Consumers or citizens?
This is the text of a talk I gave about the genesis of the Dark Mountain Project, at the Big Tent Festival in Fife, Scotland, in July 2010
I’m going to try now to explain what the Dark Mountain project is - how it came about – what it is for – and where it is going? I say ‘try’ because one thing I have discovered about Dark Mountain is that it is curiously hard to explain. Often people ask me what it is, expecting a short summary, and I find that a short summary is pretty much impossible. It seems to be too complicated and multi-stranded for that. Or perhaps I’m just not very good at explaining things.
The Dark Mountain Project arose out of a collapse in belief, and a search for what comes after. It arose out of a sense that I no longer believed in the stories I had been telling myself about the world and how it worked and what I could do about it.
Fof fiteen years I’ve been a writer and an an environmentalist, and often, but not always, an environmental writer. In that time, I have found myself saying many of the things that environmental writers say, and adopting many of the political, cultural and ideological positions that environmentalists adopt.
The trouble was that I had increasingly stopped believing in them. More specifically, I had stopped believing that it was possible to prevent many of the global crises we were bent on preventing. It seemed to me that our civilisation was a runaway train headed for the buffers, and that we were far too near to them for applying the brakes now to make very much difference.
It was climate change that really made up my mind. Here’s where my thought processes took me. The ‘scientific consensus’ we hear so much about tells us that we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by somewhere between 60 and 80% below current levels in order to stabilise the climate. This, of course, will not prevent climate change, which appears to be affecting us already, but it might prevent it from getting worse. We need to do this quickly – within two or three decades at most.
We have to do this in the context of a global industrial economy that is growing at the fastest rate in human history. It is globalised to an extent also entirely unprecedented. We have a human population, and a rate of human population growth, that is unprecedented too. Furthermore, the vast majority of the world’s nations have joined hands in a happy capitalist alliance, which puts industrial expansion and economic growth at the heart of their reason for being.
That economic growth is entirely dependent upon fossil fuels. They make it possible. No other fuel source we know will provide anything like the rate of cheap growth needed to keep that global economy from imploding.
Now, perhaps if we had a hundred years to make that 60 to 80% reduction we could do it, though it would still require a degree of international consensus and co-operation so far unseen in human history. But we don’t have that long. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people are starting to believe that climate change is not even real.
And this is only climate change we’re talking about. We haven’t even touched on the many other global environmental problems we are happily causing: a quarter of the world's mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world's fish stocks are on the verge of collapse. And here are two calculations which really bring home to me what we are doing to the Earth.
1: humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural 'products' than the Earth can replace – a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century.
2: It has been calculated that if the global economy grows at an average rate of 3% for the next twenty years, we will consume in that period resources equivalent to all those consumed since humanity first evolved.
Now – Imagine you are a visiting alien from another planet come to check up on the progress of homo sapiens. What concludion do you think you’d draw?
It took me a long while to admit to myself the conclusion I now draw from all this: that the civilisation we currently take for granted is an unstoppable death machine, and it is eating itself as it eats the Earth. Its internal logic is directing it, and us, towards a painful crash. We are unequipped to prevent this – we are not even suere we want to. It is probably – almost definitely – too late to prevent the worst of what climate change, peak oil and ecocide will throw at us and at the planet we live on.
I have come to believe that the great challenge of the 21st century, for those of us in the rich world, will not be building a great, “sustainable” civilisation, complete with offshore windfarms, electric cars, solar arrays and all the other forms of alternative technology which are designed to keep our bubble of privilege from bursting, but coming to terms with decline, materially and existentially, as that fossil-fuelled bubble bursts and leaves us adjusting to a harsher reality.
I suspect that the 21 st century will see the endgame of industrial society as we have known it.
Curiously enough, when I talk like this to people, and especially environmentalists, they react badly. They don’t want to hear it. They want to hear that, though things are bad, there is still hope, if we act now. I don’t share this hope, and because I don’t, I am accused of despairing. After all, despair is the opposite of hope, and if we don’t feel one, we must feel the other.
But false hope is worse than no hope, and false hope is precisely what we’re dealing with here. Think, for example, about what we hope for when we hope we can stop climate change, say via something like the Copenhagen process.
We hope that vast and deeply entrenched vested interests – fossil-fuel conglomerates; loggers; automobile corporations; the ‘military-industrial complex’; political parties; unions; all the wide and winding alleys of a global economy built on cheap fossil energy – can be somehow be overcome in a very short time. We hope that an economy built on the need for constant growth can somehow be reattuned, also in a very short time, into some kind of fluffy, harmless, ’steady state’ system. We hope that this is possible in a world with a rapidly-expanding human population with rapidly-expanding appetites; appetites which need to keep expanding in order to keep that economy on the rails.
We hope that the ‘consumers’ of the rich world – that’s us – will be prepared to make radical changes to their lifestyles; either through personal choice or because their governments will force them to. This requires us also to hope that democracies, which are predicated on giving their voters what they want, and promising more of it, will suddenly be able to turn around and tell them they must have less of everything.
Failing all of this, we turn to the ’supply side’: we hope, in the best tradition of post-Enlightenment Rational Man, that our technology will save us. We hope we can build enough windfarms quickly enough and that they will work. We hope we can invent a ‘carbon capture’ system to allow us to keep burning coal. We hope we can cover the Sahara with mirrors and get a ’supergrid’ up and running. We hope that electric cars will work, or hydrogen fuel cells or decentralised energy systems. We hope we can stop the Canadians digging up and selling their tar sands and persuade the Saudis to keep the rest of their oil in the ground. We hope we can ‘decouple’ destructive pollution from rampant growth.
We hope that we can get all of this done against the interests of those who run the fossil-fuel economy and the inert and inadequate political systems that supposedly govern it, and against the competitive nature of people and nations. Failing that, we hope we can work out some way to start pumping carbon out of the atmosphere and under the sea, or to send it into space or to create cloud cover that blocks the sun’s rays, or to whack space mirrors up into the blackness to reflect the light back again.
And behind all of this false hope is, in any case, a bigger, unanswered question: what are we hoping for? Because we are failing, crucially, to distinguish between life and lifestyle. When we campaign to make our society sustainable, what are we really campaigning for? We tell ourselves we are campaigning to ‘save the earth’, but we are actually campaigning to save our civilisation. I wonder if we can even tell the difference any more.
E nvism should start – used to start – from a simple question: what’s best for the rich web of life on Earth? But almost unnoticed, that question has, subtly, gradually, been replaced by another: how can we maintain our lifestyles, and extend those same lifestyles to everyone else Earth, whilst doing as little damage to ‘the environment’ as possible?
These are two very different questions, and they give us two very different answers.
We all like to attack climate sceptics for being ‘in denial’. But we are all of us living in denial. The civilisation we have grown up in is falling apart. No number of green machines will prevent this. The challenge for us, especially those of us in the rich and over-indulged world, is how to come to terms with this – and, crucially, to understand that the end of the world as we know it is not the same as the end of the world full stop. By that, I mean that the end of our way of living in the West is not the same as the end of life itself.
After fifteen years of environmental writing it took me a long time to accept the logic of my own conclusion, and what it would mean for me on a personal level. When I finally did accept it, I had to ask myself a question: what would I do if I really believed this? How would I live? And also – how, as a writer, would I write? Because it seemed to me that this denial, which extends to us all, is reflected in our cultural output as a society.
A society experiencing a genuine emergency, as we often claim to be, would surely see that reflected in its cultural output. Surely our novels, our films, our TV shows, our media, would show some acceptance of the fact that our assumptions were crumbling, that the world that is coming will not be the same as the world we are leaving behind. Surely an age of ecocide would spur responses? But I saw – I see – no significant responses in the cultural mainstream. The denial extends to every aspect of what we produce and how we live our lives.
While pondering all this, I came into contact with someone who had been pondering much the same thing. Dougald Hine, like me a former journalist, got in touch and we started to kick ideas around. What would a cultural response to our times look like, we asked ourselves, if it didn’t assume that the future would be an upgraded version of the present? What would a cultural response to an age of ecocide look like if it were not based on false pretences? What would happen if we looked into the abyss?
The result was the Dark Mountain Project. Dark Mountain is an attempt to bring together a cultural movement of people who share this vision of the future. It began as a movement of writers, but has widened to take in artists, musicians, film-makers but also scientists, engineers, farmers and craftspeople – all of whom have stopped believing in the stories we tell ourselves as a culture.
We believe that the obstacles we face as a civilisation are not purely physical, political or economic, but cultural; obstacles of the imagination. We believe that the stories we tell ourselves as a society – the myths our civilisation is based on – are part of the reason for our rush towards this brick wall, and also for our refusal to accept thsat we are going to hit it.
Crucially, we believe that a number of cultural myths underpin our current state of delusion. Myths about the ineffable march of progress, of our isolation from “nature”, of our uniqueness as a species, of the ability of our machines to save us from the consequences of our actions.
It seemed obvious what we had to do next: write a manifesto. We wanted to set out the stall for what we had decided to call “Uncivilisation”: a process of unpicking the narratives of our culture and examining the threads they were woven from.
We took the name of our initiative from a line in a poem by the almost forgotten American poet Robinson Jeffers, who warned half a century ago of humanity’s suicidal course and who saw a Shakespearean inevitability in the fate our species had apparently chosen for itself:
“I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future … I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.”
The reaction ...
We wondered if anyone out there shared our views. We printed our manifesto, put a website up and waited to see. We sold several hundred manifestoes in a few months and printed some more. We got reactions from all continents and thousands of visits to our website. The media started picking up on things, from the Australian Financial Review to the New Statesman.
We received hundreds of emails from people who were, they said, excited to come across us – excited that we were doing this. What came out from many of these was a common theme. People were excited because they had been given permission to stop pretending. They had been feeling like this for a long time – they too had stopped believing in the stories – but they hadn’t somehow been given permission to express those feelings. Now they felt they had. Many people said that it giving up on that false hope did not leave them depressed, as they’d thought it might, but exhilirated.
With this, of course, came the attacks. We were called all sorts of wondrous names: collapsitarians, doomers, nihilists, misanthropists, Luddites, Romantics, utopians … you name it. If it’s possible to be a romantic utopian nihilist, you’re apparently looking at one. In most cases, we took this as a sign that we were saying something which got under peoples’ skins. Which we took as a compliment.
In the year or so since we launched we’ve done two main things – a gathering and a book. The festival, in late May, brought together 400 mountaineers for a weekend of talks, debates, music, discussion and practical events. The book, launched at the same time, contains essays, short fiction, poetry and art by names including Alastair McIntosh, Jay Griffiths, Melanie Challenger and many others. We’re planning another book and have more events on the go also.
If I were to sum up, at this point, what Dark Mountain is or isn’t, I might perhaps say something slightly different to what I would have said six months ago, for the project evolves with the people who get involved, and with our thinking and with events. But the core approach remains, and it’s this:
What we are:
The Dark Mountain Project is an invitation to face the converging crises of our century as a cultural challenge – rather than only a technical or political one. We don’t dismiss technical or political responses to our multiple crises, although we may question the assumptions behind them, and the extent to which they rely on wishful thinking. We don’t, either, dismiss activism or campaigning. But we do question acting for acting’s sake, and we think we need to be honest about what historical forces are at work, and what can and cannot be achieved at this point.
Most of all, though, we invite people to explore certain questions: in what ways are these crises rooted in our cultural assumptions, the stories we have told for generations and the ways in which we have seen the world? How do we disentangle ourselves from those assumptions? How can we forge cultural responses that undermine the poisonous myths we have inherited – the myths of humanity’s centrality, materialism, progress, the separation of ‘people’ from ‘nature’? Where do we find new stories, or old stories whose time has come? What other ways of seeing might alter our understanding of our situation? And how do we help send these stories and ways of seeing out into the world?
What we’re not:
Dark Mountain is not intended as a vehicle for theoretical or abstract arguments about the future, nor a vehicle for apocalyptic fantasies. And, perhaps crucially, this is not an ‘activist’ project: if you are looking for new ways of ’saving the world’, you will be disappointed in us – and some have been. Dark Mountain is not another well-meaning attempt to ‘bring together artists concerned about the environment’. It’s not an attempt to focus the minds of poets on ‘the challenges of sustainability’, or to get more keen, young writers to ‘tackle subjects’ like climate change or deforestation. It is something altogether more fundamental than that.
We want to be able to take a cold, hard look at the human predicament, without necessarily being obliged to have a ‘solution’ to offer. We are not pre-judging anything, nor offering trite ‘answers’. A novelist, after all, is not expected to have ‘solutions’ to the human predicament. A poet is not expected to provide ‘answers’ or a political game-plan. But what writers ought to be able to do is to examine this process, and our place in it, and to do so from beyond the framework of our current cultural assumptions.
At the edge
There are two ways of seeing the future: apocalypse or progress. People seem to default to one or another, which I think explains why we can be called utopians and doom-mongers in the same breath. I reckon we’ll get neither – except in the original sense of the word apocalypse, which when translated from the greek means ‘revelation.’ We’re more likely to see the stuttering decline of our civilisation and the long falling away of our expectations.
Six years ago, at the height of the economic boom, I remember attending a session at the European Social Forum on ‘life after capitalism.’ It was full of hopeful young Turks planning the revolution and the utopia which would follow. Up on the stage, though, a sober note was sounded by the brilliant economist Susan George who, at 70 years old, had seen more of the world than most of us. I can quote what she said because I wrote it down; it seemed so obviously worth listening to even in those halcyon days:
There is a serious possibility that this unstable global economy could actually collapse. We could then be faced with a Weimar-type situation. We could experience war, dictatorship, instability and military takeover. Remember that life after capitalism could be worse than what we have now.
I don’t think many people took this on board at the time, but today it seems prescient. We are in a period of global narrative failure: nobody’s stories have convincing plots, and none of them knows how they end. Marxism, conservatism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, environmentalism – none of them has legs. New stories will come, because new stories are needed. In the short term, though, I’m not sure we’re going to like what they have to tell us.