Environmentalist Pants on Fire

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


| March-April 2010



Environmentalist Liars

image by Kaitlin Wadley

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.