Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Paul Kingsnorth, Riding The Wave

'Action is not always more effective than inaction,' and other lessons for Christians amid collapse
Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 8.59.06 AM

I hope you got to see my interview with the English writer Paul Kingsnorth from late last week. In it, he explains how he ceased to be an environmental activist when he realized that nothing is going to stop catastrophic climate change. Instead, he devotes himself to figuring out how to adapt to the inevitable, and how to make meaning out of what he’s seeing.

It’s a way that resonates deeply with me. I do believe that climate change is happening, and that if humanity could stop it, we’re not going to do so, because the cultural forces at work the world over push back against it. I focus my concern and my work, though, on the de-Christianization of our culture. I believe we are living through a similar catastrophe. Kingsnorth’s “riding the wave” strategy (my phrase, not his) seems to me to be the most sensible approach.

A reader points to this passage in the hourlong Dutch documentary about Kingsnorth that I embedded in the previous post. The reader cues the passage here. Listen to how Kingsnorth answers the filmmaker’s question:

The reader who pointed to that moment in the documentary is a traddish Catholic who has struggled mightily with the various crises roiling the Catholic Church. He says:

Part of the reason I liked listening to Kingsnorth on being a recovering activist is because his attitude to the environmental movement is like mine to Catholicism. He’s not angry. He still believes in what he believes in. But he no longer thinks he has any real ability to do anything about it. His expectations have changed. He has peace about it, in his own little nook (and a pleasant one it seems!) of the world. To me, that’s not defeatism, but maturity. There’s wisdom in that. Of course, I see the problems in my church. Up close, a lot of the time. They are immense. But I’m a Catholic and am doing the best I can to carve out a space for me to live that in the world.

I think that is really wise. As you can well imagine, I hear from readers all the time who are going through real crises, especially in their religious lives. I was e-mailing with one the other day who is feeling overwhelmed by anger at Pope Francis, and at the institutional Catholic Church, which is falling apart in many ways. He feels powerless to do anything about it, because the truth is, he pretty much is powerless to do anything about it. I have been where he is, and my rage at the men — bishops and some clergy — who were destroying the Church undid me. It is not possible to live at that level of constant tension and anger without it tearing you apart.

As I have written, one of the landmarks on my way out of Catholicism was realizing that I was only keeping the faith by force of will, but the icon of Christ that I was presenting to my children was one of deep anger. If my kids looked at me as an example of what it meant to be a Catholic Christian, they would have seen a miserable ragemonkey. And oh, did I ever have reason to be! I realized one day that I was laying the groundwork for my children to become atheists. If following Christ turned their father into that, why would they want to do it? I arrived at the point one day in which I simply did not believe that my eternal salvation depended on being in communion with the Roman see. Still, leaving Catholicism was for me like an animal caught in a trap who chews off his paw to escape. That is not a statement about Catholicism; it’s a statement about me, and the pain of losing my ability to believe as a Catholic.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough that this could happen to you in any church. I have heard enough stories from Evangelicals about the things they have gone through in their own church cultures to know that that this kind of suffering is ecumenical. I was sucked into it within Orthodoxy a few years after my conversion, and realized one day that I was like the dog from the Book of Proverbs (“As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” — Proverbs 26:11). I had to make a strong resolution not to get involved in such matters, for the sake of my own spiritual health.

This goes strongly against my own grain. There is something about the masculine spirit that wants to fight. When I was a Catholic, towards the end of that journey, I wanted to throttle Cardinal McCarrick and those corrupters of boys and men, and punch the lights out of those church bureaucrats who knew how bad it was, but who didn’t lift a finger to stop them, for whatever reason or reasons. I was furious too at all the lay Catholics who chose to look the other way while the Church was being destroyed, because they didn’t want to be troubled by facing reality. All of my instincts on this were healthy and right — I still believe that. But I lacked prudence. Those passions, I could not govern them, and it ended with me exiting the Church.

It’s a weird thing, because I could not possibly be happier that I found Orthodoxy. Still, that experience was the most important lesson of my life. I had this idea that if I just kept banging up against the walls of the decaying edifice, that something would change, that eventually people would wake up and clean out the stables, and restore the Church. I felt that to cease acting with such passion was to break faith with the abused children, and with the families that the bishops and their lawyers had run over. It felt cowardly, and I couldn’t surrender to it.

Until one day I woke up and realized that the only passion I had at all for my Catholic faith was anger. That’s it. No love of Christ, no charity for anyone, no joy, nothing: just anger. That’s when I knew it was over. I could no longer do any good for Christ, for the Catholic Church, for my children, or for myself. Sometimes I read the comments sections on conservative/trad Catholic blogs, and I see men like I once was: consumed with justified rage, but lacking all prudence, such that the people who know them probably see their Catholicism as a curse, as a source of torment and misery. They have lost Christ, and don’t even know it. But the people who live around them do. Their children do, or will one day.

I strongly recommend that you read Paul Kingsnorth’s essay collection Confessions Of A Recovering Environmentalist. Here is a link to his 2010 essay of the same name. Excerpts:

I am 37 now. The world is smaller, more tired, more fragile, more horribly complex and full of troubles. Or, rather: the world is the same as it ever was, but I am more aware of it and of the reality of my place within it. I have grown up, and there is nothing to be done about it. The worst part of it is that I can’t seem to look without thinking anymore. And now I know far more about what we are doing. We: the people. I know what we are doing, all over the world, to everything, all of the time. I know why the magic is dying. It’s me. It’s us.

He writes about how as an environmentalist, he found himself embedded in communities of activists who were obsessed with “solutions” that involved deploying mass technologies to solve the problem of carbon emissions, but who seemed to have lost the point of why they became environmentalists in the first place:

I realised that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment. Their talk was of parts per million of carbon, peer reviewed papers, sustainable technologies, renewable supergrids, green growth and the fifteenth conference of the parties. There were campaigns about ‘the planet’ and ‘the Earth’, but there was no specificity: no sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of that Earth.

Here’s a link to a 2013 essay called “Forty Days,” in which Kingsnorth reflects on his withdrawal from environmentalist campaigning. Excerpts:

Many people wrote to me – and still write to me – telling me how much they liked this essay [“Confessions Of A Recovering Environmentalist”]; how it had connected with them, even put their own feelings into words. But others were, shall we say, unimpressed. I wasn’t quite prepared for the barrage which this extract brought upon me from activists and campaigners, though perhaps I should have been. I was condemned as a burnout, a doomer, a nihilist making matters worse by running up the white flag. If I wanted to “withdraw”, I was told, that was fine: I could go off and be depressed in the corner, but I had no right to tell other people about it. I needed to shut up and let the activists get on with their work of Saving The World.

Looking back on this, I can see their point. If I were still deep in campaigning mode, perhaps I would feel the same if somebody else who had stopped doing it told me I was wasting my time. Yet something about this niggled at me. The main point I was making, when I talked about withdrawal, was not about walking away from engagement with the world. To me, in fact, it seemed almost the opposite. I dwelled on this for some time, and then came back to it last year in a kind of sequel to my first essay, which I called “Dark Ecology.” It was another exploration of what a post-environmentalist world looked like, and of what still seemed to make sense to me, personally, in a situation in which none of the answers I had previously believed in were working any more.

At the end of the essay, which appeared in the third Dark Mountain book, I laid out five courses of action which seemed appropriate to me in a world in which climate change, population overshoot, economic collapse and mass extinction were not future problems to be prevented but realities we were already living through. First on my list was withdrawal, of which I wrote:

Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.


There is something out there, beyond the rational mind, beyond the everyday commitments, beyond the cities in the valleys and the cities in our heads, which we need and have needed for much longer than we would care to admit. Every spiritual code, every religion, every indigenous culture, every society, in fact, before the advent of modernity, has seen an act of withdrawal from the excesses and excrescences of the world as a spiritual necessity. The lives of the Christian Desert Fathers, the khalwa of the Sufis, the Dark Retreats of the Taoists, the exercises of St Ignatius: days, weeks, months of withdrawal were, still are, central to all major religions. The retreat to the desert or the forest, and the return with wisdom to the village or the town, runs like a silver brook through our folktales and fairytales, myths and legends. There is a reason for every story.

Sometimes you need to go, and sometimes you need to stay away for some time. The world we have created is terrifying in its complexity and power and in its ability to destroy the small, the precious, the immeasurable and the meaningful, inside you and in the places around you. Perhaps to a political activist, sitting by a stream in a forest seems like self-indulgence in the face of mass extinction and climate change, but it is the opposite. If you don’t know why that stream matters, you are not equipped to protect it. If you have forgotten how to listen to it, you may end up on the wrong side, as so many have before you.

If you don’t go out seeking, if you don’t retreat, if you don’t put yourself into the wilderness with nothing to carry you, you will never see what you need to shed or what you need to gain. You will never change. And if you never change, neither will anything else.

Read it all.

What does this have to do with the Catholic reader who finds wisdom and guidance in Kingsnorth? I remember something my wife said to me, around the year 2000, after we had seen the last guest off from a boozy dinner at our apartment in Brooklyn. All of us were Catholic, and all of us men present — one of us a priest! — had spent hours griping about the Church. My wife shut the door on the final guest, then turned to me and said, “We need a lot less Peter in this house, and a lot more Jesus.” In other words, she was telling me that we men never talk about the faith except in terms of the institutional Church, and its theology and politics. We were missing the entire point of the Christian faith.

I don’t recall how I reacted to that, but knowing my age at the time — 33 — and my mindset, I’m sure I didn’t take it seriously. That combative mindset was with me when I first started writing about the abuse scandal in the summer of 2001. I could never have seen it coming, but this was the flaw in the foundation, the thing that caused my ability to believe as a Catholic to collapse. A priest once quoted to me an old monsignor, commenting on the bright young seminarians from his diocese selected to go study in Rome, at the North American College: “Those poor boys. They leave here in love with Jesus, and they come home in love with the Church.” Well, that was me. And it was my undoing. Only by the grace of God and the gift of Orthodox Christianity am I still a Christian. If I had somehow remained Catholic, then the Francis papacy would surely have done me in, either by driving me out or by turning me into some kind of monster consumed by furies.

Kingsnorth: “If you don’t know why that stream matters, you are not equipped to protect it. If you have forgotten how to listen to it, you may end up on the wrong side, as so many have before you.”

For crusaders engaged in battles within the Church, if you do not know why Jesus Christ matters, and all the gifts of Christ in the church matter, if you have forgotten how to listen to Him, and to Him speaking through the liturgy, the devotions, and all the rest, then you will lose the faith, even if you stand rigidly and coldly at mass on Sunday, white-knuckling it through another bad homily, and struggling to contain your disgust at how rotten it all is. Believe me, I have been that man. The magic was dying within me, and I did not understand why. What will you say one day when your children, all grown and departed from the Church, say, “Dad, we didn’t want to end up like you, mad all the time”?

Paul Kingsnorth has not ceased to believe in the things he believes regarding Nature, and the crisis consuming it. But he has a realistic idea of what he can and cannot do about the crisis. His way of resisting disorder is to withdraw, and to build a small place in which he can raise his children to love the natural world, and to gain a measure of peace within the noise and disorder of the modern world. He took responsibility not for the world, but for himself and his family. It’s important that he does not blame Them for the crisis — that he recognizes that he himself is part of it. The same is certainly true of me and the crisis within the Catholic Church. I did not abuse kids, and God knows I did not defend abusers. Maybe even my passionate advocacy for victims did some good. But I too allowed myself to be caught up in a destructive cycle. Maybe this is you too.

I’m thinking this morning of a middle-aged German Catholic who happened to be in Rome a couple of years ago when I was there giving Benedict Option lectures, and came to hear me. Afterward, he told me that he and his Catholic friends back home have accepted that the German Church is going to collapse, probably in their lifetimes, because so many people are leaving it. This man struck me as calm, even serene. He said that they decided that it is up to them to keep the Catholic faith alive. They are preparing themselves and their families for this eventuality. They aren’t raging at the Pope or the German bishops, though heaven knows they have every reason to. They have accepted that that would be pointless. Rather, they have stepped back and thought about what things they need to do, in this time and in this place, to make it possible to continue their life in Christ, as Catholics, amid the decline and fall of the institution in their country.

I wish I could talk to that man again. He strikes me as Kingsnorthian in his orientation towards the Church and the world. He is not deceived about the severity of the crisis in the Catholic Church, and within what remains of Christian civilization. He knows he cannot save the Church — but he believes that he can save the corner of the Church over which he has some responsibility: in his family, and in his Catholic community. That has to be enough. He has peace, and I bet his children — he told me he has a large family — look to their father and see the peace of Christ, being steadfast and faithful amid the storm.

And so, when I consider the way Paul Kingsnorth has chosen to live in the world — a world that is collapsing — I too see wisdom and maturity. I see that action really is not always more effective than inaction. I see a form of the Benedict Option — that is, what I am trying to do with the Benedict Option: create resilient communities within which faith, hope, and love can survive the unfolding collapse. Communities and ways of life in which we can experience, to borrow Kingsnorth’s words, real, felt attachment to any small part of the Body of Christ.