We can’t all take on the cistern and win
Industrialised societies aren’t going to give up their comforts in a hurry
Meghan, Harry and Oprah? Don’t waste your time — the real interview of the week was Freddie Sayers’ conversation with the deep green thinker (and doer) Paul Kingsnorth.
It’s well worth an hour of your time, but failing that here’s an excellent account of it by Aris Roussinos.
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Kingsnorth’s argument is that the system that most of us live in — the hi-tech, hyper-capitalist machine — isn’t just devouring the planet, it’s robbing us of our humanity.
He also takes a deeply pessimistic view of our attempts to clean up our act. Despite the best-efforts of the activists, industrialised societies aren’t going to give up their “comforts”, he says.
I agree with a great deal of what he says. The way we live now is both environmentally and spiritually destructive. And yet it’s what he doesn’t mention that troubles me.
It can be encapsulated in a single graph plotting child mortality against GDP per capita since the late 19th century. In this particular case, the data is from Finland — a European country that went from a rural subsidence economy to urban prosperity in a much shorter space of time than, say, the UK did:
As recently as 1900, more than one in five Finnish children died before their fifth birthdays. Today, the child mortality rate is close to zero. The fact is that modernity — for all its faults — doesn’t just provide us with comforts, distractions and luxuries, it provides us with life.
Kingsnorth talks about “secession” from “the system”. In fact, he doesn’t just talk about it, he’s done it — and now lives with his family on a farm in rural Ireland, where he tries to be as self-sufficient as possible. He’s even got rid of his flush toilet and replaced it with a composting toilet — which I guess is seceding from the cistern as well as the system.
But are deep green lifestyles really that different from the mainstream? If you are still living in a world with near zero child mortality, then you are still a participating member of modernity where it matters most.
To be fair to Kingsnorth, he does say that you can’t withdraw from the world completely. But we’re not talking about minor concessions here. Unless they really do secede completely, deep green lifestyles owe much more to the world-that-capitalism-made than they do to pre-modernity.
Perhaps I’m just making Kingsnorth’s point for him — which is that the capitalist system is so inescapable, that’s there’s nothing we can do to stop its destructive side.
Except that by admitting that capitalism has worked wonders, we can draw a distinction with its shoddier goods i.e. those aspects of modernity that do more harm than good and which we don’t need anyway.
Like the Amish, we could — and should — make conscious decisions about which aspects of the modern world enhance family and community life — and accept or reject them accordingly. We don’t have to take capitalism as a package deal. Indeed we should take its consumerist ethos at face value and take our pick.
Therefore I don’t claim that ‘alternative’ lifestyles are just a different variety of modernity in order to demean them — rather it is to recognise their true value: in their various ways they show that a choice between modernities is possible.
Hello Peter. Paul Kingsnorth here. I couldn’t resist weighing in.
This is a conversation of course that has raged since, ooh, the 1930s? or the 1830s? The 1640s? Who knows. It certainly spawned a popular TV series in the 70s. And the 70s was probably the highpoint in the recent West of trying to leave ‘the system’, and set up alternative communities and the like. Some of them worked, most didn’t. Here in Ireland I have a number of friends who fled more industrialised countries back then, waiting for the big collapse, which has not yet arrived.
So you are right – it is not possible to escape what William Cobbett called The Thing, because The Thing is modernity and we are deep in it. And as you point out, modernity has its uses. It’s fair to point out of course that the successes of modernity cannot be delinked from its failures. You get lower child mortality (which as a husband and father I would never sniff at) but it comes with climate change and mass extinction as a free gift. I don’t think you can pick and choose as you suggest – just keep the wealth and riches and individualism and ignore the revolutionary movements, oil spills and valium addiction. I think it’s a package deal, because modernity is not a time period but a mindset, or even a faith.We are heading into a crisis, produced by that way of seeing. But that might be a discussion for another time.
But in any case, here we are. As Samuel Beckett put it: ‘you’re on Earth, there’s no cure for that.’ Escape is never possible; even the monks on Mount Athos are praying for the world. Everything is connected – the oldest green insight. This is the time we live in and the question then becomes how to live in it.
So I would never claim to have ‘fled the system.’ As I said in the film, I have an internet connection and a car after all – here I am. I don’t think living in the country is really much of a big deal, and I’m lucky to have been able to step back a bit. What I find more useful than the notion of some pure or brave ‘escape’ is to think about living on the margins. We can’t ‘escape,’ but we can all of us make ourselves marginal in a useful way. That’s not even a physical question: you can live on the margins in a suburb or a city (plenty of poeple do.) As much as anything, that’s a state of mind. The margins are where the flowers grow when the fields have been sprayed with Roundup, and the margins, throughout history, are where the new ideas and insights have come from, or sometimes where the old ones have been sheltered while a storm passes. So I am happy to call myself marginal, and take it as a compliment.
Thanks for the article.
As you rightly say, you can live on the margins just as well in the city. Stewart Brand claimed that New York City exemplified a more ecological lifestyle than living in isolated countryside. In a densely packed cluster of multi-storied apartment buildings there is less heat loss and with good and efficient public transport, no need for cars for commuting or accessing health services and shops or enjoying communal and cultural activity.
Thanks Peter. I agree about the poison as it happens. Plenty that can be done. I’ve just always tried to distinguish between what can be won by fighting and what can’t. We tend to assume we can fight to ‘fix’ everything; in the case of something big like climate change however, the fix is likely to be worse than the disease. We are less powerful, and considerably less wise, than we think we are. But anyway – we all do what we can! Thanks again.
It has been helpful to find others who have struggled with these questions as i have. Unfortunately, i drifted towards a kind of cynicism, nihilism and even misanthropic attitude to the world. Thankfully i have left that behind. Reading how you found solace in how others have dealt with these topics throughout time,finding threads of mythos connecting then and now, reflects my own journey. You talk about radical humility, this is my view also ( or at least the view i am trying to take). And to write. Thank you.
Thanks Martin. The misanthropy is a normal stage on the journey, I tend to think now, but it has to be a stage and not the endpoint. Yes, i think surrender and humility – the timeless teachings – have the truth. Thanks for replying.
Great analysis, Peter and I appreciate your replies, Paul. I find the concept of living a marginal life very appealing and for you to stand up and say a war against climate change will reap worse results than the current status quo is brave and incredibly insightful.
Paul’s original video prompted an intense debate in my family about what the nature of modern life is and why we have got to here. My stance was that there has always been a deep anxiety at the heart of our fast brain that fears resource poverty – even when we don’t have it. It’s such a strong fear that all sorts of signals can be used to prompt overconsumption of stuff we really don’t need including buying too much of that most basic of resources, food, knowing we’ll never get through it before it is spoiled.
But what do we do with the concept of constant growth (economic and other) being the only engine for guaranteeing the mechanisms we’ve developed for producing adequate resources? This year has produced an interesting answer to that question and links back to Peter’s point about child mortality. Protect the health service at all cost. Protect the food chain. All else, apart from the police and defence, has been ‘marketed’ as suddenly redundant unless it can function in some kind of watered down digital space. Or get an Amazon delivery.
On one side, this is a pretty bleak existence. And relies on a hidden army of near slave like workers. On the other, it shows that an addiction to obsessively watching GDP can be broken.
I’m a crafts person in part. Working in a non industrial way is incredibly fulfilling and doesn’t need a physical retreat. I don’t wish to work in the conditions and with the toxic materials my forebears did however. I’m curious to see whether humanity can come up with communities that are resource adequate but not greedy, that share not stick what they have behind borders, physical or otherwise, and that use all the beautiful innovation that has and will continue to occur at the margins to keep making the human bit of the world safe whilst non invasive of the wild world.
Finally, what I’d really like to say is that I think Paul’s conversation with Freddie laid bare the psychological journey that one might need to go through to find inner peace with the enormous, clunky, destructive machine that is our modern existence and I applaud the clarity of expression and the humble honesty of speaking up about it.
Paul, thank you for participating in this discussion. I greatly enjoyed your interview with Freddie Sayers.
I found your suggestion that we really can’t stop the huge capitalist, internationalist Thing that dominates our lives to be very refreshing. It’s not a defeatist or nihilistic idea, imo. It’s recognition of reality which is the first step in creating a meaningful life within the limits imposed by society.
I’m a fan of the late mythologist, Joseph Campbell. He said (thirty years ago) that we live in a time when there is no longer a unifying myth in the West. Our mythology is a terminal moraine of fragments of earlier myths that are no longer rooted in the everyday reality of their time. They do not resonate with us. So it’s up to the artists of every type (visual, literary, etc) to create new myths for the modern age, to give us a set of values and a vision worth living for, or at least more worth living for than finding the best deal on a new iPad.
I hope we create powerful new visions for the future before the current economic and social system collapses under its own weight.
Kingsnorth’s stance reminds me of the poet Sarojini Naidu’s quip about Ghandi’s performative ludditism: “Do you have any idea how much it costs us to keep Ghandi in poverty?”
Whatever you think of Gandhi (I’m an admirer) I hadly think you could say his life was ‘performative.’ He lived his ideals, sacrificed for them, demonstrated them, was jailed for them, died for them. Most of us will never reach anywhere near that kind of commitment. Quips are easy.
I accept that ‘performative’ is inappropriate usage on my part. He was undoubtedly a great man, complex, with a legacy that was both good and bad, with magnified effects on the lives of millions for decades. Gandhi creates in me both great admiration and a perfect fury – as if either emotion is not futile given that we cannot change the past.
My admiration centers around his sincere attempts to reform the utterly horrible caste based outflows of Hinduism, the generator of systemic oppression and misery over millions for hundreds of years. I also loved his sense of civic possibilities and organisation, in the context of accelerating and difficult Indian urbanisation through the twentieth century. Something else, not least, he was a genuinely good person, not at all autocratic and not cynical.
For what it’s worth, here is my criticism of Gandhi. Gandhi had a big influence on Indian thinking, and he managed to transmit his deep suspicion of technology and machines onto the Indian psyche for decades, which in conjunction with the faux socialism of the Congress party was, frankly, a disaster for India. Congress governments systematically stifled growth in India through most of the second half of the 20th century, because they bought into and promulgated this lethal cocktail of protectionist Nehruite champagne socialism and this odd version of home-spun Gandhian Ludditism. A typical example is the car making industry which entirely remained in the hands of a couple of rich families through backhanders, making those awful Morris Oxford ‘Ambassador’ and Fiat clones from circa 1945 for decades, in cahoots with the financing of Congress party politicians, when in fact India could easily have had a modern thriving competitive automotive sector providing well paid jobs for decades from the late 40s onwards.
There is no way of second-guessing, but I suspect India would be very significantly more prosperous by now were it not for the Congress Party and Gandhi’s influence. To give just an inkling, just a half percent per annum of extra growth compounded over seven odd decades would have resulted in an economy over double it’s current size. And the net effect of the closed, narrow minded, ludditish path, fearful of the external world, that was followed? Completely unnecessary poverty and miserable living conditions for literally hundreds of millions for decades. As China has proved by lifting the bulk of its population out of poverty in literally three decades by embracing modernity.
Well, I’m not Indian – and perhaps you are – so I don’t feel greatly equipped to comment on what may or may not have been possible then or now. Having said that, I have married into an Indian family, and so I see various sides of the ongoing discussion in my life. My British-Punjabi wife is an admirer of Gandhi, in all his complexity which you note.
To me, Gandhi’s life was an expression of the urge for appropriate technology – which means appropriate living – which manifested too in the early green movement here, which inspired me, and was of course inspired by Gandhi and Tolstoy and other such thinkers. Those thinkers were of course inspired by great spiritual teachers, Christ amongst them, whose teaching was simple – in Gandhi’s famous phrase that there is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. He could see where the world was going and he offered an alternative. It was always a long shot.
You say the alternative is China’s model – and perhaps it is. That’s totalitarian government, enforced mass migrations, mass destruction of self-sufficient rural livelihoods, epic levels of urbanisation, epic levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and total moniroting and control of the population, all to emulate the economic model of the west, which is changing the climate in pursuit of an impossible middle class lifestyle for ten billion US-style consumers. When we see the plastic in the oceans and the extinction rates and the mined mountaintops and the razed forests and the still-epic levels of poverty, only now without any attached dignity or self-sufficiency, can we really say that Gandhi was wrong?
To be clear on China, their success (or at least the speed of it) has been achieved by riding roughshod over any opposition that got in the way. And under Xi, China is clearly well on the way to becoming a high surveillance dystopia, where the CCP has hooks into all aspects of commercial and personal life. Equally, there is no getting round the awkward fact that if you were to offer India’s poor, the prosperity the Chinese state has delivered in exchange for giving up the levels of freedom demanded by the CCP, I suspect they would tear your arm off. Trust me, there is nothing remotely noble about being poor.
As to the question you posed about Gandhi and if I can honestly say he was wrong, well, I can only do so with hindsight. He had big concerns about the effects of mass scale industrialisation on India’s poor and uneducated, and I have precisely the same panic right now about the coming automation/AI maelstrom. The difference is, this time it’s for real.
The Americans were keen on Indian independence, they wanted to do business there, and they pushed the British hard for that. But, when it happened, they got short shrift from the Indian leadership including Gandhi, who were wary of removing one imperial power only to invite another one in. This was down to the personal hangups of the individuals concerned, eg Gandhi who had deep experience of the British in South Africa, and Nehru who went to Harrow but was full of pique at the racial humiliations he suffered there at the hands of the British upper classes who were ruling India, and so bought into a partician version of UK style socialism in response, but with people like him at the top.
And this is the irony: had India opened up after independence to American business, it would have worked out great. We are into counterfactuals now, but India would have had much higher levels of growth and prosperity, and the concomitants that come with that – female education and emancipation, resulting in a fairer society, lower population, elevated western style sensibilities re civic responsibilities, plus defacto technology transfer into India etc. India might have followed the curve China did in the nineties and noughties, and have had a buffer to face the challenges of the next couple of decades. As things stand, India joined the growth party late and is extremely vulnerable. There is already considerable evidence that high growth in India is essentially down to new technology sectors and is generating few jobs of the type that don’t require high education.
PS, I am of Indian origin, was born in Africa, came to the UK early 70s. I have a lot of family in India and have done business there. I have no loyalty to India as a nation, but I am a concerned onlooker.
I agree – don’t waste your time with the Meghan, Harry and Oprah Opera. I can understand why people might waste their hours watching cat videos on YouTube or waste time playing snooker, or even watching gameshows on TV. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would spend time following the royal sagas. I thought that when the young Diana was in the spotlight all those years ago and I was the odd one out with zero interest in the royal wedding. Ditto the princes getting married. What do people get out of the royal stuff?
I have great respect for what he does but frankly the size of the population is so vast that it is simply impossible for the great majority to do the same – even if they wanted to.
A nicely argued article. Another interesting fact is we can produce about 2,700 calories a day for a population of 6 billion. But in 2050 we’re estimated to have a population of 9 billion. That number is beyond capitalism or socialism, left or right.
We either produce a lot more food, stop the increase in population, or we end up having 1,800 calories a day each
To put things in proportion the UK figure is currently about 3,400. 1,800 puts you alongside Zambia and Haiti.
These guys dislike the ‘poison’ Roundup, but let them pick which billion people should starve to death if it were not used. Naturally no one would really think that. It is not that there are answers, there are not, what is, is, the inertia is too great. I despair of the world often, it is just too painfull. I have seen starving babies, and all manner of wretchedness in all manner of creatures, the only responce I have is to not think of it, I spend effort not thinking of how it really is in nature.
But I am in a very depressed state. I posted on ultimate on the Kingsworth article, and then that night things went really bad. I have 2 dogs with me 24 hours a day, at work, and by me all day, and on the bed at night, they are my side-kicks, almost part of me, when I lived in the bush alone my previous dogs would be what kept me sane.
That night I loaned my little fragile one, terribly pretty thing, very delicate and sensitive, to someone who was depressed, to have for company for a couple nights, and it wandered off when she was getting stuff from her car, and I spent the night looking, wistling, just walking the area hour after hour. The morning a person left a message that it had been runover and was at a vet, it was paralized, I had them kill it and took it home and buried it – and even now, days later, I am in a dark, depression. I am amazed how hard it hit me, just bleakness of soul, It has knocked the stuffing out of me –
Just over a silly little dog, but it was a delicate one, and that means I spent a decade protecting it, caring for it, and that made it bad, it was my little friend who needed me, and I had gotten to need it more than I knew I guess. I am a hard man, I have killed so many things, it does not bother me to kill something which is right to kill, it is not death that bothers me, it is that I was not there for her I suppose. Life is the great wheel, I accept that, but how painful it all can be.
I am so very sorry for your cruel loss.
It is not possible to do this withdrawing from industrialised life unless you already possess the wealth to buy the land needed to survive. Doing this is therefore a bourgeois act of privilege, not an example that can or should be followed by everyone.
It possesses the same dynamic as organic farming: organic food is more expensive for the simple reason that it requires considerably more resources to produce: more land, more water and a tolerance for a considerably higher amount of crop wastage. If we tried to make the entire global food system organic, we would not have enough land to do it with: we’d be reversing the current trend of reforestation and rewilding that intensive farming techniques make possible.
If you are one of those people who believe all this stuff and conclude, rightly, that the only way to achieve it is radical depopulation, well at least you’re logically consistent. However radical depopulation itself is not a viable concept: it is, at best, merely a means by which the West makes itself disappear from the planet to be replaced by cultures less obsessed with such things.
The future belongs to whichever cultures both maintain their growth and solve the problems of resource constraints that follow from that growth. Composting one’s own turds does not form part of that success.
If it wasn’t for the inexorable rise in global temperature and all its concomitant effects, all kinds of arguments about how to create a better, fairer world would be worth debating. The reality however is a perfectly reasonable and understandable push by the whole world to have the middle class lifestyle they see on their screens, and capitalism’s ready response. This level of global consumption cannot happen for reasons which I think even primary school children can now grasp. Human nature is what it is. I would argue that less than 1% of the world’s population would take a voluntary cut in their standard of living and comfort.
Whenever I see an article about climate change I look to the last paragraph to see what the writer thinks should be done. Sadly, nobody has a clue and those that pretend to are whistling in the dark.
Worse still are the attempts to ‘come to terms with it’ or ‘make your peace with it’. We have really screwed up this time. It’s a f*****g disaster and our grandchildren are going to struggle to survive.
Most people call this pessimism. I call it realism and that calling it pessimism is denialism.
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