[Reprinted with permission from Orion. In this intellectually challenging piece, Curtis White argues that that the present crisis will not be resolved by capitalist or technological achievements that have landed us in this predicament – but rather that our desire for aesthetic and spiritual beauty will be our guiding solutions. His latest, The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Natureis out now, from PoliPoint Press]
There is a fundamental question that environmentalists are not very good at asking, let alone answering: “Why is this, the destruction of the natural world, happening?” We ordinarily think of environmentalists as people who care about something called nature or (if they’re feeling a little technocratic, and they usually are) the “environment.” They are concerned, as well they should be, that the lifestyle and economic practices of the industrialized West are not sustainable, and that nature itself may experience a “system collapse.” But as scientifically sophisticated as environmentalism’s thinking about natural systems can be (especially its ability to measure change and make predictions about the future based on those measurements), its conclusions about human involvement in environmental degradation tend to be very reductive and causal. Environmentalism’s analyses tend to be about “sources.” Industrial sources. Nonpoint sources. Urban sources. Smokestack sources. Tailpipe sources. Even natural sources (like the soon-to-be-released methane from thawing Arctic tundra). But environmentalism is not very good at asking, “Okay, but why do we have all of these polluting sources?”
Because we have not allowed ourselves to ask this question and instead limited ourselves to haplessly trying to turn off sources, our experience has been like Mickey Mouse’s in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: for every berserk broomstick that he hacked in half, two more took its place, implacably carrying buckets of water that, one by one, created a universal deluge. Similarly, for every polluting source that we turn off (or “mitigate,” since we can’t seem to really turn off anything), another two pop up in its place. For example, at the very moment that we seem to have become serious about reducing our use of petroleum, here comes coal from the ravaged mountaintops of West Virginia and tar sands from Canada, the dirtiest and most destructive energy sources of them all. These rounds of mitigation and evasion are what pass for problem-solving.
Environmentalism is also reluctant to think that its problem may not be of modern origin but something as old as humanity itself. It is committed to a sort of “presentism” in which the culprits are all of recent vintage: Monsanto, Big Oil, developers of suburban sprawl, the modern corporation, you know, the usual suspects. But bad as these things can be (and that’s very bad), they are not the unique creators of our problems. And they are not evil, or, as we descendants of the Puritans like to say, “greedy.” Simply blaming these entities for traditional moral failings is not adequate to the true situation. At most, by doing so we create an environmentalist melodrama of evildoers opposed by forces of good. (Big Oil versus the Sierra Club.)
After all, isn’t it true that what corporations and the individuals who run them try to do is something very human and very familiar? Even admirable? They try to be creative (or innovative, as they like to say). They try to grow. They revel in discovery. They delight in complexity. They have always been major benefactors to education and the arts. (For instance, the merchant capitalists of the Italian Renaissance were also the facilitators of humanism. Where the bankers went, the artists were not far behind.) They try to exercise critical analytic skills in evaluating the world in which they act. They try to help their friends. They try to make the people who are most important to them prosper. They have an astonishing capacity for creative adaptation, even if it is only in the name of preserving their own dominance. In short, they try to win. They try to thrive. We should all be so committed to the risk of “living large.” The problem is not with these qualities as admirable human qualities. The problem is with what exactly it is that they’re trying to help thrive.
My claim is that what is behind these activities is not the stereotypical capitalist mentality of cold logic, a lack of normal feelings, and an unbridled appetite for gain. Rather, I see the Barbaric Heart. First, it is important to say that in associating capitalism with the barbaric I am not merely name-calling. This is so because, as I’ve already suggested, there is something admirable about the astonishingly complex world that capitalism has made. No amount of human or electronic computation can encompass the complexity of the psychological and material world that market capitalism has brought into being. What economists call the “spontaneous order” of the free market stretches if not infinitely then at least unimaginably.