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Have We Lost the Plot with Sustainability?

I recently re-read a favourite essay of mine by the author Paul Kingsnorth. (I’d also highly recommend his and enthralling novel The Wake, written in an ‘updated’ Old English. It’s a wonderful novel to read aloud).

The title is of course controversial. But Paul isn’t anti-environment, he has instead become anti-environment movement. This is, after all, a man who taught himself to use (and sharpen) a scythe.

A man for whom:

“All of this – the downs, the woods, the rainforest, the great oceans and, perhaps most of all, the silent isolation of the moors and mountains, which at the time seemed so hateful and unremitting – took hold of me somewhere unexamined.”

I bring up Paul’s essay for two reasons. First, because Paul has a critique we need to hear about our sustainability and environmental programs. And second, because Paul doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, he recognises his own paradoxes and hypocracies, and because he holds himself above no one.

On Paul’s critique. It is that we have replaced a love of the environment with graven idols, with plastic copies. It is not born of love, but of utility.

“We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world… We are environmentalists now to promote something called ‘sustainability’… What does this curious, plastic word mean?… It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ of the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.”

I cannot help but hear Dostoyevsky: “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.”

This is the challenge to us. That we have replaced a love for the environment with a love for utility. It is the same old equation that led us here, Blakes’ hellish machines:

“But they are harder to find now, those spirits. I look out across the moonlit Lake District ranges and it’s as clear as the night air that what used to come in regular waves, pounding like the sea, comes now only in flashes, out of the corner of my eyes, like a lighthouse in a storm. Perhaps it’s the way the world has changed. There are more cars on the roads now, more satellites in the sky. The footpaths up the fells are like stone motorways, there are turbines on the moors and the farmers are being edged out by south-country refugees like me, trying to escape but bringing with us the things we flee from. The new world is online and loving it, the virtual happily edging out the actual. The darkness is shut out and the night grows lighter and nobody is there to see it.

It could be all that, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably me. I am 37 now. The world is smaller, more tired, more fragile, more horribly complex and full of troubles. Or, rather: the world is the same as it ever was, but I am more aware of it and of the reality of my place within it.”

But of course, there is no easy answer. Paul doesn’t offer one. This isn’t a mindless criticism to “Do better!” There are no easy answers.

The point isn’t to self-flagellate or wallow in despair. Because, again, Paul has no grand answer. He tends his garden. He swings his scythe. He seeks to more truly and intimately love the world around him.

This is the challenge I hear. It’s not a condemnation of our sustainability, regenerative or other program. But it is a whisper from the woods to not descend into utilitarianism. To not fall into that old trap of only seeing nature as a resource to be mined – just more sustainably this time.

And in that challenge, I hear possibility – and hope.

“You see, it turns out that I have more time than I thought. I will follow the songlines and see what they sing to me and maybe, one day, I might even come back. And if I am very lucky I might bring with me a harvest of fresh tales, which I can scatter like apple seeds across this tired and angry land.”

You can read Paul’s essay here.

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