Pushcart 2014: Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (non-fiction) from Orion, Jan/Feb 2012

"Oak tree (after Mondrian)," by James Ravilious (1997)

“Oak tree (after Mondrian),” by James Ravilious (1997)

I became an “environmentalist” because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to songbirds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed…. we are killing them to feed ourselves and we know it and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.

During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, some left-leaning political commentator (I don’t know which one, I listen to so many) mentioned how odd it was that progressives were fighting to give insurance companies a guaranteed market; he said something like, “Remember, this isn’t what we wanted; we wanted single-payor, but this is what we settled for.”

I think Kingsnorth is pointing out the same thing about “greens.”

I remember the first Earth Day; I was in high school, and Mr. Shipman (the English teacher everyone had a crush on, as he resembled Robert Redford and had a nice smile) gave a little speech and had us read nature poems. A few years later there was the hole in the ozone layer, then the rain forests, then desertification, then spotted owls and polar bears and and melting ice caps and global warming and climate change and carbon footprints and who knows what the next phase will be. But Kingsnorth is probably right; it won’t be about polar bears or spotted owls; it’ll be about how to make money in the least environmentally disruptive way, because as a species, we’ve declared our priorities, and money trumps spotted owls.

Today’s environmentalism is about people. It is a consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots and, at the same time, with an amusing irony, it is an adjunct to hypercapitalism: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge: a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions: a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections. It is our last hope.

I coud mention that those who mock the spotted owl and the ozone layer forget that those campaigns were successful; both have survived, and people and the economy survived as well. I suppose it could be argued that, in lieu of turning trees and chemicals into gold, ubercapitalists have now turned the economy into something resembling a slave state, where a select few with certain skills necessary to running the plantation (the engineers and scientists) will be brought “into the house” but the others will be put on the brick-wall-treadmill of “work-hard-get-ahead” that no longer applies, and told it’s their fault; that we’ve now officially decided that job creators, not job doers, are the ones who matter, and if they run out of job doers, well, there’s always more of those to be found.

But this blog is about reading, about writing, about style and technique, about why a piece (this one is available online, but you’ll need ore mined from the earth and beaten into submission in the form of a computer, probably by low-wage workers in some country you couldn’t locate on a map; you’ll need civilization-generated electricity and an internet connection; or you’ll need the pulp of a felled tree) was selected for Pushcart.

I could find fault fairly easily. It strikes me as repetitious; the quotes I pulled say the same thing over and over (which is probably why they struck me strongly enough to select them). The catchy title strikes me as almost click-bait. Bug, or feature? After all, whose attention might be caught: someone looking to delight in the fall of a green-clad footsoldier? What would someone like that think of this essay? Would he see himself in there, would he see his own practices and priorities? What about the legislator proposing tax cuts for wind “farms”? Would she get angry, defensive, or would she think, hmmmm, or would she just put it aside as something that won’t help her get re-elected and is therefore unimportant?

But it’s got heart. In fact, this essay is a love story. It’s boy-meets-nature, and in the tradition of love stories, boy finds he must decide: listen to his parents, or go with his heart?

But this is fine—the dismissal, the platitudes, the brusque moving-on of the grown-ups. It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.

Kingsnorth went with his heart. Will this be Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson – or Romeo and Juliet? We’ll have to wait for the next installment to find out.


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