There’s a new conversation spreading through the environmental movement at the moment. Their first conference is underway this weekend, the first issue of the journal is out this week, so it seems like a good time to engage with the Dark Mountain project.
Essentially, the Dark Mountain proposal is that every civilization in history has collapsed. Ours will be no different – “human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction,” as the manifesto reads. Climate change, resource depletion, species loss, are all accelerating, driven by a growth model of economics and the guiding mythology of progress. The environmental and social justice campaigns are out to call us back from this brink of course. If we can just fix this, stop doing that, everything will be okay and we can carry on.
That’s where the Dark Mountain movement disagrees. “We do not believe that everything will be fine,” they maintain – ‘sustainability’ in the sense of tweaking our lifestyles for the long term, is an impossible goal. “We are still wired to an idea of history in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present,” and the green movement is just as much a part of the myth, calling for new technologies and ecological restraint. But it is too late. The system cannot change itself, and we are on the brink of collapse. Is it time we acknowledged that?
“Secretly, we all think we are doomed” says the manifesto. We cope with it by carrying on, not looking down, silencing the difficult questions both within ourselves and in the public sphere. The Dark Mountain network says “it is time to look down.”
In response, the Dark Mountain journal has collected together a series of works of what it called ‘Uncivilization writing’. This is writing that attempts to look beyond the collapse, to look unflinchingly at the possibility of the end of civilization. The false hope that characterises debate at the moment is a challenge to artists, writers and storytellers to re-shape it, speak honestly, and start looking deeper. There is a website and a network for discussion, and now a conference. It’s a growing discussion, and one that is controversial. Even the most depressing of environmental books has ‘the happy chapter’ at the end. “If you want to be loved,” they warn interested parties, “it might be best not to get involved.”
For some, this whole discussion is something of a betrayal. It sounds like giving up, letting the world go hang. I don’t think that’s the founder’s intentions, although it’s hard to tell how much of the idea is campaigner burnout rather than a real vision for something new.
So I’ll have to think about this one. Honesty is vital, and I welcome the call to truth telling. I also accept their critique of much environmental campaigning – so many online petitions and marches, so little achieved. The question of whether or not we can change resonates too. I don’t think it is too late to prevent the worst of climate change, although whether or not we will summon the will and overcome our own greed and selfishness is a very different thing. I’m involved in writing and campaigning because I believe some things can be changed, and hitting the wall at 98 miles and hour is still better than hitting it at 100. I’m involved in Transition Towns because the focus is on resilience, on being prepared. It’s an approach that builds for the future, whatever it may be. That probably puts my own philosophy somewhere halfway between the Dark Mountain crowd and the mainstream.
I’m interested to read some ‘Uncivilization writing’, and judge for myself. In the meantime, I’m inspired by a profound tradition and a different literature – that of prophetic resistance. “We must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we’re going to be successful,” said E F Schumacher. “Let the lie come into the world” as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said of communism, “but not through me”. “As for me and my house”, Joshua told the apostate Israelites, “we will serve the Lord.”
The future is uncertain, and we all get to choose how we respond. Denial is perhaps the most popular choice, with wishful thinking a close second. Anger and despondency remain, and then there’s hope. In some ways the final outcome is not important. We can attempt to second-guess the future and work out how we should act, or there’s a simpler question – what’s the right thing to do? The world may be a smoking wreck in 50 years time, this is true. If it is, I want to know that I did everything I could to prevent it. It may be too late to steer away from the rapids, but I’ll be paddling anyway.