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Sahagian shares views on rapidly changing Tibet

A farmer works the land in Tibet.

When Dork Sahagian, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and director of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative, made arrangements to meet a Chinese colleague in Tibet, his focus was squarely on the task at hand—offering consultation on measuring paleoelevation of the Tibetan Plateau.

Topographically, the country sits at the top of the world, and its elevation makes it environmentally significant. A highly active tectonic area, the timing and nature of uplift to its present elevation is in question. Sahagian and his colleagues convened in Tibet to determine when the plateau rose.

But traveling in June from Tibet’s city of Lhasa to the snow-capped peaks in the countryside, Sahagian’s attention was unexpectedly captured by its striking landscapes, unique culture, evolving political climate and in particular, the people who call Tibet home.

“What I came away with is far different than what I thought I would,” he said, as he recounted his trip during a lecture on Wednesday entitled “Adventures on top of the world: A visitor’s view of Tibet’s cultural, political, and geological place on the Earth.”

Sahagian, who shared photos and stories of his journey, was the final speaker of the semester in a series of lectures designed to educate the campus community prior to the upcoming historic visit by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama next July.

“Geologists go places normal people don’t,” Sahagian told the crowd in Linderman Library Room 200. “It really felt like I was in the middle of a National Geographic magazine.”

The connection between religion, culture and the environment

Yaks roam the countryside.

His time in the city of Lhasa provided observations on the curious habits of monks (who used cell phones); typical restaurant fare (including yak); and religious traditions and significance (such as circling mountains to forgive sins).

“I was really blown away by what I saw,” Sahagian said. “There is huge diversity of people and places and contrasting cultures.”

Sahagian’s emerging interest in global religions and cultures stems from the notion that while peoples’ collective behavior profoundly affects the Earth system, it is often controlled more by a wide range of emotional and philosophical responses and worldviews than by scientific understanding of millennial scale causes and consequences at the global level.

“In his encounter with the Tibetan people and their culture, he has come to wonder more deeply about the ways such important cultural matters as religion and worldviews affect how we are to understand the human interaction with the natural environment,” said Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain.

“Various cultures differ in their view of the environment,” Sahagian said. While some look to harness and control the environment, Sahagian said that the Dalai Lama’s notion that humanity is part of nature and in harmony with others is often apparent when traveling through the Tibetan countryside.

Rudimentary homes, nomadic farmers, and herds of wild donkeys dot the landscape. Much of the work is done by hand, with little reliance on electricity or modern tools. “Where there’s a choice between buying capital materials or employing 1,000 people, they’ll employ 1,000 people,” he said.

But Sahagian also said that concerns were mounting as Tibet evolves as a nation. Trash generated by villagers is thrown in the streets, and eventually lands in rivers. Dust, a result of overgrazing on Tibet’s sparse land, is the largest source of pollution. And a train connecting Beijing to Tibet is bringing an influx of people to a country with little infrastructure to support it.

“Chinese are moving to Tibet in great numbers, leading to blending and assimilation of cultures, infrastructure, and day-to-day life,” said Sahagian, adding, “If you have in mind to visit Tibet, do it soon.”

The Dalai Lama’s visit will include a series of teachings as well as a half-day public lecture on July 13, 2008. The five-and-a-half days of teachings, sponsored by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, N.J., will take place July 10-15, 2008. Additional events are scheduled for next semester.

--Tricia Long

Photos courtesy of Dork Sahagian

Posted on Friday, November 30, 2007

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