia hypothesis of a living, self-regulating Earth as some kind of kooky New Age absurdity: take a closer look. If what you see does not match the model you’ve been working with, consider the possibility that your model needs revising.

And what will the revised model reflect? The Gaian wisdom, which is also native: we are but one of many living species. The restoration of systemic health and habitability on our planet is its imperative, and will happen with or without us. If we intend to be here for that, we’re going to have to begin by acknowledging the living reality of our situation. We live in Daisyworld.

“Our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone”

April 4, 2011

In chapter 3 of Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock calls efforts to stabilize CO2 and global temperature “no better than planetary alternative medicine.” He’s clearly no fan of alt-med. Lots of Gaians are, though, like our indigenous authors. How about it, class? Can a true Gaian be dismissive or contemptuous of holistic health in any form? [My favorite alt-med health care provider]

He reminds us that as oxygen-breathers, we and our domesticated pets contribute substantially to the world’s net supply of green house gases. Thank goodness we don’t have “great and powerful” leaders eager to fix that through subtraction. Or, don’t have more of them than we do.

Michael Shermer’s thoughts about false positives and negatives, and why people believe weird things, ring true enough. The former  are mostly harmless, while the latter can get you killed. Climate denialism might be the very best example. (“How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results“)

But, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean somebody’s not after you, and just because the mobile phone menace was suspected long before evidence could be produced doesn’t prove that it’s a phantom.

It’s our duty as a species to survive, so we may be obliged to pick up stakes and seek cooler climes. Will Gaia help us move? Lovelock says again and again that Gaia’s needs, expressing the interests of the many, outweigh those of the few. Guess which group we’re in?

Last time’s post touched on this: Lovelock has been accused of being a sentimentalizing anthropomorphizer, even after he clarified Gaia’s status as more metaphor than literal fact. And he is one, I think: he’s soft and sentimental for the non-human biosphere, more than for you and me. But he asks a fair question: if she’s not alive, how can she die? “And die she will when the sun’s heat becomes more than can be withstood.” OK, but I think we should revisit Dr. Flicker & Prof. Russell.

What alternative energy form has the best chance of helping offset climate change? Wind doesn’t blow in enough places, solar’s not yet scalable (not sure what that means). As of the writing of this book, Lovelock liked nukes. As for radiation? It’s “a natural and normal part of our environment.”

Right. That’s hollow reassurance these days, isn’t it? Did you hear “This American Life” last night? We owe it to ourselves and to Gaia to listen to those voices from Chernobyl.

Interesting Kuhnian point about scientists being “reticent” in the face of possible peer pressure and scorn, and about the old urban/wilderness schism within environmentalism. Maybe we just need to “queer” the old deal. (“HT Queer Ecology and the Environmental Movement“)

Not sure about his Silent Spring observation, though I guess it’s consistent of him to be unperturbed by free-range chemicals if he’s also down with radiation. Are we really being “hysterical” about the latest Japan crisis?

Did you notice, BP’s trying to drill in the same deep troubled Caribbean waters again. They apparently think nothing’s unseemly about that, less than a year after their own malodorous contribution to hysteria. It seems to me we’re collectively being pretty docile, not hysterical. End of the world? We feel fine.

“Coal is the truly dirty fuel.” And yet, Lovelock finds Mr. Rogers of Big Coal “as concerned with our future as I was.” Well, as long as the dirty energy guys are “concerned”…

How concerned should we all be?

Now, as a result of the crisis in Japan, the atomic simulations suggest that the number of serious accidents has suddenly doubled, with three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in some stage of meltdown. Even so, the public authorities have sought to avoid grim technical details that might trigger alarm or even panic.

“They don’t want to go there,” said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert who, from 1993 to 1999, was a policy adviser to the secretary of energy. “The spin is all about reassurance.” NYT

“Assessing the Radiation Danger” graphic

“Our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.” Atlantic

As the disaster in Japan illustrates, so starkly and so tragically, people have a hard time planning for events that they don’t want to imagine happening. But these are precisely the events that must be taken into account in a realistic assessment of risk. We’ve more or less pretended that our nuclear plants are safe, and so far we have got away with it. The Japanese have not. Elizabeth Kolbert

[Rousseau, Snow’s two cultures 50th anniversary, food, walking, Geoengineering, Gaian engineering]

Chapter Five concludes smartly:

Perhaps the greatest value of the Gaia concept lies in its metaphor of a living Earth, which reminds us that we are part of it and that our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone, but includes human obligations.

That, at least, sounds a lot like native wisdom. Now we just have to figure out how to apply it. What kind of energy do we need? How much? How quickly?

growing old with Gaia

March 30, 2011

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made…

Finally we’ll finish midterm presentations in NW today, before a quick & easy exam on Nature’s Way (just the closing chapters) and Native Science– both of which I enjoyed a great deal.  I feel like I’ve really had my sympathy for the native American sensibility (if there is such a singular thing) stretched.

We’ll pick Lovelock’s Vanishing Face of Gaia up again on Monday. Meanwhile, consider this self-referential passage from ch.3:

Because I am old, I often think of Gaia as if she were an old lady of about my age… since she is now 3.5 billion years old she has already lived nearly 88 percent of her life [leaving about 500 million years]. If I can reach one hundred then, intriguingly, at 89 as I write [he’s up to 91 now], I am now the same relative age as Gaia.

Why do so many images depict her as a jeune fille?  I still prefer Terry Gilliam’s animated version of Mother Cosmos, in Eric Idle’s accompanying Galaxy Song. That’s what has to come of a Big Bang. Whatever her age, as Carl Sagan suggested in Varieties of Scientific Experience, Mother Earth is just too small for such an amazing and expanding cosmos. “The God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe.”

But I think Lovelock’s “Pecksniffian colleagues” are right, he really is engaging in some sentimental anthropomorphizing here. Maybe that’s good, in the same way some native creation myths are constructive: they deepen our respect for the old girl, and encourage us to lighten our step.

Our obligation as an intelligent species is to survive; and if we can evolve to become an integrated intelligence within Gaia, then together we could survive longer.

Sounds like a plan. When can we see the details? Or have we already? Time for that exam.


One more thing, STUDENTS: if you submitted an essay electronically I have to ask you to re-submit, in hard copy this time. Thanks again, Hacker.