I read this essay, Confessions of the Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth, a while ago and have been wondering how or whether to respond.
I responded privately, in my soul, as I read it, with a big “Yes!” to Kingsnorth’s “No More.” But some of my closest, most respected and loved, friends are environmentalists, activists, humans whose hearts overflow with love and fierce compassion for the planet, for other people, for the natural world, and who willingly pour their energy into doing what they can to nurture and, yes, save our world by being environmental and community activists in their work and non-paid vocations, as well as in more private ways in their households and families, their transportation and food choices, their gardening and hobbies, and so on.
For many reasons, I have rarely been an activist, about any issue. I have seldom protested, marched, made signs, written letters, tried to persuade.
At most, this is what I have done regularly for the last 20 or so years:
- Tried to loved the patches of land I’ve found myself living on in a very imperfect and often careless way, and in fact often selfishly arranged them to meet my desires for food, beauty, and orderliness above all else
- Spent a portion of most days outdoors, exploring, learning the names of things and something of their thingness … and then often forgetting most of it
- Prayed, meditated, poemed and blogged with the intention of benefiting all beings and the connection among beings
- Exercised curiosity, wonder, observation, attentiveness and appreciation about and to all of life, though I do show favouritism
- Nurtured silence, leisure and going slowly in a loud, busy and speedy world, feeling that it somehow matters
In this very small way, I’ve worked (or played) to be the change I want to see in the world, intentionally and very privately, feeling at my core that the quality of openness, attentiveness and cultivated compassion that we bring to the world — whether at home all day with the dog, walking in the woods, on a crowded train or bus, at dinner with friends, in the grocery store, at work, participating in a peace march or a church service, or any place with or without anyone else — changes the world.
(Pretty sure I originally or most firmly got that idea from Madeleine L’Engle … Perhaps from A Wrinkle in Time, ironically in the context of talking about environmentalism, because the idea there is that every action we do matters, because even the smallest actions reverberate through the universe, because macrocosm and microcosm are completely interconnected. )
Not that I have succeeded in becoming especially compassionate, open, and attentive. I can say only that I’m aware of that most of the time.
Of course, other actions change the world, too, and maybe what I’m doing, or learning to do, really doesn’t. If our actions are aligned with what we feel really matters, then I don’t know what else we should, can, or would do, whether we seem to be effective or not, except perhaps to also be open always to learning what really matters.
I’m a far cry from Kingsnorth, or from Dave Pollard (who comments on Kingsnorth’s essay, and its follow-ups in his Giving Up on Environmentalism, also worth reading), who have been serious and committed community activists and environmental campaigners for 20 and 40 years, respectively.
So it’s easy and self-serving for me to admire their decisions now to hang up their environmental activist hats and join me here on the sidelines.
And maybe it’s self-serving, or simply selfish, as others have suggested, for them to give up. Or, maybe they’re not so much giving up as simply relaxing, loosening their grip on the shore and floating on some beautiful, jagged flotsam in the midst of a maelstrom. Or maybe they are actually jetsam, bits tossed overboard in desperation to lighten a distressed ship’s load; maybe what they’re doing is a loving, enlivening and imaginative thing to do, just as what others are doing in desperation may also be, because the desperation springs from an aching tenderness and grief for what is being lost.
Either way, I think Pollard may have hit on something when he says:
When Paul [Kingsnorth] says that his answer to ‘what would you have us do?’ is ‘do what you want; do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right’, the only thing I think he is missing is: We need to be talking with each other (openly, honestly and often) about what each of us has decided is what we want to do, need to do, have to do, and feel is right, and, more importantly, why we have decided this. Not in the effort to self-justify or to recruit followers or criticize others’ choices, but to raise other possibilities, and to show other ways of responding to the crises we are now facing.
In fact, he and Wen Stephenson engaged in a lively and civil debate (links below) following publication of Kingsworth’s essay. I imagine most people will find their points of view, beliefs, griefs, frustrations and doubts somewhere in the exchange between these two articulate and thoughtful men.
In the original essay, Kingsnorth says that he became an environmentalist “because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world. … 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 defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs.”
And he decided to give it up because, partly, environmentalism now promotes “something called ‘sustainability,’” which “means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so. It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive.”
Much of what he says resonates in me:
Now it seemed that environmentalism was not about wildness or ecocentrism or the other-than-human world and our relationship to it. Instead it was about (human) social justice and (human) equality and (human) progress and ensuring that all these things could be realized without degrading the (human) resource base … The ‘real issue,’ it seemed, was not the human relationship with the nonhuman world; it was fat cats and bankers and cap’lism. These things must be destroyed ….
You can’t open a newspaper now or visit a corporate website or listen to a politician or read the label on a packet of biscuits without being bombarded with propaganda about the importance of ‘saving the planet.’ But there is a terrible hollowness to it all, a sense that society is going through the motions without understanding why.
Kingsnorth writes a second essay to respond to Wen Stephenson’s response to Kingsnorth’s original posts. From it, these thoughts particularly strike me:
My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.”
I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. … I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it.
Kingsnorth and Stephenson engage for a last time here, with Stephenson asking, finally, “So my question is, what would you have us do?”
Kingsnorth’s suggests that imagination, not hope, is what we might cultivate:
I find that a lot of campaigners are trapped in hope. I used to be. They believe — they feel pressured to believe, from within or without — that they must continue working to achieve goals which are plainly impossible, because not to do so would be to ‘give up hope’. What they are hoping for is never quite defined, but it’s clear that giving it up would lead to a very personal kind of collapse.
“I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out.
He responds to Stephenson’s question about what to do this way:
[D]o what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right. I’m not an evangelist; that’s one of the things I have walked away from. I can’t give myself to this supposed movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping. … But I don’t expect anyone to follow me. I don’t want anyone to follow me. Who wants to be followed when they go out walking?
At the same time, it can be nice to walk together and imagine, together, what life can be, and in fact, what it is.
Two other essays I come back to, related somehow to giving up hope, expectation, the need to do SOMEthing, and opening up to what feels most real (whatever that looks like for you, for me, and it may look very different) are Why Lying Broken in a Pile on Your Bedroom Floor is a Good Idea by Julie Peters at Elephant Journal (June 2011) and How To Drop Out by Ran Prieur.
The first (a short piece) says that we are all “already never not broken,” that is, we never know how to go forward, and our “stories about the past do not apply.” We are always putting ourselves back together again, though we don’t always realise it when we’re feeling whole and solid. But no matter how we feel: “You are in flux, you are changing, you are flowing in a new way, and this is an incredibly powerful opportunity to become new again: to choose how you want to put yourself back together. Confusion can be an incredible teacher -— how could you ever learn if you already had it all figured out?”
The second, which is a practical guide to living on less and not being “held over a barrel by a system that gives you no participation in power,” also says that in our culture, “The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing,” to say “No.” As Dave Pollard paraphrased: “When you have, at last, the time and opportunity and freedom to do nothing, nothing is all you will want to do, and you may then remain depressed for a long time before you finally discover and realize what you, alone, unpressed by others, really want to do with your life.”
For me, it’s been (and is) a process of cultivating awareness, and of sensing calling, sensing what to say “Yes!” to and what to say “No” to, each moment. Some people will do this and be activists, I think, and some won’t.
Wendell Berry, in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” said well what we can all do, including this:
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Molly, Thanks so much for this post and the article by Kingsnorth — his thoughts are fascinating to read, raising lots of questions and issues. I need to think it all through some more to figure out where I come out. He’s certainly right that in some ways the more we solve the problems of, for instance, more energy efficient light bulbs and cars, the more we’ll feel we can leave the lights on and drive more, rather than re-thinking whether we need all that light and travel in the first place and what it’s really doing to the environment. Thanks!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Susan.
In the Ben Falk book we’re reading now (The Resilient Farm and Homestead), Falk echoes some of this when he says that the green movement over the last 30 yrs (which has had using non-VOC paint, compact fluorescents, fair-trade goods, low-flow fixtures, etc.) hasn’t reversed the trend because it hasn’t changed “the underlying structure that gave rise to massive human-ecological unsustainability in the first place.”