Paul Kingsnorth on Collapse

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine

APRIL 17, 2014  DANIEL SMITH    New York Times

[excerpts from a very long article]

Kingsnorth is 41, tall, slim and energetic, with sweeping brown hair and a sparse beard… often apologizing for having said too much or for having said it too strongly.

The forces at play are enormous. The time for ‘facing the difficulties’ was decades ago. Despair is, frankly, the only option because there are no other options.

The “human machine,” as he sometimes puts it, has grown to such a size that breakdown is inevitable.

The Dark Mountain Project was founded in 2009. From the start, it has been difficult to pin down — even for its members.  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.

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.  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,  invited Kingsnorth and his family to spend two months on land they own in southern Chile.

Kingsnorth’s was branded a “doomer,” “nihilist” and “crazy collapsitarian.”

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. 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, 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.

Kingsnorth would agree with the need for grief but not with the idea that it must lead to change — at least not the kind of change that mainstream environmental groups pursue. “What do you do,” he asked, “when you accept that all of these changes are coming, things that you value are going to be lost, things that make you unhappy are going to happen, things that you wanted to achieve you can’t achieve, but you still have to live with it, and there’s still beauty, and there’s still meaning, and there are still things you can do to make the world less bad? And that’s not a series of questions that have any answers other than people’s personal answers to them. Selfishly it’s just a process I’m going through.” He laughed. “It’s extremely narcissistic of me. Rather than just having a personal crisis, I’ve said: ‘Hey! Come share my crisis with me!’

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.”

When Kingsnorth describes how he came to this way of thinking, he nearly always begins with an ancient chalk hill outside Winchester, not far from the site of the recent Uncivilization festival. It was 1992, and the conservative British government was about to break ground on a vast network of highways across England.

The highways were proposed three years earlier by Margaret Thatcher, whose administration announced that they would constitute the “biggest road-building program since the Romans.” As it happened, they would also cut through areas that had remained unspoiled since the Romans. Direct opposition to the program began at a hill called Twyford Down, through which the government planned to build a six-lane highway. The purpose of the road was to reduce the commute to London by a matter of minutes. In 1992, a small band of radicals calling themselves the Dongas staged a demonstration. Soon road protests were popping up across the country, drawing support from itinerant hippies, the working classes and the nobility.  The core of the demonstrators’ complaints was not that the new highways would worsen air pollution, cause car accidents or fracture communities; it was that some things, like wilderness and beauty, were — despite, or perhaps because of, their “uselessness” — more important than getting to work on time.

At a time when the Great Depression was destroying millions of lives and Europe was militarizing for a new war, poet Robinson Jeffers saw human history as an inexorable, almost naturally destructive force. “The beauty of modern/Man is not in the persons,” he wrote in “Rearmament,” a poem that became the epigraph for “Uncivilization,’, “but in the/Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the/Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.

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.’;

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. Some people come here,” Hine told me, “they get very excited by the fact that people are inspired, and they go: ‘Right! Great! So what’s the plan?’ ” He and Kingsnorth have worked hard to check this impulse, seeing Dark Mountain as a space to set aside what Kingsnorth refers to as “activist-y” urges.

In a heated exchange with columnist George Monbiot, Kingsnorth argued that civilization was approaching collapse and that it was time to step back and talk about how to live through it with dignity and honor. Monbiot responded that “stepping back” from direct political action was equivalent to a near-criminal disavowal of one’s moral duty. “How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy?” he asked. “How many would survive without modern industrial civilization? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision, several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.

On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do. “

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