Author Archives: Bhikkhu Bodhi

BGR’s 4th Concert to Feed the Hungry

BGR Staff

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On Thursday, April 30, 2015 at 7:00 p.m., legendary saxophonist David Liebman, bassist Larry Grenadier, singer/songwriter Rebecca Martin, jazz and blues vocalist Sandra Reaves-Phillips, drummer Winard Harper, organist Akiko, and pianist Mijiwa Miyagima celebrate International Jazz Day as headlining artists at Buddhist Global Relief’s 4th annual Concert To Feed The Hungry. The Concert To Feed the Hungry perpetuates the global diversity of jazz in Harlem.

This annual concert, produced by jazz saxophonist Dan Blake, brings together an all-star lineup of leading jazz artists with a global mission to assist impoverished communities around the world. Buddhist Global Relief sponsors projects around the world that help poor communities overcome hunger and malnutrition and provides education for women and girls in at-risk communities.

The day-long event will commence with 2 music workshops organizaed by Jazzmobile and The New Heritage Theatre Group.

Visit www.concerttofeedthehungry.org for more information about the concert and the artists.

Trees Are Feeding People in Haiti and Jamaica

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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SFA farmer getting trees

In October 2014, BGR made a grant to the Trees That Feed Foundation (TTFF) for 610 breadfruit trees to be distributed in Haiti and Jamaica in early 2015. With the grant, TTFF secured 610 breadfruit trees, which were grown to the appropriate size in Haiti and Jamaica for distribution in February and March of this year. Approximately 305 of the trees have been sent to the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) in Gonaives, Haiti. SFA has over 2,000 community members and works with small-scale farmers and their families in Haiti to help restore tree cover and increase food production.

In March, SFA Co-founder and Director Timote Georges started picking up the trees at TTFF’s partner nursery in Port-au-Prince for delivery to the Alliance headquarters in Gonaives. Mr. Georges has distributed an initial small batch of breadfruit trees and will continue to pick up the trees until all 305 reach Gonaives. Once trees arrive in Gonaives, they are distributed among 11 nurseries within the Alliance, and then further distributed to Alliance members and their families. The members are all very experienced in agroforestry and TTFF is confident that the trees will continue to grow and thrive.

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Students and teachers in Jamaica planting trees

Approximately 305 of the breadfruit trees were delivered to schools across Jamaica as a part of TTFF’s Trees That Feed in Schools (TTFIS) initiative. Through this initiative, Rotary, TTFF and the Ministry of Education work to provide food-bearing trees to schools in Jamaica as a sustainable source of food for students. Planting breadfruit trees in schools not only helps alleviate childhood hunger, improving diets and academic achievement, but also improves the environment. Approximately 30 breadfruit trees were distributed to seven schools in Kingston and approximately 275 trees to 20 schools in Portland.

The mission of the Trees That Feed Foundation is planting trees to feed people, create jobs, and benefit the environment in developing countries. The foundation provides sustainable food sources to communities through fruit-bearing trees with edible fruit and high yields. TTFF supplies trees, equipment and training. This model improves nutrition and also provides long-term independence from food imports and agrochemicals.

The first tree selected by TTFF for distribution is the breadfruit tree. The nutritional benefits of breadfruit were recently featured in the article “One Food Security Remedy in the Face of Global Crises,” published April 4th on the progressive website Truthout. The article quotes Global Breadfruit’s Josh Schneider as saying: “One tree can change the life of a family for generations; ten trees can change the fortune of a village. It can do everything a potato can but in a more sustainable way.”

Caribbean breadfruit pie

Breadfruit bears a fruit somewhat smaller than a soccer ball. One fruit can easily provide the carbohydrate portion of a meal for a family of five. A mature tree can produce up to a half ton of fruit per year. In controlled orchard settings the trees are heavily pruned for easy reaping. A hectare, planted at a density of 125 trees, out-produces all tropical starch crops, yielding upward of 30,000 kilos of fruit annually. Since some varieties of breadfruit have high provitamin A carotenoides, a diet heavy in breadfruitcan greatly reduce afflictions like infant blindness.

(Based on a six-month report to BGR from the Trees That Feed Foundation)

Ending Extreme Poverty by 2030: A New Initiative

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

HKI-Bangladesh Markets

Over the past few months, global leaders representing a wide spectrum of faith communities collaborated on a  project convened by the World Bank Group to send forth a collective moral call to end extreme poverty by 2030, a goal development experts consider feasible. The group worked together to draft a narrative titled “Ending Extreme Poverty: A Moral and Spiritual Imperative,” due to be officially released tomorrow (April 9th) at noon EDT. The statement, which grounds the imperative to end extreme poverty in humankind’s spiritual and religious traditions, should open a new front in our global efforts to create a more just and equitable world, a world that works for everyone.

Buddhist Global Relief has been an integral partner in this project, whose aim corresponds to our own guiding vision: “the vision of a world in which debilitating poverty has finally been banished; a world in which all can avail themselves of the basic material supports of a meaningful life.” I had the privilege of serving as a member of the committee responsible for drafting the statement and helped to ensure that the final formulation would be acceptable to Buddhists as well as to representatives of the monotheistic faiths.

According to the document, achieving the goal of ending extreme poverty will take two commitments: to be guided by the evidence of what works, and to use our voices to compel and challenge others to join in this urgent cause. While meeting the first commitment will be the task of policy experts, members of the faith communities must rise to the second. To fulfill our responsibility we must continually insist that no one suffers the indignities of chronic hunger, destitution, homelessness, and medical neglect. We must affirm that everyone has an intrinsic human right to sufficient nutritious food, shelter, medical care, and a sustainable environment. And we must do more than speak; we must also demand and inspire concrete action.

The document calls for a holistic approach, proposing that we go beyond mere cosmetic patches to tackle the underlying causes of poverty, including preventable illness, lack of access to quality education, joblessness, corruption, and violent conflicts. It calls for an end to discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and other groups, and demands that women and girls be able to enjoy the same basic human rights as men. It also highlights the need to mitigate climate change and combat extreme inequality, both of which increase the extent and severity of poverty.

The narrative proposes a deep systemic shift, calling on the global community to move away from a paradigm that focuses narrowly on the quest for ever-expanding profits toward “a new paradigm of socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth.” It sees faith and spirituality as playing an essential role in facilitating this transition, which must be “rooted in the spiritual visions of our respective faiths, and built on a shared recognition of the intrinsic dignity and value of every life on Earth.” It reminds us that our faiths tell us that “the moral test of our society is how the weakest and most vulnerable are faring.”

A media teleconference with global faith leaders and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim on the call and commitment to end extreme poverty will be held on Thursday, April 9, 2015 at 12 p.m. EDT. Call-in information is as follows:

Within the US and Canada –
Free phone/Toll Free Number: 888-469-1378
International number: 1-415-228-3891
Participant passcode: 1619782

Small Is Not Only Beautiful … It May Be the Key to Our Survival!

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

As climate change advances ever more ominously and leads us closer to climate chaos, the key to reducing carbon emissions may lie not in ambitious market-based solutions but in a transformation of the dominant model of food production.

Members of peasant farmers group La Via Campesina demonstrating outside the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. (Photo: Friends of the Earth International)

Last month the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the hand of its Doomsday Clock ahead from five minutes to three minutes before midnight, a decision due to the unchecked advance of climate change and the modernization of nuclear weapons systems. At almost the same time, the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record. They also pointed out that the previous ten hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998.

These revelations that our survival as a species–or at least as a civilization–is in jeopardy add to the urgency of the UN’s climate conference, COP 21, to be held in Paris next December. While hopes ride high that a rigorous and legally binding agreement on reducing carbon emissions will finally emerge in Paris, it would be a mistake to assume we can just sit back and trust negotiators to devise an effective accord on their own. We should never underestimate the power of the fossil fuel corporations and their allies. Time and again, at COP conferences from Copenhagen to Lima, they have used their influence to dash hopes and shatter promises, and it’s unlikely they will keep aloof from the talks in Paris. Strong pressure, indeed relentless pressure, will be necessary to prevail against them. 

Even without the meddling of the fossil fuel agents, high-level climate summits seldom deviate from the premises of free-market economics. They always assume that growth is essential to a sound economy, despite the fact that the relentless pursuit of production and consumption is pushing the earth to its geophysical limits. A durable solution to the climate crisis requires not only technological ingenuity but new ways of thinking. It must flow from an organic understanding of the place of human beings in the biosphere, one consistent with hard fact, not with greed and ambition.  Our assumption that we’re a  privileged species entitled to exploit the earth’s natural treasures for our own advancement lies at the root of the crisis. We need instead a vision committed to both ecological sustainability and economic and social justice. We have to realize that we are an integral part of the earth’s web of life, and as such must accept our humble place within the whole. At the same time, we must enable  human communities to flourish in harmony with each other and the natural world. In short, we must shift our priorities away from the pursuit of endless economic growth toward an affirmation of the integral human good, which involves both a thriving natural world and social justice for the human population.

One key to meeting both objectives at the same time lies in transforming our models of agriculture. Roughly half of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and food production, which currently depend on fossil fuels for energy, chemical inputs, transportation, and preservation. Few proposals to mitigate climate change brought forward at international meetings take account of the close correlation between climate change and agriculture, yet the connection has been strongly emphasized by Oxfam, the World Resources Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and peasant organizations around the world.

The international peasant movement, Via Campesina, which has more than 250 million members worldwide, contends that the market-based policies offered to reduce carbon emissions—policies such as REDD and Climate-Smart Agriculture–not only fail to sufficiently cut emissions but also undermine the interests of small-scale farmers and indigenous populations. REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) allows corporations and rich industrialized nations to purchase tracts of forest in the global South to offset the carbon they release at home. Spokespersons for Via Campesina hold this program permits these major emitters to continue releasing high levels of carbon in their own countries while gaining nominal credit for reductions they promote elsewhere. Since carbon emissions cannot be sealed off within their lands of origin, this policy, they argue, is closer to sleight-of-hand magic than to a real solution.

Climate-Smart Agriculture, another strategy advanced to stem global warming, basically takes the tenets of REDD and applies them to farmland. Climate-Smart Agriculture seeks to impose new biotechnology on farmers around the world—genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers—creating yet another wave of dependency on markets. Investors from the global North receive carbon credits for their contribution to Climate-Smart Agriculture projects in the global South, thus increasing speculation within the food system by expanding its profit value. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian Via Campesina leader, says: “There’s absolutely nothing smart about it. The climate crisis is rooted in capitalism, which is also in crisis as an economic system. Entrepreneurs are trying to emerge from this crisis, and as a way of doing so are creating green capitalism, of which Climate-Smart Agriculture is typical.”

Via Campesina and its allies hold that solving the climate crisis requires replacing the industrial model of agriculture with an alternative that respects the planet’s natural limits and takes advantage of its restorative capacities. The model they propose revolves around the twin principles of food sovereignty and agroecology. Food sovereignty holds that rural working people and their urban counterparts, not corporations and market interests, should be at the center of the global food system.  Agroecology, the practice for realizing food sovereignty, makes use of ecological methods that have proved their worth over many generations. Though fears have been expressed about its ability to produce sufficient food, Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, allays these fears in his March 2011 report to the Human Rights Council: “Agroecology can double food production in entire regions within ten years, while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.”

Whereas the prevailing food system subordinates the environment to the market economy, the model of food sovereignty corrects this “inversion” by viewing the economy as a subsidiary of the planet’s larger ecosystem. The model respects the earth’s natural limits and also seeks to promote true human flourishing. Rather than looking on the food system as a source of profit, the ideal of food sovereignty is to empower the small-scale farmers who actually produce the food. It sees “small” not only as beautiful but as an essential key to our survival.

The commitment to food sovereignty unites two needs that often pull us in opposite directions: environmental sustainability and social justice, the need to block the advance of climate change and to eradicate extreme poverty, especially in rural communities.  Thus, to meet these twin goals, a shift in energy production from fossil fuels to renewable energy must be matched by a corresponding shift in agriculture, from one that extols the big and wealthy to one that respects the potentials of  small-scale farmers. As Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the Haitian Via Campesina leader, says: “Peasant agriculture can feed the world and cool the planet.”

Battling Climate Change in the Himalayas, One Woman at a Time

by Jennifer Russ

The Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the lower Himalayas, holds the fifteenth rank in agriculture in the country. Almost 88% percent of the land holdings come under the small and marginal category, which is about 55% of the area under cultivation. In the past three years, Uttarakhand has received less-than-normal rainfall, which has affected crop production and adversely impacted the livelihood of the almost 78% of the State’s population dependent on agriculture.

On these mountainous farms, the families’ survival depends on their ability to adapt to increasingly erratic weather patterns. About 90% of agricultural lands in Uttarakhand are fed by rain and are thus highly vulnerable to climate change and degradation due to erratic and unpredictable rainfall and severe erosion of soil nutrients. This has posed a major threat to agriculture in the region, the life support for the state’s population.

1,  , thaheli village, bhilangana block, tehri district, MVDA (Kirti Nautiyal)

Meeting of seed bank group

Women play a crucial role in hill agriculture, as they undertake up to 90% of the total work in agriculture and animal care. The impact of decline in productivity due to climate change and degradation of natural resources has affected the food security of women the most.

Since 2012, Buddhist Global Relief has been partnering with Oxfam India on a project that is equipping women in thirteen villages in Uttarakhand to fight along the front lines of climate change. The core of the project is the formation of women’s farmers associations, where women meet and learn new farming techniques like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and System of Wheat Intensification (SWI). These techniques enable farmers to produce more crops with less labor, fewer inputs, and less expenditures.

The result has been a 40% yield increase in rice and a 30% yield increase in wheat. These increases not only result in more food for their families but more income. With the extra money, the families can stop struggling to survive. They feel less pressure to keep their children home from school.

8, Training on protection of Natural water resources (Kirti Nautiyal)

Training in protection of natural water resources

At meetings of these farmer associations, Oxfam teaches women about climate change and how to maintain farms that are resilient to it. The women establish seed banks that preserve traditional plants while promoting hardier varieties. Farmers give back twice as many seeds as they take, which reduces their reliance on the market. The project also allows farmers to take out lines of credit with low interest so they may expand their farms. Together, women have more power to demand better prices for their products in the market.

Over 550 farmers across thirteen villages in Uttarakhand have benefited from this project. In the Gewali Village, one farmer was inspired to expand the project on her own. Sarita Devi, the wife of a shopkeeper and mother of three, manages the farm and livestock that are her family’s main source of income. Before Oxfam came to her village, Sarita and her husband were unable to support their family. Sarita joined a farmer’s association right away and was among the first to adopt SRI and SWI. That season, she enjoyed a higher yield and more income, but she didn’t stop there. She held demonstrations in her field and persuaded twelve other women in the Gewali village to adopt sustainable farming practices. Oxfam India reports that “Sarita Devi is an inspiration to all!”

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Indian women farmers, taking control of their own destiny

India is not the only country in which BGR has been sponsoring crop intensification programs. With your support, Buddhist Global Relief is planting many seeds of responsible farming in vulnerable communities around the world: in Cambodia, Vietnam, Haiti, Ethiopia, Côte D’Ivoire, Rwanda, and Malawi. To learn more about these projects, please visit our Current Projects page at http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/active/projects2014.html.

Girls in India as Agents of Change

by BGR Staff

BGR is presently sponsoring a project by the Bodhicitta Foundation in Nagpur, India, that has created a girls hostel to prepare girls for a better future. The hostel is accommodating thirty girls from extremely poor families, training them as social workers who will eventually return to their villages and become agents of change. At the end of January we received a half-year report from the Foundation. Below are highlights.

Adolescent girls in India make up a large percent of an invisible and vulnerable population. Prevailing cultural customs in India’s patriarchal society leave them powerless to decide their own future and disregard their potential as autonomous agents. Families traditionally favor male children, who are better fed and given preferential educational opportunities. Girl children are subject to gender-based discrimination. They are often denied an education but are instead forced into early marriage and child-bearing even before they outgrow their teen years. Investing in education for girls can be one of the most potent weapons in the fight for greater social justice. Educating girls can help alleviate poverty and the ignorance that leads to oppression of poor girls and women.

The focus of this Bodhicitta project is to enhance the education of adolescent girls. The project provides 30 girls with scholarships and hostel accommodations for three years. It trains them as health care and social workers or in other related fields of interest. These girls will become agents of change who will eventually return to their own villages, ready to empower other disadvantaged people and enable them to become self-sufficient.

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The girl’s hostel has 30 girls in residence, coming from Bihar, Maharashtra, and Nagpur. The girls, aged 10–22, are studying in nearby schools or doing university degrees by correspondence. When the girls first arrived at the hostel, many were so shy they could not speak in a group. Some were undernourished. Others suffered from worms, iron deficiency, head lice, and other conditions. Slowly the girls learned the routine at the hostel and developed their ability to study and focus. Now they can’t wait for the classrooms to open so they can practice their computer skills, play group development games, and share their opinions. On Saturday night the girls watch movies about inspiring people such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi. But what they enjoy most are Bollywood movies with fantastical plots, wonderful costumes, and lots of dancing!

Their growing confidence, laughter, and joy in learning is a privilege made possible by the kind volunteers and donors of Buddhist Global Relief.

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One hostel resident named Anjali, age 19, writes:

At home I spend all day serving my father, who drinks and is bedridden. Sometimes I felt like committing suicide because all my dreams for a better future were impossible. But since I found the hostel, I feel so happy. I have never been able to focus on my studies like this. I also really enjoy the extra programs like computers, counseling, classical dance and yoga. I feel myself growing in confidence. I never thought a woman’s life could be like this. Now I feel that I can be stronger in the future and secure employment and a better life. I hope I can get a good job and help my family and our community. But most of all I look forward to being independent.

Another resident, Nikki, age 14, reviews her experience:

My mother is a sex worker. Last year she was sent to jail. My father is an alcoholic and drug user. My brother and I were often alone in the house. We had no food and had to beg neighbors to give us something to eat. My father sold our food to get drugs. Some friends of my father came to the house and tried to molest my brother when I was away. I was afraid I would have to become a sex worker like my mum. I had given up all hope of having a normal happy life. How can you think about study when your brother is in danger and your father threatens to sell you?! Ever since I can remember I have had to fight for life, fight for food, fight to be safe, fight to be heard. Bodhicitta Foundation is like paradise for me. I am happy my brother is in boarding school, although he is still very naughty. I know this is my one chance to make sure I don’t end up married to a laborer or working like my mum. If you don’t have education people will cheat you, you will be a slave your whole life. I feel so safe and free here. I hope to become a social worker and activist. I want women to get good jobs and have better lives. Thank you for helping me!

As part of the project Bodhicitta has funded a small community center. This center provides vocational training, training in life skills and capacity building, counseling on domestic violence and sexual abuse, family and relationship counseling, meditation and yoga, and internet facilities. The center continues to offer tuition to slum children, meals to undernourished children, and vocational training to women.

Women receive loans and education to enhance their business acumen and empower them to start their own businesses. The income gained will directly increase the well-being of their children, families and communities, lifting them out of poverty. The community center creates offers health workshops, counseling, career guidance, and quality education that is currently lacking in the difficult environment of a large industrial slum.

Kunta Bhai, age 43, a sewing course participant, writes:

My husband and mother-in-law threw me out on the street. I had nowhere to go and no education. Through the sewing course I can get piecework for shops and make more money than collecting recyclables from garbage. Meeting other women and hearing their problems gives me hope and comfort. After so much pain, meeting with the women in my micro-finance group once a month is like having a family. We cook for each other and help watch each other’s kids. I feel happy and more optimistic about my future now. I hope my daughter will finish college and have opportunities I haven’t had.

  Jessie Benjamin contributed to the writing of this article.

 

 

 

Three Minutes to Midnight: Can We Turn the Clock Back in Time?

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

With atomic scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” two minutes closer to midnight and a report from the National Climatic Data Center confirming that 2014 was the hottest year on record, Congress is trying to move us closer to ecocide. Reversing course will require urgent, concerted action.

On January 22, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the minutes hand of its “Doomsday Clock” ahead two minutes, from five minutes before midnight to three minutes before midnight. The clock envisions the life span of human civilization as a period of 24 hours. Thus when scientists decide to move the minutes hand ahead by two minutes, this means that they consider us to be drawing closer to the end of our time. With only three minutes left, we don’t have much leeway.

The analogy, however, is not perfect, for there’s an important difference between a real clock and the Doomsday Clock. A real clock, as long as its batteries are working, will always move forward, from second to second and minute to minute. The Doomsday Clock, in contrast, does not have to move forward, for apart from its astrophysical constraints, human civilization is not rolling along a one-way track toward some predestined end where everything comes to a stop. The minute hand on the clock of civilization could well stand still, or indeed even move in reverse, from the danger zone back toward safety. We can, perhaps, delay our final dénouement and flourish – even for many more centuries.

The hand has not moved forward because a giant meteor is about to crash into Central Europe, or because a ring of volcanoes is due to erupt from France to Siberia, or because alien invaders from a distant galaxy are about to land in the American Corn Belt. No, the hand of the clock has moved forward, from five minutes to three minutes before midnight, because of human activity itself. It has moved forward because of bad choices, programs and policies imposed by those at the wheels of power.

The Bulletin cited in particular two factors as the basis for its decision to advance the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock. One is the unchecked increase in climate change, the other the modernization of nuclear weapons systems. Both are clearly reflective of misguided choices, and the scientists spared no punches in laying the blame where it deserved to fall: on world leaders who failed to act “with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.” Some scientists pointed to the role that nuclear weapons have played in heightening the danger; others stressed the failure to stem climate change. One board member, Richard Somerville, emphasized that “efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption . . . The resulting climate change will harm millions of people and will threaten many key ecological systems on which civilization relies.”

The Heat Is Up

As a reminder of the urgency of our situation, another report – this one coming from the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA – confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record. According to the report summary, “the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880.” During 2014, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.24°F (almost .7°C) above the 20th century average – the highest on record. The globally-averaged land surface temperature was 1.80°F (1.00°C) above the 20th century average, the fourth highest on record. The globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.03°F (0.57°C) above the 20th century average, again the highest on record.

Stated in the abstract, such figures may offer our minds little to get a grip on. So let images take the place of words. The image just below reveals at a glance the extent to which 2014 land and ocean temperatures deviated from the average. The image clearly shows that, with a few exceptions – including the eastern third of the United States – temperature increases spanned the globe. Europe was hit the hardest, but every continent was affected, and the oceans too, a critical ecosystem, also warmed “from sea to shining sea.”

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The higher temperatures of 2014 were not an aberration, but consistent with overall trends. The graph below,  also from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, shows how the global mean temperature has steadily risen over the past half century. After a phase of fluctuations between the 1930s and 1960s, global temperatures suddenly started to climb from the 1970s on, mounting ever higher like a flight of steps.

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A warmer planet means not only more bizarre and destruction spells of petulant weather – more droughts and floods and brutal heat waves – but also a mounting threat of feedback loops. The most ominous of these is the release of methane, a process that has already started. On a 20-year time scale, methane has a greenhouse effect 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide; on a century time scale, it’s about 23 times more potent. A veritable time bomb of the stuff, billions of tons, is stored beneath the Arctic permafrost and deep under the ocean’s floors. In the Arctic region, it exists in the form of frozen hydrates, which lock the gas safely below the surface. However, as temperatures steadily grow warmer, the frost melts, unlocking the repositories of methane. Then, in bubbles and belches, the methane will emerge, like a deadly dragon awakened from a long sleep, wreaking havoc on the earth’s fragile ecosystems.

The explosion of the “methane bomb” could flood the atmosphere with enough gigatons of carbon to push global temperatures beyond the sustainability level for human civilization. Then the Doomsday Clock will cross the remaining three minutes and reach the midnight mark. That could mean the true “end of history,” though in a different sense than that conceived by Francis Fukuyama. Indeed, it could bring to an end nature’s audacious experiment with a reckless species that prematurely named itself homo sapiens, “the wise humans.”

Congress Kicks In

The irony in this species name was already evident last month when the Senate voted on a proposal by Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), stating that human activity contributes “significantly” to climate change. The measure won, but just barely, by a vote of 50 to 49. Thus, while 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity underlies global warming, those who actually wield the power to curtail climate change are divided down the middle over the question whether we are even capable of doing something about it. Half our senators, and a great majority of our representatives in the junior house of Congress, stand on the side of denial.

It is probably such obtuseness – along with generous gifts from the fossil fuel corporations – that explains the refusal of Congress to tackle the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. Far from resisting the lure of Big Oil, on January 29, the Senate passed a bill approving construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The measure had bilateral support, garnering 62 votes in favor, 30 opposed. The Senate vote follows a House vote earlier in January, of 266-153, in support of the pipeline. President Obama still has the authority to make the final decision regarding construction. He has said that he would veto any bill approving the pipeline that crosses his desk, but his objection to the congressional vote rests on procedural grounds rather than on a considered decision. His actual decision still remains undetermined, awaiting the completion of an environmental impact study.

If constructed, the Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day from the tar sands pits of Alberta, Canada, to US refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen, is considered one of the dirtiest, most polluting substances on the planet, more carbon intensive even than petroleum. The extraction of the oil from tar sands requires huge amounts of energy and water. Its transport by pipeline poses grave threats to precious water and farmland along the route. And approval of the pipeline would let the fossil fuel industry know who’s really in charge of the planet’s destiny. It would be tantamount to an announcement that profit has finally triumphed over planet, that all the earth’s remaining stores of fossil fuels are fair game for extraction, sale and consumption.

Every day, more and more fossil fuels are being pumped up from the earth and seas – coal, oil and natural gas – far more than we can safely burn. Since the 1980s, we’ve had warnings, loud and clear enough, that we’re gambling with our collective future. We’re already at three minutes to midnight. However, though it’s late, it may yet not be too late to turn the clock backward. But for this to happen, drastic action will be needed, a full-scale collaborative effort undertaken with the vigor that enabled us to prevail against fascism in World War II.

If we can unite around this effort, if we can phase out nuclear weapons, let fossil fuels remain in the ground, and switch over to a clean-energy economy, we might turn the clock back. We might reverse it by five minutes, by 10 minutes, even by hours before midnight. But if we continue with business as usual, letting the giant carbon corporations dictate policy, the clock will continue to advance. When midnight arrives, we’ll reap the consequences of our folly: the death blow to civilization, the moment of ecological suicide.

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