Slow Work (Paul Kingsnorth)

In this excerpt from an interview with Emergence Magazine, Paul Kingsnorth talks about how the necessary cultural shift, if it happens at all, will not be a fast one or even one which we can rationally plan. Rather, it will be the culmination of a lot of small shifts over a period of generations. You can read the complete article here.

Emergence Magazine: How would you go from removing yourself from that story to being part of a new story, which, as you were saying earlier, is more about living in relationship with the Earth, and is connected to an older story? It seems like a big leap in some ways to make.

Paul Kingsnorth: I think it is a big leap. I don’t think it’s a leap that you can consciously make. I don’t think we are in a situation where we can sit down and say, “Right, we need a new story and a new way of seeing.” People’s worldviews and their stories and their myths develop out of their circumstances. That’s true of any culture. From the smallest tribe to the biggest civilization, people develop a story that fits with their practical experience. While we’re all still wealthy and sitting around having middle class lifestyles, the story of progress makes perfect sense. It will only change when those things fall away.

When we hit a wall and it’s impossible to believe that this is working anymore, when things are getting considerably worse for most people, then we’ll start thinking about the world differently. New things will emerge from that, but that’s a long process. It’s not something that can be consciously constructed. I think we are making a mistake if we think we can sit down and draw up some sort of monomyth or new way of seeing that everyone is supposed to buy into. We will believe what appears to be true. For some people in the world today, it appears to be true that things continually progress in a sort of upward direction. There are a lot of other people for whom it doesn’t look true.

Emergence Magazine: What made you shift from thinking that you could create new stories, tell new stories, and share new stories that would shift people’s perspectives, to this idea you have now in which these perspectives will shift in their own time in response to people’s circumstances?

Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I think I can still do that in a way. It’s what I do when I write, although I don’t necessarily do it consciously. But the act of writing an essay, or the act of writing a novel, or the act of telling any kind of story are very small ways of telling different stories and challenging things. I think actually that that’s what the work is—people doing things at really quite a small level—at a personal level—doing their small work.

I think that what I used to believe (arrogantly, probably)—that we could work together to create some grand new story for humanity—was just foolish. But that doesn’t mean that lots and lots of small stories don’t come together to form something bigger, which I think is probably how it always works. If enough people are questioning the way the world works and the values we have and the stories we tell ourselves, then what they will start to do instead will start to add up to something. This is really what we have been trying to do with the Dark Mountain Project for nearly ten years. …

I always come back to the same answer, which is that those of us who can do what we can should just do it without any expectation that it’s going to lead to a quick world-changing solution, because I don’t think it is. It’s more a sense that—those of us who can, building refuges, protecting what we can protect, telling the stories we can tell, trying to look for truth—if that’s what we’re doing—and hoping that that can be passed down generations as things go on. It’s a long process. I think Gary Snyder said something like “we’re in a two-thousand-year or maybe even a five-thousand-year process of trying to live well on the Earth.”

I don’t think that this is something that we are going to turn around in a generation or two. I think it’s just slow work, so we will just do what we can do.

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,, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

One thought on “Slow Work (Paul Kingsnorth)

  1. Paul is somehow putting into words what I’m feeling at the moment, in between the frustration, rage and despair at the stupidity and culpability of humans, that I can’t put into words myself. Even though, as a writer, I think I should be able to.
    What Paul here says is very important.

    This, I struggle to write, so it may be a bit allover the place.

    It mirrors, that, our neo-liberal capitalism that is a suicide death cult, is also not something that was put in place by a small group of evil people, but in itself just a myriad collection of small actions by millions (back in the 1950s) and then billions of people. For every person refusing to fly in an attempt to cut pollution, there’s another born that will fly in a jet within 20 years. For everyone going vegan there’s another 20 meat eaters born every hour. For every person taking up no-till gardening and growing their own food, there’s another 10 cutting down an acre of rainforest to feed cows. And so on.

    And as Paul says, more and more people are beginning to realise that the story of capitalism (or any other #-ism that involves growth) is no longer applicable to them.

    This following is a supposition – the mental health crises afflicting the western world, and intoxications with drugs, alcohol, porn, US mass shootings, computer games (pick your poison), all stem from people that have lost their story, and are now bereft, without a story. For too many it is filled by poisonuous new stories flung out by conspiracy theorists and latter-day Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot’s (pick your bogeyman). For others it is the doomosphere, itself becoming part of business-as-usual for some.

    Is it then the reality that humans cannot exist without their story? Without some kind of belief system? Whether it’s your traditional religion, or so-called rationally based economic system, or fairies and dragons, or plain old humancentric ego trip?

    Is my no-dig gardening, with mulches, at my allotment and the community Incredible Edible network, my personal story, my belief system? Even though I’m a raging aethist? Dur.

    I do know, that the story is slow. Which Paul picks up on here, and his point reaches out to me as, damned important.

    I see it at our volunteer group in the very slow uptake of new volunteers, the high turnover, the high number of mentally damaged people that pop in for a few sessions then disappear. There’s only 3 hardcore regulars that go twice a week and make the place work. But with the no-till methodologies and mulching efforts, that works for the garden, and it’s a beautiful place. We talk to the robins now, they are that tame.

    I can’t say it doesn’t bother me, nor can I say that it’s wrong. I know it’s telling me something. I do know it’s about people, and not just plants.

    I also know, that the more time a person spends in nature, the more they notice. I gradually learn to identify birds by their song. I’m quite adept at spotting nut hatches in the woods. That’s because I take time to stop and watch, and like Paul points out, it’s an emotional event. At the allotment yesterday I was thrilled to watch a pair of treecreepers. A pair! It was like a major event. And then afterwards you think like, it’s just a little thing, a small chance moment in time, it’s just a couple of little birds, why’s it so important?

    I still have to do capitalism, I still have to work for some living, even though I’ve drawndown my economy to quite a low relative level (lived on £10.5K pa for a decade). The other story intrudes, I can’t waste time looking at birds! Meh.
    I no longer work hard at earning a living, that’s a mug’s game, is my other story.

    I was tree planting today. A glorious sunny day, despite the snow on the moors around. Working with a volunteer group, we had a good turnout, perhaps 12 people, whoo, in a town of 85,000. We planted 400 or so trees in 2 hours. That’s cool. Filling in gaps where we’d planted 18 months ago.
    A heron came down when we’d finished to look over the marshy bit where we’d planted alder and willow and birch, which was a nice touch. Turns out the council had finally given up wishing the site to be a housing estate, as it is on an old quarry and landfill that is slowly sinking in random places. So just maybe these trees will stay. The council do carry out post-planting tree maintenance work, so some parts of the council have ecological awareness of sorts, even though other parts demand the following of neo-liberal policies. They have for example a department of economic growth and development, but not one for sustainable degrowth.

    I did get to talk to a young person who is studying international politics for her degree. Conversation ranged from barn owls to mutual angst about the concept of international borders, using trains in Europe, how stupid working for a living is as a concept, climate change as a symptom not a problem, CO2 levels of 1000ppm, CH4 levels of 10,000ppb, 140′ sea level rise baked in, moving the capital to Birmingham, humans and their pet cows, pigs and sheep being 96% of biomass, EROEI, the exponential function, and anarchism. Yet again, I referenced Carne Ross, the Accidental Anarchist, whose interview with Russell Brand a few years ago I constantly find myself going back to. Carne Ross being an ex-diplomat, hence the link from international politics.

    His point was, you can protest, demonstrate, whatever, and up to a point thats fine. But to make change, it better to set up the systems you want to see*, and when people see them working, they will join in, and the obsolete system you’re campaigning to get rid of, will eventually wither on the vine and die of it’s own insignificance. And that comes full circle to Paul’s article here, it’s slow and it’s stories that we tell. Hopefully, I’ve given that person something to think about.

    *the caveat being of course, that current political, economic, social and cultural structures make that extremely hard – as XR are finding, if you step outside the Matrix you’re setting yourself up as targets for the state’s stormtroopers. In many places around the western world, it is almost illegal to live off-grid, or viewed as a wealthy eccentric hobby.

    And that’s a difficult story to hold, that the planet-destroying elites that know what’s going on, but still carry on regardless (not because they are evil, but because they know no other way – on other words, they have their own story) – to hold a story, a belief if you like, that they will disappear due to their own irrelevance, in a time when many people are dying because of their actions. That is hard to hold, I think.

    I have to the conclusion that the latest attempts here in the UK to silence XR and other anti-capitalist groups are because those in charge fear only one thing. Not climate change, or societal collapse, they know that’s coming. What the fear is sufficient numbers of people becoming aware that their story is ended, that the current form of capitalism is no longer working for them, and demanding the changes that they think are needed. Those changes of course involving taking away all the privildges that give the elites their wealth and power. They won’t give them up without a fight.
    And you and I know of course, that even if they did, collapse is inevitable due to factors beyond any control now, we’re in Overshoot and the ecosphere is now too badly damaged to repair, but will now evolve into a new state where humans may or may not be a part of it. Mother nature, too, it seems, is having her own story.

    And in another piece of connectivity, Tim Watkins did an article on The Age of Stupid, which I sometimes feel we live in:
    With the ending line: “As prosperity collapses, the appearance of stupidity is the one thing that we can reliably bet will keep on rising.”
    On reading the article, the key words are “the appearance of stupidity”.

    Sigh. Stories, stories, stories, who’d ‘ave ’em?!

    And sorry for the ramble, think I needed a rant, hopefully it has some coherence.


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