A Third Way


A recent dialogue in the Guardian between Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot has garnered a lot of attention. Both agree that the present course of industrial societies is unsustainable, but disagree on what to do about it. I do not know much about either person. I am not a regular reader of the Guardian where Monbiot writes, nor have I read the work of Kingsnorth. But the dialogue stands on its own.

The argument weaves back and forth with each responding, in turn, to a statement made by the other. It is easy, but misleading, to summarize the positions in a few words as the headline writer has done.

Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?

The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot - we can't let billions perish

Their arguments are not quite so polarized. You need to read the whole column carefully to parse out their stories. I want to point to a few sentences of Kingsnorth that presents the argument I have used to frame my book, Sustainability by Design.

Rather than "do nothing" in response, I'd suggest we get some perspective on the root cause of this crisis - not human beings but the cultures within which they operate.

Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humanity is separate from something called "nature", which is a "resource" for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us that we are in control. This craving for control underpins your approach. If we can just persaude the politicians to do A, B and C swiftly enough, then we will be saved. But what climate change shows us is that we are not in control, either of the biosphere or of the machine which is destroying it. Accepting that fact is our biggest challenge.

Kingsnorth suggests that perhaps the best course for the Planet is simply to let whatever happens happen because it will take a collapse and recovery to change the future trajectory. Obviously he believes that we are on a untenable course. Monbiot argues for doing whatever we can to avoid such a catastrophe.

This is why, despite everything, I fight on. I am not fighting to sustain economic growth. I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated catastrophe that follows. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing - an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy - might be, we must keep this possibility alive. Perhaps we are both in denial: I, because I think the fight is still worth having; you, because you think it isn't.

I do think Monbiot is in some kind of denial state. Contemplating some sort of soft landing at the hands of engineers and technocrats is exactly the wrong solution as it only postpones the reckoning at the cultural level. I have argued, in my book, for a third way, taking on the culture directly and working to replace the values and beliefs of unsustainability with a sustainability set. We do need some sort of technological buffer to prevent the collapse that Kingsforth postulates, but not as the "solution." Monbiot argues that an apocalyptic collapse would cost the lives of billions. It would also produce some unpredictable state of the world in which all of the societal structure that runs our present world would no longer work as we would like.