From ecocide to ecocentrism: a response

Paul Kingsnorth’s personal-radical farewell to green-movementism - the essay "Confessions of a recovering environmentalist" - generated a rich and earthy response. Andrew Dobson, the pioneer of “ecologism” and of green political thought, questioned the key choice the essay offered. Now, Paul Kingsnorth develops his case that “ecocentrism” is the practical heart of good human society.
Paul Kingsnorth
14 September 2010

I have been reluctant to write any follow-up to my essay “Confessions of a recovering environmentalist” (16 August 2010). There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most fundamental is that while the essay is a very personal reflection on a long involvement in, and then estrangement from, a political movement, it is not a piece of “political” writing. That is to say that it offers no easy answers, and perhaps no answers at all, to the problems it identifies. It is not intended to. And having walked away from modern environmentalism I’m reluctant to start offering up my opinions about its future. Somehow, I feel I ought to have more urgent things to do.

And yet I want to reply, briefly, to Andrew Dobson’s response to my essay (see “Ecocentrism: a response to Paul Kingsnorth", 17 August 2010), for two reasons. The first is that his response seems such a textbook example of why the game is up for modern environmentalism. And the second is that, as he surmises in his piece, Dobson’s writings have, in the past, been a source of inspiration for me.

Green Political Thought was indeed an important step in my development as a young environmentalist. Assuming it hasn’t been watered down too much in the years since I read it a decade or so back, I would still say it is required reading for anyone involved in green politics or thinking. I don’t know of any other book by a British author which makes such a clear distinction between the compromised, anthropocentric mess which mainstream environmentalism has become and the ecocentric politics which it could, and ought to, be.

The wrong trail

This is why it is so disappointing, for me at least, to see Andrew Dobson effectively now throwing in the towel. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain, having written at such length about throwing it in myself. But while I have abandoned modern environmentalism at least in part because of its open, even aggressive, anthropocentrism, Dobson seems to have been drawn towards it for the same reason, abandoning his radical “ecologism” in the process. Like ships in the night, we must have passed each other somewhere on the open seas.

My main emotion when I read this is sadness. Is ecocentrism – “the belief that the non-human natural world has value irrespective of whether it’s useful for human beings or not” -  really dead? Were all those decades of trying to forge a politics which did not have human needs and wants at its centre simply futile? Is “nature” just a luxury commodity for over-sensitive tree-huggers?

It is this last point which is saddest of all. From being “the non-negotiable heart of ecologism” a couple of decades back, ecocentrism has now been relegated by Dobson to a fringe concern. The professor has bought into the common smear, put about for a long time by environmentalism’s utilitarian enemies on right and left, that worrying about “nature” is a fringe concern for the complacent bourgeoisie: less important than determining the ownership of the means of production, or fighting for a minimum wage or women’s equality.

Now, apparently, the fundamental question at hand is “not about nature’s intrinsic value but about the human species adapting to a long era of low-energy living”’ Even writing that sentence takes me back to the similar words that appeared in my original essay. Here we are again: it’s all about the carbon! The carbon, the oil, the climate change, the energy-generating technologies: all the things that utilitarian environmentalism feels so comfortable discussing. Let’s not talk about an ecological web of which humanity is just one part. Let’s avoid Gaia, or even Darwin. Let’s not discuss the intrinsic value of the other-than-human world. Let’s not concern ourselves with wondering how the world would look if we endeavoured to view it from outside the human bubble. This is foolish, naïve. There is no time for it. We have to talk about where industrial society gets its energy from.

I have often wondered how and why discussions about “energy” came to colonise environmentalism so completely. The best answer I can come up with is that in the energy-rich minority world that we live in, a threat to our fuel-supplies seems a threat to life itself. Recent generations have become so dependent upon cheap electricity flooding in from unseen places that the thought that it might cease to do so inculcates sheer terror. We panic, and devote all our energy to worrying about where our next drop of power will come from. A threat to our abundant supplies of cheap fuel seems to press the same buttons as a threat to our children or our health. It’s deep and archetypal because it undermines what we value most: the notions of progress and abudance upon which our cultural mythos rests.

Well. It may pain a lot of modern greens to hear it, but energy technologies are not the most important issue in the world. Most humans on Earth today are already living in a “low-energy society”, as did most of the humans who ever lived. We’ll be living there soon, in all probability, and we’ll have to deal with it. I suspect it will be a lot easier to deal with than we currently think, bloated as we are on the drug of cheap oil and terrified of going cold turkey. People adapt very quickly.

How we live there, on the other hand, will be crucial. “Low-energy societies” are not necessarily any less ecologically destructive than high-energy ones; or, rather, while the scale of the destruction they can cause to other-than-human nature will be smaller, if the cultural attitude that causes it is not lessened, the problem does not go away.

The change within

It seems to me that the root cause of the current global ecocide is not our technology but our values. Many low-energy societies in pre-fossil-fuel history ravaged vast areas of Earth. Others lived in reasonable balance with their environments. The difference was their attitudes. Societies which saw human industry and human society as something entire of itself tended to devastate the non-human world, to which they assigned no more than a utility value. Societies which saw human industry and human society as part of something much larger, which had “intrinsic value regardless of its usefulness to humans” did a lot better.

So here, for what it is worth, is my suggestion: that ecocentrism, far from being a side issue, needs to be “the non-negotiable heart” of  good human society. It is practical because it prevents us from destroying ourselves, as we are currently doing. It is ethical because it prevents us from destroying everything else at the same time, as we are also currently doing. And it is in a whole different league from discussions about which particular technology we use to run our computers. If perpetual motion were invented tomorrow, and a carbon-free industrial industrial society went forward with the same attitudes to the planet that it has now, we would not be any better off in the long term, and neither would the non-human world. Ultimately, is not our machines which are committing ecocide: it is our attitudes.

With that, I see that my brief response is in danger of becoming another essay, and I see, too, that the sun is shining outside, and I am reminded that ecocentrism, if it means anything, surely involves getting your boots dirty.

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