A big animal makes a hearty meal. Not good if you are the big animal, but very good news if you are an ingenious hunter-gatherer like early human beings. Our ancestors were ingenious to the extent that they developed clever methods like traps and spears for killing animals. There is evidence that human beings were wiping out or severely depleting animal populations well before the last ice age. Clever, yes, but sensible, no.
Human beings went on developing their technologies: clay pots, farming, stone structures, selective breeding, metals, ships, steam power, electricity, aircraft and the internet. Each of these technologies has enabled new activities to be performed and money to be made. Most have also come with some major drawback. Metals for weapons, atmospheric pollution from steam engines and electricity generation, the spread of disease by long-distance travel. Progress might generate problems, but there is usually more progress to fix those problems.
But now, in the early twenty-first century, we have run out of road. There is 50% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than when we first starting burning coal, causing increasing disruption to the climate. The sea is being stripped of life and filled with waste plastic. The millions of people who depend on the sea will have to find a new way to live or go hungry. Wars have already been fought in Dafur and Syria over the impacts of climate change. They won’t be the last.
A drastic change in human behaviour is clearly needed, but there is no sign of it for a very good reason. Because the extent of change that is necessary to stabilise the earth’s ecosystem would involve a massive rejection of the project of progress. The economy of every country, the future of every bank, the reputation of most politicians and the viability of every pension fund depends on progress delivering more stuff, more technologies, more growth and more wealth.
Even “green” thinkers have become beholden to this worldview. Electric cars, solar panels, geoengineering and hydroponics are proposed as solutions to the problems we currently endure. But how long before these things themselves become the source of problems? Solar panels are already feared to be a major new source of electronic waste and geoengineering (spraying stuff into the atmosphere to dim the sun) is totally untried. The term “progress trap”, originated by Ronald Wright describes this situation perfectly.
Paul Kingsnorth enters this crisis by thinking the unthinkable. Maybe we should just get off this cycle of fix-and-fail-and-fix altogether. Maybe we should accept where we are and face the consequences. Maybe we should stop digging ourselves deeper into trouble. Maybe we should acknowledge that it is only nature that can save us.
For twenty years, Kingsnorth was on the frontline of environmental activism, an eager participant in the road protests of the 1990s. His commitment is not in doubt. But he identified a significant change in direction within the green movement that brought him to a crisis point.
“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behaviour of the public, assailed by a rising movement of ‘sceptics’ and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonised by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom ‘sustainability’ is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realisation dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they are saying has been broadly right — they are losing. There is no likelihood that the world is going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?”
Predictably, different people are offering different answers, but hardly anyone is calling for a withdrawal. This is what makes Kingsnorth interesting, this is exactly what he is saying.
The term withdrawal is important. It is not giving up, it is not denying where we are. It is absenting yourself from programmes that are going nowhere and reappraising your position. It also allows us to align ourselves with what we know is valid and effective. That thing is nature.
Kingsnorth sees the human dislocation from nature as being fundamental to our problems. Human beings refuse to be limited by what their environment has to offer. They kill all they can, they fell all they can and pick all they can. Then they create systems and machines to do this for them. Humans are fundamentally transgressive, they constantly find new ways to break their constraints. The Christian Bible tells the story of the newly created humans in the Garden of Eden. They were told not to do one thing. They did it.
I should clarify. There are indigenous people across the globe who have lived in harmony with their surroundings for thousands of years. The nature-crushing progress which now threatens the planet is a product of the western world. That there is an alternative is encouraging; there is a way of being human that does not involve this disrespect for life. Another way is possible and this different way is what Kingsnorth is advocating.
The supporters of progress think that progress is too big to fail. That is why they will not act to rein it in. But big things always fail, they fail quicker than smaller things. The first chapter of the book is dedicated to explaining this. If collapse is inevitable, what makes more sense; to perish in the disaster or to be one of those who has already embraced a better way?
This is a deeply thought-provoking book for activists and green thinkers. Kingsnorth offers the possibility that we might be substantially wrong in our approach to the thing that matters most to us. So is he right?
Mass movements can make a difference. The mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 did lead to changes in the law that gave greater access to the land. International pressure on South Africa did contribute to the dismantling of apartheid. There are international agreements on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the results so far are very poor. I suspect that a major reason for this is that big business is figuring out ways to continue business as usual but without the emissions. They know that climate change is real and as the effects get worse, legislation will come along and they want to have their alternatives in place. Progress can cope with these corrections and has done so many times in the past. But a correction is not a revolution. Progress will still require resources to convert into goods to be sold to increase GDP. The god of growth will remain on his throne.
So we come to the crunch question. Do we want a decarbonised version of today’s industrial society, which might have cleaned up its act in the short term but, because it is based on unfairness and greed, will still be vulnerable to the same cycles of boom and bust, fail and fix as before? Or do we want to step out of that cycle and accept the cycle of the seasons instead, accepting a stable standard of technology and concentrating on reclaiming our relationship with the non-human world?
We may possibly, perhaps be able to win the battle for the former, but it will take many years. But at any time we can reject the myth of progress, pick up the old stories and reclaim our role of makers and growers, resourceful people, not consumers. We can make the change we want for the world, on our own terms, at our own time. That’s the choice Paul Kingsnorth has made and this book is his account of how he did it.