Environmentalist Pants on Fire

Curtis White on why the environmental movement needs to stop lying to itself

Environmentalist Liars

image by Kaitlin Wadley

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Curtis White’s intelligence, colored by righteous indignation, is a slippery and protean thing. The author and essayist, also a professor of English at Illinois State University, has made an art of upsetting the status quo, tackling liberalism and contemporary art culture. In his newest book, The Barbaric Heart, t he examines the hidden ills of the environmental movement.

In your previous work, you’ve played the Socratic gadfly, uncovering sinister things even the “educated” among us fail to see. How does  The Barbaric Heart  continue that attack?
The question the book asks is, “Given that we are destroying the world, but why?” The usual implicit answers are, I think, lame and not thought through: We’re greedy sinners; we’re naturally destructive; it’s the work of evildoer CEOs.

My answer is that it’s not our sins but our virtues that are the cause—the virtues of the warrior ethic: If you can profit from the skillful use of violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. This “barbaric heart” is as old as humanity. It is obviously the ethic of capitalism, but it also penetrates into culture through our respect for athletes, the military, business wealth, and every action movie where the hero uses überskillful violence to “fight his way through” the enemy in the name of preserving the good.

The major environmental organizations are formed in the image of their purported foe. Environmentalism consorts with the enemy when it makes science and quantitative reasoning its primary voice, and when it agrees—as it does in the utterly failed Kyoto protocols—that economic growth is a desideratum of the future and that any negative environmental consequences will be handled by wiser bureaucracies, laws, and technological fixes.

How are we, then, with all the barbaric heart has wrought, to live good lives?
I don’t think we can. We’re all complicit in the assumption that profit is dependent on violence—against workers, against nature. Like getting coal or gas to power an HDTV in every home. We are not going to get rid of those things until we have no other choice.

I don’t say that the barbaric heart is evil or sinful. I say it is dishonest. We need to stop “mental lying,” as Thomas Paine called it. Perhaps capitalism is the best of all possible economic systems. Perhaps that is true. But can we at least stop saying all these deluded things about it? Like that it provides freedom, supports democracy, cares about fairness, cares about the environment. It has other values and virtues that make these things most unlikely.

You say in the book that we’ve “lost our sense of what it should mean to be American.”
Americans have always been known for their bluntness. As any Henry James novel would show, that has not always made us popular among Europeans. But it was Romantics like William Blake who first said “honest indignation is the voice of God.” I believe that. That’s a religion I can belong to.

The Romantics believed that the human and natural worlds were one; that materialism, rationalism, and money had alienated us from nature; that human beings were in this context not capable of being fully human; and that the best response was art, especially poetry and music. But if you went to an environmental conference now to say such things, imagining that you could get the politicians and climate gurus to shut up, people would cluck their tongues and complain that (as has already been said of my book) there is nothing “practical” in it. What this plea for practicality really means is that we should work within the status quo, the world as it stands.

Americans should be the voice of honest indignation. Instead we are, as Sonic Youth put it, a “daydream nation” incapable of self-scrutiny and willing to live in a world of deadening work, strip mall communities, and cities designed with the needs of technology (like automobiles) at heart.

In what ways do you hope your book will work on a reader?
The job of the writer, as I see it, is not to create strategic plans or utopian projects based upon the “best science” or “best practices.” The job of the writer is to seek clarity.

Environmentalism is too used to thinking itself the voice of the righteous. It does not sufficiently see the ways in which its mission has been compromised. I think readers experience a kind of joy in finding a writer willing to be and capable of being honest and lucid: “Finally, someone willing to tell me the truth.” That’s what I try to do.

Excerpted from the Tin House blog (Oct. 6, 2009), a clearinghouse of intellectual delights from the Portland-based literary magazine and book publisher. An excerpt from Curtis White’s The Barbaric Heart ran in Tin House magazine (#41).  www.tinhousebooks.com/blog