Sunday, January 10, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Two

This is the next part of the book I am writing. It doesn't really have much directly to do with Daoism, but it does address the issue of why I am what people usually call a "religious" instead of a "philosophical" Daoist. I'm using the provisional title of "The Vow of Sustainability" for this essay---for reasons that will eventually become obvious as I work through it.

The Crisis We Face

The human race currently faces an environmental catastrophe that has several elements that make it particularly dangerous. First of all, it is unprecedented in the dangers it presents to human civilization. Secondly, due to the mathematical laws that govern the way it is progressing, the human race is almost doomed to not understand and react until it is too late to take the action necessary to avert catastrophe. Finally, the only actions that seem like they would be sufficient to avert catastrophe seem to dramatically undermine key biological and social imperatives.

There is no sense in writing yet another screed that explains the dangers of CO2 emissions. Anyone who hasn't heard the news is simply refusing to listen. But I think it is important to understand a few key points that many people may not understand. First of all, there is a significant danger that global warming may have a “tipping point” beyond which positive feedback will cause it to accelerate dramatically no matter what human beings do. “Positive feedback” is a phenomenon where a specific result of an activity is channelled back into the original process that results in that original activity being sped up or intensified. An example everyone has seen is where a microphone is held too close to a speaker in a public address system. The loud squeal is the result of the sound that microphone picks up being amplified through the speaker, where it is picked up again by the microphone and made louder by the speaker, and then fed to the microphone yet again, which gets louder again until the limits of the speaker are reached---or the microphone is moved or turned off.

There are several possible ways that positive feedback could dramatically speed up climate change.

First of all, large areas in the earth's surface are composed of “permafrost”. These are places where the soil remains frozen all year around. They are a sort of permanent “deep freeze” which hasn't melted for thousands of years. (It is because of this permanent cold that we are able to find preserved woolly mammoths.) Many of these areas contain large quantities of frozen organic matter that if melted would release large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is many times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. If a great amount of methane is released, the earth will get warmer, which will cause more permafrost to melt. This will release even more methane, and so on. Some areas of permafrost are already melting.

Secondly, the area around the North Pole has traditionally been covered by sea ice. Ice is very good at reflecting the sun's energy. If it melts, then it is replaced by dark sea water---which is much better at absorbing heat. If the sea absorbs enough heat, then there are going to be fewer and fewer days when the sea is covered by ice. This, in turn, means that the sea absorbs more heat, which means that there are even fewer days when the water is covered by ice. The water around the North Pole is already clear of ice for longer times each year than at any time in history. So much so that nations around the world are scrambling to claim it for oil drilling and as a sea lane.

One final example involves temperate forests. As temperatures rise, insect infestations which are controlled by the cold of winter will become more widespread. As these insects move through forests, they kill off trees which then dry out and become tinder for forest fires. And when those trees burn, they release more carbon which then increases the CO2 in the atmosphere, which in turn raises the temperature over the winter, which allows more insect pests to survive. At some point global warming may result in massive forest fires across the boreal forests of Canada and Russia, which would release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. It is already the case that a current Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak in British Columbia is 10 times larger than anything recorded before. And this, in turn, has fed massive forest fires in that province.

Beyond the problem of positive feedback leading to an accelerating climate crisis, there are other significant ecological problems that are rarely mentioned in the popular press because the scientific and environmental community believes it is best to focus on the one issue of CO2 emmissions first. These include things like the acidification of the seas, the global accumulation of fixed nitrogen, transgenerational genetic damage caused by chemical pollution, and so on. Moreover, it needs to be remembered that because of the huge resources that have gone into studying climate change, many of these issues have probably also been starved of research funding, which means that there may be even bigger problems that we are don't even know about. (The so-called “unknown unknowns”.)


mkp said...

Just a quick word to say that I read and enjoy your blog - so thank you for writing it. You're thoughful and articulate.

I'm really intrigued that you describe yourself as a religious taoist - especially because of your attitude and understanding of science. For example I think you're right about TCM, but didn't expect a religious taoist to say it - so I'm looking forward to your take on what the 'religious-philosophical taoism' distinction actually is because it obviously isn't what I thought (though I do know that some people say that this distinction doesn't really hold up).

For myself, my interest in these matters comes via very western sources indeed - writers such as Ursula le Guin and Raymond Smullyan. I'm pretty resistant to what I repond to as ostentatiously 'wise' writing - I couldn't even hack Alan Watts, though I really did try.

Are you going to tell us where the name 'Cloud Walking Owl' comes from?

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks. Feedback is always appreciated.

When a Daoist is initiated into the religion they were traditionally given a religious name that comes from a specific poem. If someone knows this, they can tell what lineage they come from and roughly when they were initiated from the name.

When I kow-towed before the altar, however, I wasn't given a name. (I didn't know anything about what was going on, let alone this specific detail.) I've since found out that the lineage of the fellow who initiated me (from the Yuen-Yuen Institute) was all mixed-up because of the Communist revolution in China. So his not giving me a name might have been his own choice or something that came from his own background.

Since I accept the fact that I have to be an innovator simply because of the situation I find myself in, I decided to give myself my own religious name. I've taken on the name "Cloudwalking Owl" for two specific reasons. First of all, "Cloudwalking" is a practice/stage in some religious Daoist's lives where they travel from one religious institution to another in order to seek knowledge. (Most of these were in the mountains, hence the term "Cloudwalking".) Since I've left the place where I was initiated and don't have a spiritual home, I spend a bit of time in other religious groups as a "visiter" (for example, I joined a Unitarian congregation, saw a Catholic spiritual adiviser for years and have attende Buddhist retreats.) As such, I see myself as currently doing a bit of "cloudwalking". The "Owl" comes from my last name, which is old Welsh for "member of the Owl clan".

If at some future date my situation or understanding changes, I might change my religious name to reflect that.