Scenes from a younger life # 1:
I am twelve years old. I am alone, I am scared, I am cold, and I am crying my eyes out. I can’t see more than six feet in either direction. I am on some godforsaken moor high up on the dark, ancient, poisonous spine of England. The black bog juice I have been trudging through for hours has long since crept over the tops of my boots and down into my socks. My rucksack is too heavy, I am unloved and lost and I will never find my way home. It is raining and the cloud is punishing me; clinging to me, laughing at me. Twenty-five years later, I still have a felt memory of that experience and its emotions: a real despair and a terrible loneliness.
I do find my way home; I manage to keep to the path and eventually catch up with my father, who has the map and the compass and the mini Mars bars. He was always there, somewhere up ahead, but he had decided it would be good for me to “learn to keep up” with him. All of this, he tells me, will make me into a man. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
Only later do I realize the complexity of the emotions summoned by a childhood laced with experiences like this. My father was a compulsive long-distance walker. Every year, throughout my most formative decade, he would take me away to Cumbria or Northumberland or Yorkshire or Cornwall or Pembrokeshire, and we would walk, for weeks. We would follow ancient tracks or new trails, across mountains and moors and ebony-black cliffs. Much of the time, we would be alone with each other and with our thoughts and our conversations, and we would be alone with the oystercatchers, the gannets, the curlews, the skylarks, and the owls. With the gale and the breeze, with our maps and compasses and emergency rations and bivy bags and plastic bottles of water. We would camp in the heather, by cairns and old mine shafts, hundreds of feet above the orange lights of civilization, and I would dream. And in the morning, with dew on the tent and cold air in my face as I opened the zip, the wild elements of life, all of the real things, would all seem to be there, waiting for me with the sunrise.
Scenes from a younger life # 2:
I am nineteen years old. It is around midnight and I am on the summit of a low, chalk down, the last of the long chain that winds its way through the crowded, peopled, fractious south country. There are maybe fifty or sixty people there with me. There is a fire going, there are guitars, there is singing and weird and unnerving whooping noises from some of the ragged travelers who have made this place their home.
This is Twyford Down, a hilltop east of Winchester. There is something powerful about this place; something ancient and unanswering. Soon it is to be destroyed: a six-lane motorway will be driven through it in a deep chalk cutting. It is vital that this should happen in order to reduce the journey time between London and Southampton by a full thirteen minutes. The people up here have made it their home in a doomed attempt to stop this from happening.
From outside it is impossible to see, and most do not want to. The name calling has been going on for months, in the papers and the pubs and in the House of Commons. The people here are Luddites, NIMBYs (“not-in-my-backyard” grumblers), reactionaries, romantics. They are standing in the way of progress. They will not be tolerated. Inside, there is a sense of shared threat and solidarity, there are blocks of hash and packets of Rizlas and liters of bad cider. We know what we are here for. We know what we are doing. We can feel the reason in the soil and in the night air. Down there, under the lights and behind the curtains, there is no chance that they will ever understand.
Someone I don’t know suggests we dance the maze. Out beyond the firelight, there is a maze carved into the down’s soft, chalk turf. I don’t know if it’s some ancient monument or a new creation. Either way, it’s the same spiral pattern that can be found carved into rocks from millennia ago. With cans and cigarettes and spliffs in our hands, a small group of us start to walk the maze, laughing, staggering, then breaking into a run, singing, spluttering, stumbling together toward the center.
Scenes from a younger life # 3:
I am twenty-one years old and I’ve just spent the most exciting two months of my life so far in an Indonesian rainforest. I’ve just been on one of those organized expeditions that people of my age buy into to give them the chance to do something useful and exciting in what used to be called the “Third World.” I’ve prepared for months for this. I’ve sold double glazing door-to-door to scrape together the cash. I have been reading Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O’Hanlon and Benedict Allen and my head is full of magic and idiocy and wonder.
During my trip, there were plenty of all of these things. I still vividly remember klotok journeys up Borneo rivers by moonlight, watching the swarms of giant fruit bats overhead. I remember the hooting of gibbons and the search for hornbills high up in the rainforest canopy. I remember a four-day trek through a so-called “rain” forest that was so dry we ended up drinking filtered mud. I remember turtle eggs on the beaches of Java and young orangutans at the rehabilitation center where we worked in Kalimantan, sitting in the high branches of trees with people’s stolen underpants on their heads, laughing at us. I remember the gold miners and the loggers, and the freshwater crocodiles in the same river we swam in every morning. I remember my first sight of flying fish in the Java Sea.
And I remember the small islands north of Lombok, where some of us spent a few days before we came home. At night we would go down to the moonlit beach, where the sea and the air was still warm, and in the sea were millions of tiny lights: phosphorescence. I had never seen this before; never even heard of it. We would walk into the water and immerse ourselves and rise up again and the lights would cling to our bodies, fading away as we laughed.
Now, back home, the world seems changed. A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomization and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry inside their cars. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.
For the first time, I realize the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand, or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before Apples and BlackBerries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditized, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.
What took hold
It is nine-thirty at night in mid-December at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I step outside my front door into the farmyard and walk over to the track, letting my eyes adjust to the dark. I am lucky enough to be living among the Cumbrian fells now, and as my pupils widen I can see, under a clear, starlit sky, the outline of the Old Man of Coniston, Dow Crag, Wetherlam, Helvellyn, the Fairfield Horseshoe. I stand there for ten minutes, growing colder. I see two shooting stars and a satellite. I suddenly wish my dad were still alive, and I wonder where the magic has gone.
These experiences, and others like them, were what formed me. They were what made me what I would later learn to call an “environmentalist”: something that seemed rebellious and excitingly outsiderish when I first took it up (and that successfully horrified my social-climbing father — especially as it was partly his fault) but that these days is almost de rigueur among the British bourgeoisie. Early in my adult life, just after I came back from Twyford Down, I vowed, self-importantly, that this would be my life’s work: saving nature from people. Preventing the destruction of beauty and brilliance, speaking up for the small and the overlooked and the things that could not speak for themselves. When I look back on this now, I’m quite touched by my younger self. I would like to be him again, perhaps just for a day; someone to whom all sensations are fiery and all answers are simple.
All of this — the downs, the woods, the rainforest, the great oceans, and, perhaps most of all, the silent isolation of the moors and mountains, which at the time seemed so hateful and unremitting — took hold of me somewhere unexamined. The relief I used to feel on those long trudges with my dad when I saw the lights of a village or a remote pub, even a minor road or a pylon, any sign of humanity — as I grow older this is replaced by the relief of escaping from the towns and the villages, away from the pylons and the pubs and the people, up onto the moors again, where only the ghosts and the saucer-eyed dogs and the old legends and the wind can possess me.
But they are harder to find now, those spirits. I look out across the moonlit Lake District ranges, and it’s as clear as the night air that what used to come in regular waves, pounding like the sea, comes now only in flashes, out of the corner of my eyes, like a lighthouse in a storm. Perhaps it’s the way the world has changed. There are more cars on the roads now, more satellites in the sky. The footpaths up the fells are like stone motorways, there are turbines on the moors, and the farmers are being edged out by south-country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from. The new world is online and loving it, the virtual happily edging out the actual. The darkness is shut out and the night grows lighter and nobody is there to see it.
It could be all that, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably me. I am thirty-seven now. The world is smaller, more tired, more fragile, more horribly complex and full of troubles. Or, rather: the world is the same as it ever was, but I am more aware of it and of the reality of my place within it. I have grown up, and there is nothing to be done about it. The worst part of it is that I can’t seem to look without thinking anymore. And now I know far more about what we are doing. We: the people. I know what we are doing, all over the world, to everything, all of the time. I know why the magic is dying. It’s me. It’s us.
How it ended
I became an “environmentalist” because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to songbirds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul, and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs. And because we are killing them to feed ourselves and we know it and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.
But these are not, I think, very common views today. Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.
It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for “the planet.” In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.
Let me offer up just one example of how this pact has worked. If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things. All of the horrors our grandparents left behind will return like deathless legends. Carbon emissions must be “tackled” like a drunk with a broken bottle — quickly, and with maximum force.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt the potency of climate change to undermine the human machine. It looks to me as if it is already beginning to do so, and that it is too late to do anything but attempt to mitigate the worst effects. But what I am also convinced of is that the fear of losing both the comfort and the meaning that our civilization gifts us has gone to the heads of environmentalists to such a degree that they have forgotten everything else. The carbon must be stopped, like the Umayyad at Tours, or all will be lost.
This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then “zero-carbon” is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. It needs to do this quickly, and by any means necessary. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we “need” without producing greenhouse gases, and there will be no need to ever turn the lights off; no need to ever slow down.
To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful, and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.
And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonized by vast “solar arrays,” glass and steel and aluminum, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of five-hundred-foot wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons, and wires. The open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines like Victorian necklaces. The rivers are to see their estuaries severed and silted by industrial barrages. The croplands and even the rainforests, the richest habitats on this terrestrial Earth, are already highly profitable sites for biofuel plantations designed to provide guilt-free car fuel to the motion-hungry masses of Europe and America.
What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business-as-usual: the expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted, and the nonhuman. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this “environmentalism.”
A while back I wrote an article in a newspaper highlighting the impact of industrial wind power stations (which are usually referred to, in a nice Orwellian touch, as wind “farms”) on the uplands of Britain. I was e-mailed the next day by an environmentalist friend who told me he hoped I was feeling ashamed of myself. I was wrong; worse, I was dangerous. What was I doing giving succor to the fossil fuel industry? Didn’t I know that climate change would do far more damage to upland landscapes than turbines? Didn’t I know that this was the only way to meet our urgent carbon targets? Didn’t I see how beautiful turbines were? So much more beautiful than nuclear power stations. I might think that a “view” was more important than the future of the entire world, but this was because I was a middle-class escapist who needed to get real.
It became apparent at that point that what I saw as the next phase of the human attack on the nonhuman world a lot of my environmentalist friends saw as “progressive,” “sustainable,” and “green.” What I called destruction they called “large-scale solutions.” This stuff was realistic, necessarily urgent. It went with the grain of human nature and the market, which as we now know are the same thing. We didn’t have time to “romanticize” the woods and the hills. There were emissions to reduce, and the end justified the means.
It took me a while to realize where this kind of talk took me back to: the maze and the moonlit hilltop. This desperate scrabble for “sustainable development” was in reality the same old same old. People I had thought were on my side were arguing aggressively for the industrializing of wild places in the name of human desire. This was the same rootless, distant destruction that had led me to the top of Twyford Down. Only now there seemed to be some kind of crude equation at work that allowed them to believe this was something entirely different. Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydropower barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.
So here I was again: a Luddite, a NIMBY, a reactionary, a romantic; standing in the way of progress. I realized that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment. Their talk was of parts-per-million of carbon, peer-reviewed papers, sustainable technologies, renewable supergrids, green growth, and the fifteenth conference of the parties. There were campaigns about “the planet” and “the Earth,” but there was no specificity: no sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of that Earth.
The place of nature
Back at university, in love with my newfound radicalism, as students tend to be, I started to read things. Not the stuff I was supposed to be reading about social movements and pre-Reformation Europe, but green political thought: wild ideas I had never come across before. I could literally feel my mind levering itself open. Most exciting to me were the implications of a new word I stumbled across: ecocentrism. This word crystallized everything I had been feeling for years. I had no idea there were words for it or that other people felt it too, or had written intimidating books about it. The nearest I had come to such a realization thus far was reading Wordsworth as a teenager and feeling an excited tingling sensation as I began to understand what he was getting at among all those poems about shepherds and girls called Lucy. Here was a kindred spirit! Here was a man moved to love and fear by mountains, who believed rocks had souls, that “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her” (though even then that sounded a little optimistic to me). Pantheism was my new word that year.
Now I declared, to myself if no one else, that I was “ecocentric” too. This was not the same as being egocentric, though some disagreed, and while it sounded a bit too much like “eccentric,” this was also a distraction. I was ecocentric because I did not believe — had never believed, I didn’t think — that humans were the center of the world, that the Earth was their playground, that they had the right to do what they liked, or even that what they did was that important. I thought we were part of something bigger, which had as much right to the world as we did, and which we were stomping on for our own benefit. I had always been haunted by shameful thoughts like this. It had always seemed to me that the beauty to be found on the trunk of a birch tree was worth any number of Mona Lisas, and that a Saturday night sunset was better than Saturday night telly. It had always seemed that most of what mattered to me could not be counted or corralled by the kind of people who thought, and still think, that I just needed to grow up.
It had been made clear to me for a long time that these feelings were at best charmingly naïve and at worst backward and dangerous. Later, the dismissals became encrusted with familiar words, designed to keep the ship of human destiny afloat: romantic, Luddite, NIMBY, and the like. For now, though, I had found my place. I was a young, fiery, radical, ecocentric environmentalist, and I was going to save the world.
When I look back on the road protests of the mid-1990s, which I often do, it is with nostalgia and fondness and a sense of gratitude that I was able to be there, to see what I saw and do what I did. But I realize now that it is more than this that makes me think and talk and write about Twyford Down to an extent that bores even my patient friends. This, I think, was the last time I was part of an environmental movement that was genuinely environmental. The people involved were, like me, ecocentric: they didn’t see “the environment” as something “out there”; separate from people, to be utilized or destroyed or protected according to human whim. They saw themselves as part of it, within it, of it.
There was a Wordsworthian feel to the whole thing: the defense of the trees simply because they were trees. Living under the stars and in the rain, in the oaks and in the chaotic, miraculous tunnels beneath them, in the soil itself like the rabbits and the badgers. We were connected to a place; a real place that we loved and had made a choice to belong to, if only for a short time. There was little theory, much action, but even more simple being. Being in a place, knowing it, standing up for it. It was environmentalism at its rawest, and the people who came to be part of it were those who loved the land, in their hearts as well as their heads.
In years to come, this was worn away. It took a while before I started to notice what was happening, but when I did it was all around me. The ecocentrism — in simple language, the love of place, the humility, the sense of belonging, the feelings — was absent from most of the “environmentalist” talk I heard around me. Replacing it were two other kinds of talk. One was the save-the-world-with-wind-farms narrative; the same old face in new makeup. The other was a distant, somber sound: the marching boots and rattling swords of an approaching fifth column.
Environmentalism, which in its raw, early form had no time for the encrusted, seized-up politics of left and right, offering instead a worldview that saw the growth economy and the industrialist mentality beloved by both as the problem in itself, was now being sucked into the yawning, bottomless chasm of the “progressive” left. Suddenly, people like me, talking about birch trees and hilltops and sunsets, were politely, or less politely, elbowed to one side by people who were bringing a “class analysis” to green politics.
All this talk of nature, it turned out, was bourgeois, Western, and unproductive. It was a middle-class conceit, and there was nothing worse than a middle-class conceit. The workers had no time for thoughts like this (though no one bothered to notify the workers themselves that they were simply clodhopping, nature-loathing cannon fodder in a political flame war). It was terribly, objectively right wing. Hitler liked nature after all. He was a vegetarian too. It was all deeply “problematic.”
More problematic for me was what this kind of talk represented. With the near global failure of the left-wing project over the past few decades, green politics was fast becoming a refuge for disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists, and a ragbag of fellow travelers who could no longer believe in communism or the Labour Party or even George Galloway, and who saw in green politics a promising bolthole. In they all trooped, with their Stop-the-War banners and their Palestinian solidarity scarves, and with them they brought a new sensibility.
Now it seemed that environmentalism was not about wildness or ecocentrism or the other-than-human world and our relationship to it. Instead it was about (human) social justice and (human) equality and (human) progress and ensuring that all these things could be realized without degrading the (human) resource base that we used to call nature back when we were being naïve and problematic. Suddenly, never-ending economic growth was a good thing after all: the poor needed it to get rich, which was their right. To square the circle, for those who still realized there was a circle, we were told that “social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand” — a suggestion of such bizarre inaccuracy that it could surely only be wishful thinking.
Suddenly, sustaining a global human population of 10 billion people was not a problem at all, and anyone who suggested otherwise was not highlighting any obvious ecological crunch points but was giving succor to fascism or racism or gender discrimination or orientalism or essentialism or some other such hip and largely unexamined concept. The “real issue,” it seemed, was not the human relationship with the nonhuman world; it was fat cats and bankers and cap’lism. These things must be destroyed, by way of marches, protests, and votes for fringe political parties, to make way for something known as “eco-socialism”: a conflation of concepts that pretty much guarantees the instant hostility of 95 percent of the population.
I didn’t object to this because I thought that environmentalism should occupy the right rather than the left wing, or because I was right-wing myself, which I wasn’t (these days I tend to consider the entire bird with a kind of frustrated detachment). And I understood that there was at least a partial reason for the success of this colonization of the greens by the reds. Modern environmentalism sprang partly from the early-twentieth-century conservation movement, and that movement had often been about preserving supposedly pristine landscapes at the expense of people. Forcing tribal people from their ancestral lands, which had been newly designated as national parks, for example, in order to create a fictional “untouched nature” had once been fairly common, from Africa to the USA. And, actually, Hitler had been something of an environmentalist, and the wellsprings that nourished some green thought nourished the thought of some other unsavory characters too (a fact that some ideologues love to point to when witch-hunting the greens, as if it wouldn’t be just as easy to point out that ideas of equality and justice fueled Stalin and Pol Pot).
In this context it was fair enough to assert that environmentalism allied itself with ideas of justice and decency, and that it was about people as well as everything else on the planet. Of course it was, for “nature” as something separate from people has never existed. We are nature, and the environmentalist project was always supposed to be about how we are to be part of it, to live well as part of it, to understand and respect it, to understand our place within it, and to feel it as part of ourselves.
So there was a reason for environmentalism’s shift to the left, just as there was a reason for its blinding obsession with carbon. Meanwhile, the fact of what humans are doing to the world became so obvious, even to those who were doing very well from it, that it became hard not to listen to the greens. Success duly arrived. You can’t open a newspaper now or visit a corporate website or listen to a politician or read the label on a packet of biscuits without being bombarded with propaganda about the importance of “saving the planet.” But there is a terrible hollowness to it all, a sense that society is going through the motions without understanding why. The shift, the pact, has come at a probably fatal price.
Now that price is being paid. The weird and unintentional pincer movement of the failed left, with its class analysis of waterfalls and fresh air, and the managerial, carbon-über-alles brigade has infiltrated, ironed out, and reworked environmentalism for its own ends. Now it is not about the ridiculous beauty of coral, the mist over the fields at dawn. It is not about ecocentrism. It is not about reforging a connection between overcivilized people and the world outside their windows. It is not about living close to the land or valuing the world for the sake of the world. It is not about attacking the self-absorbed conceits of the bubble that our civilization has become.
Today’s environmentalism is about people. It is a consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots and, at the same time, with an amusing irony, it is an adjunct to hypercapitalism: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge: a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions: a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections. It is our last hope.
The open land
I generalize, of course. Environmentalism’s chancel is as accommodating as that of socialism, anarchism, or conservatism, and just as capable of generating poisonous internal bickering that will last until the death of the sun. Many who call themselves green have little time for the mainstream line I am attacking here. But it is the mainstream line. It is how most people see environmentalism today, even if it is not how all environmentalists intend it to be seen. These are the arguments and the positions that popular environmentalism — now a global force — offers up in its quest for redemption. There are reasons; there are always reasons. But whatever they are, they have led the greens down a dark, litter-strewn, dead-end street where the rubbish bins overflow, the light bulbs have blown, and the stray dogs are very hungry indeed.
What is to be done about this? Probably nothing. It was, perhaps, inevitable that a utilitarian society would generate a utilitarian environmentalism, and inevitable too that the greens would not be able to last for long outside the established political bunkers. But for me — well, this is no longer mine, that’s all. I can’t make my peace with people who cannibalize the land in the name of saving it. I can’t speak the language of science without a corresponding poetry. I can’t speak with a straight face about saving the planet when what I really mean is saving myself from what is coming.
Like all of us, I am a foot soldier of empire. It is the empire of Homo sapiens sapiens and it stretches from Tasmania to Baffin Island. Like all empires, it is built on expropriation and exploitation, and like all empires it dresses these things up in the language of morality and duty. When we turn wilderness over to agriculture, we speak of our duty to feed the poor. When we industrialize the wild places, we speak of our duty to stop the climate from changing. When we spear whales, we speak of our duty to science. When we raze forests, we speak of our duty to develop. We alter the atmospheric makeup of the entire world: half of us pretend it’s not happening, the other half immediately start looking for new machines that will reverse it. This is how empires work, particularly when they have started to decay. Denial, displacement, anger, fear.
The environment is the victim of this empire. But the “environment” — that distancing word, that empty concept — does not exist. It is the air, the waters, the creatures we make homeless or lifeless in flocks and legions, and it is us too. We are it; we are in it and of it, we make it and live it, we are fruit and soil and tree, and the things done to the roots and the leaves come back to us. We make ourselves slaves to make ourselves free, and when the shackles start to rub we confidently predict the emergence of new, more comfortable designs.
I don’t have any answers, if by answers we mean political systems, better machines, means of engineering some grand shift in consciousness. All I have is a personal conviction built on those feelings, those responses, that goes back to the moors of northern England and the rivers of southern Borneo — that something big is being missed. That we are both hollow men and stuffed men, and that we will keep stuffing ourselves until the food runs out, and if outside the dining room door we have made a wasteland and called it necessity, then at least we will know we were not to blame, because we are never to blame, because we are the humans.
What am I to do with feelings like these? Useless feelings in a world in which everything must be made useful. Sensibilities in a world of utility. Feelings like this provide no “solutions.” They build no new eco-homes, remove no carbon from the atmosphere. This is head-in-the-clouds stuff, as relevant to our busy, modern lives as the new moon or the date of the harvest. Easy to ignore, easy to dismiss, like the places that inspire the feelings, like the world outside the bubble, like the people who have seen it, if only in brief flashes beyond the ridge of some dark line of hills.
But this is fine — the dismissal, the platitudes, the brusque moving-on of the grown-ups. It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.
I am leaving on a pilgrimage to find what I left behind in the jungles and by the cold campfires and in the parts of my head and my heart that I have been skirting around because I have been busy fragmenting the world in order to save it; busy believing it is mine to save. I am going to listen to the wind and see what it tells me, or whether it tells me anything at all. You see, it turns out that I have more time than I thought. I will follow the songlines and see what they sing to me and maybe, one day, I might even come back. And if I am very lucky I might bring with me a harvest of fresh tales, which I can scatter like apple seeds across this tired and angry land.
Obviously temperatures are rising, and carbon is more evident that it used to be.
The climate is warming back to times when it was even warmer, before it was colder. The North Pole may become completely liquid … but then, it has been before, and all of Coca-Cola’s polar bears made it anyway.
What we don’t know is everything else, like how much carbon is too much, what happens at what stage and will that be a bad thing, etc.
So far in the Obama age, we know that trying to have government promote solar or wind power production is just one more crooked way to pay back donors and bundlers of political money. Obama nad Steven Chu have blown through maybe 50 Billion dollars and gotten us next to nothing.
I feel about this effort exactly how I feel about long-distance space travel or the next nifty airplane or defense system:
We now know how to do things REALLY expensively. Now, let’s figure out a way to do it sustainably – that is, to not wreck the national or global economy in doing a good thing, unless everybody here likes hoeing gleen bean plants and milking cows ala the 1800 economy.
We are nature, and our relationship with nature has changed and is changing (as Paul Kingsnorth states). Just like our relationship with each other,our relationship with everything has various shades of utility and interpretation, including our relationship with nature (ourselves and each other). Changing that relationship to one that benefits us more equally is essential for well being and even survival (as Kingsnorth suggests) as well as well as for the well-being of the rest of the world we are part of. Understanding ourselves as a fluid entity and not a consumer or other market-driven identity benefits our entirety. No need to constrain this reality with the “environmentalist” go-words and popular concepts that Kingsworth calls into account in his article.
Very good essay. I’ve been feeling similar angst lately. I think it was Wendell Berry who said in an interview that you’re really not a conservationist until and unless you live as one. Very few of us are and very few of us do. To think otherwise is just blowing more smoke and carbon.
This is an astounding article. Astounding because it gets to the heart of the matter that has been forgotten in the last 30 years. We are animals, dependent on a habitat that we are quickly destroying. It is too late to do anything of consequence about climate change. The renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson has stated that forces have been set in motion that will take centuries to play out and we can’t stop it. What we can do is save some of the wild places that will be needed in the future to remind us of what we are. If we are still around. Chief Seattle said it best for me: “The Earth doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the Earth.”
Bravo! Coincidentally, I very recently read a 1996 interview with Kirkpatrick Sale when his book about the Luddites came out in paperback. He emphasizes that “sustainable development” is a “most odious oxymoron”.
Thank you for an exquisitely written essay…so beautiful… and sad.
This is a wonderful essay. But an important fact is left out, and that is that wind turbines do little to nothing to reduce CO2 emissions. In fact, WIND TURBINES DO NOT PROVIDE RENEWABLE ENERGY! Not one coal or gas plant the world over has been decommissioned because of IWTs…and eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels is their raison dâ€™etre. To quote an expert: â€œBecause wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights donâ€™t go dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal-or gas-fired generators (called â€œcyclingâ€). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they donâ€™t, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase.â€
You should read my website, especially http://mjvande.nfshost.com/sustain.htm and http://mjvande.nfshost.com/india3.htm. We have a lot in common! You are not alone!
Excellent article Paul. Thanks. Keep walking and wondering.
Beautiful piece Paul, but did you leave without waiting for those of us who would like to walk with you and more reverently on the land? Are you still there, can you hear our answers?
The issue, like poetry, is not in deconstructing the words or writing better “equations” of sustainability. It is in the knowledge of where in each of us centers the felt understanding of the sanctity of life and for life, that is the soul of any true “environmentalist”. And human child.
It really was there before we advertised and “digitized” it out. Many now take drugs to re-find that emotional truth about themselves and their world, that only nature can remind by her “wild” knowing, healthily.
This is “natural intelligence”, a type of “emotional intelligence” or what healers and witches who knew nature best and worked in closest concert with it to “heal”, had to develop in the deepest sense. It is an intelligence you got to learn in your wild walks of childhood Paul, that your dad unknowingly reinforced. And in this piece therefore, managed to find the words to relay that felt, deep understanding. Then walked away, knowing the words are for people — nature needs none to speak so clearly.
So here is my romantic counter to your ending despairing note that all agree may be a more probable outcome, just doing the “cognitive” math alone: Emotional/Natural intelligence CAN be enhanced in the human child, just as it obviously can be destroyed. The answer is in the wind, and teaching the wind’s language to those who hear it already as music, before they “download” the drowning noise. It is in our teaching the nature of nature to the human child who as you say, is herself just a part of that whole.
If your despair becomes too acute, realize that teaching like that is still possible, if we don’t break the heart to “educate the mind”.
On your long walk, try and find a time to watch children at play in nature; I think then you might see — it is not all lost. Not if we can learn from them, to remember to teach, what they know already. What some of us, like you, while even learning the “words” never lost the inner feeling for understanding: we are all connected and most deeply connected to this planet and ALL nature. Raping her, no matter how “sustainably”, destroys all the meaning and the force of that love and leaves one with just the grey, pornographic pictures and horribly worse — no longer able to tell the difference.
Listen still to children laugh as they “play” in nature if any such children can be found and I think you will realize, there is still hope.
Bring that back from your travels in order to keep teaching them and us all, how to remember that hope and “play” in nature together again.
This hit home. In Vermont, USA, where I live, and where heretofore we have been touted as Luddite granola-eaters, our governor helped to fast-track a string of wind turbines atop a pristine mountain range in the northeastern part of the state (which is less peopled). They are blasting off the tops of the mountains, and our despair is useless. I came here because I thought such things would never happen. There is no place else to go.
I am sorry to read of the mountaintop deal in VT. Talk about skewed priorities!
Having been to leftist and right-wing reader comment sections, I have to say that the small gathering here is quite “homey” and makes me feel like I’m in a group of readers back at college. Except for the being sober part, this is the tops! LOL
Happy New Year and Old Earth~~!
Thank you for reminding us.
Lao Tzu lives!
I rode a bike around South Africa not too long ago. The essay is superb. I also want to get out again and go journeying in the places they haven’t killed yet. Everyone should.
Great article, we wrote one with a similar sentiment here: http://tasna.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/dark-green-romanticism/
I believe that this romantic essay, though beautiful, forgets the fundamental contact with reality. The magazines we are reading, the PCs we are using, the medicines we take, and so on, need energy and produce pollution.
How to provide them with the tiniest impact? Sustainable development is the better mainstream answer produced until now. Sadly to say, for mainstream problems only mainstream answers can be applied. No one wants really live as indigenous people – certainly not who writes articles and who reads them in the industrialized side of world.
It is obvious that sustainability HAS to be achieved smartly: we have to recover damaged environments, not destroy new ones.
Very compelling. Looking forward to more from you.
Thank you so much for this compelling article. Beautiful, sad and true.
I hear you. Kudos for so beautifully saying some ugly truths out loud. But I don’t agree with your conclusion, to walk away.
What can that mean, anyway?
First of all, I don’t think you can. There is no away. As McKibben says (as *you* say), there is now only Eaarth.
These ugly truths are truths that we must live with. To “walk away” from them is just as much to collude with them and, ultimately, to give up on human life.
Is that what you are advocating: that humankind dies off, and nature can again thrive?
I only have to look at my daughter, who is six. How could I make that decision for her? It is my human *nature* to keep on fighting for her.
(My fight is in Transition work, i.e., “darning socks” and “growing carrots”).
Thanks Paul. It needs to be said…
Kaat… I don’t think he means that kind of walking away. He means walking away from “this civilization” and evolving something else as we walk. And that is what I think we need to do, if those children are to have a livable future.
the concept of “environmentalism” was a baby step on the way to a global understanding of the unity of life that will be the work of this century.
“everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics” – charles peguy, perhaps describes your growth pattern relating to the term.
the next step awaits.
A beautiful and intelligent article. If there is a better refutation of the pragmatic hypocrisies of sustainable development, I’d like to see it.
As an idealistic young person, much of what you’ve described in your life’s course resonates with my own feelings now. But my desire to help make things better often switches to a despair that things will ever change, and a wariness of the reduction of the many human abuses of life on earth to the single doom of “global warming”.
Part of me looks forward to a time when civilisation has stalled, and when life returns to a more ecocentric balance. That said, there are key innovations I hope we can carry with us – such as basic medicine, for example, or social liberalism – into that new “dark age”. I’m also concerned at the number of deaths that the end of civilisation would bring. I do not wish anybody dead, but it seems that a holocaust is coming either way – be it of humankind, or the nonhuman.
I guess it’s not up to me. All I can do is prepare myself, and protect that which I love.
Quote: “But my desire to help make things better often switches to a despair that things will ever change…”
Do you remember the dude in the story walking along the shore tossing sea creatures back into the sea so that they could survive at least a while? Even though it is a small act that is swallowed up in the entirety of the sea and of time, it still defines that individual and tells us where he stands.
What we choose to do matters because what will remain after this world is forgotten will remain with us. We show ourselves and others what we want and are willing to work toward.
The cynic will say that change must come from nationwide or worldwide permanent change or it comes to nothing. I say, we all still remember Anne Frank. She did little but stood for all of us, and stands for all humanity as we say that this is where we stand and this is what defines us.
Then, just go convince one person at a time until you’ve changed everybody. It is ALL in the individual. All of space and time and eternity is inside the human heart, and the human heart will remain after all else is a whisp of memory.
So, what do you stand for? Let your actions speak for you. THAT will echo forever.
a beautifully written expose of the dynamics of despair~
we all need renewal.
and none of us really have the option of walking away. where do we walk to or from? rather we nourish ourselves and return to the heartbreak of it all. and then renew ourselves once again. have your read “coming back to life” by joanna macy? one of the best and realistic approaches for those of us who love so much~
Thank God. Someone has finally articulated, beautifully and compellingly, what’s been knocking around at the back of my mind in recent years.
I’ve been involved in sustainability efforts from local to international scales for over two decades, and have in recent years withdrawn from almost all of it because of “sustainability creep.” Sustainability advocates seem to eventually take over all the nature-related communities I’ve been connected with.
I do believe that thinking in terms of sustainability is both positive and critical in many areas. But it feels like engineering. And you can be a highly effective sustainability worker without ever knowing what native plants might be growing (or might never grow again) outside your back door, or when local baby owls start walking along high branches outside their nests, or what sedimentary layers in the nearby park tell you about ancient worlds. Where’s the intimacy, where’s the awe, where’s the love of natural beauty for its own sake? Seems like there’s no time for contemplation and wonder any more.
Maybe I’ll see Paul on one of the walks I take regularly in nature to rediscover and try to heal my soul.
way too wordy. we are over 7 billion humans and it will continue to be about us until the conversation and the actions include condoms and religion. christopher hitchens: religion poisons everything.
This article is total nonsense. I’m an ecologist and I think this is probably the most useless article one could write today. Nothing here represents critical thought. I’m sorry to have read it.
Literally got goosebumps reading this, as I just experienced this exact sentiment the other day in an overwhelming way. Oh – and I’m a 19 year old college student, so this way of thinking is definitely not lost on the younger generation.
Quote: “christopher hitchens: religion poisons everything.”
Wow. Don’cha wish we could get a quick interview with CH today about what he has found out? We could see if his pithy temperament still serves him.
While people always have and always will mess up – just look at your love life or your credit history – that doesn’t mean we abandon anything people disagree about. Kids still go to school, people still buy airplane tickets, and millions still find answers and fulfillment in their faith relationships.
Too wordy and self involved. The author may have made significant environmental contributions in his life, but this tome is not one of them. Usually it’s better to simplify to get back on track. We need to limit human population and greed, and respect all non-human life enough to want to preserve it. Probably better to do it out of respect than out of passion, which is a fleeting feeling.
And the “sustainability” problem is simply this: most environmental organizations, especially large ones, have the sustainability of their organization as the primary goal. Real environmentalists actively work toward and look forward to the day when they are no longer needed and are out of business because they succeeded.
Kingsnorth is right on the money and as others have said, he put into words the uneasy feeling I’ve had about all of this “sustainability” crap that people and corporations have been flinging around. I was pretty sure it was bullshit and now I know that it is.
I was active in the environmental movement in my younger years but these days I find myself aligned more with the late, great George Carlin:
Life is short, get out there and enjoy the natural world while YOU still can. Don’t worry so much about Earth, it will still be here after we are gone.
Beautifully written. Do you feel that, today, as consumerism has become the lifeblood of our common experience, all decisions are viewed through the lens of commercial value? That is, all value is a matter of exchange, including the environment. And is it possible to replace consumerism, with its viral spread, with a message of value in and for itself?
to meredith and steve: i suggest you read â€œWhat Love Looks Likeâ€ on the Orion Homepage. TERRY: I remember having a conversation with Breyten Breytenbach, who wrote The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, who spent time in prison in South Africa for being anti-apartheid. We were in a bus driving to Mexico City, and he said to me, â€œYou Americans, youâ€™ve mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.â€
they speak of the â€œhard workâ€. for me, the questions I have on the wall of my home-â€how shall we live and what shall we live for?â€
as for CH- there is no evidence that he is anything other than dead.
â€œthat doesnâ€™t mean we abandon anything people disagree about.â€ letâ€™s just scrutinize those mythological beliefs that are not science, reason based. be as honest about our origins, as after the â€œhard workâ€ we finally were about the Sun revolving around the Earth, the Earth as center of the universe, that blacks are inferior to whites, etc.
meredith: you are 19. Iâ€™m in agreement with tim dechristopher – wilderness.
This is an interesting article. I find myself responding to a lot of what is said with a nod of recognition. But by the end I wonder if it isn’t missing the point a bit. At least the point as I see it.
I think there remains a real thread of ecocentrism in environmentalism. I think place-based movements like Transition Towns are an intriguing combination of practical efforts toward powering-down and still maintaining a passionate love of specific parts of the earth.
I think that the powerful push toward renewable power sources is…well, it’s a good thing! And yet I do sympathize with the fact that it’s still destructive of wilderness. That’s true, but it’s less-bad than business as usual. I think it really does represent a significant departure therefrom. Since when has business ever considered its own sustainability? And I’m not giving that word more weight than it is due. I mean an industry that realizes that environmental impacts will hinder its success in the future taking steps to avoid those impacts and ensure its future success! There’s nothing green about that impulse, but if the green movement has “inspired” or forced industry to be a little less-bad…and that’s all we should really expect from industry…then we’re on the right track. Or at least we’re on a slightly righter track.
Now, on the other side, I think a lot of what you’re describing as problematic forces within the green movement…are not coming from within the green movement at all! In the US we have these things called “Green Festivals”. They’re put on by Equal Exchange and some other organizations, and they’re (in my opinion) a perfect example of the ridiculous combination of green with rampant consumer culture. They’re, to be frank, disgusting. But I see the proliferation of green-washed consumer goods as inevitable.
There’s a real power to the appeal of the green movement, to living more in accordance with “nature”, to using less-toxic goods. Okay, now enterprising folks who make ends meet by selling crap to other folks are merely co-opting this power to sell their crap! Sorry. It’s not all crap, I’m sure. And I even think that some of the ridiculous consumer products flavored by the green-impulse are likely less-bad than the conventional products they’re trying to out-maneuver in the marketplace. But green-washed crap is still crap. Crap in theoretically biodegradable containers is still crap. Crap being sold to masses of people with no connection to place, who shop compulsively because it’s stimulating and what the hell else are we to do…is still crap.
It’s a big green ball of hooey, and it won’t “save the world” any more than me typing this too-long comment will!
But I don’t place the blame with the heart of the green movement. I place it with those who are short-sightedly using that heart to sell things now, and screw the future.
It was inevitable that the environmental movement became a corporatized institution most interested in sustaining itself or working as the greenwashing arm of industry.
Environmentalists need to reassert their outlook. Adding a differentiating adjective is one way, as in “deep green”. Or perhaps a new term, much as the term “veganism” was necessary after “vegetarianism” had come to include eggs and dairy (or even fish!).
All the devoted environmentalists I knew as a young person were farmers. I know that today’s somewhat corrupted political climate in college and even HS campuses sees farmers as scary strangers, but once you get to know them, they show themselves to be quite serious about keeping the land safe for us and wildlife.
Since our political scene in D,C, may end with a LOT of us growing our own food again one day, I would encourage those who worry about what we are doing to the planet to try to get to know some people whose lives are bound up with the soil. I never had the guts to bet my life on the weather and on livestock markets, but applaud those who do – several times a day, actually. These families live and breathe the environment.
I too have been pondering this dilemma for some time now. My life as an environmental artist devolved into that of an ecofriendly products merchant, a path of no intention. Creating art from found man made materials washed onto our local beaches became the medium for my obsessively passionate attempt to educate people about their behaviour within the environment, especially in our pristine tourist location (Still receiving itâ€™s fair share of ocean transported man-made litter). I did succeed in evoking their awareness. Then followed their sense of guilt resulting in a desire to be change and be forgiven for their ignorant sins. I then somehow received the dubious task of offering more acceptable consumer solutions.
My efforts to help them appease their souls, resulted in years spent researching products and supplying these and gradually losing touch with my creativity and the earth. Not exactly how I wanted things to go. So as you say Jennifer â€“ I may appear as one of those â€œscrewing the futureâ€. But balancing the ecocentric ethics of this has always deeply challenged me.
During these years I have met many people who truly care. Suppliers who are genuinely trying to make a difference and have a big picture approach. Thoughtful customers who are forlorn about our societyâ€™s apparent lack of custodianship of our earth and who take the opportunity to discuss their concerns with me. But these people also choose wisely and purchase very little and I know they are the ones who truly do get it. They are my favourite customers – we feel the same connection.
But sadly I have observed that few do put the planet first, but rather their own personal wellbeing motivates them. I have been amazed at what people will spend on themselves in their efforts to preserve their own body, something that is most certainly finite. Many people just donâ€™t consider that their physical form will be long gone but their careless attempts to discard their consumerism will remain wrapped in plastic in landfill for future archaeologists to discover and ponder – this strange 20th century ritual. I really donâ€™t get this at all and it is a growing trend. I hear them silently cry â€“ â€œI will change if it is good for ME or my POCKETâ€.
As â€œecofriendly productsâ€ burgeon I increasingly question what is valid and what is just another attempt to milk the cow of â€œenvironmentalismâ€.
For me, too much time spent in front of a computer and my increasing scepticism has led to a sense of sadness and hopelessness. Lack of connection with the planet is an insidious way to stop noticing and caring.
So like Paul Kingsnorth, I too am kicking off my shoes again and touching, smelling and embracing the natural around me. Unlike these eco products, our world evolves slowly, gracefully and symbiotically. My sense of hopelessness fades amidst this overwhelming endurance and I trust once again that mother nature will conquer human nature in the end.
I was speaking pretty sweepingly, but I know you’re right. There’s something so poignant in the green-consumer notion, and you point this out. I think people cling to buying things because we don’t have a lot else to do to take action! We’re told to “vote with our dollars”, although that’s a pretty sad possibility too…not exactly “one man, one vote” is it?
And I hear what you’re saying too, about people hoping to heal their bodies…while they’re so fleeting.
I put some stock, well perhaps a lot of stock, in some aspects of the local food movement, if only because it really has to be rooted in the dirt at SOME level! And yet that too gets commodified and translated into marketing nonsense.
I think I fault not the smaller-scale entrepreneurs for greenwashing, but the big guys who know they’re faking it. Or would if they looked honestly at their impacts.
And yet…I don’t know, if you’re going to sell an idea, selling the green idea is better than some.
Such a fascinating conversation! Endlessly inspiring…if sometimes rather dispiriting too.
Enjoy your recovery! Everyone gets burnt out from the inevitable compromises of engagement with politics, and its good to catch one’s breath, and maybe even move on and leave politics to others. Politics really should be avocational, after all.
But my reaction to this piece is that in fact, what motivates a lot of the people most engaged with work on carbon reduction (myself at any rate) really is preservation of wildlands, and that the emphasis on human impacts comes from a desire to build coalitions, by pointing out to people that even if you don’t care much about wilderness, you still have something to lose from carbon pollution.
And what if the rosey future of so-called sustainable growth is merely vaporware?
Cheer up Paul, the oil is running out, and faster everyday. Unless we get a last minute stay from God, the laws of thermodynamics are still in play. You can wish on a star all you want, but you are not going to run this sucka on wind, solar or used french fry oil. More and more grok that everyday. What we are witnessing is only the end stage of grief acceptance. When we reach a critical mass of understanding, we’ll be well on our way to a better life for everyone.
The job of darning your socks and growing your own carrots will soon have only a couple alternatives. Namely, going sockless and not eating carrots.
It’s striking to me that this piece, and the earlier one by Shellenberger and Nordhaus (“Evolve”: http://orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6402/) offer almost mirror image characterizations of so-called “mainstream” environmentalists. I think they’re each about 1/2 right (and 1/2 wrong).
Wonderful comments. It seems to me that after all the selfish fantasy, magical thinking and ideological idiocy are set to one side, we can see something plainly: the human community faces a superordinate challenge which will unite the human family as never before to confront a common peril, a challenge so enormous, ominous and oppressive that every person who perceives the global predicament we have precipitated would agree that s/he has responsibilities to assume and duties to perform. The awareness we have to raise and the science we have to share widely among the family of humanity are indeed unpopular, even terrifying. To catch sight of something so unanticipated and awesome overthrows the worldview of most people. Even so, none of this subjective discomfort relieves us who ‘see’ the Leviathan (ie, the presence of a gigantic human population on Earth) of the requirement to do the right thing, I suppose, according to the lights we possess.
Civilizations rise and fall, and one has to wonder how long before our hubris and inability to see what we are doing to the wilderness that has sustained us for millenia will bring about our downfall.
I think Agent Smith said it best in The Matrix: ” I’d like to share a revelation that Iâ€™ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realised that humans are not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed. The only way for you to survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern… a virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet, you are a plague”.
People need to wise up, but it won’t happen. How long do we have? Not long. What you sow is what you reap.
Re: “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment.”
It seems to me that this is not so much voluntary as imposed by Mother Nature. So it will be with us. It is just that, like a smart-alecky student, we have avoided learning the lesson as long as possible.
I feel very bad that it is my generation (I am in my 60s) who is the most to blame.
The author hits the key point of our modern tragedy exactly. What profit do we gain if we somehow turn the world and ourselves into smooth functioning units in a vast machine, if in the process we lose our own souls? Our sickness is deeply spiritual, and will not be solved by technologies or social engineering.
Thank you for your honesty; you have strengthened the call to live truthfully.
May we overcome our dis-ease spiritual and find hope to quell the despair.
Paul, thank you for writing that. It really affected me, had a way of making me feel less alone in my internal struggles of this kind. Mine are of a different focus, but with the same sense of “What am I to do with feelings like these? Useless feelings in a world in which everything must be made useful.” I experience the same dismissals. The same spontaneous responses, called idealistic by others, but increasingly tainted by cynicism as I grow older.
I also have no answers, but I am so happy I stumbled upon your article. Thank you for writing it so beautifully and with so much heart. – Gen
Preserve what is natural and green from more rampant construction of Towers of Babel and ‘concrete jungles’. Everywhere we look there are virtual mountains of evidence to be found of the clever manipulation of human intellect by ‘the brightest and best’, usually for the purpose of securing selfish interests. Self-proclaimed masters of the universe, their many highly educated sycophants and absurdly enriched minions are established experts at ignoring ‘reality’ when it serves their pragmatic desires. The step that makes it possible for human beings with feet of clay to subordinate personal interests so as to see what is before their eyes, is not an easy one. All of us get use to seeing the world in certain ways, according to what is logically contrived, politically correct, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerable, culturally prescribed and ubiquitously shared through the mass media. Most of the time popular ways of viewing the world are sufficiently reality-oriented. But occasionally advances in science disturb even the most widely held and consensually validated understandings with regard to the way the world we inhabit works as well as about the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things. Perhaps we are witnesses to such a scientific advance, or maybe not. Whatever the case, whatever the ‘reality’ of human population dynamics, let us make sure that the Orion community is not simply and plainly just one more academic bastion of intellectual cowardice. When the subject is human population dynamics, it seems to me that there are currently enough “ivory towers”, professional societies and international organizations whose members favor intellectual dishonesty, hysterical blindness, willful deafness and elective mutism.
Perhaps this long essay and its commentary inadvertently make it clear how environmentalism has lost its focus. A profundity of words and nary a one about real solutions to the mess we are in.
How about this:
1) A change in the tax code in the U.S. removing the deduction for having offspring.
2) A token measure, but a start, to recognize limits — prohibit any further airport expansion in the U.S.
3) Limit greed (and the constant drumbeat to consume) by limiting corporations. We urgently need a constitutional amendment stating corporations are not people and money is not free speech.
We can preserve the planet by starting small and putting our signature on whatever we can preserve.
Ironically, the capitalist system will allow more restorations of our natural environment that any other. Sure, people mess up and take advantage of whatever is in front of them, just like they always have; but I am certain that person-to-person efforts, working from the bottom up is sure to maintain more change than anything imposed by an isolated government from its ivory towers.
Hello Steve Salmony — Good to hear from you. Keep up your good work. The population problem is a critical subset of the general cultural myth that says more is always better. The ultimate heresy to believers in this myth is to say that sometimes less is better. In their minds less is always worse. And they will go to extraordinary lengths to *prove* their ridiculous axiom. When one recommends that less people would put less pressure on finite resources, these partisans of the religion of more will respond with unproven dreams that somehow future scientific breakthroughs will make it possible to support infinite numbers of humans.
The problem here is one of psychological/spiritual blindness. The solution is for large numbers to wake up from their deluded state, and make the simple changes needed to alter a clearly disastrous course. How to promote this awakening is the major problem facing humankind. There are ways. Will we choose them?
Thank you for the excellent essay! You’ve expressed so eloquently what I have started to feel myself in the past few months. It’s disheartening and troubling, but this strong kindred connection with nature is incredibly powerful, and it’s a shame so few seem to feel it any more.
I wonder if you have read any Bruno Latour and his work on nature and the modern? I may be more of a radical marxist than you ever were but he advocates a form of anarcho-primitivism that is an enjoyable mental exercise, though it’ll never happen.
Oh, good! Another ideologue. Can you not just stop whining? You want to roll the world back to your youth and damn the billions that would perish in the process. But why stop there? Why stop with the moors and long walks or living the the jungles? How is your childhood epiphany the most relevant? Why not the childhood of earlier egoists? Why not return to their tribalism or hunter gatherer dreams?
You seek stasis in some long lost past utopia and somehow equate that with a world where man fits with nature. You know the past never returns yet you waste your time dreaming of recapturing it.
Like all ideologues you hold a radical position but dare not embrace the consequences of its uncertainty. All we can do is accept our fallible humanity and try to move on causing as little pain to others as possible.
Great essay, reminding me of Edward Abbey, which reminds me that the best thing we can do for our children is to take them outside and walk in the mud and watch the stars and listen to the birds.
#53 — All we can do is accept our fallible humanity and try to move on causing as little pain to others as possible. Sounds like an ideology of resigned stasis to me. I prefer to dream a better world. And I am not the only one.
“…I prefer to dream a better world…”
And is that “better” world before the wheel? After fire corrupted humankind?
There are no “dreams” in this article. It is just unrelenting nightmarish lamentation for a lost youth and romanticized memories of things past.
@#56, Your fury at the dreamers sounds terrible for you. The fact is this chap is absolutely right. Withdraw your focus from the industrial nightmare, and focus on the cleaner ways of living. Living with plants. Whatever else we do we will have to find a way to live side by side with many other organisms. Plant plants and nurture them. make it a life philosophy. The answers are so simple and staring us all in the face. Live your high tech lifestyles surrounded by plants that’s all
I’d like to thank everyone for this conversation. With a few unthinking exceptions (L.F. File, you know who you are ;-)) it is fascinating. I’m glad the piece has stimulated a debate, and I hope some of you will be able to join me, Lierre Keith and David Abram for the phone discussion about it on the 18th.
In the meantime, the work which was stimulated by this article, and which also stimulated it, continues over at the Dark Mountain Project, which I’m sure some of you will also find fruitful – and will hopefully be able to contribute to.
Thanks so much for what you have shared Paul. You reminded me of my own long solo stays in wilderness, that did so much to tell
me who I really am, and what I am here for. This kind of learning could not have happened through any other means, and remains a most precious gift in a life that has known its share of alienation and confusion. Nature remains a great spiritual teacher if we go to her in humble openness. I pray more of us will seek these deep experiences in this time of unravelingâ€¦
So beautiful this piece. Sort of like a suicide note. The machine will not accept anything less than continued cancerous growth, and environmentalism will only cave to that final limit.
Bollocks, cos. Buck up.
I don’t see any sort of “radical response to global warming” or “saving our oceans from extinction” from my vantage, whatever your progressive papers are telling you up there.
Cuz the windpower people are getting called Luddites, too, and it aint like we’re seeing a great change. So, my perspective: end the machine. If you ever want to see a wild river again or drink untainted water.
Cancel your trip. I’ll clue you in: they’re destroying the rainforest at breakneck pace and there aren’t any windmills to obstruct the view. Use your wild inclination to strike against the beast.
Fight. And maybe we’ll see a generation that can do something other than gluttonously consume the impoverished and nature, until it gets time for the next Prozac.
Oh what to do?
A sad tale you spin…
We live in an age of excitement. Miraculous and filled with wonders both natural and anthropogenic. Embrace it and do what you can to contribute.
The only consolation we have is that most of the natural world will continue on its evolutionary path without humans. As for those of us alive today, we need to acknowledge not only the compromised self styled leaders and groups and their failure, but to understand and counteract the irrationality that is part of our psyche and how it is emerging again – through religion, counterculture conspiracy theories, postmodernism, New Age indifference to political change and the prevalence of false
gurus and snake oil salesmen. Yes, direct immersion in Nature is imperative, but we need to change the way we interact with Nature and human society by respecting and reviving science, rationalism, secularism and all the things we inherited from the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
Above all we need to reinforce the study of evolution not only for ethical reasons but because evolutionary principles pervade nearly all of society. Without a broad scientific education, and without the guidance of the “laws of Nature”, humans will continue to be ruled by arbitrary and capricious ideologies, both religious and secular. Deference to Nature is one of the most powerful ways of defeating tyranny.
There is nothing like a walk through undisturbed nature to reinvigorate you.
If you think about it, religious faith does not have to be opposed to the things we observe in nature like natural selection, evolution, and the best guesses we have for the age of Earth & the cosmos. If Allah/God/YHWH is as patient as we are told, what’s to keep Him from letting the process Carl Sagan loved to highlight from serving His purposes just as well as the timetable given us by Moses?
If I were going to somehow create a world or a universe, I wouldn’t leave hints that I had done it either. I’d have people understand the clues I gave them or the people I sent them and let them decide on their own, whether “them” is mankind or every sort of sentinent life – maybe even octopuses someday, referring to my fave story from Orion so far.
Steve, I appreciate your gentle invitation to consider the relationship between the material and spiritual. Indeed, such relationship has been/is intrinsic to indigenous groups in the world who live in spiritual and resonably healthy relationship with the planet (eg Australian indigenous people’s).
I believe that attempting to remove what is spiritual from conversations such as this, would not only be near-sighted and lacking in wisdom, but would overlook more than half the world’s human population whose religions suggest some sort of personal responsibility for “creation” and who we would be wise to inspire toward the same end – human reconcilliation with the planet and, therefore, restoration of wholeness and health for our planet and it’s surrounds (for we are also littering Space!).
Allowing spirit to remain in the conversation and process will also allow hope to shine – albeit tenuously.
In response to Kate’s pleading for spirituality, I believe that those who rely on spirituality usually only come up with spiritual solutions, not political ones. It will take an eternity and then some before everyone on earth comes around to that view. If there were world enough and time….but there isn’t. And there are probably many more in the industrialized world who would categorically reject it anyway. If someone wants to meditate, pray or exhort the rest of us to abandon our evil ways, like the leftist Christian flaggelant called Chris Hedges or his righteous fellow Pastor Bill McKibben’s tiresome religious effluvia,that’s their choice, but that’s the easy way out of a situation that requires a lot more.
— The childish impulse to break things when you donâ€™t get your way.
Nice piece Paul. I share a lot of your feelings. And no windmills are not going to save us. The arrogance of human utility as a dominant philosophy is deadly and denies our kinship with our cousin species.
Funny though you didn’t, except for a passing reference, address the most raw evidence of our colonizing arrogance – our endless growth in numbers.
Oddly this requires that we do something that no other species has ever done as far as I know – voluntarily limit reproduction.
Talking to the wind is great but insufficient. There is a place for cold logic applied.
Anarchy: a society of free individuals without centralized governmental authority.
Good discussion but I hope one thing stands out: it is not enough to talk, ruminate, philosophize, hope, believe, pray or dream. Environmentalists must develop real solutions and act. For example:
1) If we want to limit population, we should end the tax incentive-deduction for having offspring.
2) As a start to recognizing limits — we should prohibit any further airport expansion in the U.S.
3) To limit greed and the constant drumbeat to consume we will need to limit corporations. We should be working on a constitutional amendment stating corporations are not people.
The best estimates are that between 10 and 20 percent of all species will be driven to extinction in the next 20 to 50 years due to humans. It is our responsibility to do something about it now.
#68 Rosa — Our main problem as I see it is not centralized government per se. The chief difficulty is that the vast majority of us are not free in any meaningful sense, even if government should cease to exist. Real freedom is not something that we naturally have in the absence of external restraints. Real freedom requires intensive work to rid ourselves of all the false beliefs we have accumulated in our minds that operate as a dense cloud of delusions between ourselves and reality. Removal of these obscuring clouds is the purpose of real spiritual practice. Minus these thick veils of ignorance and falsehood, we could be able to order our lives and relationships in an optimal manner, through transformed forms of government and other means.
Welcome to the cause of anarchism, Mike K.
These pages are full of excellent ideas about what we should do to change our world for he better. However, the fault is not in our stars, nor our government, or corporations, polluters, etc. — but in ourselves. Only better people can make a better world. The colorful patchwork of innovative solutions cannot cover the source of nearly all our problems — ourselves. Until we face this reality, and take up the tools that have been developed over history to deeply change ourselves, there will be no end to the ongoing avalanche of disasters we will continue to create, often in the name of fixing problems we previously created.
Rosa — I admire the ideals of some anarchists, it is their methods of achieving those ends that I question. Derrick Jensen in many ways fits this dubious category. Tear civilization down in order to save it, and cross your fingers that something better will follow it.
Before one tears something down, one should ask if they are qualified to do something that will cause enormous suffering in the short term. Then one should consider if the deconstructive activities will really do more harm than good in the long run. I find this consideration lacking in most anarchistic types, who on the contrary are so full of righteous hubris leading them to believe that they know what they are doing, that they scorn the questions I have asked.
As for anarchism, no government, I don’t even know what that means other than being completely alone and self-supporting under that condition. I have approximated that and there is a lot to be said for it but I understood it to be a temporary condition. Once you are living with others rules become necessary and hierarchies form. You bear a burden to show otherwise. An ideal without present day or historical examples is pretty much pie in the sky.
I appreciate the value of self-reflection but it is not a substitute for some sort of action that we who care about having a future can plug into. The walk-abouts unfortunately didn’t save the aborigines.
To start with something simple(ultimately answers have to be simple), that might provide a general hopeful focus, here is mine – details to be worked out.
MORE TREES LESS PEOPLE
I have been reading what Guy Mcpherson has to say..that only the nearly here financial collapse will slow global warming…so with Peak everything Industrial agriculture ends…You will not have to work for anarchy…govt will be very small,like your neighborhood..Mcpherson writes that one study was published that reports ONLY the coming financial collapse can effect GW(Climatic Journal I think)and the science is bullit proof
Well said mate!
I am surprised to see that the purist Romantic paradigm — the notion that ‘nature’ is something essential and separate from human and society — is alive and well and being used to argue for misanthropy. Nature’s not dead, Romantic nature is, and that’s not such a bad trend.
Given that the kneejerk responses you have given vent to are specifically anticipated in the article (precisely because they are so unthinking and so predictable), maybe you want to read it again, and come back with something a bit smarter …?
Yes, however, nature is an asset and the current situation calls for preservation.
Clyde – Knowing the holes that exist in an ‘argument’ and this author clearly does is not the same as having a better argument. As I don’t believe he does. But neither is this an article, rather it’s a trope. A narrative exposition designed to evoke nostalgia at the permanent loss of something once cherished and present. Nostalgia is deadly, as it distracts from the actual efforts at reform. Environmentalism is dead, long live environmentalism. 🙂
My mistake, it’s the author calling me “kneejerk.” How poetic.
??? English please.