In the age of catastrophic climate change and two years following the horrifying meltdown of reactors at Fukushima’s nuclear power plant, we realize that both phenomena are profoundly impacting our species and the earth community. What we don’t know with certainty is the exact extent of the damage being done. In Alex Smith’s recent Radio Ecoshock interview with Robert Way of the University of Ottowa, Way explained that official figures greatly underestimate global heating. In his groundbreaking new paper, Way asserts that the EPA has low-balled methane emissions in the U.S. by half, and Way’s findings were also published by the Guardian in a November 13 article “Global Warming Since 1997 More Than Twice As Fast As Previously Estimated.”
More recently the Japanese government has sought to pass a state secrets law that would place severe penalties on leakers of government secrets and journalists who might attempt to dig deeper than official government reports regarding the status of Fukushima. As one who has been following updated reports on Fukushima for months, I can attest to what appears to be a dramatic decrease of coverage. Only two weeks ago Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) informed the world that it would be attempting to remove some 1500 damaged fuel rods from Reactor 4—a highly delicate and daunting task which some observers speculated could result in the breakage of rods and result in massive doses of radiation escaping. We have heard little about how the procedure is unfolding, and overall, coverage of the state of the Fukushima plant for nearly three years has been sparse, with little attention being paid to it by mainstream media.
As with the more specific aspects of catastrophic climate change, the most significant details of the consequences of the Fukushima disaster are not available to us unless we dig deeply for them, and even then, it seems obvious that many pieces of the puzzle are just simply missing. Thus we are confronted with two issues that are probably the most life-threatening to our planet, but we sit with more unknowns than knowns. Indeed the most torturous aspect of any life-threatening situation is not knowing.
Recently, my friend Mike Ruppert lost his dog Rags. During that time Mike was frantic to find his beloved companion, and all of us who love both of them were deeply pained by their separation. Where was Rags? Who knew? Mike had scoured the region where he lives but to absolutely no avail. Had Rags been devoured by coyotes, mountain lions, bears—had he been hit by a car or perhaps stolen? For me, it’s one thing to be separated from my forever canine friend, and quite another not to know where or how he is. If he becomes ill and has to be put down, at least I know. But oh the heartache of losing a pet and not knowing where or how they are! Fortunately, Mike found his dog in a few days.
No more not knowing, but the torture of not knowing is inexplicable.
With catastrophic climate change we do know two things: We know that it is progressing with unimaginable speed, and we know that if it continues to do so, there will be few habitable places on earth by mid-century. Yet what else are we not being told? Does the silence matter? Will it make a difference ultimately?
With Fukushima, however, we know so much less. How much radiation has already been released? How much is being released every day? How much radiated water is actually being dumped into the Pacific Ocean every day? What is the actual size of the radiation plumes that are moving eastward in the Pacific toward the West Coast of North America? Specifically how are these affecting sea life and human life? What is the relationship between environmental illnesses or the incidence of cancer and Fukushima?
And the questions exacerbate and spin and swirl in our minds.
The absolute bottom line with both catastrophic climate change and the consequences of Fukushima: We simply don’t know most of the information we should know about these two horrific realities.
Industrial civilization has socialized us to know. All of our educational systems dictate that information, particularly accumulating as much as possible, is the brass ring. You either know or you don’t know, and if you don’t know, you are dis-empowered because, we are incessantly told, “knowledge is power.” So in this culture, if you don’t know and can’t find out, then your best course of action is to ignore, deny, or pretend there’s nothing to know. Hence the dearth of reporting on either of the two life-threatening issues I’m addressing here. Most human beings on this planet cannot bear to know that the game may be over by mid-century or that she or he will develop cancer as a result of Fukushima radiation.
The paradigm of the scientific revolution and ultimately industrial civilization left no room for uncertainty. Twentieth-century physicists such as Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Schrodinger, and Heisenberg then pulled the rug out from under “certainty” with concepts such as “uncertainty,” “relativity,” and “wave mechanics.” These physicists plumbed the depths of ambiguity in the atomic particle and revealed to us the un-certainty with which it behaves. Nevertheless, tenacious attachment to certainty remained the mainstay of modern education.
From my perspective the root of modern humanity’s fundamental inner turmoil is the tension of these opposites: certainty and uncertainty. And while the study of relativity may be fun and fascinating, the mind demands answers, especially when confronted with the possibility of its own demise. When experts on nuclear radiation articulate grave concerns about the amount of radiation to which we are being exposed, we either turn a deaf ear or demand “proof.” How then is it possible to live with the uncertainty of our fate?
Our ancient ancestors had much more experience with navigating uncertainty than we have. From their perspective, the greater wisdom is not to flee uncertainty or deny it, but rather immerse ourselves in it. Verbalizing a piece of this wisdom, in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron writes that “Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.” In other words, willingly enter the uncertainty and abide there, allowing the tension, fear, sorrow, and extreme vulnerabililty. “We practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves,” Pema Chodron says, “and lean into the emotions and the fears…We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here.”
Why do we do this? Because the uncertainty, the fear, the vulnerability, the grief, and yes, the seeming unfairness of it all have something to teach us about being human—about being part of, not separate from, this extraordinary planet. And they have something to teach us about connecting with our own and other species. The ultimate lesson is one of compassion: for ourselves, for other species and other humans. Compassion means that I see your darkness, and you see mine, and as a result, we can be more present with each other. “Compassion becomes real,” according to Chodron, “when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Openness to uncertainty may also allow us to explore other ways of knowing that are neither rational nor linear, yet reveal what is so. My friend Mike is a tracker and has learned to honor myriad methods of knowing. At his wits end, he called a friend who called another friend living in India who has extraordinary psychic abilities, and that friend described the area in which Mike’s dog was wandering. Mike drove there, and voila! Dear old Rags.
Opening to uncertainty guarantees that sooner or later, the heart will open, and when it does, we get to love and be loved—in spite of our bewildering fallibility. The playing field is leveled, no one gets to be special or exempt from the suffering inherent in the human condition. We discover that we need each other despite our inordinate obsession with independence. So much of what mattered before in our prison of certainty matters so little now. Or as Pema Chodron summarizes: “Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what’s going on.”
In times of extreme uncertainty such as we are currently experiencing—in times of wandering through the maze of conflicting facts and theories, one of our most trusted allies may be poetry—reading it, writing it, and reciting it to others by heart. Yes, “by heart” which is another way of saying “from the heart.” Prose is linear and more aligned with certainty whereas poetry values our uncertainty and the twists and turns of our frail human condition.
The poet Jane Hirshfield captures our predicament in “Against Certainty”:
There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us.
Each time I think “this,” it answers “that.”
Answers hard, in the heart-grammar’s strictness.
If I then say “that,” it too is taken away.
Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.
I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.
To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another.
Hirshfield gives us a priceless phrase, “the great vanishing,” which succinctly captures the fundamental essence of the time in which we live. Clean air, pure water, unadulterated food, and 200 species per day—all vanishing. And we along with them. Perhaps like the cat, we are all in the process of learning how to “completely disappear.” Like the cat we are waiting, but hopefully not simply to disappear. Our disappearance must serve a purpose, and in order for that to happen, we are waiting and working, waiting and loving, waiting and making amends, waiting and making the demise of other species less agonizing.
In the torture of not knowing, we are “challenged to stay in touch with the heart-throbbing quality of being alive,” says Pema Chodron because “things are as bad and as good as they seem.”