In November 2017, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a review of my essay collection by Jennifer Peterson, an American academic. I thought the review was unfair (not to mention obtusely post-modern and over-reliant on predictably fashionable deconstructionist ‘theory’) and wrote in to say so. A ‘debate’ ensued. This is it.
Is it ever a good idea for authors to complain about reviews? Probably not. I’m not sure I would do it again, but if I did I would skip the initial outrage and go straight for the satire. It’s more fun.
I would not normally complain about any review of my work, but Jennifer Peterson’s review in the LARB of my essay collection, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, crosses the line between fair comment and misrepresentation, and I would like the record to be corrected.
Ms. Peterson makes two central claims about my work, both of which she would know were wrong had she read the book with any care or balance.
She firstly claims, in the service of attacking my apparent “essentialism”:
At the heart of this essentialism is Kingsnorth’s conventional insistence that nature is something apart from humans, over there; something that exists in the wilderness rather than a city park.
I insist nothing of the sort anywhere in my book. At the heart of my work, in fact, is precisely the opposite claim, which I explain numerous times throughout the collection. For example:
“Nature” is not something external to us, it is something we are part of and something which is within us: what are we if not natural?
“Nature” as something separate from people has never existed. We are nature, and the environmentalist project was always supposed to be about how we are to be part of it, to live well as part of it, to understand and respect it.
“Nature” as a concept has always been flawed. Many traditional societies had no word for “nature” as something separate from humanity, because there was no obvious reason to separate humans from everything else that lived. There still isn’t.
There are many more such examples. They matter, because the false claim made by Ms. Peterson here leads on to the second, and more serious, in which she charges that this “essentialism,” along with my apparently “toxic” “nationalism” leads me into an “archaic” politics which is “reactionary,” if not quite — yet — actually “fascist.”
I remain unashamedly attached to my English identity, and I will continue to explore the complex and shifting nexus between human identities, human landscapes, and nonhuman nature, as my work has always done. In the current political and cultural climate, this work seems vital. But this does make me a “nationalist,” let alone a “reactionary” one, and I do not describe myself as such anywhere in the book. Ms. Peterson’s disgraceful attempt to transmute my engagement with these issues into support for vicious prejudices or far-right politics is simply unacceptable. She writes:
“When I think about these questions [of nationalism], I always find myself coming back to the place itself: the woods, the fields, the streets, the towns, the beaches.” This is the age-old vision of mother nature as essence that’s been used to prop up all manner of bad ideologies such as colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia in the name of what is “natural.”
Firstly, this quote is simply wrong. The “questions” I am “thinking about” in the quoted essay are not questions “of nationalism,” which the essay is not concerned with and does not promote. They are questions of what it means to belong to a place, a historic culture, and a nation in a rapidly changing modern world.
Secondly, the notion that a cultural or national identity that is entwined with the natural world leads inevitably to “bad ideologies such as colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia” (none of which are ideologies in any case — the first is a foreign policy and the other three are prejudices) would be news to the Native American or First Nation communities of Turtle Island, the Aboriginal Elders of Australia, the Lani people of West Papua with whom I have lived, or the Adivasi communities of India whose work I have published. Or, come to that, any pre-modern society on Earth, from the agricultural villages of medieval England to the steppe nomads of Mongolia.
If I am promoting any “ideology” throughout my book, it is not nationalism but ecocentrism. Ms. Peterson does not appear to know what this word means — a fairly basic error for somebody reviewing two books about ecological philosophy. It does not denote, as she suggests, “a feeling for nature”; it is a philosophical position that promotes a nature-centered, as opposed to human-centered, value system. This is what I stand for. Ms. Peterson may not find my views to her taste, but she is not at liberty to misrepresent them in order to promote her own political prejudices.
Paul Kingsnorth accuses me of not knowing what “ecocentrism” means; he defines this word as “a nature-centered, as opposed to human-centered, value system.” But in making this accusation, he seems not to have read my entire review, only the part that concerns himself. In fact, I am interested precisely in anti-anthropocentric, ecocentrist thought, which is one of the things that drew me to his book as well as Timothy Morton’s in the first place. My review is in fact all about what it might mean to turn away from human-centered thinking and toward a new kind of ecology. Kingsnorth does not want to allow that what he calls “ecocentrism” is an unsettled concept (or a “philosophical position,” as he calls it). Surely he must be aware that environmentalists of different stripes (deep ecologists, animal rights activists, eco-feminists, anti-capitalists, eco-theorists) espouse different “ecocentric” perspectives. My ecological perspective may not be his, but I still consider it one.
Raymond Williams once wrote that “[n]ature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” Kingsnorth surely knows that the category “nature” has been criticized as a social construct for some time — see for example William Cronon’s seminal 1996 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”; still, he does not seem to have much ken for social constructionism. This is what I meant by describing his notion of nature as essentialist. Kingsnorth does not give any one specific definition of what he means by “nature,” but he offers ideas about it throughout the book. For him, nature brings about feelings of transcendence: it is divine, it is sacred. These ideas lie within the boundaries of traditional environmental thought, which I do not mean to dismiss. I teach the environmental writing canon of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Walt Whitman, Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and others, which I find rich and fascinating. I’m not going to argue with Kingsnorth about whether nature is or is not these things. What I will insist upon is that these are cultural categories, not natural. But that’s where Kingsnorth draws the line.
Let me clarify this further by explaining what I meant when I wrote that he envisions nature as “not human.” He has misunderstood my point, and I can see why. Yes, it is true that his book asserts that humans are not separate from nature. In addition to the citations he provides in his letter, there is this: “nature, Earth, the world, whatever you call it — is not simply something I am on but something I am. It is not outside of me, and I am it.” Prescriptions two and four from the “Dark Ecology” essay are: “preserving non-human life” and “insisting that nature has a value beyond utility.” These ideas are important, and they do indeed sketch a plan for coexisting with the nonhuman realm of the planet, which after all dwarfs us. None of this is essentialist. But there is an essentialist component in the simple belief that nature is natural, that it has an essential and fixed form, that we can point to it, and that its most pure form can be found in the wilderness. Essentialism is a belief that fixed, unchangeable traits determine identities or things. These fixed traits are often derived from pseudoscientific biological myths. Essentialism is a cornerstone of racist and misogynist beliefs, and it is a key component of the idea of nature, which is one reason I appreciate Morton’s project of dismantling it. I am not saying that one is a racist or a misogynist to believe in nature, but that I had hoped to find a more developed set of questions about what nature and the nonhuman might be in Kingsnorth’s book, since he well knows his climate science.
While Kingsnorth may not explicitly describe himself as a nationalist in his book, here is the complete quotation from the passage he accuses me of “disgracefully” mischaracterizing:
Is it possible to be a nation without nationalism? To be comfortable with your identity and history without withdrawing into them? To welcome outsiders without forgetting what you are welcoming them to? Englishness, whatever it means, is ever-changing: England today would be largely unrecognisable to someone from 1066, or even 1866. A nation is a process, not a fixed thing, but it has continuities nonetheless. It may be a story, but it is not fiction.
When I think about these questions, I always find myself coming back to the place itself: the woods, the fields …
In my view, “these questions” remain questions of nationalism, even if Kingsnorth wants to bracket the nationalism out. Such bracketing is not so easily done — perhaps especially today. Two pages earlier, he laments that “[u]nfortunately, the English left is uncomfortable with the idea of nations in general and the English nation in particular.” Why? Ignoring all mention of colonialism (he would push that responsibility off onto the British rather than his proudly parochial English), he wonders two paragraphs later about the “origins of this pathology” that would lead to a discomfort with the idea of the English nation. Perhaps the left has been reading too much history? It further seems extraordinary that Kingsnorth would distance himself from nationalism in his response to my review, since he has advocated for nationalism and also railed against political correctness and multiculturalism in other places that can easily be found in an online search (as here and here) or on his blog. And surely, he must know that telling us about the time he has spent with indigenous peoples does not get him off the hook. In fact, some of them might object to being name-checked in the service of validating his English brand of “benevolent green nationalism,” which he wrote about in the Guardian this past March.
I regret to say that if I approached Kingsnorth’s book with any “prejudices,” they were initially all in his favor: I sat down to read it thinking I would like it. But this predisposition turned sour as his revulsion for left environmentalism wafted off the page in passages such as this:
With the near global failure of the left-wing project over the past few decades, green politics was fast becoming a refuge for disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travelers who could no longer believe in communism or the Labour Party or even George Galloway, and who saw in green politics a promising bolt-hole. In they all trooped, with their Stop-the-War banners and their Palestinian-solidarity scarves, and with them they brought a new sensibility. […] To square the circle, for those who still realized there was a circle, we were told that “[human] social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand” — a suggestion of such bizarre inaccuracy that it could surely only be wishful thinking.
It’s not that my leftist sensibilities were offended. But if you want to lay out such criticisms of everyone else’s environmentalism — particularly left environmentalism — you’d better set yourself up more effectively against charges of an environmentalism on the right.
I had thought to defend myself at length against Jennifer Peterson’s latest string of ideological accusations against me, and indeed began writing a response along those lines. But I realized after a few paragraphs that the task was impossible. Ms. Peterson is what George Orwell called an expert “orthodoxy sniffer,” and it is impossible to escape the tractor beam of her blinding logic. So, instead, I have decided to plead guilty, in the hope of receiving a lighter sentence.
Ms. Peterson accuses me of being a “nationalist,” quoting as evidence one of my essays in which I explain that I am not a nationalist. I had thought, naïvely as it turns out, that because most humans on Earth today live in historic nations and remain attached to them, then the work of exploring healthy ways to do so as the winds of technological capitalism blow around us, was in some way valuable. I had thought that denying this reality — suggesting instead, say, that all nations are “toxic” “social constructs” that must be dismantled, and accusing anyone who disagreed of being on the inevitable path to fascism and hatred, was likely to lead to the kind of reaction which has put Mr Trump in your White House. Along with Wendell Berry, a writer who both I and Ms. Peterson appear to admire and whose essays I have just edited for a British audience, I had thought also that the work of figuring out how to belong to a place and community which respects and nurtures the natural world, while retaining cultural ties to the land, was work worth doing.
I now realize my ideological errors. I accept that the concept of nationhood itself is inherently “toxic” and “troubling,” that it must be eliminated from the human family, and that along with Mahatma Gandhi, Nicola Sturgeon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Carles Puigdemont, and Michael Collins, I am walking the inevitable road toward National Socialism. The future must lie instead in a global community of deracinated urban individuals, cut free from their historical moorings, engaging in entirely conceptual discussions about a “nature” that we comfortably live apart from on a daily level.
I had thought also that the business of puzzling out how to live well with the nonhuman world was a question that went beyond narrow categories of “left” and “right.” I had even, in my darkest moments — and it shames me now to admit this — begun to believe that such narrow ideological categorization might be part of the problem that we faced. Late at night, lying awake in a cold sweat, I once even remember asking myself if the very notion of ideology, of categorization, and of conceptualization was unique to modern societies, cut off as they are from any everyday contact with the nonhuman world. I had thought that perhaps the business of paying attention to the world beyond the human, and of establishing a relationship with it, was valuable in and of itself.
I now realize how naïve and problematic I have been. I have strayed from the path of progressive deconstructionism, and embraced instead an “environmentalism on the right.” I am deeply sorry for my errors.
Finally, I must plead guilty also to the most serious charge: that of “essentialism.” Before deciding on my guilty plea, I found it necessary to look the word up, given that Ms. Peterson seems allergic to defining any terms which might commit her to anything at all. Fortunately, my Concise Oxford Dictionary, despite being English and therefore problematic, informed me that essentialism was “the belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are.”
As soon as I read this, I was covered in shame. I had believed that my many years of personal Buddhist practice, in which I paid close attention to the construction both of the human self and of what we call “nature,” could be combined in some way with premodern notions of the Earth itself as a spiritual community to which we all belong. As I explained in a number of my essays, I had been tentatively arriving at a conclusion that perhaps the global ecological crisis we face is not primarily economic, technological, or political, but rather spiritual. I had believed that perhaps we could find some solace in traditional notions of the Earth as a nurturing mother, notions which are held by communities from the Yanomami to the Lakota Sioux to the Celtic Irish, whose great pre-Christian goddess Brigid personified the community of nature to which all humans belong, from which we all come and which we will return.
Most troubling of all, I had begun to believe that returning to, or moving toward, such a notion might return us as individuals and communities to a more humble and compassionate relationship both with the nonhuman world and with each other. I realize now my errors here too. To believe, as virtually all premodern human communities believed, that the living world as a whole has any “essence,” personality, or indeed independent way of being that is beyond the deconstructionist gaze of the human mind is Double Plus Ungood. The great living world, I now realize, is yet another “social construct” among which we must live, containing no external meaning or life force, and to claim otherwise is to follow a line of thought that leads inevitably to a triumphant march down the Champs-Élysées at the head of a fascist army.
And so I plead guilty to all accusations of Wrongthink, and can only beg forgiveness for my many ideological errors. I await the knock at the door, and I hope you will spare my family.