‘I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth
A longer version of this interview appeared at ThoreauFarm.org.
Not everyone is quite ready to hear, or accept, what Paul Kingsnorth has to say.
An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. And not only environmentalism — he’s done with “hope.” He’s moved beyond it. He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s had it with the dream of “sustainability.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and he’s more or less fine with it: Collapse? Sure. Bring it on.
In 2009, he founded, together with collaborator Dougald Hine, something called the Dark Mountain Project. A kind of loose literary collective — with a website, annual Dark Mountain anthology, an arts festival and other gatherings — it’s a cultural response to our global environmental, economic, and political crises. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” appeared that summer and got some attention, mostly in the U.K. Kingsnorth and Hine have summed up their message this way:
These are precarious and unprecedented times … Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.
We don’t believe that anyone — not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers — is really facing up to the scale of this … Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilization from self-destruction.
Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilization as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse — which is already beginning — could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.
Some have called Kingsnorth a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a death wish for civilization (see John Gray in The New Statesman and George Monbiot in The Guardian). Others might call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.
Kingsnorth tossed a grenade in the January/February issue of Orion Magazine with his controversial essay “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” There, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of his case. “We are environmentalists now,” he writes, “in order to promote something called ‘sustainability.’ What does this curious, plastic word mean? … It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.”
Ouch. But he isn’t finished.
If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. … Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. … If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.
Well, then. I see. Let it burn.
Of course, the obvious answer to this (as most Grist readers would probably agree) is that if we don’t keep talking about carbon and climate, and start acting in a serious way to address them, the consequences will be a whole lot more “unthinkable” than darning socks and growing carrots, and for a whole lot more people (especially those non-rich, non-Western folks Kingsnorth cares about) than he’s acknowledging here.
Nevermind. Kingsnorth’s answer to the whole situation comes down to one word: withdrawal. “It’s all fine,” he writes at the end the essay. “I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching … I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”
Look, I’m all for walking. And there are things about that essay I genuinely admire — especially the way it nails the state of anxiety in which environmentalism seems to find itself today. But withdraw? Really? The fact that the essay appeared in the same issue as Terry Tempest Williams’ long, morally bracing interview with Tim DeChristopher, “What Love Looks Like,” only made it harder to take. This, I felt, is what giving up looks like.
Kingsnorth and I recently engaged in a long and spirited email exchange on the blog I edit at Thoreau Farm in Concord, Mass. Surprisingly enough, however, it didn’t end in bitterness and gnashing of teeth. We somehow stepped down off our “platforms,” and found a way, not to agree, but at least to peacefully coexist. We’re both, I think, just trying to define — like many, many others — what hope looks like, even now.
Here are excerpts from the exchange. I’ve tried to do justice to Kingsnorth’s responses, but they can be read in full here and here.
[You write] “We are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we can.” Indeed. But you seem to reject the possibility that any combination of mass political engagement and human technological (and yes, industrial-economic) ingenuity might help us do just that: live through it as best we can. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.
To dismiss the search for “solutions” — which I assume must include efforts to stabilize the climate in the coming century — seems a bit too cynical, or fatalistic. As if to say that nothing can be done. At the very least, we can still work urgently to minimize the human (and non-human) suffering that is coming.
Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.
“Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.”
This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this — really get it, at a deep level — there will be no change worth having for anyone.
I have spent 20 years and more as an environmental campaigner. My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position — it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.
I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to.
“Sustainability” is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.
But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going.
I don’t think any “climate movement” is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: We are all climate change. It is not the evil “1%” destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25 percent of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.
How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realize that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.
I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine. I’m all for fighting winnable battles.
You asked me about hope for the future: The thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are — animals — and not what we believe we are — gods — gives me a kind of hope.
We agree that human beings are, as Thoreau once wrote, “part and parcel of Nature.” You (and others) call this perspective ecocentric, but I dislike that term — it’s weighted toward the “eco-,” as something distinct from the human, the “anthro-,” and so still clings to a dualistic man-vs.-nature mindset. Personally, I value the human every bit as much as the non-human.
Where I think we differ — and please correct me if I’m wrong — is that you are driven primarily by a desire to restore what you’d say is a proper relationship between humanity and non-human nature. And it’s as though you welcome an inevitable collapse insofar as it aids or hastens this correction.
While I believe correcting our relationship to the non-human is a noble ideal, I’m primarily driven — and I know plenty of others who are as well — by a desire to prevent as much suffering as possible in the decades to come. I guess I’m with Tim DeChristopher on this. As he tells Terry Tempest Williams, “I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people.” It’s a humanitarian imperative. It transcends environmentalism and environmental politics.
So it’s simply wrong to suggest that someone like Tim DeChristopher went to prison to save our consumer civilization — to save shopping malls. He went to prison to save lives….
We’re not going to stop global warming at this point. But we may still be able to preserve a livable planet. There’s every reason to think that a last-ditch effort to cut carbon emissions — together with serious adaptation efforts at all levels, and local grassroots movements to create resilient local communities — will help prevent or alleviate the suffering of countless numbers of people in the latter half of this century. People who will have done nothing to cause the situation they inherit. It’s not about sustaining our current lifestyles, or getting ourselves off the hook. It’s about giving future generations a fighting chance. It’s about giving my own children — and everyone else’s — a fighting chance.
I wonder what it is that makes me so “ecocentric,” and you such a humanist? I wonder what fuels my sense of resignation, and my occasional sneaking desire for it all to come crashing down, and what fuels your powerful need for this thing called hope. Whenever I hear the word “hope” these days, I reach for my whisky bottle. It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?
This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission to give up hope. What I mean by that is that we help people get beyond the desperate desire to do something as impossible as ‘save the Earth’, or themselves, and start talking about where we actually are, what is actually possible and where we are actually coming from.
I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. Keep the lights on, keep the emails flowing, keep the nice bits of civilisation and lose the nasty ones; keep control of their narrative, the world they understand. Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult.
The Tim DeChristopher quote which you use approvingly is something which divides us. I admire anyone who can go to prison for their beliefs (well, not anyone, it rather depends what those beliefs are) but I’m of the opinion that the last thing the world needs right now is more “humanitarians.” What the world needs right now is human beings who are able to see outside the human bubble, and understand that all this talk about collapse, decline, and crisis is not just a human concern. When I look to the future, the thing that frightens me most is not climate change, or the possibility of the lights going out in the lit-up parts of the world, it’s that we may keep this ecocidal civilization going long enough to take everything down with it.
I feel I have to respond to all of this by giving up hope, so that I can instead find some measure of reality. So I’ve let hope fall away from me, and wishful thinking too, and I feel much lighter. I feel now as if I am able to look more honestly at the way the world is, and what I can do with what I have to give, in the time I have left. I don’t think you can plan for the future until you have really let go of the past.
I can understand the need to let go of “hope,” conventionally defined. But I think what you’re doing here is redefining it — for yourself, at least, and maybe for others gathering with you for your dark mountain trek. If you want to jettison the word altogether, as a piece of that past we must let go of, very well. But you’ve clearly found something — or at least started the search for something! — which keeps you going. And who am I to take that away from you or anyone?