April 18, 2014

Activist Turned Collapsitarian

Paul Kingsnorth, a one-time British environmental activist, is the subject of a profile by Daniel Smith in the New York Times Sunday magazine. Kingsnorth’s manifesto, “Uncivilization,” has attracted much attention and criticism (though I admit I had never heard of it before today).

His views are officially fringe, as he would be the first to acknowledge. However, they are interesting, especially to those of us trying to scope out the apocalypse.

These excerpts are about a third of the original article, “It’s the End of the World as We Know . . . And He Feels Fine.” (April 17, 2014)

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The Dark Mountain Project was founded in 2009. From the start, it has been difficult to pin down — even for its members. If you ask a representative of the Sierra Club to describe his organization, he will say that it promotes responsible use of the earth’s resources. When you ask Kingsnorth about Dark Mountain, he speaks of mourning, grief and despair. We are living, he says, through the “age of ecocide,” and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face.
Kingsnorth himself arrived at this point about six years ago, after nearly two decades of devoted activism. He had just completed his second book, “Real England,” a travelogue about the homogenizing effects of global capitalism on English culture and character. “Real England” was a great success — the first of his career. All the major newspapers reviewed the book; the archbishop of Canterbury and David Cameron (then the opposition leader) cited it in speeches; Mark Rylance, the venerated Shakespearean actor, adopted it as a kind of bible during rehearsals for his hit play “Jerusalem.” Yet Kingsnorth found himself strangely ambivalent about the praise. “Real England” was a painful book to write. For months he interviewed publicans, shopkeepers and farmers fighting to maintain small, traditional English institutions — fighting and losing. Everywhere Kingsnorth traveled, he saw the forces of development, conglomeration and privatization flattening the country. By the time he published his findings, he was in little mood to celebrate.
At the same time, he felt his longstanding faith in environmental activism draining away. “I had a lot of friends who were writing about climate change and doing a lot of good work on it,” he told me during a break from his festival duties. “I was just listening and looking at the facts and thinking: Wow, we are really screwed here. We are not going to stop this from happening.”
The facts were indeed increasingly daunting. The first decade of the 21st century was shaping up to be the hottest in recorded history. In 2007, the Arctic sea ice shrank to a level not seen in centuries. That same year, the NASA climatologist James Hansen, who has been ringing the climate alarm since the 1980s, announced that in order to elude the most devastating consequences, we’d need to maintain carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a level of 350 parts per million. But we’d already surpassed 380, and the figure was rising. (It has since reached 400 p.p.m.) Animal and plant species, meanwhile, were dying out at a spectacular rate. Scientists were beginning to warn that human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — was driving the planet toward a “mass extinction” event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.
“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
The first thing that Kingsnorth did was draft a manifesto. Also called “Uncivilization,” it was an intense, brooding document that vilified progress. “There is a fall coming,” it announced. “After a quarter-century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall . . . Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis.”
The initial print run of “Uncivilization” was only 500 copies. Yet the manifesto gained widespread attention. The philosopher John Gray reviewed it in The New Statesman. Professors included it on their reading lists. An events space in Wales invited Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, Dark Mountain’s co-founder, to put on a festival; 400 people showed up. Doug Tompkins, the billionaire who started the outdoor-apparel company the North Face, and his wife, Kristine Tompkins, the former C.E.O. of Patagonia, offered financing and invited Kingsnorth and his family to spend two months on land they own in southern Chile.
There were others, however, who saw Kingsnorth’s new work as a betrayal. With waters rising, deserts spreading and resource wars looming, how could his message be anything but reckless — even callous? He and his sympathizers were branded “doomers,” “nihilists” and (Kingsnorth’s favorite epithet) “crazy collapsitarians.” One critic, a sustainability advocate, published an essay in The Ecologist — a magazine Kingsnorth once helped run — comparing Dark Mountaineers to the complacent characters in the Douglas Adams novel “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”: “Diners [who] enjoyed watching the obliteration of life, the universe and everything whilst enjoying a nice steak.”
Kingsnorth regards such charges with equanimity, countering that the only hope he has abandoned is false hope. The great value of Dark Mountain, he has claimed, is that it gives people license to do the same. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “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?”
Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible. Kingsnorth has admitted to an ex-activist’s cynicism about politics as well as to a worrying ambivalence about whether he even wants civilization, as it now operates, to prevail. But he insists that he isn’t opposed to political action, mass or otherwise, and that his indignations about environmental decline and industrial capitalism are, if anything, stronger than ever. Still, much of his recent writing has been devoted to fulminating against how environmentalism, in its crisis phase, draws adherents. Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.” . . .
For Kingsnorth, the notion that technology will stave off the most catastrophic effects of global warming is not just wrong, it’s repellent — a distortion of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world and evidence that in the throes of crisis, many environmentalists have abandoned the principle that “nature has some intrinsic, inherent value beyond the instrumental.” If we lose sight of that ideal in the name of saving civilization, he argues, if we allow ourselves to erect wind farms on every mountain and solar arrays in every desert, we will be accepting a Faustian bargain. . . .
Kingsnorth and Hine’s aspirations for their manifesto weren’t revolutionary, but neither were they nihilistic. Each man draws a distinction between a “problem,” which can be solved, and a “predicament,” which must be endured. “Uncivilization” was firm in its conviction that climate change and other ecological crises are predicaments, and it called for a cadre of like-minded writers to “challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality and the myth of separation from ‘nature.’ ” . . .
“People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’” Hine compared coming to terms with the scope of ecological loss to coming to terms with a terminal illness. “The feeling is a feeling of despair to begin with, but within that space other things begin to come through.” . . .
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This is not exactly Smiling Through the Apocalypse, but it's getting there.

There was an extended debate in 2009 on these issues between Kingsnorth and George Monbiot, columnist at The Guardian.

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