Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Lie of the Land: Does Environmentalism Have a Future in the Age of Trump?“, published in last Saturday’s Guardian, has elicited some interesting responses, for interesting reasons.
Kingsnorth is a well known novelist and environmental public intellectual, a back-to-the-land “dark ecologist,” former deputy-editor of The Ecologist (which for decades played an indispensible, if politically ambiguous, role in global environmentalism), and co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project. The article includes a public admission of his pro-Brexit stance.
Some of the reactions I’ve seen to it are typified by novelist Warren Ellis’s “Poisonous Little England” rejoinder, where Ellis equates Kingsnorth’s eco-localism with a
“creepy Heideggerian dasein that… actually means being in a familiar landscape surrounded by lovely white people with no connection to the wider culture, preferring localism over multiculturalism and not being disturbed in your eternal idyll in the black forest (or on the dark mountain) by any of those nasty foreign types.”
Whoa. Let’s start from the beginning.
Kingsnorth’s starting point is revealing: he situates his thinking within the half-century history encompassing both the growth of modern environmentalism and that of neoliberal globalism. This is significant: it’s much better than those histories of environmentalism that avoid political economy altogether, but not as good as those that convey the complexities of environmentalism’s various relations with pro-wilderness conservationism, feminist, anti-racist, and other social justice movements, anti-nuclear and anti-toxics movements, and the anti-colonial thrust of the last half-century in most of the rest of the world. The latter, especially, appears sorely missing in his analysis.
Kingsnorth’s personal story is one that many environmentalists I know (including myself) can relate to:
“This sense of the uniqueness of places, and of the cultures that sprang from them, had been what pushed me towards green activism in the first place. From a young age I had an inchoate sense that much of the world’s colour, beauty and distinctiveness was being bulldozed away in the name of money and progress. Some old magic, some connection, was being snuffed out in the process.
Then he continues:
“It must be 20 years since I read the autobiography of the late travel writer Norman Lewis, The World, The World, but the last sentence stays with me. Wandering the hills of India, Lewis is ask by a puzzled local why he spends his life travelling instead of staying at home. What is he looking for? “I am looking for the people who have always been there,” replies Lewis, “and belong to the places where they live. The others I do not wish to see.””
That Kingsnorth doesn’t immediately recognize the problem here is probably a good part of what irks his critics. Cultures “spring” from places. First, there are places; then, there are the cultures that spring from them. Lewis, who clearly does not belong, is looking for the people who do belong, who stay in their places, who retain the “magic” that the outsider, the traveler, the colonizer, the imperialist, have all lost — the magic of being in their place, where they belong.
This idea that nature shapes cultures, that it both determines and binds them, but that some — scientists, or imperialists, or globalizers — manage to overcome these constraints, either through mastery (the “ascent of man”) or through a “fall” into a lamentably rootless, cosmopolitan modernity (which may amount to the same thing) — is something that political-ecological analysis of the last few decades, with its rich set of theoretical resources including Marxist political economy, feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and so on, has tried very hard to debunk. It is, after all, the luxury of the imperialist to be able to gaze longingly at the “native” and not see his own actions as part of the system of relations they both make up.
All that said, there is something valuable in Kingsnorth’s main question — he calls it (evoking all things primitivist) the “primal question”:
“what does it mean to belong to a place, to a people, to nature, in a time in which belonging is everywhere under attack? Does it mean anything? Why should it matter?”
He argues that “we need to tie our ecological identity in with our cultural identity.” And in indigenous struggles today he sees “a defence of both territory and culture, in the name of nature, rooted in love.”
“Belonging” is a complicated issue, and one that it’s best not to allow the privileged and the powerful to use exclusively for their own purposes. (See my piece on the “metaphysics of organic sedentarism” in relation to one locale, Cape Breton Island, here.) But, no doubt, cultural identity and territoriality are important nodes of struggle, and Kingsnorth’s pinning of blame for environmentalism’s decline on the green bourgeosie, “drinking their Fairtrade organic coffee as they wait for their transatlantic flight,” resonates, even if it’s ultimately shallow and simplistic:
“These days, though, as the Brexit vote demonstrated, green politics is a marker of the globalist class. With their grand ecological Marshall plans and their talk of sustainability and carbon, environmentalists today often seem distant from everyday concerns. Green spokespeople and activists rarely come from the classes of people who have been hit hardest by globalisation. The greens have shifted firmly into the camp of the globalist left. Now, as the blowback gathers steam, they find themselves on the wrong side of the divide.
This is similar to the arguments of the economic leftists, who have raged at the liberal urban elites for missing what’s been happening in Kansas (and, by extension, for being oblivious to the forces that gave rise to Trumpism, Brexit, and the rest). But it glosses over some key differences, including those between neoliberal trade agreements — which privilege the movement of capital at the expense of nations and communities — and global environmental agreements, which, at their best, build up a viable structure of global eco-governance, and emerge out of the power of global civil society — NGOs and local communities working together across borders.
So, posing the question as one between localism and globalism — as if the latter encompassed everything wrong, from capitalist pyramid schemes to pornography, and the former provides the only solution — is simply inadequate. The question is which globalism, and which localism: who gets to cross which borders, write the rules, build the walls, maintain the police forces, fly over them to their golf resorts and tropical pleasure places? To what ends, and for whose benefit?
Kingsnorth is hardly the first to notice that “all that is solid is melting into air” (Marx wasn’t the first either).
“Who can promise the return of that solidity? Not the left, which long ago hitched its wagon to the globalist horse, enthusing about breaking down everything from gender identities to national borders and painting any dissent as prejudice or hatred. Instead, a new nationalism has risen to the occasion. As ever, those who can harness people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity – to a belonging and a meaning beyond money or argument – will win the day. This might be as iron a law as any human history can provide.”