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Ecocentrism: a response to Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth’s impressive and heartfelt essay traces the evolution of modern environmental thought and practice through the prism of his personal experience (see Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a recovering environmentalist”, 16 August 2010). I was struck by how closely this experience matches the trajectory of a book I first published in 1990 called Green Political Thought and which has been through three more editions since.

I don’t know what Paul Kingsnorth was reading at university when he came across “ecocentrism” and “green political thought” and “felt [my] mind levering itself open”, but it’s just possible that he read Green Political Thought - or something very much like it. In any case, recalling the life of that book might be useful in reflecting on the larger themes that Kingsnorth raises about the limits of "environmentalism" and the future of ways of living on the planet.

In the book I tried to describe and assess what seemed to me at the time to be a new political ideology to set alongside all the more familiar ones such as liberalism, conservatism, socialism, anarchism, and fascism.

I called this ideology “ecologism”. I regarded it as a separate and new ideology because it could not be “contained” in and by any of the others without changing them in a fundamental way. I contrasted ecologism with “environmentalism”, which I regarded as a managerial approach to environmental problems and which could comfortably be accommodated by the traditional ideologies. So you could be a socialist environmentalist, but you couldn’t be a socialist political ecologist.

Every ideology has something at its heart that it can only give up at the cost of giving up its distinctiveness as an ideology. For socialists it’s equality, for liberals it’s freedom, and for conservatives it’s something like tradition, or honouring the past.

At the heart of ecologism, as I saw it in 1990, there were two non-negotiable ideas: limits to growth, and the one Kingsnorth refers to - ecocentrism. Limits to growth is the recognition that we have only one planet, that it’s of finite size, and so aspirations of unlimited economic growth (largely unquestioned by other ideologies) are unrealistic.

Ecocentrism is the belief that the non-human natural world has value irrespective of whether it’s useful for human beings or not. Kingsnorth comments on the notion: “This word crystallised  everything I had been feeling for years. I had no idea that there were words for it or that other people felt it too, or had written intimidating books about it”. The idea made sense of his enduring refusal to believe “that humans were the centre of the world, that the Earth was their playground...”

So in 1990, ecocentrism was a key component of the newest ideological kid on the block: ecologism. As the years have gone by I have been asked to update Green Political Thought and it’s now in its fourth edition. With each edition I have had to ask myself the same question: what is it that makes ecologism different from other political ideologies? The answer always depends to some degree on “ideas themselves”, but it also depends on how many people hold those ideas. So a proper answer rests on a complex relationship between there being such a thing as “ecocentrism” and people actually subscribing to it.

The fourth edition was published in 2007 and by then - like Paul Kingsnorth -  I was no longer so sure that ecocentrism was at the non-negotiable heart of ecologism. This wasn’t because ecocentrism (as idea) didn’t exist any more, but because environmentalists didn’t seem talk about it so much. Just as Kingsnorth says, the sound of ecocentrism has been drowned out by the sound of pragmatic environmentalism. So while Kingsnorth might have felt himself in the vanguard twenty years ago, he’s now fighting in the rearguard, desperately nurturing what he sees as the true flame of the movement from which he now feels so estranged. 

And yet … and yet …

Are things really as bleak as Kingsnorth says?  He offers us two extremes - ecocentrism or cornucopianism. His claim is that many in the environmental movement have joined the cornucopians by embracing a “save-the-world-with windfarms narrative”. Kingsnorth characterises this as business-as-usual without the carbon. But this group is much more differentiated than Kingsnorth gives credit. There may indeed be a few who want a world exactly the same in all respects as the one we have now, but with fossil-fuels replaced by windfarms and solar-panels. But I suspect there are many more who are well aware that a low-carbon world will also be a low-energy world. Of necessity, human impact on the environment in this low-energy world will be lighter than it is at the moment, and that should please Kingsnorth a little.

This “energy descent” will be politically and socially perilous - there will be winners and losers, and history shows that in transitions of this sort it is nearly always the weak and vulnerable who suffer most. This is why the “environmental justice” of which Kingsnorth speaks so disparagingly is not an optional extra but an absolutely necessary feature of any commitment to a progressive transition to a low-energy world. If you want a presage of what the transition will be like without justice, look at Pakistan and Russia in these days of mid-summer 2010. One is inundated, with around 14 million people suffering dislocation at best and death at worst; the other burns in temperatures topping 40 degrees C, razing huge parts of Siberia. The rich suffer mild discomfort in times of stress and change, while the poor and vulnerable have no way out.

The real question

So the choice is not so much between ecocentrism and cornucopianism as between a hard landing or a soft landing on the shores of a low-energy future. Kingsnorth is right that our chances of making a soft landing will be improved if we can plug into his “emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world”. But he sets the bar too high and makes this reaction seem too difficult to achieve. This is very common in ecocentrics. The so-called “father of deep ecology”, Arne Naess, lived on a Norwegian mountainside and it sometimes seemed as though he believed this isolation was a precondition for nurturing the right sensibility. Kingsnorth had his epiphany after boating up rivers in Borneo by moonlight - a “two-month immersion in something raw and unmediated”. If this is what has to happen for us to reconnect, then we surely are in deep trouble.

Fortunately, it’s not like that. Most people have a much lower nature tolerance than Kingsnorth, so we need less exposure to nature to get the same hit as he does. This is good news: I can see something worth protecting just about everywhere, and not only where nature is at its wildest.

So I don’t believe the rift between Paul Kingsnorth and the rest of us to be as wide and deep as he makes out. But we need to recalibrate the question. It’s not about nature’s intrinsic value but about the human species adapting to a long era of low-energy living. This, I think, is where recovering environmentalists will meet - not (just) on the rivers of Borneo or in the mountains of Norway, but everywhere the human species is powering down to a potentially quieter, more restrained way of life. The challenge then will not be protecting nature alone, but protecting the weak and vulnerable of all species - humans included - as we embark on the energy descent.

About the author; Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford University Press, 2003); (as co-editor) Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Green Political Thought (Routledge, 4th edition, 2007). His website is here

Editorial Notes: I couldn't have said better it myself. -KS

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