Have green values been hijacked by capitalism?

Insights from Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth is one of the deeper thinkers in what could be called the broad environmental scene. I’ve been reading his book Confessions of a recovering environmentalist: you can see from the title that he has grave doubts about the green movement and where it’s heading.

Before this book, I had a vague but positive impression of Kingsnorth: he is quoted by Jem Bendell, founder of the Deep Adaptation approach, and he’s a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which he describes as “a global network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for a world on the brink”.

One of his key insights is the emergence of mainstream environmentalism, which is really a co-option of many NGOs and experts by the business/government establishment. This is a version of ‘green values’ which is preoccupied with carbon reduction, and tacitly accepts that the economy has to keep growing, Nature and its resources still have to be used for human needs, just in a low-emissions mode.

As he puts it: “Today’s environmentalism is about people… it is an adjunct to hyper-capitalism; the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge…

This book is a collection of pieces written for magazines, newspapers, or the Dark Mountain website. One is called Quants and Poets. He describes an MBA course where students were pushed to categorise themselves as Quants or Poets. He comments “the green movement is being taken over by quants”, i.e. numbers people: “Quants present easy, numbered, labelled arguments which… don’t require a rewiring of your world view or an examination of your narrative.

Kingsnorth is happy to identify as a poet, and so am I. In our response to climate change, the poets highlight the need for new stories, and admire one of my inspirations, Thomas Berry. They urge us to remember we are part of Nature, not mere users of it, and to keep deepening our love and delight in the natural world.

I share his view that the ‘solution’ to the climate crisis could be as awful as the crisis: “we could devastate the Earth and collapse into chaos and runaway climate change. Or we could create a global ‘sustainable’ society based on large-scale renewable tech, mass rollout of GM crops, nanotechnology and geoengineering…” Charles Eisenstein describes similar fears in his work Climate: a new Story (see my blog here). With poignant honesty, Kingsnorth goes on: “Faced with these poles, the middle way looks like a stumble towards the guns armed only with penknives and tin trays.

He concludes that the best he can advocate is “to save as much of the wide world as can be saved”, and he’s walking his talk, having moved with his family from urban England to a 2.5-acre smallholding in rural Galway. One delightful feature describes how he’s replaced their flush toilet with a compost loo, and eloquently expands on how the flush toilet symbolises our modern, disconnected civilisation: the ability to make our detritus disappear at the push of a lever, so we never have to live with it.

He’s aware that some will see him as just dropping out, but he’s thought that through, commenting on the limits of the fighting analogy: “Traditional leftist ‘activism’ entrenches a kind of dependency. It involves identifying an enemy and then taking it on… there is always a Them who needs to sort out the problem.” What he’s practising is action instead of activism, and valuing small actions engaging closely with the Earth.

I’m deeply impressed by Kingsnorth’s foresight: read his essay Dark Ecology (via this link), from 2013, but could have been written today. He shares his gloom about the near-term outlook, and the hopelessness of most responses, but then goes on to list five actions he still believes worth taking:

  1. Withdrawing: “all real change starts with withdrawal”.
  2. Preserving non-human life: even more endangered than humans.
  3. Getting your hands dirty: human-scale, earth-connected.
  4. Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility.
  5. Building refuges: places of sanity, healing, connection.

Whilst few of us will choose to withdraw as fully as he has, I really advocate limiting exposure to mainstream culture as much as we can: it pushes us towards dependency, self-centredness, and isolation. I like all five of his points, and the Hazel Hill Wood project aims to help with all of them. There is an austere quality about Kingsnorth, so I’d add to his list a goodly dose of self-care, mutual support, and helping others, along the lines of my blog about climate alarm.

Kingsnorth reads a stupendous range of sources, so another gift in his essays is windows on writers and ideas I’ve never come across. One chilling example is the Americans who believe that technology has now become an evolutionary force with its own momentum, which we clunky humans should serve and surrender to. This is the view of Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) and Ray Kurzweil, who is no cranky outsider, but a Director of Engineering at Google. And much as he dislikes it, Kingsnorth agrees that technology is increasingly running the humans, enabled by the human geeks in Silicon Valley.

You need to be quite robust to read this book – there’s a lot of bleakness, and only brief moments connecting with the surviving beauties of Nature. At least Deep Adaptation says a lot more about positive human responses to the mess we’re all in. This book was published in 2017, so you may wonder what Paul Kingsnorth makes of the last four years. The material on his website suggests it has simply confirmed his fears – as laid out in a July 2021 blog, Apocalypse Soon. It’s all illuminating and alarming, and will hopefully help to spur you into finding your own, positive, responses somehow…