Environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth and his Pagan-Christian Spirituality
Paul Kingsnorth is a former green activist who believes that the environmental movement has gone wrong. An interview with him appeared on Dutch television channel VPRO (tegenlicht series). Watch it here (or click here for PDF with background information in Dutch; or read the article by Frank Mulder on his website here):
Kingsnorth’s analysis of many current sociological attitudes towards the environmental crisis is similar to an analysis from a viewpoint inspired by René Girard or Slavoj Zizek, although the latter two wouldn’t fully embrace the conclusion proposed by Kingsnorth. All quotes by Kingsnorth in the discussion below are from the interview in tegenlicht.
First, Kingsnorth describes the myth of progress as the religious story we use in a secular society (oh, the paradox!) to make sense of the way we should behave and act in the face of the current crisis:
It seemed to me for years that the notion of progress is the religious story that we tell ourselves in western civilization. It’s the story that everything will keep getting better, because it just has to. And the more I look around me, the more I think that we don’t really know how to deal with the possibility that that might not be true.
According to René Girard, myths are stories that societies tell themselves to make a distinction between (violent) acts that are taboo (in order to avoid a crisis) and (violent) acts that are allowed to present a solution to crisis situations. The latter acts are often directed at people who are perceived as bringing about the crisis. Not surprisingly, punishing those people or removing them is believed to offer a solution to the crisis. As a myth, the story of progress identifies the so-called ‘monsters’ responsible for the crisis. At the same time, the story of progress justifies a noble ‘fight’ against those monsters: activism. Paul Kingsnorth says:
Activism is predicated on finding an enemy. So you find the bad guys, and then you go out and you campaign against the bad guys in any number of different ways.
Following René Girard, Slavoj Zizek argues that Judeo-Christian tradition gradually dismantled the sacred myths of archaic religion. The story of Christ’s Passion takes the universal pattern of mythology and criticizes it from within. The Gospel reveals that the myths of archaic religion are based on an ever recurring lie: the ones who are presented as ‘monstrous people’ in the religious stories that societies tell themselves to justify the sacrifice of those people, are really innocent or no more guilty for the crisis than other members of the society. In other words, the ‘monstrous people’ are actually scapegoats, which means that their sacrifice can no longer be justified.
The revelation of the scapegoat mechanism as the cornerstone of archaic religion also implies that a crisis situation can no longer be interpreted as ‘the wrath of gods who need sacrifices to be appeased.’ If the violent force of disruptive crisis situations can no longer be transmitted to a so-called sacred realm that would be responsible for those situations, then there are mainly two possible outcomes: or people will take responsibility for their own share in a crisis situation and refrain from further (activist) fighting, or they will become part of an ever more intense ‘endless fight’ that occasionally comes to a temporary halt with the creation of scapegoats. Paul Kingsnorth also points to the disappearance of the realm of the sacred. His ideas on the consequences of this disappearance are similar to the ideas of Zizek and Girard:
We don’t have a religion in the broad sense of the word. But more than that: we don’t have a sense of anything that’s greater than us, that we have to bow our knee to, that we have to humble ourselves before – whether it’s a god or a goddess, or the divinity of nature itself. We don’t recognize those terms really. We see them as antiquated. We see them as old-fashioned and backward and reactionary. Part of the myth of progress that we believe in is the notion that we’re evolving beyond religion. […] It’s been a long journey for me to realize that if we don’t have anything that we believe is above us, then we become destroyers.
Paul Kingsnorth, as many of us, clearly is a child of a culture that is affected by the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. Kingsnorth criticizes the secular religion of progress that, not unlike the myths of archaic religion, tries to identify so-called ‘monsters’ we should fight against in order to save ourselves. We are ourselves part of ‘the bad guys’, Kingsnorth says:
But what if you’re the bad guy? What if you are the one on the airplane, you are the one driving the car, you are the one using the central heating, you are the one doing the things that are destroying the planet? Which you are! And I am, and everybody watching this is, right? And that’s not a blame game. That’s not anyone’s fault. We’re just born. We’re just living our lives. But by being born into this world, we are part of the problem that we are creating.
Apart from the similarities, maybe the biggest difference between archaic religion and the current secular religion of progress, which is often reduced to ‘economic growth’, lies in their assessment of human desire. Archaic religion tried to keep human desire in check by a system of prohibitions and rituals, often resulting in a structure of society that is hierarchical in principle: as a subject, you couldn’t just desire what belonged to the king, or your parents, or your neighbor. Mimetic (i.e. imitative) desire was strictly regulated. Today, however, society is not hierarchical in principle. We can imitate each other’s ambitions and desires because we are all ‘equal’. In principle, everyone can run for president.
In economic terms, the myth of progress turns into a system that generates ‘scarcity’ by creating ever new demands in order to ensure ‘economic growth’. From an economic viewpoint, human beings have to keep on desiring, which of course leads to a culture of consumerism. This, in turn, has a devastating effect on the environment. Like René Girard, Paul Kingsnorth argues in favor of a kind of spiritual control over greed (which can be understood as a variation of mimetic desire):
What do you think the problem is with this society that we’ve got to this point? I don’t think it’s a technological problem. I think it’s a cultural problem, even a spiritual problem that we’ve got in our relationship with the rest of life, in our relationship with our own desire and our own greed, and our notion of what we mean by progress – which is usually very narrowly defined. To me, there’s a kind of spiritual emptiness at the heart of it. We don’t really know what relationship we want to have with the earth. Okay, maybe you can fuel your capitalist growth society on solar power instead of oil. But you’ve still got the same problems in terms of the world that you’re eating, the amount that you’re consuming, the values that you have, the individualism, the kind of digital narcissism that we have as a culture. It’s not a healthy culture we live in.
In the end, Paul Kingsnorth believes that a type of revived archaic religion, some sort of animism or neo-paganism, might provide the means to regain control over those desires of ours that are destructive and violent:
And the conclusion – if there is a conclusion, maybe it’s just a step on the road –, is: if there’s going to be any future for the kind of culture we’re in or whatever it turns into, it’s got to be in finding some sense of the sacred in nature itself. It’s got to be going back to or going forward to some almost pagan or animist sense of the divinity in everything: the gods in the sea, the gods in the stones, the spirits of the air. I don’t know how you would put it. But if you can’t recognize this web of life that we are part of is anything more than just a resource that you think you can understand and harvest, then you’re doomed.
René Girard would agree with the call to humility and with a greater realization of our possibilities and limitations as ‘human animals’. However, he would not argue in favor of a restoration of archaic religion. At the most, from a Girardian point of view one could argue in favor of a transformation rather than restoration of archaic religion. In any case, also Kingsnorth interprets the violent consequences of the disappearance of a respect for ‘the sacred’ as ‘human violence’ (see higher: “It’s been a long journey for me to realize that if we don’t have anything that we believe is above us, then we become destroyers.”). The ancients would see the violence as a consequence of a lack of respect for ‘the sacred’ as ‘the wrath of the gods’. The Gospel reveals that violence as human violence.
Human beings not only have to come to terms with their own violence, apart from their ability to love. They also have to deal with the cruelty of nature, apart from its beauty. Moreover, apart from being children of nature, human beings are also children of a vocation that is not merely defined by nature. Some people call that vocation ‘grace’.
Paul Kingsnorth formulates the reality of grace in his own way:
Once you drop from your shoulders the self-imposed burden of having to save the world from everything, you can kind of breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Ah, okay, now what can I actually still do?’ For me it comes down to the work you have to do on yourself. What values have you got? What sort of person do you want to be? How can you use the few skills you have got to do what you need to do? […] Whatever it is that you have the skills and the ability to do.
P.S. ON ACTIVISM
On social media (especially in certain Facebook groups) several people pointed out that not every form of activism can be reduced to scapegoating. Rebecca Adams, for instance, commented that “telling the truth about oppression and resisting it is not automatically scapegoating.” And she added, “it’s ridiculous for instance to name Dr. Martin Luther King’s very real nonviolent activism as merely looking for an enemy.”
I fully agree with the statement of Rebecca Adams and I believe Paul Kingsnorth would as well. However, the context wherein Kingsnorth makes his claim on activism is quite particular: it is about an activism that does not question the status quo as such. It is not about an activism that wants to change or transform “the system” but about an activism that wants to “repair” the system. As such, this type of activism is a fight amongst “oppressors” themselves; it is not a struggle by “victims” against “oppressors”. In short, it is a fight over victimhood, in the sense that people are saying of themselves, “Well, we are not guilty of this crisis, we’re really the victims of the people that control the system…” The reality in this context, of course, is that we are all more or less responsible for maintaining “the system”.