The novelist Paul Kingsnorth is more than a writer: he is a visionary of a uniquely English type. A long-time environmental activist, Kingsnorth now rejects the modern Green movement as a commodified, technology-fixated expression of the same impulses it was intended to heal. Living with his young family on a smallholding in the West of Ireland, Kingsnorth has emerged as Britain’s foremost critic of industrial modernity, literary heir to a strain of thought that has survived in the English imagination, on both Left and Right, since the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
In his essay-writing, Kingsnorth explores the limitations of our fixation with progress in a world hurtling towards environmental and social collapse. In his novels — particularly the groundbreaking and hallucinatory Buckmaster trilogy — Kingsnorth assumes the voices of three different English men, husbands and fathers, fighting to preserve their world against unwanted change across a timespan stretching from the Norman Conquest to a post-apocalyptic future. (You can read my review of his final Buckmaster novel, Alexandria, here.)
Is Kingsnorth a conservative, then? His deepening engagement with the land and culture of England has raised eyebrows in an intellectual milieu increasingly hostile to the identification of place and people. In a fascinating interview with UnHerd’s Lockdown TV, he traces his political journey back to the anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s, when the political Left was still a fierce critic of the frictionless, borderless world of international capital, and not its main cheerleader. Living and working with the indigenous rebels of Chiapas, and with small farmers forced from their land by the remorseless logic of capital, Kingsnorth realised that the same processes were underway at home: the uprooting of cultures from their matrix, the transformation of the particular into the universal, commodified sameness of international capitalism. “We are not rooted in a culture,” he tells us, “we are consumers, not producers,” who have become “a society of merchants,” subject to the “market machine.”
What is the solution? There isn’t one. All we can do, as he has done, is practice a modest form of rebellion against modernity, a “secession” from the treadmill of progress. Climate change cannot now be halted, he warns us, nor can capitalism be reformed or overturned: all we can do is wait for it to burn itself out in total environmental and civilisational collapse, as “the global machine will keep running until it’s consumed everything it can consume.” In the meantime, we can attempt to live a “life within limits,” accepting the catastrophe on the horizon and learning how to produce by ourselves. Practising self-reliance partly as preparation for the “dark and difficult time” ahead of us, and partly as a moral and spiritual good in itself.
Many people, including me, share these sentiments. Yet it’s necessary to recognise that this fixation on looming catastrophe is perhaps as much hope as it is fear; that the “collapsology” mindset, for all its grounding in scientific fact, is an expression of yearning for a way out from the prison of modernity, the total “matrix of control” that now surrounds us. Yet Kingsnorth’s recent conversion to Orthodox Christianity hints at another way out— the Sermon on the Mount is ‘the recipe for solving all this,” he tells us, “a lesson in radical humility.” Perhaps, like catastrophe, salvation always lies on the horizon, just out of reach.