The Barbaric Heart

Photo: Meryl Joseph

THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION that environmentalists are not very good at asking, let alone answering: “Why is this, the destruction of the natural world, happening?” We ordinarily think of environmentalists as people who care about something called nature or (if they’re feeling a little technocratic, and they usually are) the “environment.” They are concerned, as well they should be, that the lifestyle and economic practices of the industrialized West are not sustainable, and that nature itself may experience a “system collapse.” But as scientifically sophisticated as environmentalism’s thinking about natural systems can be (especially its ability to measure change and make predictions about the future based on those measurements), its conclusions about human involvement in environmental degradation tend to be very reductive and causal. Environmentalism’s analyses tend to be about “sources.” Industrial sources. Nonpoint sources. Urban sources. Smokestack sources. Tailpipe sources. Even natural sources (like the soon-to-be-released methane from thawing Arctic tundra). But environmentalism is not very good at asking, “Okay, but why do we have all of these polluting sources?

Because we have not allowed ourselves to ask this question and instead limited ourselves to haplessly trying to turn off sources, our experience has been like Mickey Mouse’s in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: for every berserk broomstick that he hacked in half, two more took its place, implacably carrying buckets of water that, one by one, created a universal deluge. Similarly, for every polluting source that we turn off (or “mitigate,” since we can’t seem to really turn off anything), another two pop up in its place. For example, at the very moment that we seem to have become serious about reducing our use of petroleum, here comes coal from the ravaged mountaintops of West Virginia and tar sands from Canada, the dirtiest and most destructive energy sources of them all. These rounds of mitigation and evasion are what pass for problem-solving.

Environmentalism is also reluctant to think that its problem may not be of modern origin but something as old as humanity itself. It is committed to a sort of “presentism” in which the culprits are all of recent vintage: Monsanto, Big Oil, developers of suburban sprawl, the modern corporation, you know, the usual suspects. But bad as these things can be (and that’s very bad), they are not the unique creators of our problems. And they are not evil, or, as we descendants of the Puritans like to say, “greedy.” Simply blaming these entities for traditional moral failings is not adequate to the true situation. At most, by doing so we create an environmentalist melodrama of evildoers opposed by forces of good. (Big Oil versus the Sierra Club.)

After all, isn’t it true that what corporations and the individuals who run them try to do is something very human and very familiar? Even admirable? They try to be creative (or innovative, as they like to say). They try to grow. They revel in discovery. They delight in complexity. They have always been major benefactors to education and the arts. (For instance, the merchant capitalists of the Italian Renaissance were also the facilitators of humanism. Where the bankers went, the artists were not far behind.) They try to exercise critical analytic skills in evaluating the world in which they act. They try to help their friends. They try to make the people who are most important to them prosper. They have an astonishing capacity for creative adaptation, even if it is only in the name of preserving their own dominance. In short, they try to win. They try to thrive. We should all be so committed to the risk of “living large.” The problem is not with these qualities as admirable human qualities. The problem is with what exactly it is that they’re trying to help thrive.

My claim is that what is behind these activities is not the stereotypical capitalist mentality of cold logic, a lack of normal feelings, and an unbridled appetite for gain. Rather, I see the Barbaric Heart. First, it is important to say that in associating capitalism with the barbaric I am not merely name-calling. This is so because, as I’ve already suggested, there is something admirable about the astonishingly complex world that capitalism has made. No amount of human or electronic computation can encompass the complexity of the psychological and material world that market capitalism has brought into being. What economists call the “spontaneous order” of the free market stretches if not infinitely then at least unimaginably. At one end there is the miracle of digital technology (are we really supposed to believe that hundreds of hours of music can fit on a device the size of a cigarette pack?). This digital world gets tinier and more powerful every year, and it is substantially the product of capitalist ingenuity. I have to admire it even if, as a person who has spent his life among books, I mostly fear and dislike it. At the other end, there is the continental roaming of shoppers among millions of products that is as vast, in its own way, as the primordial movement of animal herds stretching from horizon to horizon on the Serengeti. Imagine a satellite image illuminating all the activity at shopping malls in the United States on a typical American Saturday afternoon. From a vantage in space, it would look like North America was flowing and glowing with strange life. If you could for a moment exclude the other consequences of this activity (environmental, social, military), you might be tempted to call this vision beautiful. (As in the ambiguous shots of Los Angeles freeways in the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The slow, winding flow of headlights comes to look like a natural phenomenon, like watching the northern lights.)

To say that there is something barbaric at work in these accomplishments is to say that there is also something admirable about the Barbaric Heart itself. The Barbaric Heart is not the opposite of the civilized. In fact, the Barbaric Heart is civilized, for all the good that does it, and has always happily clad itself in the decorous togas of Rome (as the Ostrogoth King Theodoric did), the pinstripes of Wall Street, and the comfy suburbanity of L. L. Bean. The Barbaric Heart has always wanted to look nice even when it didn’t (consider the leisure suit). The barbaric is admirable for its sheer strength, its daring, its energy, and its willingness to take risks. It is taller than we are. It is prouder in the way that a beautiful animal is proud. It is, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, a “blonde beast.” (He mostly thought that was a good thing, or at least better than being a slave.)

Unhappily, beyond its strength and pride and willingness to take on difficult tasks, there is something dangerous to itself and others in the Barbaric Heart. The Barbaric Heart is a great and energetic actor, but it is no better at questioning itself about the meaning of its actions than capitalism is at asking why the unlimited growth of the Gross Domestic Product is good. Capitalism does not ask, “What’s the economy for?” Capitalism merely asks it to grow. (It’s as if the only alternative to “growth” was “recession,” and no one is allowed to be for that.) Nonetheless, questions are in order. The Greek that opens the Gospel according to John reads, “In the beginning was Logos.” What is the logos (the spirit, the logic) of the Barbaric Heart? In short, in what name does it act?

THE NATURAL MODE of reasoning for the Barbaric Heart is simple enough to describe. It was the logic not only of the ancient northern hordes, clothed in animal skins, but of the Roman Empire and the Western civilization that followed as well. (That must be our first deconstructive insight: the barbarian is not an “other” to be driven away in the name of civilized virtue.) For the Romans, virtue simply meant success, usually military success. Valor. That was the heart of Romanitas. For the Roman forces under Scipio Aemilianus at the end of the Third Punic War against Carthage, the routine was well understood: half of the time would be devoted to violence, to killing every human and dog and cat that crossed their path, and half the time would be given to plunder, to the transfer of every valuable material thing back to Rome, especially gold and silver things. Roman violence was above all orderly. As a consequence, as Polybius wrote, Rome “billowed in booty.”

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. That was Roman virtu. 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, in order, athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do. Ultimately, these types are all the same. The athlete, the soldier, and the businessman all want to “win,” and by whatever means necessary.

Even though the warlike Romans understood every victory as a divine confirmation of their character, virtue in fact has very little to do with what the gods think. Virtues are specific to cultures. Barbaric virtues have been challenged by competing ethical organizations like the Stoic virtues of honor, integrity, simplicity, loyalty, and moderation, or the Christian virtues of selflessness, compassion, reverence, humility, faith, and hope. There have been other articulations of virtue as well. Humanism and the Enlightenment advocated the virtues of fraternity and equality before the law. Environmentalism has used all of these articulations at one time or another in its increasingly desperate effort to gain moral traction. What these forms of virtue have in common is that, unlike the Barbaric Heart, they are concerned with articulating a sense of the whole.

For the Barbaric Heart, on the other hand, there is nothing that is as real as the self-interested Ego, His Majesty the Sovereign Self. What else could care so blindly about “winning”? But it also feels, at some dark recess of the heart, how pathetically empty this Self is. So the Barbaric Heart grasps at things to fill that emptiness. The histories of ancient warfare always claim that the surest inducement to the warrior to fight was the prospect of being able to cart off the enemy’s silver and gold (and women). Plates, jewelry, the objects in temple shrines, precious ornamentation applied to buildings, anything that glittered. With such a prospect at hand, death meant nothing. Through the “right of conquest” (the unwritten law of the ancient world that trumped all written laws) the warrior might at last feel full and real. He might also participate in glory. Why, he could even become virtuous in this way (or, as we still say, a “hero”).

Ironically, through this logic the Barbaric Heart also committed not only itself but all of the human and natural world to what the Greeks called tragedy. Tragic fate, for the Greeks, was the understanding that once you put a certain principle in motion, that principle would play itself out. Completely out. And so, as in Aeschylus’s tragedies, humans pursue what they perceive to be their own interest only to become “the slave of their own destruction,” an apt expression of our current situation on multiple fronts, economic, military, and environmental.

What is tragic is that the bloody end, “the great wound swimming upwards” like a shark (Aeschylus again), is unintended but no less inevitable for that. We don’t intend that the pursuit of personal wealth should lead to the bankruptcy of an entire nation, but bankrupt we are. We don’t intend that our strategic military actions should lead to an endless and uncontrollable spiraling of violence, but it does. We don’t intend that the pursuit of our happiness should lead to the extinction of animals, desertification, drought, famine, mass human migration, violent storms, but all that is presently “swimming upwards” regardless of what we intend.

THERE ARE TWO THINGS that the Barbaric Heart, for all its brutal blond beauty, doesn’t get. First, it doesn’t look at itself. It is frustrated by questions like “What makes life worth living?” Or it assumes that the answer is obvious: “Winning! Of course.” It doesn’t even wonder what its relation to other barbarians might be. It doesn’t know about solidarity beyond a blind submission to the tribe (the ancient form of that perverse form of loyalty we call patriotism). But it has very little understanding of why self-interest should be sacrificed to a universal good, whatever that is.

Second, the Barbaric Heart doesn’t understand, except at the very last moment of anguished recognition, how suicidal its activities are. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is full of descriptions of the awful moment of animal awareness when the barbarian realizes that he has gone, once again, too far and brought about his own destruction. For example, after the disastrous battle of Hadrianople in 378 AD at which two thirds of the Emperor Valens’s Roman army was wiped out in its own moment of barbaric folly, the Gothic armies were, as usual, unrestrained, abandoned to passions, and generally given over to what Gibbon called “blind and irregular fury.” Their “mischievous disposition” consumed with “improvident rage” the crops and the possessions of the local inhabitants. Eventually, an army of the Goths was surprised by the remaining Romans while “immersed in wine and sleep,” and there followed in turn a “cruel slaughter of the astonished Goths.” Thus, the anguish of the Barbaric Heart.

Is it too much to say that, a little more than a millennium and a half later, you could see the same surprise and anguish on the faces of the managers of international investment securities as the housing bubble burst and lenders, insurers, bond markets, and hedge funds all came close to evaporating as billions upon billions of dollars disappeared virtually overnight? All around them are the homeowners in foreclosure, just like the peasant villagers in 378 looking at the smoking ruins of their little homes.

THE BARBARIC HEART is a pure emptiness, an emptiness that doesn’t know itself as empty. It is an emptiness that has turned upon itself. It is a mouth that chews. It is a permanent state of war against all others but also, most profoundly, against itself. One part violence, one part plunder, and eventual anguish and regret.

The Barbaric Heart cannot be punished for its excesses. It cannot be “shown the light of day.” The proposals of the environmental community for better systems of transportation, cleaner smokestacks, purer foods, and jail time for corporate polluters — none of that changes the Barbaric Heart. If it is frustrated by the activities of others (those troublesome tree-huggers), it simply concludes that it will be more cunning and violent next time. As Nicholson Baker reports in his controversial book Human Smoke, in May of 1941 Lord Boom Trenchard considered the ineffectiveness of a year of daily bombing of the cities of Germany. What next? “Trenchard’s answer was: more. More bombing. Relentless nightly bombing — heavier bombers, more bombers.”

If the Barbaric Heart cannot be shown the errors of its ways, or even simply learn from its own tragic mistakes, then it must be displaced. That is, we should not seek to alter what the Barbaric Heart desires, for what it desires is what we desire: to be secure from outside threat, to protect its people (whether a tribe or a ruling class of elites), to thrive, to take pleasure in its world, etc. What we can do is make it seek by a new route what it constantly, unalterably seeks. What displaces the Barbaric Heart in this way is what I will call, for lack of a better term, thoughtfulness. (This is an inexact term, I know, but it has always been to the idea of “thinking” that philosophy has turned to confront the self-interest and violence of the barbaric. Thoughtfulness offers the Barbaric a better way to think about what it means to thrive.) In our current circumstances, thoughtfulness’s first task is the acknowledgment that we have been lying to ourselves. Just about every aspect of what we happily call American culture is a form of lie that we retell ourselves every day. The great virtue of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, for example, was its determination not to believe the lies of violence and avarice any longer. Its prophetic howl erupted from a culture of mere consent. The poem introduced an internal realignment of American culture accomplished through what we now refer to as the counterculture of the 1960s. The Barbaric Heart for a time stood naked and exposed in its deceitfulness and violence. It was a “bright shining lie,” in Neil Sheehan’s phrase. For a moment, the usual logical appeals of economists and politicians for the necessity of violence and the supremacy of efficiency and profit were found to be not only insufficient but morally repugnant.

In the end, the one important task of thoughtfulness is to invent a spiritual principle, a logos of its own, that can contest the energies (and tyrannies) of the Barbaric Heart. But thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is not its ability to provide a superior Truth or an irrefutable logic. Thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is aesthetic. That is, what thoughtfulness proposes as an alternative to the self-serving violence of the Barbaric is beauty. “Don’t think profit,” it argues, “think beauty. The beauty of the polis, the beauty of culture, the beauty of human beings freed from the slavery of regimented work, and the beauty of an untrammeled natural world.” Through the aesthetic, thoughtfulness seeks Homo humanus as opposed to Homo barbarus. It seeks a culture in which humans can become what they really are. Not slaves, and not instruments of violence, but beings intent upon the beautiful as a social principle. That’s the logos of our better selves. And yet we seem reluctant to claim it.

The idea that we are trying to create a culture whose primary satisfaction is its beauty is not really such an extravagant thought. When we say that we desire a world in which nature is intact and animal life thrives; when we say that we desire human communities in harmony with nature; and when we say that within those communities human beings should be able to live in dignity, so that they can be something more than worker-consumers, we are arguing for a reality that is first aesthetic. Environmentalists argue for such a reality all the time. It is what they propose in the place of a barbaric culture of profit and violence. Even so, we are often seduced by the economic and scientific appeals to efficiency, sustainability, and prosperity, in spite of the fact that we suspect that these appeals are actually part of the problem. But in our heart of hearts we are not fooled. What we want is the beautiful. We say it with a smile on our faces when we go for a hike, or when we visit an “eco-friendly” town full of bike paths and locally owned shops with a mountain vista in the background. We do not say of such places, “I’m grooving on this system’s ecological balance.” Or, “The Green Economy is working well.” We say, “It’s beautiful here!” And yet when we set out to make our most public arguments for nature, we seem almost embarrassed to say that what convinces us is the argument of the beautiful. The thoughtfulness of the beautiful. In fact, I’m embarrassed right now!

What is it that makes such an argument so difficult to make? If what we want is the beautiful, why do we feel that our most persuasive arguments will be made by scientists, environmental engineers, regional planners, and sustainability economists? In part, it is the fact that we have been intimidated by all those who would say that such thinking is “unrealistic,” by which they really mean “does not concede the brutal fact of the enduring triumph of the Barbaric Heart.” By this measure, to be realistic is to say, “We plan to win by conceding the game to our adversaries before the contest has even begun.”

Second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art. This is so obvious that it hardly needs comment. One has simply to say “television.” Nevertheless, it is art, or the aesthetic, that prohibits the temptation to mourn the death of the world we were born into. Art is not a call to passive contemplation (a trip to the museum) but to the activity of human creation. It is this that should replace Adam Smith’s famous “division of labor,” the work that promises only tedium and despair and passivity in the face of destruction. Environmentalism should be about a return to the aesthetic, and I don’t mean the beauties of a mountain vista. I mean a resistance to the Barbaric Heart through a daily insistence on the Beautiful within individual lives, within communities, and in our relation to the natural world.

IN VIRGIL’S AENEID, when Aeneas and the faithful Trojan remnant sail from Troy for the shores of Italy, they, in a sense, never leave Troy. They are never not Trojans because they take with them their “household gods,” those figures and myths that provide them with identity. And when they land in Latium and begin to set up a new home, they do not feel themselves on strange shores. They are always at home. They bring the fullness of the past to meet the fullness of the present in productive beauty. By contrast, we’re not even at home at home. We’re strangers on our own shores, thanks to the way in which corporations and their franchises have colonized our cities and towns, turning them into one big McSame.

Historians often wonder what it was like for the Romans to live under the rule of the Goths in the sixth century. Barbarians in the Senate, barbarians in the market, barbarians in the temple, barbarians in the countryside. The constant presence of the violently alien. Well, perhaps it was like living with Best Buy and Costco and Barnes and Noble, in our Big Box world. In both the ancient world and the present, it is like living, in Nietzsche’s mordant phrase, “estranged from house and home in the service of malignant dwarfs.” But somehow when we look on the ugliness that this reality brings, we see a “high standard of living.” Those enchanted by the malignant dwarfs (CEOs? MBAs?) do not think to ask, “What makes life worth living?” The answer is obvious: “The high standards, of course!” A very strange conclusion for a people who are the living witnesses of so much permanent destruction.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that there is no need for environmentalism. Environmentalism has no victories to win. The very notion of environmentalism is not much more than a way of isolating a problem from its true context. The crisis of a degraded natural world is a part of the larger problem of the crisis of thought, the crisis of faith, and the crisis of the relation of human beings to Being (or God, if you prefer). What is called for is the discovery or invention of our own “household gods” that might speak powerfully to us. “Gods” that will keep us in touch with a sense of the depth of our own past and call us creatively to what we might call our primordial aesthetic passion: our deep desire to be the creators of our own world.

We ought to discover that there is something superior to the Barbaric Heart, a Universal that is not only Nature but human capacity and creativity as well. We ought to discover that we are a part of this One, an animal among animals. Ours should be a Dionysian world that refuses the cold comfort of both the capitalist manager and the ecologist technician. The Dionysian does not so much refuse these worlds as laugh in dismissal. Its world is indulgent and ecstatic and curiously impersonal. It is not an animal lover; it is simply happy among animals. It is not a nature lover; it is nature. It doesn’t pity the plight of the polar bear; it romps in the snow. It is a thoughtful and beautiful animal, but it is an animal. The Dionysian fucks, eats, looks for the ecstasy of transcendence, and worships the same gods that the animals worship. Not the God that gives laws, but the gods that encourage living things to thrive.

We are that strange and wonderful animal that has the metaphysical comfort of knowing that she is part of the tragic chorus of natural beings. We are members of that faith that knows that life is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable. And the mark that we will leave upon the world will not be the mark of brute force clothed in the false virtues of the barbarian but the mark of the ultimate realist, he who makes his own world, demanding the impossible and calling it Beautiful.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.

Curtis White is an essayist and author who serves as a Professor of English at Illinois State University. His essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Village Voice, and In These Times. His most recent books include The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy AnswersThe Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature, and The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work.


  1. I was poised on the brink of not re-subscribing, when I got the latest issue with this article. That’s what I’ve been waiting for–a NEW way of looking at an old problem. Loved it. I miss the old Co-Evolution Quarterly/Whole Earth Review for its truly avant garde nature, its edginess. The Barbaric Heart brought that back for me.

  2. Great stuff.

    But what is to be done because the Invisible Megamachine (Mumford) seems to be almost unstoppable.

    Orion altogether provides some very useful guidelines.

    I dont know if you accept other website references but this essay ,and the book of which it is a part, gives a very sobering assessment of the origins and consequences of the current system, and what needs to be done to turn the situation around.

  3. An excellent and very thoughtful essay. I believe the breakdown of the Beauty Way starts at birth. In Chinese Medicine there is a concept called “Shen,” or spirit, which is the Yang animating force that marrys the Yin vehicle produced in the mother’s womb at the moment of birth when the first breath is taken. If there is a Shen disturbance at any point in someones’ life, and the Shen flees, then all kinds of barbaric and unthinkable acts become possible. A severe Shen disturbance is at the root of mental illness.

    Perhaps the thoughtfulness of your article will lead to more self-inquiry. I also agree that we would do better to find a Dionysian love.

  4. I understand that this essay will have its god-as-nature-swooning devotees.
    It’s right in line with the Pastor McKibben/Revered Hedges/ folk-strumming types, all in a row, all talking to themselves about capital letter this and sacred that.

    So the good Professor comes up with this “Barbaric Heart,” has it thinking and doing improbable acts for a muscle, and I’d advise its instant retirement as a literary conceit. Don’t look for it to come to a theater near you.

    These Deep Think essays mix in a few decent, Grade C sociological observations with the kind of “Being” and “Beautiful” ginned-up religiosity that might wow the seated prepsters who need the good professor’s approval for their own high grades, but as in his use of the term “crisis of faith,” it all seems issued from deep, deep within his sanctum sanctorum office hours. I admire Orion for trying to advertise this essay as being about something, but in the end, between the capital letters and the nonsense, I’d like to ask that short-form Big Thoughts essays by long-tenured profs be canceled, fortwith. Sorry to wreck the high, folks.

  5. Excellent, unusual piece, Curtis. And thanks to Orion for publishing this important work.

    The question you raise moves us in the direction of psychological introspection which, God knows, we badly need (witness the comments of “mjosef”). As Jung put it, “The origin of all coming evil is man himself.”

    Why indeed has our planetary situation reached this point?

    The premise of the Barbaric Heart is a valuable metaphor that deserves much consideration. Lewis Mumford did a lot of spadework in his book The Pentagon of Power, tracing the modern myth — in effect, the power-complex — back to ancient Egypt. Theodore Roszak, co-editor of the book Ecopsychology, saw fit to include a chapter devoted to the idea that humanity is behaving toward nature in what amounts to a psychopathic way.

    The Barbaric Heart resonates with that notion.

    After so many millennia, the psychology of the Barbaric Heart has become self-perpetuating, as the “sins of the fathers” reverberate for generations in the souls of their children.

    However predominant among humans, the Barbaric Heart is not inevitable. There is a choice, which begins by deciding whether to remain unconscious or to become conscious. Unconsciousness is by far the easier path.

    If Beauty — your gentle antidote to the unreflected brutality of the Barbaric Heart — ever fulfills its promise, it will be because enough individuals have chosen to open their souls to Beauty’s inherent claim on our Earth-born allegiance.

  6. “It is odd that we have so little relationship with nature, with the insects and the leaping frog and the owl that hoots among the hills calling for its mate. We never seem to have a feeling for all living things on the earth. If we could establish a deep abiding relationship with nature we would never kill an animal for our appetite, we would never harm, vivisect, a monkey, a dog, a guinea pig for our benefit. We would find other ways to heal our wounds, heal our bodies. But the healing of the mind is something totally different. That healing gradually takes place if you are with nature, with that orange on the tree, and the blade of grass that pushes through the cement, and the hills covered, hidden, by the clouds.” Jiddu Krishnamurti

    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” J.K.

    “When one loses the deep intimate relationship with nature, then temples, mosques and churches become important.” J.K.

  7. Excellent piece full of thoughtfulness. I think we probably don’t fully realize where we are going when we propose the development of a sustainable culture. Obviously many people flat out oppose the concept. But even those of us who believe in it may not be grasping the full implications. I certainly am not, but I am at least finding myself standing at the abyss looking down into the crazy changes of society and nature and realizing, holy cow. One interesting perspective to ponder is what kind of changes are implied to the meaning of virtue in a sustainable culture. For example, it has been written that the virtues of sustainability—character traits that are conducive to promoting environmental sustainability— are temperance, simplicity, farsightedness, attunement, and humility. Not so common in mainstream America, eh? Throw in care, compassion, non-maleficence, restitutive justice, and ecological sensitivity as character traits and you start seeing that some profound changes will have to occur in culture to nurture such traits. Maybe we have to go back in history a long ways, when certain other traits oriented to religion were in place, to find some common ground about human behavior. Unquestioned piety to imaginary friends is practiced all over the world but how about devotion to sustainability duties and practices, how would that work and how would it feel and would the hearts and souls of our young people enjoy that reality? What does it take to even approach nature with wonder, openness, attentiveness, aesthetic sensibility and love? What reinforces such approaches in modern life? What will appear—and how—to be forces that reinforce? The challenges are significant unless viewed as incremental achievements over time, as behavior responds to changes and all evolves in various directions, but of course time is something we often feel we no longer have, faced with catastrophic consequences in our atmosphere and other physical breakdowns. But none of our virtues are going to change quickly, they just don’t do that. What young people are doing right now anticipates what is coming, slowly if at all. Pretty wild.

  8. As I’ve been navigating my own tortured path between the shortcomings of environmentalism and the shortcomings of capitalism, this is exactly the type of insight and perspective that helps everything snap into focus. Kudos, Mr. Curtis White.

  9. Is our underlying problem really a barbaric heart or, instead, a heartless prejudice against nature in people, places and things?

    Due to racial prejudice, it has taken 200 years to reduce our irresponsible exploitation of people of color.

    Due to sexist prejudice, it has taken 200 years to reduce our irresponsible exploitation of women.

    However, today, around and within us, we continue to irresponsibly deteriorate the natural world. Due to the frightening depth of our prejudice against nature, we have neither addressed nor significantly reduced our unreasonable exploitation of nature, in and about us.

    To our loss, we excessively suffer many disorders because most of us have learned to identify our conquest of the natural world as “progress,” “economic growth” and “the advance of civilization,” not as a runaway prejudice against nature and the natural. 

    Most of us don’t recognize our degradation of nature as a form of discrimination or as the heart of our unsolvable problems. This is critical. Without identifying it as a profound prejudice, we neither know how to address nor remedy our destructive relationship with natural systems in the environment and each other.

    Today, May 5, 2009, search engine findings for “prejudice against nature” link almost exclusively to my twenty-seven year old book Prejudice Against Nature (1982), and to my articles on this subject. Seldom is our detrimental prejudice against nature identified or taken seriously. It is as if I have simply imagined it all these years, that I am mistaken, that our biased degradation of the natural does not really exist. 

    We are part of nature and its perfection. Its renewing way flows through us. What we do to it, we do to ourselves. 

    What does our dim-witted destruction of nature’s life say about us other than we suffer because our prejudice against nature won’t give nature a right to its life or treat it fairly.

    The moral and ethical values of Industrial Society are disgraced by the damaging effects of our unholy prejudice against other forms of life. Out of our shame and its pain, we are unable to admit to the insanity of us knowingly injuring the balance and beauty of the natural world and the flow of its grace in us. 

    Nature’s life is a nurturing and healing essence of our life. It is a form of madness to destroy our own life support system. 

    We are at risk because our arrogance has convinced us that we are advanced thinkers. Our ego won’t admit to its prejudice, to doing something as stupid as knowledgeably letting us shoot ourselves in the foot by injuring natural systems.

    Nature is self-correcting, purifying and restorative as it flows. Being blind to our prejudice against nature, we delude ourselves. We can’t see that our prejudice against nature and its support of well-being, underlies most of our personal, social and environmental problems. Our anti-nature bigotry has short circuited our thinking.

    Fortunately, an antidote has appeared. Today, many nature lovers have discovered that a new, nature-enhancing process, Educating Counseling and Healing with Nature (ECHN), gives us the remedy we need for our anti-nature lunacy. 

    The remedy works because it genuinely plugs our thinking and feeling into the regenerative and renewing powers of nature, backyard or backcountry. It makes nature’s wisdom our ally, not an enemy to conquer or exploit.  

    Similar to a lasting walk in the park, ECHN helps us continually clear our mind. It increases our critical thinking as it encourages the flow of natural systems to recycle the garbage or pollution that Industrial Society has dumped in our psyche.

    Individuals who are lovers of nature are the hope of the world. They are usually thoughtful, dedicated and sensitive souls who appreciate the empowering art and science of ECHN and its unique contribution to well-being. 

    ECHN provides us with a potent preventative for what ails us. Our saving grace may be that those who recognize that life is sacred can to learn to use and teach ECHN. It enables them to apply their respect for nature’s ways to simultaneously strengthen our lives and all of life.

    Those of us who care about the peace of life-in-balance can learn and teach the online sensory science of Educating Counseling and Healing with Nature. We can take advantage of subsidized nature-connected degrees, courses and career opportunities that enable young or old to increase the health of the web-of-life, including humanity.

  10. Love this article. Just absolutely fantastic. I loved the treatment of the capitalist drive: “there is something admirable about the astonishingly complex world that capitalism has made.”

    I’ll have to read this three more times before I can really say anything of substance, unfortunately.

    Thanks for this.

  11. Curtis White uses his knowledge of history and philosophy to dance around the age-old concept modern thinkers love to avoid. It’s called sin. Sin is a fact in the lives of humankind. We all have murder hidden in our hearts, and alone without faith, hope, and; most of all, love; some aspect of that murderous violence will find its way to the surface of our lives. The seven deadly sins of pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth are alive and well.
    Most environmental/nature-focused writing seems to abhor any positive reference to Judeo-Christian tradition in favor of the ying and yang, and maybe for good reason looking at the type of Christianity dominant in world. Of course some try to blame environmental degradation on the “dominion” directive in Genesis 1:28, in which case they need to continue reading through Genesis 2:15 and beyond.
    Those of us in the so-called ‘creation care’ community, have always acknowledged that the ‘environmental crisis’ is a moral crisis. It’s a reflection of sin in our lives individually and collectively as a society and civilization. We lust after selfish desires, self-fulfillment, self aggrandizement, comfort, etc. at the expense of the rest of God’s good creation including our fellow human beings with whom we share the planet.
    In our human pursuit of happiness rather than the beauty of true joy, we follow the path warned against in Proverbs 16:25, “There is way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
    There is beauty throughout all of creation including within each of us. The early Christian concept of nature’s beauty was not just aesthetic beauty but it represented a grace and energy, which sustains the universe – a reflection of God’s beauty.
    Just as the teachings of Jesus stood the concepts of Jewish legalism and of a violent messianic redemption on their heads in his day, so, today, a true following of Jesus (difficult to find!) turns individualism, materialism, commercialism, and militarism on their heads. It’s a stand against sin.
    Yes, we need beauty to overcome the barbaric sinful heart. We need to “array ourselves with glory and beauty” (Job 40:10), and praise the Lord with all of creation (Psalm 148).
    I’m not sure where Curtis White thinks he (and we) will find the strength to “make our own world, demanding the impossible and calling it Beautiful”. Apparently, he believes we can somehow humanly will it to be even when we see that it’s the weakness of the human-centered will that has led to our degraded planet earth. I would posit the need for a ‘higher power’, which I call Jesus to overcome my self.
    As Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty will save the earth”, but good luck with Dionysus Mr. White.

  12. As a follow-up, I’m glad a few folks liked some of the notes in the essay: I called them “decent,” but gave them a grade of C. Maybe a higher grade is deserved. Yet all undone by the fantastical transcendental mysticism of the last paragraph. What does the good reverent professor mean by the witless folderol?
    Similarly, the comments are mostly further tripe. Jerry Lang seems to abhor his self, finding it murderous and lustful and whatever. He posits this Christian concept of “sin,” saying it underlies all problems he finds. I, on the other hand, am not a war with my self, and find that Christianity is a scourge against a proper enjoyment of sex,passion,doubt, and happiness. We as humans act in general accordance with our social conditions, yet the religious charlatans of the world transfer their own self-disgust into a ruling slavery of victims who are taught to blame themselves for their predicaments, instead of their elite masters.
    As for the fetishization of “nature,” we fool ourselves if we think we can undo the continual and growing terrors inflicted by the Industrial Revolution upon the water, the land, and our fellow animals. Thinking good thoughts and playing with leaves does not bring forth environmental justice, social justice, or food on the table of the starving. If all environmentalism means is wooly-headed reverie while the mass of humanity is ground down by the human-controlled social order, then it is immoral. If you think Curtis White provided you an answer for the damage that we as humans have done, through our social, economic, and religious orders, then you’re a better diviner than I am.

  13. …and here I go.

    (I should be posting this on Orion, but shoot, this place needs posts more.)

    Haha! This guy goes on and on and on about The Barbaric Heart. But he doesn’t come close to the true issue until he writes this: “We are that strange and wonderful animal that has the metaphysical comfort of knowing that she is part of the tragic chorus of natural beings.”

    And then he loses the thread. [sigh]

    You can get so wrapped up in celebrating the Beautiful that you forget: we are animals; and nature is not, most emphatically NOT, about Beauty. Nature is messy, and so are we. We have gotten, however, this most peculiar genetic mutation, that like any genetic mutation, hangs around as long as it helps us reproduce. And it is, well, it’s what makes us, among other things, write articles like this. It’s Intellect, whatever that is: that thing that allows us to create, and build on that creation, and build on those creations, generation upon generation, exponent upon exponent as our population expands and expands, and erases more and more of the creatures in its way, under the protective umbrella of what we create.

    WE CAN’T STOP THAT. We can’t stop it, any more than Smilodon fatalis could stop plunging those fangs; any more than the Irish elk could stop using – or growing – those fantastical antlers; any more than bacteria or viruses can stop colonizing the thing that keeps them alive until it dies, and they do too; having first taken the trouble to attach the hope of the race to another host.

    This weird genetic mutation of ours – successful, oh let me be clear on that, as almost none other has been, given how Ma Nature measures success (simply: more and more and more of us) – does something, maybe the one thing, that is truly what sets Homo sapiens apart from everything else: the illusion that what has happened to the rest of Earth’s species won’t happen to us; that we are clever enough to avoid the fate of all life; that Beauty will save us, because how could Nature not want that? How could nature not want us, producing and yearning and hoping for Beauty above all?

    You’ve said it before, Wade. It’s Nature’s view of us that counts.

    And that view?

    Antlers tusks fangs wings hooves armies brains intellect Beauty.

    Seen it all.


  14. Pardon the “I should be posting this on Orion.” It went on another blog first, and then I went, well, I SHOULD. lol

  15. Great article. To me the crux is this: when we mastered fire, and formed agricultural society, we needed to take over from natural selection and makes ourselves adapt.

    To my mind, that means adapting to being self-governing, and inherently conscious not only of ourselves (and, as socially inculcated, others) but of all things around us and the long-term effects of all of our actions.

    We haven’t yet taken this next step in evolution, or at least not enough of us have, so we are sliding backward into a hybrid right/left philosophy where freedom, consumerism, justice, individuality, and morality all mean the same thing: each person can live, breed and exist in their personal world without someone reminding them that their actions are selfish.

  16. Well, I tend to agree with the comments that slapping upper case letters on a euphemism for greed and selfishness ain’t exactly a watershed moment for the species. Still, it was eloquent and made me look at the old, old story in a slightly different light.

    But, let’s get on down to the lick log here…..what is likely to change? Is Western (and let’s not shun our fellow Asiatic travelers towards extinction)capitalistic enterprise suddenly going to evaporate, or is it even likely to wither in our grandchildren’s lifetimes? Even gradually? Me thinks not. At least not in the sense understood by social evolutionists….inexorable adaptation driven by ever more exigent circumstances. All this stuff we’ve assembled will take a boat load of entropy to undo all of this anytime soon. I await the ultimate trash disposal unit that will evaporate it all into an ether of anti-matter….not THAT would be progress. What MIGHT happen is something more along the lines of a big ol’ cosmic kick in the arse, more punctuated evolution than incremental adaptation. That time is short for us is hardly a mind-blowing revelation at this stage, most would agree. What form that coup will take is up for grabs, but we all know the contenders for the title.

    The irony of our little temper tantrum that is the American Republic on this continent is that we rubbed out in Act I the many cultures that might could have spared us a lot of pain…if we had only been open to listen. Does that message still have legs, or are we doomed to retrench into our Randian fantasies and diddle ourselves with ever more evaporative pleasures?

    Before that question gets answered, I’m wagering that history and nature will draw a bead on our little drama…no refunds, no rain checks. As Donn puts it: “NEXT!!!”

  17. Many thanks for the comments posted. Just a few observations.

    1. I am always stunned at the willingness of some people to think that being a “professor” is some sort of intellectual failing in itself. This is called an ad hominem argument. It is the weakest form of argument. Sorry to be pedantic.

    2. The purpose of the essay and the book is to stop lying to ourselves. I don’t know that I know the truth (maybe the truth has something to do with sin after all), but I do believe that telling ourselves that sustainability initiatives like Obama’s new auto mpg rules will help something is a kind of lie. It is what I call a “good without light” (borrowing from Simone Weil). You can’t green things that believe it is okay to profit from violence.

    3. I have A LOT more to say about “nature red in tooth and claw,” the role of science and technology, the role of work, the role of economics in the book. (You can call this comment product placement if you like.)

    4. Beauty. This is an issue that is always just beginning. I propose this term and the term “thoughtfulness” knowing full well that there is something tautological about their use in my argument. The beautiful isn’t a thing, it’s a desire. It is like justice. We don’t know exactly what it is, and yet we stake our lives on it. In my mind, beauty, justice, thought are always evolving. Which is to say that for me God too is evolving. The destiny of humans as a species should not be mistaken for the destiny of animals, especially not one that means to gore you with its antlers.

  18. Mr. White:

    We may disagree on the fate of humans and animals. But that’s a quibble next to this on which we agree: “telling ourselves that sustainability initiatives like Obama’s new auto mpg rules will help something is a kind of lie. …You can’t green things that believe it is okay to profit from violence.”

    There’s another way to say that: Insanity is doing what you have always done, and expecting a different result.

    I kinda think the Barbaric Heart is our evolutionary endowment. I’m just hoping that whatever She is, God won’t hold it against us, having, well, put it there.

  19. Ah, as in only a few times in Internet history, the Voice descends to the comment sections to rebuke the hoi polloi.
    1. No ad hominem attack here – just an observation that professorial obtuseness is a blight upon our ludicrous intellectual scene. If that perspective stunned you, and other people are actually giving the professoriate some lip, why feign such disinterest in your examining your regrettable inwardness? Why is professorial obtuseness not fair game for ridicule?
    2. You claim such rigorous intensity for yourself as “the purpose of the essay and the book is to stop lying to ourselves,” and then you invoke such monumental nonsense as “sin” and the “Which is to say that God for me too is evolving” – evidence the neo-transcendental mysticism is the same old badly conflicted religionism, which seems to accrue to those who give up on anger as they age and acquire status.
    3. Please, use your intellectual gifts to face the natural world: we are polluting our way to destruction, in countless ways, including the academic, economic, and literary arenas. We desperately need sociological truth-tellers, not criticism-avoiding aestheticians.

  20. mjosef: Dude, switch to Sanka.

    Mr. White, thanks for posting your observations. My hope is that you will post again.

    Was it Proust who said that most of the ills of this world are attributable to man’s inability to sit alone in a room and do nothing? I think it was. I know what he meant. I think that you do too.

  21. Donn: I think the BH is part of our evolutionary heritage, but in my mind it’s more a cultural than a biological evolution. See JH Breasted’s worthy old book The Dawn of Conscience.

    mjoseph: I’m privileged that people read and respond to my writing. I have never not responded to emails, posts, letters, fan mail from some flounder, etc. As for professors, I probably have more reservations about them as a class than you do. (As my book the Middle Mind testifies.) But blaming individuals for the sins of a class is a form of bigotry.

    Plowboy: Sounds like Proust wrapped up snug in his bed for the day. Or the reclining Buddha. My email is at the Illinois State University Web site if you ever want to chat.

  22. Actually, Plow, that quote (which I understand as “all human evil stems from man’s inability to sit still in a room”) might have been the mathematician Blaise Pascal. Believe I saw that on the Internet once, so it’s probably wrong. And I’m too lazy to check; and where I am right now, I’d just be checking the Internet. Um, I’m in a library. So just check “lazy.”

    Curtis: I think our cultural evolution is indistinguishable from our biological evolution, i.e., culture is to us what the antlers are to the elk. I don’t know what that says about choice, or about the choices we’ve made, of course. If that means maybe there’s a “spark” in this machine, and thus a glimmer of hope somewhere, OK, I can go with that. I just have the sneaking suspicion that we were endowed with self- and evolution-consciousness; choice; and…well, the total option to go the way of the dinosaurs, or not. Which says nothing about whether we got Something Higher or, duh, I’ll take the hot fudge sundae over the broccoli, on balance, given the option. (i.e., The Sense of the Right Thing, not doing much more for the species at the moment than the appendix.) Looks like the dinosaurs will win at the rate things are going; but we did get nastier toys to play with, I guess.

  23. OK, I checked, and here it is:

    I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.

    – Blaise Pascal
    French mathematician, physicist (1623 – 1662)

    For what that’s worth, and they told you not to believe it just ’cause it’s in the papers, neither.

    But the guy who said it was smart, and right. ‘Course that’s where a lot of Beauty comes from, too. I think God intended this to be difficult: great privilege great responsibility etc.

  24. Mr. White: Well, I read “The Middle Mind” but didn’t make the connection to you. I bought it in a bookstore in Highlands, N.C…..won out over Dylan’s “Chronicles”, as I recall.(To be fair to him, his was still in hardcover.) It was a stimulating read which I enjoyed very much. Yep, golly, there’s your name, right there on the front cover. Handy how they do that now.

    Knowing that, it is very clear that you and Mssr./Mlle. Josef are pulling for the same side.

    BTW, I’ve looked for the attribution for that quote and can’t find it anywhere in Proust…so maybe I’ll just claim it as my own for now.

  25. Not enough scientists have been willing “to speak truth to power”. It seems that too many experts have chosen elective mutism and, thereby, allowed science to be suppressed, censored, gag rules imposed and countless distractions presented whenever reasonable and sensible evidence would come into conflict with what the economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians determine, out of their own selfish interests, to be real and true.

    Science appears to present the leaders of the global political economy with evidence of politically inconvenient and economically inexpedient truths. If that is so, who knows, perhaps the super-rich and powerful people among us might learn something that leads them to exemplify values other than the goodness of greed and personal aggrandizement as well as the false rightfulness of living unsustainably large and irresponsibly free in the planetary home God blesses us inhabit.

  26. Interesting essay. Interesting comments. But why am I getting “here we go round the mulberry bush” running through my head all the while I’m reading? None of this is new. It’s been said many times, many ways, and probably more cogently and comprehensively by C G Jung. The Barbarian Heart looks to me uncannily like the Jungian Shadow.

    Einstein put his finger on it, and Gentzen formalised it: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

    The level of consciousness that created our present problems has been with us since at least Roman times, as Curtis White has so clearly shown, which necessarily dictates that we are going to have to think ourselves out of a pretty stupendously enormous box if we’re going to get anywhere close to something useful.

    As far as I can see, the root of the problem can be traced right back to the fact that we conceptualise and experience our existence in terms of a highly literalistic dualism, beginning with the notion of self/other. Having fragmented experience into that primary dichotomy, we then proceed to set up mutually exclusive and antagonistic concepts (that in reality are just different sides of the same coin) and ally our “selves” with one against the other — “me” and “mine” vs “you” and “yours”, “good” vs “bad”, “left” vs “right”, “right” vs “wrong”, “capitalism” vs “environmentalism” — which inevitably consigns us to a lifetime spent fighting our own shadows. The mess we’ve made of the Earth is just collateral damage, fallout, so Curtis White is on the nail in suggesting that focusing on symptoms rather than causes will solve nothing.

    Einstein again: “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest…a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in it’s beauty.”

    Don’t we have to question the very idea of the self? The Buddhists have long pointed to its illusory nature. It, like many things we take for granted as solid objective reality, is nothing but a figment of our imaginations. Russell Targ: “Although each of us obviously inhabits a separate physical body, the laboratory data from a hundred years of parapsychology research strongly indicate that there is no separation in consciousness.”

    The challenge is to reframe our most fundamental beliefs, so that (to paraphrase a Discordian or two), beliefs are no longer seen as ends in themselves, but as tools for creating desired effects. To fully realise this is to face a terrible freedom in which Nothing is True and Everything is Permitted, which is to say that everything is possible, there are no certainties, and the consequences can be ghastly. Laughter seems to be the only defence against the realisation that one does not even have a real self, and the only appropriate response to the recognition that we inhabit one limitless and extraordinary paradox: a literal analogy.

    Which means that, paradoxical though it might seem, the means to solving the problems “out there” lie “in here”.

  27. I don’t have the slightest idea what Wendy Howard is talking about.

    Neither does she, nor anyone else. And that may be the problem.

    I haven’t heard anything that even begins to approach a “solution” for the situation we are in. And Wendy says why: we try to follow the same trail of bread crumbs out of the problem that we followed in to it. We always presume, for one thing, that there is a solution, or even multiple solutions, when really, there doesn’t have to be even one solution, accessible from the way we currently think. There is no law that says we need to fix this; and yet the way so many talk about it, the presumption seems to be that there is a way, and that we have to find it.

    Now of course I suspect there may be one. but like Wendy says, it may not solve the problem the way we’ve gotten used to. It is embodied in this thought, frequently expressed by wilderness advocates, including me: the best reason for saving wilderness is that it exists, and that the beings in it have rights which are, on the cosmic scale which is the only one that really matters, EQUIVALENT TO OUR OWN.

    This is dicey stuff for a species whose main evolutionary adaptation is the appropriation of ecological niches (with attendant shoving aside – to put it politely – of the beings living in them). The “level of consciousness” on which we have operated to get in this fix is the one that accepts this as a fundamental truth: We Have Dominion, over the earth and all on it. It’s the ultimate separation of consciousness, the ultimate in We vs. They. It’s been around at least since we shared the planet with Neanderthals, or else civilization would never have happened. It will kill us, as inevitably as the mechanisms of extinction have always used what beings are to eventually terminate them. Sooner or later, like deer overgrazing the range, we’ll eat it all. And then.


    I see the solution as simple: we need to STOP APPROPRIATING NICHES. We need to cease, forthwith, the destruction of the nnatural systems that keep our planet habitable.

    Which means, of course, that population control and economic growth are tantamount to nuclear holocaust, every bit as bad and maybe worse, under way as we watch, and must be stopped. If you think anything else, sorry, you don’t have the solution, and you will never be close. What I’m saying is: Not one more car; not one more road. Not one more building.

    Not one more person.

    Until what century? Search me.

    Chew on that. Or chew on Wendy’s.

    Same thing. Really.

    And no, I don’t have the slightest idea what that means or how we – whatever that is – will do it. Neither does Wendy, and neither do you.

  28. I meant in that last missive “population growth,” not “control.” Of course. Although we may have to do much more than what we have come to regard as “control” to stop that growth, if we don’t want it done for us.

    The crux to me is this: are we a being that can rewrite the script for life on earth? Or are we merely cursed – one of those silly little evolutionary fripperies, like T. rex’s forearms – with the knowledge of what we could be…if we weren’t what we are…?

  29. Curtis White’s The Barbaric Heart is an interesting and thoughful article. Unfortunately, it is flawed with deeply held prejudice like so many environmental articles.

    “Ultimately, these types are all the same. The athlete, the soldier, and the businessman all want to “win,” and by whatever means necessary.” Making rash and untrue statements like this serves no good purpose. Yes, there are those who are short on morals in every field of endeavor.

    The news businss is full of this sort of reporting which leads those short on “thoughtfulness” to lie to themselves by accepting the non sequitur that since many have been caught cheating therefore most or all others must do the same. In reality I feel there is a balancing act going on between our barbaric hearts and our sense of honesty and fair play. Those who subscribe to “by what ever means necessary” seldom last long. In fact the vast majority of athletes and businessmen want to engage themselves in a honest, fair and forthright mannor in a well refereed environment.

    When can we grow up and quit seeking a scapegoat for our mutual shortcomings? Capitalism is not the only one trapped in the “unlimited growth” syndrome. Government does not want to cut back from it’s wild spending binge either. Labor wants high paying jobs for the entire workforce. We enjoy the benefits of a booming economy, and we turn our heads to the environmental outcomes.

    Sure, we are all environmentalist, but only so long as we don’t have to pay more or live with less. It must be the “malignant dwarfs (CEOs? MBAs?)” It just couldn’t be us. No way! Maybe it is ‘Adam Smith’s famous “division of labor,” the work that promises only tedium and despair and passivity, in the face of destruction.” He is long dead so shouldn’t get any complaint out of him. Besides we can ship all those ugly jobs to China and let our slaves there do the work for us as long as they will loan us the money to buy it. After all there just can’t be any pride in working with others to produce a useful product, and earning a paycheck. Not everyone wants to be a university professor or even to sit in his class and listen to his naive dribble. Will Rodgers said it best – “We are all ignorant, just about different things.” The only shame there is in doing a factory production job is the shame Mr. White should feel for saying there is.

    I have little hope for success in resolving our environmental crisis so long as environmentalist are in charge of the issue. Throwing buckets of XXXX in the faces of all those who actually have the managerial skills to address the many complex issues is a sure path to failure. Environmentalist tend to tow a duffel bag of misconceptions and prejudices so large that they are dysfunctional.

    While not specific to Mr White’s article I want to inject the observation that having read a few hundred environmentally focused articles I have seen 50 references as to how bad the Republicans are to each one on the Democrats. I am a card carrying independent, and strongly feel we need to strive for inclusion rather than exclusion to increase the success of achieving our objectives. Get off the politics and get on to fact and reason.

    Perhaps there are already to many academic articles now. Perhaps it is past time to start documenting exactly what needs to be done. The basics of who, what, when, where,and how.

  30. Interesting but really beside the point.The human ego is a product of and a servant of human evolution.
    Evolution is amoral so all this wailing and gnashing of teeth is futile until people come to appreciate the real nature of the human condition.
    It is not that envisaged by the Abramaic religions or moral philosophers.

  31. Mr. Hastings, you make some good points….but then you lose me here:

    “Environmentalist tend to tow a duffel bag of misconceptions and prejudices so large that they are dysfunctional. ”

    Trafficking in pejoratives, whatever the goal, deletes the message, don’t you think? Now, if you want to substitue “people” for “environmentalists”, or include “capitalists” for that matter, I’m with you.

    I do agree with your fundamentals though.

    What is horrifying to me is the way in which “enlightened self-interest” is substituted for rank selfishness in our culture, and the perpetrators are most often admired for it. There ain’t nuthin’ elightened about it.

    On the other pole, we We recoil from anything that even whiffs of having an odor of collective enterprise for the common good. Those who are competent to organize are thrown out with the bath water becuase their politics are tainted. I suppose that the Soviet model did irreperable damage to our thinking along those lines. The result seems to be that we can not organize much of anything that doesn’t return a dollar to the shareholders or punch our instant gratification buttons. Well, at least we couldn’t used to.

    Let the bread not show up on the shelves of the local Zippy Mart a few time and we’ll all be wondering where the arable land might be hidden in our subdivision neighborhoods and a degree is software engineering might not offer as much utility as knowing when the last frost is likely to occur at your latitude. My personal belief it that all this posturing will seem quaint when it comes down to that lick log. Right now, the vast majority of us (me included) enjoy the luxury of indulging in these discussions courtesy of a full belly.

    As I’m prone to say: You want ecological healing? Then work for sustainable farming and food security in your community.

  32. Interesting article. Unfortunately quite beside the point.The human ego is a product of and servant for human evolution. Evolution is amoral so all this angst is not relevant. Until the human race comes to realize its true position in the universe is not what the moral philosophers proclaim and the Abrsmic religions and embraces the truth these discussions are nugatory.

  33. Mr Mcintyre:

    I’d say that evolution is amoral, yes, and if that were all we were, I’d be with you 100%.

    Put aside all the dogma if you want, I’m fine with that, but you’ll not convince me that individuals are not capable of transcending their evolutionary adaptations. You have to ignore a large, very large, body of evidence if you want to believe that.

    Now, will the angels of our better natures prevail? You can’t ever know. The wheel is waaaay big and it moves waaaay slow. The human has just not been granted enough time down here to have that intelligence. For most of our lives, if we are lucky, we’re more concerned with chasing carnal pleasures, leisure and security. Wondering if the species has moved ahead, or not, in our lifetimes is something only those who come later will be able to judge, but even then not perfectly, I think.

  34. Curtis White certainly has his hands full.

    According to some of his more astute readers, he has been: talking to himself about “capital letter this and sacred that” (4-mjosef); missing the “underlying problem” (9-Michael J. Cohen); going on and on about the Barbaric Heart but “does not come close to the true issue” (13-Donn Ahearn); serving up an interesting article which is nevertheless “flawed with deeply held prejudice (32-Lionel Hastings) and is “really beside the point” (33-Don McIntyre).

    Amazing how off-base Mr. White’s article is. In view of these pointed criticisms, he should probably forfeit his “sanctum sanctorum office hours” and cancel forthwith any more “Big Thoughts essays.” He clearly doesn’t have the mind for it.

    Those of us who erroneously found value in Mr. White’s insights, should stop wailing and gnashing our teeth, put aside our folk-strumming guitars and devote ourselves to the works of real leaders such as Eman’s hero, Radical Ecofascist Pentti Linkola (see the URL in Eman’s Post #31).

  35. …or, Paco Mitchell, you could just eschew the counter-snark and address what we said.

    Mr. White responded directly to me, for one, and felt no need to adopt your tone at all.

    If you feel guilt at having “erroneously” found value in the article, we’re here to help you with that, too.


  36. Hi Donn,

    I had to look up “snark” — a contraction of “snide” and “remark.” Clever.

    In response to your challenge, I made a separate file of your posted comments and read them at one go. I have to admit that I don’t want to devote the time it would require to respond to all of your “points.” Surprisingly, I agree with quite a few of the things you said, but the valid ideas are interspersed with so much B.S. that it’s just not worth the trouble to untangle it for you.

    You began by addressing Mr. White thus: “Haha! This guy goes on and on about the Barbaric Heart . . . . “ I don’t know why he shouldn’t go ”on and on,” since that’s what his article was about. But when “this guy” actually responded to you — or, as mjosef put it, “the Voice descends to the comment sections to rebuke the hoi polloi” — you seemed suddenly chastened and reduced your snarking, at least until Wendy Howard came along.

    Curtis White seems far more generous and tolerant, so far, than his critics in this discussion . . . more generous and tolerant than I am, apparently. But notice that not one critical respondent has yet had the wit to take his insight about the Barbaric Heart and extend it into deeper territory, nor has anyone really refuted it. The most they can do, it seems, is to criticize him for having written his own article. In the process he commits the sin of missing THEIR point.

    He must be an extraordinary teacher indeed, endowed with monumental patience, to be so generous to his careless critics.

    Here, then, is my challenge to you, Donn: Take your separate posts in this discussion and meld them into one file, as I did. Then re-write the whole thing so that your ideas are presented as cogently as are Curtis White’s, and submit that as a new post. But this time, forgo the sloppy Internet writing and give it all your skill and intelligence. If you respond to this challenge, I’m pretty sure I will feel stirred to respond to you in kind.

    You’ve got a lot to say. Why not slow down and say it well?

  37. Paco: Counter-challenge.

    Respond to the clear and cogent points I made – without the use of incorrect over-generalizations like “so much B.S. that it’s just not worth the trouble” – and I just might consider your challenge to me to write an article for which Orion did not commission my considerable talents worth the trouble. Or maybe not; I’m sure Mr. White received more consideration from Orion for his piece than I’m getting for commenting upon it. Nice try, though.

    We all of us commented on the article. As Orion clearly allows us to do. Rather non-sloppily. Our points are clear. Respond to them. As you note: we have a lot to say. Well, we said it. If you diagree with us, you can’t hide behind an excuse that we’re difficult to untangle.

    Boy, I sure don’t have any problems with untangling. But if you characterized my agreeing with Mr. White on one of his points as “chastened” – or if you considered my response to Wendy snarky – well, you might.

  38. Me, I AM rooting for the recession. Anyone else? C’mon. You know you are….

  39. Wow.

    Great to read a serious piece of environmental writing that recognises that the roots of our mal-functioning are essentially spiritual in nature.

    I think that in itself is significant.

    I have to say, however, that personally I find the original “Logos” (the one you quote about from John’s gospel) far more impressive than one of my own construction.

  40. OK, Plow, I do confess to wanting to know what our time horizon is, really bad. Which might include finding out, well, really really soon. Devil you know and all that.

    I’m thinking that casing the inventory of edible wild plants won’t be a first-order activity for most, so I’m headed in that direction when the balloon goes up. ‘Course, community gardens are a prominent feature of my town, so making some friends to share information (and other stuff) will be on the agenda.

  41. I’ll also give White credit for reminding me to go back and read “Howl”, which I did. Can’t say if I have done that in the last 25 years, but I should do it weekly. The Beat goes on.

    And yeah Donn, I find myself, against my own (short term) best interest, rooting for the collapse of the Dow. In the long run, I’m thinking that the sooner we put a bullet in all of this nonsense, the better. As JHK is prone to ask, “Recover to what, exactly?”

  42. All right, Paco, way to mix it up!
    AS for your challenge, no, I took the Barbaric Heart out of its packaging, read the instructions that said it would be thinking and doing things, but it just sat there, dripping its blood, so I left it. So the “deeper territory” is up to you and its designer, those with the “mind” and the “wit” and the “insight.” Good luck on your sales journeys.
    Now, of course Curtis White has shown toleration and generosity, and has responded in commendable ways of public outreach. Yet the the title of his essay was not about being kind to your neighbors with marshmallow pies, but “crisis” and “capitalism,” and it did engender the “spiritaul” nonsense that eco-transcendentalists just can’t stop seeding the asphalt with. The dreamweaver syndicate, sometimes top-notch in anti-corporate criticism, but then it’s crop-circles and bongoes and the whole bottom falls out.

  43. To #34 Plowboy

    After spending several hours keying and grooming a second draft of my reply to your question it was lost in Orion’s computer system.

    It seems they changed the computer code you key in in the instant that it took me to key in this screen and hit send. When I returned to my message it was wiped out.

    Being dyslexic I am a horrible speller. So I did a first draft off the Orion site that is 80% of what I had on the Orion site. I decline to do the work twice.

    If you would like the 80% version I will be happy to e-mail it direct to you or anyone else that is interested.


    Lionel Hastings

  44. Thanks to Curtis White I now have a strong summary essay to introduce the work of self transformation in harmony with Nature (sacred capitals on purpose) to my students. Yes it a general sociological overview but it is very difficult to get a handle on the complexity and pattern of underlying issues without at times writing from the perspective of a “mile wide” instead of the academically favoured “mile deep”.
    Wendy I agree that White is talking Jungian shadow work here. I believe it is Yanagi in the Unknown Craftsman who says that beuaty is the absence of duality. In other words beauty is not necessarily pretty it is the connection even communion with nature that is felt when we hold the tension created by opposition and transcend to a deepened sense of self.
    I would change “thoughfulness” in White’s piece to mindfulness- we cannnot only think our way through this mess we must also feel.
    Here’s a bit of self promo- my newly released book called Beauty Muse: Painting in communion with Nature offers some practical activities and resources for experiencing directly what White so eloquently provides the argument for. See

    All the best
    Lisa Lipsett

  45. Without hitting them it raises two key points.

    1. the shift to one god verses mother nature has seen the decline in respect for the land and a passion for extracting wealth without consideration for consequence.

    2. The solutions to our troubles are not going to come from mainstream thinking. They have to come from radicals and then find their way into mainstream.

  46. I have often wondered whether, as technocrat-ized as we are, we can ever again approach the wholistic worldview which so many of Earth’s more “primitive” cultures hold. Those same indigenous societies which we are bulldozing out of existence in the Amazon, which we have driven nearly to extinction in the Native America culture. Lacking appreciation of the unique beauty and life around us, on this very rare place in the cosmos, can we ever learn to control our machines instead of them controlling us? The Barbaric Heart is our deep and genuine knowledge of the relatedness of life, of the tapestry of everything around us, and how it knits together. My first question as a writer is: Is there any kind of culture which can mix technology and the sacredness of life together and use it as a sustainable ideal in all their inventions and and so-called “progress.” I doubt we would want to go back to living in caves, but is there any way in which we can continue to keep nature as natural as possible, as close to us as we can without ruining it? that is the question, isn’t it?

  47. Dear C.L. Rossman [49],

    As far as I can tell, that is indeed the big question, not only of the century, for perhaps for the next several centuries.

    What I see is mostly discouraging, although the number of people who frame similar questions seems to be increasing.

    I recently had a dream that cast an interesting light on the issue. In the dream, a jet engine was built into the walls of a residential home. The engine was no longer running or generating thrust, but the turbine blades were still spinning, the way they do at an airport after a plane’s engines have been shut down. In the dream, however — and this was the most intriguing thing — the turbine blades were SPINNING BACKWARDS.

    This image suggests to me, with a flicker of hope, that it may yet be possible to UNWIND the driving thrust that is propelling our civilization toward calamity.

    Significantly, it was in the structure of an individual home that the turbine whose blades were “unwinding” was located.

    The biblical prophet Hosea famously said they sow the wind, but reap the whirlwind. If we can somehow “unwind” the wind we are sowing, we may yet escape the whirlwind.

    To me it depends on how many people become aware of the question you have raised, and begin their own version of the “unwinding” process. At the very least, it involves not lending their energies to sowing the wind.

  48. As an old generalist (librarian) my interest has been in truth not ideals, beliefs, mere facts or faith.
    The past century gave us two serious seekers of truth, Ivan Illich and Jiddu Krishnamurti. They met once and discussed the conditioning we receive from our religions, governments, schools, families, ethnic background, communities, and genetic inheritance.
    Their conversation was captured by Pupul Jayakar in her book “Krishnamurti, a Biography.” Though very different, they agreed on most of what they discussed. Their meeting is covered in Chapter 26, “Love Does Not Suffer,” page 301 of the biography.
    The chapter also covers war, tradition, technology, freedom, suffering, relationships, truth…
    I feel its content may enhance our discussion here.

  49. Thank you for responding. that is a very interesting dream, especially since the turbines were implanted in a house..

  50. I really connect with this idea of the Barbarian Heart, but I think the author misses the mark when he says that what we all really crave is beauty. Sounds like one of the so many to move west and buy their 20 acres in some Valley of paradise. Its off the mark. What we crave is not beauty – or at least it shouldn’t be. For every Boulder CO that glamorizes the cover of some greatest places to live list, there is a Butte, MT and its mile-wide, mile-deep gold, silver, copper and iron ore mine that, while is not so beautiful, does supply all the Yuppsters living in wonderfulville with their groovy bikes, i-pods, espresso machines and the rest. The beauty we seek only displaces and hides reality. It is HARMONY that we need to find. It is the harmonious one that is the virtuous life.

  51. CL Rossman. Yes, that is the question. The answer is balanced within another. How many is too many people?

  52. Grant Brok has raised the w question–how many is too many people–and I tthink That’s relevent too,. With far fewer people, much of what we do would not impact the environment so drastically. i’ve explored this idea in my books–creating a )nonhuman but mammalian) society whose members still revere the world around them while being able to have such things as electricity , hot running water, and transportation, among others. Take a look at “renegade the Hunter” (avail. at Amazon, etc.) to see how that might work and let me know what you think.

  53. Intriguing essay and fascinating discussion. We are all (me too) so captivated by this “barbaric heart” and everywhere progressives and thoughtful people are talking about it by one name or another. But then, is our own and we know firsthand it’s power over us. We love it and hate it day by day in a rhythm as old as… us. Judging from the conversation we are much less captivated by the suggested antidote “beauty.” I’m not sure anyone has mentioned it in 55 comments. Maybe we are too embarrassed to be that “heartfelt” human being. Silly in love doesn’t feel serious or smart.

  54. It’s telling to me that Curtis uses the word “fuck” and in the following paragraph takes advantage of the pronoun “she”. This was the first nod to the feminine (other than as booty) in the article. The article lacked the Native and Eastern sensibilities, and, in its reliance on Western thought, misses many of the nuances of Whitman’s “barbaric yelp”. Perhaps Curtis needs to consider the dung beetle more curiously in his consideration of Being, and the aesthetic.

  55. It would be a major accomplishment if mankind were to combine a controlled technology with the preservation of Earth. Not only a major accomplishment but a miracle. There are too many humans and everywhere we go to seek peace and tranquility, a hundred others have gone there, too. There was a time when even scientists spoke of the “wonder and glory” of the universe, but we have reverted completely to a mechanistic view, relying on technology to solve every problem which, ironically, it has created in the first place. Can there still be stretches of open land natural wonder alongside hot water and refrigeration?

  56. “Thoughtfulness offers the Barbaric a better way to think about what it means to thrive…in our current circumstances, thoughtfulness’s first task is the acknowledgment that we have been lying to ourselves.”

    This is a bunch of bullshit. It’s well-written bullshit, but bullshit it remains. You cannot make a barbarian think. Acknowledging self-deception requires introspection and rationalism a barbarian does not posses. The barbarian will slaughter the thoughtful long before the point of critical self-honesty is reached.

    We are driving straight off a cliff. We will realize what we squandered only in those last agonized, regretful moments after the last tree is cut down, the last animal shot, the last river polluted, the last iceberg melted.

    Like a terminal lung cancer patient after a lifetime spent inhaling coffin nails, the barbarian can only mourn what he has done when it’s too late to do anything about it.

  57. mjosef this one is for you, years later.

    I admit I laughed at your critical rendering of the text. I can’t help but think you failed to grasp the point though, being so distracted, reveling in your distaste for the conceptual framework the author employed. You need not buy into ‘The Barbaric Heart’, but surely you must recognize the question from which it sprang, namely, where do environmentalism’s failure and capitalism’s rampant and ever increasing global destruction stem from, and what is to be done in the former’s place, seeing as how it cannot hope to stop the latter?

  58. I do see a turnaround among some people into regarding the natural world as our birthplace and our home.
    The problem is, I think, that many poor nations want to become rich ones, and the only way they can do that is to destroy their natural heritage by lumbering, drilling, etc.

    It would help if we vlaued something more that money–but money has become this world’s god and be-all and end-all, We blindly pursue the only thing that will bring us out of poverty–while such bloated establishment as big oil and big Pharmacol strive to keep the fatcats ever fatter and their purses ever fuller. We are streaking toward a disaster in which any decision to apply the brakes will come too late, as it has with global warming. Already in my climate zone(5) we have had the hottest March on record (90+ degrees F. and the longest fall without a single frost—mid-October here in the North country and the temps are in the 60’s.)It has wreaked havoc with insect populations like fleas and ticks exploding out of bounds.

    Politicians cannot be trusted because they will do whatever their backers say.

    I would suggest going to a lottery system whereby everyone who isn’t in prison would be required to serve in political office for a two=year term. —We might get some good done there…. and at least balance the scales between the pols who do not have to obey their own laws, with average people who have had enough of being oppressed…

    I once advocated a hunter-gatherer society (with high-tech) which did not desecrate its environment because they reverenced all the life about them, even as they took it.

    Our population has grown much too overweening for that, I’m afraid….and what man will not control, Natural eventually must.

    Any thoughts?

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