Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Barbaric Heart

If you only buy one book this holiday season, make it Curtis White's
The Barbaric Heart. Not an overly optimistic screed by any stretch of the imagination, it is, nonetheless, an edifying, inspiring, and ultimately hopeful analysis of the crumbling American empire.

White, an avowed conservationist, takes on the modern environmental movement in this book, claiming that it "uses [the] rhetoric and logic of the very entities [it] suspects of causing problems in the first place" in its crusade to "save the environment." Those entities, argues White, may indeed include corporate polluters, overzealous loggers, and money-snatching politicians. But the real problem is not these individual villains--and there are many; Dick Cheney, Joseph Coors, and James G. Watt come immediately to mind--but with the prevailing ethos of our society, a spirit White calls "the Barbaric Heart." Permeating nearly every aspect of American culture--sports, politics, entertainment, media--the Barbaric Heart pursues profit by any means necessary, using advertising and PR on the one hand and brutal violence on the other. This warrior spirit has pervaded even the environmental movement, using the cold logic of science to try and corral the Barbaric Heart, to convince it to "act better." This, White makes clear, is a fundamentally losing proposition. "Science can tell you that global warming puts the polar bear at risk," White explains. "But it can't tell you why you should care."

According to White, the alternative to an environmental revolution, of the kind argued for by barbarians-in-disguise like Al Gore and Thomas Friedman, is an
aesthetic revolution: a revolution against the values of science--which, after nearly two hundred years as the reigning intellectual system, has left us dominated by corporations and technocrats and bereft of communal or spiritual instincts--toward the values of art, philosophy, and spirituality.

"In some ways, the most fitting description of the liberal economist is the economist as lyricist," White writes. "The liberal economist answers the question 'what's the economy for?' not with 'profit' but with 'aesthetics.' The true liberal economist is less interested in spreading purchasing power (as with recent consumer-based economic stimulus programs) than in creating a vibrant public sphere through public works programs. In a world where high quality public education, attractive parks, affordable housing, clean and efficient public transit, free libraries, accessible wilderness areas, and rich cultural opportunities are all available through programs beginning with the state and paid for through progressive taxation, even the poor can live rich, dignified, and healthy lives...According to this point of view, the economy should function to make the human world beautiful, pleasurable, and harmonious with the natural world."

The environmental movement itself, according to White, is something of a mistake. If we are to make real progress, "environmentalism" should exist only as one component of a broader, more comprehensive revolution, addressing the ways human beings treat themselves in addition to the way they treat their world.

1 comment:

  1. Love what you write about "The Barbaric Heart," a book I'd like to read but probably won't because I'm too slow a reader and because the capitalist system of the day has me working too hard and not living enough. I agree with much of what you say in summary, especially how our societal values need to shift distinctly away from the profit motive and profit ideal and distinctly toward the motive and ideal of "the common good": clean water, good food, respect for intelligence and creativity, libraries, parks, the sharing rather than the hoarding of wealth. What I doubt is that science is to blame. Like religion, science can be used for good or for ill. We need to change our minds and start using science, religion--and government--for the common good. That's why we're here.