by UnHerd
Wednesday, 10
March 2021

Paul Kingsnorth: science can never replace myth

Freddie Sayers spoke to the writer about why he left the green movement
by UnHerd

Paul Kingsnorth doesn’t fit neatly into Left or Right — which is only one of the reasons we consider him one of the more interesting thinkers of our time. He has been talking and writing about nature for over 25 years, and during that period he has developed his own self-reliant, localised form of environmentalism.

Formerly a climate activist, Paul grew disaffected with the movement when he came to the realisation that “economic monster” that enveloped the world was too great to fight against. Instead, he channelled his energies into writing books, essays, novels and poetry, all of which have been hugely influential in the way we view our relationship with the modern world and its maladies.

In his own life, he has tried to “secede from the system” as much as possible by living on his own farmstead out in western Ireland in county Galway. While he admits that it is impossible to fully withdraw from the world, small acts of resistance — whether they are using an unconnected compost loo or refusing to use a smartphone — allows him to “jump off the treadmill”. His recent conversion to Christianity came as a surprise, not least to Paul, and it gave him a deeper appreciation of the importance of limits and humility. Below are some excerpts from this enthralling interview:

On the culture wars:

The more modern and the more westernised the world is, the more lost people seem… It seems to me that both sides in this horrible toxic culture battle that’s going on are talking about identity as if it’s something that’s under threat for them and something that they’ve lost and something they feel attached to and something that the other side wants to take away from them.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On rationalist versus mythic modes of thought:

So you’ve got sort of mythos versus logos…. So we have a very rationalistic, very secularistic, scientific, mathematical way of looking at the world, which is useful, obviously… But we also have something which is deeper and to some degree truer than that, which is the mythic way of looking, which is where true poetry comes from, it’s where art comes from. But it’s also where I think our deep love of nature comes from, and it’s where religion comes from. That stuff flows through absolutely every human being and every human culture always at all times.

I think liberal modernity and neoliberal capitalism as well have operated on the false assumption that the mythic way of seeing will be ultimately superseded by the rational way, by the logoic way of seeing if you like, because obviously, myth was just a silly thing we believed in before we had science, that we don’t need anymore. That’s not what’s happening.

- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On giving up climate activism:

What you end up seeing if you are an activist for long enough is that we have built this enormous, unsustainable economic monster that now envelops the world, which requires endless growth to keep it going. It isn’t possible to feed it with enough natural resources to power that endless growth, the fossil fuels that it uses to power that endless growth is changing the climate. So we all know these terrible stories: we’ve kicked off a mass extinction event, the climate is changing, all of these kinds of horrors. So you end up having to try and turn this around, and you end up campaigning to stop climate change. And after many, many years of doing that, I was unable to avoid the reality, as it seemed to me and it still does — it actually isn’t possible to do it in the way that we wanted to do it.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On the capitalist system:

We’re not citizens, we’re not people rooted in a culture, we’re not individuals who have a sort of wider sense of worth. We’re primarily consumers and producers for that machine. We measure everything in terms of economic growth, we measure that in a material sense, rather than in any other sense. We’ve become a kind of a society of merchants and those consumer values have infiltrated everything, absolutely every aspect of our lives…I think that’s a tragedy. It’s a cultural tragedy, and it’s an ecological tragedy too.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On Covid:

Covid is interesting in the sense that we’ve all been acting like science is going to solve this using the algorithms and the mathematical formula and the rest of it. But there’s also something very mythic about this virus isn’t there? It’s very apocalyptic, I think, in the original sense of the word. The word apocalypsis is Greek for unveiling, it means revelation.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On Bill Gates:

It’s an interesting one this, because you’ve got all the crazy conspiracies about how Bill Gates is going to inject you with microchips and all this stuff. But there’s a basis for this. Bill Gates is a very powerful man and he’s using his money to change the world in particular ways. He’s using his money to fund newspapers. He’s using his money to promote development in places like Africa in a very particular pattern. He’s doing certainly all sorts of things. And the same is true of Soros, who’s always the centre of conspiracy theories as well. So although the conspiracies themselves are crazy and often dangerous and unpleasant, the sense of powerlessness that fuels them is real. I think that these conspiracies come about when people try to join dots that they don’t understand, because we don’t really know how it’s working anymore.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On China ‘lifting a hundred million’ people out of poverty:

China has made, for example, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people landless through the construction of dams; through the construction of giant cities. Obviously, the state in China is all-powerful, and so people are just moved. And then they’re put into cities. And often if you take people who’ve been living on their own land, in a subsistence economy where they have enough and you put them into a city, where they then are earning wages, but very low wages; they’ve lost any sense of control through that process of enclosure that we talked about earlier. Then you can stick that on your balance sheet and you can say look at these people we’ve lifted out of poverty. Maybe some of them wanted to be but were they?
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On his conversion to Christianity:

I’ve been on a sort of spiritual search for 10 years or so. Because actually, so much of what we’ve been talking about seems to me to be at root, a spiritual question in the broadest sense of that slightly horrible word. That it’s actually about what we value. And so much of our destructive nature, it seems to me, comes from our sense of self-worship. So once you believe that there’s nothing above you, once you believe that there’s nothing sacred about the world, that the world is simply a material object, a giant resource that you can harvest, then you can become quite tyrannical.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

On Jesus’ teaching:

It’s very interesting to go back to the teachings of Jesus 2000 years ago, and see him basically addressing the same flaws in human nature that we have now. And of course, that’s not just true of Christianity. So there’s a there’s a lesson in radical humility that you can get from it, which I hadn’t realised until I started to look at it properly. And that’s still working its way through me. It’s quite a radical and exciting thing to be happening in a way.
- Paul Kingsnorth, LockdownTV

Join the discussion

  • I fundamentally disagree with half of what Paul said and totally agree with the other half! The whole Climate Change mantra is clearly nonsense. We are in a period between ice ages, and no amount of people driving petrol cars is going to stop the next one coming. Silicon Valley, and more, are definitely after our souls though. We are being driven further and further away from our innate connection with the natural world. That said, the whole environmentalist movement is naively part of that. The people who make your solar panels are building coal-fired power stations. Vegan food is made in factories by multinationals putting small farmers who look after the land out of business.

    This interview was a good example of why we need UnHerd!

  • Cannot watch all this, have to go to work, digging out a dirt basement floor 6 inches and will pour a concrete floor, it is to become an artists studio, late start today as I am all stiff from a days shoveling. My carpenter is digging in my place now, which is a waste of his skill.

    I am very interested in what this guy has to say, his life and mine have many parallels, but many divergences. Seeing him was odd as he looks exactly like my doppelganger, but about two decades ago, my hair and beard now white, we have the same nose and eyes.

    I dropped out of society after dropping out of school and after working three jobs for a year to get some money I hit the road and spent about 16 years on it, stopping here and there for stationary years, but then the road would suck me back onto it – but the living was hard and poor, and a great deal of it in the extremely remote and un-peopled lands being solitary for a collective time of years, alone with my thoughts, and also much in big cities.

    Anyway, life and what it is, mortality, ethics and morals, culture, human innate behavior, urbanization, over population (very apparent if one spends time remote) And Nature its self, were what my brain would turn to. Utter solitude, as I used to be in often, does weird things to ones brain. Isolation has always been man’s ultimate punishment, shunning and solitary cells, they drive a person mad the way they act on the brain – but they also allow a kind of state where you begin to see things which you will not when in company. One can see nature only by living remote and alone, other wise your brain is always focused on the other people and cannot go all to nature and ultimate.

    Nature in un-peopled places still fallows its own rules, peopled places and deep nature goes, it becomes mere laws of physics, the mysterious and raw nature is gone where people have changed things. The desert monk mystics, the Scott and Irish monks in their solitary, inaccessible island cells, the Buddhist monks in their solitary cave cells, the Trappist monks without talking and companionship, all went to solitary, remote, nature to get back into the ultimate. To see that which takes vast hardship and efforts and self denial as it is hidden in company, or in urban.

    Nature, but only when you live in it, alone, you must have spent great effort and time seeking remote places and dwelling in them to be really there, and nature will once or twice drop her veil momentarily and you can see the mystery It opens, and then is gone.

    Nature is Cold, it just is, it has no compassion or malice, but cruelty is what it is, the rabbit having its 5 kits, born to die miserably, some surviving to a year, to do it again, the Great Wheel of life. It is Majestic, the greatest non-deity majestic, I always would think of Juggernaut, the Indian god who drove the massive wagon with wheels spanning side to side like a steam roller, and he crushed all life before it, and after passing new life would spring from the lifeless earth. The inexorable force which claims all, but still behind its passing new springs up. I came to be very depressed by nature, it is just too cruel, but it is still Majestic beyond understanding

    I have a feeling we are very different in belief, but with his turning to Christianity we may begin to come towards a common point. Secular Nature Protesters and advocates cannot understand how it is, how there is an ultimate, it is like they see the symptoms but cannot see the causes, as all causes come from the ultimate, and reflecting on that is where the only answers can be found.

  • I really enjoyed this interview. In some ways, Paul Kingsnorth’s ideas are not new. His insights into the nature of neoliberal capitalism and globalization have been made by many other people, but Kingsnorth’s synthesis of what ails the developed world is very clear and compelling.
    For me, the most significant part of this interview was his conclusion about the corporate and technological juggernaut that now runs our lives: we probably can’t change it. Same with climate change which is a consequence of our highly technological and industrial society. I suspect he’s right.
    Extreme capitalism and globalization will bring about their own downfall eventually. In the meantime, we have to create our own meaning in the face of such an overwhelming system. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell advised thirty years ago or more, we must construct our own myth; we must tap into that sense of something greater than ourselves and let it shine through us and guide us. Fancy words, I know, for taking personal responsibility and creating meaning in our own lives.
    Thanks for a great interview, Unherd.

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