Book Review from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist'. By Paul Kingsnorth, (Faber & Faber £14.99)
This consists of a series of essays written between 2009 and 2016, most previously published in newspapers and magazines or online, which trace the author’s disenchantment with environmental activism. He originally wanted to save nature from people, but he gradually came to see the problems inherent in what he was doing. For one thing, the movements he was involved in were increasingly unsuccessful: every environmental problem identified at the 1992 Earth Summit had got worse in the years since. Ineffective action, he concludes, leads only to despair, and false hope is worse than no hope.
In addition, the green movement had changed. It was once eco-centric but shifted to become more about people, about social justice and equality for humans, having been taken over by the left: ‘green politics was fast becoming a refuge for disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travellers’. Unfortunately this kind of vague and unsupported generalising is typical of much of the book. This is a pity, as there are some interesting claims here, for instance that many greens still see a motorway across a downland as bad but would be quite keen on a wind farm in the same location.
Moreover, his depiction of green politics is at best a half-truth. The Green Party do speak of ‘a political system that puts the public first’ but also of ‘a planet protected from the threat of climate change’. Friends of the Earth talk about protecting the bee population (partly because humans need them, admittedly) and also about preserving nature, advocating approaches such as agroecology and permaculture. Greenpeace oppose deadly air pollution, but also aim to defend the oceans and protect forests.
Kingsnorth is particularly scathing about sustainability, which he views as meaning ‘sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right’. Clearly he has no idea who the world’s truly rich people are. He also objects to the alleged single-minded obsession with climate change, and to seeing it as a challenge to be overcome by technological solutions. Capitalism, he claims, ‘has absorbed the greens’, but there is in fact no reason to think they were ever anti-capitalist. He never seems to ask why green movements have failed, let alone raise the possibility that their lack of success might be due to capitalism and its emphasis on profit.
The book closes with a couple of pieces on ‘uncivilisation’, a supposed alternative described only in very general terms as rejecting theories and ideologies and political or social ‘solutions’. Don’t come up with big plans for a better world, Kingsnorth says, but take responsibility for a specific something: he currently lives with his family on a two-and-a-half acre site in Ireland in an attempt to escape from ‘the urban consumer machine’. Rather than becoming involved in environmental or political causes, he proposes withdrawal and contemplation. He accepts that he does not have useful answers but it is not clear that he even has any worthwhile questions.