Paul Kingsnorth: science can never replace myth
Freddie Sayers spoke to the writer about why he left the green movement
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.
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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:
On rationalist versus mythic modes of thought:
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neoliberal capitalism as well have operated on the false assumption that the mythic way of seeing will be ultimately superseded by the rational way, by the logoic way of seeing if you like, because obviously, myth was just a silly thing we believed in before we had science, that we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.
On giving up climate activism:
On the capitalist system:
On Bill Gates:
On China ‘lifting a hundred million’ people out of poverty:
On his conversion to Christianity:
On Jesus’ teaching:
This reminds me of a quote from Patriarch Bartholomew:
The solution of the ecological problem is not only a matter of science, technology, and politics but also, and perhaps primarily, a matter of radical change of mind, of new values, of a new ethos. In Christian theology, we use the term metanoia, which means a shift of the mind, a total change of mentality.
This is the area where the political policy initiatives to save the environment, the accords, even the stuff that comes out of activism, fails. The environmental crises is fundamentally result of the malformation of the human heart and mind. Without a culture-wide metanoia, there isn’t any hope of changing people’s way of thinking and living, nor their desires.
The environmental movement has become largely about finding technological ways to maintain our lifestyles and maintain our consumption, without any consequences, which is of course doomed to fail. But the earlier attempt to cajole people into that kind of changed failed because it failed to offer enough of a basis for a new way of thinking, or a practice o way of life that would form people who are frugal and self-disaplined, and not distracted by ever new consumer good.
Absolutely spot on and I had never heard of Patriarch Bartholomew! Sadly this truth leaves me profoundly pessimistic. As he says, mankind has to transform but in addition the vested interests of carbon capitalism, and the politicians that serve it, have to give way to the legislative changes that would prevent ecological collapse. Unless both these highly unlikely changes come very soon our fate is sealed.
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.
Yes, a lovely and fascinating interview, enhanced as always by Freddy’s sensible and sensitive questions.
Paul is probably correct to say that the juggernaut cannot be stopped. One can merely, as he says, feed it as little as possible and perform one’s own small acts of resistance.
So, like Paul, I don’t have a smartphone. Further, I threw out the TV over 20 years ago, I am not on social media, I do not fund the MSM in any way, I have never owned a car, I never buy new computers (sadly, I need a laptop for work), and pretty much everything else I acquire is bought second/third hand or found on the street. Even my latest (and very battered) bicycle was given to me by someone who was throwing it away, and I found a rather nice music stand on the street the other week. It now sits happily next to the piano. What more do you need?
How refreshing, Fraser! This could be why you write such sensible and informed comments, unpolluted by all the dross pumped out on mainstream and social media.
That’s fine if you are living alone but responsibility for others doesn’t normally allow us to live like that. I agree that addiction to TV or social media is a very bad thing but there are small ways that they can be used for good as well. It’s not the thing but the content which can damage plus the passivity it can produce when we could be doing something far more profitable.
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.
Well written thoughts. We live in a world that has nature, but a fallen nature through the fall of Adam and Eve, but that will be redeemed at the return of Christ. The scriptures show that our redemption at the return of Christ will also be the redemption of nature as well. But He comes only to those who look for Him. To some He will be a rude interruption.
Maybe I’m a horrible cynic, but the quotes didn’t inspire me to watch the full interview. I don’t fully believe this guy has actually left environmental activism behind. Maybe he got tired of it and became less energetic about it, but his words are the words of an unrequited left-wing activist still. His words leave me cold because they are illogical, rely on false premises that are never examined, and show little true reflection or intellectual curiousity.
Take this example:
“we have built this enormous, unsustainable economic monster that now envelops the world, which requires endless growth to keep it going”
The economy doesn’t have to keep growing to keep going. That’s an oft-repeated canard based on a mis-understanding of how money is issued, but you don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s wrong. Just look at Italy’s GDP growth over the past twenty years (zero) and observe that Italy has not collapsed. If we wanted to, we could run the whole world with no economic growth for as long as desired – it would suck to be in such a world but nothing would collapse.
Nor is the economy unsustainable. That’s Malthus talking, not experience or logic. Finally, the whole personification of the economy i.e. all the things we do for each other as actors in a society as a “monster” is pure Marx, it’s just a parody of leftism and it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
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.
No, “we” measure lots of things. The UN publishes a world happiness report, if he wants to read it. As for a society of merchants, you could have fooled me. It feels like there’s an abundant supply of eco-activists, BLM activists, academics, artists, poets, writers, bloggers and all manner of people who aren’t funded by anything resembling consumers. If anything there’s an oversupply of these people (ok maybe not bloggers), as they sure do seem to have plenty of time for stirring up culture wars of various kinds.
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?
Maybe some of them wanted to be lifted out of poverty? Nothing stops people in China from giving away all their wealth and living as a peasant, it’s not like there’s a law there that says you have to be lifted out of poverty or else you’re thrown in the clink. What is this paragraph even meant to mean? That they were happier as poor farmers living in huts with no heathcare or clean water? That’s the sort of bizarre and ludicrous belief only an eco-activist could possibly entertain, isn’t it.
I’ve never heard of Kingsnorth. Given his 18th century worldview, I’m not sure that’s a loss.
‘The UN publishes a world happiness report’ Of course it does! And we’re all a lot happier for it. Thank you UN! By the way, I think you’ve misunderstood the quote, he’s questioning whether they really were lifted out of poverty.
Yeah, he is, but why question that? Chinese GDP numbers are suspect, but not that suspect. The country and its people are unquestionably a lot richer than they once were. There are plenty of Chinese people in the world who can compare their own style of living to that of their parents and attest to it. It seems odd to question whether they were really lifted out of poverty or not and unrelated to the question of whether they’re happier now than before.
They are only richer because they have copied the people they used to call filthy capitalists.
Actually you’re wrong about Chinese peasant farmers – many of them have had absolutely no choice about being forced off their land. And once dispossessed, they will never have the economic wherewithal to buy it back.
I think you missed the point of many of his statements.
“Maybe some of them wanted to be lifted out of poverty? Nothing stops people in China from giving away all their wealth and living as a peasant, it’s not like there’s a law there that says you have to be lifted out of poverty or else you’re thrown in the clink. What is this paragraph even meant to mean?”
It means the Chinese government, by force and law, took land which belonged to their citizens’ families for 150+ years in many cases, which they were happily subsistence-farming on and meeting *all* of their needs as human beings, and turned it into a monstrosity of a construction project, often times, a project that has not, and likely will not *ever* be put to use! Forcing the people to abandon the only thing they *owned*, to turn to wage slavery.
I think it says *something* about your imagination and value system, that you cannot possibly fathom people living “happier as poor farmers” in “huts with no healthcare or clean water”. As someone who’s lived this very subsistance-farming life in Eastern Europe, I can vouch for it being the happiest and least stressful time of my life.
Subsistence farming in no way meets all our needs as human beings. If it did then there’d be huge communities in the west who just never moved beyond that stage because why bother? Outside of the Amish no such communities exist. I’m happy for you that you were happy! But your experience is marginal in the extreme. Most people, given the chance, would not buy a small farm in eastern Europe and spend all day growing food for themselves to eat in winter.
The reason I cannot fathom people being “happy poor” is because I’ve never met anyone who was happy about being poor. All the poor people I know, and I’ve known quite a few, very much wish they were richer. At most they are “happy” in the sense that they don’t care much for the tradeoffs involved in actually getting richer, for example they prefer having their current job to trying to switch careers to something higher paid, but if you handed them a winning lottery ticket they wouldn’t say, actually no thanks, I’m happier being a subsistence farmer.
I do agree that China seized the peasant’s land. That’s step 1 in any communist revolution and is very much regrettable. However, those peasants had to stop subsistence farming sooner or later. In the UK there were no medieval communists but the enclosure laws still happened and I don’t know anyone (well, except eco-activists) who think society was all downhill since the industrial revolution.
Meeting one’s needs and getting rich are too different things.
If you give all your wealth away you could certainly not afford to buy your land back, not in China.
I dare say his views will change in time and maybe yours? I am very cynical about China lifting people out of poverty and taking them away from their land. I know they arrest millions and even use torture on people who think differently so they are not an act to follow unless you listen to the BBC.
Of course we can’t stop climate change. The climate has been changing continuously since the moment the earth was formed. The notion that we should spend trillions of dollars attempting to shave 1 degree off the projected increase in global temperature over the next century is so obviously preposterous it’s a mystery how supposedly intelligent people can think it’s good idea.
Glad that someone sees that. It has become political as the scientists who don’t agree with the theory tend to be defunded producing a false consensus on global warming which we all have to adhere to. Many of these scientists believe that carbon is affected by the sun not man made things. Nevertheless it is in the category of gay marriage and choosing your own sex etc. where one has to agree with the madness of the world because of political pressure.
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!
I think you are absolutely correct. Maybe Paul will see that eventually?
Thank you. This subject(s) could be quite pessimistic, but isn’t. Thank you, again.
A fascinating interview. Thank you to both of you.
Paul Kingsnorth’s approach addresses one of the issues that most troubles me about modern environmental activism. His approach — you do what you can in your life, you take responsibility for your actions and encourage responsible behaviour by others where you can — is so much more healthy than the mass-movement hysteria whipped up by Greta Thunberg and her ilk, be they adults or children. On the individual level, the main product of such hysteria is anxiety. No wonder so many children and young people report declining qualities of mental health.
Thank you. Great interview.
I wonder if I will ever manage to do what he has done. On some level I definitely would like to. I’m just not sure my family would come with me!
So why are we not facing the issue ? Too many people. Stop increasing the number of people. Then the issues can be stabilised.
We are reducing people. 9.5M abortions since the 67 Act. The problem is that these missing people are more than made up for by the immigration of different cultures, which in turn affects the identity of the indigenous people.
I haven’t come across Paul Kingsnorth for a while, but I enjoyed the interview. Would be good to have him debate Matt Ridley or Steven Pinker.
I read Real England over a decade ago. Funnily enough, it helped me unravel a route out of the left.
A good interview but my disappointment kicked in when it was apparent that Paul Kingsnorth had converted to Christianity. I really struggle to understand how an obviously clever man like Paul can believe in a God, in a soul, in an afterlife.
Ha! interesting I had the opposite reaction!
I thought it a very good interview, not ever having heard of this fellow. I thought him rather thoughtful, but when he indicated that he had become a Christian, I was pleasantly surprised. I think he has it right: if there is nothing higher, nothing better, nothing “above” humans, than there is no rationale against what we CAN do. And it usually turns out that those in power can do more than those without power. And since they can, then it is ‘right’. Its only when there is something higher, a higher good, a higher standard, which gives any basis for standing against the wrong, the evil that humans deep down know exists. So I think Kingsnorth at long last recognized that Christianity has a reason[able], a logical answer for the reality that he has struggled so long against. Cheers!
I agree. At one point during the interview I thought that something is missing in his description of the world as he sees it, and that was the spiritual aspect of our very existence, that we are creatures, created beings which both opens to the attitudes of gratitude and humility which in turn can help to find a balance in our lives. Then at the end he told about his newfound relationship to Christianity (and it could have been another spiritual school as well I suppose), and what this has done for him. Cheers indeed!
Christ will divide us. He says so Himself.
Thanks for bringing this interview. The slightly confused, slightly doubtful, but still somehow determined, approach of Paul Kingsnorth I personally find more convincing than commentators who readily know the answer to all questions (like Bjorn Lomborg).
Self-reliance in the countryside may be a way to survive materially, but more important, perhaps, is that all kinds of self-reliance with an immediate result makes you feel strong, fit and well. (This may be a masculine experience.) Producing political books, articles and videos, on the contrary, do not, even when of high quality and relevance, because all you see around you is that society keeps running in the opposite direction. I read an interview with Michel Houellebecq the other day. In spite of his success, financially and regarding acknowledgment, he says he feels bad. Houellebecq himself points to psychological factors like upbringing. But anybody who must do his own laundry, feels better!
I can’t help it but it didn’t like this interview that much. The author seems very knowledgeable and thoughtful, but there’s something misanthropic and just too disenchanted about the attitude to pass as insightful. Humans will always be only human, they’re products of and largely instinctually conditioned by the very nature they’re trying so desperately to protect. Consciousness itself is not man made either, but a natural product of evolution and inextricably linked to instinct. People can use it and apply reason and conscious will to some degree, but they cannot control, let alone understand it. I wish people wouldn’t get so hung up all the time about fixing the world. It’s not in your power to change the very nature out of which you evolved. Just enjoy the experience of life and do the best you can. The best people are those who accept they are “good enough”.
Great interview .
Ive read books by Yuval Noah Harari which gave me a greater understanding of why we are the way we are. As a species whose fundamental success lies in cooperation and reliance on one another, we seem to be born into this biology. We have trapped ourselves in this machinery of government, society, businesses & nations , all constructs of our own imagination . Our modern western education is designed to fit that purpose. Churning us out so that we can fulfil our roles in this giant interlocked system. Our intellect is only recognised if we have made use of these institutions, otherwise we are a nobody & our need to be somebody is too great so we strive for that the hardest.
If we are truly able the cut out the bullshit, all what one really NEEDS is food & shelter to survive . Is survival the endgame?
But here we are, having been a part of that machinery with newfound knowledge , sussing out what lies ahead is not great and being able to reject it by embracing self reliance.
The world is now almost 8b people & counting ( an unintended consequence of our own making) & only if all of us could be so clairvoyant. I like Paul’s approach of finding what works for him because there ARE NO one size answers that fit all . Muddle through and make sense of your own current situation and find what suits you best & hold on for a bumpy future.
“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.”
Well, within approximately 1 year of first knowing about SARS-CoV-2, we have highly effective vaccines being produced in cumulative quantity of over 1 billion doses per year. We also have figured out that some therapeutic drugs help with managing symptoms/hospitalizations, even though none of them are a full “cure”.
In short, it does appear that “science” is well on its way to “solv[ing] this”, at least to the degree of making SARS-CoV-2 / COVID a disease that accounts for relatively few deaths in any country with half-decent medical care.
Thank you. I enjoyed the whole discussion. Your encounter with the Sermon on the Mount resonated with me because when I was about your age I had a similar experience. Have you noticed that the Beatitudes are a sequence which when obeyed turn one into a disciple? It takes me at least an hour to go through the Sermon which has been growing in my soul for 40years. If you are interested it’s on my web site; johnpatrick.ca
Would the Roman Legions rallied to this cry? I
I very much doubt it .
I, too, rather doubt it. For a start, the Romans had higher expectations in terms of sanitation and plumbing.
Yes! It IS about the Sacred – and if you are entirely materialistic, how can you feel about the Sacred – or about Nature?
Think about the fact that Chrisitianity was the religion of the ancient Egyptians.. It was usurped by the Essenes at the time of the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria – and all the other great shrines and libraries of Egypt.
“IUSA the KRST, was born in a stable on the 25th. December, of a Virgin called IsisMary.
He taught in the Temple at age 12 and he was baptised at age 30 by Anup the Baptiser – who was beheaded.
He had 12 companions, walked on water, healed the sick and raised the dead.
He was crucified, died and was buried in a tomb of rock.
He was resurrected – naturally.!
That is all out of the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead! Read CHRIST in EGYPT by D.M. Murdock.
The Egyptians worshiped Nature. The Jews did not – and do not!
Feminism is the problem in our world today – ironically. Nature is scorned since the Jews imposed fe-manism on the world. Women have become masculine! How dumb can you get!
Did you know that you cannot be Jewish unless your Mother is Jewish? They really do rule = to their great detriment because it means that Jewish men are weak – and only really stupid women want weak men around.
The Jews long ago decided that they must have only One God -they called Yahweh – but he actually originally had a wife until they got this stupid idea in their heads that Mother Nature was of no value!
Another very interesting boo is called “……and forgive them their debts.” by Michael Hudson – which is about how all the ancient societies of the Middle East forgave all debt every now and then, either because it could not be paid, or because there was something to celebrate.
There is hardly a word of truth in the Old Testament anyway,
For example, the story they like to tell about “Moses” was actually the hero myth about SArgon the Great – who was placed in a basket which was sealed with pitch, and sailed doen the River TIGRIS, because a tyrant was looking for the baby to kill him – and his basket came to rst in the reeds at the bottom of the garden of the Palace and the baby was rescued and raised in the Palace – and grew up to become Sargon 1st, The Great. The othere part of the story is actually about Hammurabi who was inspired by God to inscribe The Law on stone – and one of his rocks is in The Louvre today.
And so it goes on.
Read the wonderful book by Israel Finkelstein The BIBLE UNEARTHED. He is the sernior archaeologist at Tel AViv University.
And, by the way – the SEMITIC Jews originated in Yeman, The Jews who have stolen Palestine are not Semitic.
Furthermore there is a Jewish country in SE Russian called Birobijhan. It is about the same size as Switzerland but is more fertile – and it has a modern city with rail and air links to Moscow and Beijing!
I was with you and was fascinated until you went against the scriptures.
This is by John McCarthy – the English journalist who was held hostage in Beirut for five years.
he later spent time in The Holy Land (as it is called) with many different archaeologists- including many Jewish archaeoligists – and at digs learning about the archaeology of Palestine – which used to be part of Egypt!/
Thank you, Lockdown TV, UnHerd, and Paul Kingsnorth.
I wondered if Paul would like to post a few reading recommendations relating to any of the points made in the conversation. He mentioned E. F. Schumacher. I suppose many people will, rightly, think of Small Is Beautiful; but A Guide for the Perplexed seems encouraging too. But let me recommend a book with a dull title: Man and the Environment. The subtitle is a little more intriguing: A Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian. The author is Anestes G. Keselopoulos.
But I wanted to see others’ suggestions too.
That he has found Christ in the last year gives me great hope for him. Not that we need religion but that we need Christ personally. Yes it will change us fundamentally but that just shows we were on the wrong track to start with.
The long poem Old Rectory, by Martyn Skinner (1906-1993), will appeal to many people who appreciate what Paul Kingsnorth says here. It’s out of print at present but you might be able to get it from a library. Almost presciently, it is set in a near future after a catastrophic plague. Journalists come to interview the seemingly reclusive man called Old Rectory (actually he has several nearby friends), a painter whose studio is an abandoned church. This sounds sombre but the poem is pervaded by good cheer. It’s delightfully readable. Some people who get hold of it will wonder: Where was this book? Why wasn’t I told?
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