I have just been reading Paul Kingsnorth’s, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (London: Faber, 2017). I found it very challenging. What Kingsnorth is trying to say, it seems to me, is that the environmental movement has been taken over by the spirit of the age (he calls it ‘the Machine’) which is essentially technological, rationalistic, and ‘progressive’. It is also too functionalist. Nothing is wrong with the system, it claims, it just needs tweaking a bit. As a result the Greens are not any longer having a significant impact. They appear to be doing well – there is plenty of talk about – but in practice the genuine Green impetus has been lost. It is really business as usual with a Green veneer.
Kingsnorth offers us two futures: ‘we could devastate the earth and collapse into chaos and runaway climate change. Or we could create a global ‘sustainable’ society based on large-scale renewable tech, mass rollout of GM crops, nano-technology and geo-engineering – a controlled world of controlled people living in a closely monitored scientific monoculture. Brave New World with windfarms and smartphones.’ He is not sure which would be worse! (p.88)
Kingsnorth says that by contrast something new is needed, something which asks ‘why?’, and ‘what for?’ rather than ‘how?’ So when somebody says that renewable energy can’t meet our energy needs, he wants to ask ‘but our needs for what? ‘Coffee machines and fast broadband or clean drinking water and living ecosystems?’ (p.49). This, of course, raises bigger questions. Have we got the right aims and desires, in the first place? If the answer is ‘no’ then where do we look for them? Christians would want to look for an answer in Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, but this is not Kingsnorth’s answer. His reply is what we might call the ‘Dark Mountain approach’ (‘Dark Mountain’ is the name of the movement he has sponsored) which is a return to the older ideas of the ecology movement: oneness with nature, a radically simple life-style, and a celebration of ‘place’.
If we think that Kingsnorth is onto something here, where does the Gospel come into all this? I think we need to consult contemporaries such as Wendell Berry and Ched Myers, and perhaps writers of a previous generation like Walter Benjamin and the Critical Theorists, who turned to theology in the light of civilisational disaster. Their theology was partly Messianic: Benjamin himself believed that there must be some moment of interruption analogous to pulling the emergency cord during a railway journey. He also wondered whether it was possible to go back to a time of innocence. In his essay ‘The Storyteller’ the Russian writer Leskov is hailed as the first writer ‘who pointed out the inadequacy of economic progress’ (quoting Tolstoy) and as one of the last storytellers who remained faithful to the Golden Age in which man could believe themselves to be in harmony with nature. (Löwy, Redemption and Utopia London: Verso, 2017 p. 110). Similarly in the Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) Benjamin links the abolition of man’s exploitation of man to the end of man’s exploitation of nature (ibid p. 117):
‘To paradise lost corresponds the prehistoric, egalitarian (classless) democratic, and non-authoritarian communist society, living in Edenic harmony with nature (italics mine); to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden…corresponds ‘progress’, industrial civilisation, capitalist/mercantile society, the modern catastrophe and the accumulation of debris.’ (ibid p. 124)
Myers, in his seminal work Who Will Roll Away the Stone? (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1995) refers to his own chapter eleven. This suggests what might be described as a ‘Kingsnorth plus the Gospel’ solution, which is also more or less the line taken by Wendell Berry. Myers’ chapter heading is: ‘How shall we describe the Great Economy?’ (By which he means the Kingdom of God) with the significant sub-heading ‘Reclamation’. His section headings are equally revealing: ‘The Church Regrounded‘, ‘Economics within the limits of the land‘, ‘Retribalization‘, Bio-regional self-determination, ‘Song-lines of Aztlan’ (a mythic place of origin – an American Eden). Jesus’ use of agricultural imagery (the parable of the Sower, the parable of the vineyard and the tenants, the seed parables etc.), his idea of retribalisation, his warnings against Jerusalem and the Temple are not, in Myers’ view, simply an attack on the urban elite of his day, but also to do with re-placing the nation on the land and a recapturing of the prophetic vision of ‘every man under his own vine and fig tree’. Here is a typical quote:
‘For the Great Economy is like an acorn that, though small, when pressed into the earth grows up and puts forth large branches…and in its canopy “all the birds of the air can find rest”‘ (Who Will Roll Away the Stone?, p. 379).
This is just the briefest sketch of the ideas of Benjamin and Myers but it is, perhaps, an introduction to a theme which needs greater exploration. Can we marry the presence of the Kingdom of God with a more radical environmental movement?
Jonathan Ingleby is a former lecturer in Applied Theology at Redcliffe College, Gloucester. Previously, he worked in education for more than twenty years in India. He lives in Gloucester and was recently chosen as parliamentary candidate for the city by the Green Party for the elections in 2015.