Evolution to Pandemic Solutions | Yoga & Climate Change, Part 4

Here We Are   Notes for Living on Planet Earth illus  by Oliver Jeffers

The Big Bang was the moment everything started, when the building blocks of all life burst into action 13.7 billion years ago. Atoms, cells, bacteria, little bugs like viruses and fleas, fish, four-leggeds, two-leggeds and flying things flourished. Now, as our pale blue dot in the ocean of space roasts in a global fever, we face massive threats to our survival and planetary health, but it’s not too late to ask why and how we can restore balance.

Since the dawn of time, new species have emerged, but only humankind has worked out how to make fire, smelt metal and farm crops. One step at a time, we tried to harness Nature and shape our destiny. We risked everything to pursue our dreams, enjoy new foods, mate, dance, sing, write poetry, spawn an industrial revolution, and launch astronauts into outer space. We have struggled for survival on the African savannah, in Chinese cities, and now, inside homes under quarantine in Italy where 17 million people have been placed in lockdown to stop the outbreak of the deadly Coronavirus, COVID-19.

This viral epidemic shows us who we really are, highlighting the supremacy of Nature, the folly of objectifying others, ethnic prejudices, and flimsy border walls in helping us to thrive through these global times. Actions that separate us from Nature and each other have led us on a dangerous path. “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings,” writes Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale. “They obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives.” (https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-pandemics-change-history)

Mostly, epidemics reflect our relationships with the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They also show the moral relationships that we have between each other as people, and with ourselves as the caretakers of ourselves, our families, and our environments.

We risk everything to pursue our dreams. We can be grateful for the ingenuity Nature has given us, but our inventions and interventions in the natural order of life sometimes have brutal consequences.

Everyone is on this journey together, and doing the best they can, but we are seeing the massive costs inherent in human consumption growing unchecked. We seem to have lost our moral compass and sensitivity to all living things. As a species, we have historically chosen a path of domination, suffering, and pain.

Now is the time to enter a new path, a path of presence, peace, and empowerment – not power over, but power within ourselves and sharing power with others.

To turn back, we need to see where we are and how we got here.

A PATH OF PAIN: SCARRING THE LAND, LUNGS, AND CHILDHOOD

When I was a child growing up in southern Illinois, I played near a lovely lake fringed with ginseng, jasmine, and golden seal. With the sun at its zenith in a blue sky, the gentle wind pushed wavelets on its surface, and it looked like diamonds dancing on the water. As the sun set, the mood shifted. Lavender and pink skies replaced the blue while Katydids sang from the stems of grasses and lightening bugs sparkled in the dusk. We lived in a world of magic.

The lake had been carved by an Illinois oil and gas company to dispose of well-drilling wastewater. While I loved the dogwood trees and black-eyed Susans, I didn’t know that such wastewater carried carcinogens, radioactive radon, barium, strontium, benzene and toluene.

Later, I learned you would not want to take a shower, much less drink toxic flowback water, nor would you want to just pour the stuff into a river or stream. The oil company, wanting to procure as much fuel as possible, had learned that dormant wells built in the early 20th century could be injected with sand, chemicals, and water to flush out additional oil and gas trapped deep in the Earth. To handle the wastewater, they constructed lakes and above-ground ponds to contain it, but such waste can never really be contained. Natural gas drilling and oil well run-off can leak a sticky combustible mess. They also emit massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Today, the industry is responsible for 38% of all methane emissions in the United States, or 3.8% of all greenhouse gases.

We didn’t call it fracking back then, but the process of hydraulic fracturing operates by a similar principle: injecting water, sand, and chemicals underground to crack shale rocks and free up pockets of oil and gas. Vertical fracking – something like sticking a straw into the ground to suck up deposits directly below it – got a boost in the 1980s and 90s with the idea that turning drill pathways horizontally after their deep dive could then open up longer seams. Drill rigs could be lined up in rows to pump along these underground avenues, which is why our lovely childhood lake soon became surrounded by oil rigs lined up in rows as straight as the cornfields they were replacing.

The rush to use newer fracking technology and develop oil shale caused more wastewater complications, not only in Illinois, but around the globe. The dangerous effects of short-sighted fossil fuel production have since then – like the oil and gas being extracted — come to the surface.

In a book about her struggle with cancer and the disease’s links to environmental contamination, biologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber, originally from Pekin, IL, and now author of Living Downstream, talks about how fracking uses silica sand mined from Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River. Mining the sand produces a fine dust that hangs in the air “like fog,” she says, and it can cause lung cancer and heavy lung scarring, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (“The Cost of Fracking” by Patrick Yeagle in The Illinois Times)

Additionally, Steingraber expects the mining process to leave the landscape around Starved Rock, akin to the shores of the lake where I played as a child, heavily scarred, like her lungs. “The economic pressure to turn the Illinois River Valley inside-out to mine for sand will be unstoppable,” Steingraber says of potential new fracking. “It’s such a destructive force. There is no reclaiming land once you turn it inside out and blast away the sandstone.”

Fracking and scouring deep wells cause such pollution that air quality tests three-quarters of a mile from a state-of-the art fracking site in Colorado show dangerous levels of the carcinogen benzene. One study of children in Texas reveals an abnormally high incidence of asthma around fracking sites.

In addition to the direct effects of fracking on people and the environment, fracking needlessly prolongs our dependence on fossil fuels.

“It makes no sense to further entrench the fossil fuel industry at this point,” Steingraber argues. “The biggest disincentive to rolling out renewable energy sources is cheap natural gas, but it’s only delaying the day that we invest in renewables.

“It’s not a bridge to the future; it’s a plank we walk at the point of a sword, and the pirates are not our friends.”

Some of those pirates are bacteria like the klebsiella pneumonia – the renegade gut microbe that recently infected my blood and liver — and bugs like the Coronavirus currently causing alarm, panic, pain, and death around our blue-green planet.

As human populations increase, environmental pollution escalates, and there’s more deforestation, urban sprawl, global warming, and social chaos. Thus, there is more trauma inflicted on humans than ever before, leading to a kind of lethal amnesia which has tricked us into believing we can consume endlessly, like there’s no tomorrow. If we keep doing so, there may, in fact, be no tomorrow.

LETHAL AMNESIA, THE CLIMATE CRISIS, AND PANDEMICS

The disease that leads to potential pandemics like COVID-19 is forgetfulness. We forget that our actions matter. We forget that we have been traumatized and are traumatizing others in our mad dash to ignore our suffering and forget our pain.

Lethal amnesia leads not only to suffering, but to repetitive trauma. Repeating history, Homo sapiens have pushed the envelope of what’s possible by invading wild animal habitats, constructing unsustainable ways of living, and polluting the forests, waterways, aquifers, and atmosphere in novel ways.

We forgot what previous pandemics have taught us – that the main part of preparedness to face disease outbreaks and the polluting habits which cause them is for human beings to realize that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere.

Whether we are in a dilapidated slum in New York City or on a luxury cruise boat floating through Japan, we are part of a species interacting with other species. “We need to think in that way rather than about divisions of race and ethnicity, economic status, and all the rest of it,” writes Yale’s Professor Snowden, author of the new book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.

“It’s our everyday way of going about business on the planet that seems to be driving this,” says Peter Daszak, a zoologist who works in China and runs the EcoHealth Alliance. A few years ago, Daszak worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) to study connections between human and wildlife health. Human development in the form of parking lots, farms, housing developments, and industrial wastes push back the wilderness and invade animal habitat, giving rise to mutations, viral transmissions, and bacterial crossover from wildlife to humans.

Scientists knew a corona-like virus was coming and plotted what a possible “Disease X” could look like. “Disease X would hit this epidemiological sweet spot: It would transmit easily from person to person, and it would be deadly, but not too deadly,” writes Mary Harris in Slate. “Even though scientists knew this sort of virus was coming, the world didn’t get ready soon enough. And Daszak says that even when this outbreak is contained, it won’t be the last one. We’re going to get bigger pandemics, and they’re going to happen more often.” (https://slate.com/technology/2020/03/Coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-cause-prediction-prevention.html)

But if we remember our past and prepare consciously for the future, we can come out of the lethal amnesia which got us into this situation. If we pay close attention to what’s happening right now, next time could be different.

Instead of repeating the traumas, we can heal the traumas.

The big things that drive these diseases are the very same things that drive fossil fuel burning and global warming. Humans are attracted to places on the planet where diverse ecosystems prosper, and where we live in larger numbers, our contact with wildlife is higher. And because wildlife have more viruses and bacteria that can start pandemics like COVID-19, humans are bumping up against some very dangerous little bugs.

In short, “Things like land use, change, deforestation, road building, mining, and agricultural intensification are the reasons we push ourselves into wildlife habitat and get infected,” says Daszak.

PERSONAL AND SOCIAL IMPACTS OF TRAUMA

Why do humans seem intent on spreading their footprints everywhere and destroying the environment? We seem addicted to reproduction, overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution, and other environmental bad habits. To support our habits, we level forests, put toxins in the soil, genetically alter seeds, erode water supplies, and push globalization so we have cheaper goods faster, burning more fossil fuels to speed up overconsumption. It is madness.

The results are acid rain, overfishing, waste, and worry.

Isolated and often vulnerable in the course of our evolution, we humans don’t have the huge teeth, poison bites, or the speed of other predators. But we can think, talk, and invent new tools and processes. We can adapt, explore, and exploit the environment. These abilities have allowed us to succeed by facing down extinction in the short term, but they have propelled us toward more competition, violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The prevalence of PTSD — the neurochemical and behavioral responses that outlive the original threat – have inhibited our personal and social ability to return to normal.

People who have experienced complex trauma often display symptoms including poor concentration, poor attention, social paralysis, and poor decision-making and judgment. The problem at this point in time is that all humans have at least some PTSD, and many have a complex mixture of cognitive dissonance and aggression because of it. The disharmony among humans has been growing since comets hit the Earth in the early stages of humanity 200,000 or more years ago.

Rational people without PTSD would acknowledge that overpopulation, pollution, and fossil fuel addiction is killing our planet. Instead, as a species, we are thrusting ourselves into more danger and an uncertain future for our grandchildren.

WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

We are incredible. But we’re also difficult and defiant. We get into trouble. We build empires, we vanquish perceived enemies, and when mistreated, we fight back. Since the day a human being threw the first spear, we’ve been searching for new ways to project power at a distance. These actions have left too many of us traumatized in our personal and social lives.

We are resilient, but we’re also stubborn. We hurt others. We lie. We cheat. We gossip. We steal. We bully others. We bully the environment.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

YOGA, LIKE LOVE, IS AN ANSWER

Humankind also has a remarkable history of great harmony and good fortune. By pushing back against these destructive habits, the ancient life science of Yoga is one of the most profound systems of knowledge and transformation that methodically works to transform bad habits into good habits.

Yoga began in the hearts, minds, and bodies of people who honored the Earth for her bounty and worshiped the Divine Mother and Divine Father along the banks of the Ganges around 3000 B. C. E. It probably began even earlier, but the earliest known historical reference to Yoga comes from the city Mohenjo-daro in northwest India. These early yogis were drawn to the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati Rivers where food was abundant, drinking water was clear, and they had time to develop mathematics, astronomy, and architecture.

The primal forces of Nature and fertility were reverently embraced and Prana, the vital life force, was thought to bring the waters from heaven to protect and nourish humans and all forms of life. The animating forces of the soul were considered sacred in this ancient culture, and with new archaeological discoveries, this Nature-oriented society is thought to be the cradle of civilization, rather than Mesopotamia, as we previously thought.

This Yogic culture developed ways of feeling more deeply, thinking more clearly, and behaving more ethically. The first steps of the Yogic path were – and still are – a conscious effort to reverse the human foibles of aggression, lying, stealing, grasping, and immoderate and false desires.

Called the Yamas, the five moral observances, these first practices on the Yogic path can unwind the very roots of our current climate crisis:

Ahimsa, non-violence, replaces aggression toward others and the Earth.

Satya, truth-telling, reverses the willed ignorance of the effects of deforestation and toxic pollution.

Aparigraha, non-grasping, addresses the fear of death and the drive toward overpopulation.

Asteya, non-stealing, reminds us to consume only what is needed and what is ours.

Brahmacharya, moderation, replaces excessive exploitation.

With THE steady practice of these Earth-loving methods, the yogi can break free from the confines of the conditioned body, the immature craving for more, better, faster, and more furious. By developing spiritual powers, Yoga helps us to transform destructive desires into patterns of creativity and the desire for all life to succeed alongside a flourishing humanity. These are the antidotes to the poisonous attitudes which have brought us to the brink of extinction.

A PATH OF SPACIOUS PRESENCE

I believe the Earth will survive. She is fighting back against human exploitation with the COVID-19 epidemic. Whether the human species will survive is a different question. People are often stunned and frightened by a warming climate.

If you push someone who is already overwhelmed, they become even more overwhelmed. Some people get hyper-activated when facing the climate crisis. Others get hypo-activated. They do nothing. We often bounce from one extreme to the other, but the middle, in spacious presence, is where solutions appear.

How do we shift from being reactionary to becoming evolutionary? How do we spark the creativity to transform ourselves and our planet in time to save our children and grandchildren, our entire species?
A sense of urgency can stall the process. Yet without it, people don’t change.

“Climate change cannot be changed through one thing,” says mediation teacher Thomas Huebl. “It is a symphony. Many instruments play together. We meet part of us that is absent and frozen. Absence is part of the origin of climate change. Disconnection is the cultural and social and psychological symptom leading to the disease of climate change,” he says.

And so, if separation from nature is the problem. How do you put yourself into the other person’s shoes, or nature’s shoes, in order to heal trauma and restore self-regulation, the natural feedback loop of harmony that will realign us with Nature’s elegance? Why isn’t this happening? How can we foster such realignment?

Back on the shores of the lake where I spent much of my childhood, the elderberry and flowering echinacea still flourish, and such healing herbs from Nature can boost the immune system and help us stay aligned and healthy. There are remedies to heal the scars from our mistakes. Admitting our errors and understanding that we have polluted the environment can readjust our thinking and behavior. Rather than continuing to act mindlessly and displacing wildlife, we can make things right again. The scars don’t have to be permanent.

We can re-negotiate our HUMAN CONNECTION WITH NATURE and HEAL INTERGENERATIONAL TRAUMA, two topics we’ll explore in the next two parts of the six-part series on Yoga and Climate Change. Stay tuned!

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