Paul Kingsnorth, Dark Ecology (Orion, 2012)


1.      Loves his scythe (grass blade) (video of using a scythe)

         a.      An appropriate technology

         b.      A tool for conviviality (“jovial” or “sociable”)

2.      Why do people think his teaching and use of the scythe is silly and use Brushcutters/weedwackers instead?

         a.      Brushcutters are noisier, have buttons, use electricity/petrol

                   i.       Great heavy piece of equipment, needs to be operated with both hands, requires Darth Vader dress up

                   ii.      Roars like a motorbike, belches fumes, requires regular diet of fossil fuels

                   iii.     Hacks through grass, instead of cleanly slicing it

                   iv.     More cumbersome, more dangerous, no faster, less pleasant to use than the tool it replaced (the scythe)

                   v.      It is horrible, clumsy, ugly, noisy, inefficient

3.      Brushcutters not used instead of scythes because they are better

         a.      Their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology

         b.      Neither performance nor efficient is the point

4.      Religion is the point: Religion of complexity explains this preference

5.      Myth of progress manifested in tool form

         a.      Plastic better than wood

         b.      Moving parts are better fixed parts

         c.      Noisy things better than quite things

         d.      Complicated things better than simple things

         e.      New things better than old things

6.      We all believe this; How we were brought up


7.      Yes scythe is a tool, a technology that allows us to manipulate and control our environment and accelerate that control/manipulation

         a.      But it is limited enough in speed and application to allow control to be exercised in a way that is understandable and accountable to individual human beings

         b.      A compromise we can control

         c.      Involves human-scale change, not industrial scale change


8.      Kaczynski’s 4 premises

         a.      1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.

         b.      2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.

         c.      3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.

         d.      4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.

9.      Worried he might agree with Kaczynski and have to change his life even more than already has (or seek revenge on civilization?)

         a.      He already has

                   i.       Ditched his “telly”

                   ii.      Not own a credit card

                   iii.     Avoid smartpones and e-readers and “sat-navs”

                   iv.     Grows at least some of own food

                   v.      Learned some practical skills

                   vi.     Fled the city

         b.      He’s still “embedded” in industrial civilization and does not know where to jump

                   i.       He writes on laptop with broadband connection

                   ii.      Makes him a hypocrite, but we (proponents of “uncivilization” ) all are until we “break out”


10.    Critique of tech (and social/economic life) is a critique of power (he agrees with Ivan Illich)

         a.      Advanced technologies created dependency

         b.      Take tools and processes out of the hands of individuals and put them into the hands of organizations.

         c.      Humans become parts in a machine rather than the owners and users of a tool.

         d.      Given up autonomy, freedom, control

         e.      To be autonomous, people need to be in control of their tools rather than cogs in a machine

         f.       Criticizes the “dehumanizing impacts of mega-technologies on human soul and human body”

11.    Kingsnorth’s book “Real England” documented how human-scale ways of life in England were disappearing due to “march of machine”

         a.      Small shops were crushed by supermarkets

         b.      Family farms pushed out of business by the global agricultural market

         c.      Ancient orchards rooted up for housing developments,

         d.      Pubs shut down by developers and state interference.


12.    60-70s “riding high”

13.    Rio Earth summit of 1992 coming out party

14.    Now those ideas buried under decades of cheap oil and shopping, free money, and “economic enclosure” (taking common resources and privatizing them)

15.    Green movement at mid life crisis

         a.      Rio + 20: every env problem identified in 92 gotten worse and no sign of changing

         b.      Unable to change system or public behavior

         c.      Assailed by rising movement of “skeptics” and public boredom with being harangued about carbon and consumption

         d.      Colonized by corporations who see “sustainability” as just another way to sell things

         e.      Despite fact most what they say is correct

         f.       Greens are losing; no likelihood world is going their way

16.    Neo-environmentalism (e.g., Kareiva, Marris, Shellenberger) solution Kingsnorth rejects

         a.      Nature more resilient than fragile (80% of time nature recovers after humans degrade it)

         b.      Wilderness does not exist; all been human influenced for some time

         c.      Futile to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development

         d.      Uniformly positive attitude toward new technologies

         e.      Can save nature/people by embracing biotech, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering

         f.       Focus on limits is naive

         g.      We are “as gods” have to step up and accept our responsibility to manage planet rationally by new tech and science

         h.      Enthusiasm for markets; all that matters can be measure by science and priced in markets; claims w/o numbers can be dismissed (e.g., claims based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection)

         i.       Anthropocentrism: Don’t protect biodiversity/nature for own sake, should enhance those natural systems that benefit people

                   i.       Nature’s value is solely its benefit to people

17.    Kingsnorth critique: It is same old techno-optimism that has been promising us cornucopia for a century; old-fashioned Big Science, Big Tech and Big Money narrative


18.    Progress trap:

         a.      Short term social/tech improvement turns out to be backward step in long term and realized too late to change course

         b.      Each improvement in knowledge or tech creates new problems requiring new improvements

         c.      Each improvement tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life and more likely to collapse under its own weight

19.    Examples of progress traps:

20.    Pleistocene over-kill example: Improved hunting techniques led to mass slaughter and disappearance of wildlife

         a.      Perfection of hunting spelled end of hunting as way of life

         b.      Easy meat meant more babies,

         c.      More babies mean more hunters

         d.      More hunters mean less game

         e.      Less game means end of hunting as way of life

         f.       This drove people to agriculture, which was its own progress trap

21.    Green Revolution as progress trap and genetically modified crops as solution

         a.      GM crops said to be necessary to feed the world

         b.      Why world hungry?

         c.      Green Revolution of 1940-70s, use of pesticides, herbicides, high-yielding crop strains, fertilizers

         d.      Fed a billion people who otherwise would have starved

         e.      But now have to keep feeding them/us and our children

         f.       Caused env degradation, poisons killed wildlife, polluted waterways, eroded land, destroyed health of soil and lowered crop diversity, increased possible spread of disease, made crops more vulnerable, destroyed self-sufficiency of farmers

         g.      In forty years, we’ll have some new technology that will be claimed to dig us out of the trap GM crops put us in

                   i.       Perhaps vat-gown meat, synthetic wheat or nano-bio-gubbins

22.    Progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress. It is far too late to think about dismantling this machine in a rational manner—and in any case who wants to? We can’t deny that it brings benefits to us, even as it chokes us and our world by degrees. Those benefits are what keep us largely quiet and uncomplaining as the machine rolls on


23.    Green technology is no solution

         a.      According to Neo-environmentalists, the progress trap in which we are caught can be escape by inflating a green tech bubble on which we can merrily sail into the future, happy as gods and in equal control

         b.      “But we are not gods and our machines will not get us off this hook”

         c.      But their suggestions are more appealing than the old school environmentalists “threatening talk about limits to growth, behavior change”


24.    Kingsnorth sees future as dark and darkening further

         a.      We are not headed toward convivial tools and human-scale development

         b.      Our culture is about superstores, not little shops

         c.      Synthetic biology, not intentional community

         d.      Brushcutters not scythes

         e.      We develop new life forms first and ask questions later

         f.       We are a species “breaking its legs on its own cleverness”

25.    He rejects false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism

         a.      **If you don’t feel despair at times like these you are not fully alive

         b.      But wants to avoid nothing but despair

         c.      Needs to be something that accompanies despair

         d.      A personal philosophy for a dark time

                   i.       Not going to save the world, for there is no saving the world and those who say there is are the ones you need to save it from!


26.    Mistaken responses

         a.      If you think you can magic us out of the progress trap with new ideas or new technologies, you are wasting your time.

         b.      If you think that the usual “campaigning” behavior is going to work today where it didn’t work yesterday, you will be wasting your time.

         c.      If you think the machine can be reformed, tamed, or defanged, you will be wasting your time.

         d.      If you draw up a great big plan for a better world based on science and rational argument, you will be wasting your time.

         e.      If you try to live in the past, you will be wasting your time.

         f.       If you romanticize hunting and gathering or send bombs to computer store owners, you will be wasting your time.”

27.    Kingsnorth’s suggestion

         a.      Withdrawing: Withdraw from the fray not with cynicism but with questioning mind;

                   i.       Refuse to help machine advance; refuse to tighten the ratchet further

                   ii.      A deeply moral position

                   iii.     Action not always more effective than inaction

                   iv.     All real change starts with withdrawal

         b.      Preserve nonhuman life: Human empire is greatest threat to what remains of life on earth and each of us is part of it

                   i.       What can you do about this? Buy up some land and rewild, let garden run free; work for a conservation group or set one up yourself, put body in way of bulldozer, use skills to prevent destruction of yet another wild place; figure a way to give something that isn’t human a change to survive our appetites

         c.      Get hands dirty: Root yourself in something, some practical work or some place or a way of doing.

                   i.       Ground yourself in things and places, learn/practice human-scale convivial skills;

                   ii.      the way to learn what is real and what not, what makes sense and what not

         d.      Insist nature has value beyond utility: Find a way to value this thing called life for its won sake

         e.      Build refuges: There is a storm coming; Tech will challenge our sense of what it means to be human while extinction rolls on; collapse of social and economic infrastructures will continue

                   i.       Can you do something to preserve what is of value from this coming storm? Protecting creatures, skills, things, places?

Questions on Kingsnorth’s Dark Ecology


1.      Why does Kingsnorth believe people use brushcutters instead of scythes?

2.      Identify the dimensions of the “myth of progress manifested in tool form” that he identifies and that explains the above.

3.      Why is the scythe a technology that he thinks acceptable?

4.      In what sense is the critique of technology a critique of power, according to Kingsnorth?

5.      Is Kingsnorth optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of environmentalism and our future? Explain your answer.

6.      How does Kingsnorth characterize “neo-environmentalism?” To what extent do you support or reject those ideas?

7.      What is a “progress trap?” In what way does the “Pleistocene overkill” illustrate this idea?

8.      What is Kingsnorth’s view of the prospects and possibilities of “green technologies?”

9.      Describe several of Kingsworth suggestions for what we might do in light of his dark perspective on the future