15 September 2014

Right Whales Return and Disappear Again

It was with a great sense of relief that I read in early August that right whales had returned in large numbers to the Bay of Fundy. During the last week in July, whale watch boats out of Grand Manan counted 50 right whales. Comments ran along the lines of "just like the old days." Researchers from the New England Aquarium, who have been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy for 34 years, documented 45 whales on Thursday of that week and another 30 or so on Friday.

This was good news, because last year, the NEAq team found five whales in the Bay, the lowest in all the years they have been going there. It was very worrying. The Bay of Fundy normally hosts the largest number of right whales of any place we know. I have seen as many as 75 on a single trip. That's quite a large number, about 15% of the entire population.

Right whales come to the Bay of Fundy in search of food. Summer is the time when plankton blooms in northern waters and many species of whale come to the Bay of Fundy looking for food. For many of them, this is the only food they will have all year. They survive winter on the fat they store during the summer. So in general, the whales go where the food is, and last year there was no food in the waters of the Bay of Fundy, at least not the kind of food that right whales eat.

Right whales consume a species of copepod, a very tiny, almost microscopic shrimp-like animal, named Calanus finmarchicus. Calanus is a cold water species. Increases in water temperature affect how early in the year they reproduce, how long they remain at the surface (right whales are surface feeders) and ultimately whether they reproduce at all. It is not much of a leap to speculate that the absence of Calanus in the Bay of Fundy in August of 2013 was due to higher-than-normal surface water temperatures.

Looking at data from NOAA weather buoys in the northern Gulf of Maine, near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, I have found that the surface water temperature has been rising over the past decade, with 2012 and 2013 being the warmest on record. That might account for the absence of food and the absence of right whales.

This year is different. The water temperature is closer to what it was a decade ago. At first I thought that might account for the abundance of right whales, for the comment that it feels "like the old days." Surface water temperature tends to follow air temperature. So with global warming we expect to find warming of ocean surface temperatures as well, with obvious consequences for cold-water species. At first there was reason to celebrate the return of right whales to the Bay of Fundy this year, but there is now reason to remain concerned, because in spite of year-to-year variations that can be quite dramatic, the long-term trend is toward warming. And the right whales have disappeared again. That early optimism has been replaced with concern once again. Surveys in the Bay of Fundy, and in the Roseway Basin off the Coast of Nova Scotia have turned up very few whales. Five or six have been spotted off the coast of Cape Breton, farther north. Given what happened last year, I am not optimistic that the Bay of Fundy will remain a gathering place for right whales.

The question of the moment, at least for me, is what effect two years of poor food resource in the Bay of Fundy is having on the health of the population. It costs a lot of energy to go looking for food, not knowing where it will be found. The energy in the food that is found has to be higher than the energy spent to find it, or it is of no use. If the energy spent looking is higher than the energy in the food found, then right whale health will be decreasing and mortality from starvation could be high.

I have no evidence that right whales are starving to death, but I think it is a concern. What does the second year of absence of whales in the Bay of Fundy mean? Does it mean they got the word and are avoiding the Bay? Or does it mean last year's lack of food significantly diminished the population? A large number of whales appeared in Cape Cod Bay in April, suggesting that the population is okay, but their food is moving. But a lower-than-normal number of calves was born in the winter, suggesting the population is experiencing some difficulties.

Researchers have depended on the predictability of right whales' presence in the Bay of Fundy to monitor and study them and estimate their total numbers. They photograph them, count them, identify individuals, collect DNA and poop, and thus have gathered a very complete picture of the size and structure of the right whale population. If right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy, it will take significant human effort to figure out where they are going to find food, in order to continue to monitor their health and well-being.

If they drop off of our radar, we will have little idea how they are faring, except to continue to observe how many females appear off the coast of Florida in the winter to give birth, and perhaps to monitor them more closely in Cape Cod Bay in the winter and spring. Right whales have survived being hunted to near extinction. They have surely survived other changes in their food supply. We can hope and believe they are adaptable enough to survive this one. But it would be nice to know. Whale researchers don't seem to be very good at remaining dispassionate. It's not an easy job. You have to care a lot to go out every day in a tiny boat and spend long days searching for and documenting whales. The blog posts from the New England Aquarium convey real concern and a sense of loss.

Seeing the right whales each year is one sign that this precious Earth is still holding things together, despite all the stress it is experiencing at our hands. Not seeing them is very worrying, and for me feels like a sign that we are pushing the Earth beyond its limits and will be facing many more losses in the years to come.

20 July 2014

The Whole World Is Sacred

The following paragraphs summarize most of what I have tried to communicate in this blog and in my essays. I have arrived at this perspective by living among homeless people, being in a war zone, hanging out with whales and seals and birds and trees and rivers, and living a contemplative, listening life.

The Whole World is Sacred:

The plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, the stars and planets, are sacred, of value in and of and for themselves. For humans to use them, manipulate them, harvest them, harm them, abuse them, without any regard for their own value for themselves leads to grievous harm for us all. I seek the sanctification of the whole universe and all of its members. I resist commodification and exploitation in all its forms. Nothing, absolutely nothing, exists only for another’s use.

Beliefs Distort Reality:

No matter what we believe (about the world, or about ourselves), no matter what we think we know, if we prefer our beliefs to reality, our relationship with reality gets distorted. To stay in touch with reality, we must be active listeners, open to the whole range of experience, inward and outward, comfortable and uncomfortable. To be attentive to reality is to be here and now, listening deeply, observing sensitively; acting as necessary, taking into our awareness our limited experience and our vast ignorance.

When I See That I Am No Thing, I See That I Am Everything:

To be attentive to reality is to encounter our limits, to see that we do not really know anything at all. Reality is essentially hidden from us, even though we live it and breathe it and it is right at hand. From this awareness of our ignorance comes the love of everything that is. How is that? Our sense of self is created by the stories we tell about the world and our relationship to it. When we realize that we do not really know who we are, and we do not really know what the world is, our ability to derive an enduring sense of self from these stories evaporates, and what is left is the whole of everything, its dynamic interrelatedness, and this organism as part of that whole movement of life. The stories don’t necessarily stop, but they are no longer definitive. The living “self” is not in the stories I tell, but in the whole movement of life. This is a powerful shift of perspective.

We tend to have this backward. We elevate the stories we tell to the status of Self, and we denigrate the reality in which we move to the status of “other;” not important, inherently evil, of value only if useful to me, an illusion, to be feared, to be hated, to be escaped, to be conquered, to be manipulated, used, abused, destroyed. We create a “me,” and then the “not-me” is either useful to me, or it is a threat to me and treated accordingly. The love of everything is not the love of one separate thing for another separate thing, but the inherent love of the wholeness of life reveling in its wholeness, in which there is no division, no “me,” no “not-me,” no conflict, no distortion, no exploitation.

Everything Must Change:

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technology and a few policy changes are insufficient (though probably necessary).

We need a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of the change is what I have articulated above: look and see that beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing, and therefore everything; see that everything is sacred.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity - I'll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin or my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my "self" (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best.

One final word: Because beliefs distort reality, I do not ask anyone to believe anything that I am saying. This reorientation goes way beyond a change in beliefs. It is available to anyone and everyone who stops and looks and listens and is willing to be utterly changed in the process.

11 February 2014

Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called "breaking the frame." His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subculture to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is "me" until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won't work. As long as we have a sense of self - or an economic system - that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won't help. We'll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word "perceived." These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security - all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels -  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames - your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you - are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?