Air pollution inside the Canberra "bubble" Dr Devin Bowles December 23, 2019
Fires over many parts of Australia this spring and summer introduced many Australians to the reality of sustained and substantial air pollution. Combined with the drought, the fires of challenged the idea that we can insulate ourselves from the environment enough that climate change should not be a real concern. My sense is that the coincidence of environmentally-related events has caused a tipping point in Australian culture and political discourse. While some seek to minimise these developments, there are signs that there is sufficient momentum to create real change. Unfortunately, the best guarantor that Australians will continue to hold our leaders to account will be continued environmental trauma.
Much of my research focuses on the health effects of climate change, but the fires and the hazardous air quality in Canberra have caused a different sort of awakening in me. I live in Canberra, where the air quality is normally very good – better than many cities in high income countries, and leagues ahead of almost every major city in low and middle income countries. My family doesn’t have air-conditioning and Canberra seems to have sold out of air purifiers, so this bushfire season is giving me a taste (quite literally) of sustained exposure to hazardous air. Apart from any health effects, my body knows that it is under duress, and this is taking a psychological toll. Like having chronic but low grade pain, I find it harder to regulate my mood, harder to relax, harder to sleep and harder to concentrate on anything else. Still, Sydney’s air quality was more hazardous than Canberra’s. I read a report that on some days, Sydney had the worst air quality in the world. The converse is that on some days, even when it was severely smoke-affected, there were other cities with millions of people experiencing worse. The difference is that this was an anomaly for Sydney, whereas the people of some cities endure hazardous air as a constant. This means that they can’t seal themselves inside their houses for the worst of it, and might not have any opportunities for purified air at work or at home. I can only imagine an existence so affected by air quality.
A rapid transition to cleaner energy production is essential to improving air quality in low and middle income cities. It is also a necessary precondition of avoiding the worst effects of global climate change. To reach the latter goal, developed countries will need to radically reduce their own emissions, and fund a rapid energy transition globally. My hope is that BODHI’s work in development and health in low and middle income countries will contribute, in its own modest way, to a world better able to see itself as interconnected. More directly, my expectation is that the development work BODHI undertakes is part of a larger process by which developing countries can leap-frog the most polluting forms of energy production, or at least minimise the time on which they rely on fossil fuels. --------------- That which unites us (BODHI Times, February 2017)
Dr Devin Bowles
Coming one after another, the British vote on Brexit and the American election of Donald Trump as president surprised many commentators, perhaps especially political and economic elites. With hindsight, professional commentators have offered a number of explanations and insights about these surprise results: they reflect the economic dissatisfaction of those left behind by globalisation; they are the rejection of politics as usual; they are the backlash of white voters against increasing multiculturalism. There may be truth in all of these observations, but in my mind the most noteworthy aspect of the electoral contests is that they revealed an increasingly ‘us versus them’ worldview among voters. This understanding also describes the wave of nationalist sentiment sweeping over Europe and the success of the nationalist One Nation Party in the most recent Australian federal election. I don’t want to examine the merits or otherwise of each position or candidate in this article. Instead, let me outline one of the dominant themes of these electoral contests: a national ‘Self’ was understood to be under threat from an ‘Other’. For the British, the perceived threat was European bureaucracy, while for the Americans it was China. In all of the countries affected, the spectre of unchecked immigration of ‘Others’ loomed large, be they Syrians, Mexicans or Muslims. We don’t need a great imagination to suggest that the theme of a national ‘Self’ being under threat gained currency easily in populations composed of people who felt their individual ‘Selves’ to be imperilled.
Buddhist thought has a long history of dissecting the notion of an individual ‘Self’, and breaking down the barriers between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’. Some Buddhists even vow to defer enlightenment until all beings are enlightened. These people have a clear understanding that we are all in this together. If this is true for us as individuals, it is also true for us as communities, cultures, faiths and nations. We will rise or fall together as a global community.
We don’t need Buddhism to reach these conclusions, though. Using a modern Western perspective to survey the biggest, potentially existential, problems facing humanity indicates that most or all require international cooperation. Mitigating climate change demands action from every country. Arms proliferation cannot be solved unilaterally, even as Trump suggests a new nuclear arms race. The rapid loss of biodiversity, which may now be at the same rate as during the extinction of the dinosaurs, cannot be stopped by any one country alone. Violent extremism has at its core an emphasis on what separates rather than what unites. In a world with enough material wealth for all, poverty is also a symptom of division.
All major religions and Indigenous traditions have at least the kernel of an appreciation of interdependence that practitioners can use to understand that the global community will rise or fall together. The important thing is that we all come to this understanding, not the route by which we reach it. The realisation that there are many paths to the same destination, for me at least, is an important step in dissolving the boundaries of my own ‘Self’. While there may be many routes to a genuine understanding of how to our interconnection with each other and the planet, most of us still have further to travel to reach that destination. BODHI is, among other things, a community of people headed in that direction by alleviating suffering through aid, and just as importantly, helping to bridge cultural and national divides to remind everyone involved of our shared humanity.