Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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6 Mar 2014

Paul Kingsnorth on living with climate change.

Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth wrote recently of the floods that have hit the UK, arguing that they represent the beginning of “a gradual, messy, winding-down of everything we once believed we were entitled to”.  It’s 2 years since he announced “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching. I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity, and all the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I’m leaving, I’m going out walking”. What has he been doing since then, and what does “living with climate change” mean to him?

To start with, here’s the podcast in case you want to listen to our conversation while shampooing the dog or pruning your gooseberries.  

The first book of yours that I ever read was Real England which I really enjoyed and had the subtitle ‘The Battle Against the Bland’. Does the fact that you’re about to move to Ireland mean you think that’s a battle that we’ve lost?

I’m moving to Ireland for a number of reasons, not least because for a long time I have wanted to have a little bit of land that I can work on and live mortgage-free and educate my kids at home, and it’s just not something that I can afford to do in England any more. Interestingly, in Britain these days, if you want to live simply, you’ve mostly got to be rich.

Paul KingsnorthIn terms of losing that battle, what we’re looking at all over the western world is this continual advance of the corporate economy and it’s wiping out a huge amount of colour and character all over the place. In terms of what’s happened in England since I wrote that book, it’s a mixed bag actually. If you go back and read Real England now and start to look at a lot of the campaigns that I wrote about, you’ll find that some of those campaigns were actually won by the people who are fighting them, and a lot of the things they were talking about saving have been saved. You’ll also find that others have been lost.

But the general picture, certainly, is that this march of the monoculture is going on. How long it will go on for, in the face of climate change and peak oil and all the other things that we all talk about is a moot point, but certainly we can see what direction we’re moving in at the moment.

The piece you wrote a couple of years ago, the Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist which generated a lot of debate and discussion, you wrote “it’s all fine, I withdraw, I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching. I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity, and all the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I’m leaving, I’m going out walking”.  Where have you been since then? Can you give us an update on your walking?

That was a piece that I wrote at a point where I felt that environmentalist had hit a wall. I still feel that, actually, and I stand by what I wrote in that essay, What it also is, is a very personal essay. It’s not necessarily a piece of advocacy. I’m not suggesting anyone else should be doing the same thing. But I think the green movement has hit a wall and I think there are certain things that can’t be achieved and that’s not being talked about, which was why I wanted to withdraw from my involvement in it.

A lot of the journey that’s been happening since then has taken me up and down the dark mountain, if you like. It’s taken me to a point where I’m a lot more comfortable with not being in control, and I’m a lot more comfortable with not knowing. And I feel that broadly speaking as a society, as a civilisation, we tend to think we’re in control of what the future’s going to look like, or that we ought to be or that we can be, and I think that applies to a lot of environmentalism as well. We’re just not. We’re living in a country which is currently flooding in many parts of the landscape, and we have absolutely no control over that. We have no control over the direction our climate’s now going in. We can’t even reduce the emissions that we continue to pump up into the atmosphere at an increasing rate.

Yet we labour under this illusion that if we can come up with the right plan we can sort things out, and we can’t. Once you accept that, you walk off into this strange wilderness in which you’re not in control of things. I’m exploring this territory in which we’re faced with an enormous change in the way that we live and an enormous change in all the assumptions that we base our lives on, and we can’t really get a grip on where things are going. It’s an unsure place to be. I think we need to have a lot more honesty about exploring those unsure places that we’re finding ourselves in. We’re moving into this age of really radical change and collapse and we’ve no idea where we’re going to be going or how we can keep a grip on the way that we live.

Over the years, I know with the Dark Mountain camps and some of the writing, there’s been overlaps and links between the Dark Mountain movement and Transition or people involved in Transition. How have you observed or thought about the relationship there? What’s in common and what’s distinct between them, do you think?

I’ve noticed a lot of Transition people involved in Dark Mountain, a lot of them kind of at the heart of the project actually. I think what the projects have in common is that they are both open to the reality that I’ve just been talking about, of this future in which things are going to change whether we like it or not. This path that our culture is on at the moment isn’t going to continue, and a different future needs to be prepared for in different ways.

There are obviously differences as well. Transition seems to be a much more practical engagement with the on-the-ground stuff. Dark Mountain is really an artistic project, it’s a writers’ and a creators’ project I suppose in the broader sense of the word. We produce books and we produce art and we hold events which feature music and all sorts of creative responses, and we’re talking about trying to reimagine the stories that we’ve told ourselves on a creative level. So there’s an obvious difference there.

The similarity between them is that they’re both responses that seek to, I think, have a realistic assessment of what’s possible and what isn’t, and often in the mainstream green movement I don’t see enough honest assessment of what isn’t possible. People don’t like to talk about that. I think at this stage, we need to be able to put our hands up and say well here are the things we can’t do, how do we live with that. I think as a culture, we’re very bad at doing that.

Within the more mainstream environmental movement, where does that inability come from, do you think? They keep telling this story that we can turn it all around, particularly the ones who say and we can still have growth too…

It’s so common.  It’s politics I think. What you’re really looking at here is a movement, if you look at the big green NGOs, they need public support. That’s where they get their funds from and that’s where they get their petitions signed and how they get people to go on their marches. If you look at political parties like the Green Party, they need to get the votes in, which means to some degree they’re going to have to tell people what they want to hear.

Paul Kingsnorth

What people want to hear in a society in which we’re all soaked in material wealth is “It’s all going to be fine for you, you won’t have to give up your nice cars or your houses or your holidays in the sun. We can somehow make those things ‘sustainable’“. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘mainstream’ greens I’ve met or know who don’t really believe that for a minute, but they have to say it because otherwise nobody listens.

We have this cult of optimism in this culture where people don’t want to hear bad news. They just want to turn off. The Greens have discovered this to their cost over the last 50 years. Every time you tell people about climate change or any other horrible thing that’s happened already or is coming along, people just don’t want to hear it. We’ve got this whole global movement of climate change denial now which is an incredible thing really, psychologically. Millions of people out there, busily working away pretending it’s not even happening.

If you’re a mainstream green organisation and you need a lot of people to buy into your message it’s very difficult to give them bad news. It’s very difficult to question all of the stories and all of the assumptions that the whole culture you work in is based on. I don’t really blame anyone for that, you’ve got to work within the barriers that are set for you. But the limitations there I think are very clear and it just seems very obvious to me that you can’t give out any kind of honest green message on a wide scale in a society in which people are as addicted to material prosperity as we are here. It’s just not possible. And that leaves Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and the Green Party and all the rest of them in a very difficult position, an impossible one really.

We’re in a situation where lots of Somerset is under water, Cornwall coastlines are crumbling into the sea, the river Thames is swelling … it’s been extraordinary in the coverage over the last week or two how rarely anybody’s mentioned climate change. Really, really extraordinary.  If you’re in a situation where the impacts are so clear and nobody puts two and two together, is there still a role for you in terms of raising awareness and talking about it?  Is the idea that we can get people to care about this a lost cause?

I think one of the reasons I moved on from green campaigning to the Dark Mountain kind of writing I do now, is I kind of gave up on raising awareness as a useful response. I think that there’s a false assumption within the green movement and within all political movements actually, that if you give people enough information, and you raise their awareness, that that will lead to action. I believed that for a long time, and I can remember in the early 1990s writing about climate change and campaigning on it, no-one else in the mainstream was talking about it, it was just a few greenies.

We all believed that if people knew about this on a big scale then obviously they would act, it’s just so obvious that they would act, isn’t it?  Now they know about it on a wide scale. It’s been on the front pages of newspapers for the last 10 years. Everybody knows about climate change, all the information is out there, and nothing is happening.

And as you say, you can get into this astonishing situation where half the country’s flooding and hardly anyone talks about it. They don’t even ask the questions. No-one in the media even asks the questions. What does it take? I think there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. We assume people are being rational all the time and that if you give them facts they’ll act on the facts. That’s not really what happens. We all make assumptions based on our prejudices and intuitions and then we use the facts to back them up. Call me cynical but I think that’s the way that humans work. I think that’s the way that we all work.

If you start off on the assumption that if you raise enough awareness things will change, I think you’re in the wrong place. My conclusion personally is that the useful thing you can do is keep telling the truth, to keep being honest about what’s actually happening to provide information for people who want to act on it, but also just to hunker down really and get on with doing what useful work you can do at your local level without imagining that you can change the way that society is going, because I don’t think at the moment that you can.

Is there anything that you would march for now?

I think this stuff is really about distinguishing between what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s very simple. I’ve been involved in a campaign to stop a supermarket being built in my town for the last three years. I’ve been involved in that quite heavily because it feels like a winnable battle. It’s not going to stop the march of supermarkets more generally but it might save this small town centre and that seems to be worth doing.

If there’s something specific to be marching against then it’s a good thing. Marching against the Keystone XL pipeline seems like a good thing. That might be a winnable battle as well. But there’s a difference between trying to prevent a particular pipeline or a particular fracking rig or a particular supermarket and trying to change the whole of human behaviour and stop climate change. They’re not the same thing. I think you can win small battles and local battles and I think you can protect what you can protect, and I think you can continue to tell the truth. But if you set yourself up to try and change the behaviour of industrial society, or stop the climate changing or change the direction of material progress then you’re going to be very disappointed as a lot of people have been.

When one takes that step across, when one goes up the Dark Mountain as it were, and accepts that there’s not a great deal that you can do and that the climate is going in a particular direction and that’s just how it is … what gets you out of bed in the morning?

The funny thing is, this was a surprise to me really. People sometimes look at Dark Mountain from the outside and assume it’s very depressing and doom laden. They say “Where’s the hope? Where’s the hope? We want hope!” People have this addiction to hope. They want to be able to hope for things even if there isn’t a basis for it. But I’m finding that since I gave up on false hope and since I gave up having to pretend that we can save things we couldn’t save or stop things we couldn’t stop, I feel a lot better I have to say, because I felt for a long time and I know other people have felt this too, that I was like a priest who didn’t actually believe in the religion I was telling everyone about but felt I had to keep telling them because that was my job.

I get this sense from a lot of green leaders and spokespeople and all the rest of it, they don’t really believe in what they’re saying in a lot of ways. They don’t really believe that the world can be turned around and we can stop climate change and have a peaceful, sustainable development for 10 billion people. But they kind of have to say it because they don’t know what else to say.

But once you stop saying it, and once you stop saying things that you actually believe to be untrue, the alternative is not to collapse in despair. It’s to think – OK, well what can I actually usefully do then? Here I am, at this moment in time. These changes are happening and I’m living through them. What can I usefully do?

Everyone will have different answers to those questions. My answer is I can continue to write in a way which I know inspires and informs some people. I can continue to make my life as low impact as possible. I can have some land and work on it, I can bring my kids up in a way that I consider to be good, and that’s what I do. That seems to be a useful response with the kind of powers that I’ve got, and that will be different for everybody. But once you stop having to pretend that you can do everything, the alternative is to say, well I can do something, what is it? I suppose that’s a great weight off my shoulders.

I suppose for lots of people the idea of giving up on the idea of being able to hold things back feels like an acceptance of something that just feels completely unacceptable really.

I think so, and I think that’s because of our illusion of control. This whole culture of ours, this whole civilisation is built on this illusion of control. It goes right back to the Enlightenment and beyond the idea that we’re going to control nature, we’re going to control the future, we’re going to have a great plan that we’re going to roll out for how civilisation’s going to look. It’s not going to happen. We need to learn to accept, as most traditional cultures have accepted, that we’re not in control of the wider world beyond our culture, and we should learn to let go of some of it.

We’re going through a climate change event now. It’s not the first this planet has experienced by any means. It’s the first one on this scale that humans have experienced. We created it. It’s happening now. The levels of carbon dioxide are higher than they have been for thousands of years. They’re going up at a record rate. That’s not going to turn around and even if it did at this point, the change is coming. There’s no point in pretending that it’s not happening. It doesn’t help anybody. It’s better to be flexible and say well, here we are. Here we are.  That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to prevent things from getting worse. It doesn’t mean give up. It just means that you adjust your expectations, I suppose.

But looking back through history, there have been times when people have mobilised, have made big changes happen. Even the changes of attitude towards smoking in public over the last 10 or 15 years – one can point to examples where people have led, within a relatively short period of time to quite major changes in how we do things.

That’s possible. I’m sure that will continue. You can see that our changes to the environment have been quite rapid over the last 20 years or so. People’s ideas about things as basic as recycling. Even things like flying and driving are starting to change a little bit in countries like this. But it’s not relevant to the scale of the problem. It’s not that it’s not happening, it is happening and will probably happen a lot faster when people make the final connection between climate change and the weather events that we’re having, which I think they will because as this goes on and on and gets worse and worse, people are not going to be able to pretend it’s not happening any more.

I think that will happen, it’s inevitable that people’s attitudes will change and people will do things. People will keep doing things like campaign against fracking, which hopefully will prevent it from happening and that’s all good. I don’t’ want to be critical of it or say that people shouldn’t do it. In the grand scale of things, we are now committed to a big climate change. In the grand scale of things, there’s now a rolling extinction going on which hopefully we can hold back as much as possible, but isn’t going to stop. We’re not getting back to the point we were at 50 years ago. It’s not going to happen.

But that doesn’t mean you’ve lost, you give up, you go home and cry, it just means you adjust to the rolling reality of it. We’re going to have to go with it now. The floods aren’t going to stop coming at this point.

Did you see any of the stuff recently that David Holmgren’s paper Crash on Demand generated?

I haven’t read the post but I’ve seen lots of people writing about it.

His basic argument was that economic growth and the growth-based economy is the thing which is frying the biosphere and pushing us over the edge, and the only way to have any hope of saving that is to deliberately engineer economic collapse because that’s the only way it stops growing, and that actually we would be well advised to put some or all of our energy into actually withdrawing our support from the economic growth model in such a way that we deliberately bring about its collapse.  I wondered what your thoughts were on his approach?

It’s interesting because I think there’s going to be a lot more of this in coming years. You’ve probably seen the rise of Deep Green Resistance as well, that’s another slightly more radical, angry response to this idea that the thing that’s destroying the world is the capitalist machine and therefore you must destroy the capitalist machine.

It’s quite right really. Obviously the thing that’s destroying the world is economic growth. More broadly, the thing that’s destroying the world is advanced capitalism. What you do about that, on the other hand, is another matter. I haven’t read Holmgren’s paper so I can’t really comment on it.

In terms of withdrawing your support from the machine as it were, it seems like a great idea to me. That’s what I’m trying to do myself. I don’t think you’d ever get enough people to withdraw your support from it to crash it, but to be honest I think it’s starting to crash itself anyway. It seems to be completely unsustainable. Again, this is a question of everybody’s individual response to the crisis we’re going through now.

I think everybody’s individual response will be different, and his seems to be, as far as I can tell, quite sensible. Whether it will have the effect that it wants to have, I don’t know but what’s clear from an ethical point of view to me is that this industrial machine is destroying the world. We know that. It seems to be an obvious ethical obligation really to withdraw your support from it and your engagement with it as much as possible.

But of course, the reality is that we’re all stuck in it. Just by being born into our generation in this country it’s almost impossible to completely withdraw yourself. But you can still do what you can do. You can’t predict the future. How many people are going to do that kind of thing? We don’t know. Anything could happen over the next 10 or 20 years. It could be another economic crash, it could be a rapid climate change event and everything could change and everybody’s attitudes could go out the window.

One thing that is exciting I suppose is that we shouldn’t underestimate how quickly people’s attitudes can change when circumstances change. If we had a giant economic collapse, if we had rolling climate change, if we had all this stuff coming at once and making it very very obvious that we weren’t going to keep on going in the same direction then anything could happen. That doesn’t mean we could reverse everything and get back to how it was, but we could have a very very different attitude. At some stage, our intellectual assumption that capitalist growth and progress are the only game in town is going to collapse. How soon that will be, I don’t know, but it will happen because it so obviously is undermining even its own assumptions, and when that happens then things start to get really interesting, but in what direction we have no idea at all.

Is there not a case that actually what’s needed now more than anything is people who have a real understanding of the situation and the context and where we find ourselves actually putting themselves forward for positions of leadership, whether at the local or the national scale, and actually stepping up rather than retreating? Is this not a time for the people who have spent so many years working on this stuff to actually try and step across and take some kind of leadership at this point?

My feeling on that is that we’re living in a decaying system and trying to take leadership roles within a decaying system is not going to lead to anything. You can’t offer solutions with the same mindset that created the problems and look what’s happened to the Green Party.

You can spend 50 years trying to get seats in parliament. If you try and stand for leadership roles or step up to leadership roles in the society we’re in at the moment, you will automatically get sucked in to that society’s assumptions about growth and progress and all the rest of it.

I think it’s more interesting.  I think we’re in what’s called a “pregnant widow moment” at the moment, where the old king is dead and the king’s wife is pregnant and we don’t have a new king yet and we’ve no idea what the new regime’s going to be. We’re strangely in transition actually between the old world of growth and progress and material assumptions of wealth and a new world which is going to see much more environmental chaos and much more poverty and instability but also probably completely new forms of politics and philosophy and all the rest of it, that are going to come from the changes that we’ve already initiated. We don’t know what shape they’re going to take.

I think the most useful role for people who you might call leaders, anyone who’s been working on the stuff we’re talking about is to actually keep doing what they’re doing to stand apart from things.  Not to necessarily become leaders in what’s going on at the moment. But to stand apart from things, to keep cranking out the radical ideas, to keep thinking about how things are changing and to stay nimble and to improvise, not to get bogged down by ideologies or get stuck in party systems or any of that stuff. But just say “things are changing radically. The useful stuff to do at the moment is to protect what we can protect and keep developing our ideas as things happen”.

I think there will be more and more appetite for people who have radical views or what we see now as radical views over the next decades because so clearly the thing is coming apart and the answers are not going to come from within, so actually standing outside and maintaining a clear focus and continuing to expose what’s wrong and trying to come up with alternatives, I think is the most useful thing to do at the moment.