This man with a name like the frost on an apple tree is 45 years of age. He grew up in the south of England and read history at Oxford. His family included bus drivers, businessmen, policemen, and shopkeepers. His father, Robert, was a self-made man (until Thatcher, the term was a derogatory one in Britain) who forced him to go on arduous walking holidays, during which he wept from tiredness but also learned the names of the flowers and birds of his native land: yellow rattle and red clover among the uncut hay; curlews and lapwings overhead. His grandparents ran an old-fashioned English sweetshop, the kind of place I remember (I’m a year older than him) where one could buy a paper bag of sherbet lemons or barley twists and which is laughable to imagine existing now, in our England of brands, sameness, and huge, sprawling supermarkets.
While many of his Oxford contemporaries went on to take their places in Tony Blair’s proudly cosmopolitan Britain, Paul Kingsnorth was drawn to the more subversive anticapitalist movement that came to life around the turn of the millennium. From his base at The Ecologist magazine in London, where his co-conspirators included Zac Goldsmith, son of one of Britain’s richest entrepreneurs (and a future Conservative Party politician), Kingsnorth went to Mexico to succor the Zapatistas, dodge riot police at the G-8 summit in Genoa, and parley with the armed resistance in West Papua. The experience of observing a movement in which he was also a participant fed his first book, One No, Many Yeses (2003), in which Kingsnorth laid out a fervent, optimistic, sociable worldview that would waft ordinary people everywhere to victory against the international plutocrats ranged against them.
An advantage for the young Englishman out in the world was that the movement was a blast. Seemingly as significant to Kingsnorth as the agitations he described was getting blurry with fellow subversives. “I’m being swung from South African to Colombian to ecologist to anarchist, from Brazilian to Bangladeshi, from cocalero to tribesman,” he writes of a drunken dance session on the sidelines of a Peoples’ Global Action confab in 2001, and all are “determined and somehow together.” It’s another kind of globalization, mirroring the one that he and the others are in Cochabamba—or is it Johannesburg, or Boulder, or Prague?—to combat, and “as the pipes and drums roll on and the circle turns faster, throwing people half off their feet, I can’t see anything that will shut them up…make them go home quietly and stop causing so much trouble. Apart from winning.”
That “apart from winning” reads poignantly in the light of subsequent events. World capitalism has of course scored further victories, in spite of the economic collapse of 2008, capturing not only forests and city centers but also the Internet. At the same time, world protest has splintered into myriad movements capable of uniting only briefly—if at all—behind figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. For much of this tumultuous period, Kingsnorth was a full-time environmentalist, fighting highway projects in his native land and agitating for action on climate change. He also wrote his second book, Real England (2009), in which he decried the damage being done by big business to the country’s living pores: its pubs, canals, farms, and shops.