Refreshingly, there is little of the save-the-planet boosterism in “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays” that is so common to environmental writing. There’s no reassurance that if only we can summon enough indignation we can cut carbon emissions and draw out the relationship we have with our planet as a disposable resource. No lightbulb swapping or hybrid driving is recommended here. Paul Kingsnorth has no faith that consumerism will prove to be the solution to what consumerism has wrought.
So, this book is refreshing in both a literary respect and an environmental one. What Kingsnorth argues in these essays is so radical that, if put into practice, it could effect meaningful preservation.
After years of environmental activism, Kingsnorth saw the movement capitulate to the terms of capitalism against which it had stood to oppose. Instead of taking an ecocentric view and protecting wilderness for its own sake, he writes, increasingly environmentalists — tired of being dismissed as Romanticists or primitivists — “started wearing suits and pretending to be economists and speaking the language of business and science.”
Disenchanted, Kingsnorth has withdrawn from environmentalism and cofounded the Dark Mountain Project, a network of writers and artists seeking to replace the stories of progress and civilization that our culture assumes with stories they believe to be more authentic. Kingsnorth’s question, “Have humans always been hardwired for ecocide, or did things go wrong somewhere along the journey?” is academic. Our practical response is what counts.
It’s somewhat disappointing, then, when Kingsnorth adopts the rhetorical cautiousness so common to contemporary environmental writing. “I’ve no interest in extending this duty [to minimize his impact on the planet] to anybody else, or in preaching about it or politicising it, or in pretending that I am in any way pure or unsullied or even halfway competent yet at undertaking it. It is just a personal calling,” he writes. Just as environmentalists began speaking economics to avoid the charge of naive Romanticism, Kingsnorth assures the reader, “No judgment,” as if “moralist” were the worst name he could be called.
But if you take his claims seriously, you’ll want conclusions with more oomph than those that seem only to offer up another option in the marketplace of possible lives. It’s easy to see why Kingsnorth’s critics call him a defeatist. However, his understatement should not mute his call for something stronger than carbon taxes and whatever other technofuturist solutions are currently being imagined as bandages over the pathological worldview that considers humans and the environment to be separable.
A better worldview: It doesn’t get more radical than that.
Kingsnorth’s is a much-needed perspective in the environmental movement, recovering or otherwise.
Scott F. Parker is a writer and critic in Montana.
Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays
By: Paul Kingsnorth.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 281 pages, $16.