Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays
Paperback: Graywolf Press, 2017
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Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield
When I first heard of Paul Kingsnorth I was walking through the streets of New York City, megaphones near by, banners broadcasting slogans about mother earth, CO2, and poisoned water. I was walking in the “religious” section of the People’s Climate March, a gathering of over 200,000 environmentalists set on making a clear call that the time to act against the rise of climate change is now. My friend Fred Bahnson was in the crowd and since you can only chant “he, he, ho, ho, climate change has got to go” so long, we talked writing, reading, and climate as we marched.
Fred told me about an English writer, Paul Kingsnorth, who was the leader of a different kind of response to the climate crisis. Kingsnorth, he told me, had begun a project called Dark Mountain which was gathering people to create new stories about the human relationship with the earth. “There’s a great profile of him in the New York Times Magazine,” Fred said. “It’s titled ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It…and He Feels Fine.’”
Fred is always a good source for good reading, so I followed his suggestion and found the profile. Kingsnorth, as told in the New York Times, proved a fascinating figure and the movement he has begun resonated with me, a blend of deep analysis and performance art, a creation of new kinds of liturgies to mourn our destruction of the world (such as funerals for road kill).
I went on to read the Uncivilization: Dark Mountain Manifesto, which Kingsnorth authored with fellow writer Dougald Hine. The Job-like message of the need to decenter humanity resonated with my own growing feeling that humanity had returned to Babel after all and that in exercising godlike powers with human understandings our inevitable crash would come sooner than later.
The Manifesto would come to me at odd moments, waiting for a bus, walking through the woods, passing by another forest feeled for a development with no occupants yet demanding the space. Kingsnorth proved to be a writer I needed, a writer who could help say the raw rage and desperation I felt. When I heard of Kingsnorth’s new essay collection, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, I called my local bookstore and had them order a copy for me the week it was released. When it arrived, all other reading quickly found its way to the pile on my desk and Kingsnorth was my companion any moment I had to pick it up and read.
The essays in this book offer the most profound and articulate expression of where we are now I’ve read since Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. But unlike Klein’s book, which is filled with welcome corporate takedowns and political options of resistance, Kingsnorth offers an almost sacred and spiritual response. Though he is admittedly uncomfortable with religion, his sensibility is deeply religious. He understands liturgies and offers a strategy of contemplation and withdrawal, of reflecting on death, our own and the worlds, that is as spiritual (perhaps more so) than any church service or meditation retreat.
To most outsiders Kingsnorth–living on a small acerage in Northern Ireland, mowing his grass with a scythe, planting thousands of trees on his land–would seem to be very much an “environmentalist.” He certainly was one, and in many ways the label still fits, but after years of activism Kingsnorth has become disenchanted with the movement that once reveled in blockading buldozers and challenging corporations.
The problem, for Kingsnorth, is a product of the success of the environmental movement. Once a fringe enterprise fueled by a deep love for wild places and wild life, environmentalism has morphed into “sustainability,” with companies like Walmart touting their green efforts. “The success of environmentalism has been total,” writes Kingsnorth, “at the price of its soul” (69). Environmentalism, has had, we might say, its Constantinian turn.
The problem all along has been industrial civilization, the out-scaled unleashing of human power, and Kingsnorth believes that the environmental movement has changed from a eco-centric resistance to the destructive machinery of Industrial capitalism and has instead simply cleaned it up. This came in large part through a focusing on carbon and carbon alone. Even as political leaders in the United States are still having trouble getting on board, corporations and most major global economies have taken measures to address the excess of carbon in the atmosphere. But this often comes through wind turbines and solar panels in wild places, explorations of our ocean tides as sources of energy. Better, in Kingsnorth’s mind, to turn off the lights and stop flying than try to develop a carbon neutral car that cuts through the landscape at the same careless speed as the gas burning version. He writes:
This is business as usual: the expansive, colonising, progressive human narrative, shorn only of carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted and the non-human. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this ‘environmentalism’(71).
What moved Kingsnorth in his action and activism was love, a love of the wild world that exists on terms that are outside of any human cultivation or control. But it was in many ways the word “environment” to begin with that signaled the inadequacy of the movement. It is, as Kingsnorth says, a “distancing word,” an “empty concept.” Instead we have “the air, the waters, the creatures we make homeless or lifeless in flocks and legions, and it is us too. We are it; we are in it and of it, we make and live it, we are fruit and soil and tree, and the things done to the roots and the leaves come back to us” (80).
The response Kingsnorth develops isn’t an abandonment of this given world of which we are members (to borrow from the language of Wendell Berry, to whom Kingsnorth is indebted). It is instead a withdrawal from the movements, the frenetic actions that cloud our understanding of where we are and what is happening and what we are to do. “I withdraw from the campaigning and marching,” he writes, “I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking” (81).
But that walking is not aimless for Kingsnorth. It is instead a pilgrimage. Like so many before him, his withdrawal is a response to a crisis that triggers a move toward something deeper, something that will set the path right again against the false turns and empty dreams of “sustainability” which turned out only to mean a sureing up of industrial civilization.
Kingsnorth embodies, in a contemporary mold, the instincts of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. He lives in a crumbling empire and sees the only real and authentic way forward is to leave the chatter so that he can listen and see anew. He takes a kind of eco-centric Benedict option, huddling down and learning to live into the reality so easily obscured by the “Economy” and “Civilization.” Reflecting on his family’s decision to homeschool their children, for instance, he writes that “the idea of sending them to school to systematically crush their spontaneity and have them taught computer coding so that they could compete in the ‘global race’ made us miserable” (94). Instead Kingsnorth and his wife have settled in a place where they can begin to take responsibility for the basic realities of their lives: “We wanted to grow our own food and compost our own shit and educate our own children and make our own jam and take responsibility for our own actions” (94).
What Kingsnorth does, however, is not meant to be a condemnation of any person or plea for anyone else to follow his example. He is done with this kind of prescription for others, a legacy he casts alongside the moralizing of the “environmentalism” he leaves behind. His desire is simply to live into the truth. “I came here because I can’t justify my complicity any more. I feel a personal duty to live as simply and with as little impact on the rest of nature as I possibly can. I’ve no interest in extending this duty to anybody else, or in preaching about it or politicizing it, or in pretending that I am in any way pure or unsullied or even halfway competent yet at undertaking it. It is just a personal calling” (95).
This tone of humble focus on living the truth rather than railing against the lives of others is carried throughout his essays. Kingsnorth’s writing can be sharp and prophetic, but it always carries with it a sense that he is also figuring this out, that he is also a “sinner” who lives in penance for the wrongs of the world of which he is a member.
Kingsnorth, as I’ve said, is not conventionally religious (he practices a form of Zen Buddhism), yet he has a deeply religious sensibility, seeing idolatrous “worship” in the technological promise of modernity and finding hope that a true vision of sacredness is among our better hopes. Reflecting on the pervasive technological system called the “technium” by Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly, Kingsnorth writes that “God may be dead, but it seems religion isn’t” (248). He goes on to offer a long reflection on the technium’s “salvational draw”:
In an age in which people conflate desires with rights, and in which whole generations have grown up seeing themselves as consumers in a market place, demanding their money’s worth, it is well placed to deliver. Want to have babies at the age of seventy, or clone yourself, or create children from the genetic material of five different people, or have a nanobot resequence your genes so you an live to five hundred, or download your consciousness into a machine that will go on forever? The technium is your friend…If it is what you want, you should have it, because that is what freedom now means. How long can it be before cheating death becomes a human right? (249)
This is as sharp an analysis of our technological desires as any I’ve read, and yet Kingsnorth answers his fears with what Berry calls the “peace of wild things.” Instead of spending all of his time raging against the machine, Kingsnorth plants trees. “Get blisters on the heels of your hands,” he suggests. With work in the renewing world of nature we experience a readjustment of our perspective. “Today, sitting here in the sun, I can’t see anything of God in my mobile phone, but He, She or It seems to be dancing all over the buttercups and red clover in the meadow before me,” he writes (253). Kingsnorth finds hope, not in the workings of civilization or in human answers to the problems we’ve caused, but in the wild world beyond our measurement and management. There he is led into pleasure and thanksgiving at the beauty that remains in the world, the nature that is “never spent,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.
It has been a couple of weeks now since I finished Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. It is one of the very few books I’ve ever wanted to pick up again, immediately, and begin reading anew. I want to read it again because it so often says what I wish I could; sees what I have discerned as a blur on the horizon. I want to read it again, most of all, because it is a book that makes me want to live differently, to be smaller in a wider, wilder world. Read it and I hope it will make you want to do the same.
Ragan Sutterfield is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. His most recent book is Wendell Berry and the Given Life (Franciscan Media, 2017).