Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Discussing “Dark Ecology”

Two weeks ago in Salish Sea News and Weather, I encouraged folks to read Paul Kingsnorth’s essay in Orion Magazine, “Dark Ecology: Searching for Truth in a post-green world.”  It’s long but pretty provocative; it merits some discussion.

Like Bill McKibbon in The End of Nature, Kingsnorth laments our taming of Nature, the defanging of the self-willed Other that conservationist once sought to live in balance with, and replacing this Other with a utility system providing us with goods and services. The first 20 years of the modern environmental movement-- from the first Earth Day to the first Rio Summit in 1992-- were glory days, according to Kingsnorth. The next 20 years, exemplified at the second Rio Conference by non-governmental groups struggling and failing to find a common direction when facing major habitat losses, climate change and world economic downturns, Kingsnorth judges as steps toward the end of our natural world, thanks to our industrial-technological society.

“Progress” is an illusion; the new environmental technocrats, those he calls neo-environmentalists, will not save nature through technological solutions.

Kingsnorth: “If you think you can magic us out of the progress trap with new ideas or new technologies, you are wasting your time. If you think that the usual “campaigning” behavior is going to work today where it didn’t work yesterday, you will be wasting your time. If you think the machine can be reformed, tamed, or defanged, you will be wasting your time. If you draw up a great big plan for a better world based on science and rational argument, you will be wasting your time. If you try to live in the past, you will be wasting your time. If you romanticize hunting and gathering or send bombs to computer store owners, you will be wasting your time....”

Kingsnorth puts forth five things he can think he could do honestly in the post-green world he sees. Briefly: 1. Withdraw from the world; 2. Preserve non-human life; 3. Get your hands dirty; 4. Insist that nature has a value beyond utility; 5. Build refuges

Kingsnorth: “These are the things that make sense to me right now when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from....”

In discussing this “dark ecology,” one reader wrote to me: “I taught an 8-week course on climate change a couple of years ago for the local Catholic Church, through their social justice program.  The Catholic Archdiocese developed the curriculum, amazingly (those Jesuits are awesome). That course taught me just as much as the students who took it.  I came away angry, depressed and then finally resigned to what I believe to be our fate - that the human race is going to become extinct in the next few hundred years, and we will take out most of the rest of the world's biodiversity along with us.  Already, according to EO Wilson, we've eradicated almost 50% of the world's flora and fauna. That doesn't stop me from doing my best to make it be different, but I see all around me the unsustainability of this human-dominated world now. It just changed the way I see things utterly.  There's no way this kind of life can continue.  No way.  First it pissed me off totally, but now, most of the time, I am set free.  I think Gloria Steinem said that, actually:  "The truth shall set you free, but first you're gonna be really pissed off."

I guess I, too, am pissed off if I’m honest about the arc of the last 40 years. I didn’t focus on the environment until the mid-80s having started out in activism against the war machine and organizing around land use and energy politics. What do we have to show for much of the time and effort spent trying to build a constituency that balances humans and wilderness in land use, energy and environment? Too often it is the sad shrug of, “It would have been worse if nothing had been done.” True, but that’s not going to bring back untamed wilderness, Nature as the self-willed Other, I’ve seen lost over and over the last 40 years.  The only times when we notice Nature as the self-willed Other is when the earth quakes, the rivers flood and the seas rise over the shores. And we talk then of engineering and technological measures to keep Nature in her place. Sure, there’s a resilience in Nature because Nature is blindly fecund and will fill every niche when diversity declines. But damn it, I like whales and rockfish and auklets more than cockroaches and jellyfish— and I know what’s called “nature” will be different for my grandkids. It already is from what it was 40 years ago.

I won’t withdraw. I still get too much of an adrenal charge organizing around an issue and mobilizing people for socially redeeming causes. The days when it’s hard to get going are days when it’s clear we too often win a campaign but fail to sustain a culture of change. That’s a hard truth to face: that we need to build the kinds of communities that sustain the broad range of changes that we work towards in health, in food, in energy, in land use, in conservation, in art, in matters of the spirit.

That takes time and effort and that may well be as Kingsnorth concludes a waste of time. I don’t think so, at least I hope not. I think it’s a matter of survival, not saving the world. I’d add “compassion” to Kingsnorth’s “things to do” list:   I will preserve human and non-human life. I will get my hands dirty. I will insist that nature has a value beyond utility. And I will build, if I can, or at least protect, a refuge, a wild place for the self-willed Other.

I’ve had a say here. I invite you to read Kingsnorth’s piece and share what you think.

--Mike Sato


  1. Mike, thank you so much for this thoughtful blog post and for the extra nudge to read Paul Kingsnorth's brilliant article, which I have just now done - contrary to my usual pattern of avoiding any close reading of lengthy online pieces. Both were well worth the time and leave me much to ponder.

  2. Last year I did quite a bit of research about the first Earth Day, in order to give a talk. I was especially struck by how fearful people were then of technology! (But it has not been fear that has so reduced vehicle emissions.) And also by how environmentally horrid it was then - rivers caught fire and kids could not always go out and play. Not many really want to go live back then - just 40+ years ago. So sure - withdraw - but to recharge, rethink, find some balance - and then get back at it and get your hands dirty. Tremendous progress has been made and, despite setbacks, disappointments, and failures, we can recover from quite a bit of damage. People all over the world are going to be so inspired by the Elwha story over the next few years, for example.

    I am coming to believe that we individuals and local groups, that are out in the field making good things happen, do a lousy job of public relations and explaining our results. I bet if I took one page in our local paper, every week, and filled it with short descriptions of the great environmental work going on here, I would never run out of new things to report. Not sure what to do about that lack, but people tend to flock to success and we need to toot that horn of success a whole lot more!

    The soap box is now vacant ... Thank you.