A provocative and urgent essay collection that asks how we can live with hope in “an age of ecocide”
Paul Kingsnorth was once an activist—an ardent environmentalist. He fought against rampant development and the depredations of a corporate world that seemed hell-bent on ignoring a looming climate crisis in its relentless pursuit of profit. But as the environmental movement began to focus on “sustainability” rather than the defense of wild places for their own sake and as global conditions worsened, he grew disenchanted with the movement that he once embraced. He gave up what he saw as the false hope that residents of the First World would ever make the kind of sacrifices that might avert the severe consequences of climate change.
Full of grief and fury as well as passionate, lyrical evocations of nature and the wild, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist gathers the wave-making essays that have charted the change in Kingsnorth’s thinking. In them he articulates a new vision that he calls “dark ecology,” which stands firmly in opposition to the belief that technology can save us, and he argues for a renewed balance between the human and nonhuman worlds.
This iconoclastic, fearless, and ultimately hopeful book, which includes the much-discussed “Uncivilization” manifesto, asks hard questions about how we’ve lived and how we should live.
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A Crisis of Bigness
Living through a collapse is a curious experience. Perhaps the most curious part is that nobody wants to admit it's a collapse. The results of half a century of debt-fuelled 'growth' are becoming impossible to deny convincingly, but even as economies and certainties crumble, our appointed leaders bravely hold the line. No one wants to be the first to say the dam is cracked beyond repair.
To listen to a political leader at this moment in history is like sitting through a sermon by a priest who has lost his faith but is desperately trying not to admit it, even to himself. Watch your chosen president or prime minister mouthing tough-guy platitudes to the party faithful. Listen to them insisting in studied prose that all will be well. Study the expressions on their faces as they talk about 'growth' as if it were a heathen god to be appeased by tipping another cauldron's worth of fictional money into the mouth of a volcano.
In times like these, people look elsewhere for answers. A time of crisis is also a time of opening up, when thinking that was consigned to the fringes moves to centre stage. When things fall apart, the appetite for new ways of seeing is palpable, and there are always plenty of people willing to feed it by coming forward with their pet big ideas.
But here's a thought: what if big ideas are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?
The crisis currently playing out on the world stage is a crisis of growth. Not, as we are regularly told, a crisis caused by too little growth, but by too much of it. Banks grew so big that their collapse would have brought down the entire global economy. To prevent this, they were bailed out with huge tranches of public money, which in turn is precipitating social crises on the streets of Western nations. The European Union has grown so big, and so unaccountable, that it threatens to collapse in on itself. Corporations have grown so big that they are overwhelming democracies and building a global plutocracy to serve their own interests. The human economy as a whole has grown so big that it has been able to change the atmospheric composition of the planet and precipitate a mass-extinction event.
One man who would not have been surprised by this crisis of bigness, had he lived to see it, was Leopold Kohr. Kohr has a good claim to be the most interesting political thinker that you have never heard of. Unlike Karl Marx, he did not found a global movement or inspire revolutions. Unlike Friedrich Hayek, he did not rewrite the economic rules of the modern world. Kohr was a modest, self-deprecating man, but this was not the reason his ideas have been ignored by movers and shakers in the half-century since they were produced. They have been ignored because they do not flatter the egos of the power-hungry, be they revolutionaries or plutocrats. In fact, Kohr's message is a direct challenge to them. 'Wherever something is wrong,' he insisted, 'something is too big.'
Kohr was born in 1909 in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf. This small-town childhood, together with his critical study of economics and political theory at the London School of Economics, his experience of anarchist city states during the Spanish Civil War, which he covered as a war reporter, and the fact that he fled Austria after the Nazi invasion contributed to his growing suspicion of power and its abuses.
Settling in the United States, Kohr began to write the book that would define his thinking. Published in 1957, The Breakdown of Nations laid out what at the time was a radical case: that small states, small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates. It was a claim that was as unfashionable as it was possible to make. This was the dawn of the space age – a time of high confidence in the progressive, gigantist, technology-fuelled destiny of humankind. Feted political thinkers were talking in all seriousness of creating a world government as the next step towards uniting humanity. Kohr was seriously at odds with the prevailing mood. He later commented, drily, that his critics 'dismissed my ideas by referring to me as a poet'.
Kohr's claim was that society's problems were not caused by particular forms of social or economic organisation, but by their size. Socialism, capitalism, democracy, monarchy – all could work well on what he called 'the human scale': a scale at which people could play a part in the systems that governed their lives. But once scaled up to the level of modern states, all systems became oppressors. Changing the system, or the ideology that it claimed inspiration from, would not prevent that oppression – as any number of revolutions have shown – because 'the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself'.
Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world's problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative. On a whistle-stop tour of medieval and early modern Europe, The Breakdown of Nations does an entertaining job of persuading the reader that many of the glories of Western culture, from cathedrals to great art to scientific innovations, were the product of small states.
To understand the sparky, prophetic power of Kohr's vision, you need to read The Breakdown of Nations. Some of it will create shivers of recognition. Bigness, predicted Kohr, could lead only to more bigness, for 'whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions'. Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.
We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where 'instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence'. Kohr's 'crisis of bigness' is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance, geoengineering schemes, more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.
This shouldn't surprise us. It didn't surprise Kohr, who, unlike some of his utopian critics, never confused a desire for radical change with the likelihood of it actually happening. Instead, his downbeat but refreshingly honest conclusion was that, like a dying star, the gigantist global system would in the end fall in on itself, and the whole cycle of growth would begin all over again. But before it did so, 'between the intellectual ice ages of great-power domination', the world would become 'little and free once more'.
Upon the Mathematics of the Falling Away
'If you think I am wandering here, hold your tits or your balls or hold somebody else's. Everything fits here.'
'What matters most is how you walk through the fire.'
Four years ago, someone very close to me committed suicide. I don't talk about this much, and I still don't know what I feel about it.
This is not a short story.
This is non-fiction.
I know this makes it harder for you, and I'm sorry about that.
When I got the phone call I was picking camomile flowers in my back garden. That sounds twee and bucolic, but it was a tiny, urban back garden and the flowers were there when we moved in and I didn't want to waste them. I quite like camomile tea. I don't know why I'm explaining myself.
One of the thoughts I had not long after hearing the news was how I could eventually write about this; the thing itself, and all the horrors that had led up to the thing. I knew that one day I was going to have to. I then felt guilty about thinking this, not because I thought it was the wrong thing to be thinking but because I knew I ought to think that it was the wrong thing to be thinking. It was selfish and calculating and slightly psychopathic, and these are all things that nobody ought to be at any time, let alone at a time like this. What could I do? It was just what came into my head.
This is not a short story. I'm sorry.
When your world collapses you tell yourself that you couldn't see it coming, but you could see it coming. You wait for it to 'sink in' but it never 'sinks in' because you are not made of quicksand, you are made of glass. It never sinks in at all, it just glances off and then comes a glimmer of light as the sun goes down and then you just feel guilty for ever.
Other people tell you things too. Mostly they tell you that it's not your fault, and them telling you this makes no difference to anything. You know, not so far down, not so well hidden, that it is your fault, will always be your fault, you know this as well as you know anything that is true or is not true. But everyone tells you it anyway because they are trying to be kind and they don't know what they're talking about.
I will tell you the secret thing about suicide. The secret thing about suicide is that it is enticing. People who have lived through the suicides of others or who have seen the consequences or suffered them do not like to hear people say this. Suicide is not glamorous, they say. This is true. Dead bodies are not glamorous. Baths full of two-day-old blood are not glamorous. Every glass of red wine you drink for months afterwards; it never leaves. But suicide is still enticing. It is enticing because suicide is protest, suicide is wilful disobedience. It pisses in the face of progress and all its wan little children, sucking so desperately at the withered teat of immortality. Suicide is good because suicide is one hard, sharp scream at the meaning of what we pretend to think we are. Chatterton, Plath, Curtis, Cobain: pick a card. Trade it in if the meaning is not quite to your liking. Somebody will speak to you in the end.
Suicide is everywhere in this culture, under every stone, and once you come to be a part of that great, unspeaking clan of people who have been touched by it, you see this. Three years ago, my wife and I had a baby daughter. Before she was born I never noticed babies except when they annoyed me in cafes. Now I see babies everywhere. The streets are full of toddlers; they cascade from the doorways and overflow from the drains. Experience changes you. Nothing else changes you.
Birth is worshipped; death is feared; suicide is held under.
We are the Men of the West.
Suicide has often enticed me. Not in the sense that I have thought about doing it to myself, not really, not often. Only in the sense that a forbidden thing will attract damaged and curious souls more surely than anything else. Why would somebody do this? What would they hope to gain? Why would they not leave a note? Not even a note.
Suicide is everywhere and nowhere. We are coming to it, all of us, in our own time. It circles us like the Wild Hunt, howling for the blood of Men, and we crane our necks to see it pass across the face of the harvest moon. Perhaps it will call to us. Perhaps we will be chosen. Do not choose us. Choose us!
Some suicides are a final, defiant act of control. This was my experience. They say: I control my death, I control how my death is seen, and I control the consequences. I do this. Me. Not you. Me. I decide.
You tell yourself that you couldn't see it coming, but you could see it coming. I know what I'm talking about on this one. It never sinks in.
This is not a short story.
'I'm for the true human spirit, wherever it is, wherever it has been hiding.'
Everybody else in the world has already written about this, but I am going to do it anyway. Something is rising to the surface today.
I was due to fly in to New York on an American Airlines flight from Mexico City on 12 September 2001. I had been in Chiapas for six weeks, living with Zapatistas and learning Spanish and feeling radical and young, and I didn't want to go. But I had never been to the US before, and it is impossible not to want to. Which citizen of a windswept backwater of empire does not want to see Rome?
I got up on the morning of 11 September and took to the streets of Mexico City, hunting for breakfast. I am self-absorbed at the best of times, but when I am hungry I am a black hole.
There was a strange atmosphere, which I mostly ignored.
I found a cafe which opened out into the street. A group of men were gathered around a television fixed high on a wall. A building was burning. Some disaster film. I stopped to watch, but couldn't make out what was going on.
A man turned to me. 'New York,' he said, indicating the TV with a nod of his head.
'Oh, right,' I replied, non-committally. What was he telling me that for? I went looking for the menu.
It was days before I got it. When the airline told me that afternoon that my flight was cancelled and they didn't know when there would be another, I thought only of myself. No flights! To New York! What was this, World War Three? What a lot of shitting about for nothing. What an over-reaction.
Possibly it was World War Three, it just didn't feel like it at the time.
When I got to America, I quickly realised that I'd been there before. I spent a month or so in the States, and I felt like that all the time. New York was Annie Hall and Ghost-busters. The Nevada Desert was Close Encounters. San Francisco was Easy Rider and Tales of the City and Escape from Alcatraz. The Utah Flats were High Plains Drifter. LA was hell. I drove along Route 66 (Badlands) and stayed in motels (Psycho) and ate pastrami (The Godfather) and all of it was dulled by knowing what came in the next reel. Steam really did come out of vents in the New York streets (Taxi Driver). I felt like I'd come home, which excited me and made me feel lost and worried.
Twenty-First Century Syndrome: knowing a place so well that you're bored by the time you first visit.
What I remember most about New York was the ash. There was ash everywhere, literally everywhere. On the streets, on the tops of mailboxes, on cars, on rooftops. I walked down every street running my fingers through the thick, grey ash that had gathered on the sills of the windows. It glinted like iron pyrites; there was something in it that glinted.
The closer you got to where the World Trade Center had been, the thicker the ash got. I went there and gawped like a ghoul through the steel-mesh fences, pretending to stand in silent solidarity, hoping to see bodies. The hellish heap of rubble was still on fire. The ash was in the air. The city stank, and was very quiet.
Near the mount of burning stone, in every doorway near to that place and leaning up against lamp posts and tied to windows and in the windshields of cabs and cars were hastily erected boards, hand-drawn posters, notes. On each was written the name of somebody missing. Often there were photos. Have you seen my son? His name is Oscar. He may have lost his memory. He may be injured. Please phone. Please phone.
The ash I had seen before, and the tsunami of fire that had canyoned between the tall buildings, and the collapsing skyscrapers. Independence Day. King Kong. But these agonised denials of reality, these horrible screams into the void, this pain and fear and loneliness, the scrawls and the smiles and the dissolving hope that came with them: this was new. This was original. No scriptwriter had thought of this one, not in any film that I'd seen.
'Strange thoughts are much like hangovers: you feel better without them.'
I had never seen anything like Jakarta before. The finely balanced chaos of a great city in what we have now learned to call the 'developing world' (They are well on their way to becoming Us; there is no need to panic) is something impossible to understand unless you have seen it. It is an untuned instrument that somehow plays a cohesive melody. Who is in charge here? No one is in charge here. This machine runs on its own energy, its own internal logic. This is anarchy in action. The first time you see anarchy in action you are wary, scared, and then later you are thrilled and then you want to throw it all away and join the circus. But you never can because you do not belong here and you never will, and in any case when you face with honesty the dirt and the squalor of this you want, actually, to fly home and take a bath and feel relieved and then begin to arrange your colourful photos in chronological order.
Excerpted from "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays"
Copyright © 2017 Paul Kingsnorth.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Finding the River,
A Crisis of Bigness,
Upon the Mathematics of the Falling Away,
The Drowned World,
The Space Race Is Over,
The Quants and the Poets,
A Short History of Loss,
Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,
The Poet and the Machine,
Learning What to Make of It,
The Barcode Moment,
In the Black Chamber,
The Old Yoke,
Rescuing the English,
Singing to the Forest,
Planting Trees in the Anthropocene,
Uncivilisation with Dougald Hine,
The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation,