Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gaia's Physician

In Japan, scientists enjoy a celebrity status much like a sports hero or rock star. Their achievements evoke national pride, thus their pictures grace billboards and t-shirts and their appearances at public venues cause a stir. Scientists in the West have been so summarily dismissed for their inconvenient truths that I felt compelled to impart a little celebrity idolatry to the British scientist, James Lovelock during his recent book tour.

Catherine had already bought a copy of his latest book "The Revenge of Gaia". This was the man who came up with the Gaia hypothesis, which states, in short, that the earth is a living, self-regulating organism and not a dead rock upon which life clings. This view of the earth was considered controversial in the scientific world, given its anthropomorphic flavor.

James Lovelock is now rattling the cages of environmentalists by coming out in favor of nuclear power. His opinion is not easily discounted, because he was the man who convinced the scientific community that the ozone hole was indeed a threat and that governments should ban ozone-destroying CFCs.

In a recent article on the issues of global warming, Lovelock stated that he would happily offer his own backyard for the storage of nuclear waste if that's what it would take to convince the public to support the building of nuclear power plants, so adamantly did he feel that the waste was of little consequence next to the dire need for emission free power. Nor would it take up much space. Though I agreed with him that the situation was dire, I was far from convinced that nuclear power was as benign as he claimed. I was curious to see how he would present his case.

We made an outing of it with our friend Dave. Our quest led us to a packed auditorium in the bowels of Stanford University. The 87-year-old scientist, trained in chemistry, cut a mild mannered figure as he calmly read his paper on the impending desertification of the planet. This was not the first time the planet would experience a devastating global warming, he told us. 55 million years ago such an occurrence did happen when up to 3.0 terratons of carbon were released into the atmosphere due to a geological event that is still under debate, but might have been prompted by a subterranean volcano. It took another 100,000 years for the earth to recover its lush green coolness.

There is something about history repeating itself that seems curiously inevitable. If it happened before, it can certainly happen again and according to Lovelock's forecast, it will take us about 40 years to add enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to cause the ice on Greenland to melt, algae in the too warm ocean to stop growing and the tropical forests to dehydrate. All of this "positive feedback" would quickly create a planet so barren of life that only the most northern and most southern parts would be habitable.

To aid us in visualizing this predicament a series of three maps were projected onto the screen. One showed the earth as it is now. One of it at -5C cooler than today when there were no deserts, and one at 5C warmer than it is now where virtually all of the continents are desert save for the very tip of south America and a strip that spanned northern Canada, all of England, northern Europe, Russia and China. We all gazed at this strip of habitable earth and wondered where we might buy viable real estate to see us through the next 100,000 years.

It stretches the mind to accept such a fate and not all those present were ready to. Despite the intelligent questions of many young people in the audience, there was one middle-aged man who challenged the evening's presentation for being one sided. Where was the other perspective he wanted to know? The one that said this wasn't happening. James Lovelock grasped the man's desire for a TV style debate and pointed out that this was not a matter of debating different interpretations such as lawyers would do in a court of law. This is nature's law unfolding in response to scientifically observed phenomena. The discussion was now about how soon and how fast.

Someone else asked if he had seen "An Inconvenient Truth". He had not, but he had reviewed the book of the movie and had found the science to be accurate. He just felt that Al Gore hadn't gone far enough. No one thought to ask how far he should have gone. And if Gore had gone further, I thought, he would have lost half his audience. There is a limit to how much we can take in at one sitting.

In the days following James Lovelock's presentation I did not want to think much about his forecast, but I felt changed in my perceptions of global warming. It is useful to go to the extreme end of an issue, if only to confirm that the more moderate perspectives were indeed viable. He had not discussed nuclear power in his lecture, so I decided to read his book.

In it he writes extensively of our fear of all things nuclear, our fear of cancer and our overreaction to the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The significant causes of the devastation of Gaia, as he calls the earth, are combustion, cattle and chainsaws or the burning of fossil fuels, too much manure silting up waterways and deforestation.

To see the world as James Lovelock does, it is helpful to evoke the photograph of earth from space and imagine sitting at the bedside of our ailing planet as she undergoes this fever we call global warming. Looking at the earth in all its beautiful blueness we cannot see all the humans on it anymore than we can see cells in a human being. And in treating this planetary fever, we must consider the earth as a whole and not necessarily the individual cells.

It is from this perspective that Lovelock justifies nuclear power. For nuclear power is not harmful to the earth. This was stunning news. I had thought that nuclear waste would devastate all living things, but apparently this was just our human centric projection. Plant life seems to thrive where nuclear waste has been leaked. Here he shows a picture of Par Pond, a waste repository outside of the Savannah River Nuclear Facility in the US and it is indeed lush with growth. As for wildlife, their lives might be shortened by a week or two, but it was a small price to pay for keeping the earth itself alive.

He did not mention how the animals would die, but he did attribute the main cause of cancer to be a by-product of our breathing of oxygen. Now I was really caught off guard. This I had never heard, but apparently our own combustion process, when the oxygen we breathe combines with the food we eat, creates pollution. If the cell doesn't manage to neutralize this pollution, as once in a while it doesn't, then we have a renegade cell that reproduces unchecked. So the 30 percent of humans who will die of cancer are not all being poisoned by our industrial toxins, but are reacting to oxygen, something we can't live without.

I felt as though all that I had believed about the dangers of toxins and radiation had been largely propagated by media hype and I had been duped. Yet if I started to talk about how nuclear power was not nearly as dangerous as perceived, I sounded like a Republican.

And yes nuclear radiation, whether man made or naturally occurring, can cause cancer, but not enough to add significantly to the 30 percent cited above, he claimed. A hydroelectric-generating damn that burst would devastate many more lives, given that so many would be killed instantly, than did Chernobyl failing, in which only 75 people died (those who directly fought the fire or cleaned up afterwards.) Speculation of deaths related to exposure to the radiation was just that - speculation. Considering that all of us alive have been exposed and continue to be exposed, worldwide, to radiation from the underground testing of nuclear bombs, what's a little more radiation?

We are having this conversation because of civilization's need for electricity. And on this topic Lovelock has more news. Wind power, that silver bullet of the environmental movement, could quickly be made obsolete by the changing climate and the redirection of the wind itself. We could use our remaining fossil fuel to build windmills and litter the landscape with this giant hardware, only to find that the direction of the wind has changed or is non-existent. We would be caught like sailors in the doldrums. And solar was too expensive, he stated, but I will not concede him that claim, having installed solar panels on my own house.

James Lovelock's big picture of the planet leads him to prescribe big picture solutions, thus his plea for nuclear power. And though he has changed my mind about the dangers of nuclear power (when used properly and not sabotaged by terrorists or nations wishing to drop bombs) I am not willing to embrace nuclear power because I am not for centralized power in the first place.

Centralized anything does not inspire my imagination. I would rather we invented hand crank, battery operated toasters and rethink civilization, not as something that needed a steady feeding of electricity, but as something that could remake itself in an imaginative Leonardo De Vinci sort of way. James Lovelock claims that we do not have time. The centralized civilization that we are will continue to pollute carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning plants unless given a viable emission free substitute. He has described the outcome of our continuing to add emissions to the atmosphere - a planetary die off of 80% and a two-thirds uninhabitable planet.

As a scientist, James Lovelock doesn't go in for the cultural or lifestyle change that other solution oriented authors suggest we undergo in order to solve this planetary crisis, but it is useful to look through the lens of his perspective in order to see the hard reality of what we're really up against and how our idealism and fears get in the way.

This living in the shadow of planetary disaster is, to me, the metaphysical test of our time. If we do nothing, disaster will most certainly befall us. And it may, anyway, even if we do, but the process of facing it squarely will enlighten us. Or as James Lovelock put it in his interview with Terry Gros, "I am optimistic about the 20% that will remain."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Women In The Ring

Boxing has never been my favorite part of martial arts training. To get in the ring with the intention of hitting someone, as Catherine comments, is just not me—retiring, laid back peacenik that I am. But boxing is required at my school.

In 1987, I took up kung fu for the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" romance of it all, though the movie was not to come out until many years later. Girl fighters were cool. Weapons were cool. I practiced my sword katas and stick katas and whirled my nunchukas like I cared, but when it came to boxing I merely endured the ordeal. It was tiring, chaotic and just a tad silly. I mean, really, should evolved beings strive to punch each other in the nose?

And I still couldn't figure out the nuances of the rules. Some hits were okay and some were not. That was touch boxing. You scored if you were able to make contact. I didn't know we had another kind, but I had seen the gear. Big well-padded leather headgear and humongous gloves, not the light weight, foam and vinyl stuff of our intermediate training.

That I was in the advanced class at all was more momentum than choice. My instructors asked me to choose. I could languish in the beginner class just going through the motions every week or I could join those I had been sparring with and commit to the black belt track. I was not committed to the black belt track, but I had enjoyed training with the more advanced students. They were filled with purpose, were impressive to watch and had been there a long time. Some even as long as I had. I didn't want to miss their progress and their company.

It took me weeks to get used to the additional half hour to 40 minutes. After so many years of one-hour classes, my mind needed to stretch to adjust to the long class time. The new class schedule also did not conflict with my other commitments. That meant two days more that I would be in class every month. But what really made the difference was that I had been riding my bicycle to class through the entire winter last year, rain or shine.

It was only two and a half miles, but it was enough to build up my endurance to keep up with my classmates. The ride home up the hill to my house was still a haul, but I didn't have to stand up in the pedals anymore. And I was riding a lot more to clients from the train. I felt tired much of the time. I wondered if I was wearing myself down, but then, after some months, I seemed to overcome it.

I was keeping up. Then the instructors decided to put us to the test. We had been doing advanced katas, choreographed routines with weapons or just empty hands. I had never been tested before by these instructors. The married couple, who had bought the school a few years ago, had arrived when I had just gotten my brown belt and they did not test their students when they gave out stripes to mark our progress. This test would require performing one of our katas solo in front of the class. I would have to show my stuff and once I was in front of an audience there was no way my pride would allow me to expose my shoddy half-baked work. I would actually have to practice.

I had learned, however, from my stint as program chair of my business organization that I could appear in front of an audience having only practiced the day before. I just had to be very focused in the short space of time before I went on. So I made sure I had the kata memorized. Before I was to go on, I watched the black belts go through their tests and made note of their style and energy to absorb what was expected. When it came my turn I marched onto the mat, projecting a warrior. Every move was executed with all the force I could muster and my fierce yells were uncompromised. No one in class had seen this Amanda before. It earned me another stripe.

Then I shrunk back to my usual laid back self, just showing up and going along with the program. One night, one of my instructors who was coaching the women in the class in a mass attack defense, asked me to "let it out". Let what out, I wanted to ask. It's not like I'm harboring a tiger in my tank.

"Just yell as loud as you can," she said.

"You mean now?" I asked, fully aware that the defense we were working on required full yells. I must be quite exasperating sometimes.

"Yes, now," she nearly shouted. So I recalled the days of my angry youth when I would yell at the top of my lungs while driving alone. She was satisfied with the results. Then just to make sure I had learned the lesson, she stopped me after class when I was back in my street clothes about to leave the building.

"Give me that yell again," she said. Now I knew what was expected and I filled my lungs to capacity and let out a yell so loud the whole studio looked up to see what was going on.

A few months later, it came to the boxing part of our training schedule. By now, I could endure the constant, on you toes, bouncing around as we shadow boxed and practiced hitting the bag. After some weeks, our head instructor announced that we would be putting on the heavy gear and would spar in three-minute rounds. No more would we just fight for a matter of seconds before someone got in a hit and the match was scored. Now we would just slug it out until time was up. But it was not required. This was a voluntary exercise. For some reason, probably because I wanted to try on the gear, I signed up.

We needed help putting the gear on because it had to be laced tightly to fit. The helmet made my nose feel in sudden need of itching. With the gloves on my hands I felt like I was carrying three-pound weights. They made my arms tired, but then I realized they were also weapons, heavy enough to give some oomph to our blows. We started out with just left jabs and still I was getting creamed. But I was used to it. I had always been beaten in touch boxing. And now I was being pounded by big heavy gloves making contact with my head. But suddenly I understood boxing. No longer was it about form, this was about fighting. Fighting until you got the better of your opponent. The long rounds testing our stamina.

At the end of the month, having built ourselves up to three, three-minute rounds, the head instructor announced a tournament. This meant we would again be performing in front of an audience, all eyes watching each pair duke it out. Well at least there was nothing to memorize. I signed up. The day of the tournament I wondered what, indeed, I had brought upon myself. I could even get hurt. In all my years of kung fu, that thought had never crossed my mind before, but a woman had been hurt once in a tournament. She had broken a bone and now refused to do any boxing of any kind. And we were required to sign a release form. I rode down to the studio, anyway, as a lamb to slaughter.

We were to be matched by age and weight. Nearly all the women outweighed me and were taller than me. Those even close to my age were black belts. That left the teen girls, particularly Kandace, a fierce fourteen year old whose father and older sister had also trained in the school. She had smugly delivered several blows to my head the week before and given me a look like she was wasting her time in this cakewalk.

That night she would receive her adult black belt in an awards ceremony, achieving the status of "triple gem" having also earned her child black belt and her teen black belt. She was at the top of her game. There was one thing I could do differently to further my game. I would take off my contact lenses. I had one fall out once, while sparring and had since been protective of contact to my face, not really going all out. That I would not be able to see much more than the fuzzy outline of my opponent would be the trade off.

The men boxed first. Our best fighters went at each other, boxing with all their might, until they were breathing hard. By the third round they could hardly shuffle and were hanging onto each other, delivering halfhearted blows with the other hand. I laughed. Obviously just getting through the match was the first test. The second being to stay standing. Two did actually stumble and fall, but continued. Then came the two women. Both were black belt instructors who had just received their first degree that night. I would never be in their ranks, I thought. Anne, the Australian with the rippling arms had come to class through most of her pregnancy and returned to build herself back up again. Both women boxed skillfully, agile to the end.

There were no other women fighting, just Kandace and me. I was surprised. Where did they all go? Our instructor mentioned the age difference between us (24 years) and asked us to decide if we wanted to fight each other.

"Do you..?" asked Kandace.

"Sure," I said before she could finish.

We had already fought each other so why not? We were the same height and weight. I contemplated what advantage my age might give me. Only a psychological edge that comes from maturity, perhaps, and she had no idea what the adrenaline of performance could do for me. She was not all that aggressive.

We suited up and entered the ring. I couldn't see her face at all or the instructor's when he called the match. We came at each other and started landing punches. I attacked her. She shot out jabs at me. I was parrying pretty well and my energy was good.

At the 30-second break we went to our "corner", a chair at the edge of the mat. Kandace had her father to coach her. I had one of the black belt women in my corner. She gave me a sip of water, told me how well I was doing and that I was landing a lot of punches and should try combinations of punches. Back in the ring again, I managed two punches at a time and we went at each other even harder. I could hear people cheering us on. Our styles were equally unsophisticated though I did manage to duck so one of her punches missed and I came back up hitting. I was beginning to breathe hard; she not at all it seemed.

Back in my corner again and now Anne, the Australian had come to cheer me on.

"You're doing really good with the jabs", she said, "keep up with the jabs."

"Now go in and win this last round," said my coach. Was I winning? Who knew? We went at it again, not so hard, resting a bit, bouncing around. I was breathing loudly, but at least I could still breath. Kandace landed a good blow. Then our instructor called the last 30 seconds. I lunged at her and started pounding, getting in at least four hits and she returned with equal fervor. The crowd cheering louder until the bell. It was over. Back to our corner to have our gear unbuckled. Then we were called to the center of the ring.

"I've never seen either of you fight this well," said our instructor, himself a world-boxing champion. Then he turned to me and said, "You're going to test for your black belt the next time we test." I nodded not sure what that would mean.

He announced the score. 29 to 30; each round is ten points. Kandace was the winner of the last round. We gave each other a perfunctory hug of good sportsmanship. I'm not sure if she liked me any better, but at least I had earned her respect. It was her father, who later came over to offer his compliments and his hand to shake. Others, too, told me how well I had fought. We had all fought with a lot of heart, we were told. Heart. That was an interesting word. As if we had given of ourselves.

I rode home hardly noticing the hill, high on adrenaline. Would I make black belt? Was being a fighter a good thing? I was already more confrontational as a person. Did the world need more fighters? I didn't know, but next month the school moves to another studio. It would be two miles further away. The extra four miles might just be the edge I needed. I would either be super woman or collapse into an asthmatic heap.

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