The writer visited UnHerd to talk about finding meaning in a soulless world
On Monday 22nd May, writer and regular UnHerd contributor Paul Kingsnorth visited the UnHerd Club. In a wide-ranging discussion with Freddie Sayers, Kingsnorth covered artificial intelligence, environmentalism, religion and the Covid-19 experience, all in an effort to understand how we can find meaning while living in what he calls “the machine”.
Previously used by the likes of D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell, “the machine” can be defined as “this giant technocratic monster of a culture that we’ve built”. Once upon a time, an effective way to combat this new bureaucracy was through the advocacy of environmentalism which, according to Kingsnorth, was focused on “standing up against the machine’s destruction of the natural world”. However, in recent years environmentalism has been “swallowed by the machine […] It’s been colonised by the Left, who now see it as their movement.”
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Kingsnorth’s idea of protecting the natural world is quite different from the prescriptions of modern eco-activism. “Environmentalism has to be about connection and people’s relationship to place, to nature and each other” he told UnHerd. The “globalised machine culture” in which we live, on the other hand, “militates against all of those relationships. It unsettles everything and breaks everything up and throws us out all over the world following the money.”
Bringing humanity further away from nature has been the boom of technology in the last few decades, pioneered by “a bunch of people who have created a system which they know is addictive”. He referenced Ray Kurzweil, Google’s former head of engineering, who, when asked whether God existed, said, “Not yet” because, in Kingsnorth’s words, “he’s building God” through artificial intelligence.
At least as troubling was the technocratic establishment’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s not conspiratorial to say that vaccine passports and digital health IDs on a global scale were being discussed long before Covid happened,” Kingsnorth said. “The rational, global machine-like way to respond to this illness is shut everybody down, control everybody, monitor everybody, give them a digital ID and push them off the internet if they’ve got a problem with it, and it worked.” Public hysteria only enabled this approach.
Arguing that contemporary culture isn’t “going in the right direction”, the writer said that “you can see the mess the machine is getting us into […] and none of the people running the thing seem to have a clue what they’re doing.” Revolution isn’t the answer, though. “If you try to change the world without changing yourself, then you get Bolshevism,” Kingsnorth warned. “You get every other revolutionary movement that thinks it can create a utopia and actually creates hell. Because that’s the trap, I think. So you have to work on the spirit first.”
How, then, do we work on our own personal spirit? “The more simply you can live and the closer to nature you can live,” Kingsnorth suggested, “the more you can resist that kind of machine narrative.”
Thanks to Paul for a fascinating conversation.