Monumental Irony

Monuments_Men_Places-068a3My 12-year-old son and I recently saw George Clooney’s film, “The Monuments Men.” What’s not to like about a gang of aging art curators and conservators snatching Europe’s cultural treasures from the evil Nazis? It’s based on Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name.

Edsel’s research and writing project was a labor of love, funded by a $37 million nest egg from selling his Texas-based oil-and-gas exploration business in 1997.  He became fascinated with the story of the men and women from thirteen nations who stopped Hitler and his cronies from pillaging cultural capital at the expense of present and future generations. Ironically, Edsel’s work in the fossil fuel industry was similar: pillaging natural capital at the expense of present and future generations, human and otherwise.

It’s a potent illustration of how anthropocentric we are. We think the human story is all there is. World War 2 is a great illustration of our myopia. War is an enactment on a grand scale of the Story of Separation, the belief that we are the Chosen, the superior, the more deserving. Who “we” are depends on your perspective. For the Nazis, it was the Aryan race, but the Allies saw it differently, and thankfully, our side won.

Winning the war didn’t change our unconscious allegiance to the Story of Separation. Industries quickly retooled from bomb-making to pumping out fertilizer and pesticides using the same ingredients. An undeclared war was waged on the natural fertility of the land during the so-called “green revolution” that boosted agricultural productivity at the expense of soil, water, and the small family farmer.

The Story of Separation also drives our use of fossil fuels, starting with how they are found and extracted. Our belief that humans are the superior animal in the great web of life allows us to justify our actions, no matter the cost to the living planet or to present and future generations.

Wouldn’t it be something if we had a posse of Monuments Men working on behalf of natural capital? The heroes of Edsel’s story knew that winning the war would be diminished by every piece of art and sculpture lost, every church destroyed by bombing. These treasures stood for something far greater than their physical, material reality. Our planetary Monuments Men would have the same passion and zeal, the knowledge of true connoisseurs. Even the backing of their countries’ leaders, who, while admittedly focused on human lives, sense there is an even greater purpose at stake.

Can’t you just see George Clooney and Matt Damon, riding herd on the Koch Brothers, seizing their propaganda and influence promoting oil and gas drilling and spreading lies about renewable energy? What’s the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna” or the Ghent Altarpiece? The Great Barrier Reef? The Chesapeake Bay? The receding glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro? There are too many to contemplate.