“What the hell do we do next?”

If you’re part of a group or organisation Rhizome works with, the chances are that you identify yourself as part of the Green Movement in its broadest form. If you’re a trainer or facilitator who read this blog, the chances are that you do a lot, if not all, of their work for that same movement. You may well feel that  with it from within – you are of the movement and for the movement. So how do you feel about Paul Kingsnorth’s thoughts:

“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing. There is no likelihood of the world going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?” [my emphasis]

Is it a question you recognise? It’s taken from a longer article in Orion Magazine which I was directed to by Dave Pollard’s recent Links post. If Kingsnorth is even half right (and I reckon he is) it’s an enormous question that spawns others.

What are we at Rhizome doing, for example, to facilitate the movement answering the question? … What should we be doing? … Are we wasting our time working with and for the Green Movement?

Kingsnorth poses 5 possible answers to his question:

One: Withdrawing…take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. 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.


Two: Preserving nonhuman life…The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?


Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.


Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be…


Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on…In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? …Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?

If any of that rings true with you, and with us here at Rhizome, it begs the question of where we put our energy, skills and resources.

On one level, the level of how we work I could argue that Rhizome’s already, instinctively, in tune with Kingsnorth’s 5 answers. I see in myself and some of the conversations I have with my Rhizome colleagues our own take on these impulses.

We ‘withdraw’ into our internal relationships, using the work we’re asked to do as an opportunity, a tool even, to build our relationships, to challenge, to grow, to contemplate and reflect.

We also insist that relationships, that the nature of groups and organisations, have a value beyond serving a group’s structure or process. In working that way we make Rhizome and the groups with whom we work (or should that be ‘relate’) more able to be refuges.

And largely we do this by inviting folks to join us in getting our hands dirty. No hi-tech training tools or techniques – just people experiencing together, doing together and reflecting and learning together from that doing. Increasingly I find myself designing work that emphasises getting hands dirty at the earliest possible opportunity and for the longest possible time.

What of preserving nonhuman life? I don’t want to stretch the analogy to breaking point, but there’s an element of truth in saying that if we can help each other to relate more openly, more honestly and across our diversity we stand more chance as individuals, as groups and as a society and a species, of opening up to the needs of an even more diverse group – the ecosystems, the nonhuman life, all around us. Every group or organisation is a kind of ecosystem – a tangled and interdependent web of relationship, power, and dynamics.

But how we work is just one level and there are the where and with whom questions to be answered or at least to be continually asked. Rhizome folk meet next week. Our discussion are always lively, interested and interesting. When presented with questions like this one how could they be otherwise?


8 thoughts on ““What the hell do we do next?”

  1. This post makes me think of the Mark Twain quote: ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’.

    As an activist educator I come across a lot of discouragement and demoralisation. Bill Moyer saw so much of it he included ‘Perception of movement failure’ as a stage in his Movement Action Plan. He came to belief that some time after ‘take-off’ many activists perceive their movement as failing and that their own actions are futile. Just because that’s the perception doesn’t mean it’s the reality! The movement identity crisis comes before eventual success in Moyer’s plan.

    I think an important challenge for movement educators and facilitators is to keep our heads above the tides of despair and keep thinking, and hold space for others to think. The more we’re able to process our own despair the better we’ll be able to support movements.

    I also have to say – if your theory of change is that muddy you’re bound to be disappointed.

    I come from a pretty different place. Here’s my 5 steps for dealing with movement failure (or perception thereof):
    1. Learn from mistakes – review and evaluate.
    2. Deepen analysis – what’s really going on? what power relationships are at play? what’s it going to take?
    3. Be strategic – have a long range plan that makes sense and directs energy where it’s needed.
    4. Build more power. Broaden the base, deepen commitment.
    5. Act. Use strategic collective action to win real changes in the world and shift the balance of power.

    Alongside this do whatever you need to do to stay whole, healthy and as hopeful as you can manage. That may mean some of the time you’re ‘withdrawing’ or sitting in nature – but don’t let that be your whole project.

    • Thanks, Holly. I knew this topic would elicit wisdom. I’m in the unusual position of agreeing with most of what you say and still agreeing with most of what Paul Kingsnorth says. Of course these things are never binary choices. The truth (if there is such a thing) is a beautiful blend of perspectives.

      As I understand his writing he mostly rails against the artificial, unsustainable hope that he sees underpinning much of the work of the green movement. I think that that’s different from despairing or seeing only failure. It’s a critique of the underpinning approach of the movement, and as such is very welcome (especially if it’s accurate). I see why his work can be read as doom-mongering and hiding under the duvet instead of getting out there and doing something to change things, but I think that he is sincere in thinking/feeling that the 5 steps he proposes are genuine acts of social action (or at least I certainly can see them as that). There’s a power in each of them. It’s that power that excites me. But I agree with you that we shouldn’t let withdrawal be the whole project. Not sure that that’s what Kingsnorth is saying though??

      I’m certainly not giving in to despair as a movement educator, nor do I see that in other Rhizome folk. I’ve always been optimistic whilst not believing that we’ll necessarily achieve our utopian vision. For me utopia is built in the process of the struggle and isn’t the outcome.

      • Thanks for your response Matthew, I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of days.

        You touch on one of the points of difference in your last words about process vs outcome, we’ve talked a little about this before. I think I’m more of a hard-headed Alinsky-ian in terms of my commitment to the ends, and finding the means to get there. But there’s a fair amount of heart in there too, in that some of those ends seem so crucial that I’m not prepared to give up on them, which is what I’m reading in parts of Kingsnorth’s article. For me it isn’t about reaching a utopia (although that would be nice) it’s about winning more in the short, medium and long-term and that making the world a better place more able to sustain life!

        I don’t find his analysis exciting, I find it depressing. It engages so little with power. It seems strange to talk about the failure of a movement with so little discussion of what it is up against. It’s like all the rhetoric about feminism being to blame for the struggles of women today, as opposed to, oh I don’t know… patriarchy.

        I don’t take on board his idea of movement failure and ‘there is no likelihood of the world going their way’. But where the environment movement has failed it is that it has failed against opponents with deeper pockets, less scruples, and more power. It hasn’t failed because people didn’t spend more time in nature or insist enough on the value of nature beyond utility.

        What would it take to build people’s movements that are more powerful than the vested interests destroying our world? I’d rather engage with that question than the path Kingsnorth is heading down. It looks pretty dark down there.

  2. Good points, Holly Hammond, I would like to add a prayer and to create a space where all sentient people may renew their common human connections:
    My God, my God of All, my God of Awe and Power, Dios mio, the true power and spirit which animates life on our little planet, the quiet truth we deny because we are deaf and dumb and blind
    to Your manifold forms and majesty, hear my prayer. Help me to accept myself and to accept that
    my errant mind is no match for the table You have laid before me. What I see with my poor eyes
    does not begin to grasp the depths of even our ordinary world. All the common things I see and think I know and understand are more subtle than I am capable of comprehending.

    My God, You have created a world of beauty and infinite mystery and complexity, and I see it only for what I can take from it, not realizing Your law always demands harmony and balance. We are destined to bow before Your Will no matter how we struggle for supremacy in our own lives. Your grand plan allows no kings among us, only common and equal subjects of Your Dominion for we all come from the common source of Your Infinite Love of Life and we will certainly all return to the Grand Ocean of Spirit which is Your world of constant motion and energy and flowing beauty and infinite change. And all the dynamic swirl of energy which sustains and feeds us, all that we take from You, we will give back to feed Your continuing cosmic miracle of a universe seemingly suspended in space and time, but really No thing is still and everything is part of Your cosmic dance.

    My God, You made us capable of holding some small measure of Your Truth, when we witness Your Big World, the world which contains us and constrains us, and we want to escape the limits of our lives, but only by accepting our limits and seeing ourselves as part of Your Creation do we find our proper place. When we stop trying to prove ourselves Your equals, when we stop trying to prove we are as clever as Your Grand Intelligence, when we stop assuming that we have dominion over Your World, do we begin to see how rich indeed is life. When we begin to see Your world with our new eyes and with our open hearts, we begin to marvel at how well the magic of Your world works.

    My God, without reverence in our hearts and minds, without peace in our spirits and souls, how can we
    live? Without Your divine guidance, how do we find our way in the hurleyburley of man’s world. Without seeing the Perfection of Your Creation, must we continue to demand perfection in all the little things which make up our very finite world? When we observe nature, do we not see Your sacred patterns of order and harmony? Is the miracle and promise of a new day lost on our benighted vista?
    How do we refresh our spirits and see anew that Your evolving world provides us with a constant
    supply of beauty and magic in the unfolding of Your constant Miracle?

    My God, when we wake from our deep sleep, do we not bless the new day?
    When we take nourishment and eat from our brother life, do we not humble our spirits and bless the spirit of the life we take?
    When Your golden sunlight shines on the skin of our souls, do we not warm to Your caress.
    When Your breezes waft the gentle fragrance of pine needles to our upturned noses, does it not needle our sense of wonder and appreciation for the strange place that we inhabit and are a part of?
    And when we make love to our opposite number and get as close to Your divine Miracle as we can be
    since the other great Miracle of our Birth, do we not ask, how is it possible that all this has been given to us?

    My God, this yearning and desire to touch and to be touched, which You have created in us and given to us as an indication of Your Desire for us to participate in Your Creation, is Your Power of Life creating Life anew. This life energy, this naked energy of mindless obedience to Your Will, which shakes us to our core, sanctifies the union of a man and a woman, and anoints us with the most sublime blessing we can experience, for according to Your Plan, we must share that special communion with another sentient subject of Your Holy Kingdom. And so, in Your perfect plan for us to take life and to give life, we take part in the balance and harmony of Your benign world where all life conspires to cooperate in bending and folding our will into Your Greater Plan of Creation.

    My God, let me live not in my mind, with my so-called rationality constantly asking why. I understand it is the job of my restless mind to always search for the new thing which is different from the rest. It is the job of my small mind to find the flaws in myself and others. Let me put aside this small logic and see with my greater sense of wonder. Let me see Your Truth and Your Beauty in the precious gift of life with which You have endowed this world. Let me see You in Your glorious heavens and in Your miracle water. Let me see a little way into the vast antiquity of our little planet and know we are a part of it and we share that antiquity for it is our heritage. And finally, let me see You in the mirror of my soul, and in the eyes of my brother and sister pilgrims all marching in Your grand parade which began beyond the ability of my imagination to imagine.

  3. Its supposed to be dark! That’s why its called the dark mountain. And kingsnorth simply gives permission, to look down and notice what may be holding ones feet up. “…and the machine carried onward singing its song of money”

  4. The one time I encountered Kingsnorth’s deeds, as opposed to his words, I came away £55 poorer and none-the-wiser. Or rather, MUCH wiser about the gap between what he promised and what he delivered. I was at the Dark Mountain “festival” in middle-of-nowhere Wales in 2010or so. And despite promising that the he would go beyond whining about the green movement’s failures, that’s PRECISELY what he spent his time doing. http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/dire-mountain-more-abysmal-than-abyss-mal/

    quote – “Paul Kingsnorth, who set this whole thing up, did emphatically NOT give a “brief, provocative snapshot of what the world looks like when we give up on false hope and look at the future differently.”
    Instead he just gave an overview of the last 40 years of environmental campaigning, lamenting that it had lost its way and become a cover for maintaining an unsustainable exploitation of the planet. He lamented NGOers sitting writing policy papers and losing their connection with Nature, and he bemoaned hearing NGOers slagging off people objecting to windfarms as NIMBYs.
    Yeah Paul, some of that is true (though George Monbiot flayed your arguments in the following session). All that’s fine, but it is NOT what you said you were going to talk about. Trading Standards should have a go at you, really.”

    So, there is a sixth option – actually do real movement building. Not the sage-on-the-stage thing, where rows and rows of people are feeding the limitless appetite of those Stars at the Front, but rather the genuinely participatory, skills-building stuff that both Matthew and Holly do.

  5. I disagree, Holly, when you say “But where the environment movement has failed it is that it has failed against opponents with deeper pockets, less scruples, and more power. It hasn’t failed because people didn’t spend more time in nature or insist enough on the value of nature beyond utility.”

    This is the problem, people blaming other people because we ourselves don’t like the feeling of having the finger pointed at us. If you are reading this, you just fed the oil, gas or electric company. And the longer you are on here, you probably just fed them a dollar snack too.

    These companies don’t succeed without the hand that feeds them, and that would be you, me and the rest of the world.

    And yes, it is absolutely, positively true that we are not spending the time outdoors that is needed to get the deepest connection to nature so we whole-heartedly fight for what keeps us alive, the natural world. And we don’t insist enough of the value of nature beyond utility. If we did, we would not be where we are. Oh, sure, people will agree that something needs to change, and they’ll say they love nature more than anything, and that they understand how important it is to change, but those are just words. And usually they are followed by “It’s those damn corporations, why don’t someone shut them down, or “We need a new President, he’s not doing enough.” Never ever will we each admit that we are all just as responsible as the large companies when it comes to destroying our earth and changing our climate. People: toxic hairdyes, household cleaners, cat liter dumped by the billions per year, pesticides dumped by the gallons on our pets, hair and body pollutant products, tires, garbage,…….

    I mean, a problem can’t be solved until we admit we are the problem. And only on a united front can we solve the problem. There can’t be 500,000 people cleaning up our streams in the morning, and then 100,000 coming at night to dump new garbage in. But that’s what you get, more of the same, because it is IMPOSSIBLE to change an entire population.

    We don’t live in a world where words get us to where we need to be.

    Take recycling for instance, I would say out of roughly 75 people I know, 5 of them recycle, but only 1 of them recycles everything there is to recycle. Now, I ask myself, for all the years people have shared articles on plastic found in birds, videos of the garbage vortex, animals choking on plastic…..Do you think because those people who shared those articles or commented on them mean they have enough value of nature beyond utility? No. That is one example out a hundreds and hundreds. These people go back to living their same lives because they do not want to change the life they have. They don’t think beyond themselves. This is FACT. Have you ever done your own study on the people in your life, like your friends, neighbors, family, social friends, and even strangers to see if over the past 15 years any of them live differently after hearing about global warming and animal and insect extinctions?
    I have not come across a single one of them who has changed their lifestyle in any significant matter, even after the mountain of information they’ve been fed, and ever after their knowing how they play a part I what is happening.

    If, for that past decade, people genuinely cared about nature to the extent they needed to in order for us to see the change we needed, the environmental groups would be busting at the seams with volunteers and money. That is not the case-nor will it ever be. Let’s be realistic and not get sidetracked by hope.

    The majority (majority) of the population DO NOT have an intense and necessary relationship with nature in order to heal the earth (which is impossible at this point, although we might save a few sections of it for a time). They are to love nature like they do their own children, and fight for it as they would their own child. But that bond is not there, and on a massive scale never will be. And no matter how many videos you show them, articles you put in their face, disasters that happen, they majority will never ever change. And we cannot meet this challenge without their help. The ONLY way you might get the vast majority of people change, is when thousands upon thousands are told “there is no clean water.” In truth how much more news do they need? The natural gas industry could not have taken off without the “people”. Plastic companies do not have massive plants, unless the “people” are buying their products. You can hope til you turn green, but we are passed that stage and getting nowhere further.
    Who decides when quit doing more of the same with no results? We don’t have time. This does not mean those of us who love nature give up. It means we have taken another road. Maybe by facing the fear and truth of what is to come, those of us who live simply and off the land will become contagious and interesting to others and they will follow, without even knowing it. Accusations are just that. They don’t bring results.

    To understand and love and respect earth with a natural intensity, the entire population would have to go back to the moment they came from the womb. This behavior was naturally in us, but somehow was unlearned over time and then passed down to our children who now say “Yeah, I love nature, hey, did you see what the Kardashians are wearing?”

  6. Bart Raguso, Keep in mind all that you said and remember he is “your” God, and that is why you wrote “My God…..” Your God is not saving the planet. And if you think he’s real, maybe you should start thinking you are the one who should nurture and heal it.” Preaching is a way to get out of action. If you noticed when you were done preaching, your words just sat here on the page, and the water did not get cleaner, the pollution did not go away. Maybe if you got up off that computer chair and volunteered to help, it just might help put us in the direction we need to be. Step out of your conditioned box. It is obvious that from childhood you were influenced by those before you. Think for yourself for a change and open your mind to greater things, because this is your heaven on earth.

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