In three excellent essays published in Orion (I, II, III), novelist and essayist Curtis White suggests that we stop protecting and excusing a free-market system that, by its nature, degrades our environment and separates us from the value of work. White suggests that those of us who are happy enough with our current lifestyle, with our cars and flat screens and our Macbooks, are afraid to change too much, of “killing the Goose that lays the Golden egg.” White provides a useful narrative that explains capitalism’s fatal flaws while offering new and better virtues to work towards. I trust most of White’s ideas, including his criticisms of the way dominant scientific thought caters to the interests of those who have caused our problems in the first place. But in his faith in Faith over Science, in virtue over quantitative reasoning, I think White goes too far in his critique of modern science. His apparent disdain for the idea of sustainable development, and for science in general, will prevent a lot of quantitative thinkers from taking him seriously. This is a shame because I think White’s call for a new morality could enlighten the core principles of sustainable development, by which I mean a new form of society that lives within its means (and not a concept muddied by corporate interests invested in preserving business-as-usual). In fact, imbuing sustainable development with more morality could help provide the energy and leverage the concept needs to transform, rather than serve, market-based systems.
For those who haven’t read many of Curtis White’s essays, you should. I’ll try to summarize his portrayal of our broken world as I understand it because his ideas are sound and worth repeating. I hope I don’t misrepresent or misconstrue anything he says. White takes an appropriately reverential stance towards capitalism. No matter what our political bent, we should admire the magnificent complexity of our current supply chains, our capacity for global connection and for innovation. White doesn’t dismiss capitalism as unnatural, but rather as a logical economic manifestation of a dominant cultural virtue that vastly predates Adam Smith or any of the so-called capitalist grandfathers. White calls this virtue, which he sees as a tragic one, the “Barbaric Heart.” The Barbaric Heart simply desires to win, to amass money and power in a culture in which success is measured by these things. Throughout history, the Barbaric Heart has driven Roman warriors and athletes and modern bankers alike. It is responsible for the environmental and spiritual degradation of our social and natural worlds.
White suggests that humans do not willfully harm nature. Instead, he writes, “the violence that we know as environmental destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for their misdeeds.” Echoing Marx, White suggests that the structure of a market-based economy divorces people from the consequences, and the meaning, of their work. Such blindness works against nature and humanity. In the name of profit, species die while unwitting humans increasingly function as automatons. The tragic flaw of the Barbaric Heart (and capitalism too) is that it cannot look at itself; it lacks the consciousness, and the conscience, to check the downstream momentum of its actions, to stop the violence and the bleeding of humanity. Driven by the destructive spirit of the Barbaric Heart, White suggests, “capitalism is a system intent on its own death.”
White’s allegory of the Barbaric Heart is instructive because it suggests how difficult it will be to transform a capitalist economy into something new. Doing so requires changing our entire way of thinking, changing the principles by which we live. White urges us to replace the Barbaric Heart with a new guiding virtue that he calls, for lack of a truer word, “Thoughtfulness.” Thoughtfulness dumps the goal of “success as money” in favor of “success as life.” To appropriately revere and celebrate life, White says, we should worship the same Gods that animals worship, “those that encourage living things to thrive.” For White, the most important shift we can make is one of Faith. Changing our faith – focusing on the “principles by which we live” and on the “relation of human beings to Being” – will make environmentalism irrelevant. We will not weigh the needs of our economy against the needs of the natural world because the needs of these two entities will be one and the same. We will rediscover the value and meaning of work by tapping into the deep human need to create valuable things – things that serve us, other people, and our world. White suggests that this new philosophy / faith will rely on Beauty as its central principle. In celebrating life, we should focus on its aesthetics. We should make, he writes, “daily insistence on the Beautiful within individual lives, within communities, and in our relation to the natural world.”
Armed with the above philosophy, White criticizes some of the dominant belief systems of environmentalists. In his essay “The Idols of Environmentalism,” White declares, “The problem for even the best-intentioned environmental activism is that it imagines that it can confront a problem external to itself.” He is concerned that environmental health advocates “use the rhetoric and logic of the entities we suspect of causing our problems in the first place.” Environmental health advocates “are comfortable with the logic of science,” White says, and the logic of science seeks to determine a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. White implies that the terms of this debate, the quantitative tradeoff it creates between using resources vs. preserving them, stacks the odds against nature. Humans take what they want or need and leave the scraps for nature. In other words, we cannot realize our interconnectedness to nature, if we continue to view it as an other need.
White attacks the lack of morality and thoughtfulness of science. He describes how scientists try to “keep a clean scientific edge between us and religion.” Science takes a relationship to the world that is objective and data driven. It views nature, White says, “as a kind of complicated machine.” Even the language of science describes our world in terms of systems. For White, such objectivist thinking prevents an appropriate reverence for nature, for the relationship we forge with nature through our work and daily lives.
White’s argument is a good one, and it should cut the scientific community. It should make environmentalists and scientists look inward, to at least ask themselves, “What is the point of what we’re doing? Who and what are we doing it for?” Some soul-searching would make environmentalists more conscious of their true goals, and the methods and language they use to reach these goals. But White, like other purveyors of spiritual messages about the natural world (Wendell Berry also comes to mind), goes too far in his distrust of the logic of science and modernization. If his intention is to weld the purpose of science more firmly to that of a more virtuous Faith, I think he fails by driving any self-respecting scientist further away.
White’s derision of science is apparent in the way he treats the concept of sustainable development. For White, sustainability – as an idea and a word – is a cruel joke. It is a nefarious phrase dreamed up by those free-market barbarians invested in preserving the status quo. “The point of sustainability,” White says, “is the idea that the economic, political, and social systems that have together produced our current global calamity do not need to be replaced … The point seems to be to preserve – not overthrow – the very system of Barbaric Virtues that has created this great threat to the natural world in the first place.”
White keenly perceives the bullshit involved in the green-washing of corporate America. Selling Green production and things largely serves to protect capitalism, not nature. But White’s negative perception of sustainability, and the logic with which he thinks scientists and economists use to support such a goal, is a bit misguided. Although some sustainable development “gurus” might want to preserve our current economic system, most, I think, don’t. The drive toward sustainable development was born out of the realization that we need to transform our current economic and social system or we will fail in an interconnected world. Free-market barbarians have certainly co-opted the phrase and muddied what it means. But the ideals of sustainable development, if we look past the flashing corporate gimmicks and promises, are still pure. They even synch with White’s ideals. Serious advocates of sustainable development, whether today or thirty years ago, want to topple the status quo. They support transformative and mutually reinforcing change across social, economic, and political spectra. They want more rigorous laws to usher in an economy that supports, rather than degrades, our ecosystems. They want new societies that support and invest in just and meaningful human work. And they support a more full realization of our interconnectedness to nature. I doubt that White would disagree with these goals.
White likely does disagree, however, with sustainability advocates about the path we should take to get to this new society. White seems to dismiss or distrust any mathematical (read scientific or economic) attempts to understand our world. In his essay, “Sustainability: A Good Without Light,” he dismisses the ways science “operationalizes” nature, how it models or measures, whether with “indices, metrics, or Life Cycle Analysis.” For White, these devices all assume that “the reasoning of economics must continue to provide the most telling analyses of and prescriptions for any future model for the relationship with human beings in the natural world.” I don’t think this is true. Though market-based economic theory maintains a strong grip over Economics as a discipline, one “reasoning of economics” doesn’t exist. More importantly, and more disconcerting of White’s philosophy, scientific inquiry and mathematical modeling are some of the most powerful and revealing tools we have to understand how our world works.
Yes, as White suggests, science breaks down our body and our world into systems. Is this a bad thing? The word conjures a mechanical conception of Being, but I don’t think such a conception makes our world any less miraculous. Systems give our world life and movement. We model, or represent, them to understand how they work, to assess what we know and what we do not, and what we need to change. They let us unravel the complexities of life, providing both more truth and more specific questions about the unknown. They help us determine what helps us thrive and what doesn’t. Our understanding of systems is far from perfect. But if performed correctly, science helps us delve deeper and deeper into the fractals, rhythms, and materials of life. It speaks with a language founded in numbers and systems but no less poetic or true than any other logos.
Some of White’s distrust of technocratic reasoning is well founded. As he suggests, a lot of scientists and economists are responsible for our current mess, for aiding the metastasis of strip malls and automated call-centers and wending supply chains. For blights on life and humanity. But siphoning belief in science collapses our chance to transform and redesign our world correctly, if at all. Both faith and science should have plenty to say about what is correct. Where they overlap or intersect will stand as our strongest foundations of a new and beautiful world. Science needs a moral brace. And morality needs ingenuity. Faith and science should support, not repel, one another. They should both revere the same god: life. Only then will science speak with an appropriate “language of Care,” as White calls for. And only then will we have a faith worth investing and believing in.