A few hundred yards along Stone Avenue, just off Chambersburg Road on the Gettysburg battlefield, stands a bronze statue dedicated to John Burns (1793-1872). The inscription includes a report from Major General Abner Doubleday who wrote that Burns, though a civilian and seventy years of age, “shouldered his musket and offered his services” on the first day of the battle, joining the skirmish line of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers. When the 150th retired from the field, Burns fought alongside the Iron Brigade in some of the most intensive action of day one. He was wounded three times and carried home to recover.
John Burns was a veteran of the War of 1812. He had already served his country. But neither this prior service nor his advanced age mattered when the Civil War invaded Gettysburg. As gunfire erupted, he grabbed his ancient flintlock and powder horn, more Ichabod Crane in his “swallow tail” coat and black silk hat than Johnny Yank. Insisting to Union commanders that he knew how to shoot, this citizen-warrior was provided a modern rifle and bravely traded fire with Confederates until he could no longer stand.
What would possess a 70-year-old veteran to put his life on the line? Perhaps it was Burns’s recognition that the single greatest fight of his life, to preserve the American union, had begun. It did not matter if he had already served his country. It did not matter that he was entering his seventh decade of life. Burns opened his door, listened for the gunfire, and then walked toward the battle.
The oldest Baby Boomers are in their early 70s, about the age of John Burns at the Battle of Gettysburg. Opening their doors in the early fall of 2018, what do they hear?
The sound of Hurricane Florence, possibly the strongest hurricane on record to strike so far north. “As the world warms, the rainfall associated with hurricanes is becoming more intense,” says Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech. “They are getting stronger, on average; they are intensifying faster; they are moving more slowly; and, as sea level rises, the storm surge from these events can be more damaging."
There’s also the sound of burning in the West. California’s Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest in the state’s recorded history after several record-breaking wildfires last year. This is the “new normal,” Gov. Jerry Brown believes. "We're not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur,” Michael Mann of Penn State says. “What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme.”
Then there are the other sounds, the quieter ones. In his 2017 book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, novelist, former environmental activist, and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth, opens his door to hear this:
I’m writing this introduction two days after a new study about the accelerating decline of Antarctic ice was published in the journal Nature. It seems that the decline is faster than was expected, and that its impact will probably be greater than feared. We may now see a sea level rise of up to 5 or 6 feet within the next 85 years; a rate of change that was previously expected to take centuries or even millennia . . . Extinction levels are higher than they have been for 65 million years. The Earth’s atmosphere has not contained as much carbon dioxide as it does today since humanity first evolved. We have eroded half of the Earth’s topsoil in just a century and a half, and the rest may last us only another sixty years, as we struggle to feed a ballooning and increasingly demanding human population with less fertile land.
For twenty years, Paul Kingsnorth fought the good fight as a fervent environmentalist. And then, sometime around 2008, he gave up—or, to use his language, withdrew. “These days my desire, overpowering sometimes, is for some land,” he writes. “An acre or two, some bean rows. A pasture, broadleaved trees, a view of a river. A small house, my kids running about,” he writes. “Clean air, food, meat, water. Family, earth, mud, all the small wonders and irritations of life rising up to meet me as I come home. Having a home.”
In The Yellowbirds, Kevin Powers’s novel about the Iraqi War, Sergeant Sterling warns his new recruits, “People are going to die. It’s statistics.” Sterling's only advice on how to stay alive, the best thing he can tell one of his young warriors is, “Get small, Private. You . . . get small and stay small.” That advice is not far off from how Kingsnorth feels and acts, the trajectory his essays paint in response to climate change.
Because, in Kingsnorth’s view, the fight is over. There’s nothing slowing down the coming catastrophe. The stories we tell ourselves are fantasy, full of global treaties, climate action, petitions, marches, tweets, and talk of “sustainability,” a word that suggests we can go on being the way we are. These activities are comforting. They allow us to believe that the problems of an “all-consuming global industrial system” can be fixed because we are human and ingenious, and we always find ways to fix our problems. But, Kingsnorth adds, what's happening now is new. "This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.” The modern environmental movement, Kingsnorth believes, is in full retreat.
A‘lower middle-class eco toff’
In response, Kingsnorth and his family moved to rural Galway in western Ireland. He built a dry-lavatory, the topic of one of his essays. He has become expert with a scythe, the topic of another. He and his wife grow their own food and home-school their children. In 2009, he co-founded the Dark Mountain Project. “It grew out of a need to find new ways of relating to the struggle over the future of nature in a human-centred world,” he writes. “I thought then, and still think, that the momentum of the global civilisation we have built is unstoppable, and that its conclusion will be either its own collapse, the destruction of most life on Earth or the refashioning of Earth entirely in the image and interests of modern human beings. Either way," he adds, "the oil tanker is not turning around now, despite the heroic efforts of many.” The Dark Mountain Project is designed to tell stories about our world that are truthful and perhaps even hopeful—though you have to dig deep into the mountainside to find anything that resembles optimism.
Kingsnorth has plenty of critics. He is charged with being nihilistic, of being a quitter. On his website, he has even gathered a list of his favorite pejoratives: anarchist, reactionary, communist, left-wing oikophile, crazy collapsitarian, woolly liberal, nativist, cave-dweller, Luddite, Romantic, doomer, fascist and ‘lower middle-class eco toff.’ “But it’s not about defeat, or surrender," he writes. "It’s about pulling back to a place where you can find the breathing space to be free and human again. From that, all else follows, if you can pay attention.” No hope, he believes, is better than false hope. And the simple truth is this: The world will be just fine. There is no planetary crisis. Global warming will bring another shift, the kind our planet has experienced again and again throughout its existence. “Who determined that the planet should remain in the state which humans need and prefer?” he asks. The earth does not need to be healed. The loser of our own rapaciousness and industrialization will be us.
Kingsnorth writes thoughtful, beautiful essays. I enjoyed this book as much as any I have read in the last few years. But I also recognized that the global doom-and-gloomers throughout human history have a terrible track record. Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich were both wrong about population and famine because they did not know what they did not know. And maybe that hopeful scenario will play out again; at least it is a good story to tell ourselves, even if we won’t find it on Dark Mountain.
The one thing that John Burns and Paul Kingsnorth share, I suppose, is their strong sense of place. Each wanted to protect his home. But, Burns thought “small” for the larger good, to which he believed he could contribute. Kingsnorth has concluded that thinking “small” means caring naturally for what lies closest to us, our tiny plot of land, as the most ethical way to promote the common good--and meet the end of the world. For baby boomers who hear the battle raging outside their door, it represents a choice between picking up a gun and marching toward the battle, or picking up a scythe and marching away from it. And maybe, just maybe, there's a way to do both.
(Thanks to AKS for introducing me to Kingsnorth's essays.)