Zen and the art of earth maintenance

A stumbling point for me in the practice of Buddhism is optimism.  I do not do optimism.  My thoughts on optimism parallel Ambrose Bierce.

Optimism: The doctrine that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong… It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.

I am particularly prone to pessimism (realism) when it comes to the response of our species to climate change. In reading the parable of the Burning House from the Lotus Sutra, I am tempted to wonder (which is as close as I come to hope).

If you do not know of the parable of the Burning House, the story can be found here.  

Suppose there once lived a very rich man in a certain country. His wealth was vast. He had many rice fields, houses, and servants. Although his manor house was large, it had only one gate. Many people lived in that house, as much as five hundred, of whom thirty were his own children. The building was old and in disrepair, the fences and walls dilapidated, the bases of the pillar rotten, and the beams and ridgepoles tilting and slanted. Besides, although people had not noticed, numerous birds, beasts, and pets were rampant in the house.

One day, while the man was out, fires broke out simultaneously on all sides of the house, and it began to burn. Inside the house, the children were so preoccupied with their games that they never noticed the fires and did not try to get out. The rich man came home, saw what was happening, and thought, “The children will die if they remain inside. I have to get them out quickly by any means, even by force if necessary.” He shouted to them, “Come out right away!” But the children, who were scattered about the house and engrossed in their amusements, did not pay any attention to him. They continued playing as if they were in no danger at all.

The self-absorption in the face of danger captures perfectly where we stand in the climate change fight. The science is overwhelming. The house is in disrepair and on fire.

The past few weeks has brought nothing but bad news about our little blue house in the cosmos. First, the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that global greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) reached new record highs.  Here is a graph of carbon dioxide levels from that report. Even with seasonal variation, you can see from the trend-line that house is burning faster.


Data on global temperature trends are also unequivocal.  The Hadley Centre (the UK equivalent of NOAA) reported more evidence that our house is burning.  Here is a graph of the global average temperatures.  Note that nine of the ten highest recorded temperatures have all occurred in the past decade (1998, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2001, 1997).


How much smoke do you need before you think fire?  Apparently a great deal if you are one of the climate deniers (aka – skeptics, delayers, liars, shills, or blithering fuckwits). The Hadley Centre’s report of a cold January in 2008 had the deniers talking about global cooling.

Then came a report in Nature, which projected that temperatures will continue to increase over the next decade.  The data show that the rate of increase may slow and may even plateau over the period, which was then misread, misinterpreted, and misreported by the media. Here is a sample of sheer stupidity.

The UK Telegraph says “Global warming may ‘stop’, scientists predict” – “… Researchers studying long-term changes in sea temperatures said they now expect a ‘lull’ for up to a decade.”

National Geographic News blares, “Cooler Climate May Hit N. America, Europe Next Decade.”

Revkin at the NYT wonders, “Can Climate Campaigns Withstand a Cooling Test?” and says the Nature study forecast “some Northern Hemisphere cooling in the coming decade.”

No surprise, global warming denier Sen. James Inhofe leaped on this with his own press release: ” ‘Global Warming Will Stop,’ New Peer-Reviewed Study Says: Global Warming Takes a Break for Nearly 20 Years?”


What the Nature paper actually said was:

Our results suggest that global surface temperature may not increase over the next decade, as natural climate variations in the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific temporarily offset the projected anthropogenic warming.

There was nothing about cooling.  If the global surface temperatures for 2010-2020 remain unchanged from 2000-2009, they will still be record or near record high temperatures over the past 150 years of recorded surface temperatures.  

Japanese scientists just reported new data on polar ice in the Arctic. The study showed a marked decline in the amount of “perennial ice,” or long-lasting sea ice.

A comparison of images taken on April 20 over the last six years also indicated that areas covered with perennial ice, which is light green in color, have been gradually shrinking since 2005. This year, areas with perennial ice further withered to nearly half the size seen in 2005, according to the researchers.

The researchers are particularly worried about the disappearance of perennial ice from around the North Pole.

Let’s recap the data. In the past few weeks, scientists have provided more evidence that our house is on fire.  Greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures have reached record highs.  Polar ice caps show a marked decline in sea ice thickness.  The pessimist living in my skin shakes its head and curses.

And then politics reared its ugly head.  A new Pew Research Center survey confirmed what most of us already suspected.  Republicans are the biggest obstacle to policy change in the United States when it comes to addressing climate change.  They are the self-absorbed children in the burning house parable.  An excellent summary of growing ideological divide by Joseph Romm can be found here.  JohnnyRook delves into the ideological underpinnings of climate change denial in this splendid essay.  However, there are a couple of additional points from the Pew survey that have been overlooked.

First, the biggest fuckwits on climate change are the most educated Republicans.  (So much for “high information conservatives” …)

Among Republicans, similar percentages of college graduates and those with less education say there is solid evidence of global warming (46% and 51%, respectively). Yet for Republicans, unlike Democrats, higher education is associated with greater skepticism that human activity is causing global warming. Only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity, while 31% of Republicans with less education say the same.


Second, and the real kicker for a pessimist like me, is that climate change is not much of a priority for any political group in the United States.

The issue of global warming rates as a relatively low priority for both Democrats and independents, and is by far the lowest-rated priority for Republicans among 21 issues. More than three times as many Democrats (47%) and independents (38%) than Republicans (12%) rated global warming as top priority. This issue has dropped in importance among Republicans since 2007 when 23% rated global warming as a top priority.


The number one priority for Republicans is terrorism (86% rate it a top priority).  It also ranks near the top of the list for Democrats (74%) and Independents (65%).  Irrational fear works.  I am sure bin Laden is brimming with pride.

What is going to take to get people to wake up to the climate change and all of its unpleasant side effects?  Here is how the Burning House parable from the Lotus Sutra ends.

The rich man realized that he would have to save them by some expedient. He knew that children are attracted by rare toys, so he shouted to them, “There are toys out here which you love. You’ll be sorry if you don’t come out quickly and choose the ones you want. There are sheep-carts, deer-carts, and bullock-carts here outside the house. You can have whichever one you want if you come out right away.”

Suddenly the children began to listen to their father. They rushed out of the house, pushing and shoving each other to be first in line.

I can only think of one toy that would appeal to self-absorbed children, particularly those that call themselves conservatives – money. Greed trumps fear. With his foray into green venture capitalism, Al Gore may be just the right person to show them the way.  Please hurry, Al, and make your first billion.  


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    • DWG on May 13, 2008 at 21:55

    Shakyamuni asked: “Shariputra, do you think that the rich man was guilty of falsehood when he gave his children the sumptuous white bullock-carts instead of the ones they asked for?”

    Shariputra answered, “No, World-honored One. The rich man saved his children from the fire and caused them to survive. He should not be accused of falsehood, because the children were, indeed, given their toys, even if these toys were better than they had previously imagined. He used an expedient to save their lives, not a falsehood.”


    • Edger on May 13, 2008 at 22:20

    An optimist says we live in the best of all possible worlds. And a pessimist says the optimist is probably right.

    FWIW… 😉

  1. … we are in and says, we are certainly screwed.

    A realistic optimist looks at the mess we are in and says, we can do things now and ongoing to improve our prospects.

    Which is wrong? The pessimist is more likely to be right than the optimist.

    Which offers us the better working strategy? Acting on the optimist’s vision gives us a better future, if the optimist is right, and gives us something to do as things fall apart, if the optimist is wrong.

    I think that the Buddhist position on this particular point is correct … the Way of Scoring the Highest Grade on an Imaginary Test is not the Way of Life or the Way of Wisdom.

  2. The Nazi attitude of the bogus war on “terra” for the equally Nazi attitudes of the bogus war on America’s suburban moder lifestyle.  The big key in both of these marketing schemes is the promotion of fascism, one being “right” and the other associated with the “left”.

    Europe is light years ahead of the US in terms of living the green life hence the need for big Al Gore’s extensively industry funded carbon trading scam mainly geared toward dumbed down Americans.

    Not one cent of these carbon trading trillions goes to any long term solution.  Learn how to shoot Bambi or get ready to get stuffed into the mega-city gulags but don’t be stupid enough to be fooled yet again by these profit seeking parasites.


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