A Buddhist approach to climate change

The endless knot tells us everything is mutually interdependent. Including, but not limited to, free software, Bhutan and the World Bank.

By Andrew Leonard
November 13, 2007 2:21AM (UTC)
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Globalization metaphor alert!

While giving a speech in Bhutan on Nov. 5, World Bank managing director Graeme Wheeler borrowed the concept of "the endless knot" from Buddhism to symbolize how "our economies are increasingly interconnected."

One of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, the endless knot can be understood as representing, in Wheeler's words, how "we are all connected in a web of mutual interdependence." Or, as one explanation puts it: "The intertwining of lines reminds us how all phenomena are conjoined and yoked together as a closed cycle of cause and effect."


Wheeler made waves during the World Bank crisis last spring when he called for Paul Wolfowitz to resign at a meeting of the bank's top officials in April. In another sign of how Zoellick's World Bank is different from Wolfowitz's World Bank, Wheeler devoted much of his speech in Bhutan to the challenges of climate change. This provided a pleasant contrast with the efforts of his fellow managing director, Wolfowitz appointee Juan José Daboub, who notoriously attempted to have references to the term "climate change" excised from a key bank strategy paper more than a year ago.

Climate change, for Bhutan, a landlocked country in the Himalaya Mountains, is something of a mixed blessing. Bhutan's primary source of foreign currency earnings comes from the sale of hydroelectric power to India. Warmer temperatures, in the short term, mean more snow melt, which means more water flowing in the rivers, and potentially greater income from electricity sales. But in the long run, more snow melt now means less snow available to melt in the future.

To conclude, the special and unique Kingdom of Bhutan can play a valuable role in mankind's efforts to address climate change.

As we see in the example of the four friends that are depicted in your beautiful temple murals, it does not matter whether you are the small bird on top or the elephant at the bottom -- all must work together to reach the fruit.

We must learn to cooperate to manage climate change and protect the environment. Citizens of the world -- across countries and over time -- are connected, just like the interdependence represented in one of the 8 lucky signs -- Drami -- the endless knot.

One might wonder whether any of the assembled Bhutanese responded by noting that their snow is melting largely because of centuries of industrial development elsewhere. But how exactly are citizens of the U.S., for example, affected by how people go about their daily lives in Thimphu? But such quibbling might display un-Buddhist-like levels of intolerance. Better just accept the fullness of it all -- we're all connected, so we're all screwed.


The sheer level of interconnectedness can still surprise, however. Unfamiliar with the word "Drami," I attempted to learn more. Best I can guess, the word belongs to the official language of Bhutan, Dzongkha, a member of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages that has about the same relationship to Tibetan as, say, Spanish has to Italian.

The Dzongkha language, believe it or not, made some waves two years ago in that particular nexus of interconnection that weaves together the Free Tibet and Free Software communities.

The occasion was the exposure of an internal Microsoft memo ordering that the term "Dzongkha" not be used in any Microsoft products. Instead, only references to "Tibetan-Bhutan" were permissible. According to news reports, the change was made after pressure from China, where the government appears to be under the mistaken impression that Dzongkha signifies an etymological allegiance to the Dalai Llama.


How big a deal is this? From what I can gather, support for the Dzongkhan writing system is available in Microsoft Vista, and the operating system allows users to designate their own labels for the various language localizations, so, in theory, one can change the name Tibetan-Bhutan to Dzongkha and the People's Republic of China will be powerless to stop you. So maybe it's more a matter of affronted pride than anything more substantive.

Or maybe it's more than that. In September, the Bhutanese online news site Kuensel Online reported that Bhutan's Department of Information and Technology had perfected Dzongkha Debian Linux, a version of the Linux-based operating system naturalized for the Dzongkhan language.


Bhutanese can soon chat, send e-mail, and surf the Internet in Dzongkha...

According to [developer] Pema Geley, the launch of the Dzongkha Linux marks Bhutan's move towards free and open source software. "Linux is a free operating system and we customized the Debian Linux according to the need of our Dzongkha users," he said. "Since Debian Linux is recognized worldwide, we encourage people to use it."

The updated version will fully support Dzongkha computing on standard programs or applications like word processing, spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations, Web browsing and chatting. Officials said that Dzongkha Linux also has provision to use Dzongkha in graphics software like Adobe Photoshop, and multimedia applications.

Dzongkha Debian Linux -- Microsoft, Tibet, China, free software and Bhutan -- if that doesn't represent the mutual interdependence signified by the endless knot, then what does?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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