Below is an edited and expanded version of something I wrote in 2014, which seems a long time ago. One of the people I’m quoting heavily from is Paul Kingsnorth, former environmental activist and co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project, but he’s now perhaps known best for his “Vaccine Moment” pieces from Nov. and Dec. 2021 in strong reaction to vaccine/mask mandates and other Covid-19 restrictions (more on that below, under “Sidebar”).
It’s Still the End of the World
In April 2014, the New York Times ran a piece about Paul Kingsnorth and The Dark Mountain Project. In it, Kingsnorth responds to Naomi Klein’s comment that grief (about environmental decline) is important because it can lead to change by agreeing “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!”‘
Maybe others aren’t feeling this sense of crisis, aren’t grieving, really are positive that we can lick the “catastrophic effects of global warming,” the environmental degradation due to “industrial capitalism,” this “age of ecocide.” All I can say is, I’m not optimistic. And it’s OK. There is much to notice, celebrate, and love every day.
Later in the article, Dougald Hine, a partner in Dark Mountain, is quoted:
People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’
I love that question: What do we start to notice? That’s an experience I want to have and share and talk about with others. It reminds me of the permaculture principle, Observe and Interact. Unless we notice what’s before us, around us, inside us, then when we act we are like characters in a play, doing what’s scripted, what’s expected, our role, instead of really relating, soul to soul, minds and bodies engaged, with ourselves and all other beings.
Some, like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, feel that Kingsnorth has given up. I think he is still spending his life being true, doing what matters most to him, preparing for the future in each daily, present moment, and supporting what he loves in his community:
“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 [this was written in 2014], 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.”
The bolded bit reminds me of Andre Gregory’s reiteration of the Findhorn community’s idea, and Gustav Björnstrand’s idea, in the film My Dinner with Andre (1981), that in a dystopian future there may be pockets of light, or islands of history (like the underground in the Dark Ages), where humans can continue to live and perhaps “preserve the light, life, the culture … to keep things living.”
I’m also reminded of Tolstoy’s short story (or parable, or catechism), “The Three Questions” (1885); the three questions, with their answers, are
- When is the best time to do each thing? The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
- Who are the most important people to work with? The most important person is whoever you are with
- What is the most important thing to do at all time? The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.
With the amendment I would make of “person” to “being,” I think it’s a recipe for right action at all times.
Now I’m back here in 2022, thinking about and taking out of context (to some extent) Hine’s suggestion to sit with our despair for a while and “as our eyes adjust to the darkness,” see what we notice.
Yesterday, my permaculture group finished reading David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen, a record of a year observing one small spot in the woods. We finished with the December chapters, in which Haskell talks at length about what dwells in the darkness, under the soil where he lives in Tennessee, including bacteria (actinomycetes), fungi, protists (algae, protozoa, slime molds, diatoms), hyphae, tiny rootlets and root hairs, springtails (collembolans) and their dung, spiders, gnats, millipedes, tiny snails, hemipteran bugs, nematodes, salamanders the size of a fingernail, et al.
Two things stood out to me about what’s beneath us on this earth: First, that more than half of life exists under the soil (“The seeming dominance of the aboveground world is … an illusion. At least half of the world’s activity is belowground.”), where we never see it if we don’t try to; and second, when we try to explore that realm, we can’t see most of it anyway — billions of microbes in a handful of soil, plus a lot of other life that’s too small to be seen by our eyes or a hand lens. Thus, “[w]e are explorers standing at the edge of a dark jungle, peering at the strange shapes in the soil’s interior, naming a handful of the most obvious novelties but understanding little.” And we can study only 1% of this dark jungle in a lab because “the interdependencies among the other 99% are so tight, and our ignorance about how to mimic or replicate these bonds is so deep, that the microbes die if isolated from the whole.”
Even among the animal kingdom, which seems so rich to us here on the Earth’s surface, so many species and varieties of animals big and small, almost all of what we know as animals are represented by just 2 subphyla — vertebrates and insects — of 35 in the animal kingdom:
“Why have the birds and the bees captured our imagination, leaving the nematodes, flatworms, and the rest of the world’s bestiary in a dusty back room of our consciousness? The simple answer is that we don’t run into nematodes very often. Or, we think we don’t. A deeper answer seeks to explain why the larger part of animal diversity is hidden from us. … Unfortunately for the richness of our experience, we live in a strange and extreme corner of the world’s available habitat. The animals we encounter are the few that also inhabit this unusual niche.”
Haskell goes on to explain that part of the reason we don’t encounter most of these animals is our size, our “dislocation of scale”: “We are tens of thousands of times larger than most living creatures, therefore our senses are too dull to detect the citizens of Lilliput that crawl around and over us.” And secondly, we live on land and “9/10 of the animal kingdom’s main branches are found in water [including inside other animals]. … The dessicated exceptions include the terrestrial arthropods (mostly insects) and the minority of vertebrates that have hauled themselves onto land,” including us. (Most vertebrate species are actually fish.) He describes humans as “bulky ornaments on life’s skin, riding the surface, only dimly aware of the microscopic multitudes that make up the rest of the body.”
Still. Though we can’t see small things well, and though our ignorance of their interconnections (among each other and with us) is deep, I think it’s worth it to sit for a while, let our eyes adjust to the darkness of this subterranean world that makes possible our sunlit world, and notice what we notice.
And yes, as we notice and wonder, also feel the despair and grief that may arise from a sense of our separateness from so much of life, as we, in Haskell’s words, “understand in some deep place that I am unnecessary here, as is all humanity. There is loneliness in this realization, poignancy in my irrelevance.”
Yet, Haskell finds joy and relief in knowing that “the world does not center on me or on my species. The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.”
Which brings me back to Kingsnorth’s decision to simply gather; to play; to abdicate responsibility for saving nature, rescuing or “resetting” the earth, to give up offering false hope. It comes from a place of understanding, like Haskell, that we are not in charge.
In Kingsnorth’s “Confessions of A Recovering Environmentalist” (in Orion, Dec. 2011), he wrote that we need to replace hope with imagination: “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.” In one of his latest writings, his third Vaccine Moment article (The Abbey of Misrule, Substack, 20 Dec. 2021), Kingsnorth says “The world is not a mechanism: it is a mystery, one that we participate in daily. When we try to redesign it like a global CEO, or explain it like an essayist, we are going to fail: weakly or gloriously, but fail we shall” because we are not in charge.
He goes on: “I think that the world is more surprising, and more alive, than I sometimes see or even want to believe.”
One deep and long look at a handful of soil — maybe with the help of a magnifying glass — can confirm that supposition.
Sidebar: Because a lot of people will know Kingsnorth’s name only from his newly published stand on the coronavirus pandemic, I feel I have to say something brief about it. He has added his voice to the controversy about how to handle the global Covid-19 pandemic, and his view now (since apparently Fall of 2021) is that Covid-19 is “nowhere near dangerous enough – if anything could be – to justify the creation of a global police state,” which is how he sees mandated vaccines and masks, vaccine passports, separation of people who are vaccinated and those who aren’t, and similar public policies.
Though I think his reasons for not being vaccinated himself (which amount mainly to distrust of scientists, governments, corporations, and the media) and for speaking against most of these public health policies are for the most part wrong (many fall into the “slippery slope” line of thinking, quite a few seem to willfully misunderstand how the vaccines are meant to act and that all vaccines have side effects, and some tip right over into conspiracy theorising with very little basis, which he would expect me to say), I do agree with some of what he writes, including that scapegoating of the unvaxxed is dangerous and morally wrong; that it’s always worth questioning and noticing what people with power are suggesting and mandating that we do (and it’s also instructive to watch what they do); that the pandemic has been revelatory in many ways, including of the little authoritarian and schadenfreude-ian living inside many of us; that it’s worth thinking about “plague” stories in history, literature, mythology, etc., and looking at what both we and others expect, accept, or reject based on those stories. There’s probably more I agree with, because in some places his ideas are complex and interesting, though I don’t accept the crux of what he says about this. If you want, you can read his 3-part argument here, here, and here.
Kingsnorth used to have a lot of very interesting perspectives. His recent anti-vaccination stance is idiotic. I disagree that there is much if any nuance. You’d probably expect me to say that though, lol. I lament the ways in which privileged white people in particular (especially men) feel they are taking a noble stand via some kind of totally ridiculous paranoid exceptionalism. And no matter what he says, yes, he has given up, in a way that is selfish and all too predictable. It is exasperating to me the abdication of actual engagement of a lot of white thinkers, especially men. Convenient moral purity at a time when making a real mess would be much more appropriate.
I agree his vaccine stance is careless, reckless, though I do still find his writing nuanced. Disagree, obviously, that by recognising what’s possible and what’s not (from his perspective, of course), and focusing on what he thinks is possible, he’s given up. But I have read very little by or about him, so I can’t speak to his actions in any coherent way and he wasn’t my focus here. I just felt I needed to say that I agree with him on what I quoted concerning his environmentalist stance and not on his Covid stance. I was using his words as a jumping off point for my own thoughts on what’s in soil, and on activism, environmentalism, etc., which are ambivalent, non-idealistic, and grounded in my response to the world, which is to roam around looking for beauty while feeling anxious.