“The nature of this earth is change.” (Paul Kingsnorth)

This is the first of two excerpts from Paul Kingsnorth’s essay, “The Witness”. In this excerpt, he meditates on the changing nature of nature from an eco-centric (as opposed to an anthropocentric) perspective. If you find something unsatisfactory about this perspective, a feeling that there is something more to be said, stay tuned for the next excerpt.

You can read Kingsnorth’s complete essay here. You can also hear Michael Dowd read the essay here.


… All told, there have so far been at least five, and perhaps as many as twenty, “mass extinction events” in the history of earth. This first one—known as the “great oxygen catastrophe”—was the most far-reaching. The last, 66 million years ago, is the one we know best, because it is the most appealing to the human imagination: it wiped out the dinosaurs. Overall, it is estimated that around 98 percent of all organisms that have ever existed are now gone forever. …

The nature of this earth is change. The nature of this earth is endings. The nature of this earth is extinction.

As you read this, the earth is currently experiencing the latest extinction event in its 4.6-billion-year history. This one, known as the Holocene Extinction, is being caused not by cyanobacteria or asteroid impacts, but by human beings. Arguably, it has been going on for at least 10,000 years, since the extinctions of the great megafauna—the mammoths, the ground sloths, the sabre-toothed cats—who in all likelihood were pushed over the brink by human hunters. But it has accelerated greatly since the Industrial Revolution and has gone into overdrive in the last half century. The current extinction rate is estimated at anything between 100 and 10,000 times the expected rate of “background extinction,” and as the expansion of the human economy continues, with its associated resource extraction, fossil fuel combustion, population increase, and mass destruction of ecosystems, the Holocene Extinction is accelerating beyond our ability to even accurately measure it, let alone put any kind of brake on its progress. …

We tend to look at the world through an anthropocentric lens: human concerns are foremost in our vision, bounded by our short lives and our everyday needs and desires. Among those desires is a concern that what we have always known as “nature” should continue as we have always known it. But nature has taken many forms. For the vast majority of its existence, “nature” here on earth consisted only of single-celled organisms. The brief period of climatic stability in which human civilizations have evolved is just that: a brief period. It is not any kind of norm, for there is no norm. Had it not been for the great oxygen catastrophe or the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs or who knows how many other such episodes, none of us would be here to agonize about the latest turbulent episode in the history of this planet. Why should the state of the planet to which we have adapted survive forever? Nothing does. The earth is a process as much as a thing: it is constantly changing. At this period in its history, we are the force tipping it into a new state. Now we are going to have to live with that state, whatever it brings—if we can. …

It is hard for us to take in the reality that the earth is an extinction machine. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The “ecological crisis” we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off—well, who says it is a crisis? Humans do—and educated, socially concerned humans at that. For the earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a crisis—it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to “save the earth,” what are we really trying to save? And which earth? …

A great change is under way, across the earth. We cannot prevent it now, and its outcomes are not going to be pretty for much of humanity. The nature of nature has always been change, which means that death—and rebirth—will always be with us, and that rebirth may take forms we do not recognize and did not expect. You are part of this process, and so am I, and this time around we are the cause of it, too. The future offers chaos, uncertainty, loss. To deny this is to deny reality. To pretend we have more control than we have, to cling to glib “solutions” as if the world were a math puzzle we could solve with the right equations, is a similar form of denial. There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.


You can read Kingsnorth’s complete essay here. You can also hear Michael Dowd read the essay here.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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