We know that our earth is in crisis, but is the situation beyond repair? Are we on a path of planetary disaster where the only proper response is to prepare for our melancholic dystopian future? Is there a way out of our suspicious cynicism?
In the tradition of Thomas Berry, using this spiritual opportunity to change the very nature of our crisis, Susan Murphy offers a profound message, subtly presented with clarity and assurance, showing that engaged Buddhism provides a possible path to the necessary repair and healing.
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About the Author
Susan Murphy is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia and leads Sesshin training in Sydney and Melbourne. She is also a filmmaker and producer. Her first book was Upside-Down Zen, Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary. She was authorized to teach by Robert Aitken Roshi of the Diamond Sangha branch of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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The koan of the earth
* * * You cannot solve a problem with the thinking that created it.
attributed to Albert Einstein
'Earth is where we all live. Earth sustains us. Earth allows us to be here temporarily. Like a good guest, we respect our host and all the beauty and bounty we are lucky to experience. We do no harm. And then we leave.' This comment was posted as part of a website discussion, and it's pretty hard to argue with, actually.
However, our industrialised world constructs itself in reverse image to inarguable reality. We live walled off from the earth as far as possible, though we will pay a high price for views of water or mountains. Many of us would by now find it unnatural to lie down to sleep on the earth, gather and cook food where we are, drink water from a creek, defecate in a hole dug in the ground. Our airconditioned, plugged-in level of material comfort estranges us from the earth and even from the sense of what is natural. And it insulates us from the high cost of this intensely self-centred way of living, leaving that to be borne out of sight by other people, other species, the earth as a whole. We live at maximum distance from the fact that we are here only temporarily, that we will age and die. Not only do we not respect our host and acknowledge the bounty and beauty earth pours out for us, we comprehensively distract ourselves from that by any means available. If pushed to notice it, we reassure ourselves that the mounting tsunami of harm left in our wake is entirely unintentional, not under our control.
'Doing no harm' to the earth remains low on the agenda of an intensely industrialised, energy-hungry world. Seven billion of us are now transfixed by an impossible promise of all securing the extreme material and technological advantages presently lavished upon members of the industrialised world. The dense forms of energy harnessed first from coal and then so spectacularly from oil has lifted the material lives of a growing number of us to levels of physical ease undreamed of in earlier generations, and this has happened so rapidly it has been hard to catch up with all of the harsh implications — though they are certainly now catching up with us.
If human beings ever were 'entitled' to make such short-term expendable use of the earth, it follows that all are equally entitled to the carbon-fuelled dream of unending bounty once enjoyed only by the West. The paradigm of continual economic growth insists that this is realisable and good, and in fact that all human well-being depends upon indefinite expansion of the market.
The problem is that the price of this indefinite expansion turns out to be the forfeiture of climatic conditions hospitable to our species. And of course not only to our species. The great extinction spasm we are living through right now, which could well include us, is tearing down the intricately interlaced ecologies of the earth as mere collateral damage in the pursuit of a single-minded, self-entitled idea. Too bad that it is extinguishing all 'entitlement' to life forever, for hundreds of earth's life forms every single day. While we continue to add more than 220 new human lives to the planet every second, or more than 200,000 every day.
From a position of accustomed comfort it is hard to conceive of living in a way that would require greater personal skill, effort and care to manifest the necessities of life. Breaking our reliance on the oil that has shown signs of peaking and beginning an inexorable decline, at exactly the time it has become woven into every detail of our lifestyle, is seemingly impossible to contemplate. Yet any child can see through the magical thinking and selfishness that underpins the economic imperatives of limitless material growth and mindless waste — that nevertheless will duly go on to shape their adult lives.
The dream of an infinitely expandable planet placed entirely at our disposal was always just that, a dream, and it's fast becoming a nightmare. Tumultuous change on a vast scale grows increasingly likely with every day of business as usual. The only question is what forms it will take, which order of climate shocks and political crises will start to shake our world apart, and how people will react, as the market collapses and the source of plenty evaporates.
The magic flow of plenty
An old Scottish fairytale told of a fortunate village to which the fairies had given a magic cask in return for some good turn. Any time there was something to celebrate the villagers just turned the tiny spigot and the wine and communal goodwill would flow, inexhaustible. Everything went along beautifully until the day a curious housemaid decided to see just exactly how it all worked. She unscrewed the tiny spigot and took a peek inside. Nothing there but dust and ancient spiderwebs. And from that time on, the fairy wine cask yielded not a single drop of magic wine.
There are many ways to read this story in the light of our time. One is that we must never look too closely at what produces the magic flow of plenty we dream will continue forever. Look inside at its dark workings and the happy dream of 'forever' will be shattered. Scarcity, dust and ruin are waiting to be discovered inside it.
Another is that the earth sustains our life with its magical weave of infinite relationships of mutual dependency between all life forms and the elements that sustain them — water, air, soil, minerals, sunlight ... Some call this peerless magic 'ecology', or 'nature'. Others may see it as the grace that animates creation. Failing to trust and protect this perpetually self-renewing gift, attempting instead to exploit it as a bounty earmarked for our exclusive use, we tear the web of life apart.
Let's take a kind of quick housemaid's peek inside the industrialised version of the fairy barrel and trace the biography of a typical North American tomato, as Peter Bahouth has described it. A genetically patented hybrid tomato derived from a Mexican strain is grown on land originally farmed by Mexican farmers in agricultural cooperatives. The new strain has low tolerance for local conditions so the land is fumigated with an intensely ozone-depleting chemical, methyl bromide, then doused in pesticides. The toxic waste from production of these chemicals is shipped to one of the world's largest chemical dumps in Alabama which is situated in a poor black neighbourhood, with marked effects on local health. The Mexican farm workers, displaced from their cooperatives but permitted to apply the pesticide to the plants now grown on what was once their farmland, are given no protection or instructions in proper application of such dangerous substances. They are paid around $2.50 a day and offered no form of health care.
The tomatoes are placed on plastic-foam trays and covered in plastic wrap, then packed in cardboard boxes. The plastic wrap is manufactured in Texas, where local residents suffer exposure to the dioxins that are by-products to chlorine manufacture and highly hazardous to their health. The cardboard boxes, which were once three-hundred-year-old trees harvested from an old-growth forest in British Columbia, are manufactured thousands of miles distant in the Great Lakes district, then shipped by truck all the way back to Latin American farms using oil extracted and processed in Mexico.
The boxed tomatoes are artificially ripened with ether. Now watery, weary and nutritionally compromised, the tomatoes are sent by refrigerated trucks on vast freeway networks all over North America. Ozone-depleting CFC cooling equipment is used at every stage of their delivery to the tables of 'consumers' (once called 'people') who are bound to wonder what on earth has happened to that delectable fruit that once went by the name 'tomato'.
While there is no evil master plan of ecological destruction in this story, and little conscious intent to destroy communities and life-ways, disfigure the countryside and ruin the climate, nevertheless it is one small part of an overarching system that effectively does evil by way of countless repetitive, cumulative failures of care and conscience, easily brushed aside in the process of maximising profit.
Nature always was and still is the real magic barrel. Its gift economy of ever-evolving life provided the original soil, water, seed and flowering plants, and eventually the small red fruit that could be coaxed by human ingenuity and toil into large juicy tomatoes. The industrial super-magic barrel took over from there, turning this cyclical flow of gifts into a one-way flow of profit into a few hands. The product was wrought from nature at extraordinary cost to natural systems, while its engineers refuse point-blank to register on its balance sheets the vast destruction of 'natural capital' that it involves. That's a 'magic' that fast wears out its welcome.
Incidentally, there's no report in the story of the fairy-barrel village ever sharing its great luck with any neighbouring villages. The village apparently felt secure in its superior fortune, and a sense of entitlement no doubt helped cover over its naked mean-spiritedness. But a fairy gift can be double-edged. Misuse exceptional good fortune and you become cold and alienated, poverty-stricken in ways you may not even notice. Until the next time you try to turn the tiny magic spigot and find the supply of all that really matters most has run out forever.
Minds and worlds
These days I can find myself in many worlds — or at least entertaining many propositions about what this world is and what its fate may be — in even a single day. A whole flicker of darting thought and retreat from thought like schools of fish, surging this way then that. News of gigantic Antarctic ice shelves breaking away; the Gulf of Mexico fast becoming a vast ocean dead spot; the Great Barrier Reef expected not to survive beyond two more decades; phytoplankton, the foundation of the entire marine food chain, reduced by 40% since 1950 due to warming seawater; island nations pleading eloquently and uselessly in Copenhagen and Cancun; global poverty set to skyrocket with climate collapse; the gap between rich and poor growing to obscene extreme ... My thoughts dart this way and that, surging like schools of fish, and my emotions follow. In the never-ending avalanche of factoids, opinions, gossip, trivia, brands and sound bites, there is no space or sufficient quiet for sorrow, reflection and resolve.
Is it like this for you? How are you dealing with it?
When I walk out into the world well away from phones, I-gadgets, internet, radio, television or newsprint and walk on the earth and breathe the open air, I begin to recollect myself and come back to earth. I gradually become a humble, humorous, earthy human being again, who belongs here as thoroughly as every natural thing I can find around me. This may be easier in the green and flowing world that lies beyond the nearly perfect human trance we call a city, but even in the city the earth is always in reach, and when the earth is in reach, wonder is in spitting distance. The weed life taking root in the cracks of the pavement, a glimpse of a pelican moving above the buildings, a cat's cool stare from a warm brick wall, a puddle riffled by breeze disturbing its upside-down reflections, a tree root powering its slow way out of the asphalt and into a gutter ...
Just as they draw my attention, my attention calls them back to vivid life. Consciousness is partner to the composing of a 'world'. Every sentient being creates an entire world according to its earth-given style of sentience and its experience of life. The world of the blowfly blundering into a room will be utterly unlike the world of the person trying to ignore its frantic buzzing, though both breathe the same air and drink the same water. The poet, Anne Carson, says, 'There is no person without a world'; equally, there is no 'world' in the fully human, conscious sense of that word, without a person. Every human death takes with it an entire and unrepeatable world, a whole realm of memories, dreams, reflections, beliefs and observations. We suffer this fact in the loss of each other, and in fear of our own imagined loss of ourselves. If we do finally swat that blundering blowfly with a tea towel, what can we really know of the world extinguished in a single swipe?
Although there are countless trillions of worlds alive on earth, in 1968 astronauts Lovell, Anders and Borman of the Apollo 8 space mission became the first human beings to leave earth's orbit and see our one entire blue-green planet swimming in black space. The depth of surprise and awe in those three men suggest they did not merely witness an amazing physical fact but a surpassing and singular miracle. They found themselves deeply stirred by this planet's luminous presence. Earth brought them to tears.
Until we can expand our scope beyond self-centred and purely human concerns to hold in mind the trillion worlds alive on this one earth at any moment, and to glimpse ourselves exactly in that vibrant, seamless web of interconnectedness, we are living in a kind of madness — which is to say, not living in reality. The great question of our time is whether or not we will prove able to wake into full awareness of the earth, and the geophysical changes now in play, in time to avert full-blown catastrophe.
Even beyond skilful crisis management and regaining the intelligence needed for survival, such a challenge actually offers the exhilarating chance to reawaken to our real nature, which has never departed one inch from reality. For what is realisation or enlightenment but the earth speaking to us directly, with our own noise no longer overwhelming the signal?
The unending call and response between human mind and Planet Earth can be dimmed but it cannot be turned off. It can be hard to hear over the avalanche of distractions, but the moment our resistance softens or just mysteriously gives way, it cannot be silenced. At that moment we have arrived at the place where truly minding the earth begins.
Our increasing impertinence (to use a word which originally meant not just rudeness but lack of relevance) is that we have, somewhere in the march of 'civilisation', lost the humble amazement of feeling the earth and ourselves to be a prodigious unearned gift from the universe. How did we make ourselves self-appointed lords of the earth and, like spoilt children, throw all gratitude and humility out the window?
A deeper chord of human-earth relatedness composes the very cells of our body and lies entirely undisturbed by all our puerile strutting, but while we cannot kill the fundamental relatedness, we have broken our accord with the earth, and that may have us ejected yet again from Eden — this time setting fire to the Ark on the way.
'The world', from our earliest emergence as a species, has always signified a human project entwined completely with nature. But the advent of human agency in shaping the earth has now reached a point where the fate of much of the biosphere of the planet is in the slippery, forgetful hands of human beings. And we have forgotten that our fate, too, is completely entwined with the fate of the earth.
Clear and present danger
And the earth is slowly cooking. The last time earth experienced such warming was about 55 million years ago, when temperatures rose by about 11°F over the course of around 20,000 years, at far slower rate than the current pace of warming.
And it's not just the way we're pouring carbon pollution and its by-products into the atmosphere, just as if it were an open sewer, that's destroying the balance of climate. It's the humidity that comes with the heat, holding more water, causing freak downpours, killer mudslides, massive flooding, lethal snowstorms. It's the carbon pollution killing the oceans, turning them too acid as well as too warm. It's the concatenating effects of extinctions of species and destruction of habitats, the demolition of rivers, mountains and forests, and the concreting-over of the fathomless beauty and diversity of the planet. It is the burden we are bearing of our own increasing moral squalor, in knowing we are living far too fat, by means of so much unending damage.
And for all the talk of decarbonising the economy, we know that the rate of damage is actually only changing into higher gear. The carbon stored in the Alberta tar sands that Canada is presently preparing to process and transport by the massive Keystone pipeline network to the USA is estimated to have the capacity to raise the median temperature by a catastrophic 4°C. The rise by 0.9°C since 1950 has been enough to set in train significant disruptive weather events, almost clear the Arctic waters of summer ice, and threaten to release the vast methane banks stored in the melting tundra subsoil. The planet is already heating to the point where major world cities face inundation and drought is becoming endemic to large areas of the world's 'bread basket'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Minding the Earth, Mending the World"
Copyright © 2014 Susan Murphy.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The chair, the kitchen table 1
Part I A planet in crisis
Chapter 1 The koan of the earth 15
Chapter 2 What if this was real? 33
Part II Seeing the frame
Chapter 3 How stories frame us 61
Chapter 4 Stories we've been telling ourselves 71
Part III Breaking the frame
Chapter 5 Natural mind 111
Chapter 6 Stories we need to hear now 139
Chapter 7 Earthed 160
Chapter 8 Reinventing the human 179
Part IV Minding the earth
Chapter 9 Medicine and sickness heal each other 201
Chapter 10 Where do you find your self? 226
Part V A medicine bundle of koans
Chapter 11 On opening the bundle 241
Epilogue: The country after the burn 298
Further Reading 311