Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Bird Lady

Scaly-breasted munia

In this Buddhist kingdom, you will often find a bird lady just outside the gate when you go to a large wat, or temple. Bird ladies sell freedom. They sell birds in tiny cages – cages scarcely larger than the birds themselves, and certainly not large enough for those trapped creatures to spread their wings. You don't get to keep the birds, however. For 20 baht (about 40 cents), you get to pull a pair of bamboo bars to release two birds into the wild. One bird is 10 baht, but six birds are 50.
Thailand’s bird ladies give a discount for volume. It is Ahsalahabucha Day, a Thai celebration of Buddha’s first sermon to his first five followers. I pay to release two birds, examining them before I set them free. They are scaly-breasted munias – twittering finch-like birds common on fields in flocks. If they reach maturity, their breast-plumage will take on its trademark brown and white scale-like pattern. My birds are fledglings, however; they are not strong, and their survival in the wild will be perilous. I wonder about this transaction. A woman holds for ransom two small creatures, and then they fly free. She now has a small amount of cash. But what does the purchaser have?
A practising Buddhist might gain some merit toward getting off the eternal Mandela of life, suffering and death. What I have gained, I am not sure. I do know, however, that it needs investigation. There is a metaphor here. Let’s follow it. Buddha’s first sermon enunciated the four principles of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths. All things are a source of suffering, he taught. Because it can never be fully satisfied, desire is the cause of suffering. Freedom from suffering can only be obtained through the cessation of desire. Lastly, moderation between the extremes of sensualism and asceticism – “the middle way” – can eliminate desire and therefore suffering. With these teachings, he set off a chain reaction that transformed much of Asian society.
Twenty-five hundred years later, Asian societies whose kindness and gentility owe much to these ideas are rushing headlong into market economies, thereby beginning a different kind of transformation. They are responding to market economics so effectively that they are beating the creators of capitalism at their own game. As the pennant of capitalism moves across Asia, however, it is being handed to peoples for whom some of its fundamental ideas are culturally absurd. For example, many scholars maintain that capitalism arose out of the oldest known environmental mission statement: ''be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.''
Control over nature is woven into the fabric of western society as a moral imperative. In the prevailing view in much of Asia, however, mastery over nature can be nothing less than illusion. Moreover, the motor of market economics is the idea that maximum consumption leads to maximum satisfaction. This notion is fundamentally at odds with Buddha’s concept of the middle way. Even so, it is common intellectual currency in the vast cities of Shanghai, Mumbai and Bangkok to describe these years as Asia’s Century.
In this century, goes the thinking, the mainland's nations will continue to bring people out of poverty at record rates. In this century, previously impoverished countries will develop consumer economies to rival those of America, Europe and Japan. The countries of Asia have already become the workshops of the world; in this century, they will advance that position.
Outside my windows are two miles of lush green fields which end abruptly at the foot of a range of jungled mountains – distant foothills of the Himalayas. I live in a provincial outpost in Thailand – an economically insignificant country in the Third World. My home is in the northern periphery of Southeast Asia – a clutch of nations that shelter more than half a billion souls. To the north is China, with its huge population; to the west, India with its equally teeming cities, towns and villages. Together, these mostly prospering countries host more than half the world’s population. Justifiably, they all want to continue to prosper, and their demands upon the planet are rapidly increasing.
In Asia’s Century, countless bicycles are giving way to motorbikes. Water buffalo are still yielding to mechanized farm equipment. Bangkok's legendary traffic jams tell the continent’s story of rocketing automobile demand. The economic growth in this region will lead to resource depletion on an extraordinary scale in Asia’s Century. Suppose, for example, each Asian begins to demand four barrels of oil per year instead of less than two barrels today – a big increase, but per person consumption still dramatically below that of the rich countries. Suppose also that production and consumption elsewhere do not change.
Using those simplistic assumptions, new Asian demand would soon consume almost all the oil the OPEC cartel now delivers to global markets. Inside and outside the Arabian Peninsula, the world’s great basins of conventional oil are in steep decline. Seen against the few thousand years since civilization began, a century is a considerable time. However, it is almost nothing when compared to the epochs since cellular life debuted on primordial seas and oceans.
Life exploded onto the planet during the Cambrian period of geologic time, beginning 540 million years ago. Its organisms were the raw material for the first oil. Now the world’s most widely traded commodity, oil supplies about 95 per cent of all transportation fuels and 40 per cent of the world's commercial energy. Think of the ages since life and oil began to form as if they have been ticking by on the face of a grandfather clock, starting in the earliest moments of the morning.
It was not until early afternoon that dinosaurs evolved and began to roam. They dominated Earth until seven minutes after nine in the evening. While oil has been developing on this imaginary clock for almost 24 hours, the petroleum industry – now the world’s largest business – did not emerge until five hundredths of a second before midnight. Yet on the stroke of twelve, the last of the world’s conventional oil will be gone. That will be the case whether production lasts for another hundred years, or two hundred.
 We are clever apes indeed, but we cannot replace half a billion years’ accumulation of this vital energy. During the few hundredths of a second since we began consuming oil, we have become much wealthier. Indeed, our wealth is now so closely linked to oil consumption, and our lives are so dependent upon it, that Daniel Yergin’s magisterial history of the industry defined contemporary humanity as Hydrocarbon Man. As Hydrocarbon Man becomes wealthier, we eat more fish – mostly from the world ocean that gave rise to life itself.
 Consider the consequences. A recent letter to the respected scientific journal Nature rattled the academic and environmental communities when it described the results of a lengthy study of the world’s commercial fisheries. This dry report concludes that 90 percent of the raw mass of predatory wild fish in the world’s oceans has disappeared in the last half century. They have been fished out.
Even so, radar and satellite finding techniques and other tools are making the industry’s fishing arsenal more effective. Thus, the entrapment of species is intensifying, not diminishing. Will the world’s fishing fleets soon be trawling empty seas? In a widely quoted statement, the two authors – both academic marine biologists – made no secret of their concern. “From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean,” said one. “There is no blue frontier left….This isn't just about one species. The sustainability of fisheries is being severely compromised worldwide.” Added the other, "These are the megafauna, the big predators of the sea, and the species we most value. Their depletion not only threatens the future of these fish and the fishers that depend on them, it could also bring about a complete reorganization of ocean ecosystems, with unknown global consequences."
Such stories make human societies seem like cancers on the body of the planet – clusters of cells gone wild, gobbling resources at rates that threaten the very systems that make life possible. But the image is flawed: the death of the creature does not spell the death of creation. During the last half billion years, there have been several great extinctions – geologically brief periods in which countless species suddenly died out. But life always went on, and it will.
We need nature, but nature does not need us. The difference between the extinctions of the present era and those of the ancient past is that today’s are being driven by species rather than act of God. For the first time since the paleontological clock began ticking, one species has grown strong enough to threaten much of the planet.
This is the case for humanity as the bird in the bamboo cage. Who is holding that cage? Call her Earth Mother. Call her Gaia. Call her Bird Lady. The cage she holds is one of our making. As far as I can figure, the base price we will have to offer for our freedom is an exit from the treadmill of ever-greater consumption – abandonment of the notion that greater consumption for greater satisfaction is the proper engine of growth.
Such an idea was sustainable during the millennia in which personal consumption was small relative to the richness of the planet’s wealth. This is no longer so, and soon Asia’s rapid growth will force the issue. To be sprung from our cage, we must collectively endorse the notion of wise consumption in the interest of greater well-being.
What form that will take, I do not know. But as those moments of crisis arrive, I am sure Asia will have the upper hand. If this is Asia’s Century, it is not only because the continent has comparative economic advantages – among others, cheap labour, land and infrastructure – compared to the rich world. It is also because these nations have a living history of modest consumption. They have cultural traditions that make it relatively simple for large numbers of people to quickly shift back into a subsistence economy: such behaviour saved Thailand after the currency crisis of 1997, for example. In addition, many Asians hold deep-rooted beliefs sanctifying moderate consumption in the interest of a life of greater depth and substance. The fourth noble truth is one such idea.
By contrast, in the rich world there is little sense of the large gap of irrelevance between consumption and happiness, despite a wealth of academic findings about the relationship between the two. Psychology says happiness does not appear to depend significantly on external circumstances such as wealth, which many economists define as the ability to consume. In the world’s most consumptive nations, happiness levels today are no greater than they were fifty years ago. Indeed, in some cases the contrary may well be the case.
Westerners have consumed greatly, but not wisely. My children still live in Canada, a resource-rich country whose small numbers have lived abundantly off Earth’s wealth for centuries. I worry because they will inherit a world from which so much of nature’s bounty has been drained. Because Canada and the other rich countries have lived so well for so long, their children have no collective memory of times or traditions in which greater consumption was not society’s primary economic goal, and may have great trouble adapting to a globe without many of the riches which always before have been so easy to exploit. Will they fledge into a natural world so impoverished that even the option of small cage versus perils of freedom is unavailable?
August 2003

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