Against activism: Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist

The author of The Wake voices his disillusionment with green politics – but it’s an argument at risk of bumping into its own tail.

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Paul Kingsnorth has been grieving. He has been grieving for the mass extinction of wildlife, for the declining sea ice and for the global “crisis of growth”. Above all, he appears to have been grieving for the environmental movement’s failure to put a stop to this mess.

In Kingsnorth’s sceptical eyes, modern environmentalism is too “people-centric” and is overly reliant on arguments of utility. This leads, he argues in his new collection of essays, to false economies such as the destruction of rainforests to build hydro dams. Instead of protecting nature for nature’s sake, the green movement has become both a “consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots” and a crutch for capitalism: “a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections”. Ouch.

This critique is useful but it also feels like a smack in the face to mainstream environmentalists. Do the scientists struggling to secure funding really not also value nature in its own right? And how about the diplomats who in 2016 secured the Paris Agreement against the odds?

It is also an argument at risk of bumping into its own tail. Kingsnorth may reject environmentalism’s focus on saving humanity, but he has chosen to express this in a book about the saving of one man in particular: Paul Kingsnorth. We learn about his early inspirations, his growing disenchantment with the green cause and his search for ways forward. He first connected with nature aged 12, when his father took him walking along the upland spines of Britain, “hundreds of feet above the orange lights of civilisation”. By 19, he was protesting the extension of the M3 motorway through Twyford Down in Hampshire.

Yet such close identification with the green movement had its price. In 2008, his optimism collapsed in the face of ever-advancing climate change and continuing ecocide. “Now I felt that resistance was futile, at least on the grand, global scale on which I’d always assumed it had to occur.”

And so in 2009 came the launch of the Dark Mountain Project – a series of publications and festivals designed to put the wild world first – and a change in Kingsnorth’s writing; having produced books about English identity and the global resistance movement, he turned to fiction with his Booker-longlisted novel, The Wake, and its sequel, Beast. The essays in the collection document the thinking behind Dark Mountain, as well as Kingsnorth’s retreat to rural Ireland, where he finds he can more easily reject the temptations of eco-sin – consumerism, credit cards and computers – and discovers joy in scything and tending his compost-toilet. It sounds idyllic: it is hard to argue against flexible work hours and home-made blackberry cordial. But is his journey a useful model for others? Like many confessional writers, he seems divided on how far his example is a personal exercise and how far a public service. He claims that his choices are not necessarily to be followed – but then includes his manifesto for “Uncivilisation” at the end.

His writing certainly has potential for good. Halfway between George Monbiot’s polemics and Robert Macfarlane’s literary walks, these essays are at their best when they open windows on the landscapes that inspire him. From the sandflats of Morecambe Bay to the ancient art on cave walls in Niaux, south-western France, these places touch something sacred in Kingsnorth that he describes with stinging beauty:

On a misty day you can be here again with the last of the wolves while the gulls circle around you, dimming in and out of the clouds like spectres, and the oystercatchers pipe under the cliffs and the sands continue to shift and the waters flow from the holy well, and the untameable Bay goes on around you, its great engine turning over still with the years and the tides.

For those lucky enough to have lived in or visited Britain’s wilder places, or simply stared at the sky between tower blocks, this will rekindle a deep and precious connection. So it’s a shame that Kingsnorth’s writing does not reach out with its politics, too. Instead of using his bond with nature to build common ground, he seems determined to make enemies out of allies. “The success of environmentalism,” he writes, “has been total – at the price of its soul.”

Kingsnorth’s negativity is both dark and mountainous. What his essays offer is far from salvation. Yet he has given confessional writing a powerful subject: green politics and the political tensions within it. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published by Faber & Faber (284pp, £14.99)

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning