This fascinating book raises some fundamental questions about the relationship between humanity and the environment.
It is made up of a series of articles that Paul Kingsnorth wrote in publications between 2009 and 2016. The result is an account of a man plotting his own path through life, whilst trying to make sense of the world in which he lives.
There is an element of the Damascan conversion, as he moves from the early years of walking with his father in the wilds of Cumbria and Pembrokeshire to the road protests of Twyford Down onto the environmental movement today.
This path leads to a certain disillusion with much of that movement, which he sees as being consumption obsessed, not seeking to make basic change in the way of life but instead just looking to make it more sustainable.
He criticises the lack of concern over the mass extinction of species that has gone on over recent decades, when the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of wind farms versus wave machines, with no effort being made to address the question of consumption.
Voracious consumption can go on in this world of what he calls the neo-environmentalists, it just has to be done sustainably. So rather than look to a more simple way of living with nature, humanity seeks to bring everyone up to the consuming levels of the west - which will require the colonisation of other planets.
Kingsnorth looks at the idea of progress, which he concludes has brought humanity to the point of self-destruction today.
He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifesyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.
The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.
The progress question is a troubling one that does go rather unresolved in the book.
Kingsnorth provides all sorts of interesting vignets, like a chapter on the impact of the Norman conquest, which led to the concentration of land ownership in the hands of very few (mainly the crown) that continues to this day.
There is also some interesting wrestling with the idea of nature, a greater being and spirituality. Non-religious, Kingsnorth is captivated by the idea of the sacredness of the natural world. He describes a visit to the Grotte de Niaux cave deep in the mountain, where he finds the paintings of bison, going right back to the Palaeolithic times. He then contrasts the wonderment of what he saw in the cave to the activities of the de-extinction people today, who seek to try to bring back species like the woolly mammoth. Kingsnorth sees the latter activity of humans taking over the God role, deciding what lives or dies. The author suggests that one of the problems today is that humans see themselves as master over nature, rather than co-workers in the great plan.
Taking in the wide span covered in Kingsnorth’s work could leave the reader with a feeling of hopelessness. But he does offer ways to fight back. He himself has recoiled from the world, moved to Ireland and bought a bungalow with 2.5 acres. He now seeks to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay. There is a vivid description of the creation of a compost toilet.
He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving non human life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc
Kingsnorth succeeds in bringing together a number of separate essays into one embracing narrative. He covers much ground, asking some questions that need deeper answers. But there are fundamental questions for the environmental movement today, as well as the politicians who in many cases it would seem are simply managing natural decline, ironically, often in the name of progress. The hope in the book comes from the power of one, the power within us all to combat the destructive human machine by to a degree turning back to simpler times and life coping methods. Everyone can in some way make a difference changing their lifestyle to a more compatible complimentary way of living.
- published by Faber and Faber, £14.99
published Morning Star - 19/6/2017
published Morning Star - 19/6/2017