Bare Bones Biology 119 – Rabi Malka Drucker I

Right now I’m skimming through a book written by Rabi <a href="“>Malka Drucker, and I can see I will have to settle down in my lawn chair under the little apple tree and read the book. The title is White Fire:A portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America, and sadly it is out of print, but I think you can get it at the library, or maybe even Amazon. I suggest you go to Rabi Drucker’s web site and also the White Fire web site to learn more about this book (including videos) and the other books that Rabi Drucker has written. Right now, she is working on a new book about wisdom, and I can’t wait for that, so I asked her to favor us with an advance conversation on the subject. There are also two podcasts of Rabi Drucker speaking at Upaya that you might want to download.

The transcript of this week’s Bare Bones Biology is below. It’s the first of three parts to our discussion. Perhaps you will read or listen to the others during the last two weeks of August. The next one is on the subject of compassion and the last will be about wisdom. If you add the three together, what you get is responsibility plus compassion = wisdom. At least that is how it seems to me. Here is today’s transcript.

“This week we have the first installment of a discussion with Rabi Malka Drucker.

LL-“There is a conflict between human welfare and the welfare of the whole earth ecosystem.
MD-“No there’s not. We are of it, so there can’t be conflict. Either we are part of the system or we’re not. So the only way to survive is to be part of the system. So there is nothing that can promote human welfare that can hurt the environment.
LL-“Well, there’s – I would say it the other way, though, that anything that promotes the welfare of the whole earth ecosystem also promotes the welfare of humans within that ecosystem. That’s my perspective but it’s not the same.
MD- “How is it not the same?
LL- “It’s not the same because the ecosystem operates on balance, and so if we promote only human welfare and not the welfare of all the rest of the organisms –
MD- “What do you think I said?
LL- “I think you said anything that promotes human welfare would benefit the ecosystem.
MD- “No I said the opposite of that. I said anything that hurts the ecosystem is not beneficial to human beings.
LL- “Well, we don’t disagree. We were just having a little semantic problem.
MD-“I was saying that you can’t say something is good for human beings that is bad for the environment. There is no separation. If it’s bad for the world, it’s bad for human beings.
LL- “I love it. The problem arises out of trying to maintain the balance.
MD-“Again I’ll say, in the highest sphere, let’s take an example. Air conditioning. People like air conditioning. Especially in hot humid places. It’s become part of their lives. Now we find out that air conditioning is bad, and we’ve got a greenhouse effect that harms the earth climate. So here’s a case where the answer has to be that you do what you need to do to survive. Not comfort. There’s living and then there’s comfort, so comfort must be sacrificed. It’s a no-brainer. If you gave the dilemma to a fourth grade class, they’d come up with a solution. The conflict is because of ego – our egos. We don’t want to compromise. It’s simple.
LL- “I think it’s even a deeper compromise. I think it comes right down to our instinctual compassionate response when we see anything suffering. And at that point, if we’re going to consider the welfare of the ecosystem, we’ll have even more difficult —
MD- “Ah, I hear you. So here again, it’s amazing how my tradition sings to my —
So here’s how the Jewish tradition deals with this. The world rests – they have about 12 different things the world rests on, but this particular example the world rests upon justice and mercy. I see this as a vessel must contain the light. So the vessel is justice, and always mercy must supercede it. Ultimately, that’s the answer.
LL- “A Buddhist said that two wings, the wing of love and the wing of justice is what permits us to fly.
MD- “Lovely image, same notion exactly.
LL- How does overpopulation fit into that?
MD- “I’m going to give you the same answer. I keep checking the same box. It’s about ego. Human beings are not facing what needs to be faced, and taking responsibility for it.
LL- “OK, you’re checking the same box I check.
MD-“You’ll find it hard to disagree with me.
LL- “I don’t want to disagree with you.”

No indeed I would be so happy (people keep asking me what would make me happy) I would be so happy if we would all sit down together and discuss our responsibilities to ourselves within the ecosystem. Even if we were not checking the same box. Especially if we were not checking the same box. There is no good survival reason for all this conflict. We all need the same basic things to survive, and these are provided to us by the ecosystem. The way to get these things is to modify our behaviors to stop causing harm to the ecosystem, and the way to do that is first to start talking about our needs and behaviors in our communities and beyond.

Just one more point please, because of my very long history of emphasizing biological levels of organization of the earth ecosystem. When we talk about levels of organization, we use the most simple image – three levels: individual humans and their needs; populations of humans and their needs; and the whole earth ecosystem and its needs.

There was not time in the five minutes to talk about levels, but different levels do have some differences of their needs. In fact, that’s how the biosphere maintains its balance, but that is another story. The point here is that the differences in the needs of the different levels can be a source of our most difficult dilemmas.

Those differences might be a good starter for a follow-up discussion about our responsibilities to ourselves and to the ecosystem. What do individual humans need (we agreed on survival, and probably we would agree on the basic human values); what do populations of humans need? What does the whole earth ecosystem need for its survival that might be different from the other two?

Bare Bones Biology 119 – Rabi Malka Drucker I
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Commentary on the Facebook Discussion below.

Talk about a melting pot. We are it. We are in process of learning how, and I especially appreciate the input of “A” who expressed that reality so effectively — and maybe more importantly expressed the difference between “me and you as individuals” contrasted with “all of us as a population.” There is a big difference between these two levels of function. Recognizing this difference we can also recognize that the things we do not like about some population are emergent properties of the population level. I use that term because I want to emphasize that we are biological entities, and biology is organized according to emergent properties. Emergent properties are not labels to pin on any one member of the group they characterize. However, they may be characteristic of the group itself and therefore they may be very harmful (or helpful) to society. If they are harmful, we do need to recognize the harm that is being done. And, within our own groups, we also must recognize that whenever we behave according to the dictates of our group, we ARE (or may be if we don’t think about it) honoring and perpetuating ethics that we deplore. That’s why change is so difficult. For example, fighting for an end to war will never achieve the goal. Sorry all you rabid peaceniks but that’s a reality. Too many wounded losers remain. And it’s almost impossible in a warrior culture to get anyone to listen to what you are saying unless you are willing to fight for it. Or die for it without fighting. Then people notice.

A- “I didn’t realize when I joined the progressive movement that hatred and intolerance would just apply to different groups. I ultimately changed political affiliations because of views held toward my LGBT brothers and sisters and my mixed race family, as well as a host of other human rights issues. I just don’t understand how it is much different here on the left, sometimes. It’s US vs. THEM. I love my Christian friends. And although I hate the commercialism of the season, if it brings them joy to go to mass at midnight, how is it okay for me to stereotype them all as misled? Just trying to understand. If they are, as a group, insufferable, I still believe that I cannot judge each individual on advance. I hope for each that their belief system brings them peace and promotes peace. That is all. And it is possible.”

B-“My opinion is that (for reasons I don’t understand very well) our whole culture on all sides has bought into the idea that our problems are dichotomous, that we can resolve them by “winning” whatever argument (that, of course, is the essence of hatred and intolerance), and that the problems are serious enough that we have an obligation to try to resolve them. The latter is clearly true — both of the former ideas are easy to debunk, but most modern activists act as though they believe that our win/lose cultural ideal is the only way for us to save ourselves. In my opinion, this is no different from war, only on a more moderate scale. Maybe that’s how the ethic got started. I do remember when we ramped up the violence and war movies on TV over the past couple of decades. Ideas like this are imposed upon us by the culture – not invented by individual activists. And so it is all the more important that you are expressing a contrary view.”

A-“Well, thank you, Lynn (oops, that would be B) for not attacking me. I am an observer. I am often just trying to understand my observations.”

B-“You are welcome. I almost never attack people. However, in my opinion we are losing our country — especially our revolutionary rule of law that was set up to handle disputes in a way that would mostly avoid attacking people. That and our fetish with winning that gets in the way of our solving big problems. (Because no big problem is ever two-sided.) And we do have big problems, bigger than losing our country. I think these big issues are more important than little issues — important enough for us to discuss, and my comments I try to make discussable. If that were to happen (discussion), I think it would be worth the effort, even if people often assume I am attacking individuals when I am not (or I am unskillful and unsuccessful in making my points). If ever we were to all get together to try to resolve these issues rather than participate in them, then I think it would be worth punching a few holes in everyone’s half-full glasses (including mine). What’s the use of social media if we don’t use it to make the society better than it already is? I rejoice in the fact that most of my friends are really very tolerant of most of the things I try to say, and sometimes even try to help me say them.”

Promises, Promises

“What if Americans of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs could come together in a series of national conversations on topics of significant importance to the nation? What if we could create a listening and learning environment through structured conversations to lead us to better understand one another, establish common ground and transform ideas into action? What if all of us had a role in making this a reality?”

It’s as certain as sin that we will spend our future forever fearfully circling each other, like Voldemort and Harry Potter, unless we find some way break the win/lose pattern of our toxic culture and talk among ourselves like real people. Believe it or not, there is a way that is well researched, well established and well known in business circles. Check out Promise USA if you are genuinely interested in accomplishing a better future.

Green Plants

090329tgt_dsc0072sAlmost everyone knows that animals breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide, and the reverse is true of plants. That makes it sound as though the plants actually need us in order to breath. They don’t, because they can also “breath out” carbon dioxide as they do the work of staying alive; but we need them because we need oxygen. Before there were plants on earth the atmosphere did not have oxygen. Also because we need to get rid of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The trick to all of life is balance, and this is one example of how the ecosystem keeps its balance so it can stay alive.

A while ago, talking about energy, I said there is high-level energy and low-level energy (and stages between) and that energy can go from high to low. However, it can not go from low to high level. Light is high energy, chemical energy is medium energy and heat is low energy. The genius of plants is that they can take high level energy (light from the sun) and use it to do the work of making medium level chemical energy (food). And then they can use the chemical energy (food) to do the work of staying alive.

I’ll say that again. The plant takes the energy of sunlight and uses it to make the major molecules of life. You may have heard on Star Trek (or was that before your time?) that carbon compounds are indicators of life. They don’t make themselves. The plant makes them, using energy from the sun. Even though every kind of cell is different, all cells are made up of carbon compounds: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, DNA and other things. Carbohydrates are sugars and also the wood and cellulose the tree is made of. Lipids are fats. Proteins and DNA everyone has heard about on TV. The bottom line is this: the plant uses a source of high energy from the sun to make the molecules of life. The molecules contain chemical energy. The plant can then use the molecules and the chemical energy to do the work of keeping its cells alive.

carbondioxidelfAnd then of course, we do the same. We eat the plant and use the molecules to build our cells and the chemical energy to do the work of keeping our own cells alive. Animals can not live unless they have plants or other animals to eat because we can not use the energy of light to make carbon compounds. This will not be a surprise to you. The more interesting part is what happens to the chemical energy that the plants have stored in their tissues.

The first possibility is that the plant might die and become fossilized and turned into oil or coal or natural gas. Imagine how many plants and animals were fossilized millions of years ago. Now we mine the oil or coal or gas, because they are carbon compounds that are a rich source of the chemical energy the plants have captured from the sun, and they burn. We burn these to do the work of driving the car, heating the house, burning the light bulbs and running the factories.

Burning is the process of releasing the energy from a carbon compound. Oxygen is required for burning; that’s why we breath it in. Oxygen + carbon compound releases energy and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a waste product of burning. That’s why we (and the car) must get rid of it.

In the car, this burn is controlled and the energy that is released is used to do the work of firing the pistons.

In our bodies, in every cell, the burn is controlled and the energy that is released is used to do the work of sustaining our lives.

And all this energy comes from plants and only from plants because the only kind of energy we can use in our bodies is chemical energy.

If we use up all the oil and gas and coal that were made millions of years ago, we could of course burn wood. In very poor parts of the world people are forced to burn up all the trees — to use them for the same things that we use coal and oil and gas. In other poor parts of the world people are cutting down the forests, just as we cut down vast portions of the North American forests, to plant food for cows to eat. Or for us to eat. If we keep doing this, we will run out of trees to burn. We will run out of oil and coal and gas in any case. Sooner than later.

Before that time comes, many people believe we should try to find some way to use the energy from the sun directly, bypassing the green plant. We could MAKE food, but it would require more energy to make it than we would get back. And where would we get the energy? So that is not practical. We need to find a source of chemical energy that we can not cut down, burn up or use up. So that’s the fuss about sustainable energy.

090331_dsc0106sAnd converting light energy to chemical energy is not the only thing plants do for us. Remember where we started. Plants also “breathe in” carbon dioxide. That’s how they make carbon compounds in the first place. Plants can do the reverse process of burning. They use the energy of the sun to make carbon compounds. They take the carbon right out of the air, where it is cycling around and around through the ecosystem. They use light energy from the sun to make the big carbon compounds from the little carbon dioxide molecule (and other molecules that are also cycling around the ecosystem). At the same time the plant converts high-energy light from the sun into chemical energy that is stored in the large carbon compounds the plant is making. The problem here is that the carbon cycles around the ecosystem and has to be got rid of from atmosphere. The other problem is that ENERGY does not cycle around the ecosystem. It comes in as high energy. We use it to stay alive. Poof it is gone away in the form of heat and we can not make more chemical energy.

So we are back full circle. The people (and the cars and factories and power plants and all that) are eating the carbon compounds and using up the chemical energy that is stored in them — and at the same time we are breathing out carbon dioxide because it is a poison to us. The plants breath in the carbon dioxide and breath out oxygen that we require to burn the carbon compounds in our bodies.

Carbon dioxide is released into the air from all the burning in machines and in our own bodies, and carbon dioxide is a waste product that causes global warming.

What will happen as we continue to destroy the trees and other plants and burn them up in our machines and in our bodies? The more machines and the more people, the more carbon dioxide. The fewer trees and other plants — also the more carbon dioxide. And less oxygen and less energy available in the form of chemical energy. Energy is all around us, yes, but the energy of life is chemical energy.

So that’s what people worry about, and it is completely logical that we should worry. This exchange system between plants and animals has created our ecosystem. It is based in natural laws of physics and biology that can not change. Therefore, if we want human kind to survive, we need to understand the natural laws that keep us alive — and behave accordingly.

The point is not to rush out and get more excited than the media over who is wearing what color this year (green is good). The point is, as T.D.Jakes has said: “You can not change what you do not confront.” Of course he is right, but “Confront?” Why do we always think we have to fight with each other and with life? Life is about balance; without balance there is no life. Our success will come when we stop confronting each other about things that none of us can control, and begin the discussion. The point is to talk about it.

Among all the millions of people on earth, I think if we start to talk together -here is an example – about our problems we might actually come up with solutions that work within the natural laws of the ecosystem, and I think that’s better than waiting around for Exxon or Fox News to save us from them.  I think that would be a long wait.

Do you know of any other examples, in addition to simple-green-frugal, the link above here, of people talking together about down-to-earth factual biological reality?