Dec. 11, 2008

Global Depression, is there a bright side?

(Short answer - maybe)

A recession is defined as two subsequent quarters of negative growth, and a depression as a recession where the drop in GDP exceeds ten percent. These working definitions, rough as they are, are worth bearing in mind in the months to come. Our political and media elites will try very hard not to use the d-word at all. Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, already is reluctant to use the r-word, grudgingly admitting we are in a "technical recession."

A real depression seems very likely next year. This is more than a blip in the stock market, this is structural crows coming home to roost. North America has out-sourced almost it's entire manufacturing base, and the last big blue-collar industry, automobiles, is on life-support. It is now abundantly clear that the long boom starting in the nineties was a fever-dream of speculation, a bubble over-due for bursting. The levels of debt, both public and private, are staggering. The US government debt is so enormous that it beggars the imagination as to how it could ever be paid off. Maybe Obama can work a miracle, but it would almost have to be that.

So, let's assume the very likely worst case; a depression next year. What would that mean, beyond the obvious material deprivation? How will a depression affect us politically, culturally, socially, morally, spiritually?

It might be worthwhile to look at past examples; there have been at least three major depressions since the industrial revolution - the 1840's, the 1870's and the 1930's.

The first thing that is obvious is that economic depression fosters political instability both internally and internationally. 1848 was a year of revolution throughout Europe. We are already seeing this happen again in Greece, which might turn out to be the first spark in a general conflagration. The other, and even uglier, form it may take is political extremism and the emergence of charismatic leaders like Hitler. His political movement was a minor nuisance in the 20's and only took off during the depression. The political sphere will require vigilance if sanity and democracy is to be preserved. This is not a bright side, at all, at all.

Cultural and social trends are harder to pin-point, but it would be interesting to research this area. There seemed to be a lot of great writers working in the 30's; Steinbeck, Hemingway, Huxley, Orwell - but was this more than at other times? Tentatively, I would suggest that hard times forces writers to confront the gritty realities of life. There is a hard edge to the writing of the 30's, none of the self-indulgent ennui evident during good times. It might be revealing to make a study of who was writing in the 1840's and 70's as well.

My parent's generation lived through the 1930's and to those of us who grew up in the 60's that older generation seemed hopelessly stuffy and narrow-minded. But in retrospect, and with the advantage of age, one begins to see the wisdom in their cultural norms of peaceful sedate family life. The culture that came out of my generation was at times colourful, to be sure, but was marked by self-indulgence and wasteful hedonism.

My parent's generation had an instinctive horror of debt. They knew where that could lead. If you couldn't afford something, you saved up for it. Nobody "bought on time" which was considered slightly immoral. The 60's kids were too impatient to "save up" and the generations that followed us where even worse in this regard. The huge amount of credit card debt out there is one of the economic time-bombs waiting to go off.

If there is an up-side to depression, this may be it. We may be forced to rediscover old values. The excess of 80's and 90's was already beginning to wear thin, but now we may have no choice but to learn the precious virtue of "contentment-with-little." The insane consumer culture was always unsustainable and spiritually bankrupt, but now it may become impossible very quickly. Instead of diverting the five senses with expensive gadgets, people may have to rediscover the joys of friendship and family, and re-connect with the earth and their own bodies and minds. This is not a bad thing, if it happens.

And there may be a return to reality. The last quarter-century was like a global fever-dream. I imagine the mood was much the same in the last period of big-head building on Easter Island. Deep down, we all knew it couldn't go on forever. We could not keep consuming the Earth's resources to fuel a mad economy based on consumer spending. The stock market could not continue to go up forever, based on nothing but tulip-bulb speculation. But as long as times were good, we could pretend these were tomorrow's problems. Well, wake up and smell the coffee, tomorrow's here already, I can hear the cock crowing.

Nov. 20, 2008

The Rights of Nature

Ecuador has just adopted a new constitution with some very radical new ideas. One in particular represents a totally new way of relating on the legal plane to the natural environment. The new Ecuadorean constitution recognizes that natural eco-systems have an inherent right to exist.

The text states;

"Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights."

This is ground-breaking because it is a non-anthropocentric view of the environment. As the International Law Observer points out, many states have environmental clauses in their constitutions, but hitherto these have always been couched in terms of the people's right to enjoy a clean environment or to specific environmental rights. No one before now has legally recognized an inherent right of nature itself.

The only historical parallel that occurs to me is King Asoka, and even he didn't go this far;

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity. I have given the gift of sight in various ways. To two-footed and four-footed beings, to birds and aquatic animals, I have given various things including the gift of life. And many other good deeds have been done by me.

Too often, even environmentalists couch their arguments in anthropocentric terms - how often have we heard that it is important to conserve the rain-forest because it might contain undiscovered medicinal plants? This kind of argument might be thought good p.r. but it still encourages a narrow, selfish view that overlooks the existential reality of countless sentient beings. It still assumes that only humans count.

Two arguments against this law might be raised. First, there is the practical issue of how much good it will actually do. Ecuador is on its fortieth constitution since independence, and even long stable constitutions are not always followed very well. (I'm looking at you, Bush.) Furthermore, like the rest of us, Ecuador is under considerable economic pressure and the pressing need of foreign exchange will always be a temptation for resource exploitation.

All this is true, but even if the clause is substantially ignored in the immediate term, it is still a paradigm shift and if more countries adopted similar laws, the legal framework would inevitably evolve in a more earth-friendly direction. I do not think we should slight the boldness of the Ecuadoreans in adopting this law by popular referendum.

The second argument is a philosophical and legalistic one about the meaning of "rights." Some hold that only thinking rational beings like humans can be meaningfully said to possess rights. This argument depends on an arbitrary definition of "right." It is probably true that only humans can understand and make use of rights. The turtles of the Galapogos certainly remain unaware of their new legal status! And if the rights of nature and its inhabitants are to be protected in Ecuador, it will still require sympathetic humans to use the courts. Legal or constitutional rights are an arbitrary conventional concept, and we can certainly define them however we like. It seems to me the new Ecuadorean concept is a very progressive one.

In a very insightful post at Daily Kos, a good point about this last issue is made;

But Ecuador is not the first country to propose granting rights to nonhuman entities: Many countries, including the United States, have long held that corporations possess many of the same rights – such as the rights to free expression and to due process – that human beings have. And in June, Spain’s parliament approved a measure to extend some human rights to nonhuman apes.

So, if corporations are already legal entities with rights, why not rain-forests and jaguars? It could be seen as a simple leveling of the playing field, giving environmental activists a whole new set of legal options to protect endangered habitats.

This is the new kind of thinking we need. It is clear that the old paradigms have become obsolete and are leading us to disaster.


- An excellent write-up in the UK Guardian, written before the constitution was approved.
- Legal background from the International Law Observer, includes comparison to other countries.
- Political analysis, (leftist) goes into some of the larger issues involved in Ecuador
- the Daily Kos article cited above, much interesting analysis and background.

Your Brain on Blogs

A kind of cool time-waster at lets you analyze the personality of a blog writer by submitting the url. Part of the results is presented as an image showing which parts of the brain are dominant for the writer. Here's mine;

The same site has two more similar features;

Gender Analyzer uses software to guess the gender of a blog writer (I apparently have an 81% likelihood of being male)

and OFaust which takes any submitted text and tells you which classic writers it most resembles (I have a low similarity to Goethe and Poe)

But don't take any of this too seriously. The Gender Analyzer has results just slightly above random guessing.

Nov. 16, 2008


India has successfully hit the moon with an impact probe, called Chandrayana - Sanskrit for "Moon Vehicle." The space race appears to be on again. Beside the old players, Russia and the USA, the new players are China, Japan, India, the European Union and even South Korea. Japan says its goal is a manned base on the moon by 2030, and 2031 is currently set as the US target for a manned Mars mission. These are probably the two "prestige" goals and other players, notably China, may beat them to it.

Exciting stuff, but the question inevitably arises, why do it? The Buddha already noted the ultimate futility of such travel in the Rohitissa Sutta;

"In times past, I was a seer, Rohitassa by name, ... gifted so, that I could fly through the air. And so swift, was my speed that I could fly just as quickly as a master of archery, .. armed with a strong bow could, without difficulty, send a light shaft .... And so great was my stride that I could step from the eastern to the western sea.

"In me, arose such a wish as this: 'I will arrive at the end of the world by walking.' And though such was my speed, and such my stride, and though, with a life-span of a century, living for hundred years I walked continuously for a hundred years, save the while I spent in eating, drinking, chewing or tasting, or in answering calls of nature, save the while I gave way to sleep or fatigue, yet I died on the way without reaching the end of the world.

"But neither do I say, friend, that without having reached the end of the world there could be an ending of ill. It is in this very fathom-long physical frame with its perceptions and mind, that, I declare, lies the world, and the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.
In other words, the end of suffering is here-and-now and we will not move any closer to that goal even by crossing the galaxy.

However, the same could be said for all mundane pursuits. The affairs and doings of samsara are ultimately futile; "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" as someone said. Space missions are no more, and no less, valid than any other karma.

Leaving the ultimate question of spiritual transcendence aside, even within the strictly conventional plane of conditionality, space exploration may seem useless or a waste of resources better used elsewhere. Certainly, from a strict economic view-point, it is very hard to see how any space travel beyond earth orbit could ever repay the investment, at least for a very long time.
(Unless you buy the Helium-3 hype)

Sometimes the argument against space exploration is framed in terms of how the money could better be used to deal with poverty and disease on earth. But it's really a false argument. It would be valid if that's where the resources really would go, but there would already be plenty available to help the poor and sick if that were a priority. Sadly, it isn't. There are trillions to spend on war, and hundreds of billions to give to the financiers to help them out of their folly, but thousands still sleep on the streets of our cities.

Realistically, nations will compete, one way or the other. Human beings are territorial primates. I would much rather see money and research go into a vigorous competition to be the first on Mars than to see the same resources go into building warships and bombs. Besides, aren't we all curious?

I say good on the Indians, the Chinese, the Yanks and the rest of them. First one there wins. Ready, steady, go!


Nerdy note - Assuming the air-speed velocity of an arrow to be about 200 feet per second, and allowing Rohitissa twelve hours of travel a day, in one hundred years he would have gotten about 60 million miles, somewhat more than the closest approach of Mars to Earth.

Nov. 5, 2008

Yes They Did!

Damn, it feels good. Who can remember an election result which unleashed such a surge of joy? Looking at the video clips of ordinary Americans, in cities across that fair land, cheering and laughing and dancing in the streets is enough to melt the heart of the crustiest old cynic. The slogan on everyone's lips, "Yes We Can!" is quintessential Yankee can-do optimism at its very best. And it's damned good to see after the dark, fear-ridden years of Bush and Cheney, when America showed its ugly side to the world. It feels like sunshine peeking out of dark clouds, like seeing an old and dear friend get up off his sick bed and dance.

It's good to see the Stars and Stripes waved in joy and pride by happy crowds of all ages, races and genders, instead of being used as a badge of exclusion and xenophobia. It's good to feel a whiff of positive change in the air.

I know, I know. There's plenty of reasons to be cynical about Obama; his militaristic stance on Iran, his backing of the Wall Street bailout, his silence on the Patriot Act. Maybe tomorrow or the day after that stuff will matter again, but today it just feels too damned good. Even just by getting elected, given his race and his name, he has let America cast off some old ghosts. Barack Hussein Obama took Indiana! He took Virginia!

Last night was very healing for America. And that country needs healing. President-Elect Obama is inheriting what someone called "the in-box from hell." Two unwinnable wars, a ruined international reputation, a looming ecological crisis, a deep financial crisis, a monster national debt.

But, if he has the will and the vision, he has some incredible assets as well. Last night we saw that he has the enthusiastic good-will of a large part of the American public. He has a democratic Congress to work with. And he has a big reservoir of international good-will as well. The rest of the world was rooting for him. Not only Americans have reason to celebrate.

Let's wish him, and America, all the best. Maybe they really can!

Nov. 2, 2008

Firewood Time

We're currently getting in our firewood for the winter. Yes, I know, we left it late this year. We always buy ten cords of logs, and this year because of various economic factors in the local forestry sector, a supplier proved difficult to find.

The logs have to be cut to stove-length with a chain-saw, split, trucked to the various buildings and then neatly stacked in the sheds. It's big job, but mostly a pleasant one. It's good healthy exercise, and keeps a body out-of-doors in the brisk fall weather.

We heat with wood primarily for practical reasons, but it's good to know that that according to George Monbiot, Guardian columnist,environmentalist and author of "HEAT," it's at least potentially carbon-neutral. That is, provided that the wood cut in a locality is no more than is regrown in the same year. The energy from fossil fuel and from wood comes from the same ultimate source; photosynthesis capture of solar energy. A plant, like a tree, is mostly built up of carbon-dioxide and water vapour; the energy of the sun allowing more complex hydro-carbons to be built up. When burnt, the vegetable matter releases the energy of its molecular bonds and returns to water vapour and carbon dioxide. The CO2 in oil or gas is millions of years old, and is for practical purposes a new addition to the atmosphere. The CO2 from trees is only a few years old and is just recycled back and forth.

It's amazing when you add it up, how many times each piece of firewood is handled in its lifetime. First, the tree makes it, as said above, out of mist and vapour, a small miracle. Then the tree is cut down, limbed, skidded to the landing and loaded onto a truck. It is delivered to us, and the logs are piled by the logger using a crane on his truck. Then I cut the logs, which might have to involve moving some of them around a bit by man-handling. After being cut, the round pieces are tossed aside to keep the work area clear. Later, each one is split, which may take several strokes of the ax for larger pieces. Then they are loaded in the pick-up truck, taken to one of the wood-sheds and piled.

In the winter, part of the daily routine is getting the day's wood ready. The pieces are taken from the shed, perhaps split again, carried to the cabin and stacked in a wood-box. Each is added individually to the fire as needed. Last of all, every two weeks or so it becomes necessary to clean out the ashes. That is the mineral residue the tree originally took from the soil, rather than from air and water.

This is a cold climate, often reaching minus twenty and occasionally minus thirty celsius in the winter. Firewood is important. A common item of conversation among country people here in the fall is; "how is your firewood coming along?"

It's good earthy kind of work. Remember the old Zen line; "Before enlightenment, carrying wood and hauling water, after enlightenment, carrying wood and hauling water." Something to look forward to!

Oct. 23, 2008

We're back

The long hiatus from blogging was due to more than my usual procrastination. I have been computer-less for the last two months after an unfortunate incident involving a cup of coffee and an inexcusable lapse of mindfulness. Sorry about that.

Brother can you spare $700 billion?

The financial markets reflect the cumulative result of millions of individual decisions. Regarding decisions, The Buddha said that they should never be made on the basis of greed, anger, fear or delusion. It is obvious how greed and fear have poisoned the well, but I would like to focus on something a little deeper, how delusion has worked in creating the present financial collapse.

Specifically, the whole scenario demonstrates the truly amazing power of mental formations in human history. Money itself is an abstraction. At some point in the distant past people agreed to believe that this shiny rock was worth two cows, even though the real, utilitarian value of a cow is considerably more than the real, utilitarian value of a shiny rock. Paper money is an even more refined level of abstraction. This piece of paper with the queen's face, or a spooky eye-in-the-pyramid design or whatever, is said to represent so many shiny rocks, which are worth so many cows. Eventually, they dropped the bit about the shiny rocks.

Having gone off the "gold standard", such currency is sometimes called "fiat money," meaning that the value is purely by government fiat. This is not really accurate. A dollar bill doesn't have value because the government or the central bank says so. It has value because the people believe it does. It is faith-based currency. It is not surprising that paper money was first used in China, a civilization deeply affected by Buddhism and Taoism, and used to philosophical subtlety.

Consider what is happening here; material goods and hours of labour are freely traded for an agreed convention. Something on the material plane of reality is being surrendered for something on the purely abstract plane of mental formation, which is void and without substance. Maybe that eye-in-the-pyramid is telling us something.

Fast forward to the dawn of modern capitalism in post-reformation Europe. The "real economy" of goods and services was becoming complicated, involving more, and more kinds of goods, some of which were being shipped literally across the planet. To facilitate all this action on the plane of material reality, various new kinds of mental abstraction were invented, usually represented by fancy bits of paper. Insurance, promissory notes, bonds and company stocks all came into being, each representing a contract between parties to fulfill certain obligations.

The stock market, in it's original manifestation was not very far removed from material reality. If you bought a ten percent share in the East India Company it represented something close to ten percent of the ships and goods of the Company and entitled you to ten percent of the profits made. The value of the stock would, in theory, go up only if the Company acquired more ships and trade goods.

Of course mental formations, although void of substance, have a powerful energy when millions agree to believe in them. From the earliest days of capitalism the phenomena of "speculative bubbles" made themselves felt. As company shares traded hands, the value become divorced from the underlying reality it was supposed to represent. The value of a share was no longer based on how many ships the company had, it was now based on what the buyer and seller mutually believed it to be. If the buyer believed he could later resell it for more to somebody else, he didn't care about the underlying value.

This is sometimes called the "Greater Fool Principle." If the value of a company share in terms of the real goods it represents is, say one hundred dollars, a person would be a fool to pay one hundred and fifty unless there is a greater fool out there to whom he can sell it for two hundred. The value of the share becomes a pure abstraction. You might as well be trading tulip bulbs. Or "credit-default swaps."

The problem, of course, is that inevitably you run out of fools. Then the whole bubble bursts with frightening rapidity. The whole thing would be comical if the abstract world of imaginary numbers on bits of paper or computer disks didn't rebound back on the real world. Many 17th century Dutch burghers had sold real assets like land or ships to "invest" in tulip bulbs. Many, many people today have put the earnings of their labour into the stock market or other financial instruments that were pure bubble. Real goods thrown into an imaginary realm.

Now, after several centuries of elaboration, we are into a fantastic realm of abstractions of abstractions. Fractional reserve banking creates money which is based on nothing at all, not even bits of paper. And understanding the levels of abstraction involved in derivatives is a special science. The "value" of the derivatives out there is said to be ten or fifteen times the combined GDP of the whole planet. Tulip bulbs.

The imaginary nature of the financial world is very clearly illustrated when you hear, after a market downturn, that so many billion or trillion dollars of wealth have disappeared. That "wealth" was never there in the first place. What has disappeared is the agreed upon mass delusion that such wealth existed.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. So far the world leaders seem to be reacting out of panic and fear. Huge sums of borrowed money are being pumped into the bubble in a mad attempt to keep it inflated. The Stadtholder is buying all the tulip bulbs with money borrowed from Venice.
The state, really the community as a whole, has now become the greatest fool, the fool of last resort. The question is, what effect will all this movement of imaginary numbers have on the real world of work, clothes, food and housing? Real goods will probably become scarcer for most people either through higher taxes to repay the stupendous debt load or through hyper-inflation of the currency to eliminate the debt that way. There will be pain, material existence will become bleaker and harder and all because of the shifting fantasies of purely imaginary conventions.

In the various schemes to restart the big ponzi scheme, you keep hearing the phrase, "restore investor confidence." That gives the game away; the goal right now is to get people believing once again in the magic money tree. Eventually, we will have to face the need to get the real economy of goods and services working. It may have to wait until the bubble economy collapses back to it's natural state. Then there may be a general realization that you can't get something for nothing, no matter how inflated the imaginary numbers are.

If the collapse is as complete as it looks like being at the moment, there will inevitably be a restructuring of the world economy. What shape will it take? What shape should it take? I don't have the slightest idea. I've long ago stopped believing in political utopias; this is samsara, after all, it's supposed to be broken.

It might be worthwhile, though, to consider some basic values. Capitalism, at least before it switched from managing production to flim-flam schemes, worked pretty good in some respects. It did keep a very complex economy moving on a global scale, and that is no mean feat. However, it was not so good at other things, very important things. It has no built-in mechanism to conserve the natural environment, and that is starting to become critical. It was never very good at distributing goods to those who needed them most, and in recent decades the gap between the richest and the poorest has been growing.

When thinking about an economic order, we should remember what an economy is for; human comfort and health primarily and the satisfaction of lawful sense pleasures secondarily. The first priority should be to make sure that every person gets the sufficiency of a decent life, i.e. the four requisites of food, shelter, clothing and medicine. After that, the surplus should be rewarded to those who are most energetic and creative in producing wealth for the general community, certainly not to those who are most clever at manipulating mental abstractions like derivatives and futures. In other words, reward production and creation, not speculation.

In any case, we are in for some changes, but that's always been the case.


What's all this about tulip bulbs then?
Image is Hogarth's "South Sea Bubble." Full size version.

Jun. 13, 2008

Faint Glimmers

The world scene looks pretty grim. Let's face it, this millenium hasn't exactly got off to a good start. We were supposed to get monoliths on Jupiter, not planes crashing into skyscrapers. Wars, rumours of more wars, creeping police-state fascism ("war against terra"), not to mention failing ecologies and crashed economies. And the political leadership, and even the opposition, in most countries right now seems pretty dreadful.

But there are a few brave souls out there.

No more comment, but three links.

CANADA - petition to re-open the 9/11 investigation read into the parliamentary record.
USA - Cindy Sheehan running against Nancy Pelosi in San Fran.
BRITAIN - Senior Tory MP resigns to force by-election on civil liberties issue. (They really need it there, bad.)

Good on you to these three.

Where have I heard this stuff before?

A new theory is challenging the Big Bang cosmology. It is called Null Physics. (Terrence Witt)

From a Wikibin page about Null Physics;

In short, existence is composed of nonexistence. Our universe is the internal substructure of nothingness. In Null Physics this premise is called the Null Axiom.

6. Eternal equilibrium. The universe has existed forever, so any cosmic process that produces byproducts must have a complementary process that reverses this production. The universe’s predominant cosmic process is fusion, which uses hydrogen and produces light and compound atomic nuclei, such as helium and carbon. This means that mechanisms have to exist to capture this light energy and use it to disassociate compound nuclei back into hydrogen for an infinitely renewable supply. The first step of this process is intergalactic redshift, which converts light energy into microwave energy. The next step is to transfer this energy to an environment where it can be applied to break compound nuclei back down into hydrogen, to provide an eternal source of universal fuel. This process requires the existence of galaxies, specific galactic motion profiles, galactic banding, massive black holes at the centers of galaxies, and it is why jets of hydrogen have been observed leaving the core regions of galaxies.
So, let me get this straight. The universe is empty and beginingless. Where have I heard this stuff before?


Null Physics website
Forum discussion, during which Terrence Witt joins in.

Jun. 6, 2008

World-View and World-Saving

My last post on the inter-monastic environmental conference has already sparked some thoughtful comments. Thanks to those who have posted.

A theme in all the comments is that what I am suggesting is a tall order.

I also suggest that it may be too difficult to require thinking of the Earth as sacred. Not many people are capable of thinking in this way. Hence again I suggest to look for intermediate perspectives between "sacred" and "not sacred" that are more easily acceptable to the mass public. Words like "duty" and "responsibility" come to mind.
I personally don't think nature has to be sacred though as brahma-vihara should cover all beings and doing what's beneficial for ourselves and all beings. It doesn't seem to me like sacred ideas about nature or even a belief in tree devas are necessary since humans and animals will be harmed by environmental damage and everyone agrees that these beings exist.

I agree with Robert regarding the "sacredness" of the earth. In today's spiritual black hole, the idea of the earth being sacred would do little but invite ridicule and laughter from people who look at all of that sacred stuff as being outmoded and impractical with the materialist worldview.
(Paragraphs taken from three different posts)

I take your point, but my problem is that I don't see a real alternative to a major change of world-view. Read Lovelock and other cutting edge hard-science types and you'll see that the problem is way beyond the reach of any tinkering around the edges with new technologies. The whole search for a comfortable techno-fix that would leave our life-styles intact is a major part of the problem at this late date. Read the essay Eco-Junk by George Monbiot for a scathing analysis of green consumerism. I stand by the statement that sustainable development is an oxymoron, a phrase I adopted from Lovelock.

I think that the need to re-sacralize nature is critical. At first glance, this might seem a poor fit with Buddhism. Samsara is the broken place we are trying to escape from. But that way of seeing things is a mis-application of the Dhamma in this case. We Buddhists do see all living things as sentient beings, possessed of conscious awareness and equal to us in the sense that we are all travellers on the wheel of rebirth.

And yes, the recognition of non-human entities like tree-devas and nagas is important too. It can easily be forgotten how rare in the sweep of human history our own culture is in being blind to that level of being. Old Celtic Europe had it's fairy folk and dragons, Native Americans had (and still have!) their little people and thunder-birds. Medieval Europe had angels, and Islam had it's jinn. In rural Thailand, the existence of devas and ghosts is taken for granted. Even the hyper-rational Hellenes had their fauns and satyrs, and let's not forget Socrates' genii.

What happened to the culture of Europe (because that's what the modern world is heir to) that it took a different road? Some major psychic shift seemed to occur at the turn of the 15th-16th century; the Renaissance, the Reformation, later the Scientific Revolution and the so-called Enlightenment. We (and I say we because whatever our nationality we are all of us heirs to that) took a hard turn into investigation of the coarse material level. It gained us mastery, but it cost us our spirit.

There is a theory I encountered once in a Christian book about angels. It suggested that the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting was not the invention of a new technique, but a faithful record of a new way of seeing. By seeing this material plane more acutely, we lost the ability to see other planes at all. Be that as it may, it is only the modern world which seems to have depopulated the spirit realms.

This wouldn't matter, perhaps, if only a belief in fairies or devas was at stake. But the loss of this realm is a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Everything is reduced to a dead mechanism. In the economic application, it is world as commodity. In the spiritual world, it is man as meat-machine; the "selfish gene" and the "computional model of mind." This world-view is spiritual death, and it may bear fruit in physical death, if not of the entire bio-sphere, at least of our civilization.

Having said all this, I don't know how we can open people's eyes to the wonder and miracle of nature if they are blinded by materialism and greed. But I don't see anything else that could turn the current trend around.

Jun. 5, 2008

Monaticism and the Environment

I recently attended the third Buddhist-Catholic monastic inter-faith conference at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, famous as the home of Thomas Merton. There were forty participants, monks and nuns, Catholic and Buddhist from various orders and schools. The theme of the conference was Monasticism and the Environment. A timely topic, to say the least.

The talks and informal conversations were very fruitful and informative. I could sum up the main themes that developed under four headings, two theoretical and two practical;

Greed is the cause. Coming from various angles, everyone agreed that a culture of materialism and consumerism was the underlying motive force behind the environmental crisis. This is, obviously, a specific application of the Buddhist second noble truth. The rich countries today consume extravagant amounts of energy and resources to provide for an extreme life-style. This is completely unsustainable. The problem is really a spiritual crisis. Our modern culture has a warped value system. Here, the monastic communities provide a good example by demonstrating that it is possible to live happily and fully without indulgence in excessive material consumption. The broader culture needs to rediscover ways and means to happiness that do not require shopping.

The need to view nature as sacred. The concluding statement of the conference has the phrase, "we need to view the earth as a community, and not a commodity." The philosophy of materialism has reduced all of nature to a mechanistic process. This is again a spiritual problem, requiring a spiritual solution. Both religious delegations saw the need to re-sacralize the natural world. For the Christians, this means reverence for God's good creation. For the Buddhists, it could mean a recognition of Buddha-nature in all things (Mahayana) or seeing the world as peopled by tree-devas and river-nagas. On a more philosophical level, it means recognizing the primacy and universality of mind. The materialist-reductionist view is spiritual death and may lead to physical death of the planet.

Recognizing our complicity. On a practical note, we examined ways that our various monasteries may be contributing to the problem. One very obvious example is the amount of travel many of us do. This conference alone consumed a lot of fuel to get the participants together from all over North America.

Looking at the positive contributions. On the other hand, many monasteries of both traditions are moving actively into green technologies like wind-power and energy efficient building. We looked at a video presentation of a study done in France which showed that the carbon foot-print of two monasteries, one Catholic and one Tibetan Buddhist, was very much lower than that of the average French community.

The climate crisis is a grave one. I don't see how we can turn it around without a fundamental paradigm shift; a spiritual revolution in the mass value system on a global scale. Tinkering around the edges will no longer suffice. This is a tall order. It very well may not happen deeply enough or soon enough to stop a massive phase shift in the world's climate system which would devastate our civilization. As James Lovelock says, sustainable development is an oxymoron. We are going to experience a retreat. Our only choice is a managed retreat, or a chaotic one.

It occurs to me that if there is a massive societal collapse, monasteries may serve another crucial role. They might become islands of light conserving the knowledge of the old days until the human race gets on it's feet again. The monasteries of Europe, particularly of Ireland, did this after the Roman Civilization collapsed. We live in interesting times.


Text of the Final Statement of the Conference

Spread with garlands of vines,
Places delighting the mind,
Resounding with elephants,
Those rocky crags
Refresh me.
Theragatha 18: Mahakassapa

The wolf and the lamb shall graze alike
And the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
None shall hurt or destroy
On all my holy mountain, says the Lord
Isaiah 65:25

Simple and Sufficient
Gethsemani III: Monasticism and the Environment
A Buddhist/Catholic Monastic Gathering
May 27-31, 2008

We live in a time of environmental crisis and calamity, but also in a time when more and more people are coming together to respond to the suffering of the world. Our monastic interreligious dialogue has brought us to a new awareness of the social and spiritual relevance of ancient monastic traditions that have been sustained for millennia by Buddhist and Catholic communities.

Together we celebrate our common monastic values of reverence for the sacredness of all things, contemplation, humility, simplicity, compassion and generosity. These virtues contribute to a life of nonviolence, balance, and contentment with sufficiency.

We recognize greed and apathy as the poisons at the heart of ecological damage and unbridled materialism. Throughout the centuries, monastic life has inspired generous personal, social and spiritual effort for the good of others. We give and receive in the spirit of gratitude.

We acknowledge our complicity in damaging the environment and will make a sincere and sustained effort to reduce our negative impact on the planet. We are committed to take more mindful, universal responsibility for the way we use and manage the earth’s resources. We resolve to develop our hearts and minds in ways that will contribute to a sustainable and hopeful future for our planet. We renew our commitment to the sacredness of the earth, relating to it as a community, not a commodity.

May our love for all beings and this world sustain our efforts and may our earth be revitalized. This is our prayer and commitment.



Website of the Third Inter-Monastic Dialogue. Includes audio files of all the formal presentations and video of the concluding ceremony.

Text of the paper I presented, Dependent Origination and Climate Change, a Buddhist look at causes and conditions.


Apr. 17, 2008

Free WIll

There was a report in the news that some neuro-scientists had determined from brain-scans that our brain actually make a decision before our conscious mind is aware of it. The scientist being interviewed seemed to believe that this finding invalidated the concept of free-will. This reminded me of a question I often get asked; does Buddhism believe in free-will?

Turning to the scientific finding first; just going on the interview I heard, it's hard to see how these findings, or any imaginable findings from brain scans could prove or disprove free-will. How can they possibly correlate a pattern of brain-activity with a specific mental process which is unconscious to the person? Could they really know, for instance, if someone chooses coffee or tea by the brain pattern? As I understand the theory, they are claiming that the brain makes the decision unconsciously and that conscious awareness simply reports the result, under the illusion that it is actually choosing.

The bigger problem with this kind of analysis is whether we can really call an unconscious process a mental event. Does the whole psychological concept of a sub-conscious actually make sense, except as a crude short-hand for mental events (pali dhamma) of which consciousness is not fully attentive? But then I don't believe that conscious awareness is a product of brain function at all. These brain studies are interesting, but the practical results are muddled by the researcher's physicalist assumptions.

As for Buddhism and free-wil, the question allows of at least three answers, at different levels. In the first place, it should be pointed out that the question itself is something of a category error. The free will vs. determinism debate comes out of western philosophy, not eastern. In it's original form it wrestled with the problem of how free-will could be reconciled with an omnipotent and omniscient deity. If God knew from the creation that I would choose coffee and not tea, is my choice really free? When western thought moved from theism to materialism it took the problem with it, only with blind electro-chemical processes replacing the big guy in the clouds. Since Buddhism isn't encumbered by either the theist or materialist axioms, it isn't bothered by the question in the same way.

On a second level, and in a slightly different form, the question does come up though. The Buddha opposed the hard determinism of Makkhali Gosala with his little ball of yarn. (He would demonstrate his theory that everything was fixed from beginingless time by unrolling a ball of yarn, teaching that beings moved through various rebirths in a fixed order from beginning to end like the unrolling yarn.)

Furthermore, the Buddha said it was an error to teach that all things are determined by karma. This flat statement has been interpreted in various ways. However, in my humble opinion, the statement was made specifically to allow for a kind of free-will. You won't find it laid out so neatly in the Suttanta, but in Abhidhamma it is made clear that in the sequence of conscious mind-moments the sensory awareness of sights, sounds and so forth is determined completely by various factors, including past karma. However, there are other mind-moments (javana) where we make karma, and there the possibility of choice is present.

So, by this Abhidhamma analysis we could say that the present moment experience is always absolutely determined, but that the volitional action we take in response is free. Technically, it involves the factor of cetana or volition. This raises a further philosophical difficulty however. The dependent origination teaches us that everything except for the supramundane Nibbana element arises from past causes. So that would include cetana, so how can our choice be truly free?

The answer is the third level answer, which comes around at a higher level to the first approach. The false assumption still remaining in the previous paragraph is that there is an I who chooses coffee over tea. With the insight of anatta or not-self we dispense with the whole problem of whether a person is free by dispensing with the person. There is only the interplay of various physical and mental factors, one of which is cetana.

These various complexities were wrestled with in Buddhist India, and it may be that the Mahayana concept of the Tathagatagarbha ( the seed-of-buddhahood said to be present in all sentient beings from beginingless time) may have been an attempt to answer one particularly knotty form of this dilemma; how is it that beings who have always wandered in samsara, with only samsaric mental content, could ever develop a volition for seeking the transcendental?

Apr. 8, 2008

Strange Doings in Lhasa

This picture has been making the round. Something fishy is going on here. Of course, agentes provocateurs are a time honoured dirty cop trick.

Apr. 5, 2008

Mind is the Forerunner

Every Sunday, we have a sutta study class that I lead. The other week we did the Agganna Sutta, the Sutta on "origins," and once again I was struck by this powerful mythic vision.

In this Buddhist version of Genesis, the earth in primordial times was dark and watery; an unformed primeval chaos. The first beings to appear by the force of their karma from previous world-systems were god-like entities, "self-luminous, feeding on bliss." As the earth congealed, a nutritious substance formed on it's surface ("oja") which intrigued the god-like entities and piqued their curiosity until some of them tried tasting it with a little on the ends of their fingers. Immediately upon ingesting gross matter, they fell from their high station and became gross material beings upon the surface of the earth.

In the history of our planet as reconstructed by modern science, there was a mysterious event called the "Cambrian Explosion." Prior to that time, some half-billion years ago, there were only algae and other simple one-celled organisms. Then, in the blink of a geological eye, the seas were suddenly filled with an astonishing array of complex life-forms. The lord of the world then was the trilobite.

These two visions describe the same event, which I suggest is the descent of mind into this gross material plane. The real explanation of evolution, it's hidden mechanism, may be the play of mind trying out new forms to manifest itself in this level of reality. Natural selection, as posited by Darwin, surely plays a part; unviable forms will be pruned ruthlessly. But it doesn't seem a complete explanation. Creationists love to point out anomalies like the impossibility of complex systems such as a working eye arising all at once. But why would a creator god stick us with an appendix, for instance?

I have argued before that the biggest single anomaly is human intelligence itself. Our hyper-trophied brains are a huge biological deficit; they consume an inordinate amount of the body's calories and our large-headed infants make childbirth more difficult and dangerous than in other mammals. Once our brains had reached the level where we could consistently outwit our prey species, strictly mechanistic Darwinian theory should have stopped further growth. Beautiful and haunting as they are, the Cro-Magnon cave paintings had no strictly survival value.

Materialists insist that brain generates mind. The truth may be quite the other way around. This would certainly be consistent with the teaching of the dependent origination, "because of consciousness, name-and-form (body and mind)" And the Dhammapada, "Mind is the chief, mind is the fore-runner."

I would venture a prediction. If we manage to get through the coming climate crisis with any kind of civilization intact (granted, a very big "if") the next big revolution is science will be the recognition of mind as a separate category independent of matter and energy. Materialism will come to be seen for what it really is, an out-moded superstitious way of thinking. Many of the mysteries of science will become clear. Quantum mechanics will begin to make sense once the mind is allowed as the observer which collapses the wave-function. We will realize that the universe is indeed, in a sense, created but that we ourselves are continually doing the creating. The initial breaking of the symmetry after the Big Bang, the arising of the trilobites, the emergence of homo sapiens all these are easier to explain when mind is taken into account than otherwise.

If that happens, it won't mean the end of human hubris. If we ever do get a technological fix on actual mind, perhaps in the form of Sheldrake's "morphogenetic fields," we might really get ourselves into trouble. The potentials for messing around are literally unimaginable now. Genetic engineering will seem like the crudest kind of tinkering if we can access the underlying informational fields that govern all living forms. It certainly won't mean the end of samsara, at best we may become something like the Nimannarati Deva, the "Gods Who Delight in Creation." Think of Q in Star Trek.

Mind has entangled itself in matter, in samsaric manifestation. Driven by desire ("that oja looks kind of tasty") it seeks always new experience, new manifestations, new forms of delight. The wisdom of the Buddha was to cut through all of that, to seek transcendence of all forms, all manifestations no matter how god-like. The trilobites were our first mistake.

Mar. 22, 2008


For a long time Tibetan civilization has had a powerful grip on the Western imagination. Alternately, it has been romanticized as a spiritual paradise, a Shangri-La or vilified as a last redoubt of superstitious obscurantism and feudalism. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. While there is no denying that some of the social aspects of Old Tibet left somewhat to be desired, there is also no denying that the religious and cultural aspects were an astonishing human accomplishment.

Tibetan culture was unique. The religious background was an amalgam of several late forms of Buddhism coming from India just at the time when the Dharma there was sliding from brilliant cultural peak into the early stages of decadence. The various strands of classical Buddhist thought, together with brilliant philosophy (Nagarjuna), logic and epistemology (Dharmakirti), metaphysical speculation (the Cittamitra, "Mind-Only") and the quasi-magical practices of Tantra all these and more found there way across the Himalayas. Much of late classical Buddhist thought would be lost to us today if it had not been preserved in Tibet. And all these intellectual currents were stirred in with one of the most mature forms of Central Asian shamanism, the old Bon religion.

The result was something brand new, one of humankind's great achievements, Tibetan culture. While other societies put their physical and mental resources into conquest, industrialism and physical science Tibet put hers into spiritual exploration. The result was that although Tibet remained materially backward well into the twentieth century, she had developed spiritual "technologies" well beyond anything accomplished anywhere else. While Europe was busily sailing caravels across the oceans, conquering the world, Tibet set out on a much more important and difficult exploration, that of inner space.

Whatever else may be said about Tibet, the charge that it was a stagnant and backward culture is false. It is based on the myopic idea that the only progress that counts is the inventing of more and better machines to indulge more and better sense pleasures. Tibetans took little interest in that. There was very little material progress in Tibet for the millennium after the introduction of Buddhism. But the spiritual and religious texts and practices show a continual fruitful exploration and development. This is not surprising, in a way. The best and the brightest in Tibet didn't go into business or science but into the monasteries.

But the history of the rest of the world moved in other channels, driven by other forces. In the middle of that cruellest of all centuries, the terrible twentieth, Tibet was invaded and annexed by the rising power of the Chinese People's Republic. Tragically, the thousand year experiment was at an end.

Regarding the current situation, it is hard to see how any good will come of the riots in Lhasa and elsewhere. China will crack down with even greater ruthlessness. Nothing of consequence will come out of the rest of the world by way of help for the Tibetans. Nor could it, in practical terms. An Olympic boycott would end up dashing the hopes of young athletes, momentarily embarrassing China but do nothing for Tibet. An economic boycott of China might, just possibly, have some effect in forcing their hand. But that is not going to happen. China's huge pool of miserable labour provides all the worthless consumer crap that fills western economies. China uses the resulting cash to buy, among other things, U.S. Treasury Bills. The U.S. couldn't fund it's government for one week without China.

It's hard to take, but the situation of Tibet is nearly hopeless. In the short term, there will be a wave of arrests and executions and further restrictions on Tibetan culture. In the long term, the Tibetans will be swamped by demography as China moves in more and more Han Chinese settlers, reducing the Tibetans to a colourful minority in one province.

However, Tibetan culture survives with some vigour in the diaspora and much of it is now available to non-Tibetans in translation and through direct teaching. It may be that this cultural spread is a silver lining to the tragedy of the Chinese conquest.

A little earlier I said that Tibet's situation was "nearly hopeless." I put in the nearly because I can envisage one scenario that might yet save Tibet, although it is a long-shot. It may yet happen that the cultural spread of Tibetan Buddhism may wash over into China itself, infecting the youth of that land with ideas of harmlessness, contentment and transcendence.

It is not impossible. China is an ancient, sophisticated civilization; the oldest continual civilization on this planet. In previous times it went through phases of deep spirituality and cultural brilliance; one thinks principally of the Han Dynasty. Buddhism has deep roots there, although at present they are rather withered. China has been through some very rough times, the terrible twentieth wasn't kind to them either. Their traditional civilization had been seriously undermined by European colonialism in the nineteenth century, and their early attempts to modernize after the 1911 revolution ended badly, in anarchy and warlordism. Then there was the massive catastrophe of the Japanese invasion, with all it's attendant horrors.

The Chinese pulled themselves out of the abyss only by uniting under a tyrannical ideology. Mao's version of Communism was in reality a new and fanatical religion; secular humanism with bayonets. Like any fanatical reforming religion, they brooked no rivals and in the Cultural Revolution of the 'sixties much of China's remaining ties to their brilliant past were destroyed. Then the flame of the new religion, fed as it was on such tawdry fuel, sputtered and died. Now the Chinese don't believe even in their ersatz secular humanist religion anymore. Now the whole country is devoted only to the even more hollow capitalist enterprise of making money. China is now in a phase of deep spiritual winter.

But human beings need spiritual sustenance. The religious void in China cannot last forever, something will have to fill it. We can see the first fitful signs of the people's seeking in the rapid rise of the Falun Gong which so terrified the ruling technocrats. Maybe something that would help Tibet most would be for every tourist and journalist who goes to the games to carry along books about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese and pass them out to strangers or leave them in public places.

Mar. 11, 2008

Deepak Chopra's Buddha

The recent bestseller "Buddha" by Deepak Chopra follows a long literary tradition of fictionalized accounts of the Buddha's life story which really go back at least to the Buddhacarita of Ashvaghosa. In modern times, the genre starts with Matthew Arnold's "Light of Asia" and continued through Hermann Hessa (Siddhartha) and Thich Nat Hanh (Old Path, White Clouds). No doubt there have been many others. It is not unusual for such authors to use the character of the Buddha to voice philosophical ideas of their own. Matthew Arnold's "dew drop slipping into the shining sea" owes more to the Upanishads, perhaps by way of the Theosophical Society, then anything found in the Buddhist canon. Even Thich Nat Hanh rewrites quite a bit of the story and teachings, for instance putting a somewhat laboured feminist slant onto the story of the founding of the bhikkhuni order.

Deepak Chopra is certainly no exception. The literary enterprise of crafting a fictional life of the Buddha is not in itself illegitimate. Of his early life, we really have very little solid information. Even the well-known account of the Siddhattha's life as a prince, with his father Suddhodana attempting to keep him hidden from the realities of sickness, old-age and death is mostly an early post-canonical gloss. Some elements of this story are improbable, for one thing we know from canonical sources that the Sakyans at that time had a republican government. The early and unknown teller of these tales should perhaps be credited with founding the genre of ficitional Buddha stories.

While we may grant Mr. Chopra and the other authors some literary license for inventing details, it is fair to take them to task when they distort the known history and especially the teachings. If the Buddha's early life is very sketchy, his subsequent career and doctrines are very well documented in the Pali Canon.

For example, for whatever reason Deepak Chopra seems intent on making one of the Buddha's principal teachings to be the freeing of Indian civilization from a superstitious belief in the gods. In the introduction, he says the Buddha "never mentioned miracles or the gods, and had a doubtful view of both." Oh my. To cite just one counter-example among many, when the Buddha was asked point blank whether there are gods he answered, "It is known by me to be the case, Bharadvaja, that there are gods." (Majjhima 100)

So, Deeprak Chopra writes out the moving story of the Brahma Sahampatti begging the newly enlightened Buddha on bended knee to teach for the benefit of "those with little dust in their eyes." Instead, the event which moves the Buddha to get up from his Bodhi seat is a vision of the face of his wife Yasodhara! In passing, it should be noted that Chopra is not the only modern author to diss poor Sahampatti. Stephen Batchelor writes him off as "the ancient way of saying, an idea." This sort of thing seems to me a shame. Our modern taste is quite coarse, and seems unable to appreciate grandeur and high tragedy.

Curiously though, while there are no gods in Deepak Chopra's book, there is one devil. Mara is quite definitely personified. But he seems to my taste to be modelled much more on the Christian Satan than on the Mara of the Pali Canon. It is an odd cosmology that admits the demonic while denying the divine.

There are a few other incidents that appear to show Christian influence. In the middle section of the book, corresponding the period of the Bodhisatta's austerities and quest, at one point he is travelling with another "monk" (the term Chopra uses for samana) when they come across a farmer's cart over-turned in the ditch. Siddhattha proceeds to help the farmer push it out and in his mind he is critical of the other monk who seems to "have forgotten the monk's vow of service." Service in that sense was never a part of the Indian yogic tradition, either pre- or post-Buddhist. In addition, Siddhattha in his wanderings heals the sick and at least apparently raises the dead.

It is the last section, the Buddha after his enlightenment, that represents the greatest distortion though. Deepak Chopra's Buddha bears more resemblance to Keanu Reeeves in the Matrix movies than to the Buddha of the Pali Canon. He ends a war by striding into the battlefield and snatching the flashing swords away with his bare hands. And in another telling episode, he returns a weeping woman's dead husband by turning back time time so that his murder never happened. (Didn't Christopher Reeve save Margot Kidder in one of the Superman movies this way?) Compare this to the canonical Buddha and the story of Kisagotami.

The philosophical underpinning of this New Age Buddha seems to be quite close to the ideas expressed in "What the Bleep Do I Know?" and other New Age sources; that this world is essentially a phantom or a dream and that enlightenment is a kind of lucid dreaming. It is not transcendence of the world, but mastery over it.

What is perhaps worse, is the scene where the Buddha is re-united with Suddhodana and they hug one another and weep like sensitive new age guys. Why is it that the modern taste seems to want a weeping Buddha? What part of making an end of suffering don't we get?

I also have some historical and literary criticisms of Chopra's "Buddha." Historically, I think his portrayal of the religion of the Brahmins is totally anachronistic. He has the head priest of the Sakyans sacrificing to Shiva, which belongs to much later period. The brahmins of the Buddha's time were still following the original Vedic Aryan religion and would have prayed to Indra. In general, his picture of Indian beliefs, customs and mores seems to be that of several centuries later than the time the book is ostensibly set in.

On the literary side, several of the characters in Deepak Chopra's book are much less interesting than the originals known from the canon and commentaries. Suddhodana, for example, is quite one-sided; a simple bloody-minded tyrant rather than a basically good figure with the one tragic flaw of ambition. The oldest sources are a rich mine of fascinating character studies, very human people with a mixture of noble qualities and vices. This seems to be lost in translation, and most of Chopra's characters are more like one-sided cartoons. Surely in a literary treatment with pretensions to the novelist's art, the complexities of the characters should have been enhanced and explored, rather than written out.

It should be said that Deepak Chopra in his last chapter does a reasonable job of summarizing some of the main points of the Buddhist teaching, including a fair summary of the Three Characteristics and of the Eightfold Path. However, he does end the book on a false note, in the very last sentence misrepresenting the goal of the path. "[the Buddha] promised that the end point would be eternity." This is no better, and perhaps worse, than "dewdrops slipping into shining seas."

Mar. 4, 2008

Compassionate Homicide?

Recently the Robert Latimer case has gotten back in the news. Canadian readers will be well aware of the basic fact, but for others here is the bare-bones; On 24th Oct. of 1993 Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer killed his severely handicapped daughter Tracy, 12, by carbon-monoxide, running the exhaust of his truck into the cab. Tracy had cerebral palsy, was mentally retarded and paralyzed. She was also in a great deal of pain, although how severe and how constant it was seems to be in some dispute. Mr. Latimer was sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder. In Dec. 2007, a parole board denied him early release because he "had failed to show proper remorse." Indeed, he has always held that he did the right thing, acting out of compassion for Tracy's suffering. Shortly after this, a review board over-turned the decision and Mr. Latimer is now on day-release parole in Ottawa.

(If you want more back-ground to the story;
A good neutral summary from the CBC web-site
A review of the court evidence with a pro-life slant
The official Robert Latimer support site.)

This case raises a number of important ethical and legal issues. On the legal side, it brings into question the wisdom of the policy of "mandatory minimum" sentencing, the rights of the disabled, euthanasia and probably several more.

On the ethical side, this case raises once again the whole problem of beginning and end of life problems that seem to be at the crux of what is called bio-ethics. Many people support Mr. Latimer's decision; they cite what they call "quality of life" as a criterion. Tracy could never have expected anything close to a normal life, and probably would have endured a lot of physical pain before dying naturally at a relatively young age. They argue that the motive of this killing was "compassion" and it should have been treated differently.

But is it really ever possible to kill with compassion? As a monk friend of mine pointed out, when someone "puts down" a sick dog, they say "I just couldn't stand to see that poor dog suffer." According to Buddhist abhidhamma, an act of destruction of life must involve a mind of hate, and is incompatible with compassion. This is not to say that Mr. Latimer hated his daughter, I am sure he loved her in his own way, but the suffering he was trying to end in that pick-up truck was really his own.

And that is worth thinking about too. The suffering endured by parents of a child like Tracy is no small thing. Another issue raised here is how the broader society could and should take up more of the care of the severely disabled and not leave the whole burden on the unfortunate parents. But this said, it doesn't make what Latimer did in any way acceptable.

The idea of giving anyone, doctors, bureaucrats or parents included, the right to make life-and-death decisions for someone else based on perceived "quality of life" is a scary one. The slippery slope could go down a long way.

These right-to-life versus right-to-choice (although in this case, not Tracy's) bring out a fundamental ethical divide between those who have some kind of religious or spiritual perspective and those who base their ethical thinking on purely secular or humanist grounds. I know some will call me a crank, but I am more and more convince that so-called secular humanism is fundamentally inhuman. The basis of the materialist view is that we are just meat-machines and the implication is that when the machine malfunctions to the point where it no longer provides pleasure (the only possible good in the materialist view) then it can, indeed, ought to be destroyed. A spiritual perspective that recognizes, in some way or other, that this life here and now is not all there is, is capable of accepting a higher dimension and granting an intrinsic dignity and worth to human beings far beyond anything the materialist can imagine.

All this said, and my bias is clear, I am not upset that Mr. Latimer is more or less free. I am no fan of the penal system (maybe a post for another day) and I have no desire to see him punished. My concern is only for the precedent set, and I would think it appalling if the legal system and society at large started to view parental or medical termination of the mentally and physically disabled as somehow acceptable.

Feb. 21, 2008

Monbiot's Heat

I haven't blogged for a couple of months, I've been staying mostly away from the internet for the winter. I may start putting up the odd thing now and again.

Previously I've written about the climate crisis and expressed something close to hopelessness. I've just read something that gives me at least some small hope. This is George Monbiot's "Heat." If you want a very accessible over-view of the technical issues involved, you couldn't do better than that. I heartily recommend it. Monbiot is brutally realistic, very rigourous (he actually crunches the numbers for you) and even writes with a verve and flair that keeps you engaged, no mean feat given the technical nature of the subject matter.

Mr. Monbiot's programme in the book is an ambitious one. He starts by doing the math about just how much we need to cut carbon emissions and how soon if we are going to stabilize the climate. Granted, there is always some guesswork involved in this field where the scientific details, if not the big picture, are still being worked out. But he makes a solid case for some quite startling numbers. We need, says Mr. Monbiot, to cut planetary carbon emissions by 80% before 2030. What's more, this translates into a 90% cut in the industrial countries.

Mr. Monbiot spends the bulk of the book showing how Britain, where he resides, could do this. He covers all major areas of the economy; transport, aviation, housing and so forth. Although he uses the example of Britain, most of what he says could be applied, with some changes, to any industrial country. (Or are we post-industrial already?)

I learnt some surprising things in this book; cement is a huge producer of carbon dioxide in the manufacturing for instance. (Who knew?) Micro-power like home windmills is highly over-rated. (It only looks good if you believe the manufacturer's hype). Monbiot disagrees with my other eco-guru, Lovelock, in a couple of places. Notably, he is not an advocate for nuclear energy.

In the course of the book, Mr. Monbiot surprisingly lays out a plan that could just do it, a plan that is both technically and economically possible. He also does it in a way that incorporates social justice; carbon emissions should be rationed not taxed. Futhermore, he manages to do it without scaling back the lifestyle of the rich nations as much as I would have thought necessary. He tries, whenever possible, to preserve our standard of living. He does this, I am pretty sure, not out of a sympathy with consumerism, but to make the scheme as palatable as possible to the broad masses. Where necessary, though, he can suggest quite severe changes; most notably in aviation. He says long distance jet travel simply cannot be made green. People in the future, if there is to be one, must simply travel less and travel more slowly. I would think we could and should actually cut a lot more out of our lifestyles, but I appreciate Monbiot's realism.

I would like to address the issue of voluntarism. I don't see how we can possibly stop runaway climate change that way. It's the old problem of the "tragedy of the commons." If one person lives in voluntary simplicity, it makes absolutely no difference to the problem. Granted, as one comment to this blog notes, it may set an example. But imagine if fifty percent of the public voluntarily gave up automobile travel. (An impossible number) What would happen? The price of gas would go down due to low demand, and those who didn't care would simply drive more and drive bigger cars.

No, the only action that can work is political (and Monbiot makes the same point.) The problem is way too big for each individual to deal with as they think best. The very least that must happen is a strict system of rationing for all goods that produce carbon emissions.

British Columbia has just introduced a budget said to be the greenest in North America, which includes a gradually escalating carbon tax. This is better than nothing, quite a bit better, but the problem with a tax is that the poor will suffer while the rich will continue to squander. (The budget isn't perfect, it still includes subsidies to the oil and gas industry, an insane policy)

I said earlier that Monbiot's scheme, worked out in meticulous detail, is workable both economically and technically. But is it workable politically? I remain pessimistic on that front. The public may make green mouth noises, but when it comes down to a reduction in their standard of living, such as giving up winter holidays in the Caribbean, the middle classes will not vote for anyone proposing something like Monbiot's plan in Heat. By the time things get so bad that people are willing to face tough decisions, it may be too late. Greed and ignorance strike again.

Rahu strikes again!

Last night there was a full eclipse of the moon. A very eerie sight; as the shadow of the Earth moves across the face of the moon it doesn't disappear, but turns a dull melancholy red. One can well understand how this sight must have been regarded as a bad omen before the astronomy was understood.

In Thailand, the traditional belief, derived like much of Thai culture originally from India, was that in primeval times the monster Rahu swallowed the sun and moon, depriving the world of light. Vishnu saved the universe by slaying the monster, cutting off it's head. Or not quite slaying, because Rahu is an immortal and his severed head wanders around in space, being the eighth planet in Thai astrology. Occasionally it swallows the sun or moon and we experience an eclipse, but happily the luminous orb in a short while emerges from the monster's neck.

Three questions about lunar eclipses occur to me. Two I think I can answer from first principles. One; is a lunar eclipse visible from the whole night side of the planet Earth? I would think yes; it's different from a solar eclipse in that it is essentially the shadow of the Earth moving across the moon, whereas a solar eclipse is when the moon blocks the line of sight of the sun from the Earth, and given the astronomically close position of the moon, parallax makes a significant difference from different localities. Two; how would it look if you were standing on the surface of the moon? I think the Earth would eclipse the sun totally, but I imagine one would see some kind of diffuse "halo" around the rim due to atmospheric diffusion.

Three is not so easy to answer; what was the scientific explanation for eclipses given before the emergence of the heliocentric model? I mean in learned western thought. How did the Aristotelians with their spheres and epicycles explain that? How did Tycho Brahe with his mixed model (sun and moon orbit the Earth, all other planets orbit the sun)? I have no idea.