The folly of neo-environmentalism.
The environmentalist movement, writes journalist and poet Paul Kingsnorth in Orion, is in crisis: “Assailed by a rising movement of ‘skeptics’ and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom ‘sustainability’ is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: Despite all their work, their passion, their commitment, and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing.”
Kingsnorth identifies with the early green movement, which held that wild nature was intrinsically valuable and worthy of conservation. Early greens air-quoted the word “progress,” believing that many advanced technologies threatened “human-scale, vernacular ways of life.”
Kingsnorth considers the scythe, a simple, ancient instrument he uses to mow the grass on his property in England. “It’s what the green thinkers of the 1970s used to call an ‘appropriate technology’—a phrase that I would love to see resurrected—and what the unjustly neglected philosopher Ivan Illich called a ‘tool for conviviality.’” Illich (1926–2002), Kingsnorth notes, contrasted such tools with technologies that “created dependency; they took tools and processes out of the hands of individuals and put them into the metaphorical hands of organizations. The result was often ‘modernized poverty,’ in which human individuals became the equivalent of parts in a machine rather than the owners and users of a tool. In exchange for flashing lights and throbbing engines, they lost the things that should be most valuable to a human individual: Autonomy. Freedom. Control.”
It is just this kind of exchange that neo-environmentalists, as Kingsnorth calls them, have embraced. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, embodies the new breed of environmentalists who “emphasize scientific measurement and economic analysis over other ways of seeing and measuring.” Kareiva believes that development, even that which levels Amazonian rainforests, is inevitable, and that nature can and will adapt. The natural world must be managed.
Mainstream greens dismiss limiting consumption and its machinery; more technological fixes (nuclear energy, biotechnology, geoengineering, etc.), the thinking goes, will cure any ills previous technologies have wrought. Neo-environmentalists charge Greenpeace types with trying to—here Kingsnorth quotes the PR blurb for a pop conservationist’s book—“preserve nature in its pristine, prehuman state.” But that’s a straw man, he says. Intelligent environmentalists have always seen humans as part of most ecosystems. Their point has been that humans should not dominate and control the realms they inhabit.
Attempts to do so, Kingsnorth predicts, will be severely checked. Early hunter-gatherers enjoyed markedly better health and longer lives than later agriculturalists; humans only turned to farming once their hunting technology became too advanced, and the animals on which they fed were hunted to extinction. “So much for progress.” Now that the growing world population threatens to outstrip its food supply, the latest fix, genetically modified foods, will, in Kingsnorth’s view, bring a host of new problems.
Kingsnorth uneasily discovers the writings of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, Harvard mathematician turned society dropout turned ecoterrorist, to be eerily prescient. Kaczynski’s arguments were premised on four points:
1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political Left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.
Kingsnorth does not condone violent revolution. He has, however, developed what he calls a “personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology.” Its practices include a “very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray” and into meditation and reexamination. He recommends “insisting that nature has a value beyond utility,” and preserving plant and animal life, albeit in small ways, such as allowing a garden to run wild. Engaging in physical labor will help us relearn vernacular, convivial skills. “Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages,” he asks, “guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?”
THE SOURCE: “Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth, in Orion, Jan.–Feb. 2013.