by Peter Franklin
Sunday, 14
March 2021

We can’t all take on the cistern and win

Industrialised societies aren’t going to give up their comforts in a hurry
by Peter Franklin
Industrialised societies aren’t going to give up their ‘comforts’ too quickly. Credit: YouTube

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.

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:

Credit: Our World in Data, UN

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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?”

  • Hi Paul – thank you very much indeed for taking the time to respond. I totally agree with you on the importance of the margins – the Roundup analogy is perfect, though to extend it I still think it’s worth fighting to push the poisons out of the system altogether. On that point I am more hopeful than you are. That might be naive of me, but there have been enough examples of real progress (at least as far as the physical environment is concerned) to make me think it’s worth battling on.

  • 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.

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