Our myths of progress are killing us. Where can we find a new set of stories to inspire the work of the future? Only through the creative imagination of writers, artists, storytellers and musicians. Perhaps only poetry can save us now.
If I were a scientist, I might say we were living in an age of entropy. But I’m not a scientist, and I tend to think that using language of science to discuss issues outside of its domain is part of our current complex of cultural problems. So perhaps, instead, we could call this an age of endings.
Wherever you choose to look, old certainties and old realities appear to be dissolving. The Earth as we know it: its great forests, reefs, teeming cod banks and ancient glaciers. The tigers, the whales, the butterflies and the mountain gorillas. Whole species, at a higher rate of extinction than for millions of years. This planet’s 10,000 year old climatic era. Endings.
Human endings too: the great paintbox of human languages, with most scheduled to die out by century’s end, and ways of living and being that developed over centuries in response to local circumstances. Family life. Traditions. Local economic networks. Cultural certainties. Nations themselves. Known ways of living. Endings.
In some ways, this is not new. At any period of time we could have looked around us and seen empires collapsing and ways of living passing into history. But this is not the same. Never before have we – humans – altered the planet’s climate or pushed so many species into extinction that we may have already triggered a sixth mass extinction event. We have never seen such social and ecological loss on such a wide scale, across the entire globe before, and so fast.
All of these changes are caused by one phenomenon: a burgeoning human economy that serves a global consumer society in which desire poses as need and all needs are there to be met. Blame who you like for this situation: blame the sixties, blame the eighties, blame science, blame the Enlightenment, blame Thatcher or Marx or capitalism or feminism. Blame climate deniers or oil companies or people who take cheap flights or loggers or the owners of battery chicken farms. Blame population growth or greed or politics or technology. Blame yourself, or everyone else – it doesn’t really matter. The age of endings, the age of acceleration, is at hand, and each of us is strung out in its web.
What does it mean to live through times like these, and what should be done to make sense of them? If your children will be poorer than you were, their world scarred and deprived of much of its beauty and magic, what questions should we be asking about what human progress has come to mean?
Questions, I think, are the key. We need to be interrogating our stories deeply: the myths that underpin who we are and how we see the world. In the loosest sense of the word, we live in a materialist society. We pay attention to the material, the measurable, above all else, and we have a tendency to dismiss or ignore aspects of life which are equally real but not as easily reduced to a column on a spreadsheet.
This means that when we ask ourselves how this global suite of potential disasters has arisen, we tend to look at the outer rather than the inner manifestations. We tell ourselves that the problem is technological: that we are producing too many greenhouse gases because we are burning fossil fuels, and therefore we need to stop burning them. Or we tell ourselves that the problem is political: democracy cannot respond adequately to the needs of ecology, so we need a new political system. Or perhaps the problem is structural: governments cannot reach agreement on necessary measures to tackle global problems, and corporations are too powerful and should be purged from the political system.
All of these things may well be true, but I would suggest that our culture has an inner problem as well as an outer one: our stories are malfunctioning. All cultures, all civilisations, are built on stories. The things they believe about themselves and their place in the world, and how that world works, are integral to how people behave, how institutions operate and how humans in that society relate to the nonhuman world. If you want to understand any culture, look at its myths.
What are our myths, here in the “Enlightened West?” Probably the most potent is the story of progress: that we used to be savages and now are civilised; used to be superstitious and now are rational; used to be primitive and now are advanced; used to be stupid and now are clever, and will continue to move in this direction bar the odd blip as we colonise the stars. This is the Genesis tale of modernity. Progress has become our civil religion: widespread, largely unquestioned, seeping into every intellectual crack. God is dead, and now the real paradise awaits. Except as before, it always remains just out of reach.
The myth of progress is encircled by a set of what we might call sub-myths: the ability to access truth through objective science; a faith in advanced technology; the assumption of reason’s superiority over intuition; and a belief in the supremacy of the human species over the rest of life (or, as we tend to call it, ‘our environment’: note the possessive ‘our’).
These are our stories. Now they are killing us – and not just us. The age of endings is a product of misplaced beliefs, of myths gone bad. Now our task is to think about different stories: to create new ones or disinter some old ones and begin telling them again.
Four years ago, I founded a network of writers and artists called the Dark Mountain Project with the explicit purpose of beginning this work. Since then, we’ve produced a number of books and held a series of public events aimed at interrogating our cultural stories and beginning to approach the creation of new ones. One of the first questions we have asked is: what might be some of the foundational stories of a new narrative?
My first response is that the myth of progress needs to be comprehensively debunked through some serious study of history and prehistory. I would say that science and economics need to be put in their place: an important place, but one which sees them as servants of our society rather than as its narrative masters. I would say that reason should be balanced with intuition; mythos with logos. Perhaps most importantly I would say that without what has been called an ecocentric perspective – a worldview which sees humans as one form of life among many, rather than as the pinnacle of evolution and the master of all – nothing very much will change.
If this is true, I would suggest that the work of change is too important to be left to scientists, political activists, politicians and economists. Their roles are important, to be sure, but the narratives that underpin their work are unlikely to be questioned from within. Rewriting stories is the task of the creative imagination, which means it is the task of writers, artists, storytellers, musicians and all who would regard themselves as workers of and with the imagination. Perhaps only poetry can save us now.