Tuesday, November 17, 2009


By Curtis White

“As so often happens in disasters, the best course always seemed the one for which it was now too late.”
Tacitus, The Histories

For environmental, business, and political organizations alike, the term that has come to stand for the hope of the natural world is “sustainable.” Sustainable agriculture. Sustainable cities. Sustainable development. Sustainable economies. But you would be mistaken if you assumed that the point of sustainability was to change our ways. It’s not, really. The great unspoken assumption of the sustainability movement is the idea that although the economic, political, and social systems that have produced our current environmental calamity are bad, they do not need to be entirely replaced. In fact, the point of sustainability often seems to be to preserve—not overthrow—the economic and social status quo.
This should not be surprising. Sustainability is, after all, a mainstream response to environmental crisis. It may want change, but it does not want what would amount to a fundamental self-confrontation. While it wants to modify existing models of production and consumption, especially of energy, it does not want to abandon what it calls “freedom,” especially the freedom to own and use large accumulations of private property. And certainly it does not want to ask, “What went wrong in the great Western experiment with freedom? Why do we seem to be mostly free to destroy ourselves?”
What no one is allowed to consider is the distressing possibility that no amount of tinkering and changing and greening and teaching the kindergartners to plant trees and recycle Dad’s beer cans will ever really matter if our assumptions about what it means to be prosperous, what it means to be “developed,” what it means to live in “progress,” and what it means to be “free” remain what they have been for the last four hundred years under the evergrowing weight of capitalist markets and capitalist social relations. As Marx put it, under capitalism we carry our relation to others in our pockets. Marx would now have to add, sadly, that those “others” must now include the animals of the field and the birds of the sky (Daniel, 2:38) as well as the fields and sky themselves.1 But such a line of thought is not tolerated because the very word “capitalism” (not to mention “Marx”) is a fighting word.2 (Or, worse, it is a sort of faux pas to speak of “capitalism” at all; you’d be better off saying “the economy,” just as if you were a slave asked to refer to your master as your employment counselor.) Unfortunately, in banishing this word we eliminate from the conversation the very thing we came together to discuss. We can talk about our plans to save the world, but we can’t talk about the economic system that put it in jeopardy in the first place. That’s off the table.
But I do not believe that capitalism is somehow singularly at fault. I don’t even think that it is necessarily bad. It is too reductive to say simply that there are cruel and greedy and violent people among us (capitalists), and that we need somehow to confront them and assert the good in ourselves. The truer problem is that the people who are destructive honestly believe that they are doing good. They are more often than not, or more often than any of us should be comfortable with, an expression of the virtues of what I call the Barbaric Heart.
This is the barbaric calculation: if you can prosper from violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. In short order the Barbaric Heart is led to conclude that, in fact, prosperity is dependent on violence. Therefore, you should be good at violence, for your own sake and the sake of your country. Which is a way of saying that the barbaric itself is a form of virtue, especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing, and accumulating great wealth are virtues, just as athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do.

My reader may wonder how I can yoke together virtue and violence. To which I would reply, “How can one remove the claim of virtue from the behavior that is most habitual to a people?” The artful (if ruthless) use of violence is obviously something that we admire in those sectors of the culture that we most associate with success: athletics, the military, entertainment (especially that arena of the armchair warrior, Grand Theft Auto), the frightening world of financial markets (where, as the Economist put it, there are “barbarians at the vaults”), and the rapacious world we blandly call real estate development. Instead of being “shocked, just shocked” by it, instead of living in bad faith, let’s just say that violence (especially competent violence, violence that has a skill set and a certain virtuosity) is something that we’re rather pleased with ourselves about. As ever, artful violence is the marker of an elite (whether the Persian “Immortals,” the Spartan 300, the Praetorian Guard, the United States Marines, or the Redeem Team of men’s basketball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics).3
Violence is an ethical construction that we forward to the rest of the world as an image of our virtue. The idea that we can “move mountains” is an expression of admiration. When it is done with mammoth machines provided by the Caterpillar Company of Peoria, Illinois, it is also a form of violence (as the sheered mountain tops of West Virginia confirm). To any complaints about the disheartening destruction and injustice that comes with such power, the Barbaric Heart need only reply: the strong have always dominated the weak and then instructed them. That is how great civilizations have always been made, from the ancient Egyptians to the British in India to Karl Rove and George Bush.
When Scipio Africanus looked over the army of Hannibal in the deciding battle of the second Punic War, he saw not only another long day’s work in the phalanx worrying about being stepped on by the Carthaginian elephants. He also saw the end of any limitation on Roman power. One last concerted act of violence and Rome would be history’s lone actor for the next five hundred years. As the historian Polybius described it, “The effect of their victory would be not only to make them complete masters of Libya, but to give them and their country the supremacy and undisputed lordship of the world” (302). This is how the American government felt as the Berlin Wall fell: Carthage is no more. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Karl Roves of the world (those who soak themselves in the blood of the Barbaric Heart as if it were a marinade) understood that they could use violence any time it was in their interest to do so, and they believed that was a good, if bloody, thing.

The question becomes, if this is our moral context, violence masquerading as virtue, how is this thing we call sustainability going to work? Sustainability presents itself as a kind of wisdom. It argues that it can reach an understanding, an accommodation with our destructive virtues and our faithfulness to capitalism. The wisdom of the sustainability movement (especially in its most visible activities through the United Nations and NGOs) is that it can make the Barbarian play nice. (“Attila, this is a tea cup. It’s fragile. No! Okay, here’s another one, now . . . Oh!” And so on.)
But I want to be quite uncompromising in saying that the logic of sustainability is also a sort of thoughtlessness. It is not really opposed to the Barbaric Heart. In fact, it participates in the yearning and willfulness of the Barbaric Heart in spite of itself. In spite of the fact that it can feel that this Heart is grasping, pitiful, and a danger to itself and others. The logic of sustainability provides a sort of program of carefully calibrated amendment (“Sure! We can make coal clean and still maintain our lifestyle”). But in the end, it is not an answer to our problems but a surrender to them. Its virtues are dependent on its sins. It is, as Simone Weil put it, a “good without light.”
What is most menacing about the logic of sustainability is evident to anyone who wishes to look into its language. It will “operationalize” sustainability. It will create metrics and indices. It will create “life-cycle assessments.” It will create a sustainability index. It will institute a “global reporting initiative.” It will imagine something called “industrial ecology” and not laugh. Most famously, it will measure ecological footprints. What the so-called sustainability movement has accomplished is the creation of “metrics,” ways of measuring. It may not have had much impact on the natural world, but it has guaranteed that, for the moment, thinking will remain only technical interpretation. In short, it has brought calipers to the head of a songbird.
But what is most thoughtless about the logic of sustainability, especially as it has emerged through the Kyoto and Bali international agreements and protocols, is the assumption that it should allow for continued economic growth and development. In short, sustainability assumes that the reasoning of economics—of economics as a form of reason—must continue to provide the most telling analyses of and prescriptions for any future model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world. But what if the assumptions of economics are nothing more than a form of thoughtlessness? And what if that thoughtlessness’s purpose is nothing more than to allow—oh, tragically, we’ll all say—the very activities and, more importantly, the very habits of mind that over the last two centuries of industrialization have brought us to this sorry pass? In short, what if the thinking of economics is merely another vestment for the Barbaric Heart?
The idea that economics will aid us in thinking through the problem of the destruction of the natural world, will aid us in managing the earth’s “carrying capacity,” commits us to the assumption that our world ought to be governed and guided by technicians. It is part of the thinking that says, “If only the politicians would listen to what we scientists have to say! Listen to what the climatologists have to say about the sources and consequences of global warming! The scientists will save us if only we’d listen to them, respect their authority, follow their instructions.” They can maintain this while gloriously ignoring the fact that the world we presently inhabit was conceived by science, designed by engineers, and implemented by technicians. It starts with the rapidly beating heart of the four-stroke engine inside your automobile, and then radiates out in what is laughably called urban planning, the world as designed for the convenience of the automobile, the sterility of the interstate highway, and the fantastic waste and increasingly fascistic experience of jet travel. Of course, behind all this there is the global energy infrastructure, burning off methane waste, spilling its toxic cargo on land and shore, and destroying the people who have been cursed with “oil wealth.” Looming over everything, guaranteeing it, is the grim visage of the warrior, the global oil police known as the military. In short, looming over all this is the Barbaric Heart.

What I want to suggest, not to put too fine a point on it, is that the act of trusting these experts—whether economists or scientists— to provide us with a sustainable future of ever-growing capitalist enterprise is not to place faith in the subtle capacities of the engineer but to indulge in the primitive longing of the barbarian in his moment of despair. After a period of truly grand slaughter and plunder, the barbarian discovers with an audible “uh-oh” that the legions have regrouped, they’re moving forward in an orderly and powerful way, and it’s going to be murder and mayhem in the barbarian camp for a while. The barbarian sees that his willfulness and violence has become the equivalent of self-defeat. That is his inescapable reality, even if it’s one he is constitutionally incapable of understanding. (Rising oceans may make Manhattan the next fabled city of Atlantis. Get that?)
What science should be saying now is not, “Why were we not listened to, respected, followed?” but, “We have wittingly taken common cause with the barbarians and participated in the making of this world, and it is clear now that this making was also our collective unmaking.” In other words, science should be looking to something other than science, and certainly something other than barbarians, for ideas that will be a truer response to the disasters it has helped create. This looking elsewhere is not something science is particularly good at, if for no other reason than because, as intellectual victor for the last two centuries, it has contempt for those religious, philosophical, and artistic “elsewheres.”
For instance, at the Ecocity World Summit in San Francisco in 2008, climatologist Stephen Schneider commented that science could only demonstrate the “preponderance of evidence” and make suggestions about risk management and the investment of resources. (You see how comfortable science is in the garments of economics?) But it cannot make decisions that depend upon what Schneider called “value judgments.” In other words, science can tell you that global warming puts the polar bear at risk, but it can’t tell you why you should care.4 It’s as if Schneider were saying that we should take that issue up with the Pope. And maybe what I’m saying is: that’s exactly right. We need a common language, not arrogance and then a punt.
The irony here, and it seems to be mostly lost on Schneider, is that nothing has been more destructive of value than Western science. It has contempt for the truth claims of religion, obviously, but also the arts and even the so-called “soft” or social sciences. So just where, one might ask, does Schneider expect these “values” to come from when in fact science has done all it could to use its social prestige and intellectual authority to destroy all non-scientific systems of value?
From the point of view of the Barbaric Heart, this is all good news. Until science can manage to join its habits of mind to a way of thinking that is genuinely dedicated to the cultivation of value (i.e. a whole, thriving human culture and not the shards that science leaves to us), the Barbaric Heart will only hear in what science says that it can continue to be barbaric, if under a somewhat chastened model. Endless, profligate energy consumption, yes, but we’ll pump the CO2 back into the ground. How about that? That should fix it. That’s sustainable, ain’t it? For the barbarian, so long as someone suggests to him that he can continue to be violent and willful but mitigate the self-destructive consequences if he’s shrewd about it, well, he’s more than willing to listen and believe. And that is what the logic of sustainability does. “Let us mitigate your violence,” it tells the barbarian, “so that your heart may retain all those barbaric qualities that have become the envy of the world.” 5
As the Romans knew, empire and wealth attract envy, but in the end it is envy not of some sort of civilized superiority but of the freedom to behave like barbarians without the consequences.

But, perhaps we should say with a breezy sigh, “Thus has it ever been.” What makes such breeziness untenable is the newfound understanding, for which the term “Global Warming” has become a sort of shorthand, that as we pursue our own venal ends, heedless of the consequences that pursuit will have on others, we are “sacking,” in the barbarian vernacular, ourselves. We are like the barbarians described so aptly by Edward Gibbon in that we are not much conscious of the fact that our energetic pursuit of our own interests has a “blowback” factor (as the CIA puts it). Our pursuit of what we want makes us blind to how that pursuit is actually destroying ourselves. In the midst of its murderous pillaging, the Barbaric Heart discovers with a cry of surprise and animal anguish that it has dug its own grave. This self-defeat is true of our international bungling in places like Iraq, but it is most dramatically true in relation to the destruction of our own environment. Ask the people of New Orleans, or all of the places from Southern Europe to Africa to Australia to Malibu that have been visited by “once in a century” droughts, or places like Shanghai or Mumbai or the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, all of which are about to have the unique opportunity of seeing what it’s like to live underwater. The future and its consequences is obviously now.
Which makes it a little easier to see why I would say that we are a culture dominated by a rationality that is the equivalent of thoughtlessness. We are dominated by a form of logical intelligibility (science) that insists that what is not intelligible to it is not intelligible at all. Strangely, what is most dramatically unintelligible to science is itself. Especially hidden to it is the degree to which its own habit of logical orderliness prepares the way for the progress of the Barbaric, just as Rome’s system of roads proved a great convenience not only to its own legions but to the barbaric armies that for once didn’t need to “swarm” but could proceed in an orderly and direct fashion to their bloody destination: the final sacking of Rome.
To say that we live in thoughtlessness is really no more than to say that for the moment the Barbaric Heart is very comfortable. It does not feel threatened except distantly by things like Islamic terror, which it understands very well since that violence is little more than a reflection of its own conduct. And nothing is working persuasively with it, suggesting that it ought not to be what it is. (The intellectual disdain of science keeps all those voices at a distance in their respective communities: the university, the church, the museum, or the downtown art scene.) Rather, it hears only the narcissistic self-congratulation from the “experts” it hires to describe its triumphs and its benevolence on cable news programs. We are not quite yet at the point where the orderly rhythm of violence and plunder have no choice but to stop.
“And why should we stop?” you might ask. After all, the Barbaric Heart produces certain sweet and pleasurable things that we know quite well. The food is abundant, sex is everywhere, and the spectacles are spectacular.6 (Always a sufficient argument for the populus Romanus.) But these sweet things are all produced by procedures that we do not see and do not understand, like the black boxes that run our cars or televisions or computers or, well, our lives. We know the benefits of these things but not their origin and not their procedures and not their ultimate purpose. The finely marbled filet at the supermarket meat counter is shrink-wrapped and looks as if it has been produced by an algorithm. It looks as if it were the Platonic idea of meat and not something hacked from a cow, not something produced by poor people standing in blood. At the far end of a gallon of gasoline is a Marine rolling a hand grenade into a living room in Haditha, Iraq. At the far end of the purchase of a plastic gizmo at Walmart is a Chinese industry dependent on the oil produced by a genocidal regime in Sudan. How that changes the look of the delightfully cheap gizmo! It is steeped in blood!