A seventeenth-century French engraving by Sébastien Le Clerc I (1637–1714), depicting the Resurrection. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

WEEKEND LISTENING: Why an Eco-warrior Left the Movement—and Became a Christian

A conversation with Paul Kingsnorth on living freely in “the age of the machine,” and the meaning of Easter.

If the First Industrial Revolution used water and steam to fundamentally change the nature of work, this industrial revolution—the disruption of automation, information, the internet, and now AI—is transforming everything about the way we work, connect, and interact with the natural world. 

These changes have largely been regarded as a net good. After all, poverty across the world has fallen precipitously in the last 100 years. Life expectancy has nearly doubled. Literacy is four times higher. Hunger, malnutrition, war—all down. All good things.

But today’s Honestly guest, writer Paul Kingsnorth, thinks that the way in which this progress has been achieved is detrimental not only to the environment but to our own mental and physical well-being—and that underneath the extreme wealth built by human society is a massive sense of human and spiritual loss.

Paul is someone who has gone through a profound transformation over the past decade, and in a very public way. He was once considered one of the West’s most radical and prominent environmentalists—even chaining himself to a bridge in protest of road construction and leading The Ecologist, a left-wing environmental magazine. But he became disillusioned with an environmental movement that he says is now obsessed with cutting carbon emissions by any means, and getting captured by commercial interests in the process.

Paul and his family eventually left urban England to live off the land in rural Ireland, where they currently grow their own food; the children are homeschooled. 

One more thing of note on this Easter Sunday: Paul converted from a practicing Buddhist and Wiccan to an Orthodox Christian—which is about as traditional as it gets.

As you’ll hear in this conversation, Paul explains why he intentionally “regressed.” In short: in our modern, hyper-connected, tech-obsessed world—what he calls “the age of the machine”—Paul and his family are trying to live wildly. We talk about what that looks like for him, and for any of us trying to be free; we talk about how the left has strayed from its original principles; why the West has abandoned God; and how to fight everyday to live. . . simply.

To listen to our conversation, click below. Or scroll down for an edited transcript.

On how he got involved in the environmental movement:

Paul Kingsnorth: It was really a question of joining the dots. If you love the natural world, you look out and you see the natural world being destroyed, you try to stop it. But then the question you ask is, why are they building these motorways? Why do they want to increase traffic levels? Why do we need to drive faster? Why do we have this developing economy? And you start to join the dots and you start to see how consumerism works and how capitalism works and how industrialism works. And really, what I was realizing over all of that time is that—and I still believe this to be the case now—that the modern industrial economy, which brings us plenty of material benefits, is also a giant colonial machine that destroys the natural world and turns that bounty into product for us. And I could see that going on everywhere, and I became very passionate about it. And being very young and strong-willed, I thought we could save the world. 

Back in the 1990s, climate change was not on the front page of all the papers. People didn’t even really know what it was. Nobody talked about sustainability. There was no “net zero.” There was none of this stuff. It was long before all the corporations and the politicians decided they were going to run with this agenda, which back at the time we would have dreamed of happening. It didn’t quite turn out the way we thought.

Bari Weiss: If I had bumped into you in a pub at that time, and I had said to you, “What political party do you support?” or “Do you identify as a Marxist or an anti-capitalist?” would those terms have even resonated with you? How would you have described yourself at the time?

PK: Well, I would describe myself as a Green. It’s not quite right and it’s not quite left. So I suppose I certainly would have regarded myself as a man of the left. But I was never a Marxist. I was always very suspicious of top-down solutions, ideological programs, because fundamentally, like most other Greens, I was a localist. And so I had this notion that certainly capitalism was a monster. Industrialism was a monster. What we needed to do was to live as locally as we could and live as simply as we could. I still think that’s a good idea, although I’m much less naive about the possibility of doing it now. But really, environmentalist politics, Green politics arose as a kind of challenge to both the capitalist right and the socialist left. I think since then it’s been very much swallowed by the left.

On leaving environmental activism:

BW: So, like any good story, yours has a turn, and at some point you start to become—well, you’ll tell me, but the word I would use would be disillusioned. What were the seeds of that change for you?

PK: I think it’s worth saying, for starters, that my feelings about the natural world are still fairly similar to the ones I had when I was young. It’s not as if I’ve suddenly decided that nature doesn’t matter and we can dig it all up and burn it. But what I started to see was a couple of things. One, I realized that this belief I had that we could create a radically different world wasn’t actually going to happen. It had been tried many times before, and it wasn’t possible. The momentum of this thing was just largely unstoppable. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing good to be done, but the kind of progress of what I call “the machine” now is very wedged in. But then also something else happened to the Green movement, which is that the mainstream of the Green movement got captured by commercial interests. It also got captured by the progressive left. What it also did was it became obsessively focused on climate change, which is certainly a real thing and an important issue, but it’s only one of a suite of problems that arise from the industrial economy destroying the earth. But we got absolutely obsessed with it, and the whole of the Green movement became reduced to a kind of mission to cut carbon. That’s all it was about now. We were just going to reduce carbon emissions, and it didn’t matter how people did that.

So suddenly, these beautiful mountains I was walking on as a child were being covered in enormous industrial wind farms, and I was being told that this was the solution to saving the planet, even though the energy they created was going straight back into the consumer economy. And I was saying, no, this is not environmentalism, and neither is covering the farmland with giant mirrors, and neither is filling the seas full of wind farms and neither is corporate sustainability. The kind of activist optimism that I had when I was in my 20s started to look a bit unrealistic, shall we say. And I started to look at the Green movement and think, I don’t recognize this anymore. 

BW: Was there a break in the way that people inside of movements sort of become heretical and then have a dramatic break with their tribe? Was there anything like that for you? Or was it a kind of slow peeling away into this new brand of environmentalism?

PK: Well, you know this yourself better than anyone. The process of getting disillusioned is probably, for most people, a process rather than an event. 

BW: Yes.

PK: It’s not as if you just wake up one day and realize everything’s wrong and you’ve radically changed. It takes years, because you don’t want to necessarily break with it. Tribalism is very important to people. I was quite tribal about being a Green. I thought this was a great movement and I wanted to be part of it. And I was probably very egotistical about being some great Green writer as well. So it was important to me. It was part of my identity, I suppose. And I still consider myself a Green in many ways, but it was a process of just getting to the point where I thought, I can’t actually support this. I can’t in good conscience go out and campaign for these wind farms on the mountain.

On moving to Ireland to live off the land:

PK: My wife and I had wanted for a long time to get out of the rat race, find a bit of land, try and homeschool our children, try and grow our own food as much as we could. And so we did that in 2014. My wife was a doctor. She gave up her job. We left England. We came to Ireland where land was more affordable, and we bought the place we’re in now. And we thought, well, we’re going to just try this out because if we don’t, we’re going to regret it. So the last 10 years, really, have been an experiment where two people who’d grown up in urban and suburban England decided to dump themselves in rural Ireland and try and learn how to do everything from planting trees to building chicken houses to growing vegetables to all the other things that you do when you’re trying to live like that.

On his religious path to Christianity:

PK: When I was younger, I felt like the Earth was alive. I had a really strong sense of that. And so I felt like I was in some ways a sort of vague pagan and pantheist, and I was worshipping nature or worshipping through nature or something. When I got into my 40s, I decided I was going to go on a Zen Buddhist retreat. And actually, it was a very powerful experience, and I practiced Zen for quite a few years after that. And I had in mind that I’d become a sort of practicing Buddhist, and I did in a very ill-disciplined way, and I got a lot out of Buddhism but there was still something missing. And it felt like I’m just going through a series of stages of trying things. It’s never quite enough. There’s still something I’m reaching for, and I’m reaching and reaching and stumbling on an inch at a time toward something—I didn’t know what it was or what I was really even looking for. 

BW: You really hit every station of the cross, as it were. It’s Buddhism and it’s Daoism and it’s Sufism and it’s Wicca and it’s mythology. And I’m sure you got something from each of those things. But why do you think you prioritized these Eastern religions before the one that had been practiced in your ancestral homeland for centuries?

PK: That’s the question, and it almost answers itself. It’s because it’s the one that’s been practiced in our ancestral homeland for centuries, and we’re growing up in a time where the culture we’re living in is what I’ve called, in some of my essays recently, a “culture of inversion.” So we’re turning everything on its head. We react against absolutely everything we used to be. And the fundamental thing we react against is the faith we used to have, which is Christianity. And so the Christian church can be held up as the fount of all evil.

It’s very interesting in England to see that Christianity is regularly treated as this oppressive patriarchal religion, whereas a stronger, more patriarchal, more traditional religion like Islam is regularly kind of soft-soaped. It’s very interesting. And the reason for that is very simply that Islam comes from somewhere else, and it’s practiced by minorities, whereas Christianity is what we used to be. And so there’s a reaction that’s been going on since at least the 1960s against the church. And I grew up with that, believing all of that. The church—certainly Britain, anyway—has lost faith in itself. It doesn’t have a strong spirituality. So if you go into a church, you’re not going to get much from it. It feels like a sermon by a liberal NGO or something. It’s fine, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anything to it. And that’s why people in the West, I think at least since the 1960s, always go East if they’re looking for faith, unless they’ve grown up in a strong faith environment themselves. 

My wife comes from a Sikh family. Her family were from India. She walked away from it, became quite secular like me, but she’s gone back to it around the same time that I became a Christian. But I didn’t have anything to go back to. And we don’t go to Christianity, we go to Zen, or we go to exotic things that seem exciting, but we don’t really understand them and they don’t have the cultural baggage that the church has. I think that’s probably the key thing. We think that the Christian church has certain things; in some ways, it is that. And so we want a spiritual path that doesn’t have the baggage of our own ancestry. That’s what a lot of people do, and that’s certainly what I did. But it wasn’t giving me what I was looking for. What I was looking for turned out to be God, actually. Or maybe he was looking for me, which is more likely. I didn’t know, but there was always a void and it turned out to be God-shaped.

On the meaning of Easter:

PK: In the church, this Resurrection is the biggest, most astonishing, weirdest thing that’s ever happened to humanity. And it is exactly something that happens when all hope is gone, when your Messiah has just been crucified and buried. Then this astonishing, impossible, and unexpected thing happens, which not only brings him back, but also completely rewires your understanding of what the world is and how it works. And that’s what my coming to Christianity did to me. And every Easter—or Pascha, as we call it in the Eastern church, which is a corruption of [the word] Passover, actually—the story deepens for me. It’s interesting because I used to think that you become a Christian and that’s that and you’re sorted. But it’s not that. It’s the beginning of a journey, and every year the journey gets deeper. So every time you go through this cycle of 40 days of fasting and then a feast at Easter, something else deepens. It’s like you just dropped a couple of inches deeper into this thing that you’re in. And as I say, the world changes shape. So that is the kind of steady hope, and it’s always there. It doesn’t matter what humans do, and not everything is under our control. And that’s okay. There’s always something else. There’s always somebody holding you. That’s how it feels. And it’s rather wonderful. It doesn’t remove the struggles from your life, but it means that they’re in the bigger context of you always being held and watched by something much bigger that’s happening. So yeah, Easter is a pretty wonderful time.

The best way to support Honestly is by becoming a paid subscriber to The Free Press:

Subscribe now