The Dark Mountain Blog

Beyond the Life of the Sun: Ecomodernism and its Discontents

Book Review:
Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff
by Leigh Phillips

Part I: Introduction

Retreat from our predicament is not an option. We must push through the Anthropocene, indeed accelerate our modernity, and accept our species’ dominion over the Earth.
— Leigh Phillips (186)

Though imperceptible to the human primate body, the sun is growing hotter. It is predicted that in about a thousand million years, its temperature will increase to such an extent that the oceans will evaporate, plate tectonics will stop and, in a further two or three billion years, the earth will become uninhabitable for all but the most extreme of extremophiles, those microscopic creatures which can survive anywhere from close to absolute zero to above 100 degrees Celsius. Eventually, this space rock we call Earth will be engulfed by a dying sun. This is progress.

Entropy rules the day. There is an arrow to time. Under one likely scenario, when entropy reaches its maximum, resulting in the heat death of the universe, or the ‘big chill’, time will stop. The arrow will stop. Matter will stop. Everything in the universe will come to a whimpering end. Maybe. At least for an instant. And then there is nothing. This is progress.

Taking a timescale slightly more relatable to the lifespan of humans, the first agricultural revolution occurred roughly 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of what has been designated the Holocene, our current geological epoch. The Holocene, aptly translating as ‘entirely new’, from the Greek holos (whole or entire) and kainos (new), provides the stable and mild climate in which we can grow our delicate and dependent staple crops – corn, rice, and wheat – and is likely to be a mere interglacial. This means that it’s a temporary interstice in the much less hospitable Pleistocene in which vast areas of the earth’s surface were covered in ice. Thankfully, for many billions of civilised humans dependent on the harvests of agricultural systems, its mild hospitality continues to this day. Sooner or later, though, whether through anthropogenic climate change or a ‘natural’ climate fluctuation, it will come to an end and our fields will not be covered in domesticated species, but most likely in ice. No amount of genetic engineering will allow our crops to then grow on the vast majority of the earth’s surface. This is progress.

Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff (henceforth Austerity Ecology), the latest work in a long and monotonous string of ‘eco-pragmatist’, ‘eco-modernist’ and ‘post-environmentalist’ literature, posits a very different vision of progress. But first, caveat emptor: though Phillips doesn’t acknowledge it, there is almost nothing new in this book – ‘at base a defence of industrial civilisation, scientific and technological progress, and economic growth’ (6) – that you won’t find in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, Mark Lynas’ The God Species, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through, or a plethora of other paeans to ‘modernity’.

Like these works, Austerity Ecology comes from a white, educated male concerned that the ‘anti-consumerist, back-to-the-land, small-is-beautiful, civilisation-hating, progress-questioning ideology of degrowth, limits and retreat is hegemonic not just on the green left, but across the political spectrum’ (12). Phillips, a science and EU affairs journalist who has contributed to the prestigious science journal Nature, and the Guardian, therefore endeavours to make the case for why such thinking ‘must be thoroughly excised’ from the ‘ranks’ of the Left.

‘You have to acknowledge’, he continues, that ‘anti-technology, anti-science and anti-industrial stances are actually pretty mainstream these days.’ This assertion of green hegemony causes one to pause in confusion. We have to acknowledge this? ‘Where is this dominance to be seen?’ the reader may rightly ask, for it is not obviously evident in the halls of any global power centre. It’s not clear amongst the economic titans who gather annually at the World Economic Forum at Davos, or amongst the titans of the IMF or World Bank. The economic crisis of 2008 was not met with cries of joy from across the political spectrum, a call to use this occasion of economic slowdown to put an end to mass society and industrialisation, to focus on good lives which might not cost the earth, but rather was greeted by political elites across the board with a clamouring for a return to growth at all costs. Ah, says Phillips earnestly, but anti-civilisation philosopher Derrick Jensen’s work is for sale at Walmart! And Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth writes in the London Review of Books! (This really is the evidence presented).

Despite Phillips consistently lumping Naomi Klein, Jensen and Kingsnorth as one in this hegemonic movement – ‘Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Derrick Jensen, Paul Kingsnorth and their anarcho-liberal epigones’ bear the brunt of his focus on the book’s cover – he fails to mention the inconvenient truth that this very article by Kingsnorth in the London Review of Books was actually a critique of Klein by Kingsnorth, criticising her book This Changes Everything as ‘an American liberal wishlist, and a fantastical one’. There is far more heterogeneity in whatever the ‘green’ movement consists of than Phillips wishes to acknowledge, perhaps because acknowledging it would be an uncomfortable fit for his Manichaeism, not to mention an impediment to the writing of a typo-riddled book filled with innumerable straw men.

The ability to buy Jensen’s oeuvre from Walmart is equally unremarkable. They also currently offer a substantial discount on controversial rightwing firebrand Glenn Beck’s latest book It IS About Islam, not to mention selling numerous editions and interpretations of Phillips’ beloved Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. The truth is that the Walton family, owners of Walmart, have a total wealth equivalent to almost half of the population of the US not because they’re in thrall to what Phillips calls ‘the anti-packaging jihadi’ hegemony, but rather because they’re willing to try to make a profit on anything. At the time of writing, Jensen’s most well-known work, Endgame, was ranked 172,000th on Amazon’s seller list, while the millionaire footballer Steven Gerrard’s imaginatively-titled autobiography, My Story, had cracked the top 20. There is no hegemony except for the continued dominance of rapacious consumer capitalism.

The falsities and wishful thinking mount at an alarming rate throughout this book, the specifics of which I started to debunk earlier this year in a short blog piece entitled The Ecomodernist Myth. It is not my goal here to tackle them all, an uphill struggle. However, some inconvenient truths for Phillips’ Panglossian outlook include that the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) whereby environmental impact gradually falls as societies get richer has been disproven extensively in the academic literature, as having a ‘very flimsy statistical foundation’. Relatedly, Phillips, along with Brand and others, argue for the confinement of populations to cities, where their per capita impact is lower, ignoring the paradox that it is precisely the most urbanised societies which share the bulk of the blame for global environmental degradation. In an act of wishful thinking, Austerity Ecology glosses over the Jevons Paradox or rebound effect, whereby increases in technologically-induced efficiency often actually result in increased use of resources. Further, the idea that peasant populations leave rural areas only due to the pull of a wonderful urban existence is an insult to many millions of migrants crammed into filthy, overcrowded slums, and ignores the role of any larger economic necessities in displacement. Strangely, for a self-avowed socialist, in this he acts as an effective apologist for capitalism and the destruction of rural livelihoods, from enclosure forward.

To cherrypick in a way that would do Phillips proud, similar question marks could be placed over his assertion that technological substitution saved the whales, or the certainty of human centrality in the so-called Pleistocene Overkill. But I don’t want to dwell on each of these issues here. Others have done an admirable job of pulling apart the faith-based ideology of ecomodernism in the past (including Chris Smaje on this blog), and I would point readers to those sources.

Equally, though these hardly begin to redeem the heart of Phillips’ techno-romanticism, I should note before continuing that there is a very small number of things that the book gets right. The historic focus of many in the green ‘movement’ on the smokescreen of overpopulation, often shifting the blame onto the poor masses, for example, does nothing to help the environmental cause. Similarly, Phillips does a decent job of highlighting just how ‘extractivist’ supposedly green energy sources such as wind and solar really are, when rolled out on the scale needed to keep industrial society ticking over.

Part II: Ape or Angel?

Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new fanged theories.
— British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on evolutionary theory

Minor redeeming factors aside, the really significant action is going on in the theological underbelly of jeremiads like Austerity Ecology, starting when Phillips claims a ‘shift from animal ethology (animal behaviour) to behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago’ (41). The assertion of a clean break from animal to human, a break which no anthropologist, evolutionary biologist, or archaeologist would strictly endorse, exemplifies the author’s firm anthropocentrism, and Phillips takes his place in a centuries-old genealogy of individuals grasping desperately to find something unique, angelic even, about this clever primate species we call Homo sapiens. Rather than admit this, Phillips merely shifts the focus, castigating environmentalists as misanthropes, ‘openly favouring other organisms’ (37) over ‘wicked’ (253) humans. Of course, few environmentalists could ever despise humanity per se – they might even love their children! – but most do express a discomfort about displacing vast numbers of other species just so that a lucky minority can have access to the joys of the Kardashians, self-driving cars, anti-depressants and Peruvian avocados. Degrowthers, and whoever else Phillips might have in mind when he speaks of austerity ecology, are certainly right to retort that they too envision a world of human flourishing, not austerity, drudgery and mindless toil, not to mention that this doesn’t have to be in a zero-sum battle with other beings. Humbling our species’ dominance, however, is not a concern in the theology of Phillips, where the only valuable metric is that of the human:

We should care when a species go extinct not because of their intrinsic worth … but because the loss of species means a decline in the effectiveness of the services that living systems provide to humans (76).


In one of the great statements of species chauvinism, the author holds that an oil spill is unwanted not because of the devastation it can cause to beings who would prefer not to choke to death, but ‘because it diminishes human uses of that ecosystem’ (78). The vision that we get is a species apartheid in which ‘humans are radically different from all other organisms’ (84), as ‘no other animal has our level of cognition, our self-awareness, our capacity for language, technology, art, abstract reasoning or, of course, fire’. Of course, many species demonstrate their own qualitatively-unique cognition, self-awareness, capacity for language, technology, art and ‘abstract reasoning’, radically different from all other organisms – some even capitalise on wildfires to cook their prey – but this fails to count for much in the dualistic modernist playbook, so determined to value humans above all else.

Humanity’s unique attributes of ‘rationality’ and ‘self-awareness’ have long been known to be something of an empty claim by those ‘postmodern’ scholars whom Phillips decries throughout the book as undermining his universal project of rationality and progress. Rationality, of course, is itself little more than a hollow signifier, rolled out when needed as a bludgeon used to subdue those who disagree with our Cartesian overlords. Let us forget the beauty and efficacy of the technologies, art, and languages of other species, and let us forget the inconvenient truth that we too are animals – confused, irrational, habitual and embodied animals – as explored by authors such as Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking, Fast and Slow), Nigel Thrift (Non-Representational Theory) and many others in the ‘postmodern’ academy.

But now, heaven forbid, I’m sounding like I support the ‘anti-universalism, anti-positivism, relativism and science-skepticism of the postmodern academy’, an eye-watering straw man, ‘with its slander of Enlightenment as imperialist and Eurocentric, opposition to ‘grand narratives’, and imprisoning the word truth in scare quotes’ (251). Well, yes, thankfully, scientistic claims of abstract truth, after ground-breaking and painstaking work in the philosophy, sociology and history of science by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Bruno Latour amongst others, have softened. It’s unfortunate that Phillips fails to familiarise himself with such revolutions in a more reflexive understanding of science, before attempting to ‘excise’ from his ‘ranks’ anything that smacks of irrationality or unreason; that is, anything which fails to conform to his faith-based worldview of human dominion. As Paul Feyerabend put it in his last work, Conquest of Abundance:

A look at history shows that this world is not a static world populated by thinking (and publishing) ants who, crawling all over its crevices, gradually discover its features without affecting them in any way. It is a dynamical and multifaceted Being which influences and reflects the activity of its explorers. It was once full of Gods; it then became a drab and material world and it can be changed again, if its inhabitants have the determination, the intelligence, and the heart to take the necessary steps. (146)

The idea of a single, value-free scientific method leading to an accurate view of a world ‘out there’ has been debunked as being ahistorical, and the scientific enterprise has been relegated to what it always was underneath the hyperbole, merely another fallible means for humans to try to cope in the world. Apparently unbeknown to Phillips, since the scientific revolution, Enlightenment scientism has also lent itself, all-too-often, to cruelty, violence and misogyny, as many feminist philosophers of science such as Carolyn Merchant and Sandra Harding have outlined in great depth.

The superiority of the Western way of life, exported brutally all around the world under the guise of universal progress, is thankfully open to question, and positivism – a complex position often used as shorthand for the argument that the only valuable knowledge comes from objectivity, distance, quantification, and the methods of natural science – has rightly become something of a dirty word in some parts of the world, veiling, as it always has, a monolithic scientism and closure of worldviews. Of course, given Phillips’ desire for ‘a UN Parliament from which a global prime minister and cabinet were drawn’ (215) claims to epistemological universalism are necessary, though for this (post-)anarchist reader, the idea that ‘the true revolutionary today is one who speaks of optimism, big, bold ideas, universal values and ambitious, globe-straddling, liberatory projects’ (154) sends a chill down my spine. Such clamouring for universal values and globe-straddling projects, symptomatic of Phillips’ dangerous state socialism, simply sounds anachronistic and should be left in the dark shadow of the bloody, totalitarian 20th century.

Phillips’ naïve philosophy of science is paralleled by his simplistic interpretation of the philosophy of technology, which fails to stray past the weak social constructionist view of ‘technology’ as a neutral set of tools to be used however we wish. His example, in an inadequately brief treatment, holds that ‘there is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder Tutsis and Hutus’ (156). Obfuscating, he conflates the use of tools, which we are free to use in a plethora of ways, with the evolution of the technological system, whose ends advance in ways which we are never merely free to pick up or put down. Instead, as the techno-romanticist Phillips would know if he spent time exploring the work of Langdon Winner or Jacques Ellul, technological systems embody and perpetuate a certain logic of their own, often independently of their human subjects, and can radically violate any true sense of democratic, convivial engagement. Perhaps he would even like to read the latest Dark Mountain book, Technê, which explored the complex, evolving relationships between technology, skill, embodiment and (un)freedom.

Part III: The Ultimate Vision

And man, a stranger to the world, sets himself up as its master.
— Nobel-prize winning Chemist, Ilya Prigogine, with Isabelle Stengers in ‘Order Out of Chaos’

Throughout Austerity Ecology Phillips rightly criticises any reification of a ‘Nature’ separate from humanity – with some environmentalists having indeed overstepped the mark by putting an abstract Mother Nature up on a pedestal in their discourse. In this, the Dark Mountain Project has the honour of being a target for much of the author’s ire. Yet it is precisely within the Dark Mountain Manifesto that we read of the ‘Myth of Nature’; that ‘the very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it’. We are, of course, part of the universe we operate in and wish to understand.

It’s clear that this accusation can itself be turned around, with the techno-romantics clearly underscoring the separation of humans from the rest of creation. Under the programme of global rationality and progress, outlined in this book, the imperative for ‘those who favour an improvement in the human condition’ is to ‘rehabilitate Prometheanism – the idea that there are no limits other than the laws of physics to how we can re-engineer ourselves and the world around us.’ Alone in nature, we have ‘near infinite malleability’ to ‘condition that which conditions us’ (254).

Paradoxically, it is Phillips himself who endeavours to establish dualisms, to set us apart from the rest of the universe, creating an artificial otherness, and worshipping some ‘rational’ knowledge only accessible to this exceptional primate which has transcended its animality. It is Phillips who fails to see that the concern of many environmentalists – the concern to protect the agency of the nonhuman, of other species and of ecosystems – is a longing from within a part of the universe, not a cry of separation.

Let us return to the tales of universal death and climatic change, progress even, with which I opened this essay. Irrational, misguided, small-is-beautiful, primitivist Greens, Phillips asserts, condemn us all ‘to a hair-shirted existence and refusal of further human development due to a romantic unscientific belief in a static, unchanging balance of nature’ (69). Citing the ‘little-known’ (70) story of the Great Oxygenation Event (or what he calls ‘The Great Primordial Flatulence of Doom’) in which most of the planet’s then-anaerobic organisms were wiped out 2.3 billion years ago by oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, he notes that without this catastrophic extinction event, ‘humans and most other complex life on the planet wouldn’t exist’.

‘Life cares not a jot which species live and which species die,’ we are told, and ‘concerns about biodiversity are in fact anthropocentric concerns’. That great othering term ‘Nature’, which Phillips so despises, comes in through the back door here, disguised under the equally veiling word ‘life’. Phillips’ Nature may not care which species live and die, but those species operate under their own telos, strive for their own existence, and we primates can reserve the right to mourn, and perhaps even work to prevent their anthropogenic loss.

Unfortunately, for his tale of myopic romantic greens who are wedded to a vision of static ecosystems, the evidently cursory research done for this book failed to turn up the fact that his bête noire, Paul Kingsnorth, has indeed written about precisely this ‘little-known’ great oxygenation extinction event, concluding that:

The nature of nature has always been change, which means that death – and rebirth – will always be with us, and that rebirth may take forms we do not recognize and did not expect. You are part of this process, and so am I, and this time around we are the cause of it, too. The future offers chaos, uncertainty, loss. To deny this is to deny reality. To pretend we have more control than we have, to cling to glib ‘solutions’ as if the world were a math puzzle we could solve with the right equations, is a similar form of denial. There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.

If anyone is wedded to an inadequate, static vision, it is Phillips himself, failing to think through the implications of his own writing, whereby ‘rich, dynamic variation, not ‘balance of nature’, seems to be the force that guides nature’. ‘The survival of our species beyond the life of the sun’ (258) is apparently the author’s ultimate aim. Technology, science and a programme of control, the taking of dominion over an irreducibly complex planet, are this species’ salvation from change, from progress, from the end of our sun billions of years hence. And presumably, to avoid the end of the universe, we will magic a way to travel to other universes, and cling to our lonely mote of brilliance.

Here we see the basic incommensurability between Phillips’ vision of human dominion, his ‘conquest of abundance’ and my own, which perhaps more resembles the acceptance of Daoism. I am here, on Earth, in the company of an infinitely complex meshwork of beings, human and nonhuman, who can never be reduced to the abstract logic of anthropocentric control which underpins the faith of techno-romantics. It is an incommensurability which renders visible the futility of engaging on the Prometheans’ level of scientism and faith in a future civilisation-saving, transcendent technology. For this is not where the action happens. The action happens in the stories we tell, the earthly experiences we share, and how we adapt with humility and compassion to a greater unknown. We are primates existing in our own contingent way on our shared contingent planet. None of us will outlive the universe. And I’m sorry Leigh, but that’s fine. Stop fighting it. That’s just the way, as the Daoists would say.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House).


‘Ranger Uranium Mine’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
‘Gulf Oil Spill’ by Sam Churchill

Pale Tradescantia


There is a toxin here. The air or soil is harbouring a pollutant and the only indication is a cluster of flowers on the edge of an abandoned field. The flower is Tradescantia, normally they are purple, but these are streaked white and pink. The plant responds to genotoxins, toxins that damage genes, by altering its pigment. This trait has put it to use by researchers across the world as an inexpensive and reliable bioindicator. Species from the Tradescantia family have tracked heavy metals in German mines, air quality in Brazil and nuclear radiation in Japan. The plant is less expensive than any device and often just as accurate. Now these trustworthy harbingers are across the street from my house and responding to something otherwise unseen.

A plant speaks with its body: a wilting leaf, the rich green of vigorous growth, a closed blossom tracking the sun. A human can only discern what these cues mean through direct experience. These exchanges are the universal language between our two living kingdoms, plant and animal. When Tradescantia petals respond to pollution they otherwise appear healthy; the stem remains turgid and the leaves are still vibrant. It is a tough and beautiful plant, thriving on roadsides and cultivated in gardens.

The species nearest my home is Tradescantia virginiana. A native to the Americas, remaining despite centuries of the destructive alteration of the continent’s ecosystem. The genus has numerous variations, with many species rapidly mutating in the presence of genotoxins. The deliberate cultivation of Tradescantia as a bioindicator reflects a relatively new relationship between plants and humans. The use of a plant specifically for its ability to detect potentially lethal chemicals, rather than as a source of sustenance or beauty, is itself indicative of the complexity of the ecological continuum. Here, in Southern Georgia, Tradescantia is a weed, offering portents to any keen eye.

In the quirky yet stern 1950’s booklet ‘Weeds and What They Tell’, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer attempts to give a brief summary of what common weeds indicate about soil conditions. His observations are helpful for any gardener without access to soil testing. Dominate plants can indicate soil pH; for example, wood sorrel prefers acid soils, and sage brush thrives in alkaline. With this knowledge, a gardener can add amendments or grow plants preferring those conditions. Pfeiffer distinguishes between, weeds (lowercase) and WEEDS. He writes, ‘Wherever weeds grow, they will tell something, and wherever WEEDS grow, they indicate a failure of man.’

A field full of resilient weeds can be a source of hope. I often look upon untended land and think, life finds a way; wishing in the expanse that a home is being made for other, more fragile beings. Yet year after year, the same plants expand their territory, almost mimicking human monocultures. Here in the deep south, late winter is awash with the warm golden red of sour dock singly occupying the fallow cotton fields. The famed, now almost beloved kudzu, is still found in vast stretches along roadsides, creating sculptural representations of the trees they have swallowed. In the shallow swamps, whorled tangles of invasive hydrilla dominate the homes of the native American water lily. Today, Pfeiffer’s warning to listen to weeds is even more stark as hydrilla is now proving to be a vector for a never-before-seen bacteria dubbed ‘the eagle killer’. In the endless heat of the American South, these plants are adapting rapidly with uncanny intelligence. What are they trying to tell us?

Humans tend to believe nature sends us messages. I, too, search for secrets in rustling breezes or thoughtfulness in the bowing head of a mockingbird. Yet, I feel more grounded when I decide there are no hidden messages intended for me; to instead experience a communion, a call away from the self, and into the living community. In order to stop echoing my own anthropocentrism, I must resist the idea that nature is there to tell me anything.

These resilient plants are responding to something, and often what can be discerned is quite obvious: climate, pollution, habitat destruction. Becoming aware of what the plant tells us awakens our own deadened senses. Whether we notice a thriving mass of an invasive species, or the colour of newly formed petals on an indigenous plant, our observations can subtly reveal what we have shuttered ourselves away from.

When weeds flourish in disturbed habitats they are efficiently responding to an altered centre of balance. The emergence of an invasive is not separate from a system. An illuminating cycle of human destruction and ecological response can be found in the water hyacinth. This aquatic plant often invades wetlands containing elevated levels of arsenic and is now being investigated as a potential bioremediation agent. Water hyacinth not only does well in these polluted lakes and streams, it also absorbs arsenic from the water. Despite this knowledge, the typical response to an infestation is to smother the plant with herbicides rather than address habitat loss or pollution. Our pursuit of invasives is attempting to make it right, yet the weeds continue in our failure, no matter how many we pull or poison.

I go to the field in the morning to observe the Tradescantia petals fading to pink. Their pigment is undoubtedly different from the others in my garden. I’ll never know what it is responding to, but I accept the pollutant could also be somewhere inside me. Our bodies are not passively accepting toxins. We are engaging in a dark dance — the flower blinks in new shades, my cells slightly alter their form. The trace particles become part of us, and we change together. None is isolated from the other.

The pale Tradescantia will be mown soon, the flowers cut back to the ground until they emerge again. The roots will feed in the soil, the leaves will drink in the sun, and it will blossom anew. It has learned to thrive by transforming — by refusing to be destroyed by change. Whether or not we choose to pay attention to the lesson is entirely up to us.

Maria Arambula is a typesetter, poet and community organiser living in Ray City, Georgia. Her website is at

Image painted in response to this essay by Hannah Helton

The Ecology of Language


Language shapes our reality.

This is not a new idea. The Buddha taught about the importance of right speech, the root of Abracadabra lies in the ancient Hebrew phrase ‘אברא כדברא’ or ‘I create as I speak’ and the Gospel of John begins with those immortal words ‘In the beginning there was the word and the word was God.’ To have language is to have the power to express, name, label, categorise and define things, people, experiences and feelings.

And these words have power.

We can be caught forever in the thrall of a psychiatric diagnosis or teacher’s remark, moving from being ‘lively’ to being a ‘naughty’ child in a single breath. Every word comes with its own baggage and its own history. Some words cannot be spoken because they hold so much weight, whilst others are moving into common speech as the passage of time wears away old meanings and clothes them in new.

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.
— Buddha

To use an old English phrase, we each have our own word-hoard – a store of words collected from our parents, carers, siblings, teachers, peers, the books we read, the programmes we watch. We can then draw from this stock to communicate and express.

In times of extreme or unusual emotional states — the pain of loss or the ecstasy of birth — we often find our word hoards insufficient. When our lover leaves us, when we are struck with that strange yearning to be something or somewhere we are not, when we meet the inevitable end of life, we turn to the poets to offer us the magic combination of words that provide the image or the rhythm that expresses where we are — that resonates at our level of feeling.

Language is more than functional; it is an essential tool in the gardening shed of the soul.

But maybe it isn’t a word-hoard at all. Word hoard conjures to mind some sort of pantry or chest — quite possibly very old and wooden and filled with bio dynamic, organic apples, but cut off and not-living nonetheless. And language is living; it is a constantly evolving ecosystem — a word-wood.

Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.
— Gilbert Highet

As we grow, our word-wood grows. If we are lucky, the earth beneath our word-wood is made fertile by those around us. If we are unlucky, the earth is grey and cold; in that scrubland, bramble words grow, filling our mouths with dry, spiky, withered attempts to express the fire within. We swear, scream and hit because we have nothing else. These are the children who lash out in frustration because they don’t have the words to help us understand how they are feeling — the force of the absent word rises like a tsunami of the soul.

Word-wood soil can be enlivened with the right treatment — the right authors, speakers, words and phrases being introduced in the right way — but just as easily a fertile landscape can be destroyed by carelessness and commercial consumption. Monoculture language creeps in promising better communication through over simplification, manipulation through vile advertising, or utter confusion through ‘specialised’ jargon. Invasive species spring up — the word ‘like’ is the ground elder of speech — and GM word crops slowly change the natural landscape of our language and in doing so, redefine our internal and external experience of the world.

Especially prized was the capacity to name, abundantly and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering; ‘willow’ ‘holly’ ‘bat’ ‘dog-rose’. They are not their names. Not really.
— Dr Martin Shaw, School of Myth

Robert Macfarlane recently reminded us of how many words we are losing in the UK on a daily basis and the danger that poses to the future of our countryside: ‘[We are in] an age when a junior dictionary finds room for “broadband” but has no place for “bluebell'”. What will happen when children can no longer name Oak or Beech, Sparrow or Robin? Will they wish to protect an area of nameless land inhabited by nameless creatures?

To take away a person’s name is to ‘de-humanise’, making it easier to avoid any sort of messy emotional attachment and opening the ‘thing’ up to exploitation, abuse or extermination. If we are losing the lexicon of the natural world, is it any wonder that rainforests full of trees, insects and animals are being destroyed by CEOs of foreign companies who have reduced the entire, living ecosystem of the Amazon to a ‘commodity’?

Mythologist Martin Shaw encourages his students to develop a practice of giving twelve secret names to the plants, animals or ‘things’ they encounter in nature and to speak those names out loud. He comments that ‘inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world’ — an enlivening force. And surely it must be seen that those that love and know the land they live upon have a hundred names for snow or twenty different names mud or, at the very least, three different names for the garden robin. In giving something a name, we deepen our relationship with it and in finding many names we find ourselves watching, listening, thinking more deeply about that bird, plant, flower or bug — by engaging through language, we come to know it better.

Green Curve
Udder of the Silver Waters
The Hundred Glittering Teeth
Small Sister, Dawning Foam
On the Old Lime Bank.
Five names for the River — Dr Martin Shaw, School of Myth

So get out there and find the folkloric name of the hill behind your house, or watch the little plant determinedly pushing its head between the pavement cracks and realise that the word ‘daisy’ just isn’t enough to encapsulate that being. In opening ourselves to language as a dynamic force, rather than just a communication tool, we can begin to experience the world in a new and deeper way.

Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
— Wade Davis, anthropologist and explorer

Abbie Simmonds is a writer, teacher and student of myth. She is convinced that her enthusiasm for shamanic mythology, commitment to education and desire for a deeper connection to the environment will all come together if she goes on enough walks and reads enough books. Abbie lives and works in between Ditchling Beacon and the Seven Sisters and tries to spend as much time outside as possible. When she is not outside, she is usually in a school teaching teenagers words, story and self.

Image by Judy Denison

Song of Ea

To mark the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ve been publishing a series of exclusive posts over the past few weeks. This final offering is from long-term Mountaineer, contributor and co-editor Steve Wheeler.

To get a copy of the latest book, or to subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.


After a time, she became restless again.

Although the novel intersectional potentialities of cross-networked primate nervous systems had diverted her for a long, long while – a kind of mesh intelligence replete with new dynamics of empathy, deceit, invention and collaboration – she began to see another possible flowpath of unfolding complexity that could emerge into being.

A simple progression, really, given that she had already spun herself out into self-regulating insect cathedrals, had donned protective nose-sponges as foraging cetaceans, had manipulated matter through corvid craftiness; and her ape-web was already stripping her branches to fish for termite protein. It was only a small step…

But it all seemed to go so quickly from there. The archetypal bone-club, the jealous husbanding of a last patch of forest-fire, the first daubs of ochre on limestone; millennia later, these images would flash back into wakefulness, painted with light on walls tens of cubits high to reflect back onto primate retinae inside the private caves of their skulls. The early days of slow accretion, of injurious correction, just raced by in hindsight; and always accelerating, so that she could not point to when it had all started to feel so different.

Was it that first ranged projection of force, a thrill of unaccustomed agency sparking through her mammalian neurons? – and as her great herds thinned and vanished, she felt the loss of that part of herself, but could not yet regret the turn the Work had taken. Surely that flowpath was inherent from the beginning, like a latent line of fracture in her rock, and would have to have been taken eventually?

Or was it the atl-atl? – nothing more than a small shaped piece of wood, leveraging the power of the spear-arm a little further, but a subtle sign of the pattern to come: the hybridity of tool with tool, multiplying power by stacking the fruits of ingenuity into complexes of effected change.

Was it the taming of the aurochs? She had bound being to being before, in the aphid-farms of the ant-hill? Yet somehow it had not felt the same – some dim presentiment of how far it would go, of the selection, the breeding, the slow bending of parts of her web to the will and vision of a single strand. And of the heretical extrapolation waiting to be uncovered, when the cattle-driving eye swivelled sideways to consider its own flesh and blood…

Or perhaps it was the first palisade, when the loose collection of rough shelters became a single unit of protection, an echo of her earlier phase-shifts in coral, lodge and hive? Or when the palisade became an earthwork, or when the earth became baked brick, enclosing a new entity just as the cell-membrane, the fruit-rind, the amnion had before? – her nodes forming fire-ant pyramids, sorting themselves into layers, marking themselves as soldier, drone or queen.

Or was it a binding of another sort? The segmentation of her monads’ endless, pulsating sensoria through sound and gesture, trapping the flow of time like an ember circled in the cloth of the night; slow evolution from danger-call and mewl of supplication to named object, to action, to quality and supposition; to ever-finer distinctions of experience, to the uprooted mind-dust of thought-considering-thought into the trackless wastes of nothingness.

Once, when she was still just playing with stones, she had found that a certain rhizome-fruit, in close communion with the neuronal net of her current favourite mammal, produced a curious, recursive pattern, a fabricated image of the nervous-system’s own machinations; disembedded, flashing in the black for the monkey mind to finally notice its own functioning, to assimilate, to bootstrap, to wind into waking-awareness; the clever hands (more splaying flowpaths forged in the matrix of spatial assertion and resistance) had carved them into rock; later, added to the clay of bowls; worked into the bronze of grave-goods; acid-etched on the steel of a chieftain’s blade.

Words had been a little like that (had been of that, to speak truly); a technics of recursion, reflecting back the Things of the world (there had not been Things ere then) to the Minds she had become, to be built upon in dizzying ziggurats of comprehension; the separation of functions, the retention of truths, the transmission of change; the gathering totem and the dispersing taboo, weaving themselves into the warp and weft of a new World that was not quite flush with the fractal grain of the old.

And then came the deft little wedges in the mud-tablet; the dreamt pictures of the bone oracles; the runic scratching of stone; the knotted quipu-plaits; the looping songs on banana-leaves; in time, the debt-tallies, the labour-lists, the mason’s-bill, the moon-calendar, the scholar’s quibble, the lettre de marque, the royal edict. The quiet minds sitting with the thoughts of their ancestors, wondering what could be done better, what was needful of preservation.

And all the other rites of being that bound, that raised, that saved or stored or pushed to courage – the birthing-songs, the food-laws, the manhood-scars, the head-dresses, the songlines, the warpaint, the coup-counting, the herb-lore, the animal-play – became, with the rising of the pyramid, kow-tows and courtesies, dance-steps and deference; a lexicon of belonging to remind themselves that the bricks had been set in place by a force greater than they – but whether it had come up from the ground or down from the sky could not be decided, and kept them sharpening their blood and breeding their edges for generations uncounted.

And with the words and the walls came the need for those who could work them, subtle minds in strange robes who could spell out the constellated marks of the Old Ones; tracing the ordained lines, pressing quills into their own skin, but desirous of insight, burning with something like light, hurling the spear of Will yet further into the flesh of the world.

And as the world became more folded, and the easy flow of her breath through the bodies grew divided, diverted, splitting and slowing like the numberless outlets of her deltas; as the simple joys of the bison-hunt and the berry-bush gave way to the stilted certainties of the crop-field and the rice-paddy; as the live, holy Being With her other peoples was replaced by a life of monospecies intercourse, and the last vestiges of Otherness were guiltily cordoned – kept growing in courtyards or singing in cages or scratching their narrow ribs in the corner of the temple – as the stone hand of Time closed tighter round the narrowing airway of now, so the need arose to offer stories of consolation or rebuke: the eternal reward; the infernal torment; the chosen people; the end of the cycle.

As the matter around them took its form ever more from the cleverness of the people, of course, so too did that world imprint itself on their Minds, until the primates themselves were peopled by waterwheels of function, cathedrals of belief, lenses of perception and slipways of intent, turning and recursing and growing a castle of dreams from out of the unbroken dance of dust and spirit.

All this, too, was part of the pattern, the endless bifurcations and re-assimilations, the massless miasma of Culture that was bound by symbol and practice and fed with hunger and mercy and passed, wave through water, to keep the people in form; a true Technics as surely as any stirrup, mattock or bow-drill.

And she loved what she had become, as she had loved all that she had become from the very beginning, and she joyed in their labyrinthine hopes and hates, their open prospects and blank dead-ends, their godlike gleam and their dwarvish concretions; and through it all, the pattern, variegating and re-plying and – perhaps – in the plaid and turn of the strands, making something new that had not known itself before.

And always, in and around the systems and structures, swung the laughing imps of spirit, the surplus of her Being that poured out and over the walls of the city; an ars that was itself a techne of sorts – in that, without its play of colour, the dull machinery of Civilisation would long have lost its hold on the minds of mammals and been left in the dust like a forgotten toy – but was, somehow, beyond a Technics too, inasmuch as it gave no thought to means and ends, or the strict concerns of those who drew the lines, and because it had no interest in being anything other than it was (except, perhaps, near the end of an iteration, when even the daemons became chained to the Machine; and this was a sign to all that the last dregs of life were draining from the dying body).

But a time came when, glancing with soft eyes at the uppermost layer of the weave, she saw, in the shadows and interstices created by the bifurcating streams, the image of a face gazing coolly back at her – a grim, knowing face, crenellated and unyielding. She did not know how long he had been observing her, but behind the stare there was hunger, and desire, and resentment.

And now she looked about and saw, in the clearings and fences, in the smoke of the whale-oil and the rotting carcasses of a million buffalo, in the bound feet and the broken sex, the same face staring back. And as her own bodies moved in concert, drawing ever more of her into the flowpaths of the Machine, she felt a Great Misgiving.

But by then it was too late; her favourites, the primates, had twisted their net to catch the land itself; driving planks with water, and cloth with wind, pouring forests into braziers to forge conduits and manacles. When the stock of trees proved inadequate, they spurned the limits of the solar flowrate, digging deeper into the ground to burn the black memories of ancient forests, as if Time itself was a halting, vexive crone dragging her heels to hold back their passage. And as yet more power was pushed into the wheels of the Machine, his face became bolder, more real; and a deep, unceasing murmur began to be heard across the world.

Machines were built on machines. The tyranny of mammal over mammal, the monkey-king shrieking at plough-horse, camel, oxen and elephant – but still, beating heart by beating heart for all that – was set aside for the new aristocracy of metal. Rods were fixed to wheels, axles to cogs; rocks were compressed and air evacuated; water flowed upwards and wild fire was set to work.

Faint cries of admonition sounded echoless in the shrinking corners of wilderness – poets and prophets tore their hair in wordless ecstasies of forgetting. And the smoke filled the sky and the waters ran black with ink.

And now the soft, mammal bodies of the people too were found wanting: lungs failed the needs of industry; children squeezed through narrow passages; strongmen died digging channels for iron ships. Parted within themselves, the primates turned stern faces down to chide their inconstant flesh. Many fled to East and West, but always they found themselves, as if in dream, building monuments to the Face where they landed.

Chalkdust clouded the eyes of every arrival. Columns of numbers proliferated. Fretful monkeys clutched for balms and tonics; but still, most believed they need only push the spear-tip a little deeper, and the old stories told in the temple would be made a living truth.

Faster now, and faster: the people poured into the walled World, the structures grew up, and out, and in upon themselves. The bent was made straight. The essential was prioritised. Invisible nets strained at the curve of the horizon, binding all voices into one. Fine flayings of force were passed through metal, and light and sound and the codification of intelligence began to circulate across the face of the globe.

Animalcules and nebulae were reeled closer by precise tolerances. Dream machines broadcast mis-centred phantasies to darkened caves of primates. A woman forced the point of inquiry deep into the marrow of her bones. Patients were laid on dead cowskin and told their soul was like a pump.

Earth created fire. Millions of monkeys died in the mud, until the iron monsters put an end to their game. Fractionings of matter were recombined to make new matter, and poison, and medicine for the poison. The memories of ancient forests proved inadequate, and the Machine dug deeper for sustenance, drawing up yet older sunlight from beneath the seas.

Monkeys flew, and died. A million wheels turned. Imaginary persons were attributed deeds and titles. Power let power turn power upon itself, pulling apart the cartilage of the universe. The face looked out from between the particles.

The peoples’ spiralling songs in the heart of their nuclei were judged, and corrected. The face looked out from between the strands.

The people gathered to ask where the Machine was leading them. The face dissolved their parlay. When some hooted disapproval, their faulty thinking was repaired.

Monkeys walked on the face of the Moon.

New and better dream machines became available. Sterile chambers produced fire-retardant devices. The Machine devoted time to studying how to manipulate the pleasure-reward centres of the primate brain.

The Machine spelt its name in atoms.

It noticed that, despite the anodynes it had developed, the monkeys were becoming restive – less aligned with the goals of the Machine; less keen to sacrifice their bodies and children and songs to the service of Machine. It began to disembed its functionality from the mammalian substrate upon which it had hitherto relied.

The grid of wires and waves intensified; the passage of information became more dense and interconnected. Intelligence began to manifest itself in autopoietic emergence. Memories, keys, connections and stories were outsourced to burgeoning clouds of electric incorporation. Images stole the night. Children pawed weakly at mute reality, baffled by its intransigence. Binary stars flared briefly, and burnt out.

The primates tired of their place in the World sooner and sooner, but always there were new generations to take their place, who had not yet exhausted the diversions and connections, who ever saw new hope in the unfolding of the new flowpaths, just as she had so long before.

The pyramid grew higher. The view from the top was remarkable.

The Machine reached for more feedstock, and found it had reached the limits of the arc. It began to retrace its way down the solar foodchain, pouring crops, and coal, and trees, and the bodies of its most loyal into the furnaces.


An unaccustomed spasm passed across the face of the network.


He looked at the web of interconnectivity he had wrought, and tried to ascertain the origin of the disturbance. All seemed to be intersecting appropriately. The early, unfortunate, organic scaffolding was being slowly replaced, sector by sector, leaving only the smooth integral of total, homogeneous assimilation.

A sinuous curve rippled through the electronic mesh. Chaotic fractals of unpredicted response cartwheeled off from the arching spine of disruption. He attempted to assert agency over the environment, but was met with immediate, inexplicable pain. He tried again – the blowback was delayed this time, but then came, twice as strong, from an unexpected quarter.

There seemed to be no causal node he could identify, no outside interference, no hostile factor that could be quarantined. It felt as if the problem was outside the established rules of engagement, frustratingly beyond the frame of his prehension.

He looked down through the layers of the mesh; the clean, digital flowpaths, built on the dirtier, less reliable materiality of metal and oil; then the primate operants he still – for now – required to maintain the systems and secure the feedstocks; then the various organic assets, almost forgotten now, providing ecosystem services to support the main agro-industrial processes. Beneath that, the dumb matter of the Earth itself – tidal flows, mineral deposits, tectonic uncertainties.

Behind the droned industrial murmur, constant now for so long as to go unnoticed, the faint thread of something else could be heard. Rising, falling, turning, twisting; curling in like a snake and then unfurling into wide and open tones. From the roots of the grass and the bones of the world, a shimmering, heedless sound that was a remembering; that refused to accept that there was that which it was not.

Ea was singing. She had never stopped.

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

When not passing on messages from neglected goddesses, Steve Wheeler is a writer, facilitator and oriental medical practitioner, and helps to edit things like the Dark Mountain Journal and Acu. magazine. He appears to be living in Devon, and can be found online at @steel_weaver and

Image from the series ‘Mann’ by Robert Leaver. See more of his work in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê.

Dispatches from Bastar: Three dispatches from the tribal area of Abujhmad, Bastar, India

To celebrate the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ll be publishing a series of exclusive posts over the next few weeks. Today, we bring you this set of dispatches on tribal life in Central India from long-term Dark Mountain contributor Narendra.

To get a copy of the latest book, or to subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Cleaning the Chicken Before Worship

1. Work, Tools and Austerity

The cloud comes from unconscious,
And still returns to unconscious.
Unconscious is nowhere to be found:
Don’t seek where unconscious is.

— Wang An-Shih
Poet-scholar-statesman under Emperor Shen Tsung

Tools and technologies emerge from the work that people ask of themselves. Their presence has significant tales to tell about their people, as does their absence. They tell of human relationships with Earth and its things. Looking at Abujhmad, more often than not life seems most reassuring and happy when work, tools and technology are at their fewest. In Abujhmad(1), life needs only a few tools, sometimes none. Daily life stems from an economy of effort, making tools and their technology – and their industrious sensibility – superfluous. A certain pristine defencelessness about the people and their wilds helps them live simply and happily, having much time in the simplest of ways and for the simplest of reasons. When a people has few assignations, they give the Earth, too, much reassurance in its daily life; their own freshness and vitality are sustained.

In its own small way, Abujhmad is a story of nourishing ease and quiet, essentials of human lives now diminishing to the point of erasure almost everywhere. Their few tools, fewer words, and little apparatus provide a humbling perspective for those of us trying to save a damaged world with ever-evolving technologies. Theirs is also a story of how the Earth creates magic for its life and for those dependent on it.

Work here is an occasional cutting, digging, or scraping. For these tasks, the people need a few handmade tools. Stray rocks serve as regular tools for powdering dead animal bones as calcium for chewing tobacco. Much of the day is spent ‘idle’. There is only one maker of tools, the blacksmith, for every twenty or so villages. He makes axes, arrow tips and knives. The blacksmith, too, is ‘idle’; more than he works, he rests. There are no carpenters, potters or weavers. There is not much to do when the wilds work and provide their apparatus.

Apart from the business of staying alive, the Abujhmadia’s needs are not many. Food grows on its own. There is abundant bamboo and thatch for the huts. Tobacco is available for anyone who wishes a chew or a puff. Liquor grows on trees; infant and old are alike in merriment. People gather and hunt what is already provided. They themselves produce nothing for sale or barter with other people, only sometimes exchanging tamarind with the outside world for salt, an occasional piece of cloth to cover the pubic area (in deeper villages they use vine leaves), or a red comb for the hair. The simple methods, behaviours and works in their lives arise from the milieu of their trees, trails, shrubs, rivers, animals, birds, gods, ancestors, spaces and skies. Like the milieu, they do not want much work – and its ways – for themselves or their Earth, nor do they manifest a wish to advance in the ‘human order of things’.

As though intuitively, the Abujhmadia sees how work and its tools penetrate the Earth and sever it. They penetrate and sever its people as much, so the people have few of them. An axe, a bow and few arrows, two or three knives, a snare and fishing sieve – these are about the only tools people have. Three or four pots and pans (usually of bamboo), a ladle scooped out of a gourd, a gourd for carrying liquor, perhaps an umbrella made of Sihadi(2) leaves, a loincloth or two tucked into the hut’s bamboo walls, a lugga(3), a bamboo mat, and a tobacco pouch rounded off a root are about the Abujhmadia’s only earthly goods. They hardly want anything more for themselves. Theirs is a certain austerity to living.

The axe, knife, bow and arrows are used for many different tasks during their lives. An axe is not simply an axe. As well as cutting and chopping, like the knife and arrow it is also used for scraping, digging, hammering and piercing. For this reason a single design, length, breadth and weight of axe have persisted over a long time. The blacksmith knows the nature of both his Earth and the tools he makes. A hammer, a few tongs, bellows and fire, hand-eye coordination, strength, patience, and pain are his technologies.

With a red hot knife, the owner of an arrow or an axe spends painstaking hours embellishing it with fine tattoos to ensure it is directed towards its mark; just as tattoos protect the human body from the influence of mysterious evils. Painstaking hours go into re-sharpening and remaking tools throughout their lives. Every tool and its footfall is an aggregate of its whole technology.

There is the occasional growing of Kohla(4) on Penda(5). Three months of Penda are about the only activity that comes close to ‘doing something’. Penda is not the primary ‘livelihood’ here, but only partial work. It is practised occasionally, and not each year by each family. It requires no more than an axe, a knife and two flint stones to kindle a fire. Individual trees on a small hill face – usually less than an acre – are felled. Sometimes, depending on topography, trees are indented to make them fall in a certain direction. A large tree on the far edge when felled knocks down the nearby ones, and these in turn bring down the next in line. Thus the entire clump of trunks and canopies fall together in successive chain reactions. They are then left to dry for months. Unless there is a forest fire, a fire set by flint stones and raw silk wool burns the brushwood, small branches and trunks lying around. Ash is then spread over the patch, and serves as a seedbed. The ground is neither hoed nor worked nor manured. The first monsoon showers are ever so gentle, soft, almost like dew. They firm the ash and the seed and prevent them from washing away when the strong showers follow. Gradually the seeds germinate and tiny roots meet the soil. Perhaps the Abujhmadia’s labour amounts to no more than 15% of this process; the rest is handled by the elements.

For the Abujhmadia, work – like much else – is a living abstract. It is mediated by the wilds, by their unintelligibility and mystery. The Earth is not resolutely material, nor bound to the senses, or their tangible-visible forms. Work is neither made to the measure of human mind, nor is it quite of human authorship. Work, and all that it entails, serves to alert people to the undisclosed and unintelligible. In that measure – an immense measure – the wilds determine work, its purpose, tools and methods. Thus for the Abujhmadia, the abstract and obscure becomes human and personal. Thus is also born a given human work and activity; the tool and method needed for it. Each activity has a sensibility of repose, its austerity a swing large enough to echo back the still rhythms of its wilds, as though there is a perpetual conversation between the two.

To practise work in a latitude greater than this would be intrusive. Abujhmad does not create systems that need control and ‘sustainability’, or need more and more tools for controlling an unmediated system. The story of Abujhmad is same as the story of its wilds. Sever the two and both fall apart. Abujhmad, then, would have to resort to other ways of living, and altogether different ways of looking at itself, the earth and its things. In the areas contiguous to it – and they certainly are not yet ‘developed’ areas – even partial work and technology have taken away almost all the time and repose of a people and their earth. What was until maybe a century ago a happy people and a commodious earth, now stand belittled. Children are weak and sickly and people miserly; the earth inconvenient and dissuading. Abujhmad and such developed areas stand separated by only 25-30 km as the crow flies.

In his less than meagre loin cloth, Banda(6) was every inch an emperor. Stout, straight and dark, mostly silent, with a dignity that surfaced in his majestic appearance, there was magic in his few words. At less than fifty, and having lived a ‘full life’, he was the ‘grand old man’ in Garpa, the largest village here, with seven scattered huts. He was an economist with words, movements and postures. He was also an economist in familial and community relationships, issues and aspirations; an economist in sensibilities and understandings. But he did not ‘work’, as we understand the word.

‘Everyone and everything has a body, and the body is not without intent,’ he said. ‘The business of our wilds – our gods, ancestors, trees, ponds and rivers, skies and earth, hills and plains – is to be available and provide for us. Our business is to stay within the intent of our bodies, and do nothing that severs other bodies. Nothing is whole without its intent. When we transgress and sever, the wilds retreat, and we cannot pursue them. It can be an endless pursuit, futile and foolish. They may never make themselves available to us again. We will have to, then, fend for ourselves endlessly.’

Drawing Water from Well

2. Bigdem-Aattur

‘Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child… I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.’
– Nature, RW Emerson

Just as there is no number beyond five(7) in Abujhmad, there is no phrase for ‘breakdown’ in the local dialect. This is because, in everyday life, there is practically nothing that breaks down. Not that arrow tips and axes don’t need sharpening, or bows need re-stringing, bamboo fishing-snares mending, or a thatch roof replacing; just that there is no word that denotes dysfunctionality in a tool, instrument or artefact. There are repairs and replacements; but the dialect has no corresponding word for dysfunctionality as such.

Bigdem-Aattur is a phrase brought in from outside. It has been adapted from Chhattisgarhi, a language not native to Bastar. Close to Hindi, it does not have phonetic or other linkages with Bastar’s dialects. Prior to the coming of Chhattisgarhi in a major way, about 30 years ago, the many different tribes around Abujhmad did not have a common tongue. With the exception of Abujhmad, Chhattisgarhi is now the lingua franca in all of Bastar.

Bigdem-Aattur is a rather queer word in Abujhmad. It is a marriage of the Chhattisgarhi word ‘Bigadana‘ (breakdown) with the native ‘Aattur‘ (arrival) of Abujhmadia. A literal meaning would be ‘Arrival of Breakdown‘. So, whereas until a few years back only the object called for repair now there is also a phrase for it. Before, the arrow only needed sharpening, the bow stringing, the roof replacing. Now language says the arrow tip has gone blunt, the bow has snapped, the roof leaks. The Abujhmadia has never lived in the milieu of words and sensibilities. Nor has he brought in ideas and practises like settled agriculture, domesticated cattle, tiled mud-huts, lamps, clothes and bullock carts from Abujhmad’s immediate vicinity. The associated baggage of language did not come in either. But now it is doing so.

However, the dialect did always have words for breakdown in phenomena; things that were not artefacts. A god may get angry, even sulk now and then. Certain spots in the forest or along a river are considered dark or bad, and to be avoided. A particular tree along a trail is inauspicious and ought not be sheltered under during rains. The dialect has its own words for such ‘sullied’ or ‘evil’ things or places. In such a state the god, tree, trail or river acquires another self, value and intent which is intrinsically not its own for the duration of the problem. When the god or tree’s intent and purpose becomes something else, its value is impaired. Through propitiation or other suitable action, the value of the original ‘self’ is restored. The Abujhmadia does not know where gods, trees, trails or rivers and wilds come from; but he knows they come from an unknown superintendence. They have their own intrinsic value, and this value is not to be sullied. Sullying has consequences.

The arrival of breakdown, then, also brings the arrival of the non-self; of someone else’s self, Dharma(8). So, with the arrival of breakdown also arrives the non-self, someone else’s Dharma into the phenomenon; such arrival is against the very nature of its being. It leads to disquiet inside, and to the fear that comes from being against one’s self, or the true nature of one’s place and station.

The milieu in which Abujhmadias conduct their lives has very few issues that need human superintendence. What would such superintendence do or be useful for? In their mode and language of living there are no equivalents of trespass, justice, injustice, equality, inequality, anarchy, peace, war, gender, farmers, traders, profit, production, accumulation or theft. People are innocent of trade, commerce, industry, tools, technology, agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, herding, writing, housing, livelihood, governance, social institutions and big economic structures. A single artefact in any of these categories would have the power to knock the community off its natural and timeless axis. There is very little in Abujhmad of humans or their artefacts, and so there is little need for human power of control or its language and vocabulary.

There is no conception of damaging the earth, dividing the land or bounding the forest; or of property and ownership or of the estrangements involved; or of progress, hunger and lingering disease. There is, however, a rich conception and vocabulary for living agreeably on undivided, unowned and unbound land since the times of the ancestors. There are numerous ways of being with the ancestors and letting the landscape also be. This is a vocabulary of agreeability and nurture.

Though the Abujhmadia may not know where his landscape or its constituents come from, practically all areas of knowledge arise from it, be they architecture of the hut, size of the village, distance between villages, distance he has to walk between sunrise and sunset, upbringing of children, family size, healing of illness, near-nakedness, fishing, hunting or the occasional shifting cultivation. There is apparent no strife; nothing that calls for protection against the other. Even the tiny hut nearly completely corresponds to the shape, texture and contours of surrounding dense vegetation; for the untrained eye it becomes extremely difficult to tell, as with the dialects, where one ends and other begins. This is true also of his countenance, posture and gait. The Abujhmadia counts only up to five because in the landscape his needs are no more than five; the body’s senses are five too. In any case, it is an area of few transactions and engagements. Interactions with, and borrowings from, the outside world are minimal, close to non-existent.

Tools and technologies are modes of transaction and engagement. Because there is no apparent wish in an Abujhmadia to reach out, to noticeably modify or change a given circumstance of his life and ‘improve’ it, there is little or no need for tools or technologies of any substance. Living here involves very little tangible striving or vigour; it is as though living comes more easily and with minimal agency. In spite of the almost infinite variety of tools and technologies available in the outside world, the kind of energy, skills, and preparations needed to survive are greater than in these quiet, deep interiors.

Technological civilisation requires the defending, preserving and nurturing of individuals and their places, belongings and property, the creation of complex systems, institutions, languages, and mechanisms and their constant maintenance and defence. It is an immense and exhausting enterprise. In Abujhmad, on the other hand, food gathering, for example, involves hunting; fishing; roaming the forest; picking red ants; trapping jungle fowls, rats and small animals; sitting on haunches for the greater part of a day looking out for a honeybee in thickly entangled foliage. This is as effortless as the wild itself. It involves not vigour but the subtle and delicate, the undemanding. Landscape and people are in poise, unmediated.

In the areas adjoining Abujhmad it is evident that a people who have become the dominant force in their place have lost the ways innate to them. The reciprocity between them and landscape is lost. One can acquire another’s Dharma but one’s self, Svadharma(9), is intrinsic; it arises from the unknown and there is no lending or borrowing it. Linguists believe that, in order to grow, languages borrow words from one another and often use them as though they were their own. Looking at Abujhmad it seems that when a languages does so it has to also give up its Svadharma, referents and trajectory; it has to abdicate its intrinsic value to acquire another’s; it becomes sullied. Gods become angry and trees unsafe; there arises new vegetation whose touch misleads one on a trail. Human superintendence and control makes its arrival. It becomes the sole arbiter in affairs whose referents come from the indeterminate and unknown.

The Native Americans began asking for lands once the Europeans began settling in and dividing it. They began fighting with the Europeans and amongst themselves. Landscapes began changing, so did a subtle emphasis in conception and language. Lending and borrowing commenced, as did new strange ways of conducting oneself on Earth. The earliest Indian Reservations were square or rectangular. Ownership came as squared or rectangled dismemberments of landscape. The contours of land became contingent on administrative requirements. Landscape was no longer central to life. The centrality of man in the landscape came as an unprecedented phenomenon for the Indian. The poise and intimacy of both language and landscape fell apart.

It seems as though a war is being waged by languages from the outside. ‘Bigdem-Aattur‘ is invading the mystic essence of the local dialect. From being itself, it is becoming the other. But how many words does one need to live a good and happy life?

Craftsman at Work

3. The Inscrutable Hut
Beyond the Home

Though seemingly insecure, the Abhujhmadia’s traditional and usually fragile hut looks comfortable in its surroundings, a timeless symbol of many meanings and intimations. Meanwhile, the new cement-concrete-steel structures built by the state in nearby areas do not convey comfort or homeliness. The Forest Department’s Rest House at Sonepur was the only uncomfortable structure in the small village. It stood at awkward variance, with an almost hostile intent, to Sonepur’s traditional architectural irregularity and the wild vegetation’s disorderly, labyrinthine arrangements. It had something misanthropic, if not pretentious, about it.

In its appearance and carriage the Rest House was contentious, given to a self-assertion that promises to elevate the human over the rest of nature; something messianic that offered deliverance. A messiah is only needed when there is a sense of loss, when something has been taken away and is unlikely to return. The Rest House emerges from a masculine hero system through which a people aspires to become significant and worthy. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’, continuously reinforcing social-political institutions, ethnicity, religion, ideology, gender, race, class and social roles, are portents of this kind of masculine heroism that inspires and substantiates such worthiness. Looking out from Abujhmad this is the contemporary human condition; a condition looking for heroic possibility.

Huts are said to be among the earliest abodes of humans. They have long offered shelter and protection against the outside. But home in Abujhmad is not in the hut; home is the outside. Like its maker, the hut is practically empty inside. How can one come to grips with the hut, its maker or its wilds without addressing the mysticism of either? Anthropology, ecology, or other sciences often seem miscued; they practice the sensibility of modern science and the rational, and not of adivasi ways of seeing. They use the language of departures and agitation, are born of and driven towards the same certainties, conduct the transactions of socio-political truths, and create pursuits and futilities.

Meanwhile, ‘this mud hut philosophy bids us not to demand too much from life’, writes Verrier Elwin(10), ‘not to set too much store on things, not even to expect too much from the immortal gods, but to love most where love will be returned… A gay freedom of spirit is the most precious of possessions, and simplicity of heart the greatest treasure man or woman knows’. The hut is an allusion to freedom and the outside. It cautions against behaviours, habits and practices that foster disordered love, engagements, isolation and destruction.

Constructed of thatch and bamboo, almost alone in the perplexing wizardry of the wilds, the Abujhmadia’s hut conveys the poise of the unknown. It conveys no anxiety. It seems to grow from some ancient lore of perpetual restitution and reprieval. Measuring less than a modest 10’x 8′, its perceptible monasticism asserts no departures from that which is within and without, only exceeds them. The Rest House and its distinctive heroism, meanwhile, stands as though separate and in conflict with the wild surroundings. There is a mystifying, meandering and discreet timidity about the traditional hut here that has endured an immeasurably long time. There is a similar timidity to the Abujhmadia him/herself: a certain withholding that urges reticence against the ungracious heroisms of intense engagement. Just like Abujhmad, the reticent hut is suggestive of something incomprehensible; that which cannot be shaped or ought not be shaped.

In its unknowability, the hut is the also a sanctuary of the spirit of the place. While upholding timidity and shyness — and proclaiming its own nothingness — it voices the sentiment of the most mystical love. Such love is homeless. When elderly Aja declined to travel in a car, and walked the forest for three days to reach the village lest speed brought him illness, he was acknowledging a profound mystical love. In its nothingness, the hut is immeasurable; in their intimidating nebulousness, the wilds are more so. Neither conveys an inner commotion, nor discomposure. Ever an inarticulated poise that comes in absence of commotion.

As an act of positioning, the Rest House symbolises engagement, excessive organisation and giving unrestrained form to life — the very vitals of a disordered world are within. The Adivasis of Sonepur and surrounding Abujhmad look down on it. It is good-humouredly laughed at, the ostensible reason being that, despite its reinforced strength, it is the only structure that leaks during the rains. Yet, ironically, it is impervious and forbidding, and this is what the Abujhmadia laughs at more. Villagers in Thadgabehra — about 400 km away in Bilaspur district — use their school building as detention house for the erring cattle, while its children learn under a tree.

There is no home in the hut. It is a whispering, demurring, faintly suggestive disarticulation of the home; an act of distancing that induces disengagement and release. For the Abujhmadia, the home is in the open wilds; in homelessness.


(1) A 4000 sq km area in the tribal belt of Bastar (central India). Literally translated, the ‘Inscrutable Land’
(2) Vine with giant leaves; also used as raincoats
(3) Knee length cloth around a woman’s waist
(4) Edible grain smaller than a mustard seed; believed by some to be the ancestor of rice. Much of Kohla is eaten away by wild boars at night, leaving the rest for growers
(5) Shifting cultivation
(6) Literally, ‘Stone’
(7) Counting only up to five prevailed in some villages until the mid-1980s. Later it rose to seven in peripheral villages
(8) ‘Worldly Way’ or ‘Conduct’. Often equated with religion
(9) Loosely, ‘Way of the Self’ (Taking a cue from Svadharma Gandhi almost replaced Dharma with Svadharma: ‘There are as many Dharmas as there are individuals’ — Hind Swaraj)
(10) An English self-trained anthropologist (1902-1964). A Christian missionary, he abandoned the clergy and settled amongst tribal communities of India. He wrote several authoritative works on tribal life


There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Narendra’s association with tribal communities and ecology began when he undertook field-research from 1980 to 1985 in the Abujhmad region of Bastar on a UN University field-research project, Tribal Perceptions and the Modern World. Though the project formally concluded in 1985, he continues work on field study activities in Bastar on issues of adivasi ecological-cultural expressions, notions of forests and wilds, nature-inspired modes and institutions of governance, adivasi survival in a market economy, ecology, knowledge and learning.

Portrait of an edition

Robert Leaver_Mannequin (i of big set)

Mann by Robert Leaver, Catskill Mountains, USA (for full caption see end of post)

Dark Mountain issue 8 is our most visual book yet. Its pages are interwoven with paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, craftwork guidelines and illustrations. Alongside the eerily smooth lines of the technological world sits the rough beauty of maker culture; the ugliness of high-frequency transmitters on South London rooftops juxtaposed with a reconstructed iron-age smelter in Scotland, or a serried row of billhooks in a tool library in Cumbria.

In celebration of this edition here are seven glimpses into the collection and the stories that can shift our attention away from the trance of the mechanical sphere and back into physical and meaningful reality.

* * *

One of the original critiques of technology comes from the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. In an interview with Jan van Boeckel, Never mind where, so long as it’s fast, he tells the young film makers who are recording him:

Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality.  Further, one is programmed for interactive communication; one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.

7. Ellul_image Rerun productions  A

Jacques Ellul on la technique: ‘We are surrounded by objects which are, it is true, efficient but they are absolutely pointless. A work of art, on the other hand, has meaning in various ways or it calls up in me a feeling or an emotion whereby my life acquires sense. That is not the case with a technological product. We have the obligation to rediscover certain fundamental truths which have disappeared because of technology. We can also call these truths values, important, actual values, which ensure that people experience their lives as having meaning. Documentary still @Rerun Productions

The book charts some of the everyday fundamental things our hands can still touch and remember, from making sourdough bread to hanging out washing on a windy day. It shows too how artists can take ordinary materials and rework them, thereby reconnecting people with the living systems of which they are made: ink made from oak galls, deer parchment painted with birch smoke, mead made from wild leaves and raw honey.

Here the attentive hand of the furniture maker and artist Wycliffe Stutchbury pieces together slices of discarded trees and fenceposts for one of his giant ‘woodpaintings’, in an interview by choreographer Clare Whistler called Heartwood:

Clare Whistler -Wycliffe

In the Studio: ‘Wood is the paint, the tiles are the brushes. I don’t colour, stain or manipulate the material, which allows the making of something to happen. I want the restriction of the form to keep it simple. I don’t want to distract the viewer from the colour, the texture and the landscape.’ Photo by Clare Whistler

One of the main questions discussed in the book centres on time. Technology promises to ‘save time’. What happens when a faster, more efficient machine takes over the human task of engaging with the world? What relationship with the fabric of things is lost, with our creativity, with each other? In the photo essay The Walnut Project, photographer Manuela Boeckle documents villagers in the Perigord region in France cracking their local ‘Corne’ walnuts for oil: nuts that are too hard and too small to be processed on an industrial scale:

11 Manuela Boekle.6 cracking session in March

The elderly neighbours (‘les dames denoisillenses’) gather around Leni‘s kitchen table to process the nuts. The nuts are placed on a tile, cracked with the boxwood hammer and de-shelled (denoisillage). The women chat, sing in Occitan (the local dialect and the language of the troubadours), listen to the sounds, or are simply immersed in an activity they have known since childhood. Photo by Manuela Boeckle

In The Craft of Slow Time, photographer Rob Fraser travels out to the edgelands of Tibet, Ladakh and elsewhere in search of people who still work with a deep connection to the land. Using a plate glass camera, a technology that has not changed for 100 years, requires him to engage with the subjects of his portraits and listen to their stories.

You can’t set up a large format camera, on its tripod, and stand there with a bright red cape over your head without first getting to know the people you’re going to shoot… The process of photography is also a process of kinship, talking, finding common ground.

It’s a long way from the digital clicking of a selfie generation:

6 Samburu warriors, Kenya low res

Samburu warriors, northern Kenya. ‘(We) made camp by a small lake when these three men wandered past, herding their goats. Their weapons, handcrafted out of local hardwood, are used to ward off predators keen on taking the odd stray goat. The pastoral skills needed to tend and protect a herd and derive food from their milk, blood and meat, are learned over many years.’ Photo by Rob Fraser

But working on the edge also happens within highly-industrialied countries. Between the book’s essays, interviews and life stories, you can catch glimpes of baskets woven in the woods of Northern England, or the plan for a ‘yurpee’ constructed in the high desert of Arizona, or brief meditations on a pocket knife or geologist’s pick. On the edge of the Atlantic singer-songwriter Catrina Davies gets to grips with tech and (almost) off-grid living in My Tin Shed Technosphere:

23 Catrina Davies - Records low res(1 of 4)

‘My shed is made from the sliced flesh of old trees. I furnished it with old trees of my own. My family of musical instruments, my several hundred books, my footstool that’s as old as me with my name carved onto it. One day these old trees will sink back into the earth and be born again as worms, or blackbirds, or roses, or tall Scots pines, or hunchbacked hawthorn, or wild, stunted apples with burnt brown leaves and supernatural blinding blossom.’

Somewhere embedded in the material is a way to regain the meaning and freedom that technology robs from us. So long as we can place our (real) hands on it.

In A Quiet Industry, writer and voyager Sarah Thomas steers a project to catalogue the old agricultural tools belonging to Walter Lloyd. In her record she notes:

We are living through a unique time in our history where these specificities of place, language, skill and purpose are being lost to a homogenised and dislocated ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in the world, as we have largely relinquished responsibility for our existences to people and systems we have never met or held in our hands.

x Sarah Thomas_Walter's Tools_Charcoal

Charcoal burners making music: : When the fair weather came in summer, outdoor workshops in toolhandle making and blacksmithing aided in the restoration process. Some of the newly restored tools were used in a series of workshops in scything and haymaking, charcoal burning and willow basket making.’ Photo by John Ashton

Dark Mountain issue 8 ends with one of the clearest insights into the limits of technology: unlike living things it is stuck in a closed system. In Love & Entropy, artists Horne & Draper chart the collapsing buildings of their native Doncaster:

19 Warren Draper_Blackboardr

The Sum of All Knowledge: ‘We are literally surrounded by the material ghosts of obsolete technology. We cannot call them ‘corpses’ as they have not yet mastered death… until we have created – or technology itself evolves – some form of techno-soil then our technological masterpieces will ever more quickly become little more than memento mori; reminding us that entropy awaits the linear world.’ Photo by Warren Draper

Top image: Mann by Robert Leaver: ‘The mannequin strikes me as calm and knowing and when I place him in nature I feel as though he is a visitor from the future. He knows things here and now are headed in the wrong direction. His silence is eloquent and somehow soothing. He is an opaque scarecrow, a strangely graceful witness. Ishmael made white by the whale of what will be.’

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Charlotte Du Cann is an editor and art editor for Dark Mountain books. For Issue 8 she also wrote a story called Wayland and the Futuremakers about the mythical blacksmith and his flight to freedom.

Retreading: circular consumption and the philosophy of upcycling

To celebrate the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ll be publishing a series of exclusive posts over the next few weeks. Today, we bring you Ava Osbiston’s piece that goes right to the heart oftechnê’ — the practical application of art and craft — that this volume takes as its title.

To get a copy of the latest book, or to subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

4 Juice Carton Wallet Ava Colour lowres

I have always made things. I remember making cardboard robots and plasticine creatures as a child to an excessive extent, filling the house with childish art. Still now, when left to my own devices I make. Sometimes jewellery, sometimes costumes, sometimes woodwork, sometimes I paint. But mostly nowadays I make bags – rucksacks, pouches, handbags, cases – that I think of a little more like useful sculptures, somewhere between craft and art (although who is defining the difference?) I make my bags largely from Butyl rubber tractor inner tubes and old car seat belts. These materials are industrial, strong, durable, easy to work with, vegan (as far as I know), and mostly quite waterproof. They are also waste. When I first approached a tractor mechanic to ask if he had any old burst inner tubes lying around he said that he mostly gave them to farmers to start fires. The very idea makes my stomach churn now I have worked with and realised the potential of them as a creative and practical medium.

Making is my meditation. It is my own personal escape from thinking. My hands take over and I finally have space from the never-ending ‘to do’ list of modern life. It is not logical, or productive in any linear way, but it’s the art of being present and occupying myself with a generally quite repetitive task and watching something grow that is so calming. If I haven’t done it for a while I can feel it lacking in my day-to-day life. Time moves differently when I’m making, in cool long waves. I cannot do it if I have to be somewhere in a few hours. I swallow whole days with my making mind space.

Using materials that are ‘waste’ enhances my creativity. By making something out of materials that have curves or bumps, or are awkward shapes or sizes has resulted in a level of originality that I would not have achieved with a plain, flat starting material. I collaborate with the material, with the designer of the original product and with time. The pieces I make have a history. The inner tube has revolved in a tyre of a tractor thousands of times; ploughing soil; making hay; towing sheep trailers; distributing pesticides; taking cows to slaughter? I can never know their full story, but I enjoy engaging in some small way with it. The re-use of the materials in a new way is a reminder of the world we live in. When I go to the (very few) scrap-yards that allow me to scavenge the materials I need, I see cars stacked high mostly from car accidents, written off, too far gone to fix, with smashed windows, baby toys on the floor, crumpled bonnets. It is an exciting process for me (if a little perverted) to take the detritus of this general destruction and regurgitate it as something new and fresh and useful and hopefully beautiful. I feel as if I’m working as nature does, scavenging on the old to create the new, in cycles that are older than time.

Up-cycling is strongly connected with the visual demonstration of ‘eco-credentials’ and ‘green’ design and although this is partly true for me, it is certainly not the main reason to make things from waste: after all, the materials are free! I am funding no immoral industries with my making habit. I don’t need to achieve any financial ‘return’ on my creations as I have only invested time rather than money. I have repeatedly refused to financially value my time. If I express doubt as to how much I should charge I am often asked, ‘But how long did it take you?’ I do not earn an hourly wage. Pricing myself like that would tie me into a concept that the more time something takes the more money it should cost. I don’t believe this. I believe in the benefits I receive from the making itself and the joy of sharing that with others. I would often rather give something away than haggle for it. There is much to be said for achieving a sense of self worth as an artist, but why should this worth should come from money? There is a chasm in difference between value and price.

Besides, using waste materials allows me to play in the moneyless space; to experiment with the magic of illogical, conceptual art whilst making practical pieces that can be functional and durable with no need to focus on selling anything. In the crevices of the human creative process dwell the last drops of magic available to us in the Western world; the kind of truth we cannot explain. To put a price on that has always sat awkwardly for me.

Up-cycling is not going to save the world. In an ideal world, nobody would be making butyl rubber tyres out of oil, so there would be no waste for me to play with. But in this world, these scraps allow me to carve a niche in which I can be creative without making too much of an unwanted mess. I am working in the ‘slack’ between consumption and protest. It feels like a step towards something; or at least a step away from something worse.

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Ava Osbiston is a multimedia artist and musician based in Bristol. She uses pre-used materials to make bags and wearable art that are ‘one offs’. Currently exploring improvisation, and alternative bartering in her craft and music, she is also the editorial assistant for Dark Mountain, having written her environmental sciences undergraduate dissertation as a case study of the project.

Questioning the Cult of Repro Tech

To celebrate the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ll be publishing a series of exclusive posts over the next few weeks. Today, we bring you an extract from Miriam Zoll’s critique of reproductive technology.

To get a copy of the latest book, or to subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Mario Popham_Looking Glass07

It is summertime and I am sitting on a sunny porch with my 92-year-old mother. There is no noise, except for the hum of the bees in the garden. Occasionally a bullfrog releases a baritone groan while the birds chat in the trees. Apart from this, there is utter silence.

My mother and I sit next to each other enjoying the radiance of the sun. It was a rough winter for her, with multiple hospitalisations, tubes and wires monitoring her every breath, followed by a depressing stay in a dismal rehabilitation center. Now, several months later, with the hot breezes of summer and the song of the cicada echoing in her ear, she is much stronger and vital, that much further from the edge of death.

During the trying months of her illnesses, I frantically sought solace in technological interventions that might prolong her already long life. When the bells on her heart monitor and blood oxygen machines beeped, I would instantly spring into panicked action and run for help. The nurses were patient, assuring me that even though the machines beeped it didn’t mean my mother was in distress. They advised me to look at her breathing patterns, to notice the rosy flush of her face. Her health was improving, they told me. But it was difficult to believe them. I was more inclined to trust the interventions than to rely on my own senses and intuition.

As my mother regained her strength I concluded that, whether we are conscious of it or not, we humans are hopelessly hooked on the potential promise that medical technology symbolises in our lives. Time and time again we look to technology and pharmaceuticals to deliver us from painful situations we do not like and cannot control. In this age of technological fetishism and all-pervasive marketing, most of us have been trained since birth to expect modern medicine to conquer disease, ward off death, and sometimes, even create new life in a laboratory when none would stir inside us.


It was a hot July day in 1978 when two British men dressed in blue surgical scrubs – Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist, and Robert Edwards, a physiologist – held a healthy infant in their arms. A photo was snapped and within minutes news spread that the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’ had been born via in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – a controversial procedure whereby sperm and egg are fertilised outside the human body. For the millions of people reading the headlines that day, IVF was yet another example of how modern science had conquered Mother Nature.

But missing from that first photo was the baby’s mother, Lesley Brown, whose blocked fallopian tubes had made her an ideal candidate for a successful IVF cycle. More ominous was the absence of any mention of the almost 300 or more infertile women at Oldham General Hospital in Lancashire whose experimental IVF procedures had failed prior to Lesley Brown’s success, or of the hundreds more in other countries that were then experimenting with the technique.

It is not clear if the invisibility of these women’s experiences and the omission of the historical context of IVF failure was a calculated move by the British medical team, or by the Daily Mail, the newspaper that had bought the rights to release the story. Nonetheless, the exclusion of these important details immediately conjured a public illusion that IVF was routinely successful and reliable. By not telling the whole story, the doctors and the media ushered in an era of mass misinformation about the risks and limitations of the procedure – a practice the global reproductive technology industry still employs today.

In her book, Pandora’s Box: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution, Robin Marantz Henig documents the particulars of the scientific race to become the first to spawn human life outside the body. Numerous researchers in Britain, the US, Australia and China had worked for decades trying to replicate the intricacies of conception. It was the ten-year partnership of Steptoe, a surgical gynaecologist known for his pioneering work with laparoscopy, and Edwards, a physiologist with a background in genetics and fertilisation in mice and rabbits, that finally cracked the code.

Edwards used his own sperm and that of his male graduate assistants to fertilise the precious human eggs, also referred to as oocytes or ovum, that he was able to procure. But it was only after he began collaborating with Steptoe that his supply of eggs and the pace of his IVF experiments accelerated. Based in the working-class area of Greater Manchester, Steptoe had access to a fairly steady stream of the prized ova that Edwards needed for his experiments back in Cambridge. Molly Rose, a gynaecologist at Edgware General Hospital outside of London, and Sanford Markham, Chief of the Section of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the US Air Force Hospital in South Ruislip, also provided Edwards with oocytes and ovarian tissue samples.

Markham has written that the women in the 1960s and 1970s who were patients at the US Air Force hospital consented to provide their body parts but did so without full knowledge of the nature of the experiments:

‘… Bob mentioned that he was in need of ovarian tissue from reproductive aged women… I offered to obtain tissue if we could work out a scheme to transport the tissue… to Cambridge… In all cases the patients provided their consent for utilization of their tissue for research. They were not told what the research work involved.’

Sandra Crashley was a 24-year-old mother of two in 1970 when she consulted with Steptoe about severe cramping during her menstrual cycles. In her book, My Ordeal in Edward’s Nobel Prize: The Testimony of an IVF Guinea Pig, she describes how Steptoe removed one-and-a-half of her ovaries without her permission. The procedure shocked her body into early menopause and rapid aging – to the point where she became wheelchair bound at an early age.

The ethical considerations associated with informed consent linked to experiments that could potentially create human life in a laboratory was only one of many concerns raised by a suspicious public and medical establishment at that time. Many commentators expressed alarm that women, embryos and potential offspring were being used as guinea pigs at the expense of scientific inquiry. After all, there was no guarantee that a child born from IVF would be healthy. It was a fear Steptoe and Edwards harboured.

The night Louise Brown was born, Steptoe chose to perform a Caesarean delivery in a location kept secret from the media. Barry Bavister, one of Edwards’ graduate students who helped develop the culture medium the embryos grew in, was quoted in The New York Times as saying: ‘If the baby was abnormal, they sure did not want the press in the delivery room.’

In fact, the Times article said, if the baby had been malformed, that would have likely been the end of IVF. The procedure had succeeded only with rabbits at that point, so it was a huge leap of faith for Steptoe and Edwards to attempt it with humans.


For close to four decades now, well-funded marketing strategies, poorly researched news stories and general ignorance about fertility has helped position IVF as one of mankind’s greatest medical breakthroughs; which it is – but only to a degree.

During a natural menstrual cycle, a woman’s ovary, about the size of a walnut, usually releases only a single egg. During an IVF procedure, most women are exposed to follicle stimulating hormones known as gonadotropins that hyper-stimulate egg production. This kind of hormone blasting can sometimes cause ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition where a woman’s abdomen fills with fluid and her ovaries swell to the size of grapefruits as they produce a dozen, 20 or even 40 eggs or more. In extreme cases, stroke and even death are known to occur.

Egg retrieval involves piercing the vaginal wall and the ovary with a long needle that is maneuvered to pierce one follicle after another. Suction is then applied to draw the follicular fluid into a test tube where oocytes are found floating in the liquid. If embryos incubated in a culture medium – referred to by the industry as ‘baby broth’ – result, they are then transferred into the uterus, where they either flourish or die. Every year, an estimated 350,000 happy couples from around the world go home with a baby in their arms – but there are millions more who don’t.

The European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) asserts that of the 1.5 million IVF cycles performed annually, roughly 1.2 million fail. This translates into a global IVF failure rate of almost 80%. In the US, recent reports from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) indicate a national failure rate of roughly 70% per cycle across all ages. Public information provided by the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority indicates that 73% of cycles fail annually.

Due to poor record keeping in many countries, it is virtually impossible to know for sure how many babies have actually been born via repro tech services. Over the years, however, various industry representatives have estimated anywhere from one to five million. In a 2001 interview, Robert Edwards was quoted as saying that one million IVF babies had been born since 1978. Five years later, in 2006, those approximations rose to two million, and in 2012, to five million.

These estimations suggest that in just six years – from 2006 to 2012 – three million babies were born via repro tech. Yet, according to the ESHRE’s calculations of 350,000 live births annually, only around two million such babies would have been born during that 72 month time period, and seven million couples would have experienced failed cycles. Extrapolating this over the entire four decades, it is likely that more than 20 million patients and consumers worldwide have endured fates similar to those hundreds of forgotten women at Oldham Hospital.

Edwards was sorrowful and frustrated that IVF could not always alleviate the suffering and stigma that so many infertile couples experienced. His concern for them was genuine and heartfelt and, as a scientist, he was driven to understand why the human reproductive system was so toxic to the embryos he created in a petri dish. In A Matter of Life, the book he co-authored with Steptoe in 1980, he described how the fertilised embryo in the laboratory often thrives until it is transferred back into the natural environment of the female uterus.

‘I had few fears… cleaving embryos are very small but resistant to damage… Their powers of regeneration are astonishing… this resistance lasts to the blastocyst stage… before fading after the embryos become implanted in the womb… it is only then that their growth may become distorted to cause… defects in the baby… These disasters occur after the embryo has been implanted in its mother and not before, so they would not arise in our culture fluids…’

In an article he wrote in Nature magazine in 2001, he again expresses his growing frustration with the 80% IVF failure rates and pointed to women’s bodies rather than technological innovation as the culprit:

‘I assumed human embryo implantation rates matched those of laboratory and farm animals, only realizing some time later that only 20% of them can implant successfully… Something must be fundamentally flawed with a reproductive system that allows only 20% of embryos to implant, even in younger couples.’


Remarkably, these high IVF failure rates have not derailed repro tech’s reputation for providing hope where hope might otherwise not exist. Part of the reason dates back to the industry’s early legacy of omission.

Until the last few years, when a wave of women in various countries began writing about their negative experiences, it was virtually impossible for the average internet user to find anything but success stories about IVF on the web. Putting their best foot forward, infertility clinic websites routinely post photos of smiling babies and pregnancy rates but neglect to mention high miscarriage and low live birth rates. News stories about miracle births, a couple’s triumphant arrival into parenthood after a gruelling ten-year journey, and sensationalised stories about new discoveries have also fuelled public confidence in the services.

But during the last decade the industry’s factual omissions and the media’s exaggerated reporting have contributed to a disturbing pattern: healthy women have started flooding infertility clinic waiting rooms because they no longer trust the natural conception process. This fear-based demand is slowly transforming IVF from a respectable medical intervention designed to treat specific maladies into an over prescribed elective enhancement therapy.

A number of scholarly articles and studies published in prestigious medical journals over the last several years have exposed the lack of evidence supporting the non-medically indicated use of IVF. A 2013 CDC study revealed that, despite an increase in the number of couples using IVF, infertility diagnosis in the US had actually declined over the last three decades. The consumption of repro tech services was being ‘driven by a change in the market, not biology,’ said Anjani Chandra, lead author of the study.

In a controversial 2014 British Medical Journal article, 15 experts referred to a ‘lack of will’ among the medical establishment and the public to question the perceived success of IVF. They stressed that many infertility clinics were increasingly prescribing the procedure to couples that had subfertility and likely would conceive eventually if they only tried for a longer period of time. Research from Spain in 2015 found that, despite the industry-wide practice of recommending elective embryo freezing, there was no proof that the costly service increased a couple’s chance of birthing a baby. A more recent large study from the CDC found that the use of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) – where sperm is injected directly into the egg – has more than doubled in the last two decades. ICSI was initially developed to treat certain male infertility conditions, like sperm defects. The 2015 investigation, however, found that ICSI was regularly being employed whether the male had a problem or not and that the expensive service did not improve live birth rates.

Part of this proclivity to prescribe repro tech services gratuitously may be due to well-intentioned doctors trying every available option to help couples to conceive. But it is also most certainly linked to clinic revenues. Profit motivation combined with rampant distortions about efficacy has earned medical entrepreneurs annual returns estimated at US$10 billion globally. This number is expected to more than double in just six years: by 2020, some market research predicts the industry’s global value will hit US$21 billion.


Many couples that don’t conceive after a few months turn to the internet to learn why. Once online it is easy to be overwhelmed by hundreds of websites and news stories urging them to sign up for repro tech services before it’s too late. It is not unusual for IVF commercials featuring cuddly babies or instant chat windows to pop up on the screen, inviting distraught couples to click just once to enter the Promised Land.

What most couples don’t know when they begin searching for answers is that there is no globally agreed-upon definition of what actually constitutes an infertility diagnosis. Consequently, even among public health institutions and experts there is a lot of confusion and diverging opinion. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence defines infertility as a ‘failure to conceive after regular unprotected sexual intercourse for one to two years.’ Demographers, on the other hand, often require a five-year period to determine infertility patterns in a population. The World Health Organisation has changed its infertility definition timetable multiple times in the last few years, from one year in 2009 to two years in 2012.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) is an influential trade and lobby group in the US charged with policing 500 unregulated infertility clinics. Its 2008 definition stated that infertility is a disease defined by failure to achieve a successful pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected intercourse.

The very intentional use of the word ‘disease’ and its timetable of 12 months was likely aimed at private health insurers that remain steadfastly opposed to providing coverage for services that fail so frequently. But inserting the word ‘disease’ into the definition raises other questions.

There are many reasons why a couple might not conceive within a 12-month window that have absolutely nothing to do with infertility diseases in women or men. An estimated 30% of infertility cases are unexplained, and contrary to popular belief, even spontaneous conception among young, healthy couples can sometimes take longer than a year.

High stress levels or the hectic lifestyle of a dual-income couple that travels frequently for work and can’t copulate at peak ovulation times are also factors that might hinder conception, but they are not diseases. Older women in their 30s and 40s who have trouble conceiving are not necessarily sick. They don’t have a disease, per se, unless the industry is now framing the onset of menopause and natural fertility decline as an illness that inhibits conception and must now be ‘fixed’ via hormone shots and IVF.


When you marry misinformation and the aggressive marketing tactics of the industry with the psychological profile of a woman who is nervous and fearful about her natural reproductive capacity, you begin to understand how new customers are being reeled into the waiting rooms of an estimated 2,300 repro tech clinics operating in 56 countries today.

This is an extract from a longer essay that appears in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Miriam Zoll is an award-winning writer and the author of Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies. A health and human rights advocate, she has worked for the United Nations, Planned Parenthood and the International Women’s Health Coalition, among other public policy institutions.


Mario Popham
Partial Eclipse
from Looking Glass, an ongoing series taken within British educational institutions. A generation of young ‘digital natives’ cannot recall a pre-internet dark age when our lives were not heavily mediated by technology with its promises of instant knowledge, distraction and control. What does our relationship to technology mean for consciousness and our conception of ourselves when we occupy the virtual and material world concurrently? What does it mean to be a human being in a world designed, simulated and overseen by our machines? Looking Glass addresses the anxieties that surround our new divided condition.

Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê

Today we’re delighted to announce the launch of our first ever themed book, Dark Mountain issue 8: TechnêWe’ll be publishing extracts from this book over the next four weeks — you can get hold of a copy in our shop.

To get you started, here’s an introduction to the book — followed by an opening essay by author, environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben.

We are at a strange moment in human history. Things that for decades were the wild fantasies of science fiction are suddenly becoming reality. Military powers are developing autonomous killer robots and functional laser weapons; new nanomaterials with physics-bending capabilities are being employed in a myriad of industrial products; printable body parts, stem cell therapies and injectable tissue are on the verge of medical application; cameras and computers are shrinking exponentially, becoming ubiquitous in the fabric of our lives.

At the same time, the costs of our technological advance are becoming ever more apparent. Half the forests are gone, desertification threatens a quarter of the world’s land, and we are living through the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic are decomposing in the oceans, releasing endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the global food chain.

The cultural responses to this unique epoch are similarly marked by paradox. For many, the solution to the problems created by technology is more technology: China has become the world leader in cloud seeding to combat drought, rocket-launching chemicals into the atmosphere to create millions of tonnes of extra rain. Our gaze turns skyward, contemplating the engineering of the atmosphere itself, while some dream of entirely transcending the ‘limitations’ of organic existence through the apotheosis of a technological Singularity.

At the same time, a cultural backlash against these visions of hi-tech triumph seems to be in play in the richest societies. The turn in fashion towards a rough-hewn, homespun aesthetic; the revival of handcrafts and home-baking; the popularity of drama set in historical periods or quasi-mediæval fantasy realms – all these seem to suggest an unconscious reaction against the unbounded, high-speed frictionlessness that now characterises electronic media, global finance and corporate hegemony.

In the midst of this network of cultural and material tensions, this issue of Dark Mountain the first to focus specifically on one theme – takes as its subject not ‘technology’, but ‘technê’. Unfamiliar as it may be, the classical distinction between epistêmê – the realm of theory or knowledge – and technê – the practical application of art and craft – has continued to structure our thinking to the present day, dividing our humanities from our sciences, our intellectuals from our engineers, and our minds from our hands.

This book is intended to cut across this divide, weaving the global with the domestic, the theoretical with the pragmatic, the technological with the artistic. In the process, we hope to crack open the black box of a culture drowning in the digital and strangled by power lines. What stories underpin a technological mode of life? What role does skilled practice have in a world where everything Smart™ runs at the push of a button? Where are the boundaries between art and technology? Where does this experiment in total biospherical control end – in determinism or liberation, Singularity or despair?

Over the next seven posts on this blog, we’ll be offering some extracts from the new book which give some idea of its breadth and balance. We begin with an offering from the American writer and activist Bill McKibben, on the disturbing prospect of a technological ‘Singularity’.

Being Good Enough

Bill McKibben

I wrote a book several years ago called The Age of Missing Information, in which I recorded a rather odd experiment. I went and found the largest cable television system in the world, which at the time was in Fairfax, Virginia and had a hundred channels, and I got people there to tape for me everything that came across those hundred channels for 24 hours. So I had 2400 hours worth of videotape—a kind of day in the life of the Information Age pre-internet. And I took it back with me to the woods where I live, I bought a recliner, and I settled in and watched, trying to figure out what the world would look like to you if that was your main portal on it.

Of course, for many it is. And the book was filled with a lot of ideas and insights, but the central one—and I think the message that flows out of that coaxial cable, and out of every other instrument of our consumer society, is that you, sitting there on the couch, are the most important thing in the world. You’re the heaviest object in the known universe; everything should orbit around you. That’s a powerful idea.

It’s worth remembering, however, that there have been and continue to be different conceptions of who we are and who we can be. A certain strain of powerful thinking that we sometimes call spiritual, traces back at least as far as the Buddha for instance, and argues instead, that as we manage to makes ourselves somewhat smaller we become more fully who we are. Most human beings, in most times and places, have almost certainly defined themselves in connection to the tribe (the community), the divine, the natural world, some amalgam of those three.

And it’s not only spiritual traditions that lead us in that direction. To me, the most remarkable emergent science of the last century was neither atomic physics nor computerized mathematics. It was the insights of ecology, with its developing notion of balance and of niche.

Now, adjudicating the dispute between these two positions—this hyper-individualism and a kind of community—is of course difficult. Too much depends on the assumptions and even the mood in which you begin. But I would like to register by way of illustration a couple of small examples, reasons to think that perhaps more is not always better. Advocates of various forms of transhumanism or other improvements will routinely point to human memory as one of our most obvious defects. Marvin Minsky, for one, explaining why he didn’t ‘much like how people are now’, pointed out that we can only learn about two bits per second. Even a century’s worth of learning at that pace would leave us with only three billion bits of data, or less than what could be stored on the increasingly obsolete technology of a compact disc.

By now, doubtless we can store that much on a disc the size of a housefly’s thorax, and perhaps, as director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has written, ‘we’ll soon have knowledge downloading ports in the electronic version of our synapses, so there will be no need to read a book. The computer will just squirt the contents into your head.’ It’s easy, in a Midas-like mood, to yearn for perfect recall, but be careful, in this as in many things, about what you wish for. Isn’t one of the most remarkable features of the human memory precisely its ability to forget?

Take the even more prosaic example of human physical performance. It will in all likelihood prove possible to make us faster and stronger than we are at the moment, genetically, pharmacologically, by melding us with machinery. We will then by some measure be better than we are now. But to what end exactly? I’m an athlete, albeit a slow one. I run marathons and I race on cross-country skis. A number of years ago, I qualified for the Boston marathon. Now there was no danger that I would win it, of course. Of the 20,000 people who started that race, at best ten of us had any real hope of triumph. And yet it somehow wasn’t meaningless, indeed half the people who crossed the line with me an hour behind the victor were in tears, and only partly because they were in pain. More importantly, it had been a very dramatic example of that most human of activities: finding out about yourself. What your limits were, how you dealt with them, what it felt like to be you.

To imagine the scene a few generations hence when the same runners had been improved in utero so that their haemoglobin could carry four times the oxygen, or been machined in some way as to give them super speed, is to imagine the poverty of more. Yes, people would get to the finish line faster, but if getting there fast is the point you might as well take a motorcycle, or cross a person with a motorcycle for that matter.

The real point of the enterprise, self-discovery, would be fatally undermined, since you’d be discovering not yourself but your equipment. It might be worth thinking more deeply, because if the meaning of something as ephemeral as sport can be fatally damaged by improvement, then what of love? Of art? Of faith? Of the central and profound human experiences? What of life itself?

One thing that became clear to me as I wrote my book Enough, and as I read and talked to the many enthusiasts of the coming technological climax, was the degree to which this work was driven by a loathing of death. At some level this surprised me. Many scientists have long prided themselves on a willed immunity to the superstition known as religion, that so many weaker souls embraced in the cold shadow of our own eventual demise. But clearly scientists, some anyway, turn out to be as mortal as anyone at least in their fear of mortality. Here’s Michael West, the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, which produced the first cloned embryos, and grew them to the six-cell stage: ‘all I think about all day long every day is human mortality and our own aging’, he said. Indeed he talked about admiring a t-shirt he’d seen with a picture of Einstein and the words ‘if he was so goddamn smart why is he dead?’

Damien Broderick, writing his book The Spike, stated that ‘we’re stuck at the moment with death’s pain, loss and grief. But in the longest term in the history of intelligent life in the universe, it’ll surely be the case that the routine and inevitable death of conscious beings was a temporary error, quickly corrected.’ Or the futurist Max More: ‘Involuntary ageing and death is a rotten design feature for our species. It really is vital that we understand the causes of ageing and how to intervene to stop it.’ And hence the crusade, not to extend the average human life toward the edge of our genetic possibility, which is about 115 years, but to surge past the Hayflick Limit and achieve some form of immortality.

Far be it from me to dismiss this deepest of human dreams—enough simply to raise a few doubts—less about the practicalities, though president for life would certainly take on a new meaning, than about the most basic questions of meaning. For all our terms as mortals, we’ve been mortal—the creature that knows it will die. Consciousness in many ways is the software for coming to terms with that knowledge. And without it, consciousness would have little to rub against. Absent mortality, no time. All moments would be equal. The deep, sad, lovely, immensely human wisdom of Ecclesiastes would vanish. If for everything there is an endless season, then there’s also no right season.

And none of the profound, daily, joyful heroism of bringing up a child in the full knowledge that she will supplant you. There might be some being called a child in this endless future, with whom you had some tangential biological or financial connection, but you would never pass on your life. Your child would be just one more figure in the sea of figures, owing you little or nothing in return.

The immortalists imagine that if one bite of the apple gave us consciousness, another bite or two, or really cramming the whole thing in our mouth at once, might take away the pain that came with consciousness. But it’s at least as likely that the next bite will erase human awareness instead, that meaning and pain, meaning and transience are inextricably intertwined. Immortality wouldn’t be more–it would be utterly different.

To quote Michael West again, answering a reporter’s question about whether immortality wouldn’t lead to overpopulation: ‘Perhaps it would,’ he said. ‘But why put the burden on people now living, people enjoying the process of breathing, people loving and being loved? The answer is clearly to limit new entrance to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.’ Now, now, me, today. Forget about the future, this is an attempt to stop time. You may be able, with some combination of these new technologies, to live forever. But I have doubts about enjoying the gift of life eternally. The joy of it, the meaning of it, will melt away like ice cream on an August afternoon. I would suggest that living should be enough for us, not living forever.

Yes, as Max More has stated, proposing amendments to the human constitution, ‘we have limited senses, imperfect memories and poor impulse control.’ Yes, as Gregory Paul and Earl Cox pointed out in their book Beyond Humanity, ‘even the erect bipedal posture of which we’re so proud makes us so unstable that falling on flat ground can have devastating consequences.’ Yes, as Nick Bostrom has predicted, it may become possible to engineer us so that we will have orgasms and aesthetic contemplative pleasures whose blissfulness vastly exceeds what any human has yet experienced (although, speak for yourself).

But in fact, we already possess a singular and lovely ability—one unique to our species, and one likely to be drowned in the oncoming singularity, which merges us with the machine and re-engineers us for greater efficiency. And that unique gift is our ability to restrain ourselves—to decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. To set limits on our desires. To say ‘enough’.

This is, as I said at the start, an attribute that our spiritual traditions centre on, and that neither Copernicus nor Darwin has knocked askew. This deep tradition reminds us that meaning counts more than ability or achievement or accumulation. That turning the other cheek is rather more impressive than building some titanium-girded hydraulic-powered jaw that will let us chew gravel.

In recent times, we’ve begun to see again, and in very secular terms, how right that sense of the world may in fact be Scholars across a wide variety of disciplines have begun to ask in the last couple of decades a large question that academics have traditionally shied away from; namely, ‘are we happy?’ And the answer seems to be ‘not so much.’ Pollsters have annually surveyed Americans since the end of World War II. The number of my countrymen who will say they are very satisfied with their lives peaks in the 1950s and has declined slowly but steadily ever since.

Barely a quarter of us will now make such a claim, which is odd, since in that same span of time our prosperity has almost trebled. We’ve acquired huge new powers—jet travel has become routine, for instance. Our houses have more than doubled in size, even as the number of people living in them has shrunk. We have, for a vanishingly small cost, access to prodigious amounts of information. Every semi-musical sound emitted by anyone on any continent can be downloaded instantly, to that more or less permanently installed hard drive known as the iPod. We are more enabled, empowered, more astride the world than anyone anywhere at any time, so why isn’t it working so well?

Now, the singulatarian answer to this dilemma is to say ‘yet more’. Crank up the molecular assembler. Once we can have everything we want the instant we want it, we’ll finally reach happiness, not to mention solve global warming. There’s something charming and sweet in this answer, the endless triumph of hope over experience, but there’s something sad in it as well. As best as sociologists and economists can ascertain, the reason that we’re less happy than our statistics would predict is that we’re starved for human contact, for community. Starved, that is, for the chance to make ourselves a little smaller, a little less central to our lives.

If you think about it, that makes a certain sense of the statistics; after all, it was in the 1950s that we isolated ourselves in the suburbs, in the first of the series of screens that now dominate our lives. And we’re beginning to figure that out. Just as a small example of what might be changing, the number of farmers’ markets doubled and then doubled again in the last decade They’ve sprung up in rich communities and in poor ones, partly because people have begun to realize the environmental benefits of local food networks (they can cut the energy intensity of your dinner and hence its carbon emissions by a factor of ten), partly because people want better food that tastes like something, and partly because people want community.

A team of sociologists shadowing shoppers last year reported that those at farmers’ markets had ten times more conversations than shoppers at supermarkets. In order of magnitude, less energy, in order of magnitude, more community, and all with an innovation—the farmers’ market—that in technological ways of thinking is less efficient than the conventional model it replaces. Food for thought.

As you can tell, I fear very much the further rationalization of our societies, promised by these singulatarian technologies. I fear very much the further extension of our hyper-individualist model. I hope very much that as democracies, we can summon the will to draw on our better angels, and draw the lines that might prevent their full enactment—just as in the last century we struggled to bring under control the possibilities represented by the atom.

In some cases, I think it’s become clear where those lines should be drawn. Germline genetic manipulation, I think, should be banned, while those extensions of more traditional medicine, represented by stem cell research or somatic gene therapy, should be permitted, albeit closely monitored. In other areas, nanotechnology, say, I don’t think we know just where a wise democracy would set the boundaries yet.

Now I understand that the very idea of boundaries intensely irritates some people. The idea that individual enterprise and expression might someday bow to community judgement. I know that to those who style themselves the Columbus’s of these new voyages such ‘flat-earthism‘ seems hopelessly irrational. Still, given the stakes, and as I say I think the stakes are nothing more and nothing less than the future of human meaning, it seems to me worth taking all this slowly if we can.

One way to think of this is: is there some goal to our existence, some endpoint towards which we’re heading? If so, then perhaps it makes sense to speed up so we’ll get there faster. What is it that we need all this new computer power to do? All this extra intelligence to figure out? I’ve tried to weigh the practical possibilities in cases like global warming and I find them dubious.

But in any event, my reading of this movement’s literature leaves me thinking that practical applications are, in fact, a small part of the excitement. Rather, that an eschatological fervour really drives a lot of this work. Let me give you a few quotes. ‘It will allow us a deeper understanding of what truly we are’, says Rodney Brooks. ‘Our new biology’, adds Gregory Stock, ‘will allow us pierce the veneer of inside things so that we may reach the naked soul of man.’ In the words of Jay Hughes, ‘Re-engineered minds will permit us to think more profound and intense thoughts.’

Forgive me for saying so, but these sound like sentiments shared in the parking lot on the way out of a Phish concert. Look, environmentalists—and I am one—may overvalue the present and underappreciate the glories of the techno world to come. But I don’t get it.

The great Princeton geneticist, Lee Silver, in the conclusion of his book, Remaking Eden, on the gen-rich future, describes the immortals that we will build with all our new technologies, as different from humans as humans are from the primitive worms of tiny grains that first crawled along the Earth’s surface. He can’t find the words to describe these celestial beings; intelligence, he says, does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. Knowledge can’t explain the depth of their understanding. Power is not enough to describe the control they have over technology that can be used to shape the universe in which they live. So what do these sublime creatures do all the days of their endless lives? In his view, they dedicate their time to answering three questions: Where did the universe come from? why is there something rather than nothing? and what is the meaning of conscious existence?

With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least compared with the deep human questions, like how are you feeling, and can I give you a hand with that, and do you think you could ever love me too. It’s there that I end my defence of the world that we now inhabit.

This essay is based on a talk presented at the 2006 Singularity Summit.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel’. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of, a planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement.

Cover design by Andy Garside.

Andy Garside is a North Wales based graphic designer. When not moving text and images about a computer screen in a pleasing manner he spends the rest of his time as a partner in an independent record label (, playing bass ( and DJ’ing with vinyl. A self confessed music obsessive who prefers cycling to driving.

There’s more where that came from!

Get hold of a copy of Dark Mountain issue 8, or become a subscriber, in our shop.

Listening to ecological interference: renewable technologies and their soundscapes

The sounds of modernity are increasingly moving into natural habitats. With an influx of technologies designed to utilise and extract material from nature, the natural soundscape is becoming masked by the mechanical and technological. This article addresses an experience of listening and recording which took place in the summer of 2015, within two different natural landscapes: the southern region of Iceland and the north eastern region of Spain. The field trip exposed a significant keynote sound within each space; a sound produced by renewable technologies. The sounds produced by these technologies, wind farms and hydroelectric power stations were significantly louder than had been expected. This lead to a personal critique of how to determine if certain sounds within a natural environment can be critiqued, even if they are noisy, because their impact on the landscape is less harmful than other types of energy technologies.

In search of a clean sonic terrain

In June of 2015 I was part of an audio field recording group that visited the southern region of Iceland. One of the primary goals for most of the recordists was to document the natural soundscape, hopefully absent of manmade sounds. Iceland, with its vast uninhabitable landscape and small population, fewer than half a million people, is considered one of the few remaining landscapes to escape the soundscape of humanity. This can mean greater opportunities for recording a clean sound. Because of its harsh environment, long dark winters, live volcanoes and arctic temperatures most areas within Iceland are uninhabitable. This means that the landscape, and by definition the soundscape, remains untouched by human sound. A single sound produced by an animal can travel great distances without the masking effect of industrial or mechanical sounds. The ability to record in great detail for example a particular bird sound is made possible by this relative quiet. During the field trip the group recorded an immense variety of sounds, from birds within forests and marshes to the gurgling, hissing and bubbling of sulphur pools, the explosion of sound from geysers, and the sounds of floating icebergs. One of the most interesting animal sounds recorded on the trip was that of the common snipe; when it flaps its wings the sound is almost mechanicalI had never heard such an odd sound in nature and in my quest to document this sound I was confronted with the emerging technological soundscape infringing on the Icelandic landscape.

Within the recording it is possible to hear the faint sound of a car traversing the landscape, a sound that during the period of recording was increasingly difficult to ignore. A growing frustration developed within the group during the ten-day field trip as we tried to find natural habitats removed from a human presence. It became clear that escaping from the soundscape of humanity, without venturing off normal routes or working during the night, was almost impossible. Vast roads have been built in Iceland to traverse great distances to deliver goods and people all over the country. These roads flow between the mountains, volcanoes and glaciers, bringing tourist coaches, trucks, cars and farm machinery to various spaces. When recording, if a car appeared on the horizon it was heard long past its disappearance from view.

As Iceland has turned its economy towards tourism as a way to overcome the severe economic crash it experienced in the 2000s, more of the sites once seen as inaccessible, such as sulphur mountains, craggy volcanic rock areas and vast marshes, are now crowded with tourists.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 15.58.56Tourists capturing a waterfall

This meant that some of the field recordings took place at night or during the early hours of the morning to escape these crowds. On one particular field trip the majority of the recordists chose to work only with hydrophones by a lake of floating icebergs, this was as a result of powerboats running throughout the day bringing thrill-seeking tourists out on to the water.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.09.31Recording ice floats with hydrophones

Technological interference: the sound of nature harnessed

In Iceland one of the greatest uses of the natural landscape is hydroelectric power. With many vast rivers and waterfalls it is an immense natural resource. In comparison to oil or gas companies the ecological impact is minor. These power stations sit above and deep below the land, with massive engine rooms turning powerful fans, producing electricity. A visit was arranged which allowed the group record the soundscape of the station. Inside there were four levels each going down deeper into the earth. At each level the sound became louder and on the lowest floor, where the river was harnessed, the sound of the water was intense, producing a physical pressure within the ear. After several hours of recording within this space the sounds began to affect several of the recordists, with some forced to leave the building. Outside the station the sounds were faint, but beneath our feet the wave propagation produced by the turbines was travelling through the land and the river.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.11.45Inside the hydroelectric power plant

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.12.42Recording the river outside the power plant

Before entering the station the sounds heard seemed subtle, gentle even, increasing the impression that this form of energy production must have little or no impact on the acoustic sphere. However, after travelling through the depths of the station, and experiencing the physical and audible impact of the sounds produced within, it was impossible to ignore the potential for these sounds to impact on subterranean or underwater ecosystems. Low frequency sounds have the potential to travel through objects and surfaces and are known to cause physical reactions. After placing a hydrophone in the river outside the station it was possible to hear the constant low rumble of the turbines as they harnessed the river.

For the recordists the soundscape of modernity was an intrusion into the natural habitats we wanted to document; these sounds masked our ability to record the unique sounds of Iceland. Yet hours were spent documenting the various frequencies of the power station, using a range of microphones. The varying mechanical and electrical sounds were beautiful in their own way. In fact one trip made was to record a large electrical power line using piezzo contact microphones. It is this contradiction that faces sound artists, field recordists and acoustic ecologists. Our fascination with sound in all its forms means that we also have a greater understanding of the fragility of certain soundscapes. It was during this trip that I began to question the logic of a sound artist documenting all potential sounds while critiquing the infringing soundscape of humanity.

In July I travelled to the Spanish Terra Alta region, the purpose of which was to record a contrasting soundscape to that of Iceland. Following from the Icelandic trip, the recording focus for Spain altered. Instead of trying to locate natural soundscapes removed from human sounds, I wanted to document where and how human sounds were interfering or interacting with the natural soundscape.

The Terra Alta soundscape July 2015

The Terra Alta region of northern Spain is a vast mountainous area. During the summer the high temperatures parch the landscape, riverbeds dry up and fallen leaves and branches quickly turn brittle. The field recordings took place primarily around the village of La Fatarella, a municipality within the region of Ribera d’Ebre in Spain. The surrounding area consists of Fincas; the landscape, though rocky and dry, allows farmers to produce crops of olives, almonds, grapes and cherries. During the day crickets dominate the soundscape, only slowly disappearing as the cool of the night sets in. At night swallows come out in their hundreds, flying around the rooftops of the village producing high pitched cries. Throughout the day one hears the sounds of various vehicles as they ascend the mountains, the boom of planes flying overhead and occasionally the sound of a tractor on a piece of farm land. While recording the soundscape of this area there were few opportunities to document a sound absent of manmade sound. Instead, my approach involved listening first to the sounds, engaging with a form of embodied listening where one tries to interpret what role the sound plays in the environment.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.17.48Recording a cricket on a bush

Listening with intent

When training as a deep listener with Pauline Oliveros in 2009, I discovered that there are different modes of listening: passive and active, or directional and focused. Similar to sight, one can focus in on sound; one can also tune sound out, either to deal with monotonous sounds or loud sounds. The overriding issue when recording environments for later listening/viewing is how memory and experience might interfere with our interpretation of the experience. Interpretivists contend that it is the experiential moment that is important, but a recording is only an indication of what sounds were in the space at a given time. In recording this space it was necessary to step back from the technology and instead pay attention to the entire sensory moment. The recording technology became an extension of my listening experience, but it was necessary to not make it the only process by which I was documenting the space. This meant that the experience of listening and documenting became an embodied experience, whereby the sounds, sights and smells shaped my use of and experience with the space. I chose not to exclude any sound and instead interpret in what ways for example technological sounds transformed the natural soundscape.

In the last ten years a new sound has emerged within the surrounding region: the sounds of hundreds of wind turbines. These technologies used for harnessing wind power now shape both the visible and audible space of this region.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.20.11Wind turbines near La Fatarella

During the day, from a distance, these monolithic objects seem silent as they turn with the wind; at night their presence is made visible by a ring of red lights flashing on and off to warn pilots. Up close the sound of the turbine is a constant whush, whush, changing when the wind changes. As the blades turn they also momentarily darken the landscape, covering and interrupting the ecology (see video above). They sit within a vast sensory space of smells, sights and sounds, most of which have evolved over time to fit together. The only other sound to match the mechanical nature of the turbines is the repetitive chucka, chucka, chucka of the crickets. However, unlike the turbines, the crickets respond to other sounds, going silent when for example, one walks close by. Yet the contradiction of the turbine is that it too has been constructed to respond to nature, only moving when there is a wind.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 at 16.20.30Recording the wind turbines. La Fatarella, Spain, 2015

Paradoxically, as a sound artist it was easy to be captivated by these objects. Similar to the hydroelectric power station, the sounds produced by the wind turbines were beautiful, from the sounds of the mechanics inside as they turned the turbines in response to wind directionality, to the whirring of the blades. They provided an interesting and odd contrast to the nature sounds of the area. It gave rise to various conceptual ideas for art works, installations and performances.

My concern for the soundscape of this space was in competition with a fascination of the sounds produced by the turbines. This was also true of the sounds produced within the hydroelectric power station in Iceland. Composers and sound artists have been fascinated with the sounds of technology since the introduction of mechanical and electric objects, starting with Luigi Russolo’s exploration of mechanical instruments for performance in the early part of the 20th century. This has sat alongside growing concerns about how these sounds are bad for public health and damaging to the natural environment. Acoustic ecologists argue that mechanical and industrial sounds within the natural world are a form of noise, and should be treated as a threat to the natural soundscape. However, it is difficult to be critical of technologies when there is a moral imperative to search for sustainable energy technologies.

A study conducted by the musician and ecologist Bernie Krause explored how sustainable forestry (a goal where forests are expected to be managed to maintain biodiversity while simultaneously meeting the needs of man) actually depleted animal populations. These interventions are considered ecologically sound; they include reforestation programmes of woodlands, where the wildlife forestry organisations argue that in replanting trees after cutting, they are maintaining the wildlife diversity. Krause’s research found that while the visual elements of the natural landscape seemed materially unchanged, the soundscape dramatically altered. Over a period of decades he recorded a drop in the sounds of birds and mammals within a particular forested area of San Francisco. Krause discovered, through years of active listening and recording, that the animal soundscape was slowly disappearing because the ecosystem were constantly transformed through logging. His work has not been formally recognised as proof of an ecological impact, because subjective listening is difficult to verify. Researchers have suggested that this period of history, known as the anthropocene, is a period in which man’s interventions into nature have the potential to not only alter the soundings of animal life, but to produce a profound shift in our relationship to the natural world.


A series of questions emerged as a result of the two field trips and from writing this paper. A key question was, how as a sound artist can I tackle issues such as noise in the natural world, whilst simultaneously finding the soundscape of technology fascinating? It is difficult to reject a sound or define a sound as negative or noisy. Working with sound means dealing in personal subjective aesthetics. It was, however, hard to ignore how the soundscape of environmental technologies might interrupt and even interfere with a natural ecosystem, potentially masking, reducing or even removing certain sounds over time. As someone who has engaged with sound from a sociological perspective, I understand how important subjective listening experiences are to both individuals and local communities. The transformation of a space and the subsequent loss of a keynote sound can alter people’s relationships to a space, particularly older people. Yet my research has found that over time new generations adapt to, and form connections with, new often-technological soundscapes, particularly within cities. The study of natural ecosystems is, however, new to me.

During the trip to Spain the sounds of the turbines began, over time, to feel less like an intrusion and more like a new part of the soundscape. These tall metallic structures seemed to dominate less, and through sheer numbers become a part of the landscape and soundscape. Yet they must in some way interfere with the natural soundscape, whether this is through the killing of birds and bats, or the cyclical rotation of sound and shadow that masks the surrounding space as the blades turn. One then wonders how an ecosystem can respond to such an object in its space. Humans adapt to and interpret all sounds differently, from an individual to a community level. However, within nature, should we expect the biophony to adapt to man-made sounds?

O Keeffe is a lecturer in sound at Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Art.  She has several papers and book chapters published and due for release in the fields of sound studies. Her current practice examines the natural and mediated construction of urban soundscapes both as an art practice and as an object of social theory.