Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist review – why the human race is heading for the fire

by Ezra Buckley on April 17, 2017

Paul Kingsnorth, a former green activist, thinks the environmental movement has gone wrong. He argues for ‘uncivilisation’

The future for humanity and many other life forms is grim. The crisis gathers force. Melting ice caps, rising seas, vanishing topsoil, felled rainforests, dwindling animal and plant species, a human population forever growing and gobbling and using everything up. What’s to be done? Paul Kingsnorth thinks nothing very much. We have to suck it up. He writes in a typical sentence: “This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.”

Hope finds very little room in this enjoyable, sometimes annoying and mystical collection of essays. Kingsnorth despises the word’s false promise; it comforts us with a lie, when the truth is that we have created an “all-consuming global industrial system” which is “effectively unstoppable; it will run on until it runs out”. To imagine otherwise – to believe that our actions can make the future less dire, even ever so slightly – means that we probably belong to the group of “highly politicised people, whose values and self-image are predicated on being activists”.

According to Kingsnorth, such people find it hard to be honest with themselves. He was once one of them.

We might tell ourselves that The People are ignorant of The Facts and that if we enlighten them they will Act. We might believe that the right treaty has yet to be signed, or the right technology yet to be found, or that the problem is not too much growth and science and progress but too little of it. Or we might choose to believe that a Movement is needed to expose the lies being told to The People by the Bad Men in Power who are preventing The People from doing the rising up they will all want to do when they learn The Truth.

He says this is where “the greens are today”. Environmentalism has become “a consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots”.

As a characterisation of the green movement, this outbreak of adolescent satire seems unfair. To suggest that its followers become activists only because their “values and self-image” depend on it implies that there is no terror in their hearts, no love of the natural world, nothing real other than their need for a hobby. My experience of green politics is minuscule and secondhand compared with the author’s; all I can say is that the environmentalists I know often share his doubts and yet manage to stick with the cause, believing that their actions may not be totally ineffectual, that something is better than nothing. Most of us would tip our hat to that idea, but Kingsnorth is a passionate apostate with an almost Calvinist certainty that most of the human race, if not all of it, is heading for the fire.

These pieces trace some of his personal and political history. He had a middle-class childhood in the outer London suburbs, with a father who was a “compulsive long-distance walker” – he took his son on marches across the English and Welsh hills. In 1992, aged 19, Kingsnorth joined the protests on Twyford Down against the hill’s destruction by the M3. Aged 21, he was in the rainforests of Indonesia. Like many others, he became an environmentalist “because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places, and the world beyond the human” – like them, he wanted “to save nature from people”. But he also wanted to be different and famous. When he first took it up, green activism “seemed rebellious and excitingly outsiderish”; later, he writes with disappointment, it became “almost de rigueur among the British bourgeoisie”.

Disenchantment arrived when he was in his 30s. In a piece published in 2011, after he has written two or three books as well as columns “for the smart newspapers and the clever magazines”, he decides that his new role model is “not Hemingway but Salinger”. He has done the “big book stuff” – the tours, the extracts run big across the centre pages of mass-market papers. There will be no more Newsnight interviews, no more sitting on the sofa with Richard and Judy (“Jerry Springer was sitting next to me. It was … strange”). All he wants is an acre or two, a house, some bean rows, a pasture, a view of the river. In lists of this kind, renunciation can be hard to distinguish from bragging, and self-sufficiency comes packaged with literary romance.

At the root of this disillusion and retreat – he lives now in a dry-lavatory bungalow in Galway – lay what he calls the “single-minded obsession with climate change” that began to grip environmentalism early in the century. “The fear of carbon has trumped all other issues,” he writes. “Everything else has been stripped away.” Some would see this as saving the planet. Kingsnorth thinks the opposite, that we are destroying the wildest parts of it in the name of sustainability, “a curious, plastic word” that means “sustaining human civilisation 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”. In more concrete terms, it means wind farms, solar panels and undersea turbines, the renewables that will allow us to carry on business as usual.

Kingsnorth notes that environmentalism is now respectable enough to be embraced by the presidents both of the US (pre-Trump) and Anglo-Dutch Shell, and that a lot of awkward questions have been pushed aside by the drive to reduce carbon. The number of humans, for example, when sustaining a global population of 10 billion, suddenly isn’t a problem, and anyone who suggests otherwise is “giving succour to fascism or racism or gender discrimination”. Instead we make the hills, the deserts and the seas suffer – we’re “industrialising [the] wild places in the name of human desire”.

He writes insightfully about England – presciently, too. “Large-scale immigration is not, as some of its more foaming opponents believe, a conspiracy by metropolitan liberals to destroy English identity,” he says in an essay first published by the Guardian in 2015. “It is a simple commercial calculation. It may cause overcrowding and cultural tension … it is undoubtedly good for growth … if you don’t want the population movement, you don’t get the cheap, easy consumer lifestyle it facilitates. Which will you choose?”

This is Kingsnorth at his plainest and most provocative, but another Kingsnorth is never far away, as romantic in his nationalism as any Victorian storybook when he writes in the same essay: “England is the still pool under the willows where nobody will find you all day, and the only sound is the fish jumping in the dappled light.” This Kingsnorth believes that the human race will eventually die of civilisation, and he wants to create what he calls “Uncivilisation” that will show us a new way to look at human history and endeavour. Stories, he says, are the key.

The book ends with a manifesto: The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation, designed to undermine the myths of progress and human centrality. “Principle 7: we will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.” And so, rather than electric cars and oil in the ground, we are left with a smaller idea of salvation: a little literary movement of the kind that might have gathered around a hand press in a Sussex village c1925, facing the real uncivilisation that has still to come.

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist is published by Faber. To order a copy for £11.24 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.

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