February 25, 2012
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Be it known… This entry was written as a complement to one that was posted earlier last week, entitled “Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth.”
Someone once said, “The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it.” But ever since I read this, I’ve been looking at my local weather forecasts everyday now for nearly two years straight… And I’ve got to say, looking one day ahead, the MET Office seem to get it near on 95% right every time… Seriously, you don’t have to take my word on this. Just check it out for yourselves. Saying, I noticed that when the MET Office begin to make general forecasts that are five days in to the future, their accuracy falls quite substantially. On the whole – while I haven’t been taking as much notice of these 5 day forecasts – I’d say they tend to get them near on 60% right. Now that, in my books, is definitely good predicting. How do they do it? Well, they’ve been using some of the world’s biggest and best super computers to crunch all the raw numerical data that is gathered from a vast array of sources (both manual and remote sensing data posts), of which they literately have thousands: on military air fields, to all the way out at sea. The gathering of this diverse spread of data gives them a really unique (and very accurate) perspective on weather patterns here in the UK, demonstrating how temperature, wind, sun, rain, cloud and other meteorological phenomena all feedback into each other to create the daily weather patterns that we observe in our daily lives.
But is it really a clear cut and easy to understand science when trying to understand how these individual phenomena affect each other? As some of you may already know, Edward Lorenz pretty much made a big discovery back in 1961 when looking at weather systems while studying computer simulations. He basically noticed the unexpected unfolding of a weather simulation as the result of a shortcut that he took by entering data to only three decimal places rather than six. As a result, this sensitivity to initial conditions was something that has been well studied over the last 50 years, being called Chaos Theory. The MET know a lot about how non-linear dynamics operate within weather systems here on Earth… In fact they’re presently doing a lot research into the sensitivity of the Earth’s weather system and how human activities affect it. If you ask me whether mankind is seriously affecting the environment in which he lives through his activities… I’d tell you a very big, “YES!” Just as Lorenz saw huge unexpected variances in his computer simulations, one’s that occurred from simply varying miniscule amounts in the data that was being entered at the beginning, so too will mankind see even bigger changes in the weather systems that we expect to see here on Earth. It’s not joke… Mankind isn’t varying the environment by minuscule amounts anymore, as we might have done 2000 years ago… We’re slashing the environment to pieces by whacking great asphalt cities down all over the Earth, by burning 400 years worth of energy stored by plants from the sun, by building dams to regulate the earth’s natural water flow, by turning ancient forests into agricultural land, etc…
On the whole I try to be as optimistic as possible through my general outlook on everything we as human being do. Saying that, I was never the type of person who would adorn an overly positive outlook about something just because being positive would make the situation better. To me, that’s a bit like thinking that you can fly and then throwing yourself off the top of a building, expecting to be able navigate the air currents safely back down to earth. Not my style. If you want to be that positive, then try taking off from the ground first. At least then you’ll know whether or not your positivity and belief in your ability is justified. So, that’s it. I suppose I’d rather get my facts straight and look at whatever situation I was in from as open minded a view as possible, regardless of what it was going to elucidate. I mean, I can play a bit of guitar and some very basic piano, but can’t read music off a staved sheet very well at all. So perhaps I wouldn’t remain positive about the fact that I could proficiently play Debussy’s Arabesque #1 after only one week of solitary practice with nothing more than a musical score to guide me… But I could perhaps muster a half decent attempt after one week of tuition with a good teacher and with access to a audible version of the music too.
And that’s my point here… There are different variables within certain parameters of any given situation that, when viewed by an observer, define whether or not one could feel positive about obtaining a particular outcome for that given situation. If some of the most obvious parameters for success are not present, masked over by a general optimistic view that things will work out, so whey bother trying too hard… After which one still feels exceedingly positive about obtaining a result… Well, my common sense would either tell me to lower my positive outlook about the outcome of events, or pull my finger out and get on with working out a way to succeed.
Nina Fedoroff was recently quoted saying, “We are sliding back into a dark era, and there seems little we can do about it.” During a conference last week, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) confessed that she was “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the US and the rest of the western world. While I feel that this statement might be a little too strong for my own stance on this general “head in the sand” tactic, I do empathise with Fedoroff because her natural survival instinct – the one that watches a friend get eaten by a tiger, so that when she’s sees another tiger she runs, rather than stroking the rather large and cuddly cat – is obviously telling her that a lot of folk out there do not share her concern for where we, as a civilization on a planet, are heading. Many have no real desire to understand too much about what sustainability actually is, let alone steer their lives into modes of minimizing capitalist consumption by growing their own food, managing their own woodlands for fire wood, insulating their homes, giving up their cars, etc…
For me, this is a bit like the case of thinking one can fly and going straight to the top floor of the Empire State building and launching themselves off the top parapet. Yes, they might think that they’re flying as they SWOOSH past floor after floor, hurtling towards the solid asphalt below at breakneck speed. But is it really flying? I mean, can they sustain the period of time that they’re in the air for without the sudden SPLAT at the end? I mean… Can we sustain even half the number of human beings at our present rates of consumption? Can we sustain this huge spurt of uncontrolled growth that mankind is witnessing in the 21st century? In fact… Just how many people do you think the earth can support?
You see… When one of the world’s most distinguished agricultural scientists tells me that she’s “scared to death” by what she sees going on around her… Doing so at one of the most well known annual scientific meetings. Well… My commonsense tells me to at least oblige this lady and have a listen to what she has to say. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” Fedoroff said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
Would you believe… Just like the MET Office studies weather patterns in order to forecast the coming day’s weather, so to are there people looking at today’s and yesterday’s global patterns of human growth and resource consumption, who are making predictions about what the future might hold for us. And I’ve got to say, while these studies might not be as detailed or as developed as some of the weather studies that the MET Office are conducting… The ones that have come to light certainly show us something that we should be heeding.
Like I said… I’m quite an optimistic person. But I still read and/or listen to the weather forecasts every morning… And if there’s a chance that it’ll be a rainy, cold, wet and windy day, I won’t remain optimistic that the weather might suddenly change to something better and wear nothing by my shorts and a T-shirt. I mean, I already know from observation how accurate the MET Office’s weather forecasting can be… For them to be able to make these predictions, the observations come from which their science was built from, along with their forecasts, must be quite accurate and sound. I mean 95% accuracy for one day ahead is near on great. Thus I base my actions for the coming day on this forecast, like whether I should take umbrella with me, or wear shorts and sunglasses, etc… The way the professionals do their stuff down at the MET Office instils in me an air of confidence about what they do and how they do it… So I listen to them when the advise us on the weather.
Likewise, having studied a scientific discipline myself at university, one that looked at methods for detecting illnesses within the human body, I know that there is great accuracy in these methods. They are used time and again to catch people with cancer, bacterial infections, etc… And they do so with near on 85% accuracy. So, on the whole, I have great respect for the discipline of scientific study… And I have a great respect for many of those involved in the areas of science. Don’t get me wrong… We’re not perfect. Just like the MET Office only get 95% of the coming days’ forecasts right, other areas of science don’t get it right all the time either. But should those scientist be branded with that lousy 5% margin of error? In my humble opinion, I’d rather reap the benefits of that 95% accuracy than let the 5% error bother me. So when some other professionals/scientists say something that I see to be important for all our future well fair here on Earth, I usually give it at least a once over before I decide whether to ignore it or not… At least a once over!
So I’ll finish here by saying… If most of you want us all to jump off the building because you think you can fly, there is no way on Earth (or in the air) that I’m gonna keep quiet and pretend that I can sustain this ‘flight’ while I’m hurtling past the windows of the building that we’ve all just jumped off from, just to keep the majority of you lot happy. Like I said… It’s not my style. My survival instinct is telling me that I want to survive, regardless of whether you do or not. And if I’m falling down – rather than flying down – with the rest of you, I’m gonna engage in some chit-chat on the way down about how to survive this fall.
. . .
Forty years ago, a highly controversial study warned that we had to curb growth or risk global meltdown. Was it right?
AT THE beginning of the 1970s, a group of young scientists set out to explore our future. Their findings shook a generation and may be even more relevant than ever today.
The question the group set out to answer was: what would happen if the world’s population and industry continued to grow rapidly? Could growth continue indefinitely or would we start to hit limits at some point? In those days, few believed that there were any limits to growth – some economists still don’t. Even those who accepted that on a finite planet there must be some limits usually assumed that growth would merely level off as we approached them.
These notions, however, were based on little more than speculation and ideology. The young scientists tried to take a more rigorous approach: using a computer model to explore possible futures. What was shocking was that their simulations, far from showing growth continuing forever, or even levelling out, suggested that it was most likely that boom would be followed by bust: a sharp decline in industrial output, food production and population. In other words, the collapse of global civilisation.
These explosive conclusions were published in 1972 in a slim paperback called The Limits to Growth. It became a bestseller – and provoked a furious backlash that has obscured what it actually said. For instance, it is widely believed that Limits predicted collapse by 2000, yet in fact it made no such claim. So what did it say? And 40 years on, how do its projections compare with reality so far?
The first thing you might ask is, why look back at a model devised in the days when computers were bigger than your fridge but less powerful than your phone? Surely we now have far more advanced models? In fact, in many ways we have yet to improve on World3, the relatively simple model on which Limits was based. “When you think of the change in both scientific and computational capabilities since 1972, it is astounding there has been so little effort to improve upon their work,” says Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It hasn’t happened in part because of the storm of controversy the book provoked. “Researchers lost their appetite for global modelling,” says Robert Hoffman of company WhatIf Technologies in Ottawa, Canada, which models resources for companies and governments. “Now, with peak oil, climate change and the failure of conventional economics, there is a renewed interest.”
The other problem is that as models get bigger, it becomes harder to see why they produce certain outcomes and whether they are too sensitive to particular inputs, especially with complex systems. Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who studies global systems and has used World3, thinks it may have been the best possible compromise between over-simplification and unmanageable complexity. But Hoffman and Bar-Yam’s groups are now trying to do better.
World3 was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team took what was known about the global population, industry and resources from 1900 to 1972 and used it to develop a set of equations describing how these parameters affected each other. Based on various adjustable assumptions, such as the amount of non-renewable resources, the model projected what would happen over the next century.
The team compares their work to exploring what happens to a ball thrown upwards. World3 was meant to reveal the general behaviour that results – in the case of a ball, going up and then falling down – not to make precise predictions, such as exactly how high the ball would go, or where and when it would fall. “None of these computer outputs is a prediction,” the book warned repeatedly.
Assuming that business continued as usual, World3 projected that population and industry would grow exponentially at first. Eventually, however, growth would begin to slow and would soon stop altogether as resources grew scarce, pollution soared and food became limited. “The Limits to Growth said that the human ecological footprint cannot continue to grow indefinitely, because planet Earth is physically limited,” says Jørgen Randers of the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo, one of the book’s original authors.
What’s more, instead of stabilising at the peak levels, or oscillating around them, in almost all model runs population and industry go into a sharp decline once they peak. “If present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a sudden and rather uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity,” the book warned.
This was unexpected and shocking. Why should the world’s economy collapse rather than stabilise? In World3, it happened because of the complex feedbacks between different global subsystems such as industry, health and agriculture. More industrial output meant more money to spend on agriculture and healthcare, but also more pollution, which could damage health and food production.
And most importantly, says Randers, in the real world there are delays before limits are understood, institutions act or remedies take effect. These delayed responses were programmed into World3. The model crashed because its hypothetical people did not respond to the mounting problems before underlying support systems, such as farmland and ecosystems, had been damaged.
Instead, they carried on consuming and polluting past the point the model world could sustain. The result was what economists call a bubble and Limits called overshoot. The impact of these response delays was “the fundamental scientific message” of the study, says Randers. Critics, and even fans of the study, he says, didn’t get this point.
The other message missed was that Limits was about how catastrophe could be averted. It did not say that humanity was doomed. In model runs where growth of population and industry were constrained, growth did level out rather than collapse – the stabilised scenario (see graph).
Yet few saw it this way. Instead, the book came under fire from all sides. Scientists didn’t like Limits because the authors, anxious to publicise their findings, put it out before it was peer reviewed. The political right rejected its warning about the dangers of growth. The left rejected it for betraying the aspirations of workers. The Catholic church rejected its plea for birth control.
The most strident criticisms came from economists, who claimed Limits underestimated the power of the technological fixes humans would surely invent. As resources ran low, for instance, we would discover more or develop alternatives.
Yet the Limits team had tested this. In some runs, they gave World3 unlimited, non-polluting nuclear energy – which allowed extensive substitution and recycling of limited materials – and a doubling in the reserves of nonrenewables that could be economically exploited. All the same, the population crashed when industrial pollution soared. Then fourfold pollution reductions were added as well: this time, the crash came when there was no more farmland.
Adding in higher farm yields and better birth control helped in this case. But then soil erosion and pollution struck, driven by the continuing rise of industry. Whatever the researchers did to eke out resources or stave off pollution, exponential growth was simply prolonged, until it eventually swamped the remedies. Only when the growth of population and industry were constrained, and all the technological fixes applied, did it stabilise in relative prosperity.
The crucial point is that overshoot and collapse usually happened sooner or later in World3 even if very optimistic assumptions were made about, say, oil reserves. “The general behaviour of overshoot and collapse persists, even when large changes to numerous parameters are made,” says Graham Turner of the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences lab in Crace, Australia.
This did not convince those who thought technology could fix every problem. And with so much criticism, the idea took hold that Limits had been disproved. That mantra has been repeated so often that it became the received wisdom, says Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence in Italy, author of a recent book about Limits. “The common perception is that the work was discredited scientifically. I heard it again at a meeting last April,” says Homer-Dixon. “It wasn’t.”
It wasn’t just confusion. “Misunderstanding was enhanced by a media campaign very similar to the one that has been recently directed against climate science,” says Bardi.
One of the most common myths is that Limits predicted collapse by 2000. Yet as a brief glance at the “standard run” shows, it didn’t (see graph). The book does mention a 1970 estimate by the US Bureau of Mines that the world had 31 years of oil left. The bureau calculated this by dividing known reserves by the current rate of consumption. Rates of consumption, however, were increasing exponentially, so Limits pointed out that in fact oil had only 20 years left if nothing changed. But this calculation was made to illustrate the effects of exponential growth, not to predict that there were only 20 years of oil left.
When Matthew Simmons, a leading oil-industry banker, finally read Limits in the 1990s, he was surprised to find none of the false predictions he had heard about. On the contrary, he concluded, population and energy growth largely matched the basic simulation. He felt Limits got so much attention, then lost it, partly because the oil shock of 1973 focused minds on resource shortages that were then largely resolved.
There have been other recent re-appraisals of the book. In 2008, for instance, Turner did a detailed statistical analysis of how real growth compares to the scenarios in Limits. He concluded that reality so far closely matches the standard run of World3.
Does that mean we face industrial collapse and widespread death? Not necessarily. A glance at Turner’s curves shows we haven’t yet reached the stage of the standard run, later this century, when such events are predicted.
In the model, overshoot and collapse are preceded by exponential growth. Exponential growth starts out looking just like linear growth, says Bar-Yam: only later does the exponential curve start heading skywards. After only 40 years, we can’t yet say whether growth is linear or exponential.
We already know the future will be different from the standard run in one respect, says Bar-Yam. Although the actual world population up to 2000 has been similar, in the scenario the rate of population growth increases with time – one of the exponential drivers of collapse. Although Limits took account of the fact that birth rates fall as prosperity rises, in reality they have fallen much faster than was expected when the book was written. “It is reasonable to be concerned about resource limitations in fifty years,” Bar-Yam says, “but the population is not even close to growing [the way Limits projected in 1972].”
The book itself may be partly responsible. Bar-Yam thinks some of the efforts in the 1970s to cut population growth were at least partly due to Limits. “If it helped do that, it bought us more time, and it’s a very important work in the history of humanity,” he says.
Yet World3 still suggests we’ll hit the buffers eventually. The original Limits team put out an updated study using World3 in 2005, which included faster-falling birth rates. Except in the stabilising scenario, World3 still collapsed.
Otherwise, the team didn’t analyse the correspondence between the real world and their 1972 scenarios in detail – noting only that they generally match. “Does this correspondence with history prove our model was true? No, of course not,” they wrote. “But it does indicate that [our] assumptions and conclusions still warrant consideration today.”
This remains the case. Forty years on from its publication, it is still not clear whether Limits was right, but it hasn’t been proved wrong either. And while the model was too pessimistic about birth and death rates, it was too optimistic about the future impact of pollution. We now know that overshoot – the delayed response to problems that makes the effects so much worse – will eventually be especially catastrophic for climate change, because the full effects of greenhouse gases will not be apparent for centuries.
There will be no more sequels based on World3, though. The model can no longer serve its purpose, which was to show us how to avoid collapse. Starting from the current conditions, no plausible assumptions produce any result but overshoot. “There is no sense in only describing a series of collapse scenarios,” says Dennis Meadows, another of the original authors of Limits.
Randers, meanwhile, is editing a book called The Next Forty Years, about what we can do when limits start to bite. “I don’t like the resulting future, but it should be described, particularly because it would have been so easy to make a much better future,” he says.
The only hope is that we can invent our way out of trouble. Our ingenuity has allowed us to overcome many limits, says Homer-Dixon, and we can’t predict what revolutionary technological innovations humanity might come up with. Yet he is pessimistic: “The question is, can we deliver ingenuity at an increasing rate indefinitely.” Because that is what we’ll need to do if growth continues.
Instead of declaring we are doomed, or proclaiming that technology will save us, we should explore the future more rigorously, says Bar-Yam. We need better models. “If you think the scientific basis of those conclusions can be challenged, then the answer is more science,” he says. “We need a much better understanding of global dynamics.”
We need to apply that knowledge, too. The most important message of Limits was that the longer we ignore the problems caused by growth, the harder they are to overcome. As we pump out more CO2, it is clear this is a lesson we have yet to learn.
by Debora MacKenzie (who is a consultant for New Scientist based in Brussels, Belgium)
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February 23, 2012
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One morning earlier this week I awoke with a bit of a start. I’d been having strange dreams again, ones that had left me with a slight sense of sadness – not too distant from how I felt when I was but a seven year old child watching the grown-ups shooting pheasant in late autumn and mid winter morns. “BANG!” “CRACK!” “POOMB!” their guns would sound loudly in the stark and barren light. Under a steady stream of grey clouds, one’s which were being thrust mercilessly across a broken bleak horizon by savage winter winds, there would be sudden loud gaps of quiet… Quiet that allowed windows of peace so as to hear the gentle, soft rustle of the brown crumpled leaves shivering the cold wooded camp of trees. All the time I would look up at these snaking, gnarled limbs around me, twisted as though they were raised to the heavens in complaint over the clamor and din of the relentless gun fire, wondering if they mourning the loss of their colorful feathered friends who kept their council during these unbearing winter days.
That’s what woke me that morning. Noise. In fact is was a very loud noise… Noise in the form of a heavy knock at the front door. You see… When I fell asleep the previous night, I did so in the recording studio. Being a fully sound proofed room there was usually little or no noise to be heard from anywhere at the best of times, save for the smattering of instrumental play that filled the space when it was being used for recording. Thus, other than the general rustling of clothes (or bedclothes in this instance) and/or the low, almost inaudible, rumble of the occasional car passing by outside, it was a very peaceful chamber in which to sleep. Saying that, I had left the door slightly open that night, and when the knock was procured on the glass door below, the acoustics of the house beautifully funneled the sound in through the open door so that it cut through the soft almost empty bliss of my dreams. Up I sat, instantly aware and somewhat shocked at the volume of the herald. While pulling on my jeans, I hopped over the cables and made my way down the stairs, half expecting to see a giant flicking the glass doors gently with his little finger so as to leave the doors intact.
As I got the door, to my surprise there was no giant… Rather there was a bearded fellow dress in blue trousers and a red jacket, beaming furiously back at me while I starred disappointedly at him. As I unlocked the door, he held out a brown cardboard box, proclaiming, “Got another for ya, mate. Someone’s birthday is it, eh?” as he thrust the box through the half opened door into my fumbling sleepy arms. On he beamed, smiling at the fact that he’d caught someone wiping the sleep from their eyes so late in his morning’s schedule. I huffed a bit, mentioning that it wasn’t even… As I looked down I noticed that I didn’t even have my watch on my wrist. Smiling all the more (even if it was a physical impossibility), the delivery chap happily glanced at his own watch and mentioned that it was nearly 7.45 am. “Yes… You see it’s not even 7.45 am!” I complained half mockingly. Nonetheless he decided to take it upon himself to chirp about what a glorious morning it was, with bright blue skies overhead with a warming sun over the roof. Obviously, he pointed out, this signified the coming of an early, warm spring.
Just then two red breasted robins fluttered past us, so close as to barely miss our faces by a few inches. After the moment’s dazzle, we both erupted into a hearty laugh, after which the delivery chap went on to add something about how territorial robins were, and that these two were probably were having a scrap over who should have exclusive rights to the bird table down the way in front of my neighbor’s window. As I stood listening in agreement, I couldn’t help notice how he was tapping fervently away on a well worn machine that he desperately clutched with his hands. Looking at what he was writing, his gaze darted every now and then back to the box I was holding. Realizing he was trying to read the address at which I resided, I obliged him and quoted it from memory for his ease. After a few further moments of tapping the touch screen, he looked back towards the box trying to locate something that wasn’t as obvious.
“What you lost,” I said. “Need the barcode,” he replied. “Gotta scan the package to make sure it’s registered as delivered.” Firmly gripping the box, I revolved it around in my hands, all the while looking for any white zebra striped labels to reveal themselves. Just as I was glancing at one side, the delivery man told me to hold still. Seemed he had found what he was after. Pointing one side of the little box that he held at the target that I couldn’t quite see, he pressed a button as a red flicker of a laser’s beam shone out from a black reclined orifice. Expectantly he waited… But nothing. Looking quizzically at the screen he retouched a few keys and tried again. Red laser flashed and went off… Nothing. “Bloody thing,” he announced, “it’s been playing up on me all morning!”
As if all of a sudden, his jovial light hearted touch dimmed into a concentrated expression of focused intent as he repeated the process again. Still nothing. Besmirching the machine for not scanning the barcode as it was meant to, he began to hit its side as if to rectify whatever it was that might be wrong with it. “It’s probably still not awake what with it being so early in the morning,” I offered jokingly. “Yeah… Well they should have updated this scanning system a while back now, if you ask me. This was one of the first mobile systems that ever came on the market back in the late nineties… Uses mobile communication. Bit out of date this one now, ya know. And it ain’t like they can’t afford a new one either. In fact they spend more on the general upkeep of this system every year, what with software configuration problems they have, than a new system would cost! We checked.” Sounded like a case of bureaucracy I mentioned. “You can say that again,” he added, while repeating the scanning process again. “Seems they’re more than happy for us to look unprofessional in front of our customers, all for the sake of saving some pennies. Don’t suppose they think about it not sending out a good message… Bad advertising, if you ask me.” Again nothing.
By this time I couldn’t help but notice a slight strain that had appeared on the man’s face, almost as though all of his carefully laid plans for the morning were beginning to slide irrevocably closer into the domain of rush hour traffic. So I asked him if he had many deliveries to do, to which he replied that he had a full days work ahead of him, most of which he might not be able to do now if this machine kept playing up.
At this point, the slightly disgruntled demeanor that had over taken his mind suddenly just dissipated… As it did, he said, “It’s all about being aware. About being aware of the mind and how it controls how we perceive the world around us.” He stopped, took a deep breath, released his hunched shoulders and closed his eyes. Then opening them again he entered back into the original jovial flow of light hearted musings that I’d originally opened my door to only a few minutes ago. “Did you read the Guardian online yesterday?” he chuckled, continuing to scan the barcode once again… To which I replied that I hadn’t. “One of their reporters interviewed this Buddhist monk who lives out in France most of the time… He was talking about how we all need to be more mindful of our environment in which we live, as well as how our mind perceives it… Doing so in order to rekindle a lot of love and goodwill for this lovely world in which we all live in and share with one another… He also mentioned how we should change our living habits, getting rid of the ones that don’t work too well with mother nature, so that we can create a better, happier and easier way of life for us all living on Earth… Where we can do everything we need to do, as well as live comfortably and be able to help other people out who need help, including all the animals, plants, fish, insects and everything else.”
Somewhat amazed at how he had regained his composure over the misfortune of the malfunctioning machine… And pretty taken by what he’d just said, all I could think was… “WOW! That sounds like an interview I’d like to read.” And off I went on one, rambling on about parallels to modernizing simple systems, from scanners that delivery people needed to use, through to environmental changes in the way we generate electricity and grow our food, so as to make everyone’s world a little bit more efficient and better equipped to do the jobs we need to do without causing to much agro for ourselves… He then joined in, mentioning that it would be a good idea to change most of our antiquated, out-dated human habits that didn’t take into concern the delicate nature of how our ecosystem was balanced by indulging in more harmonious interests i.e. growing our own food, etc… “Kewl!” I though. “Here’s a guy who knows where it’s at. And I’m grooving with him.”
Smiling we bantered on for a few further minutes as he tried the machine again. Analogies between faulty computer systems and the way mankind lived in general, along with how we were all slowly causing ourselves more problems than we really needed to be doing, all to save a bit more money than we really needed, so as to spend it on more things that we didn’t necessarily need or even like (like the box I was clutching that, which for the life of me, I couldn’t even think of what was inside it)… Laughing at this, we went on to discussing how smart phones didn’t necessarily make us smarter at all; rather they just threw good healthy social interaction out the window as people became more engrossed in conversations/exchanges with people 20 miles away (or more) and, thus, paid less attention to the people in their local and immediate environment… Or even paid less attention to the environment itself… As well as becoming more stressed out in general!
Despite all this, there was still no joy with his scanning machine… So he threatened to use the old pen and paper that was waiting the van for eventualities like these. As he said this, he tried the machine one last time… “Bleep!” it went, signifying a successful entry. “Yay!” I jostled in, as he joked that it was the threat of pen and paper that must have scared the machine into working. As I wished him well with the rest of his rounds for the day he looked befuddled at the thought of the box not working for the rest of his deliveries. “Gotta stay positive,” I said, to which he replied, “That’s what the monk said in that interview. Seriously, you’d really like it.”
After jotting down an almost unrecognizable, heavily pixilated signature as proof that I’d received my parcel, I pointed out that it would probably have taken him less time to register the parcel by good old-fashioned pen and paper… To which he retorted that the paper work would have to filed when he got back, making it that little bit more work. “The bosses wouldn’t be able to keep track of me either,” he replied. “Not that it even works half the time, mind you.”
I smiled and thanked him for the heads-up about the Guardian article and said that I would look it up when I got back inside over a cup of tea. He laughed through the open window as he climbed back in the van shaking his head… “Alright for some, in’it…” Then he mentioning that the monk’s name was something like “Which Not Hand.” Finding it amusing, I repeated it a few times to myself as he drove off down the drive. As soon as he went out of sight, I looked up at the big blue sky above me and hoped he’d have more success with the antiquated system he was using. Then looking back to the birds fluttering from bush to tree I remembered the way he had regained his composure during our chat. Good to see people were able to use the power of their mind to change their circumstantial outcome.
Back I turned into the house, all the while thinking about the article that the chap had mentioned. After making a cup of tea, I decided that I should probably sit down and read it before I forgot about it, otherwise it would get swept away with the days proceedings. No doubt I had one hell of a hard time finding it, mainly because of the name. But eventually I tracked it down on an online Tweet. As it so happened the monk’s name was Thich Nhat Hanh, who was the author of a book that I had begun reading only a few weeks earlier.
I like it when magic moments like these resonate through me and change the way my day flows. It all adds to this sense of evolving wonder that leads towards better practices, into better ways of living… Urges us to embrace more aware and mindful ways of being. Bearing all this in mind, I feel that I should post the article here, as it beautifully flows into the spaces in between what I’ve already been writing here…
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Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains why mindfulness and a spiritual revolution rather than economics is needed to protect nature and limit climate change…
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.
Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
So it seems only natural that in recent years he has turned his attention towards not only addressing peoples’ disharmonious relationships with each other, but also with the planet on which all our lives depend.
Thay, as he is known to his many thousands of followers, sees the lack of meaning and connection in peoples’ lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism and that it is vital we recognise and respond to the stress we are putting on Earth if civilisation is to survive.
What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.
Thay refers to a billionaire chief executive of one of America’s largest companies, who came to one of his meditation courses and talked of his suffering, worries and doubts, of thinking everyone was coming to take advantage of him and that he had no friends.
In an interview at his home and retreat centre in Plum Village, near Bordeaux, Thay outlines how a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the multitude of environmental challenges.
While many experts point to the enormous complexity and difficulty in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thay sees a Gordian Knot that needs slicing through with a single strike of a sharp blade.
Move Beyond Concept Of The “Environment”
He believes we need to move beyond talking about the environment, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them.
Change is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
“You carry Mother Earth within you,” says Thay. “She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
“In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
“Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
“Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
“So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”
Putting An Economic Value On Nature Is Not Enough
Thay, who will this spring be in the UK to lead a five-day retreat as well as a mindfulness in education conference, says the current vogue in economic and business circles that the best way to protect the planet is by putting an economic value on nature is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.
“I don’t think it will work,” he says. “We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things.”
Rather than placing a price tag of our forests and coral reefs, Thay says change will happen on a fundamental level only if we fall back in love with the planet: “The Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or mind, which are just ideas, two faces of the same reality. That pine tree is not just matter as it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter since each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
“When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born.
“We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.”
In the world of business, Thay gives the example of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who combined developing a successful business with the practice of mindfulness and compassion: “It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us,” says Thay.
“Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness both to other people and to us … our work has meaning.”
Thay, who has written more than 100 books, suggests that the lost connection with Earth’s natural rhythm is behind many modern sicknesses and that, in a similar way to our psychological pattern of blaming our mother and father for our unhappiness, there is an even more hidden unconscious dynamic of blaming Mother Earth.
In a new essay, Intimate Conversation with Mother Earth, he writes: “Some of us resent you for giving birth to them, causing them to endure suffering, because they are not yet able to understand and appreciate you.”
How Mindfulness Can Reconnect People To Mother Earth
He points to increasing evidence that mindfulness can help people to reconnect by slowing down and appreciating all the gifts that the earth can offer.
“Many people suffer deeply and they do not know they suffer,” he says. “They try to cover up the suffering by being busy. Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth.
“The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. So the healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth and this is the insight and it is possible for anyone to practice.
“This kind of enlightenment is very crucial to a collective awakening. In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the earth is in danger and living species are in danger.”
Thay gives the example of something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. This can help transform a person’s life if he or she were truly to devote their attention to it.
“When I am mindful, I enjoy more my tea,” says Thay as he pours himself a cup and slowly savours the first sip. “I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.
“When I drink tea this is a wonderful moment. You do not need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you to be happy in the here and now. Every moment can be a happy moment. Set an example and help people to do the same. Take a few minutes in order to experiment to see the truth.”
Need To Deal With Ones Own Anger To Be An Effective Social Activist
Thay has over many years developed the notion of applied Buddhism underpinned by a set of ethical practices known as the five mindfulness trainings, which are very clear on the importance of tackling social injustice.
However, if social and environmental activists are to be effective, Thay says they must first deal with their own anger. Only if people discover compassion for themselves will they be able to confront those they hold accountable for polluting our seas and cutting down our forests.
“In Buddhism we speak of collective action,” he says. “Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it.
“But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life. If you are able to understand that, not only you suffer but the other person suffers, that is also an insight.
“When you see the other person suffer you will not want to punish or blame but help that person to suffer less. If you are burdened with anger, fear, ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person. If you suffer less you are lighter more smiling, pleasant to be with, and in a position to help the person.
“Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much.”
Touching The “Ultimate Dimension”
Key to Thay’s teaching is the importance of understanding that while we need to live and operate in a dualistic world, it is also vital to understand that our peace and happiness lie in the recognition of the ultimate dimension: “If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.
“Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky, or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves – it is available within us, in this very moment.”
While Thay believes there is a way of creating a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet, he also recognises that there is a very real risk that we will continue on our destructive path and that civilisation may collapse.
He says all we need to do is see how nature has responded to other species that have got out of control: “When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings about unnecessary devastation.
“We have learned the lesson that when we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves; and when we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.”
Remaining Optimistic Despite Risk Of Impending Catastrophe
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the gift of a box, all the evils were released into the world. The one remaining item was “hope”.
Thay is clear that maintaining optimism is essential if we are to find a way of avoiding devastating climate change and the enormous social upheavals that will result.
However, he is not naïve and recognises that powerful forces are steadily pushing us further towards the edge of the precipice.
In his best-selling book on the environment, The World we Have, he writes: “We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.
“We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth.
“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.”
by Jo Confino
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An edited video of Jo Confino’s interview with Thich Nhat Hahn can be seen here.
For information on Thay’s visit to the UK this spring, which includes a meditation in Trafalgar Square, a talk at the Royal Festival Hall, a five-day retreat and a three-day mindfulness in education conference, go to the Cooling the Flames website.
To find out where I soruced this article from, please click here.
And to find out a bit more about Thich Naht Hanh, please click here.
OR, if you would like to see Thich Naht Hanh give a talk here in the UK, please visit the London Southbank Centre’s wesbite by clicking here. Ticket’s are almost sold out!