April 07, 2021

3 Nature Writers Lost in 2020: Pentti Linkola


Of the three writers I am discussing (Barry Lopez was the first), the deep ecologist Penti Linkola (1932–2020) is the least cuddly. In fact, he was pretty crusty. One Finnish academic described his writing as "a very Finnish and dark version of 'an inconvenient truth'" (from the title of Al Gore's environmental book).

Linkola wrote in Finnish, and the only work translated into English that I have seen is a collection of essays, Can Life Prevail? published by Arktos Media and available as a printed book, ebook, or audiobook.

In American terms, you might find in him Henry David Thoreau's skepticism about "progress," Ed Abbey's distrust of authority and "the experts," and  Wendell Berry's valuing of small-scale sustainable farming and traditional life style — plus a healthy dose of your favorite author of After the Big Collapse distopian novels.

And with Rachel Carson's eye for scientific observation and making connections.

Linkola made his living as an inshore fisherman from 1959 to 1995 — it is hard to imagine him taking orders from any boss. His father and his grandfather were both university administrators; he studied biology and worked as a research ornithologist for a time. He started a preservation organization that functions something like The Nature Conservancy. 

So, for example, his observations about the decline of bird populations in his lifetime — favoring those birds such as crows and jays that thrive in human-altered landscapes versus those that do not — or about the damage of invasive species or industrial logging are based in science and on personal observation.

In his preface, he condemns his fellow Finns' version of progress: "Finland is switching to the most horrid forms of market economy, to an uncritical worship of technology, to automation and media vapidity; with information technology pervading all human exchanges" (20). 

He refers to present-day circumstances as "Suicidal Society."

He jumps from how bureaucratic hygiene regulations damaged small fisherman like himself, who could not afford and did not want big seagoing boats with million-euro ice machines on board, and likewise damage small grocers, butchers, etc. to arguing that an ultra-clean home environment produces people with poor immune systems (in which he is far from alone).

I myself tend to dismiss all nutritional controversies — surrounding meat, vegetables, salt, butter, sugar — with one simple statement: if you don't eat, you die, and if you eat, you survive. It is enough to clarify that objects that harm teeth and internal organs, such as iron nails and glass fragments, should be avoided (25–26).
But there is one thing about Linkola that spooks mainstream environmentalists  — his politics.

He spent his life in Finland's parliamentary democracy, a center-left Scandinavian welfare state. He rejected it. 

Democracy, to Linkola, was a "suicidal" form of government, because people will always vote for the leader who promises more free stuff, "bread and circuses, regardless of the cost and consequences" (154). He adhered to principles of deep ecology:

There is nothing above the requirements of the continuity of life: all other interests fall below it. As the deep ecologist emphasises those factors beneficial to the preservation and continuation of life, his arguments will always be above all others. . . . What the deep ecologist loves is the whole. Therein lies the greatest beauty, wealth, and love. The deep ecologist does not understand the Christian-Humanist love of man, which even at its best only extends to a nation or mankind: this he sees as a form of inbreeding, egotism, masturbation (165).

Linkola was not the Unabomber. He admits that he has never dared to do more than speak, write, and peacefully demonstate. Yet he wrote, "The crippling human cover spread over the living layer of the Earth must forcibly be made lighter: breathing holes must be punctured in this blanket and the ecological footprint of man brushed away" (170, emphasis added). 

I have heard such sentiments expressed by North American enviros, when the whiskey is being passed around the campfire. But they don't put them in their grant applications, their legal filings, or their conference papers.

At times, he yearned for a something like Plato's Republic: a small-scale society led by a class of Guardians who are well-educated (and trained in the martial arts to balance mind and body), yet who live materially simply. Somehow, if the perfect Green dictator could arise, that person could supervise a "world made by hand," to borrow a post-Collapse book title.

At other times he echoes the ancient Chinese book of the Tao, the Tao Te Ching (Legge translation) — which is at base a political manual, not a self-help text:

In a little state with a small population, I would so order it, that, though there were individuals with the abilities of ten or a hundred men, there should be no employment of them . . . .

Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion to ride in them; though they had buff coats and sharp weapons, they should have no occasion to don or use them. . . .

They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common (simple) ways sources of enjoyment.

There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the voices of the fowls and dogs should be heard all the way from it to us, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, not have any intercourse with it (Chapter 80).

That sounds like Linkola. Yet he also was quoted as saying, "If there were a button I could press, I would sacrifice myself without hesitating, if it meant millions of people would die."

It is not surprising that a resident of a Scandinavian welfare state who says that his own society is not only ecologically destructive but destructive of human health and well-being as well is not the sort who is invited to speak to the United Nations or the graduating classes at universities. At least in the abstract, he has advocated dictatorship:

Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent dictator, that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. Best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and government would prevent any economical growth.

I am reminded of the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot (1925–1998) and his war on cities in the 1970s. Not a model to follow.

Yet I can understand Linkola's call for Something Different as born from a deep love of the natural world and deep pain at its destruction. 

As with Plato 2,500 years ago, sometimes we wish for the Philosopher King who would set things right. But do we ever get one? Plato once thought that he had found such a man, but everything went sideways, and the famous Athenian philosopher had to flee for his life.

 It is not a bad thing, however, to keep his book on the shelf and to look at aspects of your life and ask, "What would Pentti think?"

1 comment:

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

I'm confident that I'm going to forgo reading Linkola's book, and I'm fairly horrified by some of the suggestions he apparently made, but I'll make a couple of observations.

One of the things that's really hard on people, and as this is the Southern Rockies Nature Blog, I'll relate that to being from the Northern Rockies, is to sit through existential changes that relate to a more rural, natural, or agrarian way of life.

The Finnish economy was agrarian up until after World War Two, when the Finnish government force modernized it out of a fear that in a future war with the Soviet Union it'd lack the ability to really contest it. Prior to that time, most Finns outside of the cities, and there were few cities, were rural, many were farmers, and the economy was agrarian. That meant that people lived close to nature and the swings of the global economy didn't impact them much. Indeed, the Great Depression didn't impact Finland all that much as a result.

It did have downsides, besides one related to national security. Finnish male life spans were short, for one.

Anyhow, people who live close to nature and value it have a very difficult time accepting the modern capitalist mantra that its all about the cash and sacrificing a small, close, life with nature is okay. It must have been painful.

Relating that to ourselves, over nearly six decades those of us who have lived in this region have certainly seen that play out as well. All over the region there's been endless arguments about how to bring in big business, and by extension bring in lots of people with lots of housing and lots of development. It's all good, we're told, and we must do this. But if you lived close to a field that's now houses, it doesn't feel that way.

That doesn't mean a person should become misanthropic, or even espouse genocide, which it sounds like Linkola more or less would do, but it does add a tinge of sadness to life.