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Paul Kingsnorth: environmentalists have lost their way

Matilda Lee

9th December, 2009

Former deputy editor of the Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth, tells Matilda Lee why an obsession with CO2 has distracted environmentalists, and why we may already be beyond the point of no return...

Matilda Lee: You’ve said the environmental movement has lost its way – too focused on reducing emissions, and not enough on nature. Isn’t this dismissive of the gains that have been made in the past 5 to 10 years?

Paul Kingsnorth: What I’m suggesting is that environmentalism, which has become mainstream, is so obsessed with carbon emissions reductions that it has kind of lost sight of all of the other things it was supposed to be doing.

The main narrative is that we have to reduce emissions by a certain percentage within a certain period of time and there is a small window we’ve got to act, and if we don’t use it, there’s global doom approaching. If we are honest, there is no window. It closed a long time ago.

ML: You are saying you think we are past the point of no return?

PK: Yes, in terms of emissions reductions. If you accept the argument that we’ve got, say 95 months left to save the world then yes, we have certainly passed the point of no return. Even if the politicians managed to cobble something together at Copenhagen - which they probably won’t - it won’t be kept to anyway because at the same time they’ve got to promote constant economic growth.

As environmentalists, in our private conversations, we know this stuff,  but in public we are saying we’ve got to hit targets, the problem is that when it doesn’t happen, which it won’t, we’re going to be in big trouble because people aren’t going to listen to us anymore.

ML: But isn't there a need to galvanise people to act now, and help shift our worldview towards a focus on what we are leaving for the generations ahead of us?

PK: That’s the line, but it’s not working. Climate change is something that all the politicians are talking about and it’s in all the front pages, you would think we would be changing things. But we’re not in any significant way.

The number of people who are in denial about climate change is going up, so this idea that if we just keep shouting about it, everyone will act... They are not; they are almost resisting acting, because the consequences of acting look so disturbing to people’s lifestyles.

I’m not making an argument for doing nothing, or saying that environmentalists are wrong, but I am saying that the mainstream narrative on climate change is obviously failing.

ML: Aren’t you really just lamenting the world’s obsession with economic growth?

PK: It’s not so much a lament. There is a cognitive dissonance amongst mainstream political and business establishments. At the same time as they talk about wanting to prevent climate change and create sustainable societies, they are also promoting constant growth.

The more growth you get, the more climate change and resource depletion and destruction of the natural world you get. Until you start talking about that, you are wasting your time talking about emissions reductions.

There is going to have to be an economic contraction and a kind of social contraction if we are going to survive within the resource limits that we’ve got.

I’m not suggesting that environmentalists have forgotten that, but the mainstream environmental debate around climate change is pretending that that is not the case.

ML: If you aren’t talking about deindustrialising society and a ‘back to nature’ kind of society - what are you envisaging?

PK: If you don’t have cheap fossil fuels it’s very hard to have a transport system that is based on cheap cars, hard to see how you can run a retail system based on superstores and lots of lots of transportation, and industrial agriculture.

I would expect to see far more economic localisation, less easy transportation around the country and the world, far fewer cheap consumer goods. Serious climate change will result in climate refugees, which will result in a whole set of new political tensions as well.

There will be political action, but it will be too little too late. I think it means becoming more self-sufficient, learning to live with less and learning to reconnect with communities and places.

Some people have said, 'you’re being despairing and we need hope'. I don’t think the mainstream green narrative is actually giving people hope, I think it is quite despairing. I think that if you start saying 'OK, we are going to have to face a depleted future, but let’s start thinking about it together, interestingly', that seems to give people more of a sense of hope, and ability to act, rather than wishing for the impossible.

ML: So the future of the green movement means...


PK: We need to move towards an ecocentric view – this is not a new concept but it needs to become more central to the movement. A lot of environmentalism now still acts as if humans are the point of the planet and that we are saving the planet to save people.

ML: There is the argument that market forces are so powerful that in order to save nature, we’re going to have to bring it into the economic fold and put a price tag on it.

PK: I can see the appeal, but I think it is a short term appeal. The market is far more likely to destroy nature than to save it. We seem almost incapable of judging anything anymore unless we bring it into the market system –whether it’s our schools, hospitals, or the woods we walk in, or the sky – I think that is far more threatening than it is liberating.

ML: Tell me about your latest project, dark-mountain.net

PK: [It's] a cultural response to the way we see the future going – to say that part of the reason that we’ve reached this point as a culture is that we’ve been telling ourselves particular stories about who we are – the founding myths of our culture are all about endless progress, human centrality, the idea that we can control the natural environment and that we are separate from nature, that our technology will save us.

We need to start writing as if the world is going to become a very different place and expressing through various cultural forms. We are trying to gather a movement of people who see the world in that way. The plan is to start publishing a journal next year.

Paul Kingsnorth is a former deputy editor of the Ecologist.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's consumer affairs editor

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