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Posted on 9 Apr 2020 in Non-Fiction | 3 comments

PAUL KINGSNORTH Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Reviewed by Kurt Johnson

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In this collection of essays Paul Kingsnorth charts the changes in the environmentalism movement and proposes a radical new step.

By 2020 the environmentalism movement has become fully corporate. It has finally found a three-piece suit that fits and now comfortably glides through the innards of glass-clad CBD towers, or waits calmly by the filter coffee and danishes at annual general meetings, business card poised, ready to network. It has been doing business now for some time – green credentials and sustainability are its stock and trade. It is more Bezos than Greta.

This sentiment echoes throughout Paul Kingsnorth’s  collection of essays Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. The author establishes his credentials in the title essay where he recounts, with the fervour of an old revolutionary, being on the barricades as a young man and blocking a six-lane motorway that would connect Southampton to London. He clearly misses the solidarity of a shared purpose:

Down there, under the lights and behind the curtains, there is no chance that they will ever understand. We are on our own.

How the environmentalism movement changed from hessian-clad wookie to well-oiled spiv came about when its appeal changed from a purely ethical argument to an economic one. This demanded a rhetorical pivot where data supplanted poetry.

Beneath the language lurked a change of underlying assumptions. Where once environmentalism celebrated nature and recognised its intrinsic value, now it pledged allegiance to the economic articles of faith – humans as the centre of the universe and progress as steady and inevitable. Such contortions warp the soul. Conservation, for instance, was reinvented as green capital, its worth defined by its ability to cleanse the water and air required for humans and their industry. It is this Faustian deal that has led us to today: a green brand that is ubiquitous on a planet that has never been in worse shape and is declining fast.

Many environmentalism books published today are dry enough to be taken with a tall glass of water. This is because the environmentalism movement has been overtaken by climate change activism and its existential case to prove global warming. And thus their pages are increasingly filled with graphs and tabulated data, giving them the look of economic texts. Kingsnorth makes the point in the essay ‘The Quants and the Poets’:

Almost by accident, mainstream green politics and argument threw out most of the alternative stories it grew up with, like a child throws out his old teddy bears: that was then, but this is now, and now we are Grown Ups. This approach has left environmentalism in a position where its advocates now find themselves unable to do anything but argue about which machines they would prefer to use to power an ever-growing industrial economy.

He rejects such a route, opting instead for bristling, evocative prose and naked sincerity. This is a brave move because he is fully aware that it opens him up to accusations of sentimentality, fuzziness or elitism. But he is sure of his point – that, like poetry, nature has a beauty and worth that cannot be captured in the mechanical language of business and data science – to try and do so would simply miss the point.

The finest essay in the collection is ‘Dark Ecology’. It begins innocently with Kingsnorth’s discussion of cutting grass with a scythe rather than a lawnmower. By putting a fossil fuel-powered engine between us and the earth, we lose our connection to it. A lawnmower dumbly rolls over the ground but a scythe requires the operator to work in silence, with the intense meditative concentration that allows them to see every furrow, hear every rustle. While this description may seem inane, it is Kingsnorth’s decision to let the simplicity speak for itself that wins the day.

Throughout Confessions you can almost hear the scoffing from the peanut gallery, but Kingsnorth stands resolute. He freely references poets and musicians from Bukowski to Leonard Cohen, and is happy to claim forgotten poet Robinson Jeffers as his forebear. All this is done without an ounce of irony or self-consciousness and over the course of the essay you have the sense that here is a man baring his soul, making deeply unfashionable points and standing against the machine of progress in a battle he fully expects to lose. And that is a sobering spectacle to witness.

So too with ‘Rescuing the English’, where he takes a break from discussing man’s rape of nature and moves towards interpreting England on the brink of Brexit. Kingsnorth does not shy from conjuring up a deeply romantic nation – a place of eternal twilight abounding with misty moors and deep woods where shadows pool. His point is that place is intimately linked to history and identity. It is important, Kingsnorth claims, no matter what the rootless urbanites say. Such a perspective is deeply unfashionable at a time when ‘England’ is evoked only in the spittle-speckled, tea-ringed pages of the tabloids. And of all the four countries in the UK to get misty-eyed about – England.

It is at moments like these that you sense an overlap between the conservationist and the conservative in Kingsnorth. Although he would reel back from such a description – he is about as far from the loutish UKIP defender or the Oxbridge toff as you could imagine (although closer to the latter) – he is conservative in the sense is that he is just not convinced by all the modern noise: the smartphones, the superhero movies, the chain stores, the overwhelming homogeneity in which Piccadilly Circus looks like Red Square looks like Kathmandu. Locality is precious, nature is precious, and both are becoming lost beneath the rolling tank tracks of the machine that is global capitalism.

If there is a central idea that every essay points towards in Confessions it is that our new technological age isn’t the great deal we were told it was. Kingsnorth believes we have handed agency to this machine that is controlled by nobody but influences everything. It is hard at work uprooting something instinctive and elemental that connects people. It has become our master and is so dominant in every arena that it has hijacked our language and politics, so that even to rail against it feeds it more.

Kingsnorth’s solution? Withdrawing.

Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a ‘defeatist’ or a ‘doomer’, or claim you are ‘burnt out’. They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that ‘fighting’ is always better than ‘quitting’…

Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance — refusing to tighten the ratchet further — is a deeply moral position.

At this moment ‘Dark Ecology’ hits its dramatic height – the simplicity and originality of what the author proposes is like deafening silence. It admits total defeat and suggests a strategic retreat to continue a local-scale guerilla war.

Kingsnorth’s story continues beyond the pages of Confessions into his movement Dark Mountain, which he broadly calls ‘Uncivilisation’. Its manifesto is included in the book’s epilogue. It is a vision as dark and lonely as alighting alone at a moss-encrusted rural English train station on a winter evening and being left standing, watching that last train vanish into the distance. But it is here, after countless retreats from false consolations, that Kingsnorth’s ruthless intellectual honesty is finally satisfied.

Paul Kingsnorth Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist Faber & Faber 2017 PB 304pp $32.99

Kurt Johnson is a journalist and author of The Red WakeA hybrid of travel, history and journalism, Random House, 2016.

You can buy Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


  1. Beautiful review of a fascinating book and person. The faustian pact is indeed problematic. For me, Greta did manage to drag the discussion away from eco-modernist “solutions” into a (more appropriate) cry of a new generation. That was until we slammed into the Virus.

  2. Yes indeed, Tracy and Kurt. Greta has given us a fresh unsullied direction to appeal against the nature crushing juggernaut. Even as we spend our Easter in isolation with pictures of the wet markets in our minds, of wild animals crammed into tiny cages, stacked on top of each other waiting to meet their brutal death which is the cause of this pandemic, there is a big argument for withdrawal.
    Great review.

  3. Have not read the book,but the review is so beautiful to make me to buy and read the book