Conservation requires context

Kingsnorth himself arrived at this [of despair] point about six years ago, after nearly two decades of devoted activism. He had just completed his second book, “Real England,” a travelogue about the homogenizing effects of global capitalism on English culture and character. “Real England” was a great success — the first of his career. All the major newspapers reviewed the book; the archbishop of Canterbury and David Cameron (then the opposition leader) cited it in speeches; Mark Rylance, the venerated Shakespearean actor, adopted it as a kind of bible during rehearsals for his hit play “Jerusalem.” Yet Kingsnorth found himself strangely ambivalent about the praise. “Real England” was a painful book to write. For months he interviewed publicans, shopkeepers and farmers fighting to maintain small, traditional English institutions — fighting and losing. Everywhere Kingsnorth traveled, he saw the forces of development, conglomeration and privatization flattening the country. By the time he published his findings, he was in little mood to celebrate.

This is from this profile of Paul Kingsnorth. This excerpt peaked my interest because it informs my sense of “cultural conservation” as a concept. Specifically, the notion that cultural conservation precedes environmental conservation. This runs through Conserving Mount Nittany and undergirds my  thinking on dynamic environmentalism.

Environmentalism as a social/political organizing principle tends to be too weak a force. Seeking to conserve a park or a mountain or wilderness or to change economic behavior without first taking account of the cultural context of a place is more or less destined to end in ideological/utopian thinking wherein one can’t simply carve out a practical Yosemite, but instead aims for abstract change:

“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it.

I haven’t read Kingsnorth’s “Real England,” but I hope it speaks to whatever spirit of place exists among those publicans, shopkeepers, and farmers keeping them in their communities. With the resurgence of American cities, I’ve noticed more people referring to their neighborhoods. “Lower East Side, New York City,” “Brewerytown, Philadelphia,” “The Mission, San Francisco.” When you identify with a place, you create a cultural basis for conserving that place. You’re attracted to conserving something because you’ve become attracted to it. Or when you create something attractive out of whole cloth, you create something worth conserving.

And so within the cultural context (within the people of a place) lies the raw emotional material that can be directed toward specific acts of environmentalism. It probably sounds abstract at first, but I think it translates into practical action.

Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible.

Action on the neighborhood level is achievable, concrete, and visible. An example of urban environmentalism is New York’s Highline Park. An example in Philadelphia is the Spring Garden Street Greenway.

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