Dark Ecology | Paul Kingsnorth | Orion Magazine
In an essay titled “Dark Ecology” that appears in the latest issue of Orion Magazine, writer Paul Kingsnorth delves into his own thoughts about our increasingly technological society and how we are finding ourselves and the natural environment set on a downward trajectory. In the essay he explains how humans have consistently caught themselves in technology traps where our abilities to exploit resources outstrip the resources themselves. He discusses how the popular “neo-environmentalists”, who believe that the nonsensical “sustainable development” ideal can save the world, have taken over the environmental movement because they can raise more money due to their ability to tell people what they want to hear. They tell us that we can do it all despite the clear evidence that we can’t and that we shouldn’t.
If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.
I share his lack of optimism and despair even though I am as guilty as many of the rest of us for desiring technology in my personal life. I like the gadgets and my middle class lifestyle despite knowing that, in the long run, it is not sustainable.
Of course those who vigorously defend the status quo may find this kind of thinking scary but, to many of us, the status quo is what is scary. There are just too many damned people in the world and they will want more and more until there isn’t anything left.
Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.
31 Responses to Dark Ecology | Paul Kingsnorth | Orion Magazine
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If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive.
Great post, Ken.
My wife and I read Kingsnorth’s article last weekend, and like you were struck by his observations. I came away with a renewed anger at the “neo-environmentalists” who I’ve crossed paths with over the years–people so unlike Ed Abbey or Paul Watson that they make me tremble with rage.
In the end, I always come back to my core mantra: Nature bats last. Saving as the much of the primal wild as possible is all we can do–not for future generations of humans, but for an epoch to come when humans are but a distant memory in Gaia’s dream.
Their is such an attacked on wolves and wildlife now it is unreal,but in the end like sandy did to us in the east,nature will have the last laugh.P.S. Obama is working with what he has,after saying this both sides are still protecting the super wealthy.
I cant buy the despair angle, thats just a way to justify giving up. I have a much upbeat view of the power of nature to be resilient. Every critter goes thru boom/bust population growth, usually impacted after the boom by widespread disease or other catastrophy (like the Black Death for one or the influenza plague of 1917). When 50-70% of us are dead from that inevitable event, the world will be a better place and will renew itself. Think of those pictures of the wildlife at Chernobyl…
“Every critter goes thru boom/bust population growth”
I recently bought a book called “Man in the Landscape” by Paul Shepard at an estate sale. After reading through a portion of it, I realized that I connected with some of the material in the sense that I find myself trying to interpret my connection to the environment, and how that connection relates to my life in general. At the risk of sounding like a sentimentalist, feeling that connection to undeveloped landscapes that I can’t necessarily explain or quantify has probably fueled my own activism more than any specific animal, plant, or mountain range.
I’ve learned that environmentalists are made up of a diverse group of people who have very different ideas of what environmentalism is and isn’t. My beliefs about the path that the “green” energy movement is going down have actually damaged relationships with folks who consider themselves staunch environmentalists.
This article has just codified my beliefs. Recently, I quit a perfectly good job simply because it required the daily, constant use of fume-belching machinery without any consideration that perhaps it could be done better with a simpler and less technologically complex approach.
I have attached a couple of wikipedia links to works of fiction that parallel this line of thought.
I’ve told this story many times:
In around 1979 or so, a very bright young freshly minted soil scientist came to work on the Beaverhead National Forest. We had the same supervisor, and shared quite a few interests, and soon became personal friends, as well as professional colleagues.
At one point fairly early on in our relationship he gave me a document — I don’t remember if it was a press release, an abstract of a professional paper, or what, but as I recall it was authored by a UN agency a few years earlier, in the late 1970s.
In it, the author(s) argued that “Sustainability” on a world-wide scale could happen if, and ONLY if, the world’s human population didn’t exceed 500 million (we’re at over FOURTEEN TIMES that now !), and if there was no great inequality in wealth — if our material wealth was more or less equally distributed (the trend is toward greater inequallity).
If those conditions of limiting human numbers and distribution of wealth were met, the author(s) argrued, the entire human population of the world could enjoy in perpretuity a comfortable Western European middle class life style, as it existed in the late 70s.
We could live on our interest, and not have to dip into the principle. As it is now, we’re spending not only what little interst we’re accruing, but rapidly depleating our principle, as well.
We’re in a state of total collapse. We’re in a period of mass extiction, and of ecological, moral, financial and every other kind of collapse, and too few of us admit it. Or perhaps many realize it, but assume it’s inevitable, and nothing can be done about it, so why not just let the good times roll.
I can’t bear the thought of a world without wild tigers, wolves, or polar bears.
I’m glad I’m old enough so I won’t be around (probably) when it REALLY hits the fan.
I feel sorry for my sons, and I feel guilty for bringing them into this world.
Income inequality is a necessary evil for human beings. We are capable of keeping it in check to a certain degree, but we are completely incapable of maintaining a successful hierarchy that redistributes wealth in a way that some liberals envision. To state that income equality is a requirement is essentially saying sustainability is impossible for the human race, IMO.
However, we are so far from having an honest discussion about population growth that the issue in my last paragraph is more or less moot.
I have heard all of these arguments too – ‘romanticizing’ the past, the earth will adapt, it always does, wind power is the way to go and it won’t harm birds, and if it does it is better than fossil fuels, etc. etc. Except that that the wonderful biodiversity that we know will be gone someday. We keep mindlessly procreating, and limiting the populations of other wildlife as a danger to us or our something or other.
I never had children because I couldn’t ever make up my mind if I wanted to – and now I wonder if I made the right decision, and most times I think I did. I wouldn’t want them to have to face a world without biodiversity, and even worse, the ravages of climate change. I also am glad that I won’t be here to see the worst of it.
Ida: Like you, I decided when I was in my early 20’s not to have children, because I didn’t see much of a future for them, and like you, I think that was the right decision for me. But unlike you, apparently, I became a Buddhist, and now I see all the children as mine, and realize that I will be around to see all of this, because re-birth is unavoidable, and so I’m working on my mind to be of as much service to suffering others as possible. Perhaps I should’ve chosen paganism! In the end, I’m a short-term pessimist (a.k.a. realist) and long-term optimist (Shambhala, baby! The dark forces will consume themselves, and a golden age will dawn – in about 300 years).
I can’t bear the thought of a world without wild tigers, wolves, or polar bears.
Me either. But I think we will see this in our lifetime. When it becomes more important to debate the right to hunt wolves with dogs over their right to exist, it isn’t a very hopeful prospect.
The issues of the decline of tigers, wolves and polar bears are distinctly separate issues – however they are related. As far as wolves, it is solely the actions of us hunting or managing these populations which will determine their existence in the lower 48 and elsewhere. Tigers are losing habitat, and are being poached relentlessly. Polar bears are vitally impacted by climate change since they live in a relatively specific type of environment, but are not hunted as much as the other 2.
Of these 3 animals, I honestly think the PB has the best shot. They have been rapidly altering their behavior and diet over the last 50 years to adjust to their rapidly changing habitat. The naysayers who scream that they will be extinct in 50 years base their statements on faulty scientific research, ignorance and greed (research money). I have witnessed the PB situation first hand over the last 8 yrs, & it’s apalling the lack of ethical scientific behavior by some scientists.
Let’s not miss the point he’s making:
“Is it possible to observe the unfolding human attack on nature with horror, be determined to do whatever you can to stop it, and at the same time know that much of it cannot be stopped, whatever you do? Is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?”
Despair is nothing more than attachment to an outcome in my lifetime, or on my terms. Will there be massive suffering in the near future? No doubt there will be, even the fairly staid International Energy Agency predicts mass mortality and mass migration as a result of climate change. The question is no longer how do we avoid this, but what is the appropriate response? Like the author of this subject article, I have chosen to withdraw at this time, but in a constructive way – continuing my education in a more contemplative way. The best book I’ve found to try to make sense of all this, and to decipher right action, is about to be re-issued in its second edition (after ten years), by Andy Fisher, it’s called “Radical Ecopsychology”. Personally, I think there is a middle way b/t Deep Green Resistance and Neo-environmentalism. I think a new global consciousness is already emerging, by necessity, from the neuronal network we are using right now to communicate like this, one that is replacing the old dualistic world-view of scientific materialism (and the myth of progress through economic growth and accumulation of material goods)with a new non-dualisitic world-view based upon radical interdependence. For inspiration, and ideas, check out http://www.stwr.org and the newly emerging “Idle No More” movement from the First Peoples of Canada. Just two examples of this newly emerging world view. Finally, I was listening to John Trudell recently, and his current perspective is that the problem is too much believing and not enough thinking. He advises people to drop the word “believe” from their vocabulary altogether, and just talk about what you think. Makes sense to me…
I am a realist, I’m afraid. And one of the ‘old school’ greens. I’ve even read an article where the author did not want the name environmentalist associated with her, and yet she still considered herself a green advocate (albeit the ‘new school’). I have already found myself doing the things on the author’s list, as I realize I can only be responsible for what I do to help preserve our wildlife and wild areas in our modern world:
1. One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you.
2. Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong. There is still much remaining of the earth’s wild diversity, but it may not remain for much longer. The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?
Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.
Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.
Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on. The ongoing collapse of social and economic infrastructures, and of the web of life itself, will kill off much of what we value. In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places?
I’m with you Ida–you’ve thought about this a lot. I never had children because I didn’t want to add another ape to the burden already pushing other species to extinction. It sounds harsh, but I think it is somewhat hypocritical to reproduce and still call yourself an environmentalist; but most people are unwilling to make that sacrifice. I think each person should get one child “voucher” that they can use or trade or sell. Beauty is something that has a value and biodiversity *is* beauty. Save as much of it as we can so that when night falls on the human species, there is as much material as possible for new forms to evolve. We shouldn’t just focus on climate, but also habitat loss and fragmentation–they are critical. This is a very dark period for environmentalism.
” but I think it is somewhat hypocritical to reproduce and still call yourself an environmentalist”
OK…let’s slow down and take this a step at a time. Children aren’t a burden, they are an opportunity to make environmentalists (or dictatorial jackasses, or easily deceived consumers, or ethical hunters, or people that just discuss wildlife on the internet). It’s due to our negligence of education that hasn’t allowed a majority of our country to be environmentally aware, and our permitting of our government’s policies that encourage more kids, not the kid’s themselves fault. The economic burden of raising a kid SHOULD be on the parents…it should be painful and require horrid repressive EFFORT, which our government defers to everyone. So now we all pay the price. The sacrifice should come from the parent(s), not the population.
Yes, times have changed a lot – I can’t understand the terms “replacement value” and “population equilibrium” when it comes to human population. 7 billion is still a colossal amount of humanity even if nobody ever brought another child into the world, and our population is expected to top 9 billion by 2050. Even if that is what is called slowing down of growth, and by the time our population does slow, if it ever does, much irreversible damage will have been done, such as extinction of other animals.
It’s strange because I always thought I would go the usual route, get married, have a couple kids. I think you are right tho about how the pendulum is swinging back against the environmental movement, and overpopulation was discussed much more in the more turbulent 60s and 70s. Such a time of great changes in just about every area you can think of, and idealism that you won’t see again. Now there is so much apathy that is why you see our governments, corporations, and financial institutions getting away with just about anything. 🙂
I also shake my head at the amount of children who are brought into the world who have terrible lives and parents that never should have been parents in the first place. People who don’t have kids get called selfish or self-centered, but I think reproduction is an instinct and/or a selfish need in many cases (no offense). That said, I do love kids, but I never felt compelled to have one of my own, nor felt what is called the biological clock. 🙂
Powerful article Ken. Thanks for posting it.
Like Ida, I too find myself already doing the things on the author’s list. The desire started a few years ago.
when I first started reading the author’s article I immediately thought, “hey, he’s ripping off Kaczynski’s manifesto.”
I like to show the first few paragraphs in one of my classes and ask the students to read them and see if they agree or disagree with his ideas. I then explore how he thought he would achieve his goals and if sending bombs thru the mail is the appropriate course of action to achieve his goals.
very interesting stuff…Kaczynski’s a very smart man, crazy, but smart.
Why can’t you baby boomers just all die and go to hell before you finish making my planet into one? You all deserve to die for your selfishness and failure.
Another knee jerk reactionary, always productive.
You might just want to consider a world perspective. One in four humans on the earth is Chinese; one in three is Chinese or East Indian. The biggest population increase in the next fifty years will be in African countries.
Are you really that stupid?
But every child born in America will use probably ten times the resources of each of those children. Child mortality is very high in places like Africa, and longevity is also very short in many areas.
Are you being satirical?? I hope so. If you’re serious, you maybe ought to consider medication or meditation or both.
I’m not sure that I ascribe to the despair notion; there is much about this life that makes me happy. However, I do see the war that’s roils around me. I’ve often thought about the term “consumer”. We Americans are consumers. We consume things. We do this by a process of converting natural resources into stuff and then throw most of that stuff away. We consume more than we make. The balance comes from places like China. China is a nation of providers. They export more stuff than they consume. However, recently, the Chinese people have experienced an awaking of their consumer side. They want the American consumerism model – nice cars, big houses, lots to eat, vacation, free time. The thing that concerns me most about this is that we are now exporting vast quantities of natural resources, such as timber and coal, to China. And most economic models show that trend increasing. Here, on the west coast, there are plans to build export terminals for LNG (liquefied natural gas). Most of the natural gas produced here and in Canada comes from fracking or tar sands – Horrible abuses to our ecosystem and human environment. Its little consolation that we have stripped most of the central American rain forest for our own greed; I suppose it’s China’s turn to treat us like a 3rd world country. Maybe despair is a proper feeling, after all.
“When all is said and done, will each of us be able to say that we lived a life we believed in, conscientiously refusing what is wrong and destructive, exhibiting in our life choices what is compassionate and just? As hope rapidly fails that we might be able to avert the coming ecological collapses, to live a life that embodies our values may be the strongest ethical stance. To do what is right, even if it does no good; to celebrate and to care, even if it breaks your heart.” ~Moral Ground; Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
pg xxii K.Moore & M. Nelson
I remember being a child when my mother gave me two books that shaped much of my outlook about the world. Lester Brown’s “state of the world” and the Population Bomb. These books made a huge impression on me. Ida I think your choice to not have children must have been very difficult. I also think its very honorable given the state of world overpopulation. Coming from large Italian and French families, I love people and family. I found it hard to reconcile my life without any children. But I deliberately chose to limit my family to 1 child. Its something I feel good about. Human overpopulation drives every problem we face today. I like Mtm Mama’s post a great deal…. “When all is said and done, will each of us be able to say that we lived a life we believed in, conscientiously refusing what is wrong and destructive, exhibiting in our life choices what is compassionate and just? As hope rapidly fails that we might be able to avert the coming ecological collapses, to live a life that embodies our values may be the strongest ethical stance. To do what is right, even if it does no good; to celebrate and to care, even if it breaks your heart.” Thanks for posting that. This is why people fight the status quo, despite the labels and name calling that often accompany moves toward change – even when its for the better.
I don’t know if I can claim any great moral choice – it kinda just happened that way for me! But it is what it is – I do love kids though and have a niece and nephews. But I think it worked out for the best. 🙂
Limiting yourself to one or two children is honorable–it drives me crazy when religious people have as many as possible because they feel it is somehow their duty. I think those of us women who grew up in the 1960s-70s have a more serious view on overpopulation because it was actually discussed in public back then. With corporate control of our government, you can be you won’t hear it discussed much again.
Louise & Ida, I am glad you loked the quote from Moral Ground. It is an inspiring book & I do recommend it. I will confess that I am the mother of two girls and the decision to bring them into the world was a serious one. We have talked about population growth on this blog a lot & agree it is absolutely neccessary. Sadly, it is the more educated & proactive “thinking” humans who are having no or less children. Nature will need defenders as long as as humans exisit. I am doing the best I can to raise the next generation of eco-warriors.