[amazon-product]0981709125[/amazon-product]In The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature, Curtis White deploys for ideological battle in a literary academic’s full panoply, and there is pleasure in seeing so much wit and erudition put to such radical ends, but it’s precisely at the all-determining extreme points that his argument breaks down – that he stammers just like the bar-bar-barbarians whose vast and immortal heart he wants to tear to pieces.
Even in a work of less ambition, there would be no good excuse for a paragraph like the following, which appears at the finale of White’s extended attempt to bend the Second Law of Thermodynamics into an iron law of capitalist un-sustainability:
Unhappily, technological fixes will always run foul of the Second Law: they will never succeed in being perfectly efficient, and they will create round after round of entropic events requiring each their own fix. Examples of this are on the front page of our newspapers every day. We speak of energy sources like ethanol or nuclear power as alternatives to carbon-based energy and as responses to climate change. To the degree they do what they were intended to do – reduce CO2 – they create order. But they create other forms of disorder (pollution) by a huge and frightening factor, not the least of which is the potential for “nuclear winter” should nuclear fuel get into the wrong hands. Such “fixes” obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics by allowing disorder (entropy) to cascade in new directions. In the end, the only fix is not technological but conservative: conservation. Literally, “working” less (especially our machines).
To put the matter perhaps a bit heartlessly, White knows his comp. lit. backwards, forwards, and round the world, but does not seem to have spent enough time on the other side of campus.
We can start with the most obvious error: Contrary to White’s assertion, nuclear winter has nothing to do with “nuclear fuel… getting into the wrong hands.” The term refers to the theoretical aftereffects of the near simultaneous detonation of a large number of megaton-range nuclear warheads on or near their targets on the ground. Though somewhat insusceptible to experimental verification, nuclear winter is easy to grasp. Someone like White, who always assumes whatever worst case ecological scenarios as his starting point, ought to find the concept easy to understand, assuming he has ever actually looked into it, since nuclear winter is a simple version of anthropogenic climate change – one in which a very particular human action blots out sunlight by filling the sky with ash and dust.
As for the slightly more complex process that gets all the headlines, because carbon heat capture theory is sound and has been known to be so for well more than a century, the proper question regarding the “greenhouse effect” is not whether it will occur, but whether and how much it matters. The same goes for White’s other observations, at least if they are intended for practical or political consideration rather than as mere statements of faith or of moral or aesthetic judgment. So, on that more general argument regarding the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, we can stipulate that unbounded material expansion of present-day industrial economies would eventually overwhelm the Earth’s ecosystem, but whether the ultimate and necessary limits of sustainability are likely to be met this year, this decade, this generation, this century, this millennium, or merely somewhere between today and the heat death of this universe makes all the difference in the world. If the answer leads us to amend “The End Is Near” to “The End Might Be Near,” we’re back in politics, weighing comparative advantages and falling back on precepts of pluralism and compromise whose culturally fundamental character White at other points fully recognizes even as he suggests we may no longer be able to afford them.
That last contradiction ought to fill the author with despair: Under his general line of argument, it would seem to imply that a catastrophe of Biblical proportions is inescapable, and still might not be sufficient to change people’s minds around to his point of view. Yet rather than sign off on a lament, or on a prayer for strength, White’s final reaction is that of a patient under a terminal diagnosis, first grasping at a miracle cure, and eventually seeking solace in pure religious belief. After a rambling discussion under the heading “Democratic Vistas” – a discussion in which, I think rather indicatively, neither the word “democratic” nor its variants ever appear – The Barbaric Heart‘s last chapter gives way to an invocation in the early-Nietzschean mode of the “Dionysian” – ecstasy over reason, nature over civilization, art over science, Haight over Ashbury – ending on a call for faith in “making our own world, demanding the impossible, and calling it Beautiful” (capitalization in the original).
I confess I find myself unmoved, but, if White and other keepers of our global eco-hospice find hope and comfort in such ideas, and otherwise pose no obvious danger to themselves or others, then it seems to me that interfering would be nothing short of barbarous.