Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    roots of a beech tree against dark earth

    Expect the End of the World

    Plough’s Joy Clarkson speaks with Paul Kingsnorth about activism, rootlessness, and converting to Christianity.

    By Paul Kingsnorth and Joy Marie Clarkson

    May 10, 2022
    • Chris

      I want to be a Christian!

    • Griselda James

      Brilliant thankyou so much for this what a huge encouragement. I too went on that journey and have been a Christian for 50+ years now and it is still a wonderful enlightening journey everyday.

    Joy Clarkson: You’ve had a multilayered life; you’ve been a poet, an activist, and essayist. Your work is marked by an attention to nature and our alienation from it. Give a sense of the arc of your life; what are the themes that shape your life and your writing?

    Paul Kingsnorth: I grew up in quite a normal suburban English family. I used to go on a lot of long walks, especially with my dad. He used to drag me across the mountains when I was young, which I didn’t always enjoy very much. He would make me walk twenty-five miles a day when I was ten; I don’t know how I survived that. Both my parents were great nature lovers. None of my family were philosophers or writers or anything like that, but in a very practical, everyday sense, they had a great attachment to the natural world.

    I read Wordsworth as a teen and what I recognized in his poetry was this thing he called the sublime. As a younger poet he had these immensely powerful experiences in the Lake District. He was always trying to grasp at them, philosophize about them. And he can’t, really, because nobody can. We can only ever touch the edges of them. I connected with that. When I went off to university, as often happens, that love of nature became combined with the activist politics of the time. It was the ’90s, so the green movement was very active. My love of nature became politicized; it became attached to a desire to protect nature from destruction because everywhere you looked then, as now, it was being destroyed.

    So I became an excitable, hotheaded young activist – lots of direct action, lots of politics. I became an environmental activist and journalist, which defined my twenties and early thirties. I became the deputy editor of the Ecologist magazine, worked for NGOs, all sorts of other stuff. It was frustrating for me after a while because the approach of a lot of activism is very utilitarian. I didn’t become an environmental activist so I could talk about carbon emissions; I became an activist because I wanted to protect the places that contained the sublimity I had read about in Wordsworth. It was so obvious to me that the preservation of these sacred places was a need of the human soul and that we’ve got a culture that just trashes it. And who cares about carbon emissions really? That’s not the issue.

    In more recent years, I’ve come to see it quite explicitly as a spiritual crisis. I think it’s not about politics or culture or economics. Those are all aspects of it, but deeper than that, it’s a spiritual crisis. It’s about who we are and what the world is and what our relationship to it is.

    That was the theme I found in everything I wrote, which still defines me: our connection, or our lack of connection, to the rest of nature and how that ties in with human community, both of which seem to be extremely broken in the modern West. That connection to the rest of life and to our sense of place and community and culture, it’s all shattered. We’re in tiny little individualistic shards in this giant machine that we all live in.

    You pick up on this theme of the machine in a great deal of your writing.

    We’ve created this society which even when it looks at a forest or a sunset or an ocean, can’t look at it through Wordsworth’s eyes. It looks at it like a machine or a calculator or an economist. And we look out at the ocean and we think how much wind power there is that we could harvest, or we look at the desert and think about the sunlight. None of this is the point. I think most activists know that as well. But we all get sucked into this mechanistic way of speaking and seeing. And we’re all taught that, of course, this is what the grownups do and we have to leave behind all the silly Wordsworthian stuff. It’s a particular kind of cold rationalism that this society presents as maturity, but it’s not: it’s a kind of spiritual infantilization.

    I wrote an essay years ago about science and I looked into the etymology of “science” – it has the same etymological root as “schism” and “sickle” and “sex”: they’re all about division. Science is about dividing things up and looking at the little parts. Of course, you would never do that with your children or your partner, but we do think it’s fitting at some level to do it with the rest of the world, including when we’re talking about the living earth, which we persist in calling “the environment” which is full of “resources.”

    It is literally diabolic actually. That is what the devil does; he divides things, he divides us from God. So it’s literally a devilish way of seeing because once you start to split things up into tiny little parts, you can make an argument for anything. You can make an argument for eugenics. You can make an argument for the destruction of forests. You can make an argument for Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, which we’re all going to be living in in a few years apparently. We’re all looking forward to that, just pop off and see your girlfriend as a hologram rather than the real thing, which would probably suit Mark Zuckerberg. But that’s the inevitable place it takes us, you see.

    Once you decide this fragmentation is an acceptable way of seeing the world (which is pretty much the Western way of seeing), you’re inevitably on the path toward the Matrix or some form of Brave New World. There’s a reason science fiction writers have been putting out these prophetic warnings for over a hundred years. It’s not rocket science; we can all see where we’re going to end up. It’s like living in the Tower of Babel or some ancient myth, like we’re back in the Garden of Eden just trying to eat the apple again.

    roots of a beech tree against dark earth

    Photograph by Serjan Midili (Public domain)

    What you’re describing is something like the end of the world. But this creates an interesting question: Is it possible to live outside the machine? Your book Savage Gods describes your move to Ireland in search of a more rooted life. However, it seems that in some ways this pursuit of a rooted life exacerbated your angst because there was an arbitrariness in choosing Ireland. It ended up in some ways a reminder that you did not belong. Is it possible to live well and holistically in this mechanistic age?

    I just think that modernity makes us homeless and the machine makes us homeless. The way that humans have lived for 99.9 percent of their history has been in fairly small groups of people, usually rooted in a place, the place their ancestors have come from. Of course, there are nomadic cultures and people have migrated, but broadly speaking, people have led a much more integrated life than we do now, integrated into nature and culture, which really are the same thing.

    It’s since the Industrial Revolution that millions and millions of people have grown up in these rootless urban communities. My family have been from London for centuries. I could go further back and find some farmers down in Kent or something, but Kent is the southeast of England and is just full of lorry parks and giant suburbs now. Even if I wanted to buy some land there, I’d have to be a millionaire. So there’s nowhere to go. I haven’t got any farming land. I could probably find some ancestral graves in a churchyard somewhere, but there’s nothing I feel connected to at all. So you make a sort of arbitrary choice and I’ve come to a country I have no ancestry in because it was affordable and I had a few friends here and it seemed like a good place to hide; it was smaller and less developed.

    And in many ways I do feel at home here. The people have been very welcoming and I’m very glad I came. It does feel like my home now, but I don’t feel like I belong here in a deeper sense, because you can’t. I wrote a piece about Simone Weil, the French writer of The Need for Roots, which is a very good book that she wrote in the Second World War. And she was looking into what it meant to be European and what would happen in France after the Nazis were defeated. She was very much a woman of the left, but she wrote about the importance of roots and how uprooting people is a psychological and spiritual disaster. And pretty much everyone is uprooted now. There are these huge waves of migration going on across the world, massive migrations into Europe. Even the people who come from Europe, as you say, are uprooted as well. America’s all uprooted, everyone’s moving around. It is said that the world is becoming one great global village, but it is not.

    It’s becoming the great global airport.

    It is. It’s the great global airport. You just have to accept that because that’s where we are. You can’t be somebody you’re not. You are probably just an unrooted urban person in the modern world. But all communities have to start somewhere; you can put your roots down in a place and grow new ones. So it’s possible to start again, it’s just hard. Everything militates against having any kind of small, rooted life close to nature, which doesn’t cost you money and doesn’t require you to be online. But the good news is that that expansion is not sustainable; it’s already starting to come apart. And the more it comes apart, the more options there are for starting to realize again what we got wrong about it.

    You recently became a Christian. How did that shape your thinking on these matters?

    I didn’t expect to become a Christian. I didn’t want to become a Christian. I wrote an essay about that earlier in the year. It sort of crept up on me. I was doing sort of paganish things. I’ve always wanted to connect with the divine, whatever that quite meant. And I’ve always been looking for ways to do that through Buddhism or paganism. And if you’re a modern Western person, you look everywhere except Christianity because you just assume that that’s got nothing to do with you. I do think a lot of modern Western rebellion is a rebellion against Christianity disguised as something else. We’re in rebellion against our ancestral faith. But the story of Christianity is the story of rebellion against God. So the more we rebel against it, the more we’re replaying the story by accident.

    I ended up becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian. There’s a great mysticism at the heart of that version of Christianity. There’s an emphasis on God, on the divine being immanent as well as transcendent. It all comes back to that sense of the wild sublime; what I’m experiencing up on the mountains is God in the earth, God in nature, God’s presence. That makes a lot of sense to me, which means that everything I’ve been doing all along has been a religious quest – I just didn’t know it. I’ve been talking a religious language without religion for a long time.

    The big story of Christianity is that there’s a plan. The world is coming to a conclusion. We’re moving toward something. Everything is much more multilayered and mysterious than you think it is. And one thing it does do is confirm that that materialist way of seeing is wrong, which I thought anyway, but the Christian story is about the fundamental state of humans, fallen beings who are endlessly trying to reach above what they could get to, endlessly rebelling against God and endlessly having to be brought back again, but can also get back through their own will if they want to.

    The Garden of Eden story is so interesting to me because it represents a kind of primal communion between creation and creator – we’re all together and we decide to walk away because we’d rather have knowledge and power than communion. And that’s pretty much the story of humanity. It inevitably leads to such things as climate change and the machine, but then, through Christ, there’s a way back, there’s a path you can walk. And we have to walk through a fire. Now is hardly the first time people have been walking through the fire. That’s kind of what Christianity’s designed for; we’re all supposed to be carrying crosses and walking through fires. It’s not supposed to be comfortable. We’re not actually seeking comfort and you can’t get comfort in this world anyway. Even if you have a nice life, it’s going to end.

    It hasn’t made my love of nature any less intense, but it has put it within a bigger picture. And it’s also, I suppose, provided a spiritual framework, a spiritual story for what I suspected anyway. I mean, the funny thing is some people say, “Oh, you converted to Christianity. That’s a weird thing to do. How did you do that?” And from the outside, it seems very strange and I would never have imagined it happening, but from the inside, it sort of seems like a natural progression. It doesn’t feel like I suddenly adopted a strange worldview for no reason. It feels like I came home to something I felt anyway, but I would never have understood it in that way, through that sense. And I realized that a lot of my values and understandings and attitudes turned out to be Christian anyway. That’s true of a lot of us in the West, probably all of us really. Whether we know it or not, that’s our culture, that’s our inheritance.

    People describe Christianity as comforting, the opiate of the masses, as Marx called it. In my own experience, it’s something you kind of bump your head on. It actually makes demands upon us and upon our lives, which is comforting if they’re the right demands.

    You’re right. It’s comforting in the sense that you believe there’s a God who loves you, and that’s real and there’s a movement towards something else, but it’s extremely uncomfortable the way you’re actually supposed to live – you’ve got to carry these crosses. You’ve got to love your enemies. You’ve got to pray. You’ve got to go to church. You’ve got to treat people differently. You’ve got to try and be a good person, which is always a pain in the bum. No one wants to do that.

    It’s hard work and I’m terrible at it, but it’s ultimately a lot more satisfying than the consumer lifestyle. It is interesting when people say it’s a comforting story, because it is on the big level. But on the small level, it’s much harder.

    Have you read any books recently that have helped you think outside the machine?

    My favorite recent novel is a book called Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin. Somebody was asking me recently, “What does Christian writing look like? What does Christian art look like?” And I just thought, well, I don’t know. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian writer. I’m a writer who’s become a Christian, but how it affects your writing and the stories you tell is a really interesting question for me. I don’t really know yet. But Laurus is a great example of a novel written by a Christian, and it’s about medieval Russian Christianity. It’s a terrific otherworldly book about an entirely different way of seeing.

    It’s a disturbing time to be alive, but also an interesting one.

    Listen to the audio interview:

    Contributed By PaulKingsnorth Paul Kingsnorth

    Paul Kingsnorth was the publications editor for Greenpeace and deputy editor of The Ecologist.

    Learn More
    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Marie Clarkson

    Joy Marie Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now