Paul Kingsnorth is a tall, youthfully bearded man who appears on stage in hiking boots, black jeans and t-shirt. His appearance is more in keeping with the Dark Mountain Project which he co-founded than an Oxford-educated environmentalist. He speaks quickly and passionately with plenty of self-deprecating humour. But sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint the logic in his arguments and one is forced to consider the possibility that when he he says he doesn’t have the answers, he genuinely means it. Nevertheless, his honesty is refreshing in a world full of polished, ready-made solutions. He spoke to us at the Crossing Borders festival in the Hague last night about being ‘a recovering environmentalist’ and his latest book, Savage Gods (June, 2019).
Kingsnorth’s love and reverence for the natural world probably began, he tells us, as a boy on long, somewhat arduous hiking trips through the English countryside with his father. When he was a student at Oxford he became involved in the British road protest movement and he would later go on to join environmental campaign group, EarthAction in 1995. But recently he has retreated to piece of land in the west of Ireland where he lives with his wife and two children. They grow their own food and the children are home schooled. ‘Traditional activist methods don’t work very well. Traditional political approaches don’t work very well either’ he admits. Kingsnorth initially thought he too was a political activist. But realised later that his concerns were more spiritual and philosophical.
In his latest book, Savage Gods, Kingsnorth looks at language as a source of trouble in terms of our relationship with the natural world. Language is what sets man apart from other species but it is also perhaps what separates us from the wider natural world. ‘We confuse the map with the territory, the words with the world outside.’ Perhaps true but of course this is what Kingsnorth himself is doing. A writer first and foremost, the irony of writing a book about renouncing writing is not lost on him. But this is central to what Kingsnorth is about – he steadfastly refuses to offer any solutions to the problems that plague mankind, especially our relationship with nature. ‘I wouldn’t want to pretend that I’m anything other than a marginal figure at this point.’ His honesty is again, endearing. But as ‘a marginal figure’ he still has a lot to say, both in writing and as a speaker at events such as this one.
‘I spent a lot of years on activism and not much time on action’ he admits. Now he spends more time planting trees and simply being in nature. For this recovering activist then, the battle is largely a spiritual one. He bemoans the fact that the modern, capitalist world no longer has words to express ‘our broken relationship with the earth’ in more philosophical, even mystic terms. Instead, he says, ‘we talk as if the world is like a giant maths puzzle that we can simply solve’. He would like to see science and religion reunite against ‘the big enemy’ – ‘the materialist capitalist machine’. Like all idealists, Paul is big on vison but less clear on the practical realities of how such ideals might be accomplished. But perhaps this is his role – a seer or visionary who might gesture toward the light, even as he wanders into the wordless wilderness. Souwie Buis 1st November 2019
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