by Caspar Henderson
In a recent article for New Statesman magazine, Richard Smyth suggested that modern writing on nature is haunted by the ghosts of fascism. In support of his case he cited various pieces of evidence including the fact that in a 2018 poll to choose the UK’s favourite nature book gave second place to Tarka the Otter (1927) by Henry Williamson — a ruralist, naturalist, naive and solitary who was also a fervent admirer or Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley. Smyth suggested that such things are particularly troubling at a time when eco-fascism in the form endorsed by the Christchurch mass murderer Brenton Tarrant is on the march.
How one should consider the relationship between a love of nature and environmentalism on the one hand, and far-right ideology on the other? This is a question I touch on with care for at least two reasons. Firstly, because the emotions are often supercharged. Secondly, because a comment I made welcoming a version of Smyth’s article published in New Humanist last year may have ended a friendship.
Paul Kingsnorth, the author and co-founder of the Dark Mountain literary movement, had published a response to the film Arcadia. The film itself had been well received by some (see, for example, this review) though I had thought it poor and confused. I found Paul Kingsnorth’s response (which has been removed from the web) no better. Indeed, I agreed with someone who said its mythic vision of England read like something from the literary wing of UKIP. This was awkward because I have known and liked Paul for a long time, and admire some of his work. I have, however, had misgivings about aspects of the Dark Mountain manifesto, drawing as it does on the vision of the American poet Robinson Jeffers, who despaired for — or of — humanity.
That said, I also find things to disagree with in Smyth’s article. I won’t go into them all here, but here’s one:
the environmental activist George Monbiot has astutely adopted a quotation from Byron in the process of promoting a “rewilding” agenda in UK environmentalism: “I love not man the less, but nature more.” But (as so often) he is rowing somewhat against the current.
Again, I should be careful. George is a longtime friend. It’s not that he is not astute. He is — except for the time he persisted in trying to learn to play the penny whistle. It is, rather, that I would not put his choice of Byron’s line down to astuteness, or at least not primarily to that. My observation is that George is driven, firstly, by deep love for life and the living world, and is passionately committed to social justice. He has risked his life on behalf of oppressed people, and has applied his remarkable abilities and almost superhuman energy to trying to help protect what he loves.
I also disagree that George is rowing against the current, at least in terms of what I know as environmentalism — if by that one means those who take seriously the warnings from scientists and other experts who say that many of changes wrought by humanity on the living world are cause for serious concern and action.
There is plenty of scope to disagree over what should be the priorities in responding to pollution, climate change and ecosystem destruction. And it’s true that much of what we can reasonably term environmentalism — and the nature writing that is a source of energy and inspiration to some in that movement — is often rowing against the current of a political and economic system in which we live. But George is not rowing against the current of environmentalism. To continue with the metaphor in a slightly corny way, he may push the boat the further out than others, and it is possible (though in my view quite rare) that he gets waylaid in a side stream; but the contributions that he and others make to environmentalism are serious and useful, worthy of scrutiny and debate. A recent example is a proposal for ‘Natural Climate Solutions,’ which argues that ecological restoration has pivotal role to play in an effective response to rapid climate change.
Richard Smyth writes that “it might not be that nature writing, or ardent environmentalism more broadly, is in itself uniquely or even unusually vulnerable to fascism.” I would argue that the nature writing and environmentalism that I know is more likely to inoculate against tendencies that can lead to fascism.
Consider, first, the tenets and characteristics of fascism. There is disagreement about these, but one can do worse than start with a list compiled in 1995 by the author and cultural theorist Umberto Eco:
The cult of tradition
The rejection of modernism
The cult of action for action’s sake
Disagreement is seen as treason
Fear of difference
Appeal to a frustrated middle class
Obsession with a plot
An enemy who is at once too strong and too weak
Life is permanent warfare
Contempt for the weak
Everybody is educated to become a hero
It could be interesting and useful to take these properties one by one and explore the extent to which any have found voice in various parts of environmental movements — multifarious and flawed as those have sometimes been. I am not going to do that here. (I am well aware of some of the limits of this piece.) But I will assert that they are pretty much the opposite of any characteristics of an environmentalism worth the name, which recognises and welcomes the need for change, which places a very high value on truth (especially scientific truth), which is passionate about social justice for all, which stresses the centrality of non-violence, which is open to uncertainty and delights in diversity, which thinks ecologically, and embraces restraint, humility and good relation. These are qualities we find in the greatest nature writing, from Henry David Thoreau onwards. They are present in the work of contemporary British nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane. And it is these qualities, I believe, which one finds in movements such a Sunrise in the United States, in Extinction Rebellion in the UK and beyond, and in the school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg internationally. Consider, for example the voices in Matthew Green’s FT profile ‘Extinction Rebellion: inside the new climate resistance‘.
This is not to say there are no dangers. Numbness, learned helplessness and neurotic distraction characterise our culture, and creep inside almost all of us at times — a mildew of the soul, or a raging infection. There is a strain of despair, misanthropy or quietism among some who call or have called themselves environmentalists. David Wallace-Wells has written well about some of this in his essential book The Uninhabitable Earth. And those negative reactions are not ungrounded. As individuals, many of us are, as the researcher Sarah Stein Lubrano has observed, “slow-moving tragedies who know it; who recognise…our failures to live bravely, intentionally, in line with our deepest hopes and values as some part of us wishes we could.” And so too it often is with us collectively, entangled as we are in multiple follies and illusions. We are failing beings who fuck things up.
There is every prospect that we will fail to address the challenges of climate change and ecosystem degradation. The coming shocks, compounded with other factors, may well, as they accelerate, profoundly disrupt and destabilise societies and political systems, fanning the flames of extremism, tribalism, tyranny, a hyper-surveillance state and other phenomena that are painful to imagine or as yet beyond imagination.
The thing is, life does not have to be that way.
Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva, and the author of A New Map of Wonders
Image: nature scene attributed to Adolf Hitler via BBC