Whatever happened to living simply? It was a great idea, championed by Church agencies, encouraging people to live sustainably and tread more lightly on the earth.
I know the idea is a work in progress, with valuable manifestations in the form of things like the live simply awards for parishes but there is still a long way to go.
A recently published book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, challenges the notion that humanity has made much progress at all toward living simply.
Kingsnorth plots his own journey from long walks in the wilds as a child through being an anti-road protester at places like Twyford Down to where he is today – living with his family in a bungalow, working 2.5 acres in traditional methods.
Kingsnorth has become disillusioned with the environmental movement or what he calls neo-environmentalists. He tracks how the focus of environmentalists has been reduced down to cutting carbon to address climate change or as he succinctly puts it “the business of sustainability.” The argument has become one of windfarms versus wave machines. Other issues like the mass extinction that have been going on over recent decades have been sidelined.
Kingsnorth highlights how consumption remains a false God under this model of development. There is no effort to reduce levels of consumption, simply to consume in a more sustainable way.
He also takes issue with the idea of progress as defined in society today. He looks at the Palaeolithic period between 30,000 and 9,000 BC, when people were living the hunter gatherer lifestyle. People were taller and healthier even that late 20th century Americans. This well being was due to the healthy lifestyle but they became too good at hunting, killing off the food supply while over producing people, thereby sowing the seeds of demise.
The next phase of development was agrarian, which was more labour intensive and less healthy and so it goes on. He mentions the green revolution of 1940s to 1970s, which boasts to have fed another billion people. However, the cost was in terms of what the herbicides and pesticides etc did to the environment. There was ofcourse also the need to keep feeding that extra billion and further billions beyond that.
So progress as understood, if not changed, amounts to the steady destruction of the environment.
The way to fight back, in Kingsnorth’s view is the live in a simpler way. He himself has recoiled from the world, moving to the small holding in to Ireland, seeking to live with nature, using the traditional methods like the scythe to cut the grass and make hay.
He has got rid of much technology from his life like smart phones, television etc. There is a sense of a turning back of ‘progress’ in the conventional sense to reclaim some of the simpler more eco-friendly ways of living. He talks of five points to adopt: withdrawing, preserving life, getting your hands dirty with physical work, recognising nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges to preserve creatures, skills etc
There is much value in what Kingsnorth suggests. He throws down a challenge to walk the walk as well as talking the talk.
Kingsnorth’s recollections reminded me of the lives of two Christian environmental activists, Ed and Barbara Echlin, who live in East Sussex. They similarly practice what they preach, growing most of their own food, generating energy and not using aircraft for travel. They also campaign vociferously at local, national and international levels for the environment. They are among the growing number of people who live true lives of witness.
The Church has been slow to move on the environmental agenda, despite some excellent leadership in the area from Pope Frances and Pope Benedict before him. It is time for a renewed effort to live more simply in order that others can simply live. This effort needs to go further than a bit of recycling here and there, we need to fundamentally review the way in which we live and change life for the simpler.
*Confessions of a recovering environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth
published by Faber and Faber, price £14.99
- article published in Universe 23 June 2017