Kingsnorth: Environmental activism doesn’t work

Because the scientific news about climate change continues to cast a gloomy shadow over our future, and perhaps because the press is bored with the usual happy Earth Day talk, two prominent magazines featured this week scathing denunciations of climate activism. 

In Pacific Standard, James McWilliams of Texas State University calls for a Kafka-esque "narrative of complete and utter ruin," as opposed to the false hope offered by the likes of activist Bill McKibben:

…the problem with climate change discourse isn’t the skeptic. It’s the true believer—and the fact that, for him, the slow burn of global warming obviates radical action despite knowing that nothing else will do. This paradox leaves many of us who take climate change seriously more or less speechless—or merely talking about building codes—while the planet cooks due to our hyper-charged consumerism.

Meanwhile The New York Times Magazine features the journey in thought of Paul Kingsnorth, formerly a British environmental activist, now a man who has now simply had it with efforts to slow or halt climate change and environmental degradation. He thinks it's useless. 

“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”

Kingsnorth and a fellow former activist, Dougland Hine, together — almost accidentally — launched an "Uncivilization" movement. Hine explained:

“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?’"

Two points. First, as Lucy Jones the thought leader of the USGS efforts to prepare for disaster (climatogical or geological) in Southern California put it in a talk last December at the American Geophysical Union — Imagine an American without Los Angeles — disasters are inevitable, but catastrophes are not.

Example? She offered the experience of the Northridge earthquake of l994 in Los Angeles vs Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The Northridge earthquake was one of the biggest disasters in the history of the world in its time, in terms of cost, but the governmental response was effective, and although the regional economy took a dip as freeways, telephone lines, and other infrastructure took a major hit, not to mention the loss of nearly sixty people, Los Angeles recovered quickly.

In contrast the inept governmental response to Katrina turned a disaster into a full-scale catastrophe, resulting in the largest diaspora in the history of the U.S., redistributing over a million people from the region across the country. The city still hasn't fully recovered, and is not expected to. 

The point being that, as Jones said, disasters are inevitable, but catastrophes can be averted. The Kingsnorth/Hine argument is that nothing has yet worked, re: climate and the other big environmental questions, and so we must give up on activism to find the radical solution that will work.

But what victories have ever been found in failure, in giving up? Makes no sense to yours truly. 

On a personal scale, we don't stop living, even when faced with the inevitability of death. Far from it. And in the environment, as the renowned poet Wendell Berry points out in The Peace of Wild Things, nature is its own reward:

The Peace of Wild Things


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Most tellingly of all to yours truly, Kingsnorth in his personal life has moved away from conventional civilization, to remote Scotland, but has chosen to marry and have children.
That in itself is a living faith in "the grace of the world," is it not? 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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