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The Mandate of Heaven

The eastern version of our western divine right of kings was the Chinese Mandate of Heaven.  Let us consider its framework and apply it to our current king of sorts, King George.  I do this, not in a partisan way, but towards loving our country, all humanity, and earth.

The Chou, a somewhat crude but ambitious crew, defeated the Shang in 1115 B.C., beginning one of the longest dynasties in Chinese history (1115-221 B.C.)   In order to convince their subject peoples, especially the nobles, of the legitimacy of their power, the Chou invented a new system of authority which they called t’ien ming, or “the Mandate of Heaven.”  The Chou defined the kingship as an intermediary position between heaven and earth.  Heaven (“t’ien”) desires that humans be provided for in all their needs, and the emperor, according to the idea of “t’ien ming” is appointed by heaven to see to the welfare of the people.   If the emperor or king, having fallen into selfishness and corruption, fails to see to the welfare of the people, heaven withdraws its mandate and invests it in another.

In the twelfth month of the first year, Yi Yin sacrificed to the former [Shang] king, and presented the [Chou] heir-king reverently before the shrine of his grandfather. Yi Yin clearly described the complete virtue of the Meritorious Ancestor for the instruction of the young king.  He said,

“Of old, the former kings of Xia cultivated earnestly their virtue, and then there were no calamities from Heaven. The spirits of the hills and rivers alike were all in tranquility; and the birds and beasts, the fishes and tortoises, all enjoyed their existence according to their nature. But their descendant did not follow their example, and great Heaven sent down calamities. Our king of Shang had brilliantly displayed his sagely prowess; for oppression he substituted his generous gentleness; and the millions of the people gave him their hearts. Now your Majesty is entering on the inheritance of his virtue; — all depends on how you commence your reign. The commencement is in the family and the state.  To set up love, it is for you to love your relations; to set up respect, it is for you to respect your elders…..

“Oh! do you, who now succeed to the throne, revere these warnings in your person. Think of them! — sacred counsels of vast importance, admirable words forcibly set forth! Do you but be virtuous, be it in small things or in large, and the myriad regions will have cause for rejoicing. If you will not be virtuous, be it in large things or in small, it will bring the ruin of your ancestral temple.  The ways of Heaven are not invariable: — on the good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down all miseries.”

The Mandate of Heaven is based on four principles:

  1. The right to rule is granted by Heaven.
  2. There is only one Heaven, therefore there can be only one ruler.
  3. The right to rule is based on the virtue of the ruler.
  4. The right to rule is not limited to one dynasty.

What are the positive and negatives sides to the Mandate of Heaven for a dynasty?

  1. It gives the ruler supreme power, prestige and religious importance.
  2. It allows a new ruler to gain power quickly because everyone believes he has the ‘Mandate of Heaven’.
  3. The ruler’s power must be kept in check by virtue.
  4. It justifies rebellion as long as the rebellion is successful.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

As I remember learning of the Mandate of Heaven in a survey course on Chinese history, the familiar notion of the king being an intermediary between heaven and the good health and fortune of the people was augmented by certain signs.  When the people were fed, fit, and happy, the weather was reliable, and all was well between heaven, earth, and the ruler, he had the Mandate of Heaven to rule.  When society had grown too bureaucratic, cumbersome and corrupt, and draughts, storms and other natural disasters struck, they were seen as a sign from on high to pass the mandate to a new ruler.

Humans are prone to reading meaning into the tea leaves in the bottom of the cup, the winners of sports events, and the weather.  It is easy to read causal connections into random events.  Do we undermine reason by resorting to synchronicity?  I think not, if we keep rationality active while noticing meaningful coincidences and by thinking of the causal connections that do exist in otherwise random events.

For instance, it would be a cheap shot to connect the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle over Texas in 2003 with President Bush.  Just because it split apart over his home state doesn’t mean he caused it or that we should blame him for it.

However, when four major hurricanes swept through Florida the next year we began to wonder if Mother Nature was trying to send us signs.  Is this superstitious magical thinking?  Should we ignore this as random coincidence?  Perhaps, for Florida has had many hurricanes over the centuries.  The issues are — how normal are these storms, what trends do they point to, what are we doing to make them worse, and who is in charge?  I’m surprised more people didn’t make the connections.

Then, during the presidential campaign, a miracle sign came through that we still didn’t heed.  Against all odds, Boston won the World Series!  Heaven reached in beyond the realm of physics to hand the Democrats a miraculous sign.  Candidate Kerry was from Boston, yet didn’t take advantage of that rare opportunity.  It is of course silly to think because Boston won God favored Kerry to Bush, but that’s the sort of edge smart people can use when rounding up shallow votes in a close race.

While the Democrats let that advantage slip away, the Republicans were busy taking it.  The sneaky dealings of the 2000 election and the blatant black boxes of the 2004 have added to a deep distrust of our electoral process and the current government.  The mandate that George W. Bush assumed was not bequeathed by about half the voters.  We suspect we have a phony government, putting on a media show in order to continue a private, pernicious agenda.  What does it say about our society that so many are willing to consider whether 911 could have been an inside job, a fake Pearl Harbor used to justify distant wars and domestic repression?

Then, Katrina.  Initially aimed at Texas, it veered slightly to impact New Orleans, devastating most of that poor, low-lying community, along with many others along the Gulf coast.  It almost hit our oil refineries head on.  What’s the message here?  Is this Nature’s initially feeble way of striking back?  What should we do with the negative mandate implied?  Is there meaning in the madness of a tremendous storm?


I think there is.  These storms are signs from God, warnings.  We have got to address the way we live.  Protecting the ego of a president, no matter how big, is not as important as the health of our entire planet.  The signs may not be miracles, but they’re markers, the likely results of our flippant toying with the weather.

It used to be we seemed small in a huge garden of unlimited scope and resources.  The New World opened hope and abundance as if endless until we reached the west coast.  Despite a recent war run by a general named Westmoreland, there was no west more land.  The limitless forests were limited.  The fertile soil was exhaustible.  The boundless oceans were contained and rapidly exploited.  The single volume of air we all share was changeable.  Like crude men leaving their mark by missing the mark while peeing then leaving it for others, we swept from Europe to Asia, always leaving our mess behind.  We blunder into vast and delicate systems (air, water, soil, genes) with all the sophistication of surgeons wielding shotguns.  We use scientists to put the guns together, then mock them when they point out what a clumsy mess they make.

Of the 928 atmospheric scientists who have devoted their professional lives to studying the long-term swings of global temperature, none of them thinks global warming doesn’t exist, and 75% believe it has already begun.  They remind us, of the last two million years the temperature has swung wildly.  Although it has usually been much colder than it is today, it has only rarely been warmer.  Worse, these spikes in temperature conclude a warm inter-glaciated period can precipitate a sudden swing into another glacial period.  In other words, global warming can trigger global freezing.  Whereas a warm period like we’ve had for some 15,000 years can return, it usually takes over 100,000 years of glaciation from freezing before it does.

From the ancient extinctions of the seven hundred pound saber-toothed cats and fifteen foot tall mastodons here in North America at the start of the Holocene era to the lovely butterflies of Costa Rica going extinct, we are confronted with the reality of widespread death due to a change in weather.  There have been twenty ice ages in the last two million years, the last maxing out about 19,000 years ago.  We have been enjoying the shy end of the ratio between warm and frozen, about 1:10.  From New England to the Midwest, ice a mile thick is more the norm.

At the end of the last ice age and the start of our Holocene period, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our air stood at 260 parts per million.  This carried us through the start of agriculture, the beginnings of cities, and all we think of as historical civilization.  In the 19th century coal burning raised CO2 to 300 PPM over about a hundred years.  By 1965 it was 320 PPM and in 2005 it was 378.  If we continue as we are, by 2100 we’ll reach from 500-750 PPM, three times the historic pre-industrial stable level.  We have the highest CO2 we’ve ever known, and new CO2 lasts a hundred years.

1990 was the warmest year on record since records had been kept, that is, until 1991, equally as hot.  Almost every year since than has been hotter.  The Kilinailau Islands have already been inundated with rising seawater.  Nearly every glacier in the world is shrinking.  The oceans are warmer and more acidic.  The Artic is melting.  The permafrost from Alaska to Siberia, running from two hundred to two thousand feet thick, is thawing, releasing another greenhouse gas, methane.  Alaska is seeing melts of permafrost frozen for a hundred and twenty thousand years.  The formerly reflective white polar caps are growing darker as land emerges, absorbing more heat from the sunlight, changing the albedo effect from reflective to warming.

In the Eemian warm spell that preceded our last ice age, the sea rose 15 feet higher than it is today.   Not only would this drown New Orleans, but Miami, New York, Calcutta, and so forth.  That is, if it didn’t trigger a sudden reversion to another ice age.  In the last century, sea level has risen about a half a foot.

One would think we should value and protect our reliable patterns of weather.  All of human history has emerged in this last inter-glacial period.  Every bit of our prosperity is dependent on its continuing in familiar ways.  We exist comfortably twixt the deadly extremes of ice and fire.  Blue skies and soft seasons nourish and enfold us, yet we taunt their end with flippant and arrogant irresponsibility.

One would think conservatives would conserve reliable weather if they could.  They could help do this, but seem instead to conserve only the right of the wealthy to their profits.  As Bob Dylan sang in his “Masters of War,” “… you play with our world like it’s your little toy.”  Ronald Reagan tore the solar panels off the White House as soon as he got there.  George Bush (and companies) refuses to sign the Kyoto Accords designed to slow the rate of global warming, and Bush won’t participate in setting up the new round of those accords, due in 2012.  Elizabeth Kolbert, in her excellent reporting on these issues in the New Yorker, says if we don’t move to meaningful agreement for that year, “…the world will have missed what may well be its last opportunity to alter course.”  “Such is the nature of global warming that the problem is always further along than it seems,” she says, “to continue delay is not to put off catastrophe but, rather, to rush towards it.”  (The New Yorker, Dec. 12, 2005)

Hurricanes form from warm waters.  2005 had the most hurricanes of any year in known history.  Most of these will strike in the northern hemisphere.  I helped patch up a house after the first of the four in Florida.  Thousands of houses were torn apart.

Carbon dioxide in the air insulates our atmosphere, blanketing the heat back down on us.  When we run the engines of our industry, transport, and housing, it adds to the carbon in the air.  The weight of a tank of gas goes somewhere; it doesn’t lose much in the running of the car, but transfers the molecules upward.  A typical midsized car that might weigh 8000 pounds has emitted over 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide just in its manufacture and delivery.  Then it emits its weight in carbon dioxide into the air for each year it runs (on average).  In 2003, the average household produced 12.4 tons of carbon dioxide from its household operations and approximately 11.7 tons from its automotive uses.  Our gasoline is 44% less expensive than Europe’s and, not surprisingly, our cars are 50% less fuel-efficient than theirs.  Our Bush/Cheny government even credited back to consumers much of the cost of huge SUV’s if they managed to weigh more than 8,000 pounds.  The policy is to subsidize our gas to hide its cost, then encourage us to buy and use the most wasteful machines we make.

In 2003, the average American household produced 12.4 tons of carbon dioxide from its household operations and approximately 11.7 tons from its automotive uses.  This is six times the household average of the other industrialized nations.  The US comprises about 4% of the earth’s population, but emits about 25% of the total global greenhouse gases. About 12% of total greenhouse gas emissions result from just growing, preparing and shipping our food. About 6% of emissions derive from the delivery of medical services to consumers alone.  Everything we have come to assume depends on processes that put lots of CO2 into our global air.

Our recent government has done everything it can to ignore the problem and to make it worse.  It substitutes a shallow sanctimony over serious sensibility.  It caters to our worst wastes.  It allies itself with its crudest members.  This last week I saw a huge pickup truck with a “God Bless America” sticker on it idling outside the grocery store, its driver having picked up some milk, standing there talking for ten minutes while the engine ran.  The small cars so popular in Europe aren’t even known about in our country, much less available.  We waste hapless Iraqis on the other side of the world in order to keep wasting gas on this.  We collude in insolently insulting and injuring Mother Nature.

There is much our government could do, were it to see itself as “us, taking care of ourselves and our world.”  We could put progressive taxes and insurance rates on the size and weight of our vehicles.  We could modify our traffic laws to stop wasting gas at most stop signs and lights (by changing from “you must stop” to “stop if you must”).  We could develop small, light weight around-town vehicles and leave our cars for high speed, long distance, heavy weight travel.  We could hire scores of manufactures and millions of carpenters to retrofit every suitable house and building to be solar smart, taking advantage of the sure systems of light and shade for our electricity, heat, and cooling.  We could promote the worldwide switch to sustainable forestry, always growing more wood than we take towards repairing our planet’s shade and carbon absorption.  We could learn to live better than we do now by following our heart and ethics regarding all our energy systems, veering them to non-polluting, sustainable mechanisms.  We could lead the world with innovative, practical examples that save our planet and serve its well-being in a way utterly counterpart to our current glut and waste.  Everything we do should be done with not just the enjoyment and economics in mind, but the ethics as well.

Individuals can and should adjust their energy habits.  But they should go beyond their little change to direct their government to creatively and responsibly participate in the larger change our world needs.

The current government thinks it has a mandate from God and the people.  I’d say that mandate was squandered and it is clear that God, Nature, and the people know it should be given to only those willing to protect our world’s weather.  From starting illegal, immoral wars to global warming to the deliberate insertion of suicide genes into our world’s food supply, the current rulers have shown themselves to be utterly criminal.  Their mandate has expired and turned on them.  They have earned their own ouster.  To let them continue is to violate all the larger laws that govern our existence.  This goes beyond partisan politics to our very survival.


Reverend Brad Carrier

For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass

May 7, 2006

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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