Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tibet, the environment, the (American) West

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

Every native of the western United States to visit Tibet is struck by the geographic, environmental and "Big Sky" scenic similarities between the two different locales of our earth. To be sure, Tibet is higher above sea level, having the loftiest, most spectacular and loveliest mountains in the world. Nevertheless, except for the thin oxygen of the earth's highest and largest plateau, the Western traveler to Tibet can easily imagine Nevada, Idaho, parts of Washington, Wyoming and Montana, Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado and New Mexico in the fragile Himalayan landscape.

Tibet is like western America in other ways as well. People are much the same everywhere in the world, and though many appear to not recognize it, we all live from the same interlocking ecology. Tibet is Asia's principal watershed, the source of Asia's great rivers, as the West is the source of many of America's great rivers. Before the invasion/occupation/colonization of Tibet by communist China in 1949, the waters leaving Tibet to become the Yellow River, the Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Indus were among the purest of any on the planet. These waters irrigate land where 47 percent of the earth's human population lives, and today those waters are among the most heavily silted, polluted and prone to flood rivers in the world. What happens to the environment and people of Tibet does not stop at the Tibetan border.

Even more than the indigenous peoples of western America, the indigenous people of Tibet traditionally evolved successful and sustainable environmental practices into their cultural and political value systems as part of their Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist precept of Right Livelihood stresses contentment and discourages over-consumption and over-exploitation of natural resources because they harm other living beings and destroy habitat. In 1642, the 5th Dalai Lama issued a "Decree for the Protection of Animals and the Environment," and each succeeding Dalai Lama has annually issued a similar decree.

But the 13th Dalai Lama and the government of Tibet in exile do not determine what happens to the environment of today's Tibet. China does. The most succinct description of China's effect on the environment of Tibet is "ecocide." (As the most succinct description of China's effect on the people of Tibet is "genocide," but that is another matter equally ignored by most of the world.)

Ecocide is an ugly word. It indicates a far-reaching and even uglier reality. Grasslands dominate the Tibetan landscape and formed the backbone of its traditional animal husbandry, agrarian economy. The staple agricultural crop was barley with other cereals and legumes, but China's need to feed its ever expanding military and civil personnel and the enormous numbers of Chinese settlers seeking "lebensraum" in Tibet have devastated vast areas of once productive land. It has also extended farming onto marginal and steep terrain, and, as has happened throughout America, hybrid seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers have been indiscriminately spread upon the land and washed into the rivers and to wherever those rivers flow. The ongoing degradation and desertification of the Tibetan Plateau during the past 50 years has very likely affected the atmospheric circulation and jet stream wind patterns over Asia, and may be one element of the destabilization of weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere. The world is one environment with one interconnected ecological system, and the dynamics and problems of one part of that system and another, say Tibet and western America, are not all that different and each part affects the whole.

In 1949, the ancient forest of Tibet covered 221,800 square kilometers. Less than half that remains today. The rest is a casualty to China's deforestation of huge areas of Tibet through clear-cutting, much of it on steep slopes. Tibet is not alone in this. In 1998, after centuries of turning its own forests into denuded deserts through heedless logging, China banned logging within its borders. As a result, not only Tibet but Burma (Myanmar) and other Southeast Asian nations and parts of Africa and Siberia are being clear-cut to feed China's demand for wood.

There are an estimated 90 nuclear warheads stationed in Tibet by China, and, as in Nevada, Idaho and Washington, the respective communist and capitalist agencies responsible for public and environmental safety have performed their duties with equally cavalier and reckless deception. One report on nuclear waste in Tibet reads: "Waste disposal methods were reported to be casual in the extreme. Initially, waste was put in shallow, unlined landfill ... disposed of in a roughshod and haphazard manner ... Nuclear waste would have taken a variety of forms—liquid slurry, as well as solid and gaseous waste. Liquid or solid waste would have been in adjacent land or water sites."

Eerily similar descriptions have been written of the nuclear waste management practices at the nuclear facilities at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho and Hanford in Washington. (An aside worth noting: INL was until just recently INEEL—Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory—and before that something else, and before that something else, but a nuclear environmental laboratory is the punch line from one of Frankenstein's favorite jokes about putting an apple laced with Plutonium-238 in the Garden of Eden to see what might happen. INL is more politically correct if not environmentally sensitive.)

As mentioned, Tibet and western America have many more similarities than differences and have much to teach and learn from each other.

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