Book review: Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth

In one of the essays in this quietly revolutionary collection, Paul Kingsnorth quotes Ian Hamilton Finlay's famous riposte, when accused of retreating from the real world to create his now internationally famous art garden Little Sparta, that 'Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.' Like Finlay, Kingsnorth has concluded that in order to challenge the status quo he must first disentangle himself from it, as far as is possible, and so in 2014 the Booker-shortlisted author and his wife moved from 'urban England to rural Ireland'.

Paul Kingsnorth
Paul Kingsnorth

“We bought ourselves a small bungalow with two and a half acres of land up a quiet lane. It was the culmination of a personal project we’ve been engaged in for more than half a decade: to find a way to escape from the urban consumer machine we were both brought up in.”

Prior to this, Kingsnorth had been an environmental activist, occupying wild places like Twyford Down near Winchester in the hope of preventing them being turned into motorways. Like many people of his generation, however – he was born in 1972 – he gradually became disillusioned with what the environmental movement was turning into. As he puts it in one of the best essays here, “The Quants and the Poets”, the green movement has “torpedoed itself with numbers”.

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Presenting nature as a quantifiable resource may initially help get the attention of business leaders and politicians, he reasons, but once you’ve given an ecosystem a cash value it simply becomes another commodity to be bought and sold. The only way to preserve what’s left of the natural world upon which we all depend, he believes, is for us to recognise its inherent specialness – to tap into the “biophilia” that still “sings in the human body” – and the best way to do that is to “understand the importance of stories in getting to the bottom of what’s really going on”.

The essays in this book, then, are attempts to dismantle some of the key narratives we have come to take for granted – about the inevitability of things like “civilisation” and “progress” and the manifest destiny of our species – and to replace them with alternative ways of looking at our place in the world. To read them is to feel the ground begin to shift slightly under your feet, as the pillars that previously supported your worldview start to crumble and fall away. The alternative stories Kingsnorth offers aren’t always comforting or even appealing, but they certainly feel a lot more honest and a lot more plausible than the ones they are intended to replace.

*Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, by Paul Kingsnorth, Faber & Faber, £14.99