For many years, I called myself an ‘environmentalist’. I don’t use the word anymore, though the things that motivated me to do so are still important to me – perhaps more than they ever were.
I became an environmentalist because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and to natural beauty. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake; that they are food for the human soul; that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs; and because we are killing them to feed ourselves and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.
These are not very common sentiments within the mainstream of the green movement today. Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. You won’t hear many greens today talking about their emotional reactions to the wild world. Instead, you’ll hear them promoting something called ‘sustainability’.
We hear this curious, plastic word everywhere. But what does it mean? It does not mean what it ought to: defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of industrial humanity. Instead, it has come to mean sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ which is needed to do so.
A strange confusion has come about. A movement which started out working to sustain nature at large, in the face of human attacks upon it, has ended up campaigning to sustain industrial civilisation instead.
Let me give one example of this. If contemporary ‘sustainability’ is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the word worth talking about. The business of ‘sustainability’ has become the business of preventing carbon emissions.
This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then ‘zero-carbon’ is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we ‘need’ without producing greenhouse gases and there will be no need ever to turn the lights off; no need ever to slow down.
To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places which environmentalism came into being to protect.
And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonised by enormous ‘solar arrays’, glass and steel and aluminium, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of 500 foot wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons and wires.
The open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines. The rivers are to see their estuaries severed and silted by industrial barrages. The croplands and even the rainforests, the richest habitats on this terrestrial Earth, are already highly profitable sites for biofuel plantations designed to provide guilt free car fuel to the motion-hungry masses.
What this adds up to should be clear enough. Yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business-as-usual: the expansive, colonising, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted and the non-human. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this ‘environmentalism’.
Something has gone wrong here: we have lost sight of the trees amongst all the wood. Instead of changing how we live, we are talking about changing our technologies. But it’s not enough – and it’s not the point.
This article was originally published on ABC Environment. It is the first of an eight-part series by Paul Kingsnorth on environmentalism.
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