Sunday, October 7, 2012

Green Yoga

Green Yoga  by Georg Feuerstein and Brenda Feuerstein (Traditional Yoga Studies 2007)

Generally speaking this was a good book with useful info, facts, and stats. Georg Feuerstein the yoga scholar recently passed away to the detriment of yoga knowledge. Here he and his wife tackled yoga and green philosophy with sometimes mixed results in my opinion. The book is more about environmentalism than yoga and ties the two together on several points. The bibliography is good and there is some information that is not generally well-known. One aspect of the book that I found annoying– it seemed a bit anti-American. Georg was German but moved to Canada – so it is generally pro-Canada. Even so there are specific complaints against Canadian policies as well such as the spraying of the nerve toxin Malathion for ‘nuisance mosquito control’ which also kills off predators of mosquitos such as frogs, bats, and songbirds.

An underlying premise of the book is the dire situation of the catastrophic destruction of the environment being wrought by industrial civilization and population growth. The authors suggest that the so-called Sixth Mass Extinction is being accelerated by human activities as species disappear every day. The alarmist tone in the book sees the situation as a global crisis which it may well be. The Feuersteins compare yoga to deep ecology in that both advocate reverence for all life forms. They equate ‘greenness’ with spiritual maturity in that it takes a certain maturity to develop holistic –‘big picture’ views. Since contemporary yoga (sometimes referred to as Modern Postural Yoga) involves mindful caring for the body it can be related to mindful care of the mind and of the earth. The dire situation is presented here in the form of statistics and scientific predictions. The bottom line of the book is the suggestions of lifestyle changes one may implement in order to help alleviate the problems. As for us I think we have implemented nearly 90% of the suggested changes – but I am rather doubtful that the majority will do so without being forced in some way as people tend to be resistant even to common sense in the light of political and religious convictions. Occasionally in the book there appears a ‘greener-than-thou’ tone that I think we all have to watch out for. While there is much evidence to suggest that lifestyle changes are necessary in order to protect the environment it is not evident to everyone and we all contribute to the destruction in various ways – even if we are green. The authors mention the yogic suggestions to eat a pure diet, drink pure water, and to purify one’s thoughts as a yoga morality that promotes purification. This would also imply promoting the purity of the environment. Purity in yoga may be seen in terms of the old idea of the three gunas, or modes of material existence – tamas, rajas, and sattva. All matter may be seen as containing a proportion of these three qualities. Tamas is the principal of veiling, inertia, darkness, heaviness, rest. Rajas is the principle of dynamism, activity, motion. Sattva is the principle of lucidity, light, purity, revealing. One goal of spirituality in this model is to become more revealed, more light/lucid, more pure, more sattva – so that “sattvification” is synonymous with purification. Part of being mindful in the modern world should include being mindful of the effects of one’s actions on the environment and the practice of keeping well-informed of environmental impact by keeping up to date on things and continually educating oneself on environmental impacts. I might also add that one should strive to remain as unbiased as possible. One should be aware of what one buys, consumes, uses, and discards and how those things affect the environment. This is simply our responsibility as modern humans.

The authors point out that the sages of the early Upanishads emphasized the ‘inner sacrifice’ as renunciation of the world, over the ‘external sacrifices’ of the Vedic Brahmin priests. These forest ascetics also called this the self-sacrifice of the ‘ego-reflex.’ The Bhagavad Gita favored ‘karma yoga’ – the yoga of performing duty actions without attachment - over extremist renunciation asceticism. Probably for this reason the Gita became beloved by the masses. Here Krishna states that we always do actions so that ‘action transcendence’ is preferable to renunciation in solitude. The authors see this karma yoga as a spiritual activism and suggest environmental activism as a continuation of it. Although it does not become clear till the end of the book, I think what they refer to as ‘environmental activism’ is primarily the making of lifestyle changes rather than the intense vocal and protest activism usually seen as ‘activism.’ Two – Ethical Pillars of Green Yoga – are proposed. The first is loka-samgraha which can be translated as ‘world maintenance’, ‘world welfare’ or ‘world guidance’. This term only appears in the Bhagavad Gita and is not well explained. The authors see it as karma yoga, as “working for the material, social, moral, and spiritual benefit of the whole world.” The second pillar is the Bodhisaatva Ideal expressed in Buddhist philosophy which is to work ceaselessly for the benefit of all sentient beings. They compare this to sattvification. When one focuses on the happiness of others the ego-grasping tendency is weakened.

The section on cosmology and interconnectedness was very good. Here we encounter the idea that since the universe is thought to have expanded from a point, a singularity – then at one time we were all much closer together and more intimate in the spatial sense. This idea may inform things like quantum entanglement and ecology as the study of relationships within a system, an ecosystem. The idea of interconnectedness was first noted in the Vedic Hymn to Man, the Purusha-Sukta where the universe is said to emanate from the Primordial Man and we all retain the potential of the Primordial Man, the universe, within ourselves. The Web of Life (Ecosystems) and the Vedantic idea of the “Thread–Self” (sutra- atman), the stretched out thread that weaves the universe, relate the same ideas of interconnectivity and interdependence. In the Upanishads there is the notion of “food mysticism” as the authors call it. This is simply the observation that all life necessarily consumes other life as food. This is the food chain. We eat. We are ultimately food for others. Mystical attainment, or Samadhi, often involves the realization of oneness with the universe. This is a realization of interconnectivity and interdependence to the point of union with the object of contemplation.  

Next a distinction seems to be made between the spirituality of yoga philosophy and the materialistic view, which is a bit inexplicably linked to secular humanism. A suggestion is made that interconnectivity beyond the material world is only possible in a spiritual view. I disagree as a psychological view also deals with hidden connectivity and is not inherently spiritual. This supposed distinction is used to explain why materialists might be more apt to disregard interconnectivity – meaning they would be more apt to deny environmental impact and proper treatment of animals. While this may be statistically true in some ways – I don’t know – I think it is a bit of a dangerous assumption to tie philosophical views as such to what I see more as morality (in the case of animals) and social responsibility (in the case of the environment). In other words I do not think reverence for life needs to be based around any ideological framework – I think it can simply be intuitive.

In discussing overtaxing the environment we are confronted with population growth being ultimately unsustainable. At some point the growth will have to slow. Related problems are overconsumption such as overfishing and what they call consumption high in the food chian – which refers to eating large animals raised as livestock which is taxing in terms of energy, land, and environment, compared to plant foods. Though the arguments tend to be unpopular, it is well known that raising livestock for meat is immensely destructive to the environment. Massive amounts of land are used up compared to raising nutritionally comparable plant-based nutrition. Massive amounts of food are grown to feed the animals. Massive amounts of water are used. There are massive amounts of greenhouse gases emitted from livestock (roughly 18% of all emissions). Other dangerous gases such as ammonia are emitted as well. Food grown for livestock increases pesticide use. Erosion and runoff and water pollution from hog farms and manure ponds are also big problems. Not to mention all that there is also the horrific problem of the cruelty and violence of factory farms. Personally I think the evidence is rather clear that adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is one of the easiest and most effective ways to help the planet, improve the lives of animals, and contribute to sanity. I would recommend it to anyone.

The next sections deal with the various forms of pollution on the planet. Water pollution in the oceans, rivers, and lakes is detailed first. The overuse of plastic, the problem of trash heaps in the oceans, shipping waste, chemical and oil spills are all documented. Apparently shipping is also responsible for much air pollution and the authors note the particularly enhanced destruction caused by large cruise ships – those made for human enjoyment and excesses. Apparently, human rights abuses have also been well documented on employees of cruise ship companies. Constructing large dams for hydro-power has been a concern around the world as it displaces people, often indigenous people, as well as animals, plants, and it floods usable land. However, I think there are trade-offs there where in some cases it may be a better overall choice than not – though I am just speculating here. Human sewage and industrial runoff are the largest pollution sources of rivers. Pesticide runoff and animal waste are likely not far behind. Of course, fossil fuels are responsible for much pollution as well including acid rain from coal,  particulate matter from coal, and greenhouse gases from oil and gas combustion. Burial of extremely dangerous nuclear waste residue is always a risk. Much radioactive waste has also been dumped in the oceans in the past but this presumably does not happen any more. Access to clean water is an issue in many parts of the world as well as overuse of existing water sources and groundwater aquifers. Privatization of water – where corporations have bought up water rights from states and municipalities has created a lot of political problems in various regions – as water access and quality is often a regional issue. Water-borne infectious diseases are the biggest water pollution problem in Third World countries and kill many people there. Lack of sanitation and water purification is actually the biggest problem. Even so, overly chlorinated water and water run through lead pipes (as in older American homes) also has its own sets of health problems. Adding the known toxin – fluoride – to drinking water in order to prevent tooth decay is also quite problematic. One has to work a bit to give oneself a supply of mostly untainted water.

Over-farming, over-fertilization, and deforestation are other problems explored. These all deplete the productiveness of the soil and are characteristic of modern farming methods. Organic farming methods have been gradually making headway throughout the world and the dangers of biotech crops (GMOs) are gradually coming to the fore. Buying organic both supports organic farming methods and boycotts GMOs. GMOs also threaten “food sovereignty”, can bankrupt Third World farmers, increase pesticide and chemical fertilizer use and dependency, can lead to “superweeds” and “superpests” and have unknown effects on health. Most deforested land ends up being used for livestock grazing and livestock feed plots. Loss of the world’s forests is a big issue as forests are huge carbon sinks that can potentially keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. Urban sprawl is another issue brought up and the excessive use of travel. Buying and eating local is much encouraged in green circles. Landfills and the big business of waste transport are also addressed. Statistics are given for all these things that have environmental impact. The importance of recycling is emphasized and some good news is that recycling rates have been slowly increasing.

Mining impacts and pollution are explored. Mineral, uranium, gravel, and coal mines all produce toxic waste and deform and impact land. Erosion and air/water pollution are also big problems. Apparently, illegal logging is a big problem in many parts of the world and is a significant depleter of forest beyond that which is sanctioned. In places like Indonesia and Brazil this is a huge problem.

The authors don’t particularly like the idea of “carbon offsetting” and prefer the idea of simplifying one’s lifestyle. I tend to agree although this is not easy for everyone and for some that is the best they can do and we should be OK with that for now as it is a conscious beginning. Here again we could get into the “greener-than-thou” mindset.

Another huge problem is simply waste and inefficiency. 500 million wooden pallets are used to transport goods – this makes up about 40% of all wood products according to an article my son read – and most (about 2/3) are disposed in landfills. This is usable wood, often hardwood such as oak and should not be wasted. Plastic grocery bags and disposable chopsticks are also examples of mass waste. Lack of recycling usable products such as the wooden pallets is an example of lack of efficiency.

Air pollution is next examined. Greenhouse gases, dangerous particulate matter, and modern problems such as indoor air pollution are examined. Household and construction chemicals can pervade the indoor air in many houses and buildings. Due to smog and particulates urban air is much more toxic than rural air. The WHO estimates that 1.6 million people die a year from indoor air pollution. Wood, coal, and dung fires can create much indoor particulate pollution in poorer parts of the world.  Diesel-powered bus fleets, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and other particulate matter are big problems in cities around the world and create many health problems. Hog farming is a big producer of air pollution in some areas. Airborne pesticides can also be a dangerous source.

Global warming/climate change and recently discovered “global dimming” – where particulate matter in the sky particularly from massive jet travel dims the light of the sun and helps increase overall temps – although I am not sure how much effect this really has as it has only been documented since the September 11 tragedy after air travel was suspended for a few days. Air travel is also a major source of air pollution. Although global warming is well documented it is less clear how it will play out. There are various scenarios, some more dire than others. It is debatable whether we are headed for certain biosphere collapse and if so when it will occur. The evidence does suggest that we should act by simplifying our lifestyles, decreasing waste and extravagance, becoming more efficient, and implementing green strategies in our lives.

The last part of the book is about Green Yoga Activism. This consists of simple suggestions that we can do to decrease our carbon footprints and our environmental impacts. Although there are many sources of such information it does not hurt to keep educated, to remind ourselves to keep our commitments to these strategies, and to know them well enough to pass them on to others. Reduce/reuse/recycle, avoid excessive packaging, use Energy Star appliances, conserve water, don’t over-heat or over-cool, wash clothes with cold water, dry clothes on a rack or outdoors if possible, buy and eat local, turn off and unplug appliances, compost, avoid fast food, eat vegetarian or vegan as much as possible, avoid plastic bags, plant trees, use green power if possible, avoid plastic water bottles, avoid excessive transportation, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, use eco cleaning products, invest with socially and environmentally responsible investments, consider driving a hybrid, go paperless as much as possible, grow some of your own food, and support public libraries. Many of these things are easy enough. Various organizations, websites, documentaries, and a good bibliography is given as well.

The authors suggest that yoga practitioners have a special responsibility to be green as part of living and promoting a holistic and healthy lifestyle for themselves and those around them.

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