On Kingsnorth, a Dark Mountain summary

I’ve just taken a few hours to write out a summary of a Paul Kingsnorth article from the Dark Mountain Project.

Why bother? I wanted to understand it very well as it seems the territory he is in in both necessary and terrifying.I wanted to see if I had it right.

Dark Mountain Book 3 is a great read with an epic scope – everything from drawing and poetry to memoirs, interviews and thoughtful articles like the one below. I am going to review it in quite some depth over the next couple of weeks.

So, rider: This is a précis of the article for my own purposes, not a review or argument. You might also want to take a quick look at the founding manifesto to get a feel for what they are up to.

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Straight after the promise in the Editorial to acknowledge the current downward spiral of out effect in Nature and try to find a way to come home, Kingsworth’s article does both.

It starts with a description of how to use a Scythe. Kingsnorth describes the instrument and the etymology and leaves it at that.

Unaforming

Then we do a big right turn to the writings of Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) where Kingsnorth repeats Kaczynski’s premises (paraphrased):

1. Technology is carrying us to disaster
2. Only collapse of modern technological civilisation can prevent disaster
3. The political left is the first line of defence against revolution
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.

Kingsnorth notes how lucid and convincing his arguments are while still realising that carrying them to the extent that Kaczynski did is probably not a great idea. Building wooden bombs in a shed that killed people is probably not the highest manifestation of point 4. Perhaps the tragedy of Kaczynski is not his thinking but that his thinking led him to a lonely life – perhaps if he’d had the internet and something akin to the Occupy movement he might have achieved more. As it was he got stuck on a passion and when his wilderness came under threat he tipped into revenge.

However Kingsnorth does think that if he follows his current (broader) reading to it’s logical extreme then he might need to give up more. Giving up the smartphone but retaining a cell phone, you are still (using) part of the problem. And then of course there’s this pesky laptop.

We all find ourselves here says Kingsnorth, thinking through how to encourage the machine less, even as he knows that there isn’t much hope that his actions will save anything much.

So why does he do it?

Scythe 2 – fallacy of the progress bias

Back to the Scythe. This section brings up several good arguments around the use and unthinking adoption of technology, 70s style “appropriate technology”,and Illich’s ‘tool for conviviality’. Kingsnorth counters arguments that such ‘nostalgic’ practices are applicable by wryly noting that aggressive economic arguments are beginning to seem very nostalgic too.

He writes about the whole-body and mind integration when using the scythe, about teaching people how to use them and inhabit this space. He knows that this convivial tech doesn’t cut it (ouch) at the industrial scale, but points out that at the human scale the scythe is a worthy competitor to the modern brushcutter. (I would call the brushcutter the Jetski of the wood.) He points out that we assume the brushcutter is better than the scythe mainly because it’s *newer*. Progress bias.

Green movement & Neo Environmentalists

Kingsnorth then explores a topic he is very well qualified to do so – the Green movement. His description of the failure of the Green movement is, at least from an outsiders POV, convincing. What is more worrying to Kingsnorth is the emergence of the Neo Environmentalists (NeoE), a group who are trying to break the old orthodoxy with radical, scientific solutions.

This groups asserts that Wilderness no longer exists, everything has been influenced by humans, therefore why not continue to go the whole way with this? The contrary argument is that Nature is a ferocious adaptor. With these two axioms it’s possible to, therefore, justify doing things like letting the rain forests go, or not worrying too much about the Arctic ice cap. Other characteristics that Kingsnorth notes are a belief that anything technological is good, so they are whole-heartedly into nuclear, GM, synthetic biology et al.

Kingsnorth, while disagreeing with their intent, sees that they are in some measure right – the human-scale approaches of the 70s thinkers will never work in a world that is formulated on capitalist industrialism, like the scythe the 70s tools just don’t scale (or it’s way too late to try). He also agrees that the NGOs often ‘exaggerate and dissemble’ and that the Greens have hit a wall.

Wild-er-ness

The argument that Kingsnorth picks with the NeoE is not in this territory, it’s more to do with how they denigrate the idea of wilderness. They tend to paint the old school as believing that things should be ‘pristine’ wilderness and argue that’s impossible (*fait accompli*). However Kingsnorth points out that the old school weren’t that naive, they always understood the complexity of relationship – ‘human and non-human nature working in some degree of harmony’.

He quotes Kareiva “Conservation will measure it’s achievement in large part by its relevance to people”. Or, as Kingsnoth sees it, the Wilderness is dead as it has no value in Kareiva’s formulation.

Kingsnorths definition of wilderness starts clear from the NeoEs, he sees wilderness as ‘self-willed.’ Using this definition he can make a case for the preservation of the Amazon that the NeoEs cannot – he acknowledges the complexity of the human and non-human in the Amazon, but the human factors do not negate it as a wilderness.

Progress traps

Kingsnorth then turns to Ronald Wright’s term of ‘Progress Trap’. These define paradigmatic shifts in living patterns that are not reversible and become detrimental. [note to self – look back at Kuhn’s Nature of Scientific Revolution to see if there is anything related]

There is then an extended elaboration of an example – the shift from hunter gatherer to agriculture. We tend to think of this as ‘progress’ but social anthology shows that hunter gatherers were substantially taller (healthier) than their later agricultural progeny.

Of course one progress trap leads to another and Kingsnorth traces the proposals of the NeoEs and discovers an antecedent of traps kicking off with the Green Revolution. There is then a perversity in the NeoE’s arguments that GM crops are a moral obligation where someone with a longer view will see that GM will be another progress trap that we will need saving from in another 40 years time.

Kingsnorth rounds up his critique of the NeoEs by taking on their dismissal of various Nature writers as ‘romanticising the past’ with the wry observation that they are romanticising the future.

Emotion

Kingsnorth moves on from argument to affect and makes the point that the NeoEs place a lot of faith in science without acknowledging that our relationship with nature is, in part, far more primitive and emotional “…in the depth of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories. Civilisation has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself.”

This point also ties one aspect of Kingsnorth’s broader project, that of poetry and writing, into the frame of his ‘coming home’.

What to do then?

After these arguments where Kingsnorth has laid out the extremes, he takes us back to the point of someone about to throw away the cellphone… “Is it possible to observe the unfolding human attack on nature with horror, be determined to do whatever you can to stop it, and at the same time know that much of it cannot be stopped whatever you do? … [is it possible to] reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair? … Between Kaczynski and Kareiva, what can I do to alight on that will still hold my weight?”

He acknowledges there might not be an answer, but is also brave enough to acknowledge there is no going back, that we are not headed to ‘convivial tools’. There is no “magicing yourself out of the progress trap”. Everything is about big, Superstores, synthetic biology, brushcutters – a society “break[ing] its legs on its own cleverness.”

What would not be a waste of my time

We’re at the nub of it now – what is possible and useful to do? Kingsnorth lays out five options:

1. Withdraw. The morally justified hermetic position. Withdraw, observe, be branded defeatist.

2. Preserve non-human life. Buy some land and re-wild it. Work for a conservation group, start one, stand in front of bulldozers.

3. Get your hands dirty. Do something practical. Pick up your scythe and do something practical, ground yourself in things and places, learn what is real and not.

4. Insist that Nature has value beyond utility. Call it ‘deep ecology’ or ‘ecocentric’. Look at the sky, the soil, marvel at life and value it then tell everyone about it, most of all those who tell you nature’s value is what you can extract from it.

5. Build refuges The ongoing species collapse can be countered by building places of safety from the storm. Think Dark Age librarian…

Kingsnorth acknowledges that, in layingout these options, he is ‘talking to myself’. With this set of options he can approach the future ‘with some joy and determination.’ The summary of this view is best left to Kingsnorth. He continues, “If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, a companion on the road. This is my appraoch, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time; a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world – but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.”

Back to the scythe

With all this argument under his belt Kingsnorth returns to the scythe and acknowledges it as a piece of technology, a progress trap in itself (though manageable, understandable).

He reflects on the nature of change and the difference between change on the human and the industrial scale, one manageable the other “a chaotic, excitable rush towards shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine… like sirens in the gathering dusk.”

Finally he leaves us with an image of work at the human scale – a freshly mown wheat field, ready for hay making.

References:

* Paul Kingsnorth: http://paulkingsnorth.net/
* Dark Mountain Project: http://dark-mountain.net/
* Ted Kaczynski http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Kaczynski
* Peter Kareiva; you could start here: http://www.nature.org/ourscience/ourscientists/conservation-science-at-t…

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