A debate with Paul Kingsnorth
Published in the Guardian, 18th August 2009
Sitting on the desk in front of me are a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of
each graph is identical: it represents time, from the years 1750 to 2000. The
graphs show, variously, human population levels, CO2 concentration in the
atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper
consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction
and the totality of the gross domestic product of the human economy.
What grips me about these graphs (and graphs don’t usually grip me) is that
though they all show very different things, they have an almost identical shape.
A line begins on the left of the page, rising gradually as it moves to the
right. Then, in the last inch or so – around the year 1950 – it suddenly veers
steeply upwards, like a pilot banking after a cliff has suddenly appeared from
what he thought was an empty bank of cloud.
The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy which
is bringing the world very swiftly to the brink of chaos. We know this; some of
us even attempt to stop it happening. Yet all of these trends continue to get
rapidly worse, and there is no sign of that changing soon. What these graphs
make clear better than anything else is the cold reality: there is a serious
crash on the way.
Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is
screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers
at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I
include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement –
are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the
present. We still believe in ‘progress’, as lazily defined by Western
liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or
less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better
lightbulbs) if we can only embrace ‘sustainable development’ rapidly enough; and
that we can then extend it to the extra three billion people who will shortly be
joining us on this already-gasping planet.
I think this is simply denial. The writing is on the wall for industrial
society, and no amount of ethical shopping or determined protesting is going to
change that now. Take a civilisation built on the myth of human exceptionalism
and a deeply-embedded cultural attitude to ‘nature’; add a blind belief in
technological and material progress; then fuel the whole thing with a power
source which is discovered to be disastrously destructive only after we have
used it to inflate our numbers and appetites beyond the point of no return. What
do you get? We are starting to find out.
We need to get real. Climate change is teetering on the point of no return while
our leaders bang the drum for more growth. The economic system we rely upon
cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon that growth in order to
function. And who wants it to be tamed anyway? Most people in the rich world
won’t be giving up their cars or holidays without a fight.
Some people – perhaps including you – believe that these things should not be
said, even if they happen to be true, because saying them will deprive people of
‘hope’, and that without hope there will be no chance of ‘saving the planet.’
But false hope is worse than no hope at all. As for ‘saving the planet’ – what
we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines on
mountains and shouting at ministers, is not the planet but our attachment to the
Western material culture which we cannot imagine living without.
The challenge now is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines
and global summits but to start thinking about how we are going to live through
its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.
All the best,
Like you I have become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash you
predict. For the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic,
exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to
make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions
based on evidence. But it is waning.
If it has taken governments this long even to start discussing reform of the
Common Fisheries Policy; if they refuse even to make contingency plans for peak
oil, what hope is there of working towards a steady-state economy, let alone the
voluntary economic contraction ultimately required to avoid either the climate
crash or the depletion of crucial resources?
But the interesting question, and the one that probably divides us, is this: to
what extent should we welcome the likely collapse of industrial civilisation? Or
more precisely: to what extent do we believe that some good may come of it?
I detect in your writings, and in the conversations we have had, an attraction
towards – almost a yearning for – this apocalypse, a sense that you see it as a
cleansing fire that will rid the world of a diseased society. If this is your
view, I do not share it.
I’m sure we can agree that the immediate consequences of collapse would be
hideous: the breakdown of the systems that keep most of us alive; mass
starvation; war. These alone surely give us sufficient reason to fight on,
however faint our chances might appear. But even if we were somehow able to put
this out of our minds, I believe that what is likely to come out on the other
side will be worse than our current settlement. Here are three observations:
1. Our species (unlike most of its members) is tough and resilient.
2. When civilisations collapse, psychopaths take over.
3. We seldom learn from other people’s mistakes.
From the first observation, this follows: even if you have somehow hardened
yourself to the fate of human beings, you can surely see that our species will
not become extinct without causing the extinction of almost all others. However
hard we fall, we will recover sufficiently to land another hammer blow on the
biosphere. We will continue to do so until there is so little left that even
Homo sapienscan no longer survive. This is the ecological destiny of a species
possessed of outstanding intelligence, opposable thumbs and an ability to
interpret and exploit almost every possible resource – in the absence of
From the second and third observations, this follows: instead of gathering as
free collectives of happy householders, the survivors of this collapse will be
subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This
will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be
a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances
are approximately zero. The human and ecological consequences of the first
global collapse are likely to persist for many generations, perhaps for our
species’ remaining time on earth. To imagine that good could come of the
involuntary failure of industrial civilisation is also to succumb to denial. The
answer to your question – what will we learn from this collapse? – is nothing.
So this is why, despite everything, I fight on. I am not fighting to sustain
economic growth. I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated
catastrophe which follows from it. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft
landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be,
we must keep this possibility alive. Perhaps we are both in denial: I because I
think the fight is still worth having; you because you think it isn’t.
With my best wishes,
You say that you detect in my writing a yearning for apocalypse. I detect in
yours a paralysing fear.
You have convinced yourself that there are only two possible futures available
to humanity. One is what we might call Liberal Capitalist Democracy 2.0. Clearly
your preferred option, this is much like the world we live in now, only with
fossil fuels replaced by solar panels, governments and corporations held to
account by active citizens and growth somehow cast aside in favour of a ‘steady
The other future we might call McCarthyworld. McCarthyworld takes its name from
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road,which is set in an impossibly hideous
post-apocalyptic world, in which everything is dead but humans, who are reduced
to eating children. Not long ago you suggested in a column that such a future
could await us if we didn’t continue ‘the fight.’
Your letter continues mining this Hobbesian vein. We have to ‘fight on’ because
without modern industrial civilisation the psychopaths will take over, and there
will be ‘mass starvation and war’. Leaving aside the fact that psychopaths seem
to be running the show already, and millions are suffering today from starvation
and war, I think this is a false choice. We both come from a Western, Christian
culture with a deep apocalyptic tradition. You seem to find it hard to see
beyond it. But I am not ‘yearning’ for some archetypal End of Days, because
that’s not what we face.
What we face is what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a
‘long descent’ – a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I
talked of in my first letter, which will bring an end to the all-consuming
culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure ‘some good will come’ from
this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.
Our civilisation will not survive in anything like its present form, but we can
at least aim for a managed retreat to a saner world. Your alternative – to hold
onto nurse for fear of finding something worse – is in any case a century too
late. When Empires begin to fall, they build their own momentum. But what comes
next doesn’t have to be McCarthyworld. Fear is a poor guide to the future.
All the best,
if I have understood you correctly, you are proposing to do nothing to prevent
the likely collapse of industrial civilisation. You believe that instead of
trying to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources, we should let the
system slide. You go on to say that we should not fear this outcome.
How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil
fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy? How many would survive
without modern industrial civilisation? Two billion? One billion? Under your
vision several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.
I find it hard to understand how you could be unaffected by this prospect. I
accused you of denial before; this looks more like disavowal. I hear a perverse
echo in your writing of the philosophies which most offend you: your macho
assertion that we have nothing to fear from collapse mirrors the macho assertion
that we have nothing to fear from endless growth. Both positions betray a
refusal to engage with physical reality.
Your disavowal is informed by a misunderstanding. You maintain that modern
industrial civilisation “is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.” Anyone
apprised of the Palaeolithic massacre of the African and Eurasian megafauna, or
the extermination of the great beasts of the Americas, or the massive carbon
pulse produced by deforestation in the Neolithic must be able to see that the
weapon of planetary mass destruction is not the current culture, but humankind.
You would purge the planet of industrial civilisation, at the cost of billions
of lives, only to discover that you have not invoked “a saner world” but just
another phase of destruction.
Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement
might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For
the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes
of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them and have the
global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them.
Faced with your alternative – sit back and watch billions die – Liberal
Democracy 2.0 looks like a pretty good option.
With my best wishes,
Macho, moi? You’ve been using the word ‘fight’ at a Dick Cheney-like rate. Now
my lack of fighting spirit sees me accused of complicity in mass death! This
seems a fairly macho accusation.
Perhaps the heart of our disagreement can be found in a single sentence in your
last letter: ‘you are proposing to do nothing to prevent the likely collapse of
industrial civilisation.’ This begs a question: what do you think I coulddo?
What do you think you can do?
You’ve suggested several times that the hideous death of billions is the only
alternative to a retooled status quo. Even if I accepted this loaded claim,
which seems designed to make me look like a heartless fascist, it would get us
nowhere because a retooled status quo is a fantasy and even you are close to
admitting it. Rather than ‘do nothing’ in response, I’d suggest we get some
perspective on the root cause of this crisis – not human beings but the cultures
within which they operate.
Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that
humanity is separate from something called ‘nature’, which is a ‘resource’ for
our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that
technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they
tell us that we are in control.
This craving for control underpins your approach. If we can just persaude the
politicians to do A, B and C swiftly enough then we will be saved. But what
climate change shows us is that we are not in control, either of the biosphere
or of the machine which is destroying it. Accepting that fact is our biggest
I think our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, whilst
creating new myths which put humanity in its proper place. Recently I co-founded
a new initiative, the Dark Mountain Project, which aims to help do that. It
won’t save the world, but it might help us think about how to live through a
hard century. You’d be welcome to join us.
Yes, the words I use are fierce, but yours are strangely neutral. I note that
you have failed to answer my question about how many people the world could
support without modern forms of energy and the systems they sustain, but two
billion is surely the optimistic extreme. You describe this mass cull as “a long
descent” or a “retreat to a saner world”. Have you ever considered a job in the
Ministry of Defence press office?
I draw the trifling issue of a few billion fatalities to your attention not to
make you look like a heartless fascist but because it’s a reality with which you
refuse to engage. You don’t see it because to do so would be to accept the need
But of course you aren’t doing nothing. You propose to stiffen the sinews,
summon up the blood, and, er … “get some perspective on the root cause of this
crisis”. Fine: we could all do with some perspective. But without action –
informed, focused and immediate – the crisis will happen. I agree that the
chances of success are small. But they are non-existent if we give up before we
have started. You mock this impulse as a “craving for control”. I see it as an
attempt at survival.
What could you do? You know the answer as well as I do. Join up, protest,
propose, create. It’s messy, endless and uncertain of success. Perhaps you see
yourself as above this futility, but it’s all we’ve got and all we’ve ever had.
And sometimes it works.
The curious outcome of this debate is that while I began as the optimist and you
the pessimist, our roles have reversed. You appear to believe that though it is
impossible to tame the global economy, it is possible to change our founding
myths, some of which pre-date industrial civilisation by several thousand years.
You also believe that good can come of a collapse that deprives most of the
population of its means of survival. This strikes me as something more than
optimism: a millennarian fantasy, perhaps, of Redemption after the Fall. Perhaps
it is the perfect foil to my apocalyptic vision.
With my best wishes,