by Aris Roussinos
Thursday, 11
March 2021
Response
07:15

Paul Kingsnorth: an English visionary’s quiet rebellion

Climate change cannot be halted, he warns us, nor can capitalism be reformed
by Aris Roussinos
Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as Britain’s foremost critic of industrial modernity

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, Alexandriahere.)

 

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.

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Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago

Forget Climate Change, or Global Warming, or Global Heating, or whatever the label du jour is…the real problem is the number of humans, the amount of resources and the waste the former produces from the latter.

That is the real problem we are going to have to work out in the 21st Century

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Surely the problem is that we can’t have a dramatically higher number of humans and a wasteful and destructive economic system at the same time?
We could afford the increased population with a less destructive economy. Or a destructive economy would not threaten the environment so much if the population were much smaller.
So unless we want some sort of drastic population reduction, might it not be prudent to make economic and environmental changes?

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Would people give up half their salary for for these economic and environmental changes?
Maybe only have one child instead of 2 or 3?
Would people be prepared for a much lower standard of living than we have now?
Would people be prepared to work for the same money as someone not working that is on UBI?

Last edited 1 year ago by Nigel Clarke
Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Unlike Kingsnorth, you seem to be engaging with the crisis, rather than abdicating. Even if you seep to be critiquing a fairly specific sort of solution.

Would people give up half their salary for for these economic and environmental changes?

Not sure quite such a sacrifice is required – where do you get a 50% figure from?

Maybe only have one child instead of 2 or 3?

That’s pretty much happened in the West. The average family used to be 2.4 kids, remember.

Would people be prepared for a much lower standard of living than we have now?

That’s happening without addressing the climate issue. Perhaps we should get to grips with this issue as well as climate change – there is no evidence we can’t address both.

Would people be prepared to work for the same money as someone not working that is on UBI?

Not sure where UBI came in to this discussion, and nothing I’ve heard of UBI includes a prohibition on additional income through work or other means. Although it seems that UBI could solve a number of our problems, clearly more research needed into how (or whether) it would work in practice.
Certainly many writers, artists and musicians and other creative types would be profoundly liberated by an adequate UBI. Those who love their work, or who currently volunteer would also be undeterred. And essential but unpleasant work might need to be more fairly rewarded, or even become part-time.

But at least you’re engaging. If everyone follows the Kingsnorth strategy, nothing will change.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

I was musing on the things that came immediately in to my head in response to your comment and wasn’t to be taken as some sort of path to future global social & environmental harmony, so forget the numbers and think about the premise.
And anyway Kingsnorth might be right, and just waiting for the “inevitable” environmental and social collapse is all there is left for us to do.
After all, everything always looks ok and works fine, until it suddenly doesn’t.

Steve Byrd
Steve Byrd
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Interesting points. But in Kingsnorth’s defence, he can’t really be accused of ‘not engaging’. I would’ve thought a 50 min interview on Unherd discussing these issues and a succession of articles and novels over the last 20 years is pretty much engaged!
(Me? I’m off now to do my citizen’s duty by trying to understand and complete a so-called consultation from the Dept of Environment. When Kingsnorth talks about us as ‘consumers’ this is one thing I think of: institutions — government, social, commercial — asking ‘for engagement’ which gives the illusion of agency, but where the questions themselves tightly limit the answers).

Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

I would prefer a drastic, but carefully managed, populatuon reduction. But we seem still to be some way from the point where that approach commands general support.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Unfortunately, events of the mid-20th century have rather put people off the idea.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Are you Bill Gates?

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago

Humanity is destined to convert ever greater amounts of energy from one form to another. Embrace this reality and then consider solutions. All else is futile.

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
1 year ago

The solution is Nuclear Energy, which unsurprisingly the Mainstream Environmetal left is completely against. Instead we pour money into Solar Panels that emit huge pollution to create and degrade into inefficient scrap in just 5 years. The entire “green energy” sector is one massive grift.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

I agree. The option to go backwards in time to somewhere where humanity lives in harmony with it’s environment is a myth.

Last edited 1 year ago by Prashant Kotak
Paul K
Paul K
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

‘Going backwards in time’ is a good description of yet another call for ‘nuclear energy’ to magically save us. Back to the 1950s, to be precise, when ‘energy too cheap to meter’ was said to be just around the corner. Nothing is more old-fashioned than nuclear power.

plolov1977
plolov1977
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul K

Said about fusion, but repackaged by anti-nuclear myth makers as they waged their jihad against all things atomic.

daniel Earley
daniel Earley
1 year ago

Our fixation with progress has brought billions out of poverty, be it food poverty, economic poverty or any other kind. It has allowed medical advancements to cure diseases and ailments that not too long ago were thought incurable. It has brought about a vaccine for a global pandemic in less than 12 months. It has brought about an information and communications revolution that, for better or for worse, has opened the world for almost everyone.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  daniel Earley

And all those things are good, as far as they go. But are you denying there may also be a downside?
Perhaps we can address the very real problems with our economy and society. Maybe we can make some necessary changes, but not throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
1 year ago
Reply to  daniel Earley

Arguably such advances reached their zenith during the immediate post-war period. Since then the ecological damage done to the planet has been immeasurable. There has to be a line set somewhere or, in a very Whiggish way, the pursuit of Utopian progress will destroy everything.
Take endocrine disruptors in the world’s water supply, strong evidence suggests that this is due to the Contraceptive Pill. No wonder sperm count rates are dropping across the West. No one wants to have these conversations, it’s all “let’s build more wind turbines!”.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sean Meister
Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
1 year ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

Sperm counts may be dropping for other reasons including poor diet (vegetarian rather than meat, vegetable oil damaging mitochondria)..

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

Plastics (including microplastics) may also be a factor in endocrine disruption. But the core point stands, that these may be issues of careless or unregulated pursuit of “progress” at any cost.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago
Reply to  daniel Earley

Our fixation with progress has brought billions out of poverty, be it food poverty, economic poverty or any other kind. It has allowed medical advancements to cure diseases and ailments that not too long ago were thought incurable. 

Which resulted in explosive population growth in places like Africa. It was an extremely ill-thought-out “progress”, with quite catastrophic consequences not only for the undeveloping world, but for the developed world and for the entire planet’s ecosystem as well.
If decreased infant mortality / increased life expectancy is not counterbalanced with proportionally decreased birth rates, the result is crippling poverty and all what it entails. Africa is child-rich, thus poor in every other aspect.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
1 year ago

Another interesting interview – well done Freddie.
For me two main points came over, one was about how to deal with technological advances and the other was about power structures.
Unfortunately both are linked together! Take the advances made by the Victorians in health. One of the big changes was in clean water supply and sewage disposal. To provide clean water to people living in cities, the Victorians built large dams and piped water to houses and piped sewage away from houses. This was a huge advantage for the people who lived in cities, but obviously took power away from those people who lived in the valleys that were flooded – and those who suddenly found themselves near a swage farm. It was only the political power structures of the cities over the valleys which allowed this to happen.
I feel that it is only the fact that Paul has the money and type of job (writing) to allow him to escape to rural Ireland, that allows him to think in his terms.
If the whole population of London decided on the same route to paradise and moved to rural Ireland, would he decide that running water and sewage systems are a good idea?

David George
David George
1 year ago

In the sublime words of the Sermon on the Mount: “your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. 34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
In secular terms: Look first for the good, the true and the beautiful, the material will follow but not if they are placed above those non material values. You and your society will fall if you do.
Don’t harbour resentment – Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
The most profound text in our culture and a credit to Paul Kingsworth that he has the wit and wisdom to recognise it.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

I used to fret when young about Climate Change in the 80s and 90s (ozone hole etc) when that was a lot less fashionable, but these days I’m more sanguine about prospects because I can see technological solutions on the horizon and trajectories in the developed world that are all in the right direction. There is no basis to think Climate Change will cause collapse any longer.
That is not to say I think things are risk free. China, having poisoned it’s population once on the back of very rapid Industrialization is learning fast and is unlikely to make the same mistakes in the future. India, I’m less certain will go green as quickly as required, and Africa won’t because it can’t, because of rapidly rising populations. But on the whole, I believe Climate Change is manageable, although things will get unpleasant in places.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Of course if we’re just starting a new solar minimum period it may all be irrelevant anyway

Dii Stitt
Dii Stitt
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I agree with your comment. I would add, China and India are countries, Africa is a continent of many countries. It is not a straight forward comparison.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
1 year ago

Meanwhile I can think of numerous individuals and organizations who are aware that business as usual is not an option and are at least trying to create viable alternatives to the current unsustainable system. All of which are deeply conservative but not in any sense right wing. For instance:
http://www.resurgence.org Resurgence Magazine
http://www.orionmagazine.org Orion Magazine
http://charleseisenstein.org
http://www.terrypatten.com/resources

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
1 year ago

Gosh, is Resurgence magazine still going? I used to subscribe, years ago. Thank you for drawing our attention to all those links.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago

Luddite nonsense from start to finish. Yes, climate change is beyond our control; yes, the economy is beyond our control – reason? Because nature is beyond our control and our own behaviour is part of nature. We are its creatures, and whether it is hurling us into pandemonium or bearing us to the gates of heaven, there is nothing we can do about it. Even under the glacial oppression of communist folly, real economic forces heave away, as currents maintain their pressure in the arctic.
You can’t buck the market because the market is what we are.
Our only consolations lie in the fact that things will probably just keep jogging along and that – as usual – we will adapt. We will adapt more swiftly and less painfully in so far as we keep the fires of industry alight and the rewards for invention high.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

You can’t buck the market because the market is what we are.”

The market as it exists today is a human creation, through regulation. The limited liability company, for example, profoundly affects how markets work (it allows extreme outsourcing of risk, for instance). If we made it, and shaped it, we can certainly change how it works.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Only within limits, as defined by supply and demand. And that’s the point.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Of course within limits, though those limits are broader than some may think, and are fundamentally shaped by how any given market is designed and regulated. But those who say “you can’t buck the market” are often arguing against any intervention whatsoever.
Another thing that can be influenced is “nature” – human life is in large part about preventing nature from taking its course. Medicine is one example among many. Again, there are limits, and our economy is pushing those – and probably shouldn’t for the long term good of humanity as a whole.
Not everything that happens to climate and resource levels is nature on its own – some of it is due to our interaction with nature. And I don’t believe that “the market” is an insuperable barrier to preventing us from suffering from hitting the limits of what nature can accommodate. We have (a degree of) free will, and can change how we behave, as individuals and as society (if the political will is there) – we are not automata.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

The voice of a prophet in the wilderness, calling us to repent (ever so nicely and non-judgmentally). We’ve always needed such people, even if we don’t/can’t all follow their example. But how refreshing to see an environmentalist who ‘walks the walk’, unlike that jet-setting couple in California (can’t remember their names) who so like to lecture us on these matters.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
1 year ago

Watching the interview, I thought the most interesting part was about the need of humans to feel rooted and part of nature, rather than being the ubiquitous, rational consumers which the corporation and Government wish to see us as. I think his idea that science cannot displace myth is correct, because, as Kingsnorth says, human beings are more emotional, spiritual creatures than they are rational, scientific ones. That, to me, was the gist of his thought. If this is true (as I believe it is), then many of us humans are going to become more and more unhappy, and, being humans, we will creatively find ways to solve our unhappiness problem. These ways may involve modifying the rush to consumerism and the endgame of a total techno-world, but I don’t know how, yet. That will be the interesting part.

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
1 year ago

I think it’s fascinating that a switch has occurred in which true environmentalism is finding more and more ground on the Right. The circles in which I walk will invoke Linkola, Kaczynski and Kingsnorth far more readily that the woke luvvies who seem to indicate that being “environmentally friendly” is paying Green Taxes to oil companies.
Near irreversible ecological damage is very real and, in their capacity as ideological shock-troops of International Neoliberalism, the Left have completely abrogated any responsibility to address it. Nothing in this capacity is relatively new: Kaczynski noted it as early as the 1960s that this was the case amongst the Left.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

Aren’t “ideological shock-troops of International Neoliberalism” found among right-wing neocons as well as the left-wing centrists?

Paul K
Paul K
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Yes, in both places, surely. For decades the ‘right’ have cheered on neoliberalism, despite it being demonstrably anti-conservative. Now the ‘left’ does to too, in the form of middle class ‘progressives’ who lionise the same globoculture that the neoliberals have created.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

Environmentalism was always “rightwing” (anti-left) in the Eastern Bloc – i had quite a culture shock to realise it’s the opposite in the West. Green groups / associations / individuals were criminalised and persecuted by the socialist regimes.
All the ‘green’ politics of today lose every and any credibility the moment they align themselves with leftist causes – they are the problem, and not the solution they profess to be. Environmentalism and socialism are irreconcilable per definition.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Allons Enfants

I get that growing up in Eastern Europe may have given you an allergy to communism, for very good reasons. But you seem to have aligned yourself with the a fairly fundamentalist view of right wing economic liberalism as a reaction. Might that be an overreaction – throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you will?
Just because communism was authoritarian hardly means that everyone who supports social care or who wants to reduce inequality to less punitive levels (or even who wants to protect the environment) is trying to enslave the population and throw dissenters into a gulag.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Authoritarianism was just only one aspect of communism, and not even the biggest / worst. There was the immense environmental damage (ecocide is not an exaggeration), unmatched by the 1st world “traditional capitalism’s” worst efforts. The ex-eastern-bloc countries are still dealing with the fallout, and will do so for a long time. Inequality was just as rampant as in ‘capitalism’, with the difference that the best & brightest was assigned to the bottom of the socioeconomic order – communism is deeply and inherently anti-intellectual.
Today’s left-aligned “greens” are doing immense harm to the environment by advocating open borders and various thirdworld-centric global policies, which inevitably cultivate the already obscenely explosive population growth. Human population growth presents the single biggest harm to the planet’s environment. And it’s spilling into Europe from the undeveloping world, unabated.

Martin Price
Martin Price
1 year ago

A very interesting inteview. Thank you.

Joel Birkeland
Joel Birkeland
1 year ago

I am dismayed by the assertion that the world is “hurtling towards environmental and social collapse”. That claim is demonstrably false. Climate change is occurring, but at a far slower rate than predicted by the generally accepted models. Population growth is slowing and will likely plateau rather than increase without bounds. Extreme poverty is rapidly diminishing. More food is produced on less land.
Of course problems remain, but our situation is improving, and it will continue to improve. This should be obvious to anyone who choses to open their eyes.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Joel Birkeland

Even if it is true though it is humans that pay the price, the planet will carry on quite happily without us. I love watching those programmes on Life After Humans because it shows how quickly nature recovers once we’re not there.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

Personally, I think population reduction, self-sufficiency and a semi-reversal of globalisation would be better. Use the state to guide the impulses of capitalism and entrepreneurialism towards problem-solving – make the best solutions the most profitable. And remove corporate welfare which allows them to pay low wages and expect the taxpayer to subsidise their profitability. True capitalism doesn’t have businesses too big to fail.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Just as a matter of interest, how are we going to do this ‘population reduction’? Are you volunteering to start?

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek M

Educate women in any country where they are not educated to a similar level as the men. You could then anticipate the world population dropping off the edge of a cliff within 2 short generations – leaving in its wake a raft of different problems, of course e.g. ageing populations, economic and social upheavals – as these women exercise their knowledge muscles.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago

I’m not sure that Kingsnorth’s philosophy offers any hope, even on its own terms:
How will living a “life within limits,” and “accepting the catastrophe on the horizon” help, when his predicted catastrophe of “total environmental and civilisational collapse” arrives? Merely knowing “how to produce by ourselves” in the old climate won’t be much help if that climate has collapsed. If the only problem were civilisational collapse, he might have a point. But that’s not the world he’s expecting.
That being the case, there seems no option but to work to prevent “total environmental… collapse”. If we can keep civilisation going too, so much the better.
Kingsnorth’s is a counsel of despair – which does more than almost anything else to prevent change. One wonders if he would have viewed slavery as similarly immutable if he’d lived in Wilberforce’s day.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Kingsnorth’s is a counsel of despair

Yes, “The End is Nigh” etc..

James Watson
James Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Yes, the end is nigh, and as far as I can tell always has been

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

The phrase “burn itself out in total environmental and civilisational collapse” is interesting. I am techno-pessimist numero uno but I don’t agree there will be a civilisational collapse. That implies events will force a reset and technology driven change will then reach some sort of plateau. There is no basis for such a belief. Humans need to weave stories around imperfectly understood patterns (or even non-patterns) – and most such stories are confabulations anyway. What I mean is, belief in ‘civilisational collapse’ is no different from belief in, say, ‘Zeus’.
The core of the problem is something more subtle. Humans have not over the last several millennia been biologically conditioned for endemic technology driven change – it causes discomfort at the individual level, especially as the years roll by and mind and body weaken. Yet technology driven change is inexorable. Many people though do have the capacity to adapt themselves to any change. As such people will adapt, perforce as quickly as necessary. Those who cannot or will not, will get hurt, as will many others who become accidental victims of tumultuous change. But plenty will thrive – just not on terms that constitute normal happiness today. I mean by that, many people will alter themselves to align with technological change, by using technology on themselves – something many others would consider outright dystopian or cacotopian.

Last edited 1 year ago by Prashant Kotak
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I think civilisational collapse is a far more likely occurrence than environmental or planetary collapse. The earth will go on quite happily without humans, but massive human population growth fighting for limited resources and power never ends well.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago

Nice to see “Britain’s foremost critic of industrial modernity” getting his message across using the product of industrial modernity

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago

I suppose that an advantage of, “collapsology,” is it frees the believer from concern at the fate of other people. It’s going to happen, it’s all down to a disembodied force over which we have no control. At least Paul Kingsnorth is not suggesting that we might ward of our fate with a few human sacrifices.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago

An entertaining diversion from the real issues usually covered by Unherd – Megan Markle, Islam, Piers Morgan, Covid innoculation rates in Peru and the eventual release of Prince Harry. Paul Kingsworth’s pessimistic answer to mankind’s hurtling to oblivion, (or is it salvation?) is The Good Life, hated by Margo Leadbetter. Further, he now regresses (surrenders) to the subjective security of an imaginary friend. To withdraw from the world in a hermetic hippy lifestyle is no answer to mankind’s problems, whatever they may be. Mankind isn’t ‘hurtling’ anywhere. I prefer Lovelock’s neo paganism in Gaia (as I understand it). Life everywhere, and in every respect, is in a constant state of dynamic change – this is evolution and atomic expansion. Today we have placed a vehicle on Mars in exactly the same way Columbus took the Santa Maria westward. That is the very nature of man. As individuals we interact with the whole in a constant state of review, revision, progression and expansion – see Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. To withdraw is no answer, and, in any event, a choice actually available to very few.