We have to find a way to live kindly with the Earth, in order to survive as best we can
"...Where did that come from? Afterwards, it's as obvious as daylight. But afterwards is too late. Afterwards is no bloody use to anyone." - Upon the Mathematics of Falling Away, Paul Kingsnorth
For many years Paul Kingsnorth has been an ‘activist'. From being part of the Twyford Down protests when he was 19, travelling around the world, writing about the rise of the grass roots anti-globalisation movement and the damage to the Earth, to becoming a known voice on environmentalism and using his skill with words on websites, in magazines, on panels - you name it, he did it.
He doesn't do that any more. I'll rephrase that - he doesn't do that kind of environmentalism any more. This fascinating collection of essays explains why.
Only one of the essays was actually written for the book; the others, from 2010 onwards, have been published elsewhere. Even though some of them appear on the surface not to be related, putting them together like this charts the progress in his thinking and feelings about how humanity is failing to tackle the damage to the environment and the threat of climate change.
He starts with A Crisis of Bigness. There is no doubt the world is facing a crisis, and that the current crisis "is a crisis of growth. Not, as we are regularly told, a crisis caused by too little growth, but by too much of it."
He quotes Leopold Kohr whose book A Breakdown of Nations sets out Kohr's belief that "small states, small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates". This is very much the attitude that the American farmer/essayist and poet Wendell Berry takes when he champions the small community's ability to survive, or indeed the late economist E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful.
This is not what superpowers and global corporations want to hear. For them the answer is always to grow, no matter how much of the Earth is used up. For Kingsnorth and some others the Earth comes first. Humanity is part of the Earth, not outside or above it. We belong to it in a very real way that has nothing to do with money, or ‘progress' or man's anthropocentric belief in his exceptionality.
The problem with current environmentalism, claims Kingsnorth, is that in its efforts to stop or at least affect the actions of global corporations, environmentalists have adopted corporate language, and that has sucked them into the corporate game. It was, he writes, "perhaps inevitable that a utilitarian society would generate a utilitarian environmentalism."
As an example (mine, not Kingsnorth's), despite the anger among Green people at the corporate desire to see everything natural as having monetary value, environmentalists tend to counter that by placing their own values on, say, a piece of woodland which will, in the end, have a part to play in our economy.
There is a huge push from the Green Movement for renewable energy. Fine. We'd all like clean carbon-free energy (although no human activity in today's world is carbon-free), but our demand for energy is so huge that it will turn the wild areas of our green land into industrial sites for solar panels and wind farms.
And Kingsnorth identifies a greater problem in our thinking: somehow we believe that achieving 100% renewable energy will allow us to go on living the way we do now, without giving anything up. It will be ‘sustainable', whatever that means. ‘Sustainable' is not one of his favourite words. To quote from the essay that has the same title as the book:
"(Renewable energy) is an engineering challenge; a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilisation from the results of our own actions; a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections. It is our last hope."
If you read no other part of the book, read this essay. It is a damning indictment of what has happened to the Green Movement over the years, the shift away from trying to protect wild, non-human places for their own sake, not ours. Now our, and only our, interests are central to the argument. The mainstream environmentalists don't like being called out on this, and Kingsnorth has received a lot of criticism for turning his back - he was ‘a middle class escapist who needed to get real'.
He does point out that his retreat to a small plot of land with his family to live a very low-impact life is his answer to what is happening to the planet. We should be grateful he goes on writing and stirring our thoughts, but we all have to find our own way of living with what faces us - the destruction of our only home and the destruction of our life-friendly climate.
The essay The Bay is a wonderfully personal and emotive piece about Morecambe Bay. In describing how the Bay works, Kingsnorth helps us to understand how uncontrollable the natural world can be, and how our desire to control often simply adds to a dangerous ignorance. And when we have the power and technical capability to control something as wild as Morecambe Bay, we will, inevitably, destroy it.
In The Witness Kingsnorth tackles something which humanity with its dreams of immortality, if not for individuals then at least for the species, does not want to look at. Planet Earth has gone through many extinction events. It is, says Kingsnorth, "an extinction machine. It is not in crisis; we humans are, or see it as a crisis." It is hard to see the loss of species that we are witnessing now as a natural process. The difficulty with this extinction event is that we humans have caused it. It need not have happened.
The final essay, Planting Trees in the Anthropocene, looks at a future its adherents call the ‘technium'. The geeks, the digital wonder boys, foresee a time when humans become dominated by technology to the point when we become mechanised. We are already on the way, being so attached to our computers and smart phones we pay no attention to the outer world. But if we are intent on destroying the processes of life on our planet, when we can no longer produce food, live with rising seas or scorching temperatures, what option will humanity have but to become a machine? Quite frankly, the view is terrifying.
This book is full of thoughts that have passed through my own mind over the years: the absolute conviction that humanity is not separate from, above or outside the rest of life, but simply one part of it; that its interests and rights are no more important than those of any other form of life: the long-held conviction that there are simply too many of us wanting more and more of something else's space; and the belief that we need to return to thinking ‘small', both in our communities and our individual needs. How else, regardless of what the future holds, can we be at peace both with ourselves and the planet?
Looking at how we are destroying the Earth we know, recognising that any action on climate change will not stop our inevitable collapse, how do we live with what we have done and are doing in our pursuit of ever more ‘sustainable growth'?
We have to find a way to live kindly with the Earth, in order to survive as best we can.
In their joint interview on BBC Radio 4 (broadcast on May 1st, 2017) both Paul Kingsnorth and Wendell Berry advocated finding a part of the natural world to love and be part of. We cannot ‘save the world', as Kingsnorth thought he was doing in his early days of activism. But we can each find a little piece of it to love and protect.
Kingsnorth is a talented, engaging writer and this book is a good read, regardless of whether you agree with him or not. Every essay provides food for thought and given a chance, can rearrange the way you view things. It will certainly give you stronger arguments for protecting the wild, of which we are a part. It could even change the way you decide to live.
Lesley Docksey is a regular contributor to the Ecologist