Social Studies of Environmentalism

The Barbaric Heart

In Reviews on September 5, 2012 at 7:00 am

Review by Ozzie Zehner

Ozzie Zehner, from the University of California – Berkeley reviews Curtis White’s book, “The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature.”


Starred review. Writer and poet, Paul Auster, once called author Curtis White “a one-man band, a whirling dervish, a devil who speaks in tongues, a master of bewitchments, parodies, and dazzling tropes.” In The Barbaric Heart, his most recent nonfiction work, this former Illinois State University professor lives up to his billing. From page one, White offers us a lift to a rowdy philosophical frat party with no assurances we’ll get a ride home.

Any environmental book beginning with an injection of prose on the slaughtering of children by Roman troops, isn’t going to be your standard Sunday brunch talk-about. Yet it is on this macabre scene where White begins, as he holds our hand and guides us through the haunted house of human history to search for the origin of our environmental ills.

He brings us to a vantage point where we can witness the source with our own eyes. Deep in the dank catacombs of human experience, he draws his flashlight across a mechanical beating heart of magnificent proportions. This Barbaric Heart, glistening with avarice, is neither a recent creation nor the relic of industrial capitalism run amok. Rather, White argues, “it is the oldest human story. It is the ‘one great war’ that returns eternally. There has always been something tragic about this war, as well as something noble.” Who knows how long this Barbaric Heart would have gone unnoticed, had a novelist not come along to put a hand on our shoulder and point right at it.

White argues it isn’t enough for environmentalists to simply point a finger at oil drillers, multinational corporations, or the “evildoers” who have become a weekly cartoon series. He instead interrogates how greater humanity has kept the Barbaric Heart beating by maintaining an elusive system of stints and bypasses: “The great idol of this reality is our faith not in America, for we have essentially lost our sense of what it should mean to be American,” claims White.  “Our great idol is our faith in capitalism as an economic system but also a social and ethical system. This idolatry, which degrades us spiritually and destroys our sense of ourselves as Americans, is practiced not only by capitalists but even by those who would seem to be working most strenuously in the name of the natural world: environmentalists, scientists, and sustainability activists. Even these good people participate, however unwittingly, in the Barbaric Heart.”

As citizens of Nature, White maintains we fail ourselves in numerous ways. We call upon the rhetoric and logic of technical, scientific, and bureaucratic systems even though we suspect they might have caused the problem in the first place. We regard any form of work to be virtuous without considering the ultimate purpose of those endeavors. We wrap the theories of Adam Smith and other thinkers so tightly around our modern preconceptions that it becomes heretical to ponder if a historical contextualization of their theories might wind a different direction.

Finally, we walk into voting booths to choose between our interests and our beliefs. And in America, beliefs win. “We would prefer to be left alone, warmed by our beliefs-that-make-no-sense, whether they be the quotidian beliefs of ordinary Americans, the magical thinking of evangelicals, the mystical thinking of New Age Gnostics, the teary-eyed patriotism of social conservatives, or the perfervid loyalty of the rich to their free market Mammon,” White maintains. “Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish…our richness of belief masks a culture that is grotesquely unjust.”

Throughout his renderings of American belief, White approaches the idea of a God – but not the kind that expects us to be faithful or rewards us for abandoning our intelligence to believe the unbelievable. Instead, his God lies within the very notion that creations, human or otherwise, are splendid – an aesthetic indulgence that might just lead us toward the next American sublime – not as a result of our intelligence, our clever accounting, or our machines, but because we are at our root spiritual and creative animals.

All of this talk might start to make White look like a Frankfurt School throw-back (and perhaps we are glad for it). Indeed much of what he has to say about belief wouldn’t be particularly novel to a critical theorist. His reading of economic history wouldn’t much shock a historian – and so forth. The indispensable value of White’s work is not in the code but in his meticulous recoding.

His most persuasive articulations detail not the numerous failures of free-market capitalism but rather the system’s very disutility for environmental struggle: “one of the most powerful arguments missing from the environmentalist’s case is reverence for what has value simply because it is,” he insists. “If environmentalism truly wishes, as it claims, to want to ‘save’ something – the planet, a species, itself – it needs to rediscover a common language of Care.” And even though a language of Care evokes the magical speak of Wiccans and New Age mystics, especially in a world where the scientific logic of price and profit dominates thought, White maintains it’s precisely what makes environmentalism special. “It is at its best not when it is behaving like the ecological scientist but when it is laughing, disobedient, and just a little possessed by an animal anarchy.”

White warns if contemporary environmentalism doesn’t break out of its technocratic trance, inevitable fates will befall us. Well, maybe not us at first. The food-price volatility, commodity bubbles, and other shock waves bursting out from the capitalist demolition derby will first strike those who, in fact, don’t drive cars, don’t own televisions, and don’t stockpile manufactured goods. A slaughter of the innocents.

Leading us out of the house of horrors and back into the light, White leaves us with a bit of advice for our journey ahead. He points to the value of redefining work into vocations, of reconsidering what we principally consider to be Holy and beautiful, and of directing our large brains toward expanding the project of Being rather than the GDP.

And for a model of such wisdom in our world? White finds none. In fact, he politely raises his middle finger to the incrementalist “European Model” of capitalism. For White, Eurocapitalism isn’t a challenge to the Heart. It’s the same cold blood pumping through an alternate ventricle. However, we are left to wonder, in his rush to dethrone Eurocapitalism as a destination, if he undervalues its potential utility as a path.

In pulling open the arrhythmic Barbaric Heart for all of us to see, White has made quite a bloody mess of things. Does he intend to mop it up with solutions? No – and for a perfectly good reason. Like Nietzsche, White believes the purpose of thought is not to locate Truth but rather to make it ever less convenient to lie to ourselves, to live in perpetual dishonesty. White doesn’t spoon-feed us remedies for the same reason you can’t feed breakfast to a sleeping person.

You must first wake them up.

- Ozzie Zehner is the author of the forthcoming book, Green Illusions, which pioneers a critique of alternative energy from an environmental perspective.  He is a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley and an Editor at Critical Environmentalism.

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