Reading it is enough to make you want to stop breathing…
On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy’s gross domestic product.
So writes writer, environmentalist and poet, former editor of The Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth to his friend, ally, and comrade in misery, George Mon-and-on-and-on-biot. The two are discussing the question ‘Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?’ Their exchange is printed in the Guardian.
The subtitle sets the terms of the debate between these two apocalyptic nutcases.
The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot – we can’t let billions perish
Kingsnorth, who curiously shares his name with the site of the site of recent Climate Camp protests, recites a familiar litany – we are going to hell in a fossil-fuel-and-capitalism-powered handcart, and the human race is just to stupid to notice or care, and it will be a good thing when billions of us are dead, because those who remain will have learned a lesson. Like the Rapture, but for Gaia-worshippers.
What the graphs show, says Kingsnorth, is that ‘a rapacious human economy [is] bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos’. ‘…all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse… there is a serious crash on the way… the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it…’ There is no way out of this, Kingsnorth believes.
[we are] wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in “progress”, as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.
This is an illusion, he says, it is ‘denial’. It’s curious to see the word ‘denial’ being applied to our greenest greens: those who embrace wholeheartedly both the sustainability agenda, and the apocalyptic prophecies that underpin it.
The writing is on the wall for industrial society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism and a deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”; add a blind belief in technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power source that is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What do you get? We are starting to find out.
It is also a surprise to find out that those who have so far embraced environmentalism are labouring under the ‘myth of human exceptionalism’. And if this naked catastrophism wasn’t so utterly dispiriting, it would be funny that Kingsnorth complains about a ‘deeply embedded cultural attitude to “nature”’. After all, what is it that Kingsnorth expresses, if it’s not a ‘deeply embedded attitude to nature’ of his own, and of the culture that environmentalism has created for itself? Indeed, the culture that he and Monbiot both want to create is precisely a culture in which nature is central to everything.
Here at Climate Resistance, we are fans of human exceptionalism. And we don’t think it’s a myth. Our ability even to consider the concept of human exceptionalism makes us distinct from all other things. Kingsnorth sees the world very, very differently:
… what we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines on mountains and shouting at ministers, is not the planet but our attachment to the western material culture, which we cannot imagine living without.
The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.
Human exceptionalism, in this view, is a notion which has been debunked. Debunked, that is, by the looming apocalypse. The inevitable apocalypse. The one that hasn’t happened yet, but it will, according to Kingsnorth. Soon. Ish. He hopes. And there’s no point hankering after it, because we’re doomed.
But abandoning a human-centric view of the world creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we reduce humanity to the moral equivalent of any bug, slug, mouse or microbe, we prevent ourselves from planning according to our own interests. We therefore submit to the whims of nature that have always killed humans through famine, drought, and disease, etc, etc. What makes Kingsnorth’s fantasy different to a UFO cultist’s is that he expects the whole world to join his suicide pact, not just a small band of ‘us’, the chosen ones, against the ‘them’.
Like you I have become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash you predict. For the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions based on evidence. But it is waning.
Here’s some news… George Monbiot thinks he has been ‘professionally optimistic’! When?! When has Monbiot been optimistic? Ever? As we have pointed out in many posts, George is incapable of optimism, because what he is responding to is not the external world, or rather anything that occurs in the real world, but his own confusion about his place in it. It fails to obey his will, and he doesn’t really understand why, and like a small child, cannot make a distinction between his failure to assert his will, and the end of the world. Environmentalism projects its own crises into the atmosphere. When, recently, supermarket giant, Tescos began the process of setting up in the town of Monbiot’s home, Machynlleth in Wales, he imagined himself in ‘the last small corner of Gaul still holding out against the Romans’. This was, in his view, a ‘struggle for democracy’. Nevermind that, in fact, it seems that more people are in favour of the supermarket, than against.
It get’s funnier, because Monbiot then scolds Kingsnorth for his apparent desire for apocalypse.
I detect in your writings, and in the conversations we have had, an attraction towards – almost a yearning for – this apocalypse, a sense that you see it as a cleansing fire that will rid the world of a diseased society. If this is your view, I do not share it.
But without the apocalypse, Monbiot’s entire view of the world crumbles. This he shares with Kingsnorth absolutely. Indeed, last year he gave the title ‘Bring on the Apocalypse’ to a collection of his writings. The message is the same as any other eco-poseur’s: if you don’t do what I say, the world will end, and your children will die. If there is no looming apocalypse, what would Monbiot write about? He says he wants to avoid the apocalypse, but anyone who says it might not be inevitable he calls a ‘denier’, or otherwise hypnotised by deniers. He says he wants to save people, but without the prospect of an imminent global catastrophe, how would he illustrate his unpleasant narrative? The difference between the roles that apocalypse plays in Monbiot’s and Kingsnorth’s account of the future is paper-thin, and academic. They are expressions of the same symptom. For all that their ‘debate’ matters, they might as well be arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Seemingly in an attempt to distance himself from Kingsnorth’s style of apocalyptic propheising, but failing comprehensively, Monbiot continues…
However hard we fall, we will recover sufficiently to land another hammer blow on the biosphere. We will continue to do so until there is so little left that even Homo sapiens can no longer survive. This is the ecological destiny of a species possessed of outstanding intelligence, opposable thumbs and an ability to interpret and exploit almost every possible resource – in the absence of political restraint.
And there’s the rub. Monbiot claims that it is objective fact, issued by an unchallengeable scientific consensus that demands ‘political restraint’, but in reality, it is the desire for some kind of political restraint which is prior to the search for any evidence that may putatively support it.
That is to say that the desire is to limit the expression of humanity, because it is an evil thing that will inevitably cause the destruction of the world. Here, again, Monbiot confuses his own disorientation with the entire human race’s. While it may be sensibly argued that politics throughout the world is suffering from a lack of direction (it is what we argue, after all), Monbiot only recognises this as a ‘lack of restraint’, rather than having some other cause. The purposelessness of today’s politics aims for nothing in particular, except for some kind of security: the War on Terror, pandemics, obesity and demographic time-bombs, climate change, and a raft of disasters await us, and become the issues around which our future is organised simply because today’s politicians cannot really conceive of any other basis for their functions. There is no better future. Monbiot sees environmentalism as a remedy to, rather than a symptom of this problem.
Contemplating the politics of the post-apocalyptic world, Monbiot foresees that
survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory.
Rather than preparing for the apocalypse, we ought to be trying to stop it
However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive.
If Monbiot recognises that the conditions of the post-apocalyptic world give rise to certain politics, why is it that he’s unable to recognise that creating a politics that anticipates the apocalypse equally gives rise to politics of the same order? Does Monbiot really believe that ‘downsizing the global economy’ won’t create brutal monopolies? Does he really believe that you can take just the excesses of contemporary life away from people, and that you can do so without force, violence, and oppression? Does he really think that people will embrace feudal modes of existence willingly? And as for political accountability, how does he think protests and the civil disobedience he is so fond of will be organised, and met by the authorities, in a world in which transport is denied, and political authority is legitimised on the basis that “the planet needs saving”? You wouldn’t be able to get to the protest. A green tyranny doesn’t need to oppress the population through violence. It just deprives them of the means to organise themselves. Things like petrol. But if it came to it, once you were there, protesters could be dealt with as any dangerous ‘denier’ – a heretic, no less – has been in history. There can be no ‘ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy’. It is not a machine.
Recognising that Monbiot’s vision of ordered retrogression is unlikely, but failing to recognise that Monbiot is talking about de-industrialisation, Kingsnorth says:
You have convinced yourself that there are only two possible futures available to humanity. One we might call Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0. Clearly your preferred option, this is much like the world we live in now, only with fossil fuels replaced by solar panels; governments and corporations held to account by active citizens; and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a “steady state economy”.
The other we might call McCarthy world, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – which is set in an impossibly hideous post-apocalyptic world, where everything is dead but humans, who are reduced to eating children. Not long ago you suggested in a column that such a future could await us if we didn’t continue “the fight”.
We wrote about Monbiot’s reading of McCarthy’s novel back at the end of 2007. This story, said Monbiot, ‘shines a cold light on the dreadful consequences of our universal apathy’. Again, it was humanity’s shortcomings that created the necessity of controlling human impulses. He’d been at a road protest because apathetic humans were building a road. And it was all Jeremy Clarkson’s fault. The presenter of flagship BBC program Top Gear wasn’t taking his environmental responsibilities seriously. ‘Who will persuade us to act?’, he wondered. Not him. And not Kingsnorth, who seems to relish the coming end-of-days.
We face what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a “long descent”: a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter that will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure “some good will come” from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction. […] But what comes next doesn’t have to be McCarthyworld. Fear is a poor guide to the future.
That’s right, folks, the deaths of billions of people is nothing to be feared, it is just a necessary step to a better future. In a rare moment of sanity (only by contrast) Monbiot is outraged that Kingsnorth is suggesting that we might ‘do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of industrial civilisation’. The ‘macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion that we have nothing to fear from endless growth’, he says. It’s a curious argument. Who could possibly be afraid of endless growth? It implies a distinctly non-terminal world. What he means by ‘endless growth’, however, is nothing of the kind, but anything which doesn’t resonate with the ‘downsizing of the global economy’ that he wishes for. This is, as we have observed in the past, based on the principle that any growth must ultimately be unsustainable, because the earth is finite, and at some point, growth will outgrow its environs. It’s a spurious argument that rests on many bogus claims, but principally states that because a problem may exist in the future, we ought not to continue. Best stay in the caves. Best remain as peasants. Best to not see what happens if we convert the production of steam into movement.
For a moment, it looks like Monbiot might say something sensible. But this is a competition to see who can hate humanity the most…
Anyone apprised of the palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.
Gosh. So what’s worth saving? At the same time as holding us to be equivalent to toxic weaponry, we are, paradoxically worth saving. And there’s only one way to do it.
[A] de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse.
Only by neutering ourselves, and by enforcing restraint and environmental obedience can our species be locked into a sustainable pattern of behaviour, and saved.
The debate rages on. Kingsnorth replies, complaining that ‘my lack of fighting spirit sees me accused of complicity in mass death’, and that Monbiot’s argument is ‘designed to make me look like a heartless fascist’. Surely not…
Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humanity is separate from something called “nature”, which is a “resource” for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us that we are in control. […]
I think our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, while creating new myths that put humanity in its proper place. Recently I co-founded a new initiative, the Dark Mountain Project, which aims to help do that. It won’t save the world, but it might help us think about how to live through a hard century. You’d be welcome to join us.
Where Monbiot wanted a human race tamed and forced into obedience by the prospect of Gaia’s waiting wrath, Kingsnorth wants to create a culture from the myths upwards, that puts it in its place while Mother Nature’s anger is visited upon us with poetry, art, singing and clapping. Seriously. Check out his site. It intends to create ‘a new literary movement for an age of global disruption’ as the project’s co-founder, Dougald Hine explains in this video.
So, Hine thinks his project is about ‘finding a new optimism’. The starting point for this ‘new optimism’ are their ‘eight principles of uncivilisation‘. Several of these ‘principles’ (they really ought to be ‘unprinciples’) stick out.
3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our ﬁngernails.
This is grandiose posturing. This is given away by the final (un)principle: ‘Together, we will ﬁnd the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.’ This ought to be seen as a rather frank statement of aimlessness; they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t know how to get there, other than by making up stories that ‘weave’ the ‘reality’ that they experience. They refuse to ‘lose ourselves in the elaboration of our theories’. Well, that’s convenient, because they are incoherent and inconsistent. They don’t even seem able to wash their hands. And why would you, if you didn’t believe in the centrality of humanity and progress?
What kind of optimism is this going to achieve? We don’t think it can find any. And, indeed, this search for optimism looks more like utter nihilism, these principles being so many self-indulgent whines about their authors’ sense of disorientation. Environmentalism projects its own anxieties onto the world.
Monbiot’s closing comments to their discussion are barely worth looking at, so underwhelming is his reply. There is no defence of progress. There is no defence of humanity. There is not even any defence of conventional optimism. Because, as ever, George’s vision is trapped between apocalypse and survival that means he can only make an argument that is premised on a belittling of humanity. This is the logic of miserable nihilism in search of meaning. It is just as incoherent as Kingsnorth’s. In both arguments, the catastrophes that the writers say we face are not simply the result of unforeseen consequences of our using our abilities, for instance, that industrial society has created a problem – climate change – that need to be addressed one way or another. Instead, climate change is held as conclusive proof of our lust, greed, and stupidity and that they need to be contained, either through legislation, or through mythology. The difference is steep. While on the one hand, Monbiot claims to have virtually the entire climate science community behind him and his argument (that is the basis on which he has agreed to debate climate sceptic, Prof. Ian Plimer) this ‘science’ isn’t being used by Monbiot to make a scientific argument about the necessity of changing our industrial practices – a view with which many scientists no doubt agree – but instead is being used to make arguments about human nature itself. This is the perspective which is prior to the science that is used to support it. It is the ethics and politics of environmentalism.
The very graphs on which Kingsnorth premised his arguments – the ones which spelled out the inevitability of the apocalypse to him – are the story which narrates his myths about human unexceptionalism and uncentrality, and his desire for uncivilisation. Yet if humans aren’t exceptional, these graphs cannot stand for anything. The science which produced them, right or wrong, produced the machines which caused the problem they have seemingly identified. Likewise, the same science which Monbiot claims has identified the inevitable catastrophe that looms over us was produced by the desire for better lives that Monbiot says we simply can’t have. Kingsnorth and Monbiot only want so much science. Science as the expression of human exceptionality is used to demonstrate the non-exceptionality of humans. Science as the means by which we made our lives better is used to demonstrate the dangerous folly of living better lives. The ethics, politics and science of Monbiot and the literature movement that Kingsnorth hopes to create, if they ever flourish, (as much as anything so negative can ‘flourish’) will create an era in human history that will be called ‘the redarkenment’, and the ‘unnaissance’.
H/T: Rob L. and James H.