The environmentalist who gave up

There were others, however, who saw Kingsnorth’s new work as a betrayal. With waters rising, deserts spreading and resource wars looming, how could his message be anything but reckless — even callous? He and his sympathizers were branded “doomers,” “nihilists” and (Kingsnorth’s favorite epithet) “crazy collapsitarians.” One critic, a sustainability advocate, published an essay in The Ecologist — a magazine Kingsnorth once helped run — comparing Dark Mountaineers to the complacent characters in the Douglas Adams novel “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”: “Diners [who] enjoyed watching the obliteration of life, the universe and everything whilst enjoying a nice steak.”

Kingsnorth regards such charges with equanimity, countering that the only hope he has abandoned is false hope. The great value of Dark Mountain, he has claimed, is that it gives people license to do the same. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?”

Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible. Kingsnorth has admitted to an ex-activist’s cynicism about politics as well as to a worrying ambivalence about whether he even wants civilization, as it now operates, to prevail. But he insists that he isn’t opposed to political action, mass or otherwise, and that his indignations about environmental decline and industrial capitalism are, if anything, stronger than ever. Still, much of his recent writing has been devoted to fulminating against how environmentalism, in its crisis phase, draws adherents. Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.”