Paul Kingsnorth

Climate change is your friend

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For a while I've been turning over a heretical idea in my head. It really annoys some of my environmentalist friends; though it intrigues some of them at the same time. Responses to my last post brought it up again somewhere in the recesses of my mind, so I thought I'd lay it out here, and annoy you too.

It goes like this. I am an environmentalist. These days, this is a pretty meaningless claim, but I've been one since well before the days when it was fashionable to eat organic bruschetta or hire an allotment for a week or read Observer magazine articles about this season's eco-handbags. So I'm sticking with it. There are many kinds of environmentalist, though. These days, with even the Chairman of BP claiming to be 'sustainable', much of what passes for 'environmentalism' is nothing of the kind. Seven long years ago I wrote that the green movement was in danger of losing its way, precisely because it had become so popular, and it's only got worse since then.

Environmentalism used to be a radical position. In the early days, it was a mission to save the rest of the natural world from the ravages of one especially destructive and highly populous species - us. These were the days of the deep greens. My early green politics was born in the cradle of the Earth First! movement in the early 1990s. Hearing their slogan - 'no compromise in defence of Mother Earth' - still makes me want to burn down airports and tip sugar into the fuel tanks of bulldozers. Deep green politics sees the human race as simply one part of the natural order, no more or less important than the rest of it. We have a moral duty to our fellow inhabitants of the Earth, and a spiritual and practical duty to ourselves to live as part of the natural world, not to seek to divorce ourselves from it. Furthermore, deep greens have little interest in conventional political divides. The old human battle between right and left is not their business. The problem, as they see it, is not capitalism or communism, but industrialism - the overarching ideology to which most people subscribe, however they would like the cake divided.

These days, the deep greens are in retreat. The very success of environmentalism has allowed their wan cousins, the light greens, to take over the debate. The light greens believe that environmentalism is all about making human society more 'sustainable.' They're practical people. They believe that renegotiating our relationship with the rest of nature is futile and idealistic. They see humanity as 'stewards' of the planet, self-evidently its most important inhabitants. Environmentalism, for the light greens, is a utilitarian exercise. It's not about morality or beauty or philosophy; it's about clean technology, sites of special scientific interest and the acceptance of some regrettably necessary environmental degradation in the name of human progress. Most light greens see environmentalism as part of left wing politics, and believe that reforming the existing order can 'save the planet.'

You'll have guessed which side I'm on, at least in theory. In reality, life is more complex, and I'm probably a mixture of deep and light, depending on my mood and whether I need to use my computer or earn some money. We all have to live in the world. Where the heresy comes in, though, is on the topic of climate change.

Climate change, as we know, is A Bad Thing. If the planet gets too hot, everything will tip out of balance. Lots of species could die, and lots of people. Human civilisation will be turned upside down. It's a massive threat and we've got to stop it.

Being a human, and especially a human who is about to have a child, the idea of mass human death is not especially appealing. I'd quite like to stop that happening. I'd also do pretty much anything to prevent even more destruction of the natural world. Most people would agree, which is why preventing climate change is now the top priority of greens everywhere, and plenty of other people too.

But - and this is the unpopular bit - what if we're barking up the wrong tree? What if climate change, rather than being the planet's nemesis, could actually be its saviour?

From a deep green point of view, I think there's something to be said for this argument. Consider: the greatest threat to the health of the natural world is human beings. The human economy is vastly destructive. Rainforests are falling as you read this, fish stocks diminishing, soil being eroded, artificial chemicals pumped into the atmosphere, species going extinct every week. No amount of reformist 'sustainablity' is going to do much about this. There are six billion specimens of homo sapiens roaming about the place, and there will be 9 billion within a few decades. Each of these humans consumes more resources as the economy grows and wants are created to fuel that growth. Our appetites have always been enormous, and we are nowhere near sated yet.

What does climate change add to this mix? Well, it puts a very large spanner firmly in the human works. If it really kicks off it will wreck human agriculture, slow or stall the industrial economy and maybe even plunge us into a new dark age. It will, in other words, stop in its tracks the greatest threat to life on Earth.

There are several problems with this argument, of course. One is that climate change, as well as giving us a kicking, will also do the same to many other species and ecosystems. It will also cause mass human misery. On the other hand, consider what the world would look like if we were successful in stopping it. There would be no stopping us. As industrialism roared on, those ecosystems would get it in the neck anyway, just as they do every day now. And there's no more effective way to make the poor miserable than industrial capitalism.

Perhaps, then, we should all be letting climate change happen. Maybe we should be campaigning in favour of it. It's not as if, realistically, we can actually stop it in any case. If we are truly deep green, perhaps we should see it as the reckoning that humanity has long deserved, and see our desperation to stop it as a manifestation of the human ego . Or perhaps that's a bit Old Testament. Maybe it's just Gaia doing its thing. Either way, it's worth asking which will actually defend Mother Earth most effectively: saving human civilisation, or watching it go under. It's a happy thought, I know. But who said environmentalism was fun?

Designed and built long ago and kept on life support by spanner.