Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Emile Zola - 'The Belly of Paris'

The reason I became interested in reading Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle in its entirety is that I read and was fascinated by several of the more famous novels in the Cycle (L'Assommoir, Nana). Once I decided to read all the novels, I started reading in the order Zola wrote them so I tackled The Belly of Paris early on. However, this book is actually the 11th novel in the Cycle if you go by Zola's preferred reading order, and I have found his order makes a lot more sense in understanding this massive literary accomplishment than reading books at random or in the order he wrote them. So, in short, I'm able to quickly jump in with a post about The Belly of Paris!

As noted in my last Zola post (A Love Episode), one aspect of the Cycle is that it explores all three broad socio-economic classes of society. Each of these classes (wealthy, bourgeoisie, and poor) largely sync up with one of the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family (the Rougons, Mourets, and Macquarts, respectively). Since Zola is using the Cycle to explore the impact of heredity, the characters fall into these classes largely due to their family affiliations. The Belly of Paris is the first novel to focus on a member of the Macquart family.

While Zola's interest in heredity is a well-established point of the Cycle, I imagine he also believed environment could influence (or perhaps disguise) heredity. To this end, Zola populates the Cycle with several characters who cross into another social class so he can explore the intersection of heredity and environment. The most obvious example of this intersection is the entire Mouret family, which arises from a marriage between Marthe Rougon and Francois Mouret (the latter a member of the Macquart family). More specifically, several individual characters span classes too. For example, Angelique (ostensibly a Rougon) is transplanted to a family of artisans in The Dream. Serge Mouret (Abbe Mouret's Transgression) lives in a poverty stricken town, and his middle class sense of propriety leave him comically out-of-touch. Octave Mouret (Pot-Bouille and The Ladies' Paradise) is the epitome of a middle class social climber, but his success as a retail magnate makes him much closer in character to Eugene Rougon or Aristide Saccard.

In The Belly of Paris, we have another character that crosses the lines: Lisa Macquart Quenu. Daughter of the thoroughly disreputable Antoine Macquart, she has married a respectable shopkeeper and escaped the vat of dysfunction and depravity that haunts the cash-strapped and illegitimate Macquart family. In Chapter 2, Zola describes Lisa's hereditary roots in her father and mother. That said, he spends a lot more time laying out the middle class sensibilities that drive Lisa and her husband. For example, their passionless decision to marry is completely tied up in a desire to be comfortable and is made only when they come into a large amount of money. Zola does a masterful job of fusing their practical aims with the language of a passionate tryst as the pair tabulate their 'loot' on Lisa's bed: "The bed had become very untidy, with the sheets hanging loosely; and the gold had made hallows on the pillow, as if their heads had rolled and twisted there while they were in the throes of passion." This is a merger of interest aimed at achieving moderate comfort and ease, not a grand passion of love or greed.

Lisa's staunch bourgeois mindset is further highlighted in her opinions. She denigrates her father's idleness, but she also rejects the high-flying Aristide Saccard's unending quest to gain and then retain fabulous wealth. Lisa's moral character is ultimately banal. For example, she supports the Empire not because it is good or just but because she and her husband are able to make a good living under its rule. She would never stop to consider the Empire from a strictly moral vantage point; self-interest is her universe. Behind all of this it's notable that Zola wrote The Belly of Paris right after The Kill suggesting that, after he dissected the way the wealthy devour society in the latter book, he wanted to speak to how the middle class enjoy their modest lot at the foot of the table. As long as Lisa (and people like her) are fat and comfortable, they aspire to nothing. They worry about nothing. They are concerned with nothing. They are a herd of grazing cows...perhaps one additional meaning of the novel's title?

Les Halles (circa Zola's time)
From this standpoint, it's clear why Zola chose to set this story in the massive food market of Les Halles. It's a hot bed of lower middle class and bourgeois foibles, filled with two-faced, vicious gossips and petty rivalries. More to the point, Zola uses the food market and its inherent purpose of satiating hunger to underline his depiction of the middle class (lower middle class is perhaps most accurate here) as well-fed and self-satisfied. In one passage, Zola has Claude Lantier, another member of the Macquart family (and the main character of the brilliant novel The Masterpiece) formally size up this angle of society:
"...the Fat, big enough to burst, preparing their evening orgies; the Thin, doubled up with hunger, staring in from the street like envious stick figures; and then again, the Fat, sitting at table, their cheeks bulging with food, chasing away a Thin man who has had the temerity to insinuate himself into their midst...In these pictures Claude saw the entire drama of human life; and he ended by dividing everyone into Fat and Thin, two hostile groups, one of which devours the other and grows fat and sleek and endlessly enjoys itself."
Indeed this passage could be a synopsis of Zola's entire view of society and the interaction of the classes within it: the endless preying of the rich and fat on the poor and thin. The middle class are desperate to attain 'Fat' status and keep a hold of it.

The pervasiveness of food imagery occurs from the very first pages of the novel, when poverty-stricken, pseudo-seditionist Florent Quenu (Lisa's brother-in-law) arrives in Paris on a wagon piled high with food...and yet he is slowly starving to death. Florent is the 'Thin' insinuating himself into Lisa's 'Fat' world of complacency, which is described as follows:
"The business continued to prosper, without their having to work especially hard, just as Lisa preferred. She had carefully avoided any possible source of anxiety, and the days passed in an atmosphere of calm, complacent well-being...Father, mother, and daughter all grew sleek and fat." 
However, this atmosphere is deceptive and hides the grasping reality. For example, it's telling that despite recognizing Florent's past sacrifices for him and his oft-proclaimed love for his brother, simple Quenu is instantly stung and angered at the idea of sharing any part of his inheritance with Florent. Lisa's primary concerns with Florent are monetary and to make sure he gets a job so he doesn't set the tongues of the gossips wagging. Of course, being a Zola novel - and a Zola novel about the Macquarts to boot - we pretty much expect that disaster is on the horizon. No spoilers, but Florent's tendencies towards social justice and agitation catch up with him. But don't be fooled. Zola's point is not to descry the injustice Florent suffers. (Zola is much too staunch a naturalist for such sentimental blather). His point in this novel is how none of the events in life pierce the thick insulation of middle class existence. After the disturbance created by Florent, Lisa's life returns to normal. In fact, the petty warfare between her and a rival is largely patched up.

This unflappable, indestructible banality exists to a certain degree in all the novels about middle class characters in the Cycle. Helene's somnolent existence in A Love Episode is an excellent example. Spiritually, Serge experiences a shattering break with reality and his religion in Abbe Mouret's Transgression. However, by the end of the novel, everything is 'back to normal'. And in Pot-Bouille no matter how far the characters sink, the interrelationships that forge their petty social milieu are unimpaired. In fact, those who refuse to return to the status quo are looked down on with the eye-rolling annoyance reserved for fools and pests. Only in The Conquest of Plassans are the middle class characters impacted, and this is because the wealthy movers trod over them without noticing as they reach for power.

Zola's theme is best encapsulated in the final words of the novel, spoken by the poor, bohemian painter Claude Lantier: "Respectable people...what bastards!"

In summary, The Belly of Paris (I read the Oxford edition translated into wonderful English prose by Brian Nelson) is much more interesting as social commentary and much better plotted than some of the Mouret books (e.g., A Love Episode). There is a lot of description here, revealing Zola's Naturalism, but it's not too disruptive to what the novel is trying to do. While Pot-Bouille remains the top of the heap (or the bottom, depending on how you look at it) in terms of scathing satire of the bourgeoisie, The Belly of Paris is a solid entry in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Emile Zola - 'A Love Episode'

Dantan illustration from an early edition
By reading this book, I have made it to the halfway mark! A Love Episode is the tenth of the twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle.

This novel concerns Helene Mouret, the daughter of Ursule Macquart Mouret. As the story opens we find that she is Helene Grandjean, widow of a husband named Charles and mother to a seriously ill daughter named Jeanne. The story concerns the disruption of Helene's torpid existence by an episode of love: her affair with Henri Deberle, the married doctor treating Jeanne.

A Love Episode is the fifth and last novel that deals with the Mouret branch of the Rougon-Macquart family, the others being: The Conquest of Plassans, Pot-Bouille, The Ladies' Paradise, and Abbe Mouret's Transgression. My recurring issue with several of these novels is that they contain a heavy amount of descriptive passages, which often displaces plot and characterization. A Love Episode definitely suffers from this problem. The problem surprised me because it was such a contrast to most of the four books focused on the Rougon branch of the family, and especially to books I'd previously read relating to the lower class Macquart branch of the family. While almost all Zola's novels are firmly entrenched in naturalism, it was odd to find such thin plots in the books relating to the Mourets.

However, I'm beginning to think I understand that this 'problem' is actually an intentional device of Zola's. As I get more novels in the Cycle under my belt, Zola's overarching structure is becoming clearer. With each branch of the family (Rougon, Mouret, and Macquart), Zola is painting a social class (wealthy, middle class, and poor, respectively). The wealthy Rougons are often painted as occupying the apex of the various spheres of society: politics (Eugene is a powerful crony of the Emperor), trade (Aristide is a financial giant), society (Maxime is an aristocratic dandy), and religion (Angelique is a kind of saint). Meanwhile, the Mouret's mostly occupy the petite bourgeoisie echelons: politics (Silvere's idealism), trade (Octave, Francois, and Helene's first husband are clerks or shopkeepers of varying stature), society (Marthe and Helene's middle class respectability), and religion (Abbe Faujas' all too worldly manipulations). Zola's social satire regarding the upper class relates to their immorality, while with the bourgeoisie it's a lethargic, self-satisfied complaisance.

So getting back to the lack of plot. I feel Zola eschews plot in most of the Mouret novels to illustrate the stagnancy of middle class existence. Of all these characters, only Octave shows drive, and it works to catapult him out of the morass of middle class existence. Even so, his character is riddled with ambition and is very much a creature of the back-biting snake pit he comes from. He even winds up creating a microcosm of class stratification in his store The Ladies Paradise.

In A Love Episode and Pot-Bouille, Zola more clearly dissects the shallow existence of the bourgeoisie. They meander through life, drifting through various social engagements, either in a state of self-satisfied narcolepsy or viciously competing with their peers to gain ground. To complete the picture, Zola deposits a few destitute characters at the edges of these stories as ominous warnings of the precipice of poverty these characters fear more than anything. The poor characters can also serve another purpose, as seen in the relationship between Helene and Mother Fetu, they are outlets for alms or patronage that allow characters to feel morally superior.

In A Love Episode, Helene's middle class life is like a safe, calm pool outside the rush of real human life. Neither religion, love, nor death can penetrate the shell of her soft existence and that of her peers. At one point, Abbe Jouve confesses to her his frequent failure to keep his flock from the casual immorality their aimless lives create. Also, love does not seem to exist for these characters. The passion of their affairs, which Helene is shocked to find so commonplace, is actually quite detached. There is a dreamy quality to Helene's desire for Henri while other characters, such as Juliette and Malignon, have disinterested attractions which seem to arise from social conformity to peer behavior. Even the threat of Jeanne's illness, despite all Helene's apparent maternal love, becomes little more than a means to secure her lover to her (albeit not intentionally). Jeanne senses her displacement and withers, yet Helene drifts further from her as this happens.

In A Love Episode, Zola has defanged his biting satire somewhat. He is not describing overt moral degeneracy here so much as a middle class torpor. (The more active and vicious aspects of middle class infidelity and fornication are scathingly exposed in Pot-Bouille.) In this novel, Helene has no experience with passion. She is slowly stirred towards it after reading a maudlin love scene between the hero Ivanhoe and Rachel. She compares this to her own bloodless marriage with her dead husband, and the tepid courtship of new suitor. When Helene forms her attachment to Henri, it is for no clear reason. She often reminds herself she knows nothing of him or why he desires her. It as if all the characters are dilettantes at adultery, dipping their toes in desire and lust rather than actually experiencing it. The core of their lives are parties and teas, all excuses for Juliette's shallow skills as an entertainer. Her efforts clearly being depicted as pretentious and lacking in both finesse and taste. Even the funeral of a child becomes about whether there are enough flowers and social constructs (little Lucien finds a 'replacement' for a dead girl).

This world, Helene's world, is summed up perfectly at the start of chapter 10: "Upstairs, in her own room, in the peaceful, convent-like atmosphere she found there, Helene experienced a feeling of suffocation. Her room astonished her, so calm, so secluded, so drowsy did it seem with its blue velvet hanging, while she came to it hotly panting with the motion which thrilled her. Was this indeed her room, this dreary, lifeless nook, devoid of air? Hastily she threw open a window, and leaned out to gaze on Paris."

photo of Paris in the 1880s by Claude Monet
And in this way Paris almost becomes a character in the novel. Throughout the story, Zola draws extensive word pictures of the view of Paris Helene sees from her suburban window. Paris represents Life, and yet Helene never visits it and is unfamiliar with it. In fact, Zola's depictions of Paris at various points of the day or season are imbued with the emotions his characters should have.

In the end, the characters in A Love Episode exhibit few real emotions. The closest we get are Jeanne's paroxysms and Henri's desire, the latter being so vaguely painted that we never know for certain whether it's real or not. In the final analysis, Helene refers to her affair with Henri as 'a madness', which gives the novel's title a special nuance. Real love (or even emotion) is only an 'episode', before one returns to the empty normalcy of middle class existence. Helene does this when, at the end of the novel, she yields to the proposal of her respectable suitor and leaves Paris (Life) completely. Helene doesn't implode or explode like other Zola characters, she simply softens.

Thematically, A Love Episode probably fills a important niche in the overarching structure of Zola's Cycle. From that standpoint, it's interesting to read. However, as a novel on its own terms, I'm not sure it could be especially satisfying.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dragon (starring Donnie Yen)

It's been a while since I watched a new martial arts movie, and I just got done watching Dragon. [FYI: I saw the uncut, 155 minute version. The US version apparently cut over 30 minutes. Grrr!] In Dragon, Donnie Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a quiet paper maker and family man who lives in a small village. He becomes a hero when he inadvertently defeats some thugs who come to the village looking for trouble. An investigator (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) looks into the case and slowly unravels Jinxi's past, which is much darker than anyone suspects. Don't worry; no spoilers!

The movie raises a couple themes, such as: Can people change? What is the relationship of mercy and justice? Admittedly, Dragon doesn't tie these questions up too well, but I did find myself watching Yen's character for evidence one way or the other of the answer to the first question. That was rewarding. Plus I was able to overlook the lack of full resolution for a lot of reasons, mainly because Dragon has a strong plot as well great martial arts scenes. This is a pretty rare combination in a martial arts movie. Second, I totally bought into Yen and Kaneshiro's characters. Good performances by the males leads made this side of the film a highlight, especially during some creepy scenes where we're not sure what Yen's character is capable of. All this, plus a great look for the film placed Dragon in the above average category pretty much from the start. Noteworthy that Yen directed the action sequences himself, and he did a top notch job.

On the downside, as the movie progressed it unfortunately tried to up the ante on the quiet, character-driven story through the use of over-the-top melodrama and bat shit crazy violence. As Dragon made Liu Jinxi's past darker and darker and a long-lost person from that past nuttier and nuttier, I found the film less and less engaging. I was actually kind of underwhelmed during the final fight scene, not because the skill or filming was off but because I just didn't buy the situation and characters anymore. It's almost as if the writers didn't have enough faith in their story, so they felt they had to introduce extra flashbacks of cruel violence and dysfunction to compensate. For me, it hurt the film.

Part of my objection is that I generally find martial arts movies that get too dark just don't work for me. The best martial arts movies display great skills from the stars which, of course, entails a degree of violence (and even some 'ick factor' too!).  However, the best films also rarely stray too far from the spirit of the martial arts. Dragon starts out really well along these lines, and it does a great job subtly working in some martial arts/Zen philosophy early on. Later, however, we get bloodthirsty psychos, cruelty to children, and a lightning bolt. That stuff just doesn't fit with the spirit of martial arts, and it falls flat. Of course, this is just my taste, but I doubt I'm the only martial arts fanboy who feels this way. Plus, Dragon did not need to go there in order to work.

Bottom-line: I enjoyed this movie very much but my enjoyment definitely dipped in the last third of the movie. I recommend it as a strong martial arts movie, especially for Donnie Yen fans and those who want a solid plot in their martial arts flicks.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Haiku Thursday

It's been a while since I did a Haiku Thursday post (largely because I haven't been writing any!). This one came to me while I was in zazen after doing my first walking meditation.

Walk like the elephant
In one breath the tide goes out
endless as starlight

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mumonkan, Koan 25: Kyozan's Dream

In a dream, Kyozan Osho went to Maitreya's place and was led in to sit in the third seat. A senior monk struck with a gavel and said, "Today the one in the third seat will speak." Kyozan rose and, striking with the gavel, said, "The truth of Mahayana is beyond the four propositions and transcends the hundred negations. Taicho! Taicho!"

This koan's solution seems to be the same as what I pulled out of Koan 24 (Fuketsu's Speech and Silence). Specifically, the idea of speech and silence not being different. To clarify, per Sekida's notes, the 'four propositions' are existing, non-existing, both existing and non-existing, and neither existing nor non-existing. Also according to Sekida, the 'hundred negations' are the multiplying of the four propositions. I would imagine the 'multiplying' refers to interpretation and critical thinking or, in other words, thought that interprets reality rather than being a direct perception of it. (Maybe the setting of the dream also relates to the idea of the experience pulling from both existing and non-existing.)

So just as speech and silence are and are not different in the last koan, here existence and non-existence are and are not different. Two sides of the same coin perhaps. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how we think of it because the truth does not come from nomenclature, classification, or analysis. It's about the purity of experience in the moment.

The similarity of the solutions between koans 24 and 25 made me think about how and why Mumon selected koans for inclusion in the Mumonkan. Did he select and order them so as to create a ladder? By that I mean does solving one koan give you a piece of the puzzle for solving the next one? Or did Mumon simply select koans that he felt were most useful with his students?

I'm not sure anyone knows this, given how long ago the Mumonkan was put together. I suppose it's unlikely Mumon was interested in constructing a ladder. That seems to be far too linear an approach for something that should be as open-ended as koan studies.

Halloween 2013

Here are some photos from a friend's Halloween party. I went as a 'French marquis' and won the costume contest! My trophy was a fun jack o' lantern bobble head. This year was also the first year in a long time that Jim and I did some decorating in and outside the house, including carving pumpkins. Plus there was tons of horror movie viewing. It was a very rainy Halloween, and we didn't anticipate many kids coming by. But the rain stopped and it turned out to be a pretty warm evening. We ended up with a good turnout yet...alas...still plenty of candy left over.

Very Halloween!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Climate Change is Real...And?

On Zen Throw Down, my 'mini-rants' are posts in which I go off about an issue in contemporary culture. It's a great outlet for me, because I hot button debates are often so politicized that it's pointless to have them with people. The debate isn't about ideas; it's an excuse for liberals and conservatives to score points off each other.

Anyway on to the mini-rant.

I guess the place to start is to state that there is no question climate change is happening. We know this because Earth's climate has always undergone change. This is a scientific and historical fact, so claiming there is no climate change is about as intelligent as claiming the Earth is flat.

Source: USGRCP (2009)
What I object to is the content of discourse. For example, this chart purports to quantify the temperature changes we would have if the only driver was 'natural forces'. Arrgh!!! Where do I start? First of all, the idea that human impact on the environment is somehow 'unnatural' is wrong. We are a species of life on this planet just like all the others and, as with most successful species in Earth's history, we impact our environment. For example, Earth's atmosphere contained little oxygen for a huge chunk of it's early history (we're talking hundreds of millions of years). This changed when cyanobacteria arose, thrived, and for millions of years polluted the air with their waste: oxygen. Was this 'unnatural'? No. Did it make things difficult or impossible for some forms of life that existed before cyanobacteria. Probably. But so what? One species cup of tea is another species cup of hemlock. Some other reasons I'm skeptical of this chart and the whole man vs. nature dialogue:

  1. It's unlikely we can isolate 'human effects' from 'natural forces' in a model like this, because the planet's climate is a complex machine that we don't fully understand. 
  2. How can anyone seriously believe that all the upward change is due to human activity alone? This would mean there are no natural forces that lead to increases in average temperature. What about sunspot cycles? Volcanic eruptions? Global weather patterns? 
  3. Just me, but any theory that suggests humans are somehow all-important smacks of arrogance, not good science. This kind of arrogance is what led to theories like geocentrism, so I tend to look askance at such claims.

So much for the basic skepticism I bring to this discussion. Now let's move to the important stuff: the data. And then after we peruse it, we can destroy the conclusions being bandied about regarding climate change. In so doing I promise you one thing: by the end of this mini-rant - whatever your political stripes are - you will not be happy with what I have to say. So if you only like to read things you agree with, stop now.

From Bart Verheggen's blog: My View On Climate Change
Here we have a chart showing temperature anomalies since 1880. To be clear, I make no claims about the accuracy of this data or the thinking that went into pulling it. I selected it because it represents the conventional wisdom on the subject. I must also state that I do not know what Mr. Verheggen's beliefs are regarding climate change. Again, I'm using his chart only because it describes the commonly accepted data. In debates, I always think it's best to accept my opponent's data at face value because, if you can destroy them with their own arguments, they can't get back up again.

So, looking at this chart, the obvious interpretation is that temperatures are going up and they are much higher than they have been in the past. One could argue that the shift is small, especially as it relates to something with as many unpredictable and little understood inputs as global climate. However, let's not quibble. For the sake of argument let's accept the data and the conclusion that global temperature is going up and that it's higher now than at any point in this chart. After all, this is what leads to the alarm about global climate change.

My argument is that to use this data to draw that conclusion, even accepting everything I have mentioned above, is wrong. First, we need to dispense with an unstated - but nevertheless accepted - notion that I feel lies under all the climate change discussion: that climate change is somehow abnormal. The truth is that climate change is not a recent phenomenon that has popped up in the last century thanks to humans. Climate change is the norm on planet Earth. It's totally natural and would be happening even if humans had never discovered fossil fuel. In it's history, the Earth has been a whole lot hotter than it is now and it has been colder. For a good portion of Earth's history, there were no polar ice caps. So while the fact ice caps are shrinking poses significant problems for humans and indeed many other kinds of life, it is not something especially novel. In contrast, the 'Snowball Earth' theory suggests that Earth has been plunged several times into a deep freeze in which the entire surface of our planet was covered in ice sheets (or perhaps slush sheets). So climate change is normal, and it can be extreme. It's not pleasant to think 'Mother Earth' isn't terribly maternal, but some changes in climate have been so extreme that mass extinctions occurred. In fact, most life that has risen on Earth is extinct and most of these extinctions happened before humans existed (another blow to our species' self-importance). So the bottom line is that if you want a stable climate, then you should move to the Moon because stability has never been an option on Earth.

Now that we have that underlying assumption cleared up, let's dispense with the argument the scare mongers explicitly raise: climate change we see in the last century is somehow abnormal. More specifically, the rate of the change is somehow abnormal. If you look at the temperature chart above, you might buy into this voodoo. However, the problem is that the chart only shows data for about 100 years. Drawing conclusions about climate change from such a short time scale is akin to looking at three feet of concrete sidewalk in front of you and saying the surface of the entire planet is paved in concrete. The point being that the time scale of this data is near-sighted (and sometimes probably intentionally so to make it scarier).

We have to remember that the Earth is not a dollhouse. The purpose of climate is not to create a convenient setting for human life. Climate is a complex - purposeless - system influenced by multiple inputs that cause short term fluctuations and accumulate to affect real change on huge timescales. Events like ice ages, sunspot cycles, volcanic eruptions, and fossil fuel emissions have short term impacts, but they are blips in the trend and not meaningful long term. To illustrate, let's look at our current temperature within the correct, long-term time scale. The chart at right illustrates average global temperatures back to the dawn of life (today is at the top). Warm average temperatures are on the left and cool average temperatures are on the right. [For us 'mericans, 12C is 54F and 22C is 72F. Remember that's average global temperature, so 72F is hot, hot, hot!]

This full picture tells us a lot of things, but the most important for this discussion is that the current temperature is actually quite cool. One might even say the Earth is due for a warm-up after millions of years of cooling. [Note for context: the Tertiary Period began 65 million years ago, right after the dinosaurs went extinct]. One has to ask if, after about 30 million years of cooling, whether it isn't a bit silly to get worked up over the tiny, short term lift shown in the first chart? If all our fossil fuel emissions and other 'unnatural' behavior hasn't raised the average temperature by even 1 degree C in 100 years, then humans can't be that important.

Scare mongers have an answer to this. They produce charts extrapolating climate change into the future. Extrapolations are legitimate mathematical tools, but too often they are done by taking the existing trend and running it out as if the factors that give rise to the trend are not changed. Since we do not totally understand climate change, this seems a bit dicey. But more importantly, I would suggest it is almost certain the factors that give rise to the warming trend will change. Consider: even within the 100 years, human technology has moved from coal to oil to a mix of oil, nuclear, and clean energy. There's no reason to think fossil fuel emissions will be the same for the next twenty years, let alone the next century.

In summation, my opinion is climate change is happening but that our contribution to it is minimal and, even if it weren't, we've passed the hump of the worst behavior. As a result, there is little we can do to stop what changes are occurring, and we certainly have no power to save the planet from its next climate crisis (which, by the way, may not occur for thousands of years). The whole issue has been blown way out of proportion!

Now, if you are a conservative reader, here's where you stop liking what I have to say. Just because we have minimal impact on climate change does not mean we can't make a colossal mess of our environment in the short term. As I pointed out before, successful species impact environment. That has always been true. So we will hurt the environment if we indiscriminately burn fossil fuels, spill oil into the oceans, spray aerosols all day, and negligently dump chemicals into the water supply. It's the same thing as spraying an anthill with pesticides; the ants die when their environment is polluted. The only issue with the analogy is that the ants have an out humans do not. They live in one little hill, so they can move over a few feet and start all over. Humans societies occupy huge spaces, and we only have one planet, atmosphere, and hydrosphere to rely on. If we ruin it, we're done. By the way, you could also argue that ants aren't stupid enough to dump pesticide into their own living space while humans...ahem, let's move on.

And it's not like this is just an opinion. To see what things would look like without the restraints those pesky environmentalists, all you've got to do is look at China. There are photos all over the web about the debilitating smog clouds there. It gets so bad that people sometimes return from traveling there coughing blood from exposure to...whatever it is that's in that smog. So, regardless of the truth or fiction of global climate change, smog and pollutants can make our environment in the here and now very unhealthy. Since we have a vested interest in an environment that sustains a diversity of life (e.g., fish, cows, and crops), we are obligated to curtail actions that harm the environment.

The argument from capitalists is that environmentalism hurts business profits. Yes, it does. But business profits are not the only consideration in the universe. What the question boils down to for capitalists is essentially: Do you want to be the guy who smokes his cigarette and blows the smoke right into everyone's face and makes them cough? Thankfully, most business people get the problem and would answer 'no' to that question. However, there are some (mostly the born-again, Tea party variety...mostly) who would answer 'yes' or say they don't care if they make people cough by blowing smoke in their faces. They have every right to feel that way, as we are all entitled to our opinions. However, if that is how you feel, you really should get over being shocked that people treat you like a selfish moronic douchebag and try to pass laws to protect themselves from your irresponsible greed. Note to environmentalists: you'll be taken far more seriously by sensible capitalists if you avoid hysterical climate change predictions and focus on environmental impacts that actually exist.

In conclusion, climate change is not something to be concerned about as it occurs on long time scales. If it ever did occur on a short time frame, we wouldn't need scientists to tell us it was happening. Further, we would be unlikely to have caused it and even less likely to have any power to stop it. So don't wig out about a cool summer or a warm winter when you get one. Don't fret that every change in our environment is some omen of doom brought about by the evil of humans. Just support efforts to end practices we know are detrimental to our natural resources; that's the problem which actually affects us and we can do something about.

Thich Nhat Hanh's Tea Meditation (With Oprah)

I've been meditating with a group (i.e., a sangha) each Monday for about a month, and I've found the experience to be very helpful in many ways (see my post about Koan 24 of the Mumonkan). Some members of the sangha are really into Thich Nhat Hanh.

I had heard of Hanh before, but all I knew was that he was a living person who published a lot of books about meditation and Buddhism. I didn't learn more because this was enough to make me a little leery. It wasn't an objection to him personally but, as I have often stated on this blog, I'm generally leery of groups, gurus, books, and objects that I might want to join or purchase. Meditation should be all I need to find my way, so why bother with 'stuff'? In fact, such 'stuff' can be distracting and deluding by interposing itself between me and direct perception of reality.

The members of the sangha do not push Hanh, but their interest made me curious to read more about him. I learned he is a monk (and a legit one for sure), seems to have a positive purpose in his life, and certainly has a compelling history. But I was sold when I saw this interview with Oprah, where he blew me away with his ability to put into words the idea I call 'Everyday Zen' (see post). The way he describes it is so much clearer than how I described it in my post and is even clearer than the way I think about it in my head. His words helped crystallize my belief further.

An encounter with a teacher can be positive this way. It's not so much instruction as it is 'pointing the way'. Listening to Hanh speak in this interview was like that for me. That said, I'm not at all inclined to join a Hanh group, go to one of his retreats, read his books, or anything like that. As I said, doing these things feels like being pulled off the path to me, so the way I tend to feel about moments such as this is that I should simply smile thanks and continue on my way.

The full interview is also on YouTube and was fantastic from start to finish. Oprah asked really good questions.

PS: I'm not an Oprah groupie, but I love it how, when Hanh says it takes an hour to drink a cup of tea, she's like: "A cup of tea like this? One hour?"  Despite all her power and glam and self-help agenda, I always see flashes like this that tell me the down-to-earth woman who took over AM Chicago is still part of her. She's open, but she's still got moxie!