There is a brutal conundrum at the heart of the fight against catastrophic climate change: when people grasp just how dire things are, they’re as likely to hunker down as to rise up. Maybe more likely.
A haunting New York Times Magazine story from last weekend demonstrates this. It’s about Paul Kingsnorth, a onetime environmental activist who has essentially given up, devoting himself instead to a multifaceted project of grief and survival called Dark Mountain. “Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth told writer Daniel Smith. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
What Kingsnorth did was draft an apocalyptic manifesto, titled Uncivilisation. “It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality,” he wrote. “There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us… Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.”
“Uncivilisation” is not a practical plan of action. Rather, it’s a call for a new artistic and literary movement meant to grapple with life amid the coming ruin. “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side,” wrote Kingsnorth. “We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths.” Meanwhile, as the Times story says, he and his family have moved to rural Ireland, where they plan to grow their own food and develop the skills their children will need to survive in a hotter world.
In some ways, Kingsnorth’s story is an old one—he is, after all, hardly the first charismatic visionary to withdraw from society amid visions of the end. What makes it new is that there’s nothing supernatural or even all that improbable in his predictions. Plenty of sensible people are similarly alarmed. The science writer Jared Diamond, for example, recently put the odds of human civilization surviving another 100 years at 51 percent—a terrifyingly thin margin of optimism. Indeed, the only people offering assurance that everything is going to be fine are the climate change denialists, who are either ignorant, mendacious or both.