It was heartening to see the variety of recent Earth Day activities that mark our annual recognition of the planet. But even as this tradition has grown since 1970, a creeping sense of doom also greets each passing year. We’re moving passed the tipping point to stave off worse case scenarios for climate change, carbon emissions are higher than ever, unsustainable consumption continues unabated, and the list goes on.
And so it is with little surprise that readers of Orion magazine should find an essay such as that published by long-time environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, who declared simply, “I withdraw. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching. … I am going to go out walking.”
Kingsnorth’s essay is prompting an important conversation among those who care about the earth, perhaps because he’s uttering a hypothesis that few really want to hear—namely, that our civilization is crumbling and bringing our planet down with it. He suggests that all that remains to do is to get out and connect with the few wild places that endure, and to get ready for what comes after what we now call civilization. Is he right?
Together with collaborator Dougald Hine, Kingsnorth founded the Dark Mountain Project. In the project’s manifesto, they write that we “imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. . . . And over it all looms runaway climate change.”
For Kingsnorth, there can be no political solution because our political and economic systems are driven by the falsehood that all this can be changed by mere tinkering with the system while still promoting endless expansion. In the meantime, we push a notion of sustainability that, in his words, means “sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.”
So what do we do now, especially if Kingsnorth is right? What if our well-intentioned efforts are ultimately rooted in a delusion? Do we just walk away, maybe with an occasional Earth Day clean-up thrown in to ameliorate episodic guilt?
Perhaps it will take a more catastrophic collapse to bring about the kinds of changes necessary to save us—and the rest of the planet—from ourselves. But even if such is inevitable, I also believe we cannot walk away from our moral responsibility at least to go down swinging. Our fate, after all, is not an all or nothing matter. Real human and ecosystem suffering can be minimized if we continue to work as if we could succeed. We can, for example, work to elect better rather than worse political leaders; we can fight the growing corporate domination of government; and we can encourage among ourselves new experiments in living, such as depending primarily on local agriculture. We can listen to what indigenous peoples could teach us about traditions of living in kinship with nature. We could even follow through on the promises we make to ourselves actually to change fundamentally the way we live, even if doing so doesn’t save the world. Moral duties do not dissolve, merely because the failure of others to fulfill them entails a bad outcome. Even better, we might just prove Kingsnorth to be wrong.
But even if things are really as dire as he suggests, we still need to foster the imagination, ideas, and leadership that must emerge when environmental realities force themselves on us and we are left to rethink what it means to live as human beings in relationship to the earth. Errors of imagination can only be corrected with imagination.
If Kingsnorth is wrong about withdrawing from our work as activists, he is right that we should at least just get up and walk: walk away from the self-deception that continues to convince us that sustainability can be achieved without more fundamental changes to our politics, our economy, and our ways of life. But more than that: walk literally into a wilder world, where our hearts and minds will find the most fertile ground for reimagining our connection to the earth. There we may also discover that sense of place we will need to take whatever other steps we can manage in the struggle ahead.
Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.