Jumping the Gap: Green Transphobia & Proto-Fascism

John Halstead
17 min readFeb 8

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This is an abridged version of the original essay which you can read here.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (2017), One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement (2003), and Savage Gods (2019). He is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and former deputy-editor of The Ecologist. And he is someone I have admired for years. I have quoted him here and elsewhere many times. I resonate with his critique of Big Green environmentalism, of “sustainability”, of progress and progressivism, of globalism, and more. His own environmentalism and his critique of mainstream environmental activism grew out of a very down-to-earth love of the wild natural world. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that Kingsnorth was my intellectual idol.

But something has happened, and given how much I have promoted his ideas, I can’t in good conscience stay silent. Kingsnorth’s story is a study in how someone squarely on the Left can slip into proto-fascism.

A few years back, Kingsnorth bought a small farm in Ireland and went more or less off the grid. I was sad to lose his voice, but contented myself with re-reading his old essays.[1] When I first noticed Kingsnorth had emerged again, it was with his announcement that he had converted to Orthodox Christianity.[2] As a former atheist and small-p pagan, his conversion has made him very popular with a particular subset of conservative Christians. I admit that was rankling to see, but since not all Christianities are equal, I kept an open mind about Kingsnorth’s conversion.

Kingsnorth had also resumed his writing on politics and culture, publicly at Unherd[3] and semi-privately on a paywalled substack, “The Abbey of Misrule”. And though many of his beliefs seemed to be unchanged, something was different. It was hard at first to put my finger on it.

But then came the transphobic essay.

Deconstructing Transphobic Arguments

The essay is behind a paywall[4], so I’ll summarize it here.

Kingsnorth begins by describing an encounter he had during a book tour in the U.S., where he met a father of a trans girl who wanted to start hormone treatment. The father was in shock and was really struggling to make sense of it. He said he had gone on a bender and disappeared for days after talking to his child. He told Kingsnorth, “It’s like I’m losing my child. My only son. It’s like my son is dying.”

I feel for this father. I really do. But I also feel for his daughter. And that’s what is missing from Kingsnorth’s article: the experience of trans people. Kingsnorth didn’t even try to imagine how the daughter felt, nor did he express any compassion for her.

What followed is a series of tropes that you will be used to seeing if you read any transphobic writing. It starts with a vague allusion to “news” they have “heard”: “Here in Ireland today, the news I hear from the local schools is that many children–especially girls–are confused about what they have all learned to call their ‘gender’.” There’s a lot to unpacked there. Note that Kingsnorth chooses to start with children, not adults. (Check the box for the “save the children” narrative.) And he assumes they are “confused”, rather than coming out or experimenting. (Check patronizing marginalized people who don’t really understand what they are experiencing and need a cis-het man to explain it to them).

In the process, Kingsnorth unintentionally reveals his own confusion about what gender is. Throughout the article, he conflates sex and gender. Note his quotation marks around “gender” in the quote above, thus implying that gender isn’t a thing and that biological sex is all there is. (Check the confusion of gender and sex.)

Kingsnorth cites a report of a 1500% rise in diagnoses of gender dysphoria in Sweden. It needs to be said here that, if your start near zero, then, any rise will appear to be exponential. (See here for the real reason for the rise in reporting.) Also that gender dysphoria does not equal identification as transgender, and transgender identity does not equal medical transitioning. This is important, because Kingsnorth tries to create an impression of an epidemic of medical transitioning using numbers of gender dysphoria. (Check pearl-clutching about rising numbers of people identifying as transgender.)

Kingsnorth dismisses offhand the idea that people have always been transgender (which he puts in quotes–check) but that they are just more free to talk about it now. This, he says matter-of-factly, is “plainly not true”. Instead, he attributes the increase in awareness of transgender to “internet activism”. He links to an article from a Swedish newspaper (check obscure sourcing of claims) describing an “epidemic” of gender dysphoria and comparing it to the spread of eating disorders and self-harming behaviors through social media. The implication of the term “internet activism” is that this “epidemic” is being intentionally created by some group. (Wait, we’ll get to the conspiracy theory in a minute.)

Kingsnorth then cites “one teenage girl I know” who told him that it was scientific fact there are 72 genders, and she wasn’t sure which one she was. What’s remarkable here is not one teenager’s confusion about science or their gender, but that someone with Kingsnorth’s intelligence (and someone who is himself a parent) would quote this as evidence of anything. Later, he links to a substack post by a self-described TERF mother who says that a quarter of the children in her daughter’s class identify as trans and that this is because they were taught that “if you feel uncomfortable in your body, it means you are transgender”. (Check dubious hearsay about extreme behavior to bolster your argument.)

In America, says Kingsnorth, “thousands of girls are undergoing double mastectomies, and teenage boys are being given ‘puberty-blocking’ drugs”. He offers no source for this vague statistic. But even if that’s true, and there are 10,000 children transitioning, that represents 0.02% of the 43 million young people (ages 10–19) in the U.S.–hardly an epidemic. (Check hysteria about the numbers of transitioning people.) The real number appears to be closer to between 1,000–2,000, so put another zero in front of that percentage.

Kingsnorth then links to a case of a person who transitioned and is now suing the British NHS because they regret their decision. A simple Google search would show that the vast majority of children who transition still identify as transgender years later. (Check the “point to the handful of people who regretted their transition” box.)

The “Trans-Conspiracy”

Having made his case (or tried to) for an “epidemic”, Kingsnorth then begins to construct the conspiracy. He states that anxiety in young people about gender is being “nurtured” by “the media, the cultural elite, a slew of well-funded but unaccountable NGOs, and much of the education and political systems.” The only support he offers for this bold claim is a single link to an article about the BBC distancing itself from an LGBTQ+ lobby group after questions were raised about its journalists’ impartiality when reporting on public policy debates in which the group was taking an active role. If you’re wondering what that has to do with a conspiracy to get children to transition, the answer is: “Nothing”. (Check unsubstantiated claims of a conspiracy.) But Kingsnorth claims this is evidence of “an agenda to reprogramme society with an entirely new conception of the human body–and thus of nature itself.” (And there’s the “nature” word. I’ll come back to that.)

Predictably, Kingsnorth also links to an article about death threats against J.K. Rowling to make you feel sorry for people like him who can’t express their views publicly without “savage retribution”. (Check the “free speech is under attack” box.)

Mid-way through, Kingsnorth launches into an extended tangent about the undermining of “the foundational assumptions of Western Christianity” and the “unmooring [of] the culture from its spiritual roots” by such figures as Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, and the sixties counterculture and women’s lib movement–all the usual villains in the conservative Christian’s account of the culture war. (Check the nostalgia for an imagined past where things were less confusing and more comfortable for straight people.) As I will explain below, this tangent about cultural decline is actually the key to understanding what Kingsnorth is doing.

Kingsnorth claims that what we are seeing is not the liberation of an oppressed minority or healthy questioning of society’s expectations of what it means to be a man or woman, but rather a fundamental shift in our understanding of “the nature of biological reality” and “what it means to be human”. This, says Kingsnorth, will ultimately lead to the “abolition of biology”, to a transhumanist future where we are completely disconnected from our bodies.

If this seems like a huge leap, you’re not wrong. From “thousands” of transitioning children to the “abolition of biology”. From “divorcing sex from the relatively new notion of ‘gender’” (new?) to “freeing ourselves from the prison of our biology”. Kingsnorth seems to think it’s a short step from one to the other. (Check huge logical leaps.) And this is how he justifies the vilification of the transgender rights movement, which he describes as “the latest manifestation of a long struggle for technological liberation from nature itself”.

“the transgender movement which is presented to us today as a civil rights struggle is actually something else. In the divorce of ‘gender’ from sex, in the promotion of multiple ‘identities’ to young and vulnerable people, in the notion that the given body is a problem to be solved[5] and in the foundational proposition that our ‘identity’–even our biology–is not naturally occurring but constructed in our mind, we are witnessing the latest stage of modernity’s long rebellion against nature.”

— Paul Kingsnorth, “The Abolition of Man (and Woman): Gender, Sex and the Machine”.

Kingsnorth cleverly concludes that “the unifying driver” between the transgender rights movement and transhumanism is “the desire for trans-cendence“.

He isn’t alone in linking transgender and trans humanism, though. It’s increasingly common among transphobic writers — as well as the rare trans activist. Kinsgnorth cites Martine Rothblatt (who he misgenders), a transgender entrepreneur, LGBT activist, and founder of the transhumanist organization, Terasem. She is the author of “From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto On the Freedom Of Form (2011), in which she states that “transgenderism is the onramp to transhumanism.” While it is interesting that there is a prominent transgender transhumanist who has drawn the connection between the two, it is an enormous leap to say that the entire transgender rights movement is really a conspiracy to get us to upload our consciousnesses to the cloud.

Kingsnorth does admit that Rothblatt’s manifesto is “an unusually explicit manifestation of the merger between progressive politics and techno-capital”. But the key word there is “unusual”, not “explicit”. He ends his essay acknowledging that not all trans people (or people “who consider themselves to be transgender” as Kingsnorth dismissively calls them) and not all trans rights activists are transhumanists–or have even heard of transhumanism. (No shit.) But he says, “People with gender dysphoria, girls with short hair, boys who play with dolls, people whose sexualities differ from the norm: they are not, in fact, the real issue.” The “real issue”, he says, is an entire generation of people who are immersed in technology and increasingly alienated from nature and their bodies.

Admittedly, the latter is its own problem. But it is too convenient for Kingsnorth to say that the real issue isn’t trans people. Doing so allows him to dismiss their experience entirely–which is exactly what he does throughout his article, from the opening account of the father of the trans girl, to his patronizing use of quotation marks, to his attempt to link the transgender rights movement to a fringe idea like transhumanism. It’s like saying that LGB rights isn’t about LGB people, but about the sanctity of marriage or declining birthrates. If you’re willing to disregard the experience of LGBT people offhand, then the issue of LGBT rights becomes a lot simpler for you.

How a Fascist Gets Made

I’ve followed Kingsnorth’s writing for years. He has been a thoughtful writer and a profound thinker. But his reasoning has become sloppy, and the internal contradictions pile up. The critique of the technological liberation from nature has been a theme running throughout Kingsnorth’s work. But the addition of this attack on transgender rights to that theme is spurious at best and disingenuous at worst.

I share Kingsnorth’s concern about the combination of progressivism, capitalism, and technology–what he calls “the Machine”. (I’ve written about it myself here.) But I don’t buy Kingsnorth’s rationale. I don’t think his concern about transgender is really about transhumanism or capitalism or progress or what it means to be human.

I think it’s really about “nature” or what Kingsnorth and other transphobic people think is nature. Of course, if any of these people took a second to actually look at sex in nature, they would find a great deal more diversity than their binary categories allow for. Not only is homosexuality common in many species, but there’s even species which can change sex under certain conditions. And there are also animals of one sex that imitate another sex.

I was drawn to Kingsnorth by his writing about wild nature and the more-than-human world, but the way he writes about nature has changed. For one thing, there is no longer a “sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of [the] Earth” (as Kingsnorth once wrote about the contemporary environmental movement). He no longer seems to be “writing with dirt under his fingernails.” Like other transphobic (and proto-fascistic) writers, “nature” for Kingsnorth seems to actually be code for something else. What transphobic writers call “nature” is more of a social construction, a set of mental categories, often reinforced by institutional authority, like the state or the church.

It’s not a coincidence that Kingsnorth’s transphobia appears to have started around the time he converted to Orthodox Christianity. That’s when his own conception of the holy “migrated” from the earth (“the swamps of the material realm”) to heaven (a “mysterious, untouchable, numinous force outside of creation itself”). And that’s when he started writing about a supposedly universal desire for “transcendence”, which is behind both religion and the secular drive for progress.[6] Given his criticism of the “trans-cendence” of transhumanism and (supposedly) transgender, Kingsnorth’s own appeal to transcendence is ironic, to say the least.

While he still writes about “nature” (and “land” and “place”), more and more, Kingsnorth has been writing about something he calls “culture”[7]–and more and more it seems like he’s using all these words to mean the same thing. “Culture”, like “nature”, can be another one of those code words. It can mean the way people living in a particular place over a period of time “be” together, the way they make that place and time “home”. But it also can mean something like “the way I am comfortable with things being” or “the way I imagine things used to be”. It can be code for patriarchy, White supremacy, and hetero- and cis-normativity.

Kingsnorth makes it clear elsewhere that what he means by “Western culture” is really the institutional Christian church. And the lost elements of that culture which he laments include “patriotism, Christianity, cultural conservatism, sexual modesty”.[8] This isn’t culture. It’s empire. And Kingsnorth has nothing–nothing at all–to say about the historical injustices of the “culture” that he so pines for. (Of course, as a White, cisgender, heterosexual man, there were far fewer injustices that would have affected him.)

And this is how a Green anarchist becomes a transphobic proto-fascist. It happens when culture (specifically your culture) and nature become conflated in your mind. It happens when nature stops being something outside your door and becomes something inside your head, when it stops being the living present and becomes a romanticized past. It happens when an idealized culture becomes more real for you than the experience of flesh and blood people–especially people who are different from you. From there it’s not a long way to imagining “natural” categories and social hierarchies which must be reinforced with the power of the state–the definition of fascism.

And, if there had been any doubt in my mind that it is fascism we’re talking about here, Kingsnorth put it to rest last November, when he published an article entitled “The truth about eco-fascism”, in which he argued that there is no such thing as eco-fascism, because he has never met anyone who actually called themselves an “eco-fascist”.[9] When I read this, I felt a little nauseated. Denying the existence of fascism is one of the favorite strategies of fascists in a liberal society. If you didn’t know better, you might suspect Kingsnorth of just being eristic or sophistic, but he’s too smart to really believe such fallacious thinking. The only question for me now is whether Kingsnorth is already a crypto-fascist or is just a “useful idiot” reactionary on his way toward a full-fledged fascism.

There is a continuum from reactionary conservatism through to genuine fascism. While Kingsnorth probably falls closer to the reactionary side of that spectrum, what concerns me here is his trajectory away from Green anarchism into a kind of proto-fascism and the way that movement opens the door to more clearly fascistic discourse (his own or others’). The unifying logic which paves this path is an idealization of nature and culture, which is based on an imagined past and is dissociated from real-life places and people in the present. This dissociative logic is evident throughout Kingsnorth transphobic essay and other writing of late.

Resisting the Fascist Creep

Kingsnorth’s story is a cautionary tale for anarchists and other leftists. There is such a thing as a “fascist creep”. Evidence of it can be found uncomfortably close to home. Others have described a “radical feminist to alt-right pipeline” through transphobia. Queer theorist Judith Butler has identified the “gender critical” movement as a fascistic trend which embraces inconsistency, adopts an “equal opportunity approach to rhetorical strategies of the left and right, and “through a spate of inconsistent and hyperbolic claims they concoct a world of multiple immanent threats to make the case for authoritarian rule and censorship.” Sound familiar?

There may not be an anarchist to alt-right “pipeline” per se, but there are indications that one is in the process of being built. The fascist creep is seductive because there are a lot of things that Kingsnorth and people like him are right about: Industrial civilization is destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life. Modernist materialism and liberal universalism have left us spiritually unmoored and thus susceptible to capitalist manipulation. Capitalism is desacralizing the world and levelling all human (and other-than-human) diversity down to a monoculture market. Progressives have made a devil’s bargain with neoliberals and sold out the working class. Identity politics, important as it is, can be and is being used by savvy politicians to distract us from class-conscious politics.

Kingsnorth’s critique of the Machine is spot on. The diagnosis is right, but his prescription is wrong. He presents a false dichotomy between what he calls “the Machine and the Cross”, between techno-capitalist progressivism and regressive authoritarian traditionalism. But those aren’t the only options.

If you’re really going to look to the past for a culture of “people, place, and prayer”, I’m not sure why you would stop when you got to medieval Christianity. If you’re looking for a religiosity which arises out of a people’s experience of place, the obvious alternative is the pre-Christian peoples of … well, anywhere–especially before the rise of the transcendental religions in the Axial Age, in the mid-1st millennium BCE. Or, since we’re looking for an antidote to cosmopolitanism, and since Christianity was very much a religion of the polis, we should go back even further to a time before the rise of cities, back to the Neolithic. It’s there we would be most likely to find people living in organic relationship with the wild world.[10]

The key to resisting the seduction of both capitalist levelling and fascism is, I believe, not to retreat into a transcendent world as Kingsnorth urges us, but to keep coming back to the things we can actually touch: To the literal ground that we walk on. Not some romanticized “land”, but the literal soil. To the living, flesh and blood people who we share that land with. Not some idealized “people” or “folk” or “blood”, but real people we share our places with. And to genuine relationships with those people. Not some abstract “culture”, but real lived life with those others.

I’m reminded of these words which I first read 25 years ago. I have not always been faithful to them, but they they seem more relevant today than ever:

“In the flesh all wisdom begins. Beware the thing that has no flesh. Beware the Gods, beware the idea …

“I tell you, we would be hard put to determine what is more evil–religion or the pure idea. The intervention of the supernatural or the elegant abstract solution! Both have bathed this earth in suffering; both have brought the human race literally and figuratively to its knees. …

“It is not man who is the enemy of the human species. … it is the spiritual when it is divorced from the material; from the lesson in one beating heart or one bleeding vein.”

— Anne Rice, Queen of the Damned (1988).

Notes

  1. I recommend Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (2017) and any of his writing at the environmentalist magazines Orion and Emergence. But I cannot, without qualification, endorse any of his writing after the spring of 2020.
  2. Kingsnorth’s conversion was all the more surprising given his prior critiques of the anthropocentrism and progressivism inherent in Christianity: “Towering over [our secular stories of progress] is a single, overarching story which dominates our way of seeing the world: the story of human centrality. Originally, it was a religious story: in the West it stems from the Christian notion that God created the world for humans, who in turn were created in His image. In Genesis, God specifically instructs Man to dominate, manage and act as stewards to the rest of nature.” (“Seeing our planet as a factory floor”) Ironically, in his conversion essay, Kingsnorth now claims that it is the promise of limits which made Christianity appealing to him!
  3. Unheard is ostensibly center-right, but it is definitely flirting at the edge of something else. It claims to be a “third way” between the politics of left and right–which, I have learned, is a common trope of fascists.
  4. Kingsnorth has yet to be so clearly transphobic in his publicly-accessible writing, like his essays at UnHerd where he most limits himself to gratuitous digs at liberal gender politics. His transphobic article has nevertheless been quoted at length by The American Conservative.
  5. It needs to be said that the human experience of embodied consciousness has been a “problem to be solved” for at least as long as there has been writing or cities–and this “problematizing” was accelerated by the Christianity which Kingsnorth now defends.
  6. In my essay, “The Original Heresy”, I wrote that this pull toward the transcendent, while seemingly “eternal” (to use Kingsnorth’s word), is really a product of civilization, which alienates us from the land, from our bodies, and from our communities.
  7. See, for example, Kingsnorth’s series of articles at Unheard on the decline of Western culture: “The West has lost its virtue”; “The West has lost its roots”; “The West needs to grow up”; and “The West is homeless”.
  8. At the mention of “modesty” (and after recovering from my mental cringe), my mind went to a picture of Kingsnorth with his family, the women with their heads covered, in his Orthodox Church. I’ll defend any woman’s right to cover her head, so long as she has genuine freedom to choose — but gods save us from men and their talk of modesty!
  9. Kingsnorth denied the existence of eco-fascism less than a year and a half after publishing an earlier article entitled, “Eco-fascism is our future”, in which he stated that “an actual eco-fascism was on the horizon–a global merger of state and corporate power in pursuit of progress that would have made Mussolini weep”. So which is it? Is eco-fascism our future? Or is it a phantasm?
  10. Though, it needs to be said that any attempt to recreate the past as an antidote to the present–regardless of whether that past is Christian or pagan–is naive and would be a species of the pre/trans fallacy. We cannot escape capitalism, modernity, or Christianity by traveling to the past. We can never be pre-modern again, and we can never be pre-Christian again. At best, we can be post-modern and post-Christian. As Steven Posch has written, “the only pagans that we can honestly be is the pagans for our own.

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John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of the book *Another End of the World is Possible*. Find out more at AnotherEndoftheWorld.org.