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Real England by Paul Kingsnorth

On Paul Kingsnorth and Unruly Nature

The Romantic Challenge to the Left

In a 2010 essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” the English émigré environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth recounts his journey into and out of the environmental movement. The essay appeared in the inaugural issue of Dark Mountain, the journal attached to the Dark Mountain group—inaugurated by Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine in 2009—a literary-philosophical project dedicated to uncivilization. What is uncivilization? Coauthors Kingsnorth and Dougald Stewart introduce their manifesto with a telling excerpt from Robinson Jeffers, in which the poet urges readers to “unhumanize our views a little.” Our Dark Mountaineers elaborate how “our whole way of living is already passing into history,” while urging their readers to “face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.” Whose way of life exactly? It presumably refers to the inhabitants of the Global North who represent the primary driver of the ecological crisis now ravaging the planet. While this sort of rough political economy is implicit in the remaining Dark Mountain principles, they notably eschew political solutions; they, for instance, “reject the faith that holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions.’”1

Instead of these technological or political answers, they offer what some might consider an aesthetic solution to a very concrete, indeed existential, dilemma for the species and the biosphere:

We believe the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge these stories that underpin our civilisation; the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’ These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.2

After several decades as an environmental activist-journalist, Kingsnorth turned to writing literature in the unlikely form of The Wake.3 A long and linguistically virtuosic novel, The Wake reimagines the Norman Invasion from the perspective of English Indigene Buccmaster of Holland in a fictionalized Old English patois that resembles nothing in the English language so much as Russell Hoban’s postapocalyptic Riddley Walker.4 Hoban’s novel, similarly told from the perspective of its titular character in an archaic-sounding English, depicts an Iron Age England several thousand years after a nuclear conflagration. Kingsnorth’s ambiguous invocation of the historical and science-fictional is deliberate, as we can see in Buccmaster’s opening declamation: “so it is when a world ends.” The novel, the first in a trilogy that stretches into a ruined future, grapples with the end of cultures and lifeworlds (Buccmaster’s lifeworld is a residually pagan one, rubbed away by an advancing Christianity as much as by William the Conqueror’s invaders) in a manner that deliberately echoes our current moment. Kingsnorth uses myth, metaphor, and story to allegorize the crack-up of our global industrial capitalist civilization under the pressure of biospheric collapse.

For many who advocate an ostensibly technical-progressive approach to the environmental crisis, Kingsnorth’s emphasis on narrative—and, more specifically, a convivial, less exploitative relationship with the natural world—is wrong both in its methods and aims. Writing in Jacobin, for example, Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski advocate the construction of a global, “ecologically rational civilization” organized along the lines of a socialist Walmart and its global, just-in-time supply chains. Walmart provides a technical model for socialist planning in an ecologically sustainable manner, at least according to the authors, as if meeting consumer demand outside a market system represents the solution to our global ecocatastrophe rather than the problem. This proposed people’s planetary mall will be managed by scientist-technocrats (such as the authors) in order to achieve “a situation in which we accept our role as collective sovereign of Earth and begin influencing and coordinating planetary processes with purpose and direction, ever furthering human flourishing.”5

Peter Frase similarly argues for high-tech solutions to biospheric collapse, such as geoengineering, while relegating the low-tech biocentrism of figures like Kingsnorth to the degraded realm of romantic story-telling, urging readers to instead “recognize that we are, and have been for a long time, the manipulators and managers of nature. Even those who acknowledge this in one breath will still fall back on metaphors like reduced ‘carbon footprint’—as if we could just step more lightly and allow nature to repair itself.”6

It is, of course, an abiding faith in technological solutions, or the forces of production, coupled with a hostility to nonhuman natures that unite these disparate, even antagonistic, political tendencies. Many of these same professed radicals, exemplars of what I call the Jetsonian left, echo or explicitly invoke the work of market-oriented ecomodernists, such as the neo-Promethean Oliver Morton.7 These analyses are in thrall to myths, metaphors, and stories that read like an early twentieth-century modernist bildungsroman in which the heroic proletariat marches toward freedom and development in lockstep with the forces of production. Even in a world devastated by capitalist industry, we can still see among the current crop of socialists a story of technological progress as both a “political achievement,” in the words of Walter Benjamin (Thesis XI), and a form of salvation.8 Our analysts for the most part do not recognize the myths, metaphors, and stories that underwrite their policy prescriptions, wrapped as they are in the mantle of “pragmatic realism” or a curiously dogmatic “science,” even as they excoriate their opponents for offering metaphors in place of argument.

There is no thinking—critical, strategic, or otherwise—outside of metaphor broadly conceived. Nor do metaphors, myths, and stories preclude rationalism or a scientific approach to the world and its problems. The work of twentieth-century German philosopher and intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg is instructive in this regard, exactly because he offers metaphor and myth as the necessary precondition and abiding supplement to conceptual thinking, rather than the irrationalist alternative to ratiocination promoted by various counter-enlightenment celebrants of mythology and the collective unconscious. In fact, Blumenberg is best known for a monumental defense of the modern project—from secularism to the scientific method—significantly entitled The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.9 Blumenberg wrote this work in response to certain conservative versions of the secularization thesis, notably Karl Löwith’s and Carl Schmitt’s reading of enlightenment as secularized Christian theology, without remainder.10 Blumenberg’s lifelong intellectual project was his theory of metaphor, and its centrality to human life and thought, or what he called metaphorology.

Blumenberg presents metaphor as the fundamental bedrock of all conceptualization, with certain “absolute metaphors”—from the shipwreck at sea to care crossing a river—serving as the origin points for various intellectual and ideological programs, in a way that anticipates Thomas Kuhn’s outline of the role paradigms and paradigm shifts plays in the history of science. Ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant arguably works in this vein as she traces the ways that sexualized figures of female subjugation accompanied and underwrote both nascent capitalism and the early modern scientific revolution in Europe. In fact, Merchant’s genealogy of both gendered and mechanical figurations of the natural world—from the clockwork universe of seventeenth-century Newtonian science through “spaceship Earth” to more recent invocations of the cyborg as figure for a fundamentally hybrid biosphere—arguably represents an early materialist iteration of metaphorology, as Merchant details the way these metaphors both reflect and shape technoscientific research programs.11

Even more significant to the Dark Mountain project in this regard is Blumenberg’s theory of myth, the first absolute metaphors, as outlined in his monumental Work on Myth, in addition to a series of case studies oriented around specific myths and motifs, such as Care Crossing A River. Blumenberg argues that myths represent a primary, adaptive response on the part of early humans overwhelmed by the absolute reality of a dangerous world in which they lacked any one environmental niche or set instinctual program. Rather than some just-so story set way back in a “state of nature,” Blumenberg insists that human beings have not and cannot completely master external reality. Hence myth, an early and enduring human technology, will always be with us, in both unconscious and conscious forms. As we now face the slow-motion collapse of the biosphere, the call for new myths is not so much an escapist alternative to concrete analysis and action as a starting point.12 As opposed to the self-referential model of figurative language that preoccupied two generations of literary theorists, myths capture and encode a certain emotional, and even existential, relation to the natural world in a way that overlaps with Kingsnorth’s own discussion of the eponymous “savage gods” of his latest book, in which he asks at the outset: “Why am I writing so much about gods?”13

In answer to this starting question, Kingsnorth links his “gods” to the process whereby a writer gives his “words permission to access that boiling lake, to dig down beneath the shores of reason, to look out to the terrible madness and beauty of the universe or into the Gorgon’s eyes.”14

These ruminations seem irrelevant to various contemporary debates regarding the appropriate response to the ecological crisis—debates that revolve around the viability of green growth versus the necessity of degrowth, or the various competing proposals for a Green New Deal. I would nonetheless stress, alongside Kingsnorth, the importance of myth, metaphor, and literary knowledge, as supplements to strategic policy and scientific expertise, in forging a response to the ecological crisis. Kingsnorth’s work in part represents a tacit rebuke to a left environmental movement increasingly defined by technological fetishism coupled with the notable absence of the biocentric perspective that once defined ecology. Kingsnorth explicitly identifies with a green Romantic tradition, beginning with the English Romantics’ response to “the dehumanizing impact of mass industry, the rationalisation of nature,” and “increasing emphasis on human reason, with a defence of an emotional, intuitive reaction of the natural world and human relationships.” Kingsnorth further qualifies his literary identification in noting that the Romantic movement was at least initially “entwined with radical politics and an assault on the dogmas of materialism and scientism.”15

Kingsnorth offers us the kind of neo-Romantic perspective that is largely absent in environmentalist (and specifically left environmentalist) thinking. There are, of course, reactionary and idealist romanticisms, but they do not exhaust what is a family of critical countercultural responses to capitalist modernity that emerged alongside the Industrial Revolution as its immanent critique. Heterodox Marxist Michael Löwy and literature professor Robert Sayre aptly convey the radical spirit of a certain romanticism by way of the early Romantics’ refusals: “the religion of the god Money; the decline of all qualitative, social, and religious values; the death of imagination and the novelistic spirit; the tedious uniformization of life; the purely utilitarian relations of human beings among themselves and with nature.” These ills stem from the same source, according to Löwy, which is “market quantification” and the instrumental approach to the natural and human worlds that came to the fore during the Industrial Revolution.16

This perspective, more than any reactionary political investments, animates Kingsnorth’s rejection of contemporary political environmentalism:

Today’s environmentalism is about people. It is a consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots and at the same time, with an amusing irony, it is an adjunct to hyper capitalism; the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge; a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions; a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out coffee shops and broadband connections.17

While I reject Kingsnorth’s dismissal of socialist politics, he nonetheless recognizes the extent to which red-green politics today, oriented toward technofix wars on carbon, are not so green. Earlier left critiques of the green perspective—such as Murray Bookchin’s useful criticisms of the misanthropic elements in Earth First! and deep ecology—were necessary interventions.18 But just as vital are the various green dissections of a Western radicalism in thrall to anthropocentrism, especially as these dissections overlap with Indigenous models of land stewardship and ecosocial relations. Yet, rather than some dialectical synthesis of the red and the green, too many of our present-day socialists have seized environmentalism and repurposed it as the vehicle in which they will arrive at longstanding policy goals.

Kingsnorth accuses the environmental left of abandoning ecological concerns for various social goals. And it is from this green Romantic perspective that Kingsnorth offers us one of the more incisive critical accounts of an ostensibly progressive neo-environmentalism wrapped up in tall tales of endless, yet somehow sustainable, growth enabled by a deus ex technofix. This vision almost always comes packaged with the caveat that since “workers” will be in control of the Machine, it will work in an environmentally sustainable way for all, at least ensuring socialist brand identity for a policy line advocated by the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

Kingsnorth raises the challenge of biocentrism and our obligation to the land we have ravaged and the creatures we are extinguishing: our responsibility to nature. This is a deeply unfashionable, if not forbidden, set of concerns, even for some self-declared Marxists.

It is in many ways easy to dismiss Kingsnorth and his green romanticism as “reactionary,” in light of his ambiguous call for “econationalism” in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.

What would happen if environmentalism remade itself—or was remade by the times? What might a benevolent green nationalism sound like? You want to protect and nurture your homeland—well, then, you’ll want to nurture its forests and its streams too. You want to protect its badgers and its mountain lions. What could be more patriotic? This is not the kind of nationalism of which Trump would approve, but that’s the point. Why should those who want to protect a besieged natural world allow billionaire property developers to represent them as the elitists? Why not fight back—on what they think is their territory?19

There is certainly much to criticize in this essay, most of which stems from Kingsnorth’s troubled attempt to rebrand the bioregionalism he otherwise advocates as a green “nationalism,” in response to the reactionary, and antienvironmental, white nationalists who permeate the Anglosphere. But the professionally indignant ecoleft respondents to this piece put aside dialectical criticism and instead went for caricatural call outs. Kingsnorth was accused of volkisch, explicitly fascist sympathies, of openly admiring right-wing populists like Steve Bannon or Trump, when he had only noted, along with so many others across the political spectrum, the end of the neoliberal consensus. He was accused of minimizing the plight of migrants and of somehow endorsing a racialized, heteronormative biopolitical state, despite the absence of any of this in the text. Kingsnorth is no theorist, unlike his strident Internet critics, but a popular writer who insists on the centrality of the natural world—and our relationship with it—in any green movement, including any red-green movement, worthy of the name.

The Uprising in #Ecuador: Inside the Quito Commune (Crimethink)

In response to austerity measures, indigenous people and other protesters converged on Quito in Ecuador’s largest uprising in decades (2019). Source: The Uprising in #Ecuador: Inside the Quito Commune (Crimethink).

Instead of attending to the actual problems and possibilities in Kingsnorth—and green thinking—in the present, we get a 1990s vintage conflict between nature-endorsing ecocentrists and nature-skeptical radical constructionists, in the notable formulation of philosopher and critical realist Kate Soper, who rightly saw in this conflict’s first run incommensurate models of nature put to work as ideological stalking horses by various antagonists.

Soper argues that we must accept the reality of nature in the basic scientific sense: the totality of material processes and laws that make up the physical universe, and in doing so, define the grounds and limits of creaturely life and human striving. She also makes the equally significant point that while the human relationship to nature is necessarily mediated by culture—those myths, metaphors, and stories again—this does not undercut the objectivity of a natural world that we cannot directly access in its immediacy. Human beings will always have affective and symbolic connections to the planet that define the horizon of our creaturely condition; the ideological distortions of this relationship through which “nature” has been variously refashioned into the normative ground for hierarchy—sociopolitical, racial, and gendered—in European history, for example, should not lead us to reject “nature.”20 Soper acolyte and eco-Marxist Andreas Malm outlines the baleful real world consequences of this hybridism in The Progress of This Storm:

Nature did not suddenly alter itself in the nineteenth century, and so it must have been society that did, sending forth plumes of CO2 through its antecedent. Nature is not reducible to humans, who are part of it; humans are not reducible to nature, which is part of them; it is precisely in the interstices of that unity-in-difference that something like global warming can develop. Any countermeasures will occupy the same precarious place of inception.21

While Malm acknowledges the banal truism that, at a certain level of analysis, human society is part of nature in its primary sense, he rightly contends that we must make an intellectual distinction between nature and culture; we must simultaneously maintain “ontological monism” and “epistemological dualism” in order to accept and address the ecological crisis. It is exactly the muddled rejection of this distinction that defines “hybridist,” even when understood in narrowly conceptual terms. Malm here joins hands with his pessimist opponent.22

The hybridist epistemology evokes a mechanistic and instrumental vision of the natural world, despite its leading theorists’ professed aims. These theorists’ attempts to marry this approach to more orthodox versions of Marxism, still attached to fantasies of liberated “forces of production” and nature remade after (hu)man’s image, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, represents exactly the wrong approach to building a red-green future in our ravaged world.

As to the seemingly more reasonable objection that Kingsnorth’s left eco-localism represents a return to a blood-and-soil ethos or a kind of ecofascism: Should we on the left cede the attachment to place, the love of nature, and the human propensity for myth to the right? And if the right historically has seized on these propensities and investments, often to catastrophic effect, what does this tragic history tell us about the political efficacy of a left enamored with its own myths of disembodied rationalism and technological self-deification? These are the questions red-green intellectuals and activists would do well to consider now, in the face of a resurgent neofascist right and accelerating biospheric collapse that includes the current pandemic. Meanwhile, it is the relationship between Indigenous communities and their bioregions that Kingsnorth takes for a model of alternative ecosocial relations. And if we attend to Kingsnorth’s other reflections on the topic, he often vacillates between a localism—rooted in his experiences as an antiglobalization activist during the 1990s—and a soft or even left Burkean perspective associated with an earlier generation of British “warm stream” (or Romantic) Marxist writers such as Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson.

This orientation partly animates The Wake and its tale of Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman conquest, which Kingsnorth compares to the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. intervention during the American War in Vietnam, as he updates eighteenth-century radical republican theories of an Indigenous English egalitarianism strangled by the Norman yoke, in claiming

the effects of Guillaume’s invasion are still with us. In 21st century England, 70% of the land is still owned by 1% of the population; the second most unequal pattern of land distribution on the planet, after Brazil. It is questionable whether this would be the case had the Norman’s not concentrated it all in the hands of the king and his cronies nearly 1000 years ago.23

While this might seem quixotic, it represents the kind of usable, and semi-mythical, past promoted by revolutionary Romantics like William Morris and Walter Benjamin. Myths of Gothic democracy certainly played a galvanizing role in the revolutionary ferment that gripped the English-speaking world in the late eighteenth century.

Perhaps even more so than his political commentary and criticism, Kingsnorth’s novels—imaginative reconfigurations of past, present, and future—are parables in Morris’s sense, grappling with the possibility of ecocivilizational collapse and the possibility of renewal in “days to come.” But, while Kingsnorth more recently recommends a retreat into the countryside in the face of a global environmental breakdown, with a focus on the smallholder’s subsistence farm, Morris’s focus was on building a new ecocommunist society, exemplified by the future pastoral London envisioned in his utopia News from Nowhere, beyond the city/country divide: a division that Karl Marx understands as stemming from capitalism and its metabolic rifts. Kingsnorth in this way resembles Morris’s contemporary and friend Edward Carpenter—heterodox socialist, sex radical, and self-declared acolyte of Henry David Thoreau, as John Bellamy Foster details:

But though Morris was a strong advocate for conservation and even preservation, and argued for the dispersion of population as well as an end to the division of town and country, he did not—despite the claims of such scholars as Peter Gould—adopt a “back to nature” outlook of the kind advocated, for example, by his friend and fellow socialist Edward Carpenter, a follower of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Morris read Thoreau’s Walden and visited Carpenter on his largely self-sufficient estate. He even, Gould noted, wrote a December 1884 letter indicating how he had listened with “longing heart” to Carpenter’s description of life on his farm, all of which sounded “very agreeable.” But these few words in Morris’s letter hardly bear the weight of the conclusion that Gould draws from it. For Gould, Morris’s “ideal life continued to bear a close similarity to that of Carpenter on his smallholding of Millthorpe.” Yet, Morris, more so than Carpenter, as Sheila Rowbotham acutely observed, “was sceptical about a Thoreau-style detachment, politically and personally. Renunciation did not figure in Morris’s socialism unless it was forced on him by the exigencies of struggle.” Morris stressed on numerous occasions: “Do not think I am advocating asceticism,” proposing rather a “non-ascetic simplicity of life.”24

Although “Thoreauvian” renunciation and detachment are more products of Thoreau’s reception than elements of his actual work, we can discern in Morris’s differences with Carpenter the lineaments of an ecosocialist and ecocommunist critique of Kingsnorth and the Dark Mountain project. Thoreau’s or Carpenter’s alleged asceticism aside, Morris’s repudiation of austerity, taken alongside his lifelong investment in art and craft, in beauty, was for him a necessary component of any emancipated society. This is significant today when so many commentators dismiss radical ecology and specifically degrowth ecosocialism as generalized misery or “hairshirtism.” Morris and his present-day heirs propose an “alternative hedonism,” in Soper’s recent formulation, with an emphasis on leisure for all, collective reproductive labor, and craft or meaningful work in the vein of art making in place of our ecologically ruinous 24/7 treadmill of alienated wage work and compensatory consumption.25 But with this in mind, can we draw a sharp a line between Carpenter’s or Kingsnorth’s simplicity and the pleasures of craft, despite various Jetsonian leftists’ jabs at Kingsnorth’s and fellow traveler Chris Smaje’s predilection for scythes?26

Morris, nonetheless, fruitfully drew on his friend Carpenter’s thinking and experiments in alternative living. Carpenter combined socialist politics, decidedly queer domestic arrangements, and back-to-nature pastoralism—drawing on alternative histories and traditions to anticipate an alternative future, echoing Morris’s parables.

So, what does Kingsnorth have to teach us? He outlines his perspective more lucidly in a 2015 essay entitled “Rescuing the English,” written in response to then-resurgent English nationalism that led to Brexit. Kingsnorth seeks to differentiate local English, Scottish, Welsh communal identity from national-imperial Britain, which he at one point identifies with “empire and royalty, Satanic Mills and the White Man’s burden,” before he offers a “parochialism” of a specific kind as his alternative.27 Invoking twentieth-century Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh’s counterintuitive claim that all truly universal civilizations are built on parochialism, Kingsnorth declares “‘parochial’ literally means of the parish. It denotes the small and the particular and the specific. It means knowing where you are. It can also mean insular and narrow-minded, but it doesn’t have to, anymore than ‘cosmopolitan’ has to mean snobbish and rootless.”28; Alternative forms of cosmopolitanism—from universal rights to the international working class—arguably define left-wing political movements. Kingsnorth himself was a participant in the 1990s-era alter-globalization movement, which he tells us awakened him to the significance of place and environmental stewardship among the various Indigenous communities in the Global South struggling against imperial capitalist development, which meant land theft and environmental despoliation. While early Romantic appropriations of the Indigenous have a long and troubling history, which finds an echo in the way certain contemporary white nationalists misuse Indigenous symbols and motifs, Kingsnorth draws on his own experience with Indigenous activism and thinking in a way that represents a compelling addition to the white, Anglo-American ecocentric, and antimodernist thinkers with whom he is usually grouped.

This evocation of “back-to-nature nations” offers a glimpse into the utopian impulse in Kingsnorth’s work, often explicitly proffered against imperial and ethnic nationalisms in tandem with the homogenizing and ecocidal monocultures of global capital. We can see this in Savage Gods, as Kingsnorth returns to Kavanaugh, juxtaposing his perspective—parochial yet materialist, rooted in the unglamorous reality of agrarian life—with that of W. B. Yeats, who gives us a mythologized vision of a largely manufactured traditional Irish life in the service of an alluring, but dangerous, nationalist vision. Kingsnorth identifies his green romantic perspective, now tempered by experience as a farmer, with Kavanaugh’s parochialism; he then spotlights the common ground both share with veteran American Indian activist Russell Means.29 In an extended engagement with Means’s critique of Western logocentrism as one intellectual foundation for Indigenous dispossession and the ecological crisis, Kingsnorth concludes:

Russell Means may despise what he calls the “European mind” but he makes clear, later in his speech, that it’s the mind he takes issue with, and not the body. Native Americans can have European minds too, he says. As for Europeans—any of them who resist the desacralizing of the world, this colonizing, this building and profiteering, this digging and burning—as far as he’s concerned, they stand on the side of virtue. We can argue over the way he uses the word “European”—I probably would—but we can all see what he’s saying if we’re not willfully blind, and it’s something I’ve believed in—no, it’s something I’ve felt—for as long as I can remember. Of course the Earth is alive. Of course.30

Kingsnorth recognizes how various Indigenous people have managed to build sustainable and complex societies over long periods of time, for instance, in his comments on the Amazon:

Consider the case of the Amazon. What do we value about the Amazon forest? Do people seek to protect it because they believe it is “pristine” and “pre-human”? Clearly not, since its resources are harvested by large numbers of tribal people, some of whom have been there for millennia. The Amazon is not important because it is “untouched”; it important because it is wild in the sense of self-willed. It is lived in and from by humans, it teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and non-human life, and no species dominates the mix. It is a complex, working eco-system that is also a human culture system, because in any worthwhile world, the two are mixed.31

Kingsnorth further elucidates this point in unequivocally declaring that “intelligent green thinking” calls for “human and non-human nature working together, in a modern world of compromise and change.” Kingsnorth’s sketch of humans-in-nature seemingly overlaps with the hybridist common sense that animates so much ecological thinking today—often counterposed to a green strawperson whose imaginary exemplars inexplicably draw some bright line between people and the earth that supports them—of which he is aware. Hence, his concluding caveat that the mixed and historically specific relationships between various human societies and nonhuman natures does not and should not “preclude us understanding that” nature has a “cultural, emotional, and even spiritual value beyond” its status as resource or standing reserve, “which is equally necessary for our well-being.”32

If this kind of human-culture system represents the ideal type of “intelligent green thinking” and, by extension, the goal of a similarly incisive red-green politics, oriented to a damaged biosphere, how do we envision a different, more sustainable relation to the earth along these lines without adverting to primitivism or mass immiseration for the human majority? Can we imagine a more sustainable relationship to place, including a reorganization of production along bioregional lines, even in cities? And can we effect this transformation in a way that marries the “parochial” to the cosmopolitan? If we in the Global North must degrow or shrink our ecocidal industrial capitalist economies, this new green future amid the ruins could include elements of Kingsnorth’s Romantic agrarianism, Indigenous forms of environmental stewardship, alternative technics, and perhaps a creaturely communism, equally red and green. This is, of course, all beyond the purview of both the Dark Mountain Project and Kingsnorth’s deliberately small scale, if not individualist, conceptual horizons.

What then to make of Kingsnorth’s experiment in the Irish countryside–where he lives and farms off the proverbial grid with his family–which occupies so much of Savage Gods and its aphoristic combination of memoir and reflection? We might look at Kingsnorth’s retreat as an obvious endpoint of Dark Mountain’s vision of resignation and reconnection in a collapsing world, as he recounts, “when I was younger, writing was my form of escape. To escape from everything the world loaded onto me, to go somewhere else, to be free there.” But, with age, “it’s been about what the ancient Greeks called Nostos—homecoming. I thought that was a simple pattern and a natural one. Young man is fire, older man is water. It’s the oldest of old patterns. I was starting to enjoy it, until the cracks appeared. But it occurs to me now that wanting to root yourself somewhere can also be a form of escape.”33 But homecoming, or the resultant sense of belonging in and to a place, predictably eludes this recent transplant, about which he puzzles:

Since I have lived here, I have come to understand, with a startling clarity, how different I might have been as a human being, how differently I would look at the world, if I had inherited this land from my parents and expected to hand it on to my children. Maybe that is the remains of our indigeneity. Just staying put. Since the beginning of agriculture, this is how the majority of humans saw their homes.34

This passage illustrates the limits of Kingsnorth’s project, including the point at which his openness to Indigenous perspectives and epistemologies, especially as they overlap with the green Eomantic tradition at its most radical, gives way to a monolithic “Indigeneity.” And if we could generalize from the multitude of different Indigenous traditions, which encompass varying modes of ecosocial organization and collective forms of property and agriculture, why would we emphasize individual proprietorship, as Kingsnorth here does? He implicitly equates belonging to the land—elsewhere presented as a key component in a green human-culture arrangement—with something like the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, also promoted, albeit in a much more explicit fashion, by Wendell Berry, an avowed influence and interlocutor.35

Yet Kingsnorth disavows his earlier expectations of homecoming and belonging as another illusion throughout the narrative, especially in the face of the day-to-day realities of farming; while his fine-grained account of his farm labor, in the service of survival, restoration, and recovery, was published, like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, as a protest for all the world to read. These individual acts of refusal open up a “third space,” “an almost magical exit to another frame of reference. For someone who cannot otherwise live with the terms of her society, the third can provide an important if unexpected harbor.”36 Kingsnorth’s practical (and literary) experiment, much more than his explicitly (anti)political declarations, offers his readers exactly this kind of harbor, or a cognitive and imaginative space, where we might entertain alternatives to a toxic modernity that are not themselves beholden to modernist narratives of progress.

More specifically, Kingsnorth gives his readers a self-reflexive account of radical reduction in addition to refusal, as he tacitly and explicitly wrestles with the question of what human beings need to live a sufficient and fulfilling life in a way that allows for the natural world to live and thrive too. Kingsnorth’s Luddite exercise coincides with radical technology critic Langdon Winner’s proposal for “an epistemological Luddism” as a necessary first step in any reconstruction of the technosphere along democratic and ecological lines, as he wrote in the late 1970s:

Luddism seen in this context would seldom refer to dismantling any piece of machinery. It would seek to examine the connections of the human parts of modern social technology. To be more specific, it would try to consider at least the following: (1) the kinds of human dependency and regularized behavior centering upon specific varieties of apparatus, (2) the patterns of social activity that rationalized techniques imprint upon human relationships, and (3) the shapes given everyday life by the large-scale organized networks of technology. Far from any wild smashing, this would be a meticulous process aimed at restoring significance to the question, What are we about?37

The challenge today is to both recognize the value of Kingsnorth’s project and perspective, while elaborating such experiments into collective, coordinated, and durable forms of resistance—akin to a “crowd of Thoreau’s refusing in tandem,” in Jenny Odell’s words—or ecosocialist lifeboats among the ruins of shipwreck modernity.38 This goal is, of course, outside the purview of Kingsnorth’s recent work, in which he finally swears off language, or the writing that had driven him through his adult life. This writing nonetheless remains as testament and rebuke, myth and experiment. Kingsnorth challenges us on the left to accept the ecocatastrophe wrought by the forces behind our precious capitalist modernity, to reject those forces and their attendant stories—of progress, technological salvation, and green growth—to consider a deep green socialism among the ruins.


Notes:

  1. Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” Dark Mountain 1 (2010). A PDF can be purchased here. The essay also appears in Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2017).
  2. Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” Orion.
  3. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake: A Novel (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2015).
  4. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (London: Gollancz, 2013).
  5. Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski, “Planning the Good Anthropocene,” Jacobin, August 15, 2017.
  6. Peter Frase, “By Any Means Necessary,” Jacobin, August 15, 2017.
  7. Anthony Galluzzo, “For and Against Machines: Beyond the New Jetsonism,” Arcade, July 26, 2018; Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  8. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (1942; repr. Boston: Mariner, 2019).
  9. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966; repr. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).
  10. Carl Schmitt, Political Romanticism (London: Taylor & Francis, 1917); Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (1949; repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).
  11. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperOne, 1990).
  12. Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).
  13. Paul Kingsnorth, Savage Gods (Columbus: Two Dollar Radio, 2019).
  14. Kingsnorth, Savage Gods, 46.
  15. Paul Kingsnorth, “The Space Race is Over,” Global Oneness Project, 2014; also in Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays.
  16. Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 32.
  17. Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.”
  18. Murray Bookchin, “Yes!—Whither Earth First?,” Left Green Perspectives 10 (1986).
  19. Paul Kingsnorth, “The Lie of the Land: Does Environmentalism Have a Future in the Age of Trump?,” Guardian, March 18, 2017.
  20. See Kate Soper, What Is Nature?: Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995); Kate Soper, Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (London: Verso, 2020).
  21. Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm (London: Verso, 2017), 18.
  22. Malm, in his latest call to arms, excoriates what he sees as a certain kind of privileged Western pessimism regarding the ecocrisis apotheosized for him by the work of Ray Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, and the novelist Jonathan Franzen. Malm also identifies Kingsnorth with this tendency. Malm, whose work I generally admire, also now entertains, if gingerly, the kind of technosolutions to anthropogenic global warming (industrial carbon capture and release, but somehow socialized or under democratic control) that he once rejected, once gain lending some credence to Kingsnorth’s criticism of the environmental left.  See Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (New York: Verso, 2021); Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (New York: Verso, 2020).
  23. Kingsnorth, The Wake, 357.
  24. John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020), 144.
  25. See Soper, Post-Growth Living. In her latest work, Soper in many ways advocates an updated version of Morris’s program as she focuses on contemporary modes of alternative, sustainable consumption as prefiguration of, and foundation for, the alternative hedonism necessary to building a degrowth ecosocialism.
  26. Both Kingsnorth and agrarian advocate Chris Smaje have been criticized and mocked for their organic subsistence farming practices, including the use of scythes in harvesting, by left-wing advocates of industrial agriculture for whom the scythe is a handy synecdoche for their antagonists’ “primitivism” (a misnomer). Both writers maintain the scythe is more efficient for their purposes, while their respective forms of subsistence organic agriculture—scaled up—have much to teach those of us who see an alternative to our destructive food system in peasant agroecology, as exemplified in movements such as Via Campesina. See Chris Smaje, A Small Farm Future (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2020).
  27. Paul Kingsnorth, “Rescuing the English,” Guardian, March 13, 2015. The article is also included in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, 202.
  28. Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, 210.
  29. Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964).
  30. Kingsnorth, Savage Gods, 48–49.
  31. Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology,” in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, 136.
  32. Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology,” 136.
  33. Kingsnorth, Savage Gods, 67.
  34. Kingsnorth, Savage Gods, 66.
  35. Kingsnorth wrote an introduction to Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2018).
  36. Kingsnorth, Savage Gods, 69.
  37. Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978), 332.
  38. Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing (New York: Melville, 2019), 77.

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