The 14th Dalai Lama spent much of his adult life trying to comprehend modern science, according to his book, “The Universe in a Single Atom.” Although science and mathematics were absent from the Tibetan monk’s schooling, the young Dalai Lama would quizzically take apart watches and put them back together, always needing to feed his fascination with the world around him. As an adult in exile, he met with dozens of leading scientists and intertwines these discussions with traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs.
What struck me was the Dalai Lama’s articulation of how challenging it is to alter our common understanding of the world. He offers that nothing has independent existence or intrinsic reality — a hard notion to grasp in a world that embraces cause and effect, ownership and blame.
Quantum mechanics also proves a challenge to the common notions of reality. Light can be seen as either a particle or a wave, and we cannot at one moment know where an electron is and what it is doing. To the Dalai Lama, there is a relationship between this idea that matter is less definable than it seems and the theory of emptiness. Science and spirituality are both ultimately seeking a greater and sometimes much more confusing truth.
I’m currently the only humanities major on a tropical ecology field research program in Costa Rica. When we went around the room to introduce ourselves, my aspiration as a journalist in the midst of budding doctoral students came as a surprise. But investigative journalism isn’t too different from investigation, and I’m an analyzer in the midst of analyzers.
To me, the beauty of studying biology is that no matter how specific one’s field of interest, everything is part of a system. There are ecosystems, digestive systems and waste management systems. In basic ecology, we learn how plants undergo photosynthesis to produce the oxygen we breathe with our own intricate and harmonious human bodies.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the global nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen, one of the 16 essential nutrients plants need to grow, is primarily in the atmosphere in a gas form. The only way organisms can use nitrogen is through a process called nitrogen fixation, which microbes in the soil facilitate. Only a small number of plants, mainly legumes, have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. So it was a pretty major revolution when humans figured out how to industrially fix nitrogen by applying synthetic fertilizer to crops.
The nitrogen system is connected to the water system. When nutrients from fertilizer run off from fields into streams and rivers, they can end up in aquatic ecosystems. Phytoplankton and algae eat all the nutrients and deplete the water of oxygen, leading to large aquatic dead zones. A recent study published in the Elsevier journal quantified for the first time the effect Europeans could have on lowering nitrogen pollution by eating less meat and dairy. Nothing exists independently.
But as curious human beings, we have created a society so scattered with labels that we seldom gather together to reconcile our individual attempts at understanding our place in this ultimately harmonious world. As consumers, we make decisions every day that affect the planet without enough knowledge of the effect of our cause.
In the midst of technological development is the notion that innovation is good, but what is missing from this mindset is the recognition that humans can be part of this planet without leading to its demise. The positive and negative economic impacts of the decisions made in Silicon Valley are insignificant matters compared to their environmental impacts if you think about the well-being of the planet. We are producing products that are changing Earth’s landscapes, but we seldom discuss this issue. Perhaps if these conversations were more prominent, phones would be designed to last more than a couple years. Whether it is greed or thoughtlessness or oblivion, something seems to be standing in the way of making more conscious decisions.
What excites me are the systems that recognize this truth and use our potential for innovation to keep us afloat. In Costa Rica I have seen the ideas of permaculture in practice. I’ve seen robust crops grown without fertilizer and self-sustaining farms overflowing with food. I’ve seen anaerobic digesters use methane from manure to power kitchens. Not everyone can buy a piece of land and plant his or her own vegetables, but everyone can embrace that we are part of a greater ecological system.
Maybe we have become too comfortable with the fact that we are no longer dinosaur food. Maybe we are too blinded by the momentary gratification of a new device. To quote the Dalai Lama, “Humanity may end up serving the interests of scientific progress rather than the other way around.” The powerful feeling of progress is reason enough to keep innovating, but I agree with the Dalai Lama that we must not neglect the importance of our motivations.
“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.