Dark Side of the Mountain

Douglas Strang writes: The Dark Mountain Project began life as a manifesto, published in 2009, by the writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth. In it they contend that we are living through a period of unavoidable decline and that the time has come to stop pretending otherwise: “Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch.” The manifesto urges us to reject this fallacy, to unblock our ears and “hear the message which reality is screaming at us”. In particular it is a rallying cry to  those who are willing to challenge the stories upon which our civilisation is built: the myths of progress and human centrality; the myth of our separateness from nature.

The Dark Mountain Project has caused a stir, particularly in the environmental  movement, because it refutes the notion that international treaties and renewable energy will somehow allow us to both protect the biosphere and sustain our Western consumerist lifestyle. The two are not compatible, the project insists, and by failing to assert this, mainstream environmentalism has betrayed its origins: “Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naïve as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy.”

Unsurprisingly, the project has its critics. John Grey, reviewer for the New Statesman, accuses its founders of believing that “global collapse could lead to a better world” and that in doing so, they have “swallowed the progressive fairy tale that animates the civilisation they reject.” While in the Guardian, George Monbiot contends that “To sit back and wait for the collapse of industrial civilisation is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens value.” Responding to such criticism, the founders insist that “the project has never been a quest for apocalyptic narratives, but rather an attempt to get beyond them.”

So, to Llangollen in North Wales and ‘Uncivilisation’, the project’s first gathering and launch of Dark Mountain Volume 1. The festival brought together writers, artists, musicians and activists keen to address the issues raised by the manifesto. Specifically, two questions were posed: “What do we do after we stop pretending ‘the world as we know it’ can be sustained… [and] where do we find new stories for the unknown world ahead?” Headline speakers included Alastair McIntosh, Jay Griffiths,  and Penny Rimbaud, as well as critics of the project such as the above mentioned George Monbiot.

The weekend was intense, exciting, and at times chaotic. Four hundred people were gathered beneath the canopies of Llangollen’s International Pavilion.  The main hall hosted a series of talks, while in other spaces there were poetry-readings, theatre, film, and a plethora of informal debates. Speakers and performers embodied the sense that this was a conversation in progress, a festival of ideas rather than an attempt to flesh out some kind of Dark Mountain doctrine.

A recurring theme was the perceived crisis in the environmental movement, particularly after the failure of Copenhagen. Paul Kingsnorth suggested that “environmentalism’s heart had been hollowed out”, that it had been “Tony Blaired” in its push for mainstream acceptance. George Monbiot acknowledged the crisis but insisted that movement-building remained our only hope,   fearing that the alternative – atomisation –  was “exactly what the neo-liberals want, because that means we cannot fight together, and if we can’t fight together we are stuffed.”

Many of the speakers sought to move beyond the political. Indeed Dark Mountain proclaims itself a cultural project above all else, seeking an artistic response which “unflinchingly stares us down, however uncomfortable this may prove” and which is “determined to shift our worldview, not to feed into it.” Thus, the ecopoet Mario Petrucci warned against contemporary art and literature that merely entertained, calling instead for stories that make “the habitual unfamiliar”, that allow us to break new ground and get past “the numbness of denial.” This idea was explored repeatedly over the weekend: Jay Griffiths encouraged us to reject the dominant cultural model which erects a fence between us and the natural world, insisting that even here in the ‘civilised’ West “the boundary is porous, there is a paw scraping at the door.” While  Alistair McIntosh urged that “the imperative of our time is to develop an inner life… that reconstitutes the world.”

The Dark Mountain Project has been accused of being a haven for ‘utopian dreamers’ and ‘nihilists’, ‘crazy collapsitarians’ and ‘feral possessive individualists’. I met none of those at Llangollen. Instead I met, again and again, folk who were still fighting the good fight, who’d been to Copenhagen, were involved in the Transition movement; who campaigned for social justice and marched against war. But who also recognised the simple truth that Western industrial society cannot be made sustainable, that we will not protect the biosphere unless we completely renegotiate our relationship to it.

A talking-shop? A weekend of music and beer and flights of self-indulgent fancy? Some may dismiss it as such, but I won’t. For me, and I’m sure for many others, ‘Uncivilisation’ was a kindling of consciousness, a communion, and a rare opportunity to begin the process of ‘reconstitution’.

Read Paul Kingsnorth on why he started the Dark Mountain project here.



Categories: Environmental Justice, Globalisation

Tags: , ,

20 replies

  1. “accused of being a haven for ‘utopian dreamers’ and ‘nihilists’, ‘crazy collapsitarians’ and ‘feral possessive individualists’.”

    Anyone who comes in for so much abuse from the establishment must surely be on to something.

  2. Absolutely barking! Best belly laugh I’ve had ages – you should be on TV. Thanks for this, made my day.

    • Hi Douglas – what a great article, its THE issue that the environmental movement has to face and resolve – in one sense the tactics of building consensus and influence has failed – Copenhagen was the latest example. So there’s no doubt that something significant has to shift. On the other some of the apocalyptic rhetoric from the ‘Uncivilization’ project seems like nihilism to me – and a very unmotivating place to be. I’d like to defend civilization – and the enlightenment traditions that dont include relentless progress & growth but an organicist tradition that we can draw on.

      If you look at the sort of things that Tim Jacksons Prosperity Without Growth report say: http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/file_download.php?target=/publications/downloads/prosperity_without_growth_report.pdf

      The argument isn’t between ‘sell-out or survivalism’ as the Dark Mountain project suggests but about whether we can create an environmental movement that is about moving beyond capitalism not allowing it to survive by cloaking it in treaties and ‘sustainable devlopment’.

      • Hi Bella, and Sean,

        I think that we all know that the problem is systemic, and I agree with you both when you say that the challenge is to replace capitalism. The problem is that we are fast running out of time. The science is unequivocal: in order to avert runaway climate change we need to radically alter the way we live and we need to do it right now. I sense very little public acknowledgement of this and hear none of the mainstream political parties proposing the kind of changes required. In fact, I would suggest that virtually none of us in the West are prepared to adopt a lifestyle that is truly ‘sustainable’.

        Given the above, I defend Dark Mountain’s fatalism.

  3. Any mention of Bagua?

    I have translated this editorial from Lucha Indigena
    ‘Indigenous Fight’ newspaper fresh from the Peruvian Amazon! (http://www.luchaindigena.com/

    ‘This issue of Indigenous Struggle deals mainly with the issue of global warming, because we consider this as the most important issue facing humanity and one the media hardly deals with.

    For the first time the survival of the human species is threatened. Ironically, the threat is rooted in human action.

    The emission of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide is produced by the intensive use of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) industry and transport. Moreover, this increase in emissions in addition other problems such as deforestation, which has reduced the amount of carbon dioxide retained in organic matter, thereby contributing indirectly to the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by human activity. The result of that is the increase in temperature of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, causing profound climate changes: heavy rain, drought, cold or intense heat, dissolution of polar ice and glaciers, disappearing streams, thinning of rivers, sea water rise with the sinking of islands, hurricanes, and even, according to some recent earthquakes.

    As global warming is increasing disasters caused by it are also undergoing. In Cusco we have suffered from floods that have covered full villages, killing people and animals, cancellation of large areas of crops, rivers of mud through villages, destroying houses. The coming years these disasters and others, will be worse.

    No country is safe, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in the U.S.. The last European winter was much colder. In cities of Spain and Argentina’s capital, people have walked with the water above the knees. A river of mud as they crossed the Zurite people passed through the center of an Italian city.

    At this rate, mankind will not last 100 years or more. Why not stop the warming caused by humanity itself? Because the boss in the world is big business. Sets the governments of the highly developed countries and our governments like Alan Garcia are only his servants. The sacred principle of capital is to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible.Whether for this exterminate humanity including the descendants of the capitalists. There is a group of bad people who want to destroy humanity, is the vortex of the capitalist system. If a capitalist stops a factory to not increase the emission of greenhouse gases, their place is taken by another capitalist. There can be no capitalism without global warming. Global warming is inherent in the capitalist system. While we live in a world ruled by capital, can not stop global warming, quite the contrary, every day is greater, until the human race is exterminated. The only hope mankind has is that this economic system that sinks humanity can be replaced by another in which serves humanity as a whole and not a handful of millionaires. Humanity itself will be able to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to survive.

    Fortunately, humanity is beginning to awaken. The great example of this was the World Conference of Peoples on Climate Change and the Earth Mother’s rights held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on 19, 20, 21 and 22 April, attended by more than 35 000 people although Europe flights were suspended. Those 35 000 people are a more conscious sector of humanity that is willing to defend the Earth Mother, understanding that attacks on her are attacks on humanity.They know that the collective action of people can still save humanity. This number of ‘Indigenous Struggle’ is dedicated to a report on that meeting, we hope that serves to increase the number of people working to save the human species defending Mother Earth. ‘

  4. I don’t see this as being a positive development.

    Yes, ‘environmentalist’ organistions frequently endorse and advise multinationals, including oil companies. But this has been the case for decades now; it’s a cliche to say that the green movement sold itself out.

    The manifesto of Dark Mountain is incredibly vague, and what it does say is neither new nor helpful. Of course, we need to wake up to the seriousness of our situation. However, rejecting what counts as environmentalism for a liberal despair and an unclear sympathy for primitivism is no choice at all.

    If capitalism co-opted the greens, how do we challenge and replace capitalism? In my opinion, class struggle and an anti-authoritarian socialism are the only green option left.

  5. The argument is not however Douglas that the situation is dire, that the political establishment is inert, or fatally compromised or both, nor is the argument that the public has been lulled by years of soft-soaping by the environmental movement. The argument is, is the Dark Mountains fatalism and rejection of the concept of ‘civilization’ a useful political strategy to alter this reality?

    I’d suggest it is not because it – potentially – feeds into an easy resort to primitivism and deep ecology – and fails to confront the reality – that as you say, capitalism is unsustainable and we urgently need to transform to a zero carbon ecological society. Having said that I agree that the Dark Mountain project is important in confronting the environmental movement with its own record of failure.

    • Dear Bella,

      I like Clive Hamilton’s espousal of “active fatalism”. In his excellent book ‘Requiem for a Species’ he suggests a way forward: despair, accept, and then act.

      cheers

      Douglas

      • That’s really quite helpful Douglas. I suppose the area we need to agree on is what is the ‘act’? I see it as a strategic combination of community led disavowal and renewal combined with a demand for higher-level structural shifts (ie a community railway system doesn’t work). We need to reclaim the skies as well as the streets and we need abandon the feudalism and imperialism of the British State, and you can’t do that at a jumble sale.

  6. Thanks for this conversation everyone – and thanks Douglas for a great piece, which I see openDemocracy has now picked up on.

    There are some misunderstandings here about Dark Mountain though, which largely seem to come from viewing it as a political project which sets out either to somehow celebrate collapse or to try and come up with ‘alternatives’ to capitalism or failed green narratives. DM is neither of these – it’s a cultural movement which seeks to respond to our age of collapse and decline. We’ve expanded on this in a blog post today:

    http://www.dark-mountain.net/wordpress/2010/06/22/defining-the-mountain/

    I wouldn’t use the word ‘fatalism’ necessarily. I would prefer ‘realism’. Our grand political narratives, like our mainstream green narrative, are currently mired deep in wishful thinking. What happens when you accept this, and stop pretending the kinks can all be ironed out? That’s where we start from. But it’s a journey, not a five-point plan. And of course, it’s not for everyone.

  7. Thanks for the comment Paul. I am in an odd position – I agree with 80% of your analysis but find myself repelled by the response to that diagnosis.

    I don’t think you can focus on ‘population’ and ‘humanity’ as the problem then walk away saying ‘it’s a cultural movement ‘ – people just getting together for a wee story and sing-song.

    Yes the environmental movement is deeply flawed, complicit and jeopardised by its reform agenda, message of incremental change and yes we face more fundamental challenges than we have so far realised. However the answer to these questions is about altering the basic premise of a productivist-consumerist world in which we are persuaded to buy ‘stuff’ we don’t need.

    The need to confront and quickly alter the realities of the capitalist economy is at the very heart of the ecological crisis – and Dark Mountain is quite right to critique purely techno-sphere solutions. But there is a real danger that you vere into a misanthropic world-view that puts the victims of, say, Union Carbide at Bhopal on the same footing as the Executives of Dow Chemical beacuse they are all ‘humans’. Or you ignore the historic and contemporary injustices and relations betwen the global north and south. In DM analysis they are just ‘humans’ part of the miserable problem.

    The problem is not ‘humans’ or ‘civilization’ it is the uncivilization of an economic system based on rapacious exploitation, hierarchy and profit, not need. These are the issues radical ecologists and everyone has to coalesce around and build a movement for change.

    Mike Small, Bella C

    • Hi Mike,

      I don’t think it has to be one or the other. While Dark Mountain does challenge the ‘displacement therapy’ of many environmental campaigns, it has not been set up to oppose, in any way, those who agitate for social and political change.
      We are in a crisis, and that crisis should be addressed at all levels: social, political, cultural and, dare I say it, spiritual. A cultural response is not an evasion, and it’s unfair to belittle it as “just getting together for a wee story and a sing-song.”
      Ted Hughes once said that “what alters the imagination, alters everything.” While it would be easy to dismiss that as a neat little homily, I prefer to think of it as a call to arms.

      cheers, Douglas

      • Douglas I agree. My comments about the get together and sing-song were not dismissing it as such, but rather to say that the organisers need to deal with the political consequences of their analysis and framing of the question. It is they, not I who belittle the project by cornering it as being ‘only cultural’.

        Culture is everything, narrative is essential but all is political given the stakes we face.

  8. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the conversation here. It might be worth you reading the manifesto again, with an eye to seeing it, as I said, as an attempt to engender a cultural response rather than create a political movement. It can read differently when approached in different lights.

    At no point, to be clear, have we said that ‘humanity is the problem’. I’m not even sure what that would mean. I’ve certainly talked myself about the world’s overpopulation problem, which is frankly an ecological reality, but that’s nothing to do with misanthropy. Misanthropy is a word that is often carelessly misused to dismiss uncomfortable observations that don’t sit well with the human ego. I’m not saying that’s how you’re using it here, but I don’t see how you can square your reading (re Union Carbide, for example), with the project we have pulled together and the people involved. I don’t know if you have read our book, for example, but you will find much of this stuff tackled in there. There’s a very interesting interview we conducted with Vinay Gupta, for example, which might interest you. It’s available online here:

    Our original manifesto was a manifesto for writers. It was not a political plan and we are not a political movement in that sense. As for your analysis of capitalism and consumption – well, I’m pretty much with you there I think, and have written two books of my own around the subject. But great movements of people around the world have been trying to upend capitalism for centuries with little success, and in the context of an approaching climate crisis and an ongoing ecocide, I don’t see much chance of that happening any time soon due to human effort. There’s no movement, no will and no time.

    In my view, the most likely cause of any crisis of capitalism is the crisis capitalism is itself causing to the biosphere. ‘Humans’ are not the problem, but what humans are doing is. And that’s what we’re looking at.

    • It seems to me that there’s never been a shortage of cultural responses to questions of civilization / nature. It’s a return to the Romantic thing. And Mike S is right to point out that the cultural leads into the political.

      For a movement of artists to deny the possibility of humans being able to effect change in a positive way because, “great movements of people around the world have been trying to upend capitalism for centuries with little success,” that seems like a massive failure of imagination.

      Making myths of a humanless world seems like the easy option to me.

  9. Thanks Paul, I’ll look again. Mike

Trackbacks

  1. Dark Side of the Mountain.. | Thoughts Poems Rants from an anarchist in Sheffield..
  2. Defining the Mountain « The Dark Mountain Project
  3. Defining the mountain | The Dark Mountain Project

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