Dark ecology: searching for truth in a post-green world, in the current issue of Orion, reads like a dark mirror. I glimpse my own pessimism enhanced by deep reflections of Paul Kingsnorth. The essayist says technological civilization is bound for an inevitable catastrophe.
If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.
Society cannot avert disaster because it is addicted to technology. He discusses progress traps, a term coined by author Ronald Wright to describe social or technological advances that seem to offer short-term improvements but ultimately make matters worse. For example, Kingsnorth refers to genetically-modified foods, which promise an illusory solution to hunger and poverty. He points to growing ranks of neo-environmentalists who embrace technological change as the path to a better world. Throughout the essay, the scythe appears as an example of appropriate technology, and symbol of independent, thoughtful action.
What is inappropriate technology? It is any tool that forces us to depend on the industrial network of increasingly specialized, disengaged, unsympathetic and nonhuman workers. It is anything we cannot master and cannot imagine surviving without.
As a writer, I might be helpless without my laptop. I would be at a loss to reach any audience without it, but I can never master it. Without Microsoft, Google and the Total Protection Plan from Future Shop, the computer would be useless. Fortunately Kingsnorth does not ask us to give up our computers, though he advocates spending more time away from them.
What can prevent the catastrophe of environmental degradation and societal collapse? Nothing: Kingsnorth recommends several points of action that will prevent us from wasting our time, such as, “Preserving nonhuman life.” But above all, the only way to address the social disaster already upon us, is to stop engaging with those trying to use technology to prevent it. His call to action is to withdraw.
If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray.
A recent personal experience gave me insight to this approach. I realized someone close to me possessed extreme narcissism. You cannot win an argument with such a person because they lack sympathy for others and are utterly bent on pursuing unrealistic, selfish goals. In fact, they need the conflict to prove their own superiority. Sadly, they cannot accept responsibility for their own unhappiness.
As the situation became more grim, I began disengaging, letting go. It was hard to do. In silence I received unrelenting blame for ruining the relationship. However, in time I began to experience more stability and self-confidence, along with less absorption in myself. All the energy I had spent on trying to manage that difficult relationship became free for me to play a more active role in my own existence.
I had believed assertiveness was a key to healthier relationships, and assertiveness meant telling people what I needed or expected. This experience taught me that standing up to people, even in our so-called civilized society, does not always reap benefits. Sometimes we must stand back to seek a deeper competency and engagement within ourselves.
Reading Kingsnorth’s diagnosis of society’s technological addiction, I started to see a familiar theme. The traditional green movement cannot win any political discourse with an adversary convinced of its superiority. Like a narcissistic person who wants all the best for himself, technological society refuses to accept anything but progress. The monster will not stop until it destroys itself.
Letting go is hard, but the best we can do for ourselves is refuse to participate in the disaster. From personal experience, I recognize the need for time and space to reflect. We must dig deep and find our moral roots.