Just finished reading Paul Kingsnorth’s collection of essays “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”.
Kingsnorth (it seems wrong to call him Paul since we have never met, and Mister Kingsnorth is a bit formal, but using just his surname is a bit school and demeaning – at least if you went to the sort of school we both evidently did. But then I remember that even friends called each other by our surnames at school – or sometimes an adapted version which is where CrOsborne came from – so perhaps it is okay).
Anyway Kingsnorth is echoing almost exactly my thoughts over the last nine years or so as I have disengaged from Green Politics for very much the same reasons as he articulates so well in these essays on his disengagement from Environmental Activism.
The difference between us is that he his almost exactly 20 years younger than me (I guess from the clues that his birthday is September/October) – and I envy him that. If only I had got into Green Politics or Environmental Activism twenty years earlier I might have emerged in time to make the break and start preparing for the disjunction which is now inevitable (see forthcoming post on Prof. Bendell‘s paper on Deep Adaptation which I consumed last night)
The funny (peculiar) thing is how nearly that happened. I learnt about CO2 causing global warming in the sixth form doing physics in 1968, I learnt about issues around exponential population growth around the same time, I was aware of the existential threat shifting from nuclear war to ecological threats in 1972 – I was even toying with politics – rejecting both the liberals (too soggy by half) and the socialists (too tied into knots with class analysis and ideological debate) in the first two years at University ’70-’73, but I never heard of PEOPLE or the Ecology Party until later when my attention had moved on.
I was well aware of ecological issues through things like the Whole Earth Catalog, the appropriate technology movement, the radical architects who were my contemporaries at Uni, and also aware of the problems with capitalism – I first flirted with Communism in the fifth form researching an essay on Mao’s China, we devoured the films of Goddard, the radical alternative lifestyle movement. Heady times in the 70s but then there was also girls and drugs and film-making and friends to distract one.
Close friends in the mid 70’s decamped to the west of Ireland to create their lives. I wondered, but did not follow their lead.
In the late 70’s we toyed with various ‘alternative’ options – John Seymour taught us to dream of 2 acres and a cow, we considered from a pre-internet distance an intentional community. In the event the simplest way to escape from London was to follow a job and career.
The early 80s found us living south of Winchester (Colden Common) with a baby and another coming. The council proposed a local link road across the water meadows from what was then the A33 – we formed a local action group to oppose it, ecological issues to the fore (although for many it was sheer nimbyism) and succeeded.
Partly that success was because there was a bigger picture brewing with the conversion of the A33 into the M3 and the driving of the motorway through Twyford Down. By the time that became clear we were already moving to the west country, looking for the good life. Had we not moved there is no doubt in my mind that we would have got very involved at Twyford and who knows where that would have lead us.
As it was we used the ability to move around in my career to get down to Cornwall. Finding all the best places already snapped up by those who made the move in the early 70s we ended up with a couple of acres and a house bordering the open moor on Caradon Hill. The trouble was the need for a hefty mortgage and thus one and a half jobs to support it – not compatible with needing time to make the holding work, never mind the never ending mizzle and the poor soil.
If you want to break with conventional life, career, consumer, then it has to be total – there are no half measures that work. The compromises suck you back in. Consumer capitalism has you in its maw and to escape you have to be prepared to break with anything it offers.
In the event I was sucked in and partially digested by the time I got expelled from the system in a burp of the aftermath of the dot-com crash of 2000. Children were now nearly grown, I’d done the career climbing the greasy pole thing and didn’t like what it was turning me into. So time to look around and recover what was I before all that stuff (career and family) happened to me.
Although I was still connected to the system and in danger of being sucked back in I eventually discovered a hold on green politics to keep me at least partly sane and outside.
The initial hold was on something called “The Philosophical Basis” of the Green Party which I stumbled across and couldn’t disagree with (I could now) in 2004. But over time it became increasingly obvious that a) we weren’t making any progress towards any goal and b) in an effort to make progress we were becoming more and more sucked in to the conventional political narrative – what the radical socialists would call irredeemably reformist in approach.
Where was the connection with the radical ecological roots that had inspired the mid 70s authors of the Philosophical Basis? Where was the courage to be different? Where was the willingness to take a stand and not to compromise? We wanted people to like us, so we toned down the message, reach out to more voters by not scaring them with a principled stand. Stupid, I started to think. This is not right. This is going nowhere.
Meanwhile the pace of the ecological crises we knew were coming was picking up.
Kingsnorth’s description of this process of gradual personal awakening to the flaws in the politics and the activism is spot on. And his Dark Mountain analysis of the role of myth and story as the key to change also seems spot on.
For me, retirement has been a key liberating moment. Much easier for me than for others who are still totally in the grip of the monster. Suddenly 35 years of paying dues has enabled me to become (or so I believe) freer. Not free – that will come later – but freer, with more room for questioning and movement than ever before. Which leads on to another post about the relationship between the individual and the collective in changing times.
But first I ought to write something about Bendell, and you, if you are sympathetic and haven’t already done so, should read both Kingsnorth’s book and Bendell’s paper. They will set you on a path across the plains into the foothills of the Dark Mountain. The road may not be easy but a monster is right behind you and you need to get moving.