by nathan thanki
One busy day in March I received an email from a biology, conservation and ecology professor at COA. Attached to the message was a link to an article by Paul Kingsnorth from the February edition of Orion Magazine, entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” I opened the link to have no more than a glance, but instead spent the next hour and a half reading, re-reading and reacting to the piece. I badly wanted to do something more—to engage with the issues and that professor—but it was finals week, so I bit my tongue. Now it’s May and we’re into the final mile of the road to Rio, where perhaps the largest gathering of its kind awaits in the form of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development and the parallel, alternative, space of the People’s Summit. And I no longer felt able to ignore the elephant in the room, the storm cloud one sees gathering in articles like Kingsnorth’s: disillusionment to the point of despair. Defeatism.
Although put forth as a sort of misunderstood eureka moment, Kingsnorth’s declaration of withdrawal—from the human world, from environmentalism, from politics, from the struggle—is not something new. Ever seen “Into the Wild”? In a very confusing and confused piece in Orion and in a lengthy email exchange published on Grist, Kingsnorth lets rip: the natural world has been irreversibly tanked by our rapacious species; the wild things have all been killed, captured and sold; the deep, dark, non-human night has been sullied with our fire and neon; “environmentalism,” which used to be about saving polar bears, is now obsessed with carbon reductions and heavy green industry. While I found myself sympathising, and agree broadly with the analysis of many anti-civilization thinkers—sharing their frustrations with the mainstream environmental movement, with the advance of greenwashed capitalism, with industrial civilization, even with our species itself—none of those sympathies or shared sentiments could assuage the sheer disappointment I felt upon opening that email and reading that article.
Given that he has withdrawn from that world, I’m not expecting to see Paul in Rio Centro, arguing over whether or not the UNEP should be a specialized agency or not. That’s fair enough, I suppose; policy is dry and frustrating and he was never interested in it anyway. But what disappoints me is that I also don’t expect to see him in Flamengo Park at the People’s Assembly, talking with peasant farmers and indigenous groups about how to best resist the commodification of nature.
One of the biggest expectations of Rio, from everyone, is around the issue of the so-called green economy. Basically, the capitalist proponents of a green economy expect that the UN will institutionalise private, corporate control over natural resources in order to protect them (presumably from poor people that depend on them). The anti-capitalists, marginalised people, and advocates of hand-in-hand environmental and social justice (which Kingsnorth dismisses as bizarre) expect the same. They’re mobilizing to try and fight such an outcome, and doing so regardless of how much angst and despair white middle class British ramblers feel.
Are such movements and organisations pushing the “environmentalism” that Kingsnorth now rejects? Are they environmentalists “in order to promote something called ‘sustainability,’” which Kingsnorth understands as “sustain[ing] 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”? Are they washed up Trotskyites, or hyper-capitalists, or what? No, but in fact it doesn’t matter, for they—you, me, he, she, we–are all tarred with the same brush: human. For all his talk of humanity being natural, of us being the environment, Paul does hate us some. That confused tension screams off the page. It’s hard to respond to. Like the purposefully useless sense of despair created by such an attitude, the tension is debilitating. Non-answers abound: eco-socialism is blasted for alienating “95%” of the population (whereas withdrawal alienates 100%), politics is blasted for being the machine through which humans destroy nature, not used as a tool through which to harmonise people and people, people and nature.
As I said, I truly empathise with his confusion. It is hard to discern genuine efforts to protect people and planet from genuine efforts to subvert the justice struggle. It is hard to enjoy having an ‘anthropocentric’ worldview, knowing our species destructive capabilities, just as it’s hard to hold an ‘ecocentric’ worldview if you are human. However, being concerned with human equality and human rights and human justice doesn’t mean we don’t value nature, don’t want to protect it just because it is there (look at how Bolivia is gaining support for their ‘rights of Mother Earth’ campaign). It doesn’t mean that sustainability is about preserving industrial civilization in its current form. Perhaps that is the UN definition, but it’s not mine, nor most of the environmental movement. Going to Rio—walking into the lion’s den that is the institutional approach—is terrifying and confusing. Watching 194 countries haggle over words is always exhausting. After all, they’re just words, does it really matter which ones and what order? Does it really matter that we are there given that all governments, not just Western ones, play the nation-state power game, ignoring the long term effects on people and nature?
Of course it does.
I look to Rio with little but dread and fear. Positive official outcomes? Hah. We all expect the worst, and we all expect a struggle. It is the way of environmental politics. We all afford ourselves moments of despair, when we give up ‘hope’ (however it is defined) and accept the futility. But then we start again, much as Albert Camus described Sisyphus rolling and re-rolling his rock up a hill. This world is a political world, like it or not, and it is the abuse and appropriation of politics that drives the destruction that causes such suffering. If we love humanity and if we love the rest of nature, our millions of species strong family, then we must engage politics as a priority, in order to defend ourselves and our home.
So to Paul: this is not a dismissal or platitude, but a genuine outstretched hand. Come to Rio, even if just in spirit. Challenge the process, contest the space, take back power from corporate control, from corruption, from anti-naturalists. Don’t abandon it, don’t abandon us. If you see a picture of the world that is repulsive, that is rife with hollow words and hate-filled hearts, don’t withdraw! Re-draw! And do it with elegance and creativity.