Book review: Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist
In this introspective and intensely political memoir, the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth, a lifelong activist on behalf of the natural kingdom, presents a grim, deeply disturbing take on mankind’s quandary in a world bent on extinguishing itself. Our self-inflicted blight is global warming, which Kingsnorth, after years of political engagement and study, concludes is unstoppable.
Bent on growth and accumulation at all costs, the human race has set in motion processes that will eventually erase it from this planet, he argues. Climate deals, renewable energy, angry demonstrations and the like – even in best-case scenarios – won’t prevent climate change from scorching the Earth. In fact, Kingsnorth believes that today’s environmentalism is so flawed that it actually exacerbates the destruction. Now, he writes, is a time to mourn and make our peace, on a personal level at least, with nature.
Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist unnerved me like no other book I’ve read in the recent past, even though I disagree strongly with several of its key conclusions. Yet, what’s terrifying is Kingsnorth’s evidence-based analysis of the inexorable logic of the Earth’s rising temperatures and recognition that it will debilitate the planet as we know it. And this dystopian scenario is certainly one possible future for our civilisation (though not, I argue, the only one). Yet, even a less extreme, watered-down version – say the wealthiest humans managing to survive in much-smaller populations in restricted territories at a much-reduced standard of living – is a very bleak prospect indeed.
Kingsnorth, 44, is considered one of England’s most gifted new writers and original against-the-grain thinkers. His 2014 debut novel The Wake, set in the 11th century and written in a mishmash of old and modern English, won him soaring praise. Since then he has written the second volume of what will be a trilogy, and has tomes of poetry and non-fiction to his name as well – all of which reflect his commitment to ecology.
Kingsnorth’s appreciation of the outdoors began early in his youth, engendered through the passion of his father, an indefatigable long-distance hiker who took the young teenager through the woodlands and marches of Cumbria and Northumberland, Yorkshire and Cornwall. These outings and his father’s ardour inspired Kingsnorth’s commitment to wildlife, leading him as a young man to the rainforests of Borneo and beyond. In the aughts he worked in journalism, too, serving for stints on the editorial boards of The Ecologist, Greenpeace and openDemocracy. He currently lives with his wife and two children in rural western Ireland.
“I became an ‘environmentalist’ ”, he writes in one passage, “because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the world beyond the human: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to song birds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul and that they need people to speak for them to, and to defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs.”
In the course of his involvement with the cause, Kingsnorth became disillusioned with the political inertia that, he claims, changed absolutely nothing despite the overwhelming facts and deafening alarm bells.
Moreover, he became convinced that environmentalism failed us, too, having become detached from the very world that it had originally pledged to protect. Contemporary greens, he argues, erred egregiously by accepting industrial society’s values and premises, such as its compulsive quantitative logic and “cult of utility”. The movement to fight climate change undermined itself by focusing exclusively on the “sustainability” of mankind, not nature. Environmentalists endorse the same assumptions as neo-liberal economists: more growth, more production and, in general, a better, more sustainable exploitation of nature for the benefit of mankind.
I can accompany Kingsnorth part of the way, namely in his contention that the planet is currently at a tipping point, or even beyond it. Our Enlightenment-infused conviction that human achievement will progress indefinitely, as it has for most first-world residents in the past two centuries, now definitively at an end. “We are,” he writes, “the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that out attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”
The lot/fortunes of the majority – and first in the developing world, among those least responsible for the catastrophe – will not improve, even through advanced technology, but rather decline steadily as their crops are wiped out by drought and flooding, as wars rage over water and other resources, homes disappear into oceans and livelihoods are undermined by extreme weather and conflict. Indeed, this has already begun: just look at the droughts currently ravishing sub-Saharan Africa, the flight of the island populations in South Asia, the oceans’ depleted fish stocks and even the war in Syria, which began as a dispute over water. On a global scale, mass migration is unprecedented – climate change one of its root causes. And, of course, there are the unknown thousands of species of flora and fauna that have already perished forever as a consequence of their environs’ warming.
Those who refuse to accept the gravity of our current plight, and their responsibility for it, are simply in denial, he argues. In order to pursue our self-centred lives of luxury – everything, all the time – we look away or think that somehow, worse won’t come to worst, so that we don’t have to modify our lifestyles one iota. Who today is willing to sacrifice anything to adapt to an environment that can obviously no longer bear the wear and tear of ever more growth?
Where I part company with Kingsnorth, though, is his contention that it’s too late. It is true, as he points out, that our world will change for the worse – a steep decline in life quality borne by future generations. But these changes can be more or less severe, and the welfare of billions of people and species of plants and animal depends on how the transformation happens. Mankind should be able to halt global warming at some point and to mitigate its fallout for many people. Renewable energy is making enormous strides and is already, in many places, cheaper than most fossil fuels. I’m convinced that in the future, the world will run completely on energy provided by the sun and the wind. There’s no ruling out a shift in consciousness and stiffening of political will, even if we haven’t seen it yet. I think it’s wildly irresponsible to just throw up your hands in despair.
And I think that Kingsnorth’s sweeping critique of today’s environmentalism is inaccurate. There are strong currents in the movement that pose “no-growth” strategies, which do not buy into the “green growth” scenarios that business as usual is possible by simply switching to carbon-neutral energy sources. It’s more than a little cynical to say that the green parties amount to nothing more than “a radical challenge to the human machine – transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.”
Moreover, Kingsnorth’s contention that renewable energy itself is partly to blame because its hardware mars bucolic landscapes, redirects natural waterways and endangers bird populations is ridiculous. Some trade-offs have to be made as clean energy sources take over from fossil fuels, but these are worth the price if the alternative is really a “sixth extinction”, as Elizabeth Kolbert dubbed global warming’s worst-case scenario. Wind turbines are certainly the lesser of evils here, and much softer on nature than coal-fired plants and nuclear reactors.
And there are very recent examples that show that human beings can limit and even reverse environmental degradation, as the response to acid rain and the ozone’s holes illustrates. The former was countered by laws requiring factory smoke stacks to wear filters, while the banning of fluorocarbons stopped the thinning of the ozone – and now it is regenerating itself. Humans created and then solved the problem.
When scientists recognised that climate change was threatening the planet, a broad community of environmentalists, with their university chairs, scientific institutes, lobby groups, political parties and civil-society organisations managed to come up with a game plan to fight it and they’ve boxed through laws. The pinnacle of this was the conclusion of the Paris Agreement last year, which had 144 countries pledge to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Though I, too, don’t see how this ambitious goal can really be met, perhaps we can keep the rise below 2.5 °C.
Kingsnorth offers no possible solution at the hands of man. “I don’t have any answers,” he writes, “if by answers we mean political systems, better machines, means of engineering some grand shift in consciousness … I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing … I am leaving, I am going for a walk.”
Kingsnorth can walk all he wants to his bucolic hideaway in Ireland. But there are already victims of climate change today who don’t have the option, to say nothing of future generations.
Paul Hockenos is the author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.