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.
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.