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Down the Dark Mountain by Paul Kingsnorth

Down the Dark Mountain by Paul Kingsnorth

14th September 2010

Consider the situation we apparently find ourselves in. The scientific consensus tells us that we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by somewhere between 60 and 80% below current levels in order to the stabilise 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. 

Meanwhile, we have a global industrial economy 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 policymaking. 

That economic growth is based upon fossil fuels. Perhaps 'based' is to weedy a word - it is entirely dependent upon them. 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 percentages 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. Appraise the situation for yourself, and give me an unbiased and honest account of how likely you think it is that this species, this civilisation, at this time, in this situation, can do what is necessary to save itself.

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 coming to a stuttering end, that we are unequipped to prevent it, and that it is probably 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 suspect 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 tech 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 21st century will see the endgame of industrial society as we have known it. 

Strangely enough, when I talk like this to people, and especially environmentalists, they sometimes 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 - etc etc. 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 hope, when it is false, is paralysing. Think, for example, about what we hope for when we hope we can stop climate change.

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 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 without democracy itself shuddering into serious trouble.

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 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.

Furthermore, a lot of this 'hope' fails to explain what it is actually hope for. It fails, 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 ourselves. Environmentalism 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, 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 are living in denial. This is a hard thing to admit to ourselves, but we have to admit it. The world as we know it is falling apart. It is ending. The challenge for us, especially those of us in the rich and over-indulged world, is how to come to terms with that - 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. 

After fifteen years of environmental writing and campaigning 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 it? 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 whole.

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? 

I don't see it, at least in the mainstream. What we have instead is a fin-de-siècle culture. We subsist on a tedious diet of novels about inner-city kidz or country-house angst; poetry that examines the poets' inner life in arrhythmic stanzas; visual art playing games with empty cynicism, its creators swanning about like catwalk-models complaining about their tax-brackets. It's as if nothing were ever going to change; as if nothing were changing already. 

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 but also a social entrepreneur and all-round ideas man, 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?  

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 is a movement of people - it began as a movement of writers, but has widened to take in artists, musicians, film-makers but  also scientists, engineers, farmers and craftspeople - who 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 are part of the reason for our rush towards a brick wall. 

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 hubris.  

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 ("these grand and fatal movements towards death"), 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." 

What we are:

For us, 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 do not dismiss technical or political responses to the crises we face, although we may question the assumptions behind them, and the extent to which they rely on wishful thinking. But they are not the focus of this project. Rather, 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. We don't want to construct a boxing ring in which fights between worldviews are staged, 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 have come to the wrong place. Dark Mountain is not just another of those well-meaning attempts 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, and altogether more challenging too. 

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

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.

PAUL KINGSNORTH  has worked in an orang utan rehabilitation centre in Borneo, as a peace observer in the rebel Zapatista villages of Mexico, as a floor-sweeper in McDonalds and as an assistant lock-keeper on the river Thames. He studied history at Oxford University between 1991 and 1994, was arrested during the Twyford Down road protests of 1993 and was named one of Britain's 'top ten troublemakers' by the New Statesman magazine in 2001.

Paul has worked on the comment desk of the Independent, as commissioning editor for opendemocracy.net and as deputy editor of The Ecologist. He is also an award-winning poet, and an honorary member of the Lani tribe of New Guinea. He has written for most UK newspapers and many other publications at home and abroad, and appeared on radio and TV.

Paul's first book, One No, Many Yeses  (Simon and Schuster, 2003), an investigative journey through the 'anti-globalisation' movement, was published in six languages in thirteen countries. His second book, Real England, was published by Portobello Books in 2008. His debut poetry collection, Kidland, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. In 2009 he co-founded of the Dark Mountain  Project.