Monday, February 28, 2005

Op-Ed, Today/
February 28, 2005

The Japanese call it the capusoru hoteru; capsule hotel in English. A modern day lodge offering hives upon hives of rooms in stacks of twos, each framed by a sickly, square yellow glow and uniformly measuring three feet and a half in height, three feet wide and the length of an average Asian man.

The capsule hotel is a new icon of Japanese urban living, one created mainly for transient men who missed the last train bound for wherever and Neverwhere.[1] Crawling inside for the first time can make one wonder whether the sensation of lying down in such a room is similar to the sweet serenity proffered by the morgue suite.

"Alone in the dark with nothing but your thoughts," said Ellis Boyd Redding in The Shawshank Redemption, "time can draw out like a blade."[2] You lie there and stare at the strange low ceiling. Over a week of memories pass you by.

Night of February 12. I ask Yu Jie if she can hold my bottle of beer for a few minutes while I go inside the temple on Teramachi street. I tell Jie I do not want to take the bottle inside. She nods and takes my beer. I walk in. Inside I gently pull a small log suspended horizontally from the ceiling and let go. The log hits the temple's great bell lightly releasing a deep and fragile sound. Two more pulls on the log. I whisper a plea each time for the swift recovery of an ailing friend. I lower my head a degree and close my eyes; I smile and sigh. I do not know why.

The day of St. Valentine, February 14. I approach the Koto-in Temple alone. Thick moss covers both sides of a long stone pathway like matte-green pillars. There is no noise save for the rustling from groves of bamboo and the rhythmic clicking of footsteps on the stone trail. I wonder how air can be so still and yet still make the leaves of the bamboo rustle.

Koto-in was established in 1601 at the behest of the famed military leader Hosokawa Tadaoki, a great warrior of his time and one of the few to survive the bloody wars which culminated in the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate.[3] At the precincts of Koto-in is the grave of Hosokawa and his wife, Gratia, a devout believer in the then outlawed Catholic faith. A solitary stone lantern and serenity adorn the resting place.

Inside the ancient temple and without my shoes, the wooden floor feels like ice but somehow it is ok. Space is partitioned by sliding doors and vistas of a small garden of bamboo, maple, moss, shapely bushes and obedient clusters of small trees, blades of grass and pebbles. The elegant simplicity is breathtaking.

The afternoon is gray. It feels like any other hour of the Japanese winter - biting cold - but the sun has found an improbable small crack in the clouds. A slender ray penetrates the sky and heats a square meter on the totomi mats; the rest of the floor is bathed in shadow. I sit down and colonize the warm space, lean on a wooden pillar and pull out of my bag the books I brought with me to Japan.

No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place, a Zen saying goes. In two hours I soak up chapters one after the other from Eduardo Galeano's Faces and Masks - an epic history of the Western hemisphere and the New World in the making from a Latin American eye-view; Tariq Ali's The Book of Saladin - a brilliant historical novel about the Kurdish warrior Yusuf Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub and the long fateful encounter between Christendom and the world of Islam; and The Naked Sun, a robot novel of science fiction maestro Isaac Asimov. And I think: a Filipino in a temple in Kyoto - the old capital of Japan - absorbing unlikely sunlight, feasting on books about the ancient past, recent history and memories of the future, bounding from land to land. None of this was planned.

February 16; the Kyoto Protocol - the global agreement that aims to prevent the onset of dangerous climate change - comes into force. The climate treaty is a legally-binding accord that obligates the industrialized world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, by an average of five percent globally relative to 1990 emission levels. Scientists insist emissions reductions of at least 30 percent must take place by 2020, and over 75 percent by 2050.

Prior to the Protocol, a UN framework convention on climate change called on divine intervention to save the planet - by calling for voluntary cuts in emissions. Since providence did little to reduce emissions; the world decided legally-enforceable cuts were required. Indian saying: "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."

The Protocol was born in the city of Kyoto in 1997, hence the treaty's name. It is the only global instrument that gives the children of today a fighting chance to inherit a livable planet. In the exact same hall where the Protocol was born, a great conference is being held by the United Nations to mark the treaty's historic entry into force. The cavernous chamber is full.

Officials and diplomats from all over the world are present. The program begins in the evening to ensure that the rest of the world can participate in the event. Messages celebrating the triumph of multilateralism are transmitted live to the assembly. Applause resonates throughout the convention hall. Two countries are absent from the festivities and refuse to celebrate the day: the United States and Australia.

The US is the biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, period; Australia is the biggest emitter per capita. Climate change is considered the greatest threat facing the planet today, and yet the US continues to inflict fossil wars on the Middle East for the region's oil, the bloodiest of all fossil fuels. Australia continues to be the number one exporter in the world of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, and has also sent fresh troops to Iraq, the frontline of America's petro-conflagration. During international negotiations to hammer out details of the Kyoto accord, and even now with the Protocol in force, the US and Australia continue to play hooligan roles.

The Kyoto Protocol is not based on science, said George W. Bush. We will meet the challenge of climate change with clean coal, said John Howard. "The only difference between genius and stupidity," said Albert Einstein, "is that genius has its limits."

At the capsule hotel hive, almost two weeks of tiring work have finally caught up. I ward away sleep with a final effort and open my notebook. Hastily scribbled notes from the Kyoto conference leap out. Words of hope.

"We have no reason to wait," said Hiroshi Ohki, former environment minister of Japan and the president of the 3rd UN Conference of the Parties which gave birth to the climate treaty. "The entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol is an ideal start to protect the health of the planet. This is a day to renew our resolve."

"We must believe in ourselves individually and collectively. Together we form a multitude," said the imposing Wangari Maathai, the Deputy Environment Minister of Kenya and recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai exhorted the representatives gathered in the main hall of Kyoto's International Conference Center "to apply the precautionary principle and curb the rising tide. We are members of a generation that can still make a difference."[4]

I stare at the strange low ceiling of the capsule room. Over a week of memories and more pass me by. The world stops turning and descends on my eyelids. I slip down into a shapeless, nameless void.


[1] Neverwhere - borrowed where else but from the title of Neil Gaiman's superb fantasy novel about a hidden subterranean world, among other things.
[2] The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who played the character Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding.
[3] The Koto-in Zen Temple is a subsidiary temple of the Daikotu-ji temple in Murasakino, Kita-ku, Kyoto City. The author thanks Mika Ohbayashi of the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policy for introducing him to the mesmerizing temple.
[4] The author spoke at a number of symposiums in Japan leading up to the commemorative Kyoto Protocol conference, which the author covered as a Greenpeace campaigner. The article does not reflect Greenpeace policy.

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