Monthly Archives: March 2006

Diversity and microgeneration

A friend and I had an email conversation about water recently. He reminded me that it was once each individual’s responsibility in the sense the they seeked it out and found solutions to their own water problem. And in a way this is similar to what we need to do now with microgeneration – find our own solutions.

Microgeneration is also like diversity in the sense that unique solutions must be found for each case. But govenerments in the so-called developed world have set up barriers to microgeneration in the form of controls and regulations. Whereas once we created our own solutions without restriction today everything needs approval before it can be done. Thus governments are a hinderance to our well-being “inadvertantly”.

While I understand the need for such restrictions and regulations in today’s close-knit society I still believe it might not be to the benefit of its people. finding solutions to energy – like finding solutions to water – that were once solved by individuals are now out of their hands and placed in a collective effort. And when the system fails like in the 2003 North America Black Out large sections of society are put out. But I don’t think it is such an inconvenience since the benefits outweigh the occasional ‘hickup’. However there seems to be a lack of diversity in energy generation, something that I think is important even if it is more complicated, time-consuming or troublesome to create.

This might seem like going against the ideas in my last water and the government article it does not because governments must find unique solutions for each case. What I am not satisfied with is the way governments homogenize everything and everyone. The very words “our government” blind us to the fact that not all indivduals accept the decisions it makes. In other words, the system and the people it is governing is anything but homogenous and politicians need to remind themselves of that.

Simply, diversity must be seen to be everywhere.

Water is the government’s responsibility

“Governments, not private firms, must take responsibility for getting water to their people, a new report argues.”

Why is it today we need a new report to tell us the obvious. When I was a secondary student our Economics teacher taught us that basic utilities like water, electicity, gas and telephone are the responsibility of the government. And that was the way it was and should be.

When utilities like water move from service to business profit becomes the bottom-line. But what about the farm a little out of the way who is not getting water and will not get water because the water business decided it was not profitable or not in its interest? Would this farm not get the benefits if it had been a tax payer?

A service would not think twice in making subsistance possible for this farmer. A business will see profit first over viability. But what the government does not realize is that we need people like this farmer, for diversity is a key ingredient to survival.

Diversity within any system is essential whether in nature or human constructed ones like the economy. Somehow we have come to a point where we simply have forgotten that we are part of a larger system that follow the physical and biophysical laws of the universe and that even our system must follow this.

It is a like a “good” Hollywood movie: it is so real we think the movie is the reality. How many people have you known literally bend over backwards to avoid bullets? It can only happen on film. And even if it can happen in reality the effort involved is much. So we need a reality-check. In short, we, humankind, are so good at deception that we even deceive ourselves.

So when are we going to wake up to the fact that we have been deceived by the economic discourse?

Happy Birthday, Dr David Suzuki

Today is David Suzuki‘s seventieth birthday.

The first time I became aware of this Canadian geneticist was in a children’s science program. But it was years later before I saw him again on television. This time he was talking at the Foreign Press Club in Australia. It was then I realized that he was an environmentalist. He was a passionate and articulate speaker much like David Bellamy (British botanist) or David Attenborough (British naturalist).

It was this televised speech that got me curious about environmentalism. Back then I associated this term with radical thinking, protests and trouble makers. A nuisance was what I thought of them. For this humble and concerned man talked about problems I was scarcely aware of, or worse, I dismissed as alarmist. But he made some sense and it shattered the image I had of environmentalism and environmentalists.

Then a couple of years later I came across one of Dr Suzuki’s books – Good News for a Change – when I was stuck in Calary Airport due the Big North American Black Out of 2003 . Remembering how impressed I was with his talk I bought it and read at the airport. And this is not an exaggeration: every page shocked me. The things I didn’t like about politicians, big businesses, society and culture suddenly began to make sense, as did the big outage I was sitting in just then.

Sometimes we have to be pushed over the edge before we see things that are plainly in front of us, because we choose to blind ourselves of the truth as it is simpler. It is a kind of laziness. It is a human trait to be lazy and therefore senseless. I noticed this in Buddhism about ten years ago. And I noticed how everything – like theory – seemed to point towards laziness as the cause of most of our problems.

So this very page – I guess you could say it is on our problems – wouldn’t be here if it was not for Dr Suzuki. So I thank him and I pay homage to him. And I pay homage to all human beings out there who are trying to make this world a better place, whether it is through environmentalism, Buddhism, theory or any other honest means. But remember it is possible to get lazy in any of these things also, just like any human endeavour. It is possible to be misguided no matter how good our intentions are. It is possible to be not honest even in environmentalism, Buddhism or theory. That is something I learned from this great man. You need to be rigourous and with scrutiny, always.

Happy 70th Birthday, Dr Suzuki.

Woking the Green Path

Woking, England… remember this name. Because this town of 90,000 is showing us that it is possible to cut carbon emissions by 77 percent.

Related Posts:
Micro-generation

Buddhist practice may help spread the bird flu

In a recent article entitled “Bird Flu Puts an Element Of Peril into Buddhist Rite” Alan Sipress points out the possibly of a link between certain Buddhist rites and the spread of bird flu in Asia. In countries like Cambodia Taiwan and Thailand the practice of “releasing” birds as a way to gain “karma points” is widespread. And it is because of the nature of caging a large number of birds together for a length of time that concerns environmental groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Environmental issues aside I am more concerned of the Buddhist practice itself. One Cambodian monk interviewed in the article recounted the story of Shakyamuni (the Buddha) helping an arrow-wounded swan. He nursed it back to health before releasing it. And it is on the basis of this story that the practice became widespread.

Yet the birds used for release in these countries are neither sick nor injured. They are captured for the sole purpose of the “act of release”. Children apparently attempt to recapture the birds as soon as they are released in order to resell them (I guess this could be called recycling). One bird vender even boasted that she sells one thousand birds on most days.

Mr Sipress pointed out that the practitioners and bird-sellers seldom remark on the contradiction of trapping of the birds for release. But this comes as no surprise to me as I often talk about the difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhism. And this is just one good example of what I dislike about Buddhism as a social organization.

If the Buddha were to see this practice today he would no doubt be saddened by the empty gesture. Practice is not about acts like this. It is about sincerity and rigour. From the article Mr Sipress did not come across as being Buddhist, so he was rather cool about it all. But I feel, as a buddhist, the bird-act cheapens the “religion” of Buddhism.

Mara’s Dictionary – government; politics

government [s] – (n) a hinderance to the well-being of its people. (see also politics)

politics [s] – (n) a hinderance to the well-being of the people of other nations. (see also government)

See the rest of Mara’s Dictionary.

Nature+Youth=Environmentalism

A new study has shown that exposure to nature at a young age may lead to environmental awareness. But it stresses that freeplay with nature, rather than controlled or organized exposure, to be the key. One of the authors of the study, Nancy Wells, wrote:

“Participating in nature-related activities that are mandatory [like the scouts or other forms of environmental education programs] evidently do not have the same effects as free play in nature, which don’t have demands or distractions posed by others and may be particularly critical in influencing long-term environmentalism.”

And all the more reason we should worry when The Economist warns us with an article on rural and urban population in its The World in 2006 magazine. It said for the first time in the history of humankind there will be more people living in the city than the country. Put another way it means more children are seeing and interacting less with nature, and they have no choice.

This reminds me of one of my favourite sustainability jokes, Most people in the city have come up from the country to make enough money to leave the city and live in the country. Joke aside, the above humour has two flaws to its attitude. Firstly, it suggests that that it is hard to make a living in the country. But that really it all depends on how much you make and spend. Quoting my father, who is a fountain of wisdom, he said, “it doesn’t matter how much you make, three-thousand dollars or three-million, if you spend one-dollar more than you earn you are in the red”.

So in this case, country living does not necessarily equate to poverty – country life can be comfortable but not extravagant. It is only when the city glitter blinds you that you are made to feel inadequate. Which brings me to the second flaw: after being blinded by the city glitter and you return to country living you are all but unprepared for its frugal, but sustainable, lifestyle. And this is why you need that money – to bring with you the luxuries and convenience of the city that you are now so used to.

So why not just not get blinded by the city glitter? Why not feel adequate and proud of your frugally sustainable country life? City people are really just deluded and insecure. Someday they will realize their iPods don’t make them a better person, but hearing the music in nature will. It seems that people like Ms Wells and the guy who wrote The Economist article (and the thousands of other people who write on environmentalism) are saying most of us need to get to know nature before we forget how to live within it.

Mara’s Dictionary

Note: This is a dictionary of humour, not of actual accepted definitions in use, though some of it might have some truth in them.

Key: [s] = sustainability, [t] = theory, [b] = buddhism

biodiversity [s] – (n) a tertiary education institution divided into two distinct levels for the animal kingdom and humankind, with the former being higher.

decadance [s] – (n) [pronounced: dead can dance] 1. to live as though the ‘dead can dance’. 2. Title of I M Wallstreet’s 1985 bestseller, Decadance: Ten Ways to Waltz from Rags to (the) Riches.

differance [t] – (n) [pronounced: the France] The desconstruction term used to put France on the map (orig. late 20c. see also Derrida).

government [s] – (n) a hinderance to the well-being of its people. (see also politics)

internet security – (n. phr.) the warm fuzzy feeling one gets when one connects to their internet service provider and finds is not down due to server failure or maintenance.

no-soul [b] – (n) 1. what some people don’t have. 2. what some people don’t have.

park ranger [s] – (n) the electronic device on the back of modern cars that warn you before you reverse into an endangered tree.

politics [s] – (n) a hinderance to the well-being of the people of other nations. (see also government)

post-modern [t] – (v. ph.) [or post… modern] what most bloggers are doing when they write junk.

Shakyamuni [b] – (prop. n) the name used to denote the period in the Buddha’s life after he left his teachers to search for enlightenment alone. He is the distant relative of 1980s pop singer, Chaka Khan.

sustainable economics [s] – (n) what economists think is possible, but environmentalists do not.

sustainable politics [s] – (n) 1. a politician’s ability to continue to deceive the voters long after he has left office. 2. there is no such thing.

theory [t] – (n) what everybody believes their own to be right, but nobody can prove.

What is Mara’s Dictionary
I have always wanted to write my own dictionary. And now I have. It is called Mara’s Dictionary. Its style was inspired by “Wiley’s Dictionary” that regularly features in Johnny Hart’s very funny, very cynical BC comic strip. And the title is a tongue-in-cheek take on Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.

Mara is the embodiment of death (and temptation) in Buddhism, which can be loosely equated to the Christian concept of the Devil. And all the words in the dictionary are related to the blog’s main theme – sustainability, the Buddha and theory – in some way.

I will continue to add new “definitions” as I go. Right now, I am aiming for a list of 50 words before the blog’s first anniversary (mid-February, 2007).

What Is Sustainability?

This is the first in a series of main articles relating to sustainability. A new article on either sustainability, the buddha or theory will be posted fortnightly.

The idea of sustainable development – or sustainability – was first given prominence in the 1987 United Nations report, Our Common Future. Also called the Brundtland Report (named in honour of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the leading spokesperson for the report) it puts forward the idea that the current level of natural resource consumption by the industrialized world and the growing economies of developing nations (together with a rapidly increasing population) is unsustainable. In pragmatic terms sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Weak and strong sustainability

Sustainability is sometimes described as either being weak or strong. Weak sustainability does not differentiate between human-made capital and natural capital, while strong sustainability makes that distinction. In weak sustainability, the measure of natural capital as profit loss – or gain – is seen to be sufficient in defining the problems of sustainability. But strong sustainability contends that this is too human-centred – from the perspective of human interests only – and is insufficient in tackling the problem of our unsustainable practices. Furthermore, strong sustainability sees discussion of sustainability from within economic jargon or terminology as problematic. In other words, it keeps the agenda wholly within economic defining boundaries.

In strong sustainability the present value system of human-based structures are seen as working against the values of nature-based mechanism or biosystem. In short, present human discourse ignores and suppresses (oppresses) nature, seeing only a binary opposition between humankind and nature with the former on top.

Case against sustainability

There is also the extreme view that the sustainability discourse is simply untrue – that it is possible to continue our present pattern of consumption indefinitely. The argument goes like this: through our ingenuity and technology we will create new and alternative ways to sustain (or even increase) our present levels of consumption.

But such an argument often ignores the fact that 1) it is the very same science and technology they are putting their faith in that is the cause of current environment environmental problems, and 2) resources are finite. It is with this kind of cultural logic and wishful thinking that Western culture has driven humankind toward ecological collapse “taking with them to their graves” other life forms along the way. There is no doubt the ecological system can and will recover from such a collapse but it is unlikely to include humankind in its picture.

Brundtland report revisited

If one had to say whether the Brundtland Report is of the weak or strong sustainability variety, one would have to say it is of the weak kind. Because human needs are given priority over those of other life forms that we share this planet (…meeting human needs… , etc). This kind of thinking can also be called anthropocentric where little or no consideration is given to the larger picture that is the environment. It ignores the systems that govern life-giving interaction.

The anthropocentric binary (though not really its opposite) is the biocentric view, which takes in account all life forms and resources within the system in which humankind is a part. Thus in the biocentric view we are neither the only life form, nor the better one (due to our uncanny ability to manipulate or alter the environment). In fact, the ability of radical manipulation should be seen as a weakness, not as a strength.

I say this because as intelligent as we are we have lost the ability to adapt to the environment. And by adapting the environment to suit us – instead of adapting to the environment – we may someday lose all ability to survive in the less habitable world of the future that we are creating for ourselves this very moment.

30 Days of Sustainability

Does anyone know anything about the 30 Days of Sustainability event in Vancouver, Canada? It has this great looking website but I have heard little about it. A great idea that perhaps can be mimicked elsewhere.

Micro-generation

“Planning obstacles for small-scale [example: micro-generation] renewable energy schemes would be reduced – and to meet targets, it’s been suggested local authorities could provide financial incentives for using renewable energy.” (From the BBC)

It is truly sad to live in a society where incentives are needed (for the government and citizens) to get us to use more environmentally friendly energy sources like micro-generation.

In a blialogue (a blog-dialogue) recent I was made to think about why it was necessary to work so hard when the rest of the world was going against your grain. The other party in the conversation suggested that all the hard work of pushing for sustainability is nullified by the actions of politics and business, so, to him, it seemed a waste of time. But I say without the effort and successes at smaller levels we will have no example of workable solutions. To show that it is viable is what we should be aiming for as the little people. The big people do not see (or refuse to see) the long-term value of this, because it goes against the current dominant society and culture’s philosophy of immediate gain.

Information Superhighway I

Sometimes you have be careful… be very careful.

This site is an example of how the internet can be misused for whatever purpose.

A blogger I know had confidently given this site as authoritative. Albeit he might have been a victim. The sutra references were completely fabricated. And the books he referenced in his post on Buddhism came directly from the site’s page, which also gave PDF files of extended passages from the books. I seem to vaguely recall this breaks certain copyright laws in most countries around the world (plus they have probably altered the text to suit their purpose).

While I do not know the exact reason why the creators of this site wanted to deceive, all I need to know is that it is there, and to be always weary of the possibility of deception. The Buddha said:

“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ – then you should enter and remain in them.” Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.65

I can assure you this quote is there. But do not take my word for it. Look it up. Recall these words and remember scrutiny and rigour are of utmost importance in an information-rich world. Because in this age of the information superhighway ease in obtaining information also means ease in distributing disinformation.

“Not Necessary”…

… was what my Zen teacher, Harada Tangen Roshi, used to say. And he used to say it to me a lot. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but I must have done and said some pretty moronic things. Oh, how short, my memory!

So figuring out what exactly is not necessary in life has been a kind of hobby (read: obsession) of mine since. I first took this “knife” to the very thing that fed me – Buddhism. To me, the Noble Eightfold Path is pretty much about what is necessary and what is not – like when to speak and when to refrain, etc. But what is interesting about this Path is the last one, that of right concentration. Without this concentration, or meditation, what the Buddha taught would have been no different to a philosophy. It is the necessary component that makes it different to philosophy.

But as I have said elsewhere what the Buddha taught cannot be seen as a religion either, at least not in the conventional sense. Note that I make a sharp distinction between the Buddha (what he taught) and Buddhism. To me, they are not the same. While Buddhism shows signs of religion (organization, structure, etc) the same could not be said about what he taught. The “community” or sangha, I believe, had a much wider meaning to the Buddha. Also the monasteries were not a place to dwell or meet, except only for convenience sake that it was necessary for it to be so. And his teaching was not a set formula but an open and varied practice (it included right livelihood showing the Path was also for the lay person).

So if the Buddha’s teaching can neither be seen as religion nor philosophy, then what can it be seen as? Let me ask another question: does it really need a label? Labels are such a human affair. For the fastidious perhaps, labels are necessary but not for this writer. There is nothing wrong saying it in the long-hand. So I will leave it at that, for I feel no more needs to be said.

But it is necessary to mention sustainability here, and take the knife of necessity to present humankind, because this is what my blog is about. And the entire blog is about how it is necessary to think about sustainability today, and how it is not necessary to consume as much as we do. It is decadance. And its root lie in his (I will blame man because he didn’t listen to woman more) fortuitous affluence and complacency. It is the if-you-have-it-flaunt-it or use-it-or-lose-it kinds of attitudes of our society that has amplifiied the sustainability problem unnecessarily.

Environmentalism Is Not Religion

Martin Livermore – an independent consultant with a background in industry, covering a range of science, communication and policy issues – might have been talking about people like me when he wrote this essay for the BBC’s Green Room.

In it, he asks the question, should we not think about humankind first before trying to save other species? So he thinks we are worrying too much about nature and other lifeforms and not worried about our own. He believes we have become too zealous in treading the green path.

He argues that:

“Admittedly, a few key evolutionary advantages make us [humankind] remarkably adaptable and, currently, the ultimate generalist; but it still makes us part of Nature, and our use of human ingenuity is every bit as natural as a spider’s web or a swallow’s migratory pattern.”

This is a point which many use to argue the anthropocentric viewpoint, one that I think is flawed. Let me be postmodernist and argue from within his article.

Mr Livermore gave the example of the conservation efforts for the bison population in Yellowstone by culling wolves. He calls this effort misguided because it led to a bison overpopulation crisis which then caused even more problems. In the end, the wolf culling was stopped in order to bring back a balance to the system. And he is right. The conservationists were going about problem the wrong way.

But has he not here argued a case for nonintervention, rather than one that says conservation is bad? And is it not ironic that it is through human intervention that the human population is where it is today? We are “culling our wolves” to get the human population at its level, through medicine, technology and other means. In other words, we are as foolish as those bison conservationists just mentioned when it comes to human conservation.

And as Mr Livermore has shown we do need the wolves to bring back a balance. The difference is whereas bisons have their wolves to keep them in check the humankind does not – not yet. Like a pendulum the environment will eventually bring things back into balance. It is just that “our predator” has not yet come.

And as for value judgments, yes, who is to say a dormouse is better than a rat… or that a man is better than a dormouse. At the risk of sounding postmodern Mr Livermore has actually sounded modern, in all its negative sense. He has mistakenly understood postmodernism to mean we can no longer hold on to values, when actually postmodern means we must hold on to many values, but none can be the absolutely correct one.

Yes, we are part of nature, as he pointed out, and so may human ingenuity. But so is human shortsightedness and arrogance. And ironically, so is our ability to see beyond tomorrow or this generation. It is possible to view nature in a different way. People, like Mr Livermore, just need to realize that there is not only one pair of rose tinted glasses, but many.

A Short Introduction to the Buddha

The Buddha, who is said to have inspired the “religion” of Buddhism, has been a major influence on my life and thinking since I was sixteen. And today I continue to practice as a non-monk.

There are plenty of Buddhists and plenty of environmentalists out there, but very few are consciously “ecoBuddhists” or “Buddho-environmentalists”. And although I do not think I am one I have chosen to write about sustainability and Buddhism, and how they relate to me. Most people who find this page have probably reached it via the sustainability aspect of my blog rather than through the Buddha aspect. So I feel I owe it to my readers that I explain the Buddha and Buddhism in order not to be misunderstood. And to my Buddhists readers I need to explain why I feel sustainability is an important issue for them as well.

The Buddha
The Buddha lived about 2,500 years ago around the area now can be loosely referred as the Indo-Nepalese border. He claimed neither to be a god, nor to be a son of a god, nor to be a prophet. He claimed to be just an ordinary man. Although he was born a prince (and I do not know of any princes who can claim to have special powers) it is said he renounced his noble life in order to find true happiness.

In being an ordinary man then it is difficult to say what he taught could be called “religion”. While I am aware that the Buddhisms of today may have become religion-like some time in the past it doesn’t necessarily follow that what he taught was religion. And this is a point I hold as truly important.

As I wrote, the Buddha was born a prince. And until he left home to find happiness, he had lived a life of luxury and beauty, sheilded from the truth of the world by his father. He was about 29 when he made this decision.

After studying under the two most renowned teachers of the time he left them to search for an even greater truth. And at the age of 35 he came to a great realization and from then on he called “the Buddha” or the enlightened one.

His teaching
1.
Being an ordinary man claiming no divinity it is only logical that what he taught would be nothing but mundane (not extraordinary). And that was the way it was – there were no gods, no supreme power, nothing there that is greater the physical world in his scheme of things.

His taught that all things are marked by impermanence. And it is interesting to note that even Buddhism did not stand outside of this truth according to him. No other religion, teaching or philosophy has stated this.

So man’s folly had been to think there could be anything permanent to hold onto. This mistake the Buddha called suffering. If one accepted that nothing is permanent then one will come to see that our actions are suffering ridden and will lead to more suffering as such.

The last main logical idea that follows from impermanence and suffering is that there is no soul or no-self. It is simply the greatest hinderance to us for finding “true happiness”. The idea of no-self too has no equivalent in any other religion.

So with the understanding of these three characteristics of existence he taught that it was possible to end suffering, the “true happiness” he had been seeking. Today we know this basic teaching as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths are statements which proclaim the idea of suffering, its cause, its cure and the curing procedure. And the curing procedure here is the Noble Eightfold Path, which covers every aspect of how we should live and practice in order reach the goal of true happiness or enlightenment.

2.
Before I wrap up this short introduction to the Buddha and his teaching there are two more concepts in Buddhism which I feel need clarification. They are 1) reincarnation and karma, and 2) the Buddha’s view of the mind.

Reincarnation is neither an idea unique nor original to Buddhism. It was a concept borrowed from Hinduism, the dominant religion in the Buddha’s culture during his lifetime. And the idea of karma likewise was also borrowed from Hinduism. However they differ to Hindu concepts.

Hinduism espouses that one need to seek to be reborn in higher and higher planes to finally unite with an ultimate being. But since the Buddha rejected the notion of an ultimate power or being ,the goal of reincarnation has to be necessarily different. The Buddha’s concept is one where one must try to end reincarnation (the cycle of rebirth) which is the true happiness.

Again karma in Hinduism is about producing good karma and avoiding bad karma in order to be reborn in higher and higher planes, again, until one unites with the ultimate being. Thus the Buddha did not see the production of karma – good or bad – as something that is desirable but rather something to be avoided all together. Moreover, the effects of karma only operated on the original producer of the karma. So what we do has no real effect on people, place and things around us, and to think so is incorrect. This is a sticking point for many Western non-Buddhists (and some Buddhists as well) but it really only has to be worked through in order to be grasped.

And the second concept – the mind – is another sticking point for many Westerners. In the Buddha’s teaching the mind is thought of as a sense organ, like the eye, ear, tongue, nose or skin. Its primary function is to comprehend the information from the other senses, as well as, to create new information. In other words, it is not a place of the soul or the seat of a personality. With the West’s emphasis on a soul and personality it becomes hard to accept that the mind can be a mere sensory organ.

I have given here an explanation of my personal understanding of the Buddha. It may not be how most Buddhists would explain it but I have no apologies for this. If you think I am wrong in something please comment about it.

Also I have yet to write about Buddhism. I will try follow up with a new post in the near future.