Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for January, 2010

Gaia’s Spokesman

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

January 24, 2010

“It’s important for Gaia that human beings survive,” says James Lovelock. “Our intelligence, if it can be integrated as part of the whole planetary system, would make ours the first intelligent planet in the galaxy, perhaps. What a wonderful future for humans!”

A great scientist needs great courage and a great imagination and Jim Lovelock has both, in spades. It is now 40 years since he rattled the scientific world and electrified the rest of us by publishing Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), which argued that the earth behaves like a single living organism that creates and maintains a viable environment for life.

The Gaia hypothesis — named for the Greek earth goddess– implied that the world was far more complex than modern reductionist science had imagined. It offered a coherent vision of the whole living world that echoed all our wisdom traditions, and renewed the human sense of wonder.

Mainstream scientists were horrified. Many still are. But Lovelock’s bold insights, and his continuing exploration of their implications, became the foundations of “earth system science,” the study of systems like the circulation of the oceans, the maintenance of the atmosphere and the relationships among the earth’s many systems. Noted author Gwynne Dyer considers Lovelock “the most important figure in both the life sciences and the climate sciences for the past half-century,” and compares his achievements to Darwin’s.

Slight, cheerful and white-haired, Lovelock is now 90 years old, though he looks decades younger. He published a new book last year, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. He and his American-born wife Sandy spend their summers in Devon, England, and their winters in her home town of St. Louis, Missouri, where I came calling one brilliant January morning.

Lovelock resembles a geologist in his easy navigation of the vastness of deep time, but he recalls the Enlightenment sages in his assumption that science is a single enterprise, artificially split into disciplines. He has been self-employed as a freelance scientist and instrument-maker for 50 years, largely because of “silly people who would say to me, ‘you can’t do biology, you’re a chemist.’ As if I didn’t have a brain.”

Freedom from institutional politics allowed him to indulge his preference for observation over computer modelling, and permitted him to follow the evidence fearlessly wherever it led. In 2007 he was “shocked” to learn that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had “reached a consensus on a matter of science.” Science is about nature. Consensus is about politics.

So where has the evidence led him lately?

Sea level, Arctic ice cover and ocean algae populations, he says, are the best indicators of global warming and they all reveal that the earth is heating up much faster than the IPCC’s projections. Furthermore, the evidence from the earth’s last hot period, 55 million year ago, shows that global temperatures don’t necessarily change slowly and evenly; they can flip fairly quickly to hotter or colder states. On that early occasion, most of the earth became a scorching desert. Life retreated to the shores of an Arctic Ocean with surface temperature of 21C, where crocodiles lived and bred.

Lovelock thinks that’s the kind of world we’re creating — and because of our essentially tribal politics, our efforts to avoid it will likely fail. Since a less habitable earth won’t sustain a global population of seven billion, populations will crash. Human beings should plan a “sustainable retreat” to the Arctic region. Canadians should prepare for hordes of people trying to relocate to northern Canada.

Is this inevitable? No, says Lovelock. Gaia is far more complex than we understand, and we do not even know the depth of our ignorance. A scientist can only say that this nightmare scenario is probable. But we should prepare for it now, while the world is still a reasonably civilized place. The real horror would be if our species survived, but its finest achievements were lost — science, art, culture. Lovelock believes we could be the evolutionary ancestors of an intelligent post-tribal species that will serve an aging Gaia as her consciousness.

This is a colossal vision of tragedy and redemption. Lovelock smiles.

“Gaia needs us,” he says. “What a wonderful future for humans!”

– 30 —

The Sacredness of Landscape

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

January 17, 2010

Taktshang Goemba – also known as The Tiger’s Nest – is a magnificent monastery plastered on the face of a sheer cliff 900 meters above the Paro Valley, and moored to the mountain by the hairs of angels. There are only three ways to reach it. The best is to ride on the back of a flying tiger, which was the method used by the great saint Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century. He flew into a sacred cave on the cliff face, subdued the local demon, and meditated there for three months before continuing his mission to establish Buddhism in Bhutan.

If you can’t find a flying tiger, you can ride up to the Tiger’s Nest on a tough little mountain horse. (You can’t ride down, though; the path is too steep.) Alternatively, you can walk, which is the way I got there last month. The hike takes three or four hours.

It is a steep and brutal climb in the thin Himalayan air, not easy for sedentary folk of ripening years. I was grateful for Tashi, the nimble young guide who took my little backpack. We got a break at a wooden tea-house halfway up, lunching on Bhutanese specialties like ema datse, hot chillies with cheese. Nearby is a rock with the footprints of Guru Rinpoche burned into its surface.

Then the climb continued. In the end, I didn’t get into the monastery. I reached a viewpoint at the same height – but between the viewpoint and the Tiger’s Nest is a deep gorge, negotiated via a 700-step staircase cut into the rock face. My knees were weak and I was slightly giddy from the altitude. The steps are uneven, there is no hand-rail, and a misstep would mean immediate reincarnation. Nope.

The landscape of Bhutan is peppered with sacred places. Above the Tiger’s Nest are several shrines or “chortens,” as well as temples and meditation huts. The many temples on the valley floor include Kyichu Lhakhang, one of 108 temples built in a single day in 659 by a Tibetan king aiming to pin down an ogress and liberate the Himalayas for the advance of Buddhism.

There are chortens along the trails, chortens in the fields, chortens on the banks of streams, where water-wheels turn prayer-wheels that ring bells and send off prayers as they spin. Thickets of vertical white prayer flags stand high on the mountains, and brilliantly-coloured strings of square flags flutter on buildings, fences and bridges. The land virtually pulses with visual testimony to Buddhist reverence.

Underlying Bhutan’s Buddhism is a much older animist religion known as “Bon,” which populates the landscape with innumerable demons, sprites, local deities, gods and goddesses of lakes and rivers, lords of the earth and air. The most famous of the many lucky charms to ward off evil from these omnipresent spirits is the image of an erect penis.

Even this is evidence of devotion, which you see constantly in Bhutan. But you do not see mines, quarries, clear-cuts, industrial smog, huge landfill sites, plastic bags (which are illegal), chemically-nurtured golf courses, mills and factories blowing smog into the air and waste into the rivers. The Bhutanese use only what they need. Houses and farms are built of rammed earth, straw, slate and wood, and they occupy minimalist clearings in the woods. They enhance an already beautiful landscape.

All of which raises a huge question
Bhutan’s sacramental attitude towards the natural world – that the world is literally alive and sentient – is the normal human view. It’s shared by my Celtic ancestors, by virtually all ancient civilizations, by aboriginal peoples worldwide. Industrial society, by contrast, views the natural world as inert, dead, a mere source of materials and a blank slate for industrial manipulation. It exists for us to pillage. That arrogance has led us to a crisis unparallelled in the history of our species.

The Bhutanese evidently don’t think they’re lords of creation. Their land is sacred, and because they treat it with reverence, it sustains and enriches them. Superstition? Or wisdom, clothed in poetry? Bhutan takes us back to the future, reminding us that our species cannot persist on the earth without understanding, in our bones, the genuine sacredness of the world that is our only home.
– 30 –

You can see photos of the Tiger’s Nest (and other Bhutan pix) here:

Up, Up and Away!

Monday, January 11th, 2010

January 10, 2010

“I wish,” said my friend Perry, “that someone would tell the public the truth about airline security.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“That it’s largely theatre,” said Perry, who spent a large chunk of his working life doing airline and airport security. “That the objective is to make people feel that their safety is assured, even though it’s not. There’s no way to make air travel really safe not at any tolerable cost in money and inconvenience.”

“So they’re lying to us?” I said, remembering the security procedures I experienced in four countries last month.

“Not exactly, but they don’t admit that you can’t ratchet up security beyond a certain point,” he answered. “We could insist that you get to the airport six hours early, and that everyone going aboard, and every bag, be subjected to an intensive search, including body cavities. We could do that again at every station stop, or at every change of planes. We could assign squads of air marshals to every flight. We could forbid people from leaving their seats during the flight, for fear that they might get up to mischief in the washrooms. Hell, we could remove the washrooms.

“Do you think that even the airlines are eager for that level of security? If we had it, would anyone fly if they could possibly avoid it?”

True. Already the security process has made flying unpalatable.

“You bet,” said Perry. “In that sense, the terrorists have already won. They’ve thrown sand in the gears of commerce. But the system is still quite porous, and everyone in the security business knows it. Every country challenges its security system by trying to get people through it with weapons and explosives and so forth, and every country fails. The Americans used to publish their failure rate, which was about 33%. So they don’t publish those numbers any more.”

Does that mean that of every three fake terrorists who attempt to get through security, one succeeds?

“Yep,” said Perry. “People also believe that the security folks are probably catching all kinds of would-be terrorists, but they aren’t telling us about the interceptions. Not true. They hardly ever catch anyone.

“Take this latest guy, who mainly managed to cook his own crotch on the flight to Detroit. The Americans are going on about ‘our’ failure, the failure of ‘our’ security systems, the terrorism attempt in ‘our own’ airspace. It wasn’t in their airspace it was almost all in Canada’s airspace. If the guy had succeeded, there would have been a rain of airliner parts over Labrador, not Michigan.

“And the failure wasn’t the Americans’, either. The guy boarded the plane in Lagos, Nigeria. Then he flew to Amsterdam and changed planes but he didn’t have to go through security again, which is normal when you change planes in any major airport. You don’t leave the secure area. You just go from one plane to the other.

“So the only security screen he ever faced was in Lagos. How tight is the security system in Lagos? If it’s not very good — and I suspect it isn’t — then what do you do about it? Does the United States want to start pre-screening every flight that might connect into the United States, from every airport in the world? Indonesia? Syria? Dogkhatistan?”

Perry, I said, what do you think the public really needs to understand?

“If you fly, you may die,” he said promptly. “It’s not likely — there hasn’t been a successful terrorist attack on an airliner since 9/11, and millions of people have flown perfectly safely. But it’s just like Presidential security. If someone is really determined to kill the President and doesn’t mind dying in the process, there’s a definite chance that the President will be killed. If someone clever is really determined to bring down a plane, there’s a definite chance that the plane will go down.

“I suppose everything would be perfect is everyone flew naked, without cabin baggage.”

“Bare Air,” I said. “Perry, do you fly, yourself?”

“Hell, yes,” he said. “I fly all the time. It’s far, far safer than driving.”

– 30 —

Dochu-la, and Other Delights

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

January 3, 2010

Filled with educators and visitors, the bus climbs slowly out of Bhutan’s Thimphu Valley through terrain that looks increasingly like an Oriental watercolour — steep, heavily-wooded slopes covered with fluffy trees, farms made of up terraces stepping down the hillsides towards rushing rivers. Some terraces have rice stubble, a few have winter wheat, and a surprising number are orchards. The hillsides are dotted with white half-timbered buildings in the Bhutanese traditional style, which even new buildings are required to use.

Up, up, up, through tiny villages, past isolated farmhouses, along a one-lane road as twisted as a snake’s intestine. This narrow, winding track is Bhutan’s central highway, the only real highway in the country. Up, up, up — and as we go, Goenpo, our guide, a thoughtful and polite former Buddhist monk, tells us stories. That temple on that distant mountain top is near a particularly lovely village where the Fourth King, still living, found four congenial sisters, and married them all. Each now has her own palace.

We will soon arrive, says Goenpo, at Dochu-la, the first high pass of the journey, 3140 meters high. On this side of the pass, the forest is blue pine, oak and maple. All the land around the summit belongs to the Royal Botanical Garden. The Garden is part of the 50% of the land area of Bhutan committed to national parks, which are connected by wilderness corridors so that the wildlife can migrate undisturbed.

On the other side of the pass, the road will descend through — unbelievably — a whole forest of magnolias and rhododendrons. Of the world’s 1100-odd species of rhododendron, 46 are native to Bhutan, and the young Fifth King is trying to grow all 46 in his alpine botanical garden. Then, as the bus descends, bursts of brilliant red flowers will appear — poinsettia trees in full vivid bloom, growing as high as a bungalow. We’ll even see a grove of orange trees — a lusty variety, presumably, since trees are growing at about 8000 feet elevation.

But all of that is on the far side of the pass. At the summit itself, Goenpo says, stand 108 memorial shrines, also known as chortens, erected by the Fourth King in 2005 in memory of battle losses two years earlier. An Assamese separatist force had been raiding India from refuges in southern Bhutan, and India was pressing Bhutan to eject them — or face the possibility that Indian troops might do it themselves.

The Bhutanese made numerous fruitless attempts to persuade them to leave. Eventually the king himself went to visit the Assamese camps, bearing a gift of apples. He put his case to the Assamese directly, and personally gave an apple to every fighter. He also warned them that if they didn’t leave, his army would have to force them out. But they still wouldn’t go

So the king came home, added several hundred volunteers to his untested 9000-man army, and personally led his inexperienced forces into battle. He knew the Assamese strength and deployment, because he had seen their camps, and he had counted his apples. His army prevailed, with a loss of about 10 Bhutanese and numerous Assamese. Far from being jubilant, the king was so appalled at the loss of life that he forbade any victory celebration. Instead, he caused 108 chortens to be erected at the high pass to honour the dead on both sides, and speed them on their way to their next lives.

At Dochu-la, the air is alive with fluttering prayer flags — yellow, red, green, white, orange. And yes, there is a big shrine, a new temple — and, on a small hillock, 108 white chortens standing like ghostly sentinels.

Beyond them, the view is breathtaking. We stand on the crest of the mountain we have climbed, looking over narrow but fertile valleys, with miles of virgin forest in every direction. The land drops thousands of feet and then ripples across lower mountains to the horizon, where it sweeps upward again to a jagged rim of cruel, white-crowned mountains. That’s the Tibetan border. Those peaks include seven of the highest mountains in the world.

We’re standing, it seems, on the roof of the earth, surrounded by flags whose every motion sends a prayer upward on the wind. We may never get nearer to heaven.

– 30 —