CONFESSIONS OF A RECOVERING ENVIRONMENTALIST
Faber & Faber
Paperback RRP: £14.99
Review by Simon Leadbeater
Rethinking civilisation and our personal place in it, or not…
I was initially daunted at the prospect of having to read Paul Kingsnorth’s essays; hard work – I was going to have to force myself to sit down, to read and to reflect. But the effort was amply rewarded. I feel almost relieved having learned new concepts such as ‘dark ecology’ and ‘uncivilisation,’ and more than this, am very glad to have been introduced to a train of deep challenging thinking, essential for what Kingsnorth calls the ‘age of ecocide.’
Kingsnorth takes us on a journey landmarked by episodes from his earlier life; he now lives in rural Ireland, and has decided not to enter the fray any further. He addresses the obvious criticism implied in this ‘withdrawal;’ Kingsnorth has already been a foot soldier at Twyford Down, and given the quality of his writing I would prefer him away from the distractions of the front line. Along the way Kingsnorth comments insightfully on key aspects of the environmental movement. For example, carbon-über-alles: “the wild uplands are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of 500-foot wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons and wires”. “Vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear [in] some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect”. Here he finds a strong ally in Eileen Crist, who said that questioning “civilization is by and large sidestepped in climate-change discourse, with its single-minded quest for a global-warming techno-fix”. Then he turns to the Neo-Environmentalists and concludes “the world needs saving from most of those who claim they can save it;” ask a neo-environmentalist to define need “then watch the narrative spooling out like a film from a broken canister”. But what solutions does he proffer to us? Preserve non-human life, insist that nature has a value beyond utility, and build refuges against what is to come. “None of [this] is going to save the world – but then there is no saving the world” but we can at least develop a “personal philosophy for a dark time; a dark ecology”.
Kingsnorth illuminates the overlooked truth that opposition politics shares more than divides it, namely the central position of humanity, our right to subordinate nature infinitely and to perpetual economic growth. In short, both left and right fundamentally endorse what RS Thomas called the ‘Machine’ – techno-industrial society – and which Kingsnorth gives another name: civilisation. “The last taboo is the myth of civilisation,” a myth which has led the planet to the age of ecocide – the two are intrinsically linked, and it is our duty to decouple them. Civilisation is “for the most part glutted, but not sated, on the fruits of the horrors [battery chicken sheds, industrial abattoirs, burning forests, beam-trawled ocean floors…] on which our lifestyles depend”. Our response must be ‘uncivilised art’ in which we are “one strand in a web rather than the first palanquin in a glorious procession”.
Uncivilised writing should shift the worldview to that of outsiders. This is what the author and Dougald Hine suggest forms the basis of the Dark Mountain project – a space where artists ranging from painters to scything teachers advance the principles of Uncivilisation. The premise is that civilisation is essentially propped up by the story of human centrality, our separation from nature, believe in progress. Challenge the story and change is possible.
There is the odd niggle, and I will mention just the one as it is so often said that Hitler was a vegetarian; Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka suggests this is largely Nazi propaganda and we really should stop believing it.
Most of us pass our lives relying on a combination of Nelsonian blindness and the implicitly shared beliefs which underpin civilisation. However, the methods used to support modern lifestyles are not very civilised at all. Once we begin to unpick our inherited assumptions there is always the potential for ‘all that’s solid to melt into air’ and to begin anew.
 Crist, Eileen (2007), ‘Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse,’ Telos 141, pp. 29–55.
 Patterson, Charles (2002), Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Lantern Books, p. 127.