British writer Paul Kingsnorth writes mystifying novels and button-pushing essays. His fiction is about individuals facing great odds.
And after a career of environmental activism, he's disillusioned: Humanity, he said, isn't asking the important questions about what needs to be done for the planet.
"What is it like to live in a time today when much of what we know, and have taken for granted is falling apart?" he asks. "Particularly ecologically?"
Experience, connection, and crisis are key to Kingsnorth's writing, both in his fiction, and his essays about modern life.
His latest novel, "Beast," is an allegory about an injured man alone on a moor. He's gone on a spiritual quest to find himself — but instead finds a large unidentified animal, and realizes it's his destiny to hunt it. "Beast" is a follow-up to Kingsnorth's award-winning novel "The Wake." Set in the year 1066, it tells of a man in northern England who is living through the brutality of the Norman Conquest. Both novels, Kingsnorth said, are studies of people and their connection — or non-connection — to the land.
"And connections between people and the other world, if you like," he said, "the world of the spirit, the world of God and gods, and the way that those connections and those relationships affect the way that we see the world today."
Kingsnorth wrote "The Wake" in an imagined language. It mimics the Old English spoken at the time, but shifts a reader's perceptions of the story. It was Kingsnorth's attempt to open readers' eyes in new ways to a cataclysmic event which changed the lives of everyone who experienced it. He likens that impact to the experience of climate change.
Twin Cities-based Graywolf Press published both novels, as well as Kingsnorth's new collection, "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, and Other Essays." In it, he bluntly argues the environmental challenges facing the planet are escalating, and are likely unstoppable.
"I think that we are moving to a world where there are going to be 8 to 10 billion people, a third of whom are already wealthy middle-class consumers, wrecking much of the planets eco-system," he said.
"Many of the other two-thirds would like to be in that position. We have an economic growth machine which is not turning itself around anytime soon. And no matter how many agreements we put in place about climate change or biodiversity or forest protection — and all of this stuff has been happening for 30 or 40 years now — everything continues to get worse."
A few years ago he co-founded Dark Mountains, an organization of artists who try to address what they see as the inevitability of climate change in their work. He says when he personally reached that conclusion himself, it actually was a relief. He says it's allowed him to focus on smaller, more manageable things that he can do on an individual level. He's edited the group's journal, and written for it too.
For many of those years, Kingsnorth said, he was an environmental activist. But he said he now believes activists have been asking the wrong questions, all along.
"The Green movement, broadly speaking, in the West, has become a movement which seems to be more interested in sustaining our current civilization, maybe more renewably than currently, rather than asking what the planet needs us to do," he said.
Kingsnorth argues the root of the crisis is not technological, but lies in our disconnection from the non-human world. He says he realizes many people don't buy his arguments, but he wants them to at least seriously consider the planet's situation.
"If people can look honestly and openly at things and think about them a bit harder than they have thought about them before, and then end up violently disagreeing with me, that's absolutely fine by me," he said. "That will be a job well done."
He doesn't have simple, cure-all solutions for the world's environmental challenges, he said. For now, he's trying to live a simpler life, and be more connected with nature, even as he tries to get others to ponder the planet.
If you go: Paul Kingsnorth
Paul Kingsnorth will discuss his work with publisher and educator Eric Utne.
• Date: Tuesday, Aug. 8
• Time: 7 p.m.
• Location: University Club, St. Paul
• Cost: Free