Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature: Barbaric Heart

The Barbaric Heart cannot be punished for its excesses. It cannot be “shown the light of day.” The proposals of the environmental community for better systems of transportation, cleaner smokestacks, purer foods, and jail time for corporate polluters—none of that changes the Barbaric Heart. If it is frustrated by the activities of others (those troublesome tree-huggers), it simply concludes that it will be more cunning and violent next time. As Nicholson Baker reports in his controversial book Human Smoke, in May of 1941 Lord Boom Trenchard considered the ineffectiveness of a year of daily bombing of the cities of Germany. What next? “Trenchard’s answer was: more. More bombing. Relentless nightly bombing—heavier bombers, more bombers.”

If the Barbaric Heart cannot be shown the errors of its ways, or even simply learn from its own tragic mistakes, then it must be displaced. That is, we should not seek to alter what the Barbaric Heart desires, for what it desires is what we desire: to be secure from outside threat, to protect its people (whether a tribe or a ruling class of elites), to thrive, to take pleasure in its world, etc. What we can do is make it seek by a new route what it constantly, unalterably seeks.

What displaces the Barbaric Heart in this way is what I will call, for lack of a better term, thoughtfulness. (This is an inexact term, I know, but it has always been to the idea of “thinking” that philosophy has turned to confront the self-interest and violence of the barbaric. Thoughtfulness offers the Barbaric a better way to think about what it means to thrive.) In our current circumstances, thoughtfulness’s first task is the acknowledgment that we have been lying to ourselves. Just about every aspect of what we happily call American culture is a form of lie that we retell ourselves every day. The great virtue of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, for example, was its determination not to believe the lies of violence and avarice any longer. Its prophetic howl erupted from a culture of mere consent. The poem introduced an internal realignment of American culture accomplished through what we now refer to as the counterculture of the 1960s. The Barbaric Heart for a time stood naked and exposed in its deceitfulness and violence. It was a “bright shining lie,” in Neil Sheehan’s phrase. For a moment, the usual logical appeals of economists and politicians for the necessity of violence and the supremacy of efficiency and profit were found to be not only insufficient but morally repugnant.

In the end, the one important task of thoughtfulness is to invent a spiritual principle, a logos of its own, that can contest the energies (and tyrannies) of the Barbaric Heart. But thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is not its ability to provide a superior Truth or an irrefutable logic. Thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is aesthetic. That is, what thoughtfulness proposes as an alternative to the self-serving violence of the Barbaric is beauty. “Don’t think profit,” it argues, “think beauty. The beauty of the polis, the beauty of culture, the beauty of human beings freed from the slavery of regimented work, and the beauty of an untrammeled natural world.” Through the aesthetic, thoughtfulness seeks Homo humanus as opposed to Homo barbarus. It seeks a culture in which humans can become what they really are. Not slaves, and not instruments of violence, but beings intent upon the beautiful as a social principle. That’s the logos of our better selves. And yet we seem reluctant to claim it.

The idea that we are trying to create a culture whose primary satisfaction is its beauty is not really such an extravagant thought. When we say that we desire a world in which nature is intact and animal life thrives; when we say that we desire human communities in harmony with nature; and when we say that within those communities human beings should be able to live in dignity, so that they can be something more than worker-consumers, we are arguing for a reality that is first aesthetic. Environmentalists argue for such a reality all the time. It is what they propose in the place of a barbaric culture of profit and violence. Even so, we are often seduced by the economic and scientific appeals to efficiency, sustainability, and prosperity, in spite of the fact that we suspect that these appeals are actually part of the problem. But in our heart of hearts we are not fooled. What we want is the beautiful. We say it with a smile on our faces when we go for a hike, or when we visit an “eco-friendly” town full of bike paths and locally owned shops with a mountain vista in the background. We do not say of such places, “I’m grooving on this system’s ecological balance.” Or, “The Green Economy is working well.” We say, “It’s beautiful here!” And yet when we set out to make our most public arguments for nature, we seem almost embarrassed to say that what convinces us is the argument of the beautiful. The thoughtfulness of the beautiful. In fact, I’m embarrassed right now!

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

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