I often wonder how we would act if we really believed it. How we would act and how we would write.
Every day, we are hit with more news about the human impact on the non-human world. For decades, the evidence has been piling up. If you want to know about deforestation, species extinction, ocean acidification, overfishing or (the granddaddy of them all) climate change, you doubtless know where to look by now. And if you don’t want to look – because you don’t want to hear it – then nobody can make you.
We know these things are happening, and we know why. We know that a rapidly growing human population with rapidly growing appetites is strip-mining the world. We know that industrial capitalism, which eats the world and calls it development, is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.
We know, most of all, that this cannot last. We know we are running out of cheap oil, and that cheap oil in any case is storing up a future of chaos for us. We know that we are likely to see future wars over water, that we will have trouble feeding ourselves.
So why does nothing change? We are constantly claiming some sense of fierce urgency about the future, but we are all of us, even those who claim to be trying to stop all of this happening, mostly still driving, tweeting, flying, using the dishwasher, chomping down the sushi and saving for our pensions as if nothing were really happening. We claim to know the facts, but we don’t really take them in; we don’t internalise them. Comfortable, as all readers of this will doubtless be, none of it seems real to us. “Facts”, wrote Joseph Conrad, in Lord Jim, “as if facts could prove anything.”
True, there is a whole body of people dedicated to solving these problems: the environmentalists. I have counted myself amongst their number for fifteen years. But environmentalism, broadly speaking, is failing. It has become an adjunct to the consumer economy: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of global capitalism. Environmentalists, at least those in the “mainstream”, seem to have realised that the problems they face in trying to divert our civilisation from its ecocidal course are too deep-seated to overcome. Failing, untrusted democracies, their managerial political parties unable to agree on any significant change of direction; overweening corporate power tying their hands; hungry, demanding consumers who will not vote for anyone who denies them their fix; a political class unable or unwilling to free themselves from the cult of growth.
Environmentalism, faced with all of this, has retreated into a search for techno-fixes. If (it tells us) we can just get the supergrids, the turbines, the carbon-capture systems, the nuclear-power stations (delete as applicable) up and running fast enough, we can keep the ship on course. The failure of Copenhagen is only the latest example of how untenable this last-ditch line is. In any case, keeping the ship on course is precious little use if it is headed for an iceberg.
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 ecological destruction will throw at us. I suspect that the great challenge of the 21st century will not be building a great, “sustainable” civilisation to lead us to the stars, but coming to terms with decline, materially and existentially, as the fossil-fuelled bubble bursts and leaves us adjusting to a harsher reality.
When I did finally accept the logic of this, I had to ask myself a question: what would I do if I really believed it? How would I live? And, pertinent to me in particular, how would I write? “Writer”, along with “environmentalist” have long been the twin strands of my professional identity. Now both seemed inadequate to the task.
A society experiencing a genuine emergency, as we often claim to be, would see that reflected in its cultural output. 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, an ambitious and possibly foolhardy attempt to bring together a cultural movement of people who shared this vision of the future. 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: stories 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. What, we asked, would writing look like if it took the future seriously? It would be writing which:
“sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own – a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare – might recognise as something approaching a truth. [which] sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds … writing, in short, which puts civilisation – and us – into perspective. Writing that comes not, as most writing still does, from the self-absorbed and self-congratulatory metropolitan centres of civilisation but from somewhere on its wilder fringes …”
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.”
We wondered if anyone out there shared our views. We printed our manifesto, put a website up and waited to see.
At the edge
We sold our first print run of 300 manifestos in a few months. Soon we were being contacted by people from all over the world, and in such numbers that we found it hard to reply. We started to work up interest amongst the media, old and new. We popped up on blogs and discussion sites from Bermuda to Russia, on radio programmes in the USA. Newspapers picked us up too – the Independent and the Scotsman in the UK and others in Australia and Canada. John Gray even gave our humble, self-published manifesto the lead book-review slot in the New Statesman – though he also managed to seriously misread the project, oddly interpreting it as a call for apocalyptic primitivists to build a green paradise on the ruins of the old world.
Building on this, we will soon publish the first issue of the Dark Mountain journal, a collection of “Uncivilised writing” from all over the world. Some of its contributors are already among the best in their fields – names such as poets Melanie Challenger, Glyn Hughes and Mario Petrucci and essayists Jay Griffiths, Alastair McIntosh and John Michael Greer. Others are entirely new to us. Together they explore, uniquely I think, the imaginative challenges of our coming world. A fundraising campaign is currently underway to help us get the journal off the ground. In May, we will launch it at the first Dark Mountain Festival, a two-day collision of speakers, workshops, art, music, cinema and practical events moving “Uncivilisation” from theory into practice.
Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. But we have obviously touched upon something unspoken but fairly widely felt: a need for honest and novel cultural approaches to the human predicament. We believe that many of society’s certainties will crumble over the coming decades. But we also believe that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. A precipice opens up before us: we need to stop looking away, and instead look down. What we see may be surprising.