Writing at the End of the World
Mar 18, 2017
21 Min read time
Celebrated dystopian novelist Paul Kingsnorth talks surviving the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Paul Kingsnorth led the way, Gulliver-like, through the Lilliputian orchard he has put in since buying these two and a half acres in the west of Ireland three years ago. “Oh dear,” he said, “something’s dug that up.” He stooped to push back into place a young currant bush that a rabbit had uprooted. It was the deft motion of someone at ease in body and place, a writer with dirt beneath his fingernails. The sapling may be not much taller than his ankles, but the plan is that before long it will help provide the food that he and his family eat all year round; already, they are self-sufficient in the summer, more or less. He knows how to plant a field, how to wield a scythe.
This is all part of a philosophy articulated in Kingsnorth’s essays, and more obliquely in his fiction, that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process. He has moved here from his native England to put theory into practice. Earlier, playing the good host, he had pointed out the bathroom, saying, “It’s a compost toilet, so just put down some sawdust when you are finished.” This, too, is part of the theory, as outlined in his forthcoming essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Plumbing is symbolic of “a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes”; Kingsnorth proposes a new metaphor: “I will deal with my own shit” and, in such noisome contemplation, come to a better relationship with the natural world of which he is a part. As Thoreau had his pond, so Kingsnorth has—to use the English slang—his bog.
There’s an important distinction between ‘the end of the world’ and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending.
At forty-four years old, he is the author of two novels, a poetry collection, and three works of nonfiction. He is a founder of the Dark Mountain Project, a movement of creative artists united by a belief that climate change and humanity’s self-destructiveness cannot now be stopped, and a desire to respond to this accepted fate with works that are honest and often darkly beautiful, beautifully dark. His crowdfunded debut novel The Wake (2014), set around the Norman invasion of England in 1066, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Film rights have been optioned by Mark Rylance, often described as the greatest British actor of his generation, who plans to play the lead. Paul Greengrass, director of three Jason Bourne films, has been asked to write the screenplay.
“Paul Kingsnorth’s writing has had a huge impact of me,” Rylance said when we spoke on the phone. “I’m drawn by his consideration of what’s valuable in the world, and his challenge to the economic paradigm that we live in. I find his work very helpful in informing my thinking.”
His latest novel Beast (2016)—a sequel to The Wake—will be published by Graywolf Press in August, as will the Confessions collection. I met Kingsnorth on a wet afternoon in late February. We spoke in the living room of his cottage. His dog Quincy dozed in her basket by the fire, and the voices of his children, busy being homeschooled by his wife, Nav, drifted in from another room. Mounted high on one wall was a collection of “green men”—ten faces carved in wood and stone, each surrounded by a corona of foliage, symbolising wildness, rebellion, rebirth. An eleventh was out of sight, tattooed on his right shoulder, its tendrils groping downwards as if toward the light at the end of his sleeve. It is the arm with which he writes, and works a spade; pen and blade, both digging down to the truth of things.
Those inked leaves on pale skin made me think of something he had said earlier as we walked in his fields: “The severing of people away from everything else that lives is the heart of the crisis that we’re in.”
Peter Ross: Beast is the middle part of a planned trilogy spanning two thousand years. It is set in the present day and tells the story of Edward Buckmaster, perhaps a descendent of Buccmaster in The Wake, living the life of a hermit and trying to track down a large black animal that he glimpses on the moor. The Wake was striking in that you wrote it in an invented “shadow-tongue,” a mixture of Old and modern English. Beast is written in much more familiar language, but still feels uncanny and unchancy.
Paul Kingsnorth: I’m aspiring to produce the “uncivilised” writing we called for in the Dark Mountain manifesto back in 2009. I think that's more about style and execution than subject matter. If your writing becomes too controlled, not chaotic enough, then you’ve lost one of the fundamental elements of what it means to be an animal in the world. The idea is to write like a mountain hare—or like a mountain. What would it be like to attempt to write from the animal in you, and from the land around you, rather than from the rational, well behaved, civilized person that you are trained to be? Our writing is too civilized now. It’s too rational and realist, too middle class and urban. The kind of stuff that we lay out in mainstream culture as the height of great literature is not saying anything about the state of the world. It’s not saying anything about crumbling civilizations or climate change or extinction, or the complexity of being human in the midst of all that. It’s fake. I’m trying not to be fake.
The thing about these novels of mine, if I don’t make them strange, I’ll bore myself. I can’t imagine writing a third-person realist novel. I think I’d die of boredom.
My writing is also increasingly religious, or spiritual, although “spiritual” is such a horrible New Age word. I am a Zen Buddhist, but that’s not exactly a religion, it’s more a practice. As I get older, the spiritual mystery of life seems to be coming to the fore. It’s right there in Beast, which is a religious book, a quest book. It’s all the way through The Wake as well. I have a strong sense that the earth is alive. I’ve always had this. I remember reading Wordsworth when I was fifteen or sixteen and being really struck by the fact that he was talking about experiences that I had had—when you are up on a mountain and the world opens itself up to you. All the time when I was young, I felt there were mysterious things going on in nature. I believed in fairies and magic and all that. Then you grow up and put all that to one side, but it feels like it’s coming back into my writing as I get older. One of the disastrous stories our culture tells itself is that the world is a machine, and that you can cut it into bits and look at how it works. But it’s not a machine, it’s a great web of life with a strange religious mystery bubbling underneath.
PR: For most of your twenties you were a green activist who believed that by campaigning you could save or change the world. But at some point, around 2008, you stopped believing it was possible to avoid environmental catastrophe. Can you explain how that loss of faith happened?
‘This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.’
PK: It wasn’t some blinding flash of light. I came to realize, gradually, that no matter how much information you give people, it doesn’t make much difference. There’s a huge level of psychological denial.
When I worked at The Independent in 1995, I was obsessed with climate change, but nobody on that newspaper was interested and nothing on it ever got published. I remember thinking, “If only we could get climate change on to the front page, things would really change.” Well, now it is on the front pages very often, and everybody knows about it, and the politicians and business leaders all know about it, and yet nothing’s changed. There hasn’t been any effective action at all. I also remember thinking, “If there was a real disaster in America, say one of their cities got flooded, they would wake up.” Then New Orleans happened and that didn’t make any difference to the direction of travel either. Maybe there will come a time when things get so bad that we have to change our ways, but I don’t think that will happen in time to prevent irreversible ecological shifts.
One of the problems with the green movement is that it is constantly issuing deadlines: “We’ve only got five years to save the world!” I read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change a while back, and I found it ludicrous and dishonest. There’s plenty of good research in there about how the corporations are refusing to act and are covering up what needs to be done, but then she says that we have to have radical change in ten years and provides an enormous list of impossible global tasks. She’s a smart woman and she knows damn well none of that is going to happen.
PR: How did it feel when you accepted the end of the world? Relief or despair?
PK: I’d make an important distinction between “the end of the world” and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending. What do I feel about that? Kind of both. More relief, actually. There’s a common notion among activists that “taking action” must be inherently hopeful. If you’re going on demonstrations or working to stop climate change then that’s a hopeful or optimistic thing. But after a while, when people realize they are banging their heads against a brick wall, this kind of campaigning leads to despair. What I found when I said, “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” was that a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve stopped pretending that the impossible is possible.
People often call me dystopian. They think, “This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.” I like a party as much as the next man, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, global governance. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? Dark Mountain starts with those questions.
PR: It has been suggested that you and the Dark Mountain Project rather enjoy the prospect of the collapse of civilization; that you take pleasure in the idea that humanity’s going to get what it deserves.
PK: It depends on how I feel in the morning. Sometimes I think it’s awful and I wish we could do something about it. Other times I am more optimistic and think, well, maybe it won’t be so bad and there’s still plenty we can do. And yeah, at other times I think “It fucking serves us right.” If I see a particularly egregious example of ecological destruction, or I read about another species that’s disappeared, or I see twenty people walking down the street with their eyes glued to their smartphones, I can think, “I don’t care if it all collapses.” Anyway, the thing that I’m most concerned about is not human civilization, it’s the fate of the earth. That’s what matters. I’m interested in life—which includes humans. But if we have created a civilization that is destroying everything else that lives in order to keep us overfed for an extra few years then it wouldn’t bother me if it fell apart, no.
‘We have created a civilization that is destroying everything else that lives in order to keep us overfed. It wouldn’t bother me if it fell apart.’
We are just animals doing what animals do. We are trying to feed ourselves and be comfortable, and we are competing with other animals for territory. We just have knowledge and power far beyond our wisdom. That’s what we’re lacking – wisdom. We have plenty of information, but we don’t seem to know how to use it.
It’s the way we’re living that’s the problem, and the culture that we’ve got, and the stories that we tell ourselves. The Kalahari Bushmen built a culture that lasted for thirty thousand years and did very little damage. The Australian Aborigines did the same thing. There are tribes in the Amazon who have no word for “war.” It’s possible to be human in a different way. I don’t think it’s inevitable that humans are going to destroy everything, but I think it is probably inevitable that this civilization is going to destroy itself. One way or another, this materialistic, tech-driven, progressive civilization has got to hit the buffers and fall apart before we can change anything.
PR: So why write? What’s the point in trying to be creative and analytical in the face of collapse?
PK: It’s something I’m driven to do, and it seems like it could be useful. I know from the work we do at Dark Mountain that simply giving voice to this stuff is very useful to a lot of people who are out there thinking the same thing but feel they are alone with it. People tell me that they felt despair but couldn’t say anything because they had to look positive in front of their friends.
PR: Dark Mountain is literary grief counseling?
PK: There’s a degree of that, yeah. It’s like going through the stages of grief. Eventually you pass through despair and rage to acceptance of the reality, and that feels good. It’s a very Zen place to be. You do your work. You chop the wood and you carry the water.
PR: But writing books and putting them out into the world, having children—these are hopeful acts.
PK: That’s quite true. I’m not hopeless. But I don’t feel hopeful either. Hope is irrelevant. Hope and despair both cloud the mind. I’m just trying to get on with life. There are lots of wonderful things about life, and there will still be lots of wonderful things about it when this civilization has fallen apart. There might be more of them. When all the skyscrapers and oil wells are just memories, there will still be life everywhere. There might be great flocks of parakeets in the air again.
PR: The best essay in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist is, for me, “Upon the Mathematics of Falling Away.” You begin by writing about your father Robert’s sudden death in 2007 and move to a more general discussion of collapse and endings and change. Can I ask how losing him affected you personally and in your work?
PK: It hasn’t escaped my attention that his death is the moment when my work changes a lot. I didn’t realize until after my dad died how much I was trying to prove to him, and that urge to prove myself had somehow manifested itself in my political activism—even though he didn’t agree with pretty much anything I stood for. He was a businessman, a Thatcherite, a working-class self-made man. He came from a background where he didn’t have very much, and worked his way up the chain until he was running companies. He had always been a strong presence in my life, and it sounds like a terrible thing to say, but actually his dying gave me a sense of release. I felt I could be something I couldn’t be before. I had had a notion of wanting to be a high-achieving campaigning journalist and writer, and that clearly came from my dad. When that pressure wasn’t there any more, I realized it wasn’t what I actually wanted to do. I wanted to write, but I didn’t want to be famous, or be on television news programs, or edit a national newspaper. Underneath this supposedly ambitious journalist was a poet, and that was the side that flowered. And, of course, if somebody close to you commits suicide unexpectedly then it naturally gives you a darker view of life.
I don’t believe that a writer or any kind of artist is just themselves alone. There’s always a wider sense of connection with the human community.
PR: I’m sure there must be some relation between the loss of your father and the grief you must have felt, and your emerging feelings of loss and grief around the environment. Can you talk about that connection?
PK: I’m not sure I’m equipped to explain how they are linked, but they clearly are. There’s a clear sense of looking collapse in the face and wanting to deal with loss globally and personally. I also had a feeling that I needed to be honest about the darkness. People don’t like talking about suicide, it’s very difficult to talk about, and there is a clear link between that denial and the way people often react to my writing about the death of life on earth. A lot of the negative reactions to Dark Mountain and to me when I talk about this stuff come from the fact that people don’t like looking at the darkness. But it is like dealing with suicide in that sense. You have to look into the abyss and say, “Well, that’s what happened.” My dad’s death led me to look at things I think I’d been wanting to look at for a long time. There’s a mysterious, elemental aspect to all this, too, because the style of my writing changed as well, and I don’t know why or quite how that happened. By the time I came to write the Dark Mountain manifesto, having gone through that experience of his death, I felt I had been given permission to not pretend any more. I just wanted to write the truth.
PR: Why did you move here to Ireland and buy this land?
PK: We wanted a change of life. My wife was a psychiatrist in the National Health Service, and very disillusioned. It was a pharmaceutical sausage machine, doling out drugs that didn’t work to people who didn’t need them. We wanted to live in the country, have our own land, grow our own food. We couldn’t afford to do that in Britain. You have to be a millionaire to live simply there. I have a nine-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. I want them to be able to run around in the fields and climb trees instead of looking at screens all day.
PR: You can’t save the world but you can at least look after this part of it?
PK: Yeah, I think so. How long was I going to write and talk about nature before going and getting my hands dirty? I’m going to do what I can do, and one of the things I can do is try and bring my kids up well, plant some trees, and try to slow down and pay attention to things. Having a bit of land is a kind of discipline—you have to shut up and focus and learn. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing.
PR: Is there a survivalist aspect to the way you are trying to live? Are you trying to learn to survive the catastrophe you predict coming?
PK: I wouldn’t call it survivalism. That conjures up images of men with guns in shacks. I’m not expecting some nuclear war or apocalyptic zombie catastrophe, but there is certainly a slow grinding collapse going on. So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.
PR: In your introduction to The World-Ending Fire (2017), a new collection of essays by Wendell Berry, you write that “some places want writers to tell their stories.” Is that what you feel is happening to you here—that the land is shaping or directing or seeping into your work?
PK: I hope so. I want it to. I do have the slightly mystical notion that places can speak through people, and the stories that we think we’re telling don’t come just from us; they come from somewhere outside us. I don’t believe that a writer or any kind of artist is just themselves alone. There’s always a wider sense of connection with the human community, or with the community beyond that. Working in that cabin in the field out there has certainly affected the way I write, and the writing itself. It seems like a much cleaner process now. There’s a certain power in place that you can tune into. That’s an idea I have tried to get into the novels: that the land is speaking to you, and it’s hungry, and it wants something, and it’s going to get it whether you like it or not.
Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse.
PR: Does living like this change how it feels when you sit down at the blank page?
PK: Yes. I’m walking over to the cabin in the morning when it’s still dark, lighting the fire; standing listening to the songthrush and watching the sun come up. I’m deliberately opening up a space for the place that I am in, and the sunrise, and the birds, and the things that are growing to come into the writing. I’m inviting them in. Beast was a book that to some degree I planned, but I was still surprised by the relative smoothness with which it flowed out. I think that was in part down to opening myself up to what the place gives me.
PR: In an essay published the day before the U.S. election, you likened Hillary Clinton to a corrupt late Roman emperor and Donald Trump to a barbarian hammering at the gates. If you had a vote, would you have cast it for the emperor or the barbarian?
PK: I don’t think I’d have voted for either of them. I would certainly not have voted for Clinton as she was just the continuation of a dead system. I kind of like the chaos energy that Trump is bringing, but I’m not sure I could have brought myself to vote for him. I’ve waited my whole life to see what is effectively an independent candidate in the White House, a guy who is going to take on the media establishment and global free trade and the authoritarian left and stand up for the working class, and it’s just a shame that it had to be Donald Trump. Those are the things he says he is going to do, but I’m not sure he is capable, and a lot of what he stands for I dislike intensely, especially his cowboy attitude to nature.
PR: On the day that you and I confirmed this interview, Trump signed executive orders to allow construction of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Surely you can’t favor that?
PK: Of course not. But what you see with Trump is American capitalism with its mask off. Obama talked a great game about climate change, but he never did anything. He was so charming that he could drone-bomb people every day for eight years and the media who are now calling Trump a fascist wouldn’t say anything about it. Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse, and the United States is obviously a collapsing empire.
At this point, his children burst into the room, laughing and roaring, pretending to be wildcats. They are learning to play guitar and harp and were due at a concert. Although Nav does most of the homeschooling, Kingsnorth gives a creative writing lesson every Friday. “We’ve been working on haiku,” he explained.
He pulled on a pair of rubber boots and we walked over to the cabin where he works. On the way, he pointed out the vegetable garden, the space set aside for chickens, the treehouse he has built for the youngsters. Fathers and children—it is a tender spot for him. “I want the children to have a home, and a sense of growing up in one place, which I never quite had; I’d like them to have somewhere they belong.”
Kingsnorth cast a critical eye over his two and a half acres, a green man in a green land. “If I was a millionaire, I’d buy up all the farms around here and cover them in trees and lakes and create a very small national park,” he mused. “If this interview sells me enough books, I could do that. But I’m not holding out much hope.”
Paul Kingsnorth will be teaching at the Great Mother and New Father Conference in Nobleboro, Maine, May 27–June 2. He will run Stories From The Cliff Edge: A Dark Mountain Weekend at The Rowe Center, Massachusetts, June 2–4. He will be running a day event with mythologist Martin Shaw at Point Reyes Books, California, on August 4.
March 18, 2017
21 Min read time