California's karmic debt to the world

The Golden State’s misdeeds, from genocides to resource extraction to car culture, have come back to haunt it

Published October 17, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Smoke from Southern California wildfires drifts through the L.A. Basin, obscuring downtown skyscrapers in a view from a closed Griffith Observatory on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Smoke from Southern California wildfires drifts through the L.A. Basin, obscuring downtown skyscrapers in a view from a closed Griffith Observatory on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Running after pleasure,
Thoughtless, careless
As a boy
Chasing a bird.
He ruins his people.

In the popular imagination, the Buddhist concept of karma is about personal decisions that create good or bad consequences: the actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. We say, "Don't do that, it's bad karma." But there is also a karma of the collective, a communal karma. Karma is the forms and conditions already present in the world in which we were born.

To be born into a racist/evangelical/gun-crazy/truck-driving community makes it extremely likely that you will be to some degree a racist/evangelical/gun-crazy/truck-driving individual. Similarly, being born into the moneyed, privileged world inhabited by the beautiful elite is likely to lead to the assumption that their abundant lives are just how things are and should be; after all, they're so beautiful, and so much smarter than the rest of us, a claim proven by the size of their bank accounts. Karma is the habits of mind that we are born into, live through, and then pass on to the next generation. Karma is the bubble we live in thinking that it is the ocean.

This way of understanding karma should seem familiar to us. The Western rough equivalent to karma is "ideology," the conceptual world we enter at birth and through which we come to know others and ourselves. As the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought, children come to consciousness by looking at whatever world is around them and thinking "I am that." (Notably, there is a book by Hindi master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj titled "I Am That.") We think, "I am this family, these friends, this work, these ambitions, these pleasures, these possessions, and, most importantly, these ideas and assumptions through which I conceive the world." But is it a good world? A bad world? That is not something that children are ready to consider, and by the time they are ready they are usually so thoroughly inhabited by the reasoning of the world-as-it-stands that self-reflection is no longer an option.

The karma of the collective is also close to what we more commonly call "culture." For California—home of the California Dream or Lifestyle—its culture has its own distinct qualities as well as its own karmic debts. The origins of California's karma are famous, which makes it all the more frustrating that they are not a more prominent part of the climate conversation that has been thrust upon us, especially in light of the devastating wildfires that have ravaged the state over the last four years. This karma seems to me like something that "everybody already knows," or should. In spite of that, let's recall these origins once more, this time noticing how they are interrelated.

California genocide: After the conquest of California in 1846, native peoples died of disease, starvation, and massacre, or served as slaves, all tolerated by state authorities. As Buffy Sainte Marie asked in her song "My Country 'tis of Thy People They're Dying" — her wicked-smart sendup of Samuel Francis Smith's "My Country 'tis of Thee" — "Where in your history books is the tale/Of the genocide basic to this country's birth?" Sweet land of liberty, indeed.

Standard Oil: Natives gone and property rights established on European terms, the Earth was readied for plunder: yellow gold first, and then black gold, the more consequential of the two. Oil seeps were discovered all over the state, in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties most productively. Commercial development began in the 1850s and grew prodigiously after the invention of the internal combustion engine at the end of the 19th century.

Hollywood: Hollywood didn't create glamour, but it made glamour a tradable commodity by marketing "celebrity" and the cult of celebrity. MGM. 20th Century Fox. For men like Louis B. Mayer and William Fox, the studio system was just another way to make a profit. Artists they were not. In Nathanael West's 1939 Hollywood novel "The Day of the Locust" (the locusts in question being, of course, we humans), his artist-protagonist Tod Hackett creates a painting that he titles, appropriately for present purposes, "The Burning of Los Angeles."

He wondered if he weren't exaggerating the importance of the people who come to California to die. Maybe they weren't really desperate enough to set a single city on fire, let alone the whole country.

Southern California has been catching fire for a long time, Santa Ana winds whipping flames through the canyons. West's insight was that the frenzy of the Hollywood glamour professions, and the lust for fame that they inspired, provided kindling for self-immolation: vanity, greed, and indifference to others.

Fast Food and Shopping Malls: When the Buddha was asked, "What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it the most?" he replied, "The hunger to eat the world." California has been taking great mouthfuls of the world for most of the last two centuries, and yet claiming the innocence of eating a 19¢ burger and fries at Hamburger Handout, Culver City, 1958. Of course, there was never anything innocent about that burger because in twenty-first century America over half of the adult population is obese or morbidly obese, a fact that has exposed a new kind of violence for profit. [CW1] 

As for shopping malls, not much needs to be said, especially since they're all either dead or dying. Their place has been taken by something out of "Star Wars": galactic fleets of delivery trucks bringing Amazon's apocalyptic cornucopia to our front doors. For California, and everywhere that the California lifestyle has penetrated, which is close to everywhere, nothing is ever enough—even everything is not enough. Just ask the nearest billionaire.

Sprawl and Commuting: I grew up in San Lorenzo, California, a post-war "Vet Village" of ready-made homes, some assembly required. These houses were not so much made as delivered. San Lorenzo was at the origin of the California Method of pre-fab, assembly line homebuilding. Levittown is better known, but it took its manufacturing principles from California. In the 1950s, inexpensive "cottages" sprang up all over the Bay Area, providing what folksinger Malvina Reynolds called "little boxes made of ticky-tacky." I listened to that song many times in the early sixties on KSFO and never once thought she was singing about my home, but she was.

Along with the little boxes came an ever more expansive highway system through which workers commuted to city jobs and created something new in the world: epic traffic jams. These days, even five lanes in both directions is not enough. The more lanes that are built, the bigger the traffic jams, the larger the waste of fuel, the greater the air pollution, and the bigger the contribution of CO2 to a rapidly warming planet. All of that petroleum-sourced energy expended one day after another over the last century has helped to drive the monstrous wildfires that now destroy not only forests but also the suburbs and gated subdivisions that still claim to be part of the California Dream. This year we learned that even major cities are at risk. In Portland, Oregon, the fires came up to the city limits. Hundreds of miles up the coast on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, I breathed the smoke from those fires and so did the people of Chicago. From a Buddhist perspective, California's karma has ripened, or, in the vernacular, its chickens have come home to roost.

* * *

Needless to say, this audit of California's Karma is done in very broad strokes, and there are important things that I'm leaving out—like the ongoing horror of factory farming in the San Joaquin Valley, or Silicon Valley's roles in surveillance, gentrification and resource extraction—but this is a good approximation of the world that I was born into and took for settled reality when I was growing up, the aura of which lingers to this day. The single tenet of California Karma was and remains "if you can make money from violence, go ahead and be violent"—violence against people, violence against the Earth, and violence against the future. The larger karmic reality, of which California's karma is a very elaborate variation, is money.

It's like the story that Frederick Engels tells in "The Condition of the Working Class in England." He recalls remonstrating with a worthy "bourgeois" on a street corner in Manchester. Engels complained of the sordid and unhealthy conditions in which the working class lived. To which the bourgeois replied, "And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good morning, sir."

Of course, there are in California many currents that run contrary to this karma, most of them indebted to the '60s counterculture, our most recent attempt to imagine life after money: livable (carless) streets, more centralized communities, sustainable local agriculture, food and work co-ops, alternative spiritual traditions, and political cultures that are more than techie slogans and really do "think different."  But these ideals are more wishlist than reality, because California is still one of the largest oil producers in the country (12 million barrels per month), still prefers suburban and rural over centralized living, still has massive commuter traffic issues in SoCal and the Bay Area, and, like everywhere else in the country, still prefers trucks and SUVs to hybrid and electric vehicles, and certainly prefers them to riding a bicycle — even a fancy e-bike.

In the end, "California" is just a word for the shameful and self-destructive political economy of the Western world, beginning with the Roman Emperor Augustus's discovery that paying soldiers with money (a "donative") rather than with booty was a more efficient way to use violence for political and economic ends. We live in a world that money has made. Money could make and remake the world again and again, into infinity, and this is the world it would make. Every time.

California slowly fashioned its karma and then exported it to the rest of the world with astonishing profit. What the Earth is saying brusquely and unmistakably in reply to this dubious achievement is, "Reimagine what it means to be human or die." That may seem like a fantasy, but, once again, it should be familiar. We have been called by both Nietzsche and the Buddha to "become who we really are." Marx, too, has urged us to consider that under capitalism we are not who we really are. We are "alienated" from our true nature (what he called, awkwardly, "species being"). Crucially, these three thinkers would not have bothered with their critiques of the world-as-it-stands if they didn't also believe that we are capable of radical transcendence, or, as Nietzsche taught his free spirits, "self-overcoming."

Transcendence is real. It is part of what is, just as climate change and coronaviruses are part of what is. We will discover our true nature in one of two ways: we will either continue to live in delusion until the moment nears ruin, at which point we will stop caring about our private pleasures if for no other reason than that they will no longer be available to us. This is roughly what the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith meant when he wrote, "Delusion will last until it is about to become fatal, at which point an onset of sanity is certain." This is the "ashes, ashes, all fall down" version of the future. Or we can stop conspiring in our own defeat and begin to live as if others—other people and animals, the world, the cosmos—are what we are and that that matters more than our pleasures, our entertainments, our things, or the next cappuccino.

One of my favorite projects for radical transcendence, for good karma, is Sacred Mountain Sangha founded by the dharma teachers Thanissara and her husband Kittisaro, and located in Sonoma County, California. Thanissara likes to tell a story about her first meeting with her teacher, the Thai master Ajahn Chah. His first words to Thanissara changed the direction of her life. He asked, simply, "Have you had enough?" Enough chasing experience, enough money lust, enough craving, or, as Aeschylus understood, enough running after pleasure and ruining your people?

California, my home, have you had enough?

By Curtis White

Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent book is "Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse," published by Melville House.

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California Commentary Genocide Gentrification Indigenous Peoples Karma Silicon Valley Wildfires