Kali Speaks

Buddhists await the coming of the Kali Yuga, the last age in the cycle of the Dharma, when all knowledge of the brilliant Way, the way of morals and truth, integrity, compassion and wisdom, is lost to Earth entirely, and conscious life descends into a hell of suffering. Think of God's wrath in the apocalypse, except without the savior. At least, for a very long time. Eventually, Maitreya, the Future Buddha, comes and restores the Dharma -- the truth about reality; and so begins another epic cycle.

2500 years ago, the Dharma was reinforced by Gautama Buddha, and the Kali Yuga seemed far away. Not so now. Lying seems de rigeur (one can even "win" a presidential debate based upon it), and style is triumphing over substance every day. The kind of arguments we see today pit morality against expediency with terrible ease. Individuals grandstand with outrage over slight insults to their self-image, while whistleblowers are villified when they highlight the alarming nature of our times.
Truth is a vegetable on life-support, and that it should recover to again be a living, breathing thing is the hope of the sentimental. So goes the Kali Yuga.

The name derives from the ancient Indian goddess Kali, the Black Lady, death and undoing incarnate. Invoked with reverence, Kali brings to an end our cardhouses of illusion, the intricate web of lies that we communally reinforce in order to rationalize our perceptions of what matters and what doesn't. Kali dances on our dead bodies and on the corpse of our arrogance. Ultimately, Kali is a defender of the natural beauty of life and death, and the enemy of falsehood. We have invited her here into the studio today, to give her impression of the cultural forces that have led to the climate disaster which is even now shuffling onto stage, impatient from waiting in the wings for the last 40 years.

Kali says: "You people are addicted to the sound of your own voices. If you spent more time being quiet, the distress of the Earth would be completely audible to you. I am screaming into your ear the blackest words I can find for your folly, but you insist upon bringing about your own, unnatural destruction.

"You bombard your brains with advertisements calling those agencies and instruments you have to regulate your own pollution of your only living home "economic traitors" and "heavy-handed dictators". Yet, it is they who produce the ads who employ the police at $30 an hour to restrain (and arrest, if necessary) the journalists who come to discover the facts about what is really transpiring on the ground at the very sites of industry where the future of the 21st century will be determined.

"Well, guess what, America. I'm not an 'energy voter.' I'm Kali! I am at home in the darkest despair you can imagine, and I am coming to visit your irrational dreams of endless exponential growth and make them square with the rules of physics and decency. You will swallow the obscenity of your impossible vision until it chokes you. God (and here I mean your Jesus) help you, because your children and your grandchildren are mine.

"Now let me say this: you may not acknowledge it anymore, but just because you have a job and you can pay your bills, it doesn't mean you're doing well. Just because you have a car and can take yourself to the grocery store to buy your shrink-wrapped meat and your packaged foods, it doesn't mean you are a self-made success. Some of you take offense at the president suggesting that "you didn't build" this or that proud accomplishment single-handedly. You think he impugns your hard work. Well I say: silence your egotistical minds! Don't you dare forget that not a single breath do you take without the complete existence and support of your world. In isolation, you are nothing. Not one of you is doing well. Your time to see that is rapidly drawing to a close."

We've turned off Kali's microphone for now because, you know, a little goes a long way. We can, though, put some of her comments in a useful context.

Recently, I was watching archive footage of a debate in 1980 between then-President Jimmy Carter and Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. (If you're wondering why, let me just say: it was late at night, it was one of those internet moments where A leads to B leads to C leads to...now how the heck did I end up here?  In this case, the reason was that I had read media portrayals of Romney's first debate performance as being Reagan-esque in its mastery, and I knew that Republican operatives have been trying to tar Obama as "worse than Carter." I wanted to revisit the actual debate between those two figures of the 70s and 80s, and understand how fair the comparison is.)

What Carter did in that debate -- and, in fact, what he had been doing even since a 1977 primetime TV address where he began, "I want to talk to you tonight about something unpleasant..." -- is to soberly and cogently discuss a point that no national candidate or office holder has attempted to make since. Carter informed the public that the American way of life, a standard of living based on consumption, material wealth, and convenience, had to come to an end. The same rate of growth could not be sustained into the future, if for no other reason than that the U.S. simply could not provide the amount of energy needed to power such a lifestyle at that scale, not without becoming hugely dependent on foreign fuel and/or decimating our environment.

If America had heeded Carter at the time, we would be well underway into a different future, based in equitability, environmental stewardship, thorough use of an extensive public transportation system; in short, we would more closely resemble some European countries today (Germany, Norway).

However, Carter's message was unpalatable for the public then, like it is now. It was not the vision of the country that soldiers in World War II had fought for, and returned home to, and they viewed it somehow as tied to failure to achieve objectives through detente with Russia and the Middle East, rather than being a positive, creative direction for our country to grow in. Reagan, his Republican challenger, certainly painted it that way. He took the "malaise" that Carter acknowledged existed in the U.S. at the time, and leveraged it into a referendum on Carter's record as president, rather than a moment of reckoning for the Western World's superpower.

Reagan promised the U.S. rampant growth, deregulation, a "morning in America" where a corporate comfort standard of living would trickle down to the rest of the population, and create a wealthy middle class that could indulge in the good life. These are the same promises that Mitt Romney is making now. Seen through a narrow lens, the strategy worked. However, social programs suffered tremendously under Reagan, a national debt was created that has never been paid down, and perhaps most importantly the environment was trashed.

Most of the global warming that has caused us to suffer the already catastrophic flooding and drought, resulting in 300,000 deaths a year (according to former U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan), and most of the warming that will increase in severity in the next 10 years, is due to carbon pollution from the 1980s onward. Yet, Congress and the Reagan administration were well aware of the risk from increasing greenhouse gases. It's just that the model of growth for our civilization that they heralded has no room to admit the fundamental limitations on that growth. The free market cannot put the brakes on the free market.

No presidential candidate (not even Al Gore) since then has ever suggested that the wealth of nations has reached its maximum in terms of exploiting natural resources, and that improvement in the quality of life from now on will have to come through intangible means, through valuable relationships, through cooperation, through appreciating our existence in wonder. This is the legacy of the Reagan years, when -- as far as the Earth is concerned -- human civilization turned decidedly in the exploitative direction, and began to flirt with mass extinction on Earth.

At this point, we have moved well past flirting into heavy petting. We are in a physically abusive relationship with the Earth. We use in one year what it takes the Earth one-and-half years to regrow (at a minimum). That, as the politicians are saying, is math. None of us, neither perpetrator nor abused, is doing well. We have to admit that our civilization has made a mistake when it elevated exponential growth as the paramount marker of success. To acknowledge this mistake is not to make a "war on coal," although it may well come to that, if the industry barons continue to plow ahead in their agenda to make coal integral to our energy stream, despite the opposition of a significant (and growing) part of the population. Acknowledging the mistake is to declare that we lost perspective -- it is the only rational, humble explanation for how we could be facing a 4 degree C rise in global temperature by 2050 and still persisting in the same behavior.

We must, as Kali says, be still, be quiet, let our maniacal obsession with growth die before we do ourselves, before everything we know is a memory.

(P.S. For those of you economy-minded folks, who really are concerned about debt and jobs, the highly respected (and impartial) International Energy Agency has published a report this year stating that investment in the alternative energy grid and power sources in these next ten years at the level needed to leave open the possibility that global average temperatures don't exceed a 2 degree C rise will generate USD 150 trillion savings over spending on fossil fuels by 2050, and would take us out of debt -- not just deficit, but debt -- by 2025.)

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