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The Green Man's Burden

By Jack Swallow


As the world heats up, it becomes increasingly obvious that the institutions of capitalism are incapable of reacting equitably to the problem of climate change. Environmental racism, the direct consequence of this inequality, threatens our historically diverse generation’s future. The outlook seems bleak: emissions continue to grow, oil continues to spill, forests continue to fall, and the Arctic ice continues to melt. President Obama has finally taken executive action to limit emissions and lay the groundwork for a sustainable economy, but even this comparatively meager success faces legal challenges and lacks broad popular support. In America, at least, the environmental movement continues to be seen as a peripheral issue.

The movement is, to its great credit, changing. We’ve come a long way from the failure of cap-and-trade, and the challenge to Keystone XL has created new energy. As our generation grows into its role at the head of progressive politics, we’ll have to decide what our brand of green activism will look like. We can continue joining together ecological and social issues in order to present a compelling, inclusive vision of an alternative society. Or we can double down on the homogenous, exclusive, and resolutely marginal environmentalism of the past. Though the movement is taking the former path, for now, we must honestly reckon with the shortcomings of the latter, and, especially, the way it continues to infiltrate the debate.

Take Paul Kingsnorth, a British journalist who recently declared his rejection of environmental activism, was profiled in April in the New York Times. The Times looks at him as a sort of Cassandra, grim but clear-eyed. Kingsnorth frames his retreat in terms of the encroaching reality of climate change, the resulting hopelessness of environmental activism, and his desire to refocus on his artistic inclinations. He had joined the early ’90s protests against road construction at Twyford Down while a student at Oxford, launching a decade of involvement in worldwide protests and anti-globalization journalism. Now he is the founder and figurehead of the Dark Mountain project, a UK-based project to create an artistic response to the ‘age of ecocide’ – our current era of human-caused mass extinction.

Sustainability’s Precipice

Kingsnorth’s essay details two reasons for his retreat; parallel processes which have driven from him the will to continue. The first reason is the success of sustainability, and the second, environmentalism’s growing allegiance to social justice.

He sees “sustainability,” and the idea of a green economy in general, as focused solely on protecting the consumerist world we’ve grown used to. The sustainability narrative, as he describes it, is a ‘minimally ambitious’ effort to protect what’s currently defined as economic progress. For Kingsnorth, economic progress is nothing more than a comforting affectation, and he sarcastically portrays sustainability advocates as defending the world against nothing more than the encroaching horror of the déclassé:

“Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species […] If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and holidaying in Weston-super-Mare and other such unthinkable things.”

Unsurprisingly, this reasoning implies sustainability is a fundamental betrayal of the very foundations of environmentalism:

“To [cut emissions] 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 which environmentalism came into being to protect.”

His point here stems from a more basic critique of the whole concept of industrial civilization – any society which requires the large-scale harvesting of energy is therefore doing unacceptable damage to the environment. This perspective is most clearly articulated by anarcho-primitivist scholars like John Zerzan, and, unfortunately, the Unabomber. (You can read Kingsnorth ponder the Unabomber in this essay.) It goes almost without saying that the ability to ponder dismantling society with clinical detachment requires a certain amount of empowerment.

Shaky Foundations

In the Dark Mountain project’s Manifesto, Kingsnorth attacks the very idea of organized human society, which he sees as the fundamental delusion at fault for our species’ ecologically destructive expansion. Sustainability fails to challenge that delusion – so Kingsnorth sees it as equally toxic. In a debate with Wen Stephenson, he elaborates:

“The last thing the world needs right now is more ‘humanitarians’. What the world needs right now is human beings who are able to see outside the human bubble, and understand that all this talk about collapse, decline and crisis is not just a human concern. The main victims of the disaster we have created in the name of development are not humans, they are the other lifeforms we are pushing into extinction by the day and the year […] I can’t give myself to this supposed [sustainability] movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping.”

The pathology, Kingsnorth is trying to convince us, isn’t certain rapacious aspects of civilized society. It’s civilized society itself. Sustainability is an attempt to preserve technological society, and it is this technological society which he would like to amputate.

Though both Kingsnorth and primitivist scholars share a rosy picture of ‘post-civilizational’ society, there are two main differences. First, primitivists don’t think industrial society is worth keeping, primarily because of its negative impacts on human life. As the above quote shows, Kingsnorth is completely unconcerned with human life – instead, he is wholly focused on non-human life.

The second difference is that primitivists have historically been stymied by the difficulty of mapping a route from our current world, filled with seven billion people and counting, to their idealized world, where the abolition of complex technology could feed at most two billion. This gap is widely acknowledged to be an unresolved issue, and continues to be an important focal point for most primitivist theorists, who propose a wide variety of mechanisms or institutions that work to shrink population without war, starvation, or tyranny. Instead of adding or referring to this corpus, however, Kingsnorth’s logic twists into itself, and frequently comes out inverted.

“The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to.”

This astounding passage, written earlier in his debate with Stephenson, attempts to respond to Stephenson’s invocation of humanitarian concerns by flipping Kingsnorth’s entire position on its head. Carbon emissions are no longer harbingers of the age of ecocide, and humanity has nothing to lose but its YouTube, and its ‘numbers’ – doubtlessly more of the latter for the societies with little of the former. If humans can survive, and nature will bounce back, it is unclear what Kingsnorth himself is even lamenting. What remains clear is his lack of concern over the method by which the human population will be drastically reduced.

“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.

Our civilisation will not survive in anything like its present form, but we can at least aim for a managed retreat to a saner world.”

The idea of a ‘managed retreat’ continually reappears in Kingsnorth’s writing, (the above passage appears in a Guardian debate) always leading to ‘a saner world.’ The ‘saner world’ is, of course, what Kingsnorth’s storytelling project implicitly aims to influence, and what he believes the environmental movement was originally grounded in. Though Kingsnorth imagines his work to be exposing novel, poorly explored ideological territory, the concepts he articulates are disturbingly familiar in certain parts of the globe.

The reality is that human societies have experienced ‘managed retreats’ from social boundaries several times over the past two centuries. In fact, it was the official policy of Western imperialism to create these crises, repeatedly and intentionally, arguably until the present day. And these occurred as a direct response to the resource shortages Western society faced.

The Retreat Managers

When European industry faced a rubber shortage that threatened to attenuate the newborn Industrial Revolution, the Belgian crown crushed the myriad societies of the Congo basin and met demand. When Soviet industrialization, intended to put society on par with the West, required increased agricultural exports, wheat was withheld from the Ukraine and millions starved or were forced into cannibalism and murder. Just a few years later, when the UK faced food shortages threatening its ability to fight a world war, it stole that grain from India, and an estimated 4.3 million people died. And a few years after that, when the accumulated dissension threatened to overturn British colonial domination, they simply pulled up stakes and fled, cleaving families, towns, and whole cultures in two and pitting them against each other with a poorly drawn partition agreement that resulted in near-instantaneous warfare and long-lasting resentment.

Kingsnorth and his associates constantly plead that ecocide won’t be like Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. And they’re right, as far as England is concerned. The West has always had methods of managing systemic social crises, and these methods have always involved offloading any consequences onto the backs of young people and people of color. The people most at risk of social devastation from climate change don’t live in Twyford Down. They live on the Ganges Plain. That the current age of ecological devastation occurs in today’s interconnected world doesn’t protect them from environmental racism. Kingsnorth’s beloved England is as unlikely to experience “McCarthyworld” as it is likely that the rest of the world will.

Anarcho-primitivism, and the modern environmentalism Kingsnorth is so “exhausted” and “disappointed” by, both acknowledge these realities. Most progressive activists do. They recognize that political and social power can be used to insulate the West from the worst disasters. They know that if the world is suddenly forced to support only two billion lives, there is no question which two billion it will be. Therefore, they find it important to construct an alternative social and political system (call it democracy) that accounts for both the billions of lives and the billions of species at risk. Young activists influenced by Occupy Wall Street, in particular, have been leading the way in fusing the intimately connected fields of climate justice and social justice.

Of course, these goals are exactly what drove Kingsnorth out of the movement in the first place. In ‘Confessions’, he acidly denounces what he calls “the colonization of the greens by the reds”:

“Green politics was fast becoming a refuge for disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travellers 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.”

The association of environmentalism with the broader “leftist” project is the second development which drove Kingsnorth’s decision to withdraw. His environmentalism is founded on “a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world,” and is completely incompatible with social justice. Though he is right to point out that we should feel connected to nature, his effort to portray social-environmental activists as faddish emigres rapidly disintegrates into farcical hyperbole. In ‘Confessions’, he highlights their apostasy:

“Suddenly, sustaining a global human population of ten billion people was not a problem at all, and anyone who suggested otherwise was not highlighting any obvious ecological crunch points but was giving succour 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 non-human world; it was fat cats and bankers and cap’lism.

As it so happens, the ‘real issue’ actually is fat cats and bankers and cap’lism. And the real victims aren’t middle-aged white Westerners who can afford to withdraw to the bucolic countryside and teach their children to scythe. Climate change and ecocide are consequences of Western imperial overreach, and like all consequences of Western overreach, they will be unceremoniously dumped on the shores of the global south like so many used T-shirts. Perhaps the Western social system will collapse afterwards, as well. But only afterwards.

Clouded Visions

Kingsnorth’s reasoning is contorted because he scrupulously avoids honestly reckoning with the social consequences of the environment – even going as far as to denounce the entire concept of ‘social consequences,’ as in the above passages. His gaze passes resolutely over the heads of those who see climate change as an existential threat, rather than an inconvenience that might knock out their Twitter. The billions whose corpses will pave the way to his ‘saner world’ are quite literally beneath his notice, irrelevant to his “occasional sneaking desire to see it all crashing down.” Like Mountbatten in India, he is only marginally conscious of the devastation contained within the phrase, “managed retreat.”

In a way, this myopia makes his argument perhaps more palatable than some earlier environmentalists, if less honest. Environmentalism has long harbored a strain of social callousness. Pioneering environmentalist Garret Hardin (of The Tragedy of the Commons fame) proposed in his essay ‘Lifeboat Ethics’ that Westerners allow the global poor to die in wars and famines to return the human population to its ecological limits. Though roundly criticized, he went on propagating similar ideas for the rest of his life. Many environmental groups also spent decades wrestling with anti-immigration activists within their own ranks. Anti-immigrant environmentalists blamed foreign minorities and their large families for urban sprawl, smog, and pollution, and explicitly intended to keep them in what they politely termed a “low-consumption lifestyle.” Even the Sierra Club only became a pro-immigrant organization last April. Anti-immigrant environmentalists have been exiled to the relatively powerless Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), which continues to participate in the “greening of hate”. The rhetoric of “population control” remains present more generally, however, and continues to carry a whiff of racially-inflected disdain for the comparatively fecund global south.

There are important differences between Hardin’s and CAPS’ callous subordination of the interests of people of color and Kingsnorth’s greeting of those interests with studied silence. But both serve to contract the boundaries of environmentalism, restricting its appeal to a minority of a minority. Both oversimplify the true nature of climate change, engaging in the delusion that all humans are equally at fault, and will share equally in the consequences. They are both complicit in depriving environmentalism of its largest and most directly interested support base – the young and poor who bear the burdens of ecocide. They both alienate possible supporters with their hostility or indifference to their interests or agency. Both spring out of a kind of imperial mindset, seeing environmental protection as the privileged domain of elite activists, magnanimously safeguarding the wonders of nature from the savage, unappreciative masses.

Millennial Opportunities

So it’s no accident that large majorities of people outside the Anglosphere are clued into the threat of climate change. It should also be unsurprising that members of our generation are less likely to see themselves as environmentalists, yet increasingly concerned about actual environmental issues. We no longer have patience for the seized-up identity politics of green and deeper green. And we have even less patience for grandiose, indiscriminate denunciations of all society. Instead, we can see that racial and environmental justice are, as Mychal Denzel Smith says, two sides of the same coin.

Because the truth really does lie within those “hip and largely unexamined concepts” Kingsnorth decries. Capitalism created the framework that drove fat cats and bankers across the globe in search of labor and resources to hoard. Newly enriched, they used their wealth and power to force communities of color to live in the contaminated hellholes they built, while they withdrew to the good land. Then they realized that they could never let anyone from those communities speak up about what had been done to them, so they tried to silence them with hate, violence, and propaganda. As a result, power and knowledge were decoupled – those who knew of the damage done were kept from power, and those with power shut their doors to any knowledge that might contradict their worldview. These processes aren’t restricted to class, or race, or nature – they’re the root stock that branch into many forms of exploitation and devastation. And this is why real change is only possible when each issue is joined together in a united front.

Millennial activists are particularly well-positioned to present a united front – as the most diverse American generation in history, we have the strongest familial and fraternal connections with people living in the global south, on the front lines of climate change. We have decades ahead of us, where we’ll come into direct contact with the consequences of today’s emissions, and we’ll be paying the increasing costs of every delayed year. We’ve stopped pigeonholing climate change as a niche issue only for people who identify as environmentalists, and started seeing it for what it is – a totalizing phenomenon that will exacerbate existing forms of racial, social, and international exploitation.

The trail has been blazed by many organizations, but most recently energized by activists from Power Shift and especially Occupy. Already, young activists are winning campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns, and launching national lawsuits against federal climate inaction. The future of environmental activism looks like these campaigns – local and global activist movements seeking to dissolve boundaries rather than emplace them. Instead of acting as moralizing green evangelists, today’s young activists are moving with the grain. We’ve already begun moving decisively away from the divisive politics of greens past. We need to make sure we never look back.

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Jack Swallow

Jack works for municipal government in California.

Catch up with me @jswallow3.




August 04, 2014

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