A Critique of the Thought Behind the Extinction Rebellion and Paul Kingsnorth’s “Life versus the Machine”

Colin Jay Treiber
Apr 8 · 6 min read

In a recent article in Orion Magazine by Paul Kingsnorth titled “Life versus the Machine”, Kingsnorth goes to great length to statistically paint a nightmarish and foreboding picture of what has become, and likely will become, of planet Earth. This picture however is already quite possibly meaningless to a great percentage of human beings on planet Earth. In reality, wide swaths of people have already lost any reference point to nature; that is what nature is, how the natural world functions, and how relevant the natural and elemental processes carried out by the Earth are to the survival of the planet as we know it. These wide swaths of people lack the reference point to all of this, because with more than half the world urban based, they quite simply lack the interaction points with it.

Certainly, it is undeniable that the mess human beings have created on planet Earth is overwhelming, and even unbearable at times, and Kingsnorth’s selection of data tidbits instills this gravity. Yet, I can’t help but feel a sense of outside angst, and even forceful pressure, applied by his writing and expression of ideas. The angst eventually turns into high gear towards the conclusion, leaving me, the reader, with little opportunity for my own rumination upon the course of earthly destiny, and my part in it. His preaching to the Orion choir, as if any readers could hardly harbor a difference of opinion or perhaps a uniqueness of thought, allows him to force a desperate emotional appeal and a helpless, and dangerous course of action, onto all readers as a necessary course of action.

It leads me to this big question: What is it today that has us believe (and certainly Kingsolver is the norm in this regard) that in gathering information, an individual doesn’t just inherit the right to distribute that information onward, but also the right to distribute the preferred decisions that should result from any person who comes in contact with the information? In other words, why do we believe that conclusions, as individually arrived upon thought processes, are intended to be universally inherited thereafter? Why do we believe that individually cultivated thoughts, ideas, and conclusions should be inherited by others without the living thought process, the experience of thinking, but rather instead, just the dead thought conclusion?

Of course there are degrees to this thought controlling activity, which begin at rather benign levels. But in this case, and many others, an intellectual and cultural leader such as Kingsnorth far oversteps his bounds and permits himself to declare a “horrorscene ethic” of civil disobedience as the necessary action once the reality of planet Earth’s plight is taken in by a human being. That is to say, that Kingsnorth is assuming it his responsibility to tell other human beings, albeit law abiding and likely upstanding human beings, how to live their life on planet Earth. And he does so not by means of reason, but by desperate emotionalism.

In his gathering and enumerating of statistical evidence, Kingsnorth seemingly gathers enough authority to bare the privilege of bestowing a healthy battle cry, loud enough to be heard by any stirring, or unsatisfied, Orion reader (which is probably all of us). Unfortunately, his sense of desperation, pretty well self asserted by Kingsnorth himself, predominates over any insight that could actually be considered to be containing clarity. And yet Kingsnorth enacts another habit of our time from the desperation of his anxious mind, he projects a manifesto of action from a place of confusion. A place of confusion being the one place where a developed course of action is nearly guaranteed to fail.

The place of confusion for Kingsnorth seems to be coming from a principal dilemma in his alignment of thoughts. Here is the principal dilemma behind the content presented by Kingsnorth as I see it:

The Earth principally is a living, intelligent, and autonomous entity filled with beauty and unpredictability beyond our comprehension as human beings. Yet at the same time it is treated as something to be assuredly predetermined to follow human generated statistical models and scientific theories; models and theories which appear as a grain of sand in the desert of time. Models and theories that are tiny and insignificant in the realm of truth that is. And yet these models are believed to be certain in predicting the Earth’s destiny.

What this means is profoundly important — if the Earth is forced to be treated, through our thinking that is, as a being that is predetermined to follow whatever human generated statistical models or scientific theories seem fit for the time, than it will become so — an inanimate object. In other words, human beings that relate their thoughts to the Earth through statistics and theories principally, engage only with a complacent, subsidiary, less than real Earth — they engage with the shell of the Earth, or the crust of the Earth. These people therefor begin to inhabit an Earth that is no longer a being with a living impulse within itself. They are obliged to act in response according to models and theories. Models which make a truly living being, into an objectified human globe. No wonder these people also feel it appropriate to treat other people in the same manner — as inanimate objects.

In this case, what has been done is that we have already adopted the same position as the materialists (or the industrialists) which strives to dominate the Earth outright through the technological advancements they employ and also expect to prolong its productive capacity with. In comparing to the industrialists’ case, we are no better than the industrialist, and perhaps worse, because we participate in the same materialist movement of religating the Earth to being something decidedly unintelligent, and non-living. Where the industrialist does this with physical force, Kingsnorth and his cohorts do it with their thoughts — which still follow the doctrine of scientific materialism.

Because Kingsnorth appears to have adopted this mentality, treating the Earth as if its destiny is tied to statistical models, he leads his readers to a disastrous battlefield (think Extinction Rebellion) which no amount of care, concern, or perhaps even reverence, for this Earth will compensate for such weighty bias (for one; because it cannot develop from it).

He leads his readers to a battlefield they are sure to die upon, with little to no impact on the course the Earth currently tends — or at least the real, living Earth. Why? To begin with, the profound complexity contained in the momentous tension on Earth now, can not be reduced to simple theories in the manner Kingsnorth attempts to.

“Because any human action which hinders the advance of the human industrial economy” (the proposition of Kingsnorth) is NOT inherently an ethical action. Even if it doesn’t “harm life” (an impossibility to begin with). To simplify such complex matters as our economic system in this manner is merely a clever trick, used quite often these days to persuade others to act in a way that is in accordance with the writers/speakers personal sentiments towards life on planet Earth. It is Kingsnorth’s way of telling us we should all sacrifice any moral ideal we may have to uphold the one he imagines he has.

Kingsnorth’s closing paragraphs, in their forcefulness, remind me of what is missing from his piece; the importance of small acts, free decisions, and unnoticeable changes in disposition eventually leading to noticeable changes in habit. If we are to change course, perhaps it is not from “peak hope”, nor from a “horrorscene ethic”, but from a lively intelligence beating in a patient heart that has developed from years, perhaps even lifetimes, of quietly persevering through the outside noise.

Image from Orion Magazine article “Life versus the Machine” by Paul Kingsnorth
Colin Jay Treiber

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I write not to find readers, but to meet thinkers.