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How Can Saving Notre Dame Come Before Saving The Planet?

As vast sums are donated to rebuild Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the same billionaires don't step up to protect dying species or reverse global warming.

An environmental protester in Munich
An environmental protester in Munich
Claudio Campagna


BUENOS AIRES — Would people pay more attention to the species that are disappearing if they burned to death in the heart of Paris instead of becoming extinct without anyone knowing or caring?

It would be madness not to care about the loss of a symbol, especially a beautiful one, regardless of its religious status. For even an idolater or animist would admit that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is an extravagance worthy of existence and contemplation.

As a monument conceived to defy the passing of time, its existence is worth more than its utility, and it would be culturally shortsighted to merely judge its going up in flames on the basis of religious sympathy (or antipathy). Here, beauty trumps ideology.

But the drama of fire crushing beauty raises questions regarding people's sense of justice. Is Notre Dame more important than social justice or the natural world? People have felt unease on seeing the rich clout of magnates opening their palatial wallets to right a wrong. This show of universal empathy crashed against the facade of globalized frustrations, and the publicized zeal of a few billionaires is prompting indignation, not admiration. Indeed the sources of such wealth arouse ethical doubts in a world that is all but in flames. Is our society seething and sick of unequal destinies?

One may reasonably regret the loss of cultural icons, but where does a world filled with nonsense leave notions of what is reasonable? Reason heaves under the social inequality that is deviating humanity from a viable future.

The social response to the fire deserves reflection when compared to other calamities. I shall direct my words toward one in particular: the lack of response to the extinction of species.

Don't let anybody fool you: The state of the natural world and the extinction threatening so many species is not due to insufficient resources. Resources abound and are enough not just to safeguard all life forms from the ill-treatment we inflict on them, but also to bring billions of humans within reach of good living standards. There is money for this and to pay for all national parks and protected areas, and safeguard all the expressions of art and science while assuring the good health of individuals and society.

What is truly a loss, and unacceptable, is the extinction of a natural species because of human action.

There are more than enough resources in the world, so much that if better redistributed, we might not even know what to do with so many blessings. We would have enough to seek out life on other planets, to convey to them our infinite respect. We can be sure of this: There is no shortage. There is concentration, accumulation and inequality.

Much work lies ahead —Photo: Jacques Paquier

The collapse of Notre Dame cathedral is bad and dramatic. But what is truly a loss, and unacceptable, is the extinction of a natural species because of human action. There are many creatures in this condition at the moment.

People do not understand what is at stake. Many of the rich do not understand it who could finance those who are working to stop this unacceptable truth. Governments do not understand it either. Quite simply there is a lack of understanding, though the matter is far from incomprehensible.

Those who say that every species lost is like a cathedral collapsing are almost right. They would be absolutely right if they said that a disappearing creature is quite different to all the cathedrals, mosques or monuments we might have built throughout history, and more essential, profound, important and irreplaceable. Take note: We took the blue whale to the verge of extinction.

Today, we have the technological ability to rebuild cathedrals in no time. The rich have the money for it. But we cannot replace a single lost species, not even with enough gold to unhinge the planet in its orbit. Those who talk about bringing species back to life do not know how to use language.

Notre Dame will, we hope, be rebuilt, even as many species continue their precipitous downfall. This apparent pattern of history is spreading frustration and ire, to the point of sickening a part of humanity. Many of us are sick of constantly losing out to those who never reason.

Conservation of nature is a prolonged exercise in repeated failures. It produces resentment, which came to the surface before this shameless ostentation of wealth. We push countless forms of life toward extinction. How shall we react when the day of our downfall arrives? I predict a departure bereft of glory or regret. We shall succumb for being insensitive and irrational. We are not frightened by our vulnerable condition. We live in delusion and are not human.

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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