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Balance is for Buddhists

Tue, Sep 22, 2009

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Balance is a central tenet of Buddhism, foundational to the four noble truths and the eight-fold way. Balance is a superb notion and I strongly support, for individuals at least, balance, moderation, and many other principles of Buddhism. Indeed, had Buddhism found roots in this country a couple hundred years ago, we probably would have avoided, or at least delayed, the series of catastrophes we now face. But with fewer than one percent of the American population dedicated to Buddhism, it’s a little late for balance and moderation to work their magic at the scale of this country, much less planet Earth (as if even one percent of Americans give a damn about planet Earth).


I’d like to subvert in advance the notion that we can give peace a chance. Industrial humans possess “freedoms” only because our governments employ a massive, non-stop war machine to keep us “free.” And don’t give me that “love it or leave it” crap. I stopped loving this country a long time ago, so I tried to make it better. A quick look around reveals how well that worked for all of us. At this point, the only escape from American Empire involves feeding on beetle juice in the caves of Tara Bora, and I’m having too much fun seeing the industrial economy give way to nature’s patience to jump off the imperial ship at this late juncture. Put simply, peace (i.e., the absence of war) doesn’t stand a chance. As Ran Prieur points out in the superb documentary film What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire (I’m paraphrasing): From the perspective of any particular location, the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy always wins. If a peaceful people occupy an area, and a violent tribe comes along to conquer them, there are three possible outcomes: (1) the peaceful people leave, thus committing the area to the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy, (2) the peaceful people fight back, thus committing the area to the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy, or (3) the peaceful people choose to become slaves to the violent tribe, thus committing the area to the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy. Give peace a chance? Not on this planet. And that’s just our relationship with other humans, about whom we actually claim to care.

Back to the point, then: It’s too late for half measures. Perhaps it always was. Half measures will not save the industrial economy, as Barack Obama is discovering with each gargantuan new bailout. The bailouts, perceived as necessary to keep the industrial economy lurching along, barely manage to keep the trucks running and the water flowing out the taps, and only by passing to future generations the bill that will never be paid. Half measures certainly won’t save the living planet, despite the pleas, petitions, and calls to arms issued by mainstream conservationists for the last several decades. These conservationists are making a decent living in the industrial economy, fiddling while the planet burns. But they are patently ineffective at saving anything except their way of life. And they’re the good guys.

If the middle way is no way at all, what’s left? I propose getting rid of the omnicidal monster called western civilization, and sooner rather than later (thanks to Derrick Jensen for coining the perfect word). We’ve already had enough globalization, enough just-in-time delivery of meaningless baubles, enough sight-seeing and food-tasting and basking in the “good life” at the expense of every life form on the globe. We really do not need every American high-school student making the obligatory trip to Rome and Florence to see another culture [sic].
Instead of extracting an easy life from fossil fuels and human slaves, while taking our life-support system down into the bowels of hell with us, let’s try living as our predecessors did on this land. Never mind abandoning our beloved cars: In North and South America, we’ll need to give up the wheel.

I’m willing to give up every single piece of industrial civilization to see it all come down. An electromagnetic pulse (an “e-bomb”) would be a fine start. Yesterday would be the perfect time, but tomorrow will suffice. Indeed, I’ll gladly die if that’s one result of civilization’s fall. Personally, I suspect both will happen within the next few years. But I look upon this exciting, once-in-a-lifetime event as a chance to substantively experience the world around me, perhaps for the first time. It’s also a personal challenge and a superb opportunity for personal growth, all without purchasing a round-trip ticket to Rome.

By way of a thought experiment, what elements of industrial culture would you choose to save? I’m not suggesting you have a choice, mind you. Rather, I think the ongoing collapse of industrial culture will remove most of the choices for all of us, hopefully before 2012 as the price of oil approaches $225 per barrel. And, as infamous war criminal Henry Kissinger fondly pointed out, “the absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.” But let’s beat Henry to the post-industrial party, shall we? Let’s imagine what we can get along without, even before it’s gone.

I’ll get us started by assuming we want to save electricity (i.e., continue killing every part of the living planet so we can comfortably read our Harlequin Romance novels). The following back-of-the-envelope calculation illustrates part of the costs needed to build solar panels to run the U.S. electrical grid:
The total energy requirement to produce a PV panel is about 1,000 kWh per square meter, and there’s about 1,700 kWh in each barrel of oil (alternative source here). My math skills aren’t what they used to be, so please point out all errors in the following calculations.

In the U.S. alone, we use about 4 trillion kWh for electricity annually. I’ll generously assume 30% efficiency of solar panels. The solar constant is 1.4 kW per square meter, so we need slightly more than 2 billion square meters of solar panels to satisfy current U.S. electrical demand (i.e., the 4 trillion kWh): 1.4 kW per square meter * 12 hr/day sunlight, every day * 0.3 {the efficiency conversion} * 365 days/yr = 1,840 kWh/yr, and 4 trillion Kwh divided by 1,840 kWh/yr = 2,174,385,736 square meters.

It takes about 1,000 kWh of energy to manufacture a single square meter of PV panel. So we need a tad more than 2 trillion kWh of energy to manufacture the solar panels needed to keep the grid going.
Because each barrel of oil contains about 1,700 kWh of energy, we need about 1.3 billion barrels of oil to manufacture the solar panels needed to keep us supplied with electrical power in this country. We use a little less than 20 million barrels of oil each day in this country, so we could forgo oil for about two months to stockpile the oil we “need” to keep the grid running (except, of course, that we haven’t accounted for shipping, installation, storage of electricity, or maintenance of the panels or the grid). Draining the strategic petroleum reserves (SPR), which currently contain 727 million barrels of crude oil, would provide a little more than half the 1.3 billion barrels needed to make the panels.

Skipping oil for a month or two, much less draining the SPR, would destroy the industrial economy almost overnight because traders on the world’s stock markets would hit the panic button. Needless to say, I’m completely in favor of the idea.
If you foolishly prefer the nuclear option for electricity, consider these points: (1) Nuclear is more expensive than fossil fuels, so I have a hard time believing Americans will willingly pursue this route; (2) We have no idea how to deal with the waste, despite decades of talking around (vs. about) this issue; (3) Nuclear power plants do not become carbon neutral for at least two decades because cement production (and use) is so carbon-intensive (and after 20 years or so, we start shutting the plants down because of safety concerns); (4) Energy too cheap to meter, if it ever comes, will reduce the living planet to a lifeless pile of rubble within a generation; (5) I seriously doubt the industrial economy has time to build many, if any, nuclear power plants; (6) The economic impact will be minimal, regardless — the industrial economy runs on oil, which is required to maintain the electrical grid (and nuclear power plants); and (7) we’re past peak for nuclear sources.

I’m sure I’m missing several salient points and I haven’t addressed many, many other issues. What elements of industrial culture will we lose when the industrial economy completes its collapse? Which of these elements do you value more than life itself (the lives of others, of course, not Americans)?

Think of the benefits associated with all of us giving up every aspect of western civilization. Goldman Sachs unable to manipulate the market, as they’ve done since the Great Depression. More importantly, the Milky Way shimmering in the night sky. The absence of suffering (Schopenhauer’s version of happiness) as we realize we are no longer witnessing the only mass extinction our species has ever seen (and the only mass extinction caused by a single species). No more bad news about our destruction of the living planet. No more good news about economic collapse. No news at all, except the kind delivered by a smiling neighbor on foot.
But that’s my dream. What’s yours?

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12 Responses to “Balance is for Buddhists”

  1. Stan Moore Says:

    (I think) my favorite Buddhist was “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski. (“This will not stand, man!”) :)
    My mother used to tell me, “if pigs had wings, they’d fly”, and if the world were different, it would be different, but it is what it is. Evolution is against us at this stage, and so is culture — we are going to get a double-whammy here in the US and with Obama or any other president and the rest of the world is going to be made to share our pain.
    Stan Moore

  2. James McPherson Says:

    My favorite Buddist joke:
    “What did the Buddist say to the hot dog vender?”
    “Make me one with everything.”

  3. bubbleboy! Says:

    What about an army of trained policy bureaucrats? Surely with teamwork we are greater than the sum of all our parts. We CAN get more than we put in! That would push the dynamo over. That would give us our perpetual motion machine of human life on earth, forever. It is funny that the market could be built on the irrational belief in such a free lunch, at least for the guy wearing a suit.
    An old high school friend returned from Iraq and showed up smiling on my doorstep yesterday. He said that this third time, well, there weren’t many other bullies in the sandbox. The young guys could never understand his nervousness or apprehension. They had never known anyone who did not make it back home. Another thing he said is that since the election, now we aren’t allowed to just call in an air strike on any building that offers a bullet or two. “Every city has violence. We could leave that place any day now, if we only would.”

  4. Stan Moore Says:

    What about Buddhism? What about the Dalai Lama?
    I have to confess that I know little about Buddhist practice or theory or the Dalai Lama. But I have heard discussions from time to time on the radio and recently heard some interviews of westerners who are supposed to be very close to DL and claimed to have insights as to his “greatness”. And what I heard caused me to be relatively unimpressed.
    I came away with the feeling that Buddhism is sort of a “grin and bear it” type of philosophy, and DL has that as sort of a mantra and lifestyle. DL appears to me to be a man with little power over his life except the power of the mind, convincing himself that life is good and bearable. His people are in bondage to a great power and neither he nor they can do much about it. So, he inverts his thinking and obtains a sort of “freedom from worry” and implements a life philosophy of being eminently agreeable with everyone all the time. He cannot flip the bird at the Chinese. He cannot tell anyone to “f… off”. He has to politely agree or disagree or find words to cleverly change the subject or find the good in a difficult situation.
    This seems to be the sort of philosphy/semi-religion of people living in high densities with potential pressures and threats all around. The best course is to be agreeable and pleasant and not to antagonize anyone for fear that anyone may be a threat to you.
    I would not like to put myself in such a mindset or lifestyle. I prefer low density, individualism, rigorous debate and profound disagreement and even heated exchanges. I don’t want to be passive and smile as though I have no cares. I want to be able to throw my shoe at my oppressor or flip the bird at the driver who is tailgating me, even if he is in a semi-tractor and I am in a subcompact car.
    I think humanity is at its best in low density agrarian lifestyles. I think the Orient tends to be overly dense, overly anthropocentric, and supercivilized. I like wilderness and wildlife. I crave freedom and quiet. I prefer solitude and tree hugging to chants and monks beating drums.
    Stan Moore

  5. Frank Mezek Says:

    Question for Our Stan:
    I like the “wilderness and wildlife” also.
    But I need to live in the city.
    So what can I do?
    Double D

  6. Charlene Says:

    Stan, we agree on something: I love the Dude.
    Buddhism has its moments, but it isn’t without flaws. As far as that goes, great concepts tied to whacky human behavior seems like a running theme in the world’s religions:
    “I’ve got a great idea, let’s all just be nice to each other.”
    “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but before we tell anyone else I think we should come up with some really crazy rituals and some dogma that will prevent at least a portion of humanity from wanting anything to do with us.”
    “Great, I’m in!”
    …..
    I have to confess, the Dalai Lama does say some interesting things from time to time. He’s obviously a deep spiritual thinker along the lines of most high mucky-mucks in a religion. I just don’t get the big love affair Westerners seem to have with him. Nothing against him, I just don’t really see it.
    Buddhism’s history wasn’t all peace love and happiness, either. There were theocrats and sexists in the bunch there, too. Some sects thought women needed to be reborn with male parts to be worthy of Nirvana. Don’t get me started on the whole nun thing.
    I’m not saying Buddhism lacks insight, but I do think it has a hyped status. And I don’t really buy that everything Buddhist is very cosmic and “chill”. It’s got its high points, but has to be treated with a thoughtful eye, just like any belief system.
    Just saying.
    And I still love the Dude.

  7. Bill Fugagli Says:

    You post made me think of this Newsweek article
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/212155

  8. Stan Moore Says:

    I think “The Dude” is the American Dalai Lama with a little chemical support. I never saw such great wisdom as he showed when the thugs shoved his head into the toilet, demanding to know where “the money” was, and when they pulled him up and out of the toilet he told them to reinsert it because he was not able to find “the money” the first time. Such humility :)
    By the way, I just watched a pretty good political movie called “The Contender” that I recommend. In this one Jeff Bridges played the President of the United States trying to replace a deceased vice-president by nominating the first woman to the position (played by Joan Allen, another favorite of mine). The political shenanigans played by both parties and the surprise ending made this movie quite gripping. And I really like Jeff Bridges, either as “The Dude” or as POTUS. He shows how you can deeply admire or despise the same politician within a couple hours’ time.
    Stan Moore

  9. Stan Moore Says:

    One last little tidbit —
    I know a wonderful 87 year old woman in Berkeley named Kendra Smith, whose husband is Huston Smith, author of various books on world religions and a deep scholar of the subject. I visited with Kendra recently and it was sad to see that she appears to be aging at an accelerated pace and she has to stop and rest or even lie down and that sort of thing, though her mind is sharp as a tack when she feels strong.
    I shared a couple of my poems with Kendra and she like the one called “The Condor and Me”. One of the lines was sort of Buddhist-like (I think). It went — “I asked the condor, what is eternity? He told me to wait and see.”
    Kendra is a superb human who has lived a fascinating life. I hope that whatever eternity brings, I will get to meet up with her in some other realm after this sojourn is over for both of us. I think she actually knows the Dalai Lama (she has tenants from Tibet), so maybe it could be arranged through DL, but I don’t intend to be presumptuous and ask. I’ll just wait and see.
    Stan Moore

  10. Michael Irving Says:

    Stan,
    Maybe you should check the population per square kilometer of Tibet prior to the Chinese takeover. You may be confusing Hong Kong with the homeland of the DL.
    To use the ideas expressed by one actor in one film to judge a religious philosophy is lame at best. So is the idea that a better response to the world is “just let me bang around bumping off other people and kicking ass if necessary and, oh and by the way, I want everyone else out of my wilderness.” Lame.
    Of course, maybe you have some insight I don’t have. I guess “knowing” there is an afterlife makes mistakes in this life subject to a do-over. Budhists agree about a do-over but seem pretty concerned about what level the do-over starts from. Hence, it is important to be mindful of what you do in the here-and-now.
    Sorry about your ruffled feathers.
    Mike

  11. Andrew Says:

    Interesting solar cell calculation. It seems fine, and optimistic. If you rework the hours of sunlight (12hrs/day, everyday) to say 4 hrs/day on average (remember that without tracking, the glancing morning and evening rays are unlikely to generate much electricity) the square footage goes up by three. You could do a similar calculation if the average efficiency is closer to 20% as well.
    Not that either adjustment really adds to the point of the calculation. Other than that many of our industrial techno-fantasies are just that. Fantasies.


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