John Believer’s Prophecy

The Fool in the Tarot de Marseilles

When I was a college freshman in Oregon, a bearded fellow in a long black coat would sometimes harangue the crowds in the quad at lunch time. He’d bring a box to stand on and a Bible to wave. He called himself John Believer.

This was the late 60’s and though he tried for hell and brimstone, I think he’d done too much acid to pull it off. Out of his sometimes interesting theological mishmash, one of his ideas stuck with me and resonated with teachings I would hear later from two spiritual masters.

John Believer said the spiritual center of earth was right there in Oregon, (that’s why he’d moved north from Berkeley), but we should expect trouble. The spiritual center is always on the move, he explained, and it was about to head back to the orient. During it’s long Pacific crossing, humanity would experience an age of darkness.

In May, 1940, the Hindu master, Paramahansa Yogananda, gave one of several lectures predicting a coming time of travail for humanity.  The transcript of the May talk  is available as a pamphlet, World Crisis, published by Self-Realization Fellowship. Seventy-seven years ago, Yogananda said:

“A great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America, I see one beautiful sign; that no mater what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It’s not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.” (emphasis added)

Yogananda predicted that though the darkness would last several centuries and even threaten the future of life on the planet, it would likely pass and usher in a time of spiritual growth for humanity. Continue reading

The Hungry Ghosts of Washington

Hungry Ghost Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c.

There are six realms of being in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Two of these, the human and the animal realms, are visible to our senses. The other four are not. Because all these regions are part of samsara, the world of “original ignorance,” (rather than original sin), even the apparently pleasant places are characterized by suffering, because, to quote the song by Iris Dement, “nothing good ever lasts.” We suffer until we learn to see through our illusions and delusions.

Traditional Buddhists regard the four non-physical regions as subtle astral planes where, just like the physical regions, beings sojourn for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on karma. It is possible to read them inwardly, as archetypal situations as well. Among the “lower realms,” where you don’t want to go, are the hell realms, where the dominant emotion is anger. Violent actions driven by anger can project beings into these regions after this life, yet when we see a person, or ourselves, seething with anger – red in the face, trembling, on the edge of violence, we see what a hell-being looks like, right then, without going anywhere else.

“Hungry ghosts” live in a world of insatiable craving, appetites that can never be satisfied. In eastern iconography, they are pictured with huge, distended bellies and tiny mouths that can never eat or drink enough. This is the realm of addiction, to anything or everything. In western art, Hieronymus Bosch shows us what hungry ghosts look like:

From “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

We all have a sense of the ravages of addiction to food, drugs, or alchohol. In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef says that life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. Some addictions will land you in jail. Some will win you applause. Some, like addiction to money and power can win you a seat in congress.

Beyond all the rationale, couched in economic terms and political rhetoric, there’s a greed that drives our current political strife that is an insatiable craving for wealth that can never be satisfied. When we read of American oligarchs trying to strip healthcare from millions for tax cuts for people who don’t even need it, remember this image of their inner nature:

Hungry Ghost, Japanese.

What are the odds that such beings can do anything good for their fellows or for the planet?

Changes

2x2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

2×2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

Almost four years ago, I posted Change is the Only Constant, a discussion of the December, 2012 report of the National Intelligence Council, a consortium of the 16 major U.S. intelligence agencies. Since 1997, they have issued comprehensive reports on future trends after each presidential election and posted the reports online. We can expect the next installment this winter.

The 2012 edition, which predicts alternate futures for the year 2030, outlines some things that are certain, like aging populations in the developed world; some which are possible, and some “black swans” – potential surprises for good or ill. Here are two key predictions.

  • The rate of change in all areas of life will continue to accelerate and will be faster than anything anyone living has seen.
  • World population will grow from 7.1 billion (in 2012) to 8.3 billion in 2030. Demand for food will increase 35% and for water by 40%.

Keep this in mind as we look at a some current events.  I should preface these comments by saying I’ve long had a rule of thumb: never trust a politician who says, “I have a plan to create jobs.” Both presidential candidates have said those exact words this year.

The fantasy is that by pulling the right levers – cutting or raising taxes, threatening or cajoling China, building a wall at our southern border, and so on, we can restore whatever American golden age our imagination conjures. Maybe the 50’s, when we were the only industrial nation not ravaged by WWII. Maybe the 90’s dot com boom, when even your Starbucks barista had stock tips to share.

We all know that’s not going to happen. The truth is even harder to face than any elected or would-be elected American official has yet been willing to share.

On May 16, the BBC reported that China’s Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, where Apple and Samsung smart phones are made, replaced 60,000 workers with robots.  Chinese manufacturers are investing heavily in robotics. So much for bringing jobs back from China.

For an article in the August 1 issue of Time, (“What to do about jobs that are never coming back”), Rana Foroohar spoke to Andy Stern, a former head of the Service Employees International Union:  “Stern tells a persuasive story about a rapidly emerging economic order in which automation and ever smarter artificial intelligence will make even cheap foreign labor obsolete and give rise to a society that will be highly productive–except at creating new jobs. Today’s persistently stagnant wages and rageful political populism are early signs of the trouble this could generate.”

In a Common Dreams article published last week,  You Can’t Handle the Truth,  Richard Heinberg, steps back for a much longer view of our situation and says:

“We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

“And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

“All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

“All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)”

“…any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast. Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution.” (emphasis added)

The last major decline of empires, he notes, resulted in World War I. The US and the rest of the world are, in Heinberg’s words, “sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm.”

“…Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

“I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

“But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation…”

Heinberg’s conclusions aren’t easy to digest, and are tempting to deny. Keeping attention on even a few of the significant points in the articles referenced here leads to disturbing conclusions.

If 16 US Intelligence agencies are anywhere near correct in their numbers, in 14 years, 8.3 billion people will be competing for 40% less water and 35% less food (in this case, living up to their name, the intelligence agencies don’t waste anyone’s time denying the effects of climate change).

Can we imagine “global efforts at resource conservation” in which nations co-operate, and at least try to send relief where it’s needed?  Like after tsunamis or the earthquake in Nepal? Or are we headed toward a survivalist wet dream?  Futures aren’t set in stone, said the NIA. It all depends on how we behave (sinking feeling in the gut…).

I can see it both ways. Speaking of our current election, someone recently said to me, “I haven’t felt this bad about things since 9/11. Maybe it’s even worse.”  Maybe so. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were a nation and a world largely united in awareness of our fragile humanity and revulsion at senseless suffering.

It strikes me that communities often pull together in the face of disaster when our leaders and governments won’t. That is Heinberg’s conclusion as well. Given our lack of competent leadership at the top, how can we build “local community resilience?”

I wish I knew. But since Iceland has more sense than to open it’s doors to American refugees, I’ll have time to think it over!  Meanwhile this quote from the Dalai Lama comes to mind:

“We can live without rituals. And we can live without religion. But we cannot live without kindness to each other.”

Changes are certain but futures aren’t set in stone…

The Devil’s Sooty Brothers

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett

“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.

Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.

Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down?  Maybe…

These stories have elements in common:

  1. The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
  2. They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
  3. They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.

I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life.  If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell. Continue reading

The Big Lie

“The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one” – Adolf Hitler

I crossed the green mountain / I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head / I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up / Out of the sea
Swept through the land of / The rich and the free” – Bob Dylan

In their wildest dreams, demagogues of the past never imagined how easy television and social media would make it to use lies as means of persuasion. We can all quote our favorite absurdities from the political arena, but no one relies on the power of falsehood more effectively than the current Republican front runner and former star of a type of television that large numbers of people mistake for “reality.” The efforts of so called “fact checkers” are doomed from the start; studies have repeatedly shown that rational argument is the least effective means of persuading anyone of anything.

The lie that prompted me to write this post hasn’t yet caught media attention, but it’s one we’re likely to hear quoted more frequently as the election circus continues.

It goes like this:  “China is stealing our jobs.” The reality is, “Corporations are offshoring them for profit.”

A decade ago, when I worked at the Intel campus in Folsom, I took a half hour walk every day on my lunch hour. When it was too hot or cold or rainy, I’d walk inside, through through seven interconnected buildings, up one flight of stairs, down another, and so on. One day I noticed that an entire floor in one of the four story buildings was empty. “What happened?” I asked a manager. “Those jobs have moved to Shanghai,” he said.

I’ve had relatives and friends in different industries compelled to train their Asian replacements in order to get a severance package. A decade later it’s still going on. Beware of any politician with “a plan to create jobs” or who blames illegals from Mexico for out-of-work software developers.

This is old news. I’ve already discussed it in 2013, in a review of The Unwinding by George Packer, an account of the dissolution of the bonds of mutual loyalty that once seemed an integral part of corporate life in America. I mention it now because one of the friends with whom I ate Thanksgiving dinner this year recently saw his job move to India after a buyout.

My hero in this is a 40 something software developer named Bob who outsourced his own job to Shanghai. Working through an outsourcing company, he paid his Chinese counterpart one-sixth of his salary, spent his days surfing the web, especially cat videos, and occasionally introduced errors into the near-perfect code he received, lest his employer, Verizon, get suspicious.

When the story broke, a Verizon spokesperson simply said “Bob no longer works here.”  Too bad – he’d be a great fit in upper management.

“You can take my soul, but not my lack of enthusiasm!” – Wally, in Dilbert.

 

Socially Responsible Purchasing Power

Here’s some nice info to pass on. I’m already a fan of Paul Newman salad dressings and popcorn, and it’s great to hear of garments made in America once again. I like the idea of socially responsible funds too, though once when I looked at them (sometime ago) I discovered they trailed index funds in their returns. Many things have changed since then, but you’ll want to investigate or check with a financial advisor. At any rate, it’s great to hear of opportunities to shop with conscience.

Guhyasamaja Center Blog

It’s human nature to want to buy stuff…more and more stuff. That being said, why not try to buy from socially responsible companies? Many companies donate a percentage of their sales to charity (for example, Paul Newman’s company has donated over $400 million to charities since 1982 from the sale of grocery items.

A new company, Fed By Threads, specializes in Made-In-America organic ethical vegan clothing that feeds 12 emergency meals to hungry Americans via foodbanks per item sold. The company’s founders, Jade Beall and Alok Appurdurai, created the company when they learned about the tremendous suffering that sheep, silkworms, cows, goats and other animals experience in the production of clothing. They also are firm believers in paying fare wages to garment workers and in keeping these jobs in America.

Also, the number of socially responsible / sustainable investment mutual funds has grown over the years. Some lend money…

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Robots ‘R Us, installment 2

The Steam Man of the Prairies, 1868.  Public Domain.

The Steam Man of the Prairies, 1868. Public Domain.

An obscure author, Edward S. Ellis, who published a dime novel called The Steam Man of the Prairies 145 years ago, may prove to have been a visionary according to two recent news articles.

The first, in the New York Times, reports that Google quietly acquired seven robotics companies over the last six months (Google Puts Money on Robots).  The scale of the investment is huge and appears to be aimed at automating manufacturing processes.  “The opportunity is massive,” chirped Andrew McAfee, an M.I.T. research scientist.  “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

The second article I noticed bears an uncanny relation to the cover of  The Steam Man.  The California DMV has set rules for companies aiming to test automated cars (Driverless Cars Could be Cruising California Roads by Spring).  To put it in the terms of the M.I.T scientist, we may soon be able to robotize trucks and remove even more inefficient humans from the workforce.

The problem with this manufacturer’s wet dream should be obvious.  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton puts it simply: “the economy remains lousy for most people. It will likely remain that way: As technology and globalization take over the economy, the U.S. has no national strategy for creating more good jobs in America.” (The True Price of Great Holiday Deals).

Economic discussion, with few exceptions, focuses on how to get back to the good old days of (relatively) full employment and opportunity for those who work hard.  Politicians bicker over which levers to pull, but no one dares to ask the fundamental question: has the structure of the world economy changed too much to recapture that particular sort of past “good times?”

A few years ago, news got out of worker mistreatment at Foxconn, the huge Chinese assembly plant where much of our high-tech gear is assembled.  Foxconn agreed to reforms, and the CEO announced plans to deploy a million robots.  By December 2011, robotic arms had reduced the number of workers on certain assembly lines from “20 or 30 down to 5.”  As we argue over fair wages for fast food workers, it’s a good bet their employers are working on ways to automate the task of making a burger, which can’t be harder than plugging components into a motherboard.

The problem, of course, is that downsized workers will not be buying either Happy Meals or iPhones.

Last March, in a post called Robots ‘R Us (?), a first look at such issues, I quoted a blogger named Orkinpod who was already considering them in depth.  On Feb. 27 he said:  “When the future arrives (and I believe that it is very, very close), and machines can supply all the things that humans could possibly ever want, what is everybody going to do?”

One thing many may wind up doing is working on food production.  Last summer I wrote of a compelling PBS NewsHour series, “Food for 9 Billion” (1).  That’s the total number of hungry humans who will occupy the planet in 2050 as the amount of arable land continues to shrink.  One of several examples given of coming change was Singapore, where five million people live on an island with only 240 acres of undeveloped land.  A 50 year old Singapore engineer developed a revolutionary type of vertical greenhouse that prompted the Directer of the National Institute of Education to say, “I think, eventually, urban factories for vegetable production will take the place of electronic factories in Singapore.”

It’s a grand irony to reflect that industrialism, which began by channeling people out of agriculture, may have succeeded too well; its end game my involve shifting some of them back into food production again.  But what about everyone else?  What happens as robotics and marvels like 3D printers leave ever more people idle?  Insiders aren’t even asking the question, though science fiction writers have since the mid 20th century.

robot3

Unfortunately, in stories where humans go up against robots, the outcomes are usually not the ones we would like to see.

Pope Francis on Economic Justice

Pope Francis

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” – Pope Francis (1)

On Tuesday, Pope Francis delivered a sharp rebuke of unfettered capitalism as “idolatry of money” that will lead to “a new tyranny.” (2)  His language was specifically directed at those in the United States who continue to defend “trickle-down economics,” which he said “has never been confirmed by the facts, [and] expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

“Meanwhile,” he said, “the excluded are still waiting.”

President Obama said he was “hugely impressed with the pope’s pronouncements.”  Nevertheless, on Wednesday, the US announced it will close its Vatican embassy as a “cost saving measure.” (3)  The seven embassy staffers will be retained, just moved beyond the borders of Vatican City, which is the world’s smallest sovereign nation.

Republican senators, many of whom still advocate the trickle-down policies the pope condemned, were quick to denounce the administration’s move as “a slap in the face to Catholic Americans around the country.”

Though I’m not a Catholic, I find myself deeply grateful on this day of thanks, for the current Vicar of Christ.  When politicians of all persuasions spend most of their time defending an increasingly dysfunctional status quo, it is refreshing and marvelous to find a world leader willing to speak the truth.