Most of us find it easier to imagine a world without pine martens, honeybees, otters and wolves than one without social media, lattes, cheap flights and dishwashers. Even environmentalism, which was once motivated by a love of the natural world, now seems more concerned with finding slightly less destructive ways of enabling an overprivileged civilisation to carry on surfing the internet and buying laptops and yoga mats than it does with protecting wildlife from its ravenous jaws.
All the talk these days is about carbon and something obscure called “sustainability”. There’s much less talk about the kind of human-scale cultures we might want to foster, or why we would even want to help sustain a culture that requires the ransacking of every square centimetre of soil, forest, ocean, river and wilderness to survive. In its understandably pragmatic, green-lite approach to reducing emissions, it lost both its vision and its soul, forgetting that a movement without either is hardly pragmatic.
As Paul Kingsnorth notes in his remarkable new collection of essays, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, environmentalism has reduced itself to being “the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy”. Kingsnorth remarks that it is now, in broad terms, focusing its efforts on “sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ needed to do so”.
So instead of defending wild places we now spend our time arguing how to best domesticate these wild places – deserts, oceans, mountains – to generate the “green” energy needed to fuel things that, up until recently, we couldn’t even imagine, let alone claim to need. Environmentalism’s increasingly urban mindset, Kingsnorth claims, can be summed up by an absurd equation: “Destruction – Carbon = Sustainability”.
Each month the Guardian posts me a small, representative selection of the comments on this series of articles. One frequent comment appears to be that the way of life I’m giving voice to isn’t possible for more than 7 billion people (soon to be 10 billion, thanks to industrialism’s desire and propensity for exponential growth), the majority of whom now live in cities. I agree, it isn’t possible. But unlike industrialism’s countless advocates, I’m not trying to offer some prescriptive solution for all the world’s peoples and their problems; such prescriptive large-scale “solutions” are what got us into this ecological and social mess to begin with.
Then again it will be equally impossible for our obese culture to continue living and consuming the way it is, even less so as populations rise. This presents us with a Chinese puzzle, quite literally. In response to this conundrum I’ve suggested that we might be wise to curb our addiction to dehumanising technologies and to instead unearth some of the human-scale, appropriate technologies that could once again serve us well. Through exploring the old ways I feel we could even rediscover lost perspectives that may point to something important we’ve forgotten, or practicalities that we may one day value again in a geopolitically and economically “tumultuous” future.
It appears, however, that even suggesting this is tantamount to misanthropy, the logic being that some industrial technologies save lives. I get the sentiment – like most of us, I’ve had family members saved by technology (albeit from industrial injury and diseases). The irony is that if we continue pursuing rampant industrialism and capitalism – which are demonstrably driving climate change and the sixth mass extinction of species – many, many people will die from extreme weather, rising tides, resource wars, displacement, starvation, drought and other economic, ecological and political turmoil.
What technologies are appropriate to our times has become a tricky question, and one I’ve been asking myself for too many years. There are no hard and fast rules, and it can be as intuitive as it is logical. The first question I ask myself when deciding to adopt any technology, old or new, is “Do I even need it?” Do I need the latest upgrade of a smartphone, and why? Do I need to check Twitter and Facebook every day, and do I need to take a selfie of myself at dinner, and why?
If the answer is yes, then EF Schumacher – a British economist most renowned for his book Small is Beautiful – suggests that any appropriate technology has four defining qualities. It should be accessible – meaning affordable – to anyone; small-scale; simple enough for local people to be able to build and maintain using their own skills and materials; and non-violent, in that it doesn’t lay waste to life on earth, or come at the cost of people’s mental and physical health.
Take the smartphone, microwave oven, electric toothbrush, social media, or basically any of the things we lived quite capably without only a short while ago, and ask yourself if they meet those qualities and, if not, if we’re happy to continue using violent tech. But what is appropriate for any of us will depend, to some degree, on our circumstances. Personally I found city life stressful, unhealthy, and too full of ambition and speed and thoughtlessness, so I chose to live out among the natural world, meaning my circumstances will be different to others. I also had very little money, meaning I had to be creative, and that limitation was my greatest ally. So I can only speak for myself.
Long before I broke the habit of using social media, laptops, phones and the internet, I realised that not only did I not need them, I was mentally and physically better off without them. I had learned that about television years earlier. Living in a temperate climate, I saw no real need for a fridge or a freezer. I decided, much to others’ relief, that I wanted a toilet, but felt that a composting loo was more appropriate than a flush. Developing relationships with neighbours and the land slowly made more sense to me than depending on impersonal, fickle cash. I chose a crosscut saw over a chainsaw, a scythe over a lawnmower, and I’m fitter for it. A rocket stove replaced my dependency on foreign gas.
I now feel fishing is more appropriate than buying bottom-trawled fish fingers, frozen from a supermarket, or peanut butter in plastic tubs for that matter. While washing dishes and clothes with my hands seems more inconvenient than using machines, I suspect it could be considered more convenient than working out how to humanely deal with 200 million climate refugees in 30 years’ time.
The late David Fleming – one of the greatest thinkers you’ve probably never heard of – said in his recent posthumously published magnum opus, Lean Logic, that “localisation stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative”.
Such localisation need be no ordeal and, if anything, it could enrich our lives if we embraced it. Falling in love again with our place and the natural world – living in a healthy relationship with it, supporting it, protecting it – could be our salvation. And environmentalism’s too.