Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist is a series of essays and opinion pieces published in both newspapers in his native England, and on his Dark Mountain Project website, chronicling, as the title implies, his disillusionment with the environmental movement over the last two decades or so. He did not plan it as a collection, but nevertheless their chronological order takes us through, step by step, essay by essay, his change in thinking about whither the environmentalist movement, and his place in it, if any. Or, I should say, not a change in his thinking, but the change(s) in the environmentalist movement. That’s the problem.
Kingsnorth is a novelist, author of Beast and The Wake, and was an environmental activist, though the title also implies the fact that he still is, just in a different way. That is, he never gave up caring about nature, the wild, the world, the wild world, he just thinks the environmental movement has.
Environmentalism, he argues, has been taken over by what we in America might call the “identitarians,” the section of liberals more concerned with the culture wars and equality and human rights. I think he’s not the first to put it: the reds took over the greens. Not to say that those things aren’t important, but they can bump up against, say, the rights of animals, and oceans and mountains. For example, to argue against the industrialization of the Third World so as to save the Amazon rain forest, say, can get one labeled a racist and/or elitist, since the one doing the arguing is probably white, and probably male, and therefore how dare he tell a disenfranchised person of color what to do in her own country.
The struggle, then, shifts: Instead of arguing, like the conservation and environmental movement used to, against the unfettered growth and consumption of what are called ‘natural resources’ (but which we would call the land and seas) in (hopefully) late-capitalism, the idea now is to achieve
Kingsnorth’s bugbear: ‘sustainability.’
The story Kingsnorth uses to highlight this comes in the title essay, in which he first describes, in his early twenties, being part of a sit-in to save a hill in England called Twyford Down from being bulldozed over for a new highway. As he puts it, in capitalist-developer speak: “It [was] vital that this should happen in order to reduce the journey time of travellers between London and Southhampton by a full thirteen minutes.” It’s an act of group resistance: the people participating are called Luddites and “romantics” (a term Kingsnorth uses in another essay, linking himself with the English capital-R Romantics) but they’re united in their desire to protect.
Flash forward to this century, when and older Kingsnorth writes an editorial against the installing of a wind “farm” on the very same hill. He is surprised and hurt and a bit confused as to why he is immediately attacked, not by the conservative growth-at-any-cost bunch, but by fellow environmentalists. Attacked angrily. Their argument being, while a road was one thing, we really do need an independent and renewable energy source, and a sustainable one, to get us off coal and oil. And we’re not destroying the hill, we’re just putting windmills on top of it. And aren’t they amazing-looking? Technology is going to save us!
Kingsnorth doesn’t buy it. He’s not denying that there is a place for wind and solar energy, but not at the expense of nature. Instead, he would argue, what do we mean by ‘need’? Why do we ‘need’ so much? Do we ‘need’ all those cars? Do we need all those tvs?
He goes on:
But these are not, I think, very common views today. Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. In this country, most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever expanding empire of Homo sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’ rich people —us—feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.
But, no one wants to hear talk like that. That might mean we wouldn’t get to drive over to our friends’ place to watch Game of Thrones. And so, Kingsnorth walks away. Which is not to say gives up. First, it’s just to grieve, for the loss of the movement, and of the Earth, which most people involved agree will never be the same. But, he argues, to keep fighting to “save the world,” will only lead to despair. So, the walking away becomes a re-evaluating, and a downsizing, both of expectations, and lifestyle.
To begin with, he and his wife decide to move to a small farm in Ireland, to live as simply as possible. Or, with less of Dr. Suess’ ‘needful things.’ (From The Lorax, btw). Second, Kingsnorth and some artist friends have started the Dark Mountain Project, which includes a website and two hardcover books a year full of stories and art, but mainly stories, in order to change the Big Story of how people think of themselves in, and in relation to, the world/nature. Kingsnorth believes we are nothing but stories, creating them as we go along, creating ourselves as we go along, sharing them with others, and in the process creating a larger Story, our Story. We can choose, or at least influence, where our stories go, and where the larger Story goes.
So, in withdrawing from the despair-invoking activist in-fighting, Kingsnorth is opting for a bigger picture change, hopefully, using his creative skills. Is that enough? I’m not sure. I don’t think Kingsnorth is either. But it’s something. That’s the simple message of this collection: Do something, even if small. Especially if small.
Check out the Dark Mountain Project, “a global network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for a world on the brink”