The Dark Mountain Blog

The Dithering Age: Holocene, Anthropocene, and Chthulucene

Ragnarök_by_Collingwood

A sword age, axe age, shields are cloven, a wind age, wolf age, ere the world sinks
— Volupsa

There is no question that anthropogenic activity has profoundly damaged the vast interrelated web of ecological systems that maintain the conditions for life on this planet. Similarly there is an increasingly agreement among climate scientists that we are currently in the midst of a sixth geological extinction event that may cause the annihilation of up to 75 percent of species on earth, including humanity. The only question now is how do we conceptualise this fact and of course, how do we intend to address it. The current debates around the use of the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe the impact of human activity on the biosphere is an example of how environmentalists are trying to wrestle with this issue and also demonstrates how the critique of civilisation is a vital issue that has yet to be dealt with substantively by contemporary theorists. Without placing the phenomenon of civilisation at the core of our analysis of the environmental crisis, any conceptualisation will necessarily be insufficient.

In the most recent issue of the Monthly Review Ian Angus remarks that the term ‘anthropocene’ is currently enjoying a degree of exposure and attention rarely granted to scientific jargon. He writes

‘The word Anthropocene, unknown twenty years ago, now appears in the titles of three academic journals, dozens of books, and hundreds of academic papers, not to mention innumerable articles in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are exhibitions about art in the Anthropocene, conferences about the humanities in the Anthropocene, and novels about love in the Anthropocene.’

He goes on to summarise debates over the term within the scientific community as well as provide a brief history of the term and it’s usage. Angus’s ultimate concern is to emphasise the need for ecological Marxists to deepen their engagement with the work of climate scientists in order to properly understand and attempt to deal with the unprecedented levels of environmental degradation we now face. The essential argument of the climate scientists who proposed that we have indeed entered a new phase in geological history (an ‘anthropocene,’ from the Greek for ‘man’), one which is defined by humanity’s destructive impact on global ecological systems, has been too often neglected by Marxists as either catastrophism or a distraction from class struggle.

The key question for Angus is how do we understand the timing of the beginning of the anthropocene in the context of the critique of capitalism. Among the scientific community there are two proposals for how to define the anthropocene; one places the anthropocene around eight thousand years ago when large scale agriculture and urban civilisation began (though some even suggest that the entire holocene epoch, which began around 11,000 years ago, after the last ice age, should simply be renamed anthropocene).

Others argue that beginning in 1945 we began seeing a qualitative change in the impact of human activity on the biosphere. Sociological and environmental trends such as population growth, water use, tourism, paper production, fertiliser consumption, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, carbon dioxide production, etc, which had been gradually increasing since the 18th century suddenly experienced a staggeringly sharp upturn around this time. Nobel Prize winning climate scientist Paul Crutzen, along with Will Steffen and John McNeill, proposed that developments since 1950 could be understood by the term ‘the Great Acceleration.’ Later work by Crutzen et al, revised their model to place the Great Acceleration within a second phase of the anthropocene epoch. This conclusion is echoed by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who writes

‘Even if the Anthropocene began millennia ago, a fundamentally different phase, a Hyper-Anthropocene, was initiated by explosive 20th century growth of fossil fuel use. Human-made climate forcings now overwhelm natural forcings. CO2, at 400 ppm in 2015, is off the scale … Most of the forcing growth occurred in the past several decades, and two-thirds of the 0.9 C global warming (since 1850) has occurred since 1975.’

The implications of this debate are quite profound. The concept of an early anthropocene is popular among conservatives and anti-environmental lobbyists who would like to demonstrate that the environmental crisis we are seeing now is simply the product of an increase in activities that have been present and consistent with every point in human history. In other words, that this is nothing new and fundamentally does not require new solutions. The recent anthropocene on the other hand is favored by those who place capitalism at the center of the current ecological catastrophe.

Clearly there is a need for synthesis between early and recent visions of the anthropocene. While the qualitative change in human destructiveness within the last half century and the concurrent exponential growth in factors such as technological development and economic disparity are measurably true and must be acknowledged, it is equally true that human beings have been engaging in radically destructive environmental practices for thousands of years. It is vital that we place special emphasis on what has happened in the last fifty or sixty years but it is just as important that we don’t treat capitalism as the root cause of human interference with natural cycles and the healthy functioning of global ecosystems. This is where the critique of civilisation becomes a key element in conceptualisations of the anthropocene.

Ancient Mesopotamians built extensive dams and irrigation systems to grow monoculture crops to feed their exploding urban population. There is also evidence of desertification in north Africa and elsewhere as a result of deforestation by the ancient Romans, Egyptians, and others. Mining was a widespread practice in the ancient world as well and Athenian silver mines were worked by up to 20,000 slaves. We can likewise point to the extinction of numerous species of holocene megafauna following the technological developments of the Neolithic revolution. While Ian Angus argues that the destructive practices of early humans does not constitute a qualitative change from previous holocene activity, when we compare the environmental impact of small, nomadic hunter gatherer communities to that of even the earliest urban, agricultural societies it is clear that we are dealing with a change that is equally if not more radical than what we have seen since the 1950s.

There is another crucial point that Angus’s survey overlooks, does the term anthropocene reinforce anthropocentic attitudes about the division between humanity and the natural world? A landmark essay by Crutzen, Steffen, and McNeil titled ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’ highlights this problem. The language here is extremely problematic. Humanity may be making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and a number of other species but ‘the forces of nature’ are incomparably greater than anything human being can do, no matter how suicidal and destructive we are. Humanity does not function according to geological time and a substantial portion of our shared delusion is the idea that we as a species are more important than any other or hold a particular position of dominance.

Jason W. Moore rejects the ‘anthropocene’ in favor of the term ‘capitalocene.’ His reasoning is two-fold. In the first case, Moore argues, if we broaden our sense of capitalism to rightly account for events such as the European conquest of the New World, we can understand the most radical changes in the capacity for human beings to alter their environment in terms of the accumulation of capital. Moore thus places emphasis on ‘the long sixteenth century’ as the period when technical innovations marked a new phase of environmental impact. Secondly, and even more importantly, Moore argues that the term ‘anthropocene,’ and indeed our entire conceptual framework for dealing with the current climate crisis, is deeply informed by a false dichotomy between something called ‘nature’ and human society. Moore argues that the separation of human society from the natural world ‘didn’t come about just because there were scientists, cartographers or colonial rulers who decided it was a good idea, but because of a far-flung process that put together markets and industry, empire and new ways of seeing the world that go along with a broad conception of the Scientific Revolution.’ This division, in other words, is inherently a product of specific conceptualisations of what it meant to be human.

This binary has vast consequences and is the root of all the other divisions that theorists have long since sought to understand and dismantle, man and woman, white and black, the West and the rest, capitalist and laborer. Moore urges a reconceptualisation of capitalism and nature to see that the reality of the situation is much more complex than such stark, simple terms allow for. What is needed, in Moore’s opinion, is new language and new ideas to understand the relations between humanity and the non-human world. Capitalism, of course, does not only determine economic relationships. It likewise and inseparably influences environmental relations, as well as psychological, physiological relations among others. Moore states that when we try to push beyond the simple binaries, we can ‘see how Wall Street is a way of organising nature. We see the unfolding of problems today – like the recent turbulence in Chinese and American stock markets – as wrapped up with bigger problems of climate and life on this planet in a way that even radical economists are not willing to acknowledge.’ To see the connection between the economic and the environmental also puts various struggles in solidarity with each other. The struggle for climate justice and economic justice are the same.

Moore’s point is well-taken and coincides nicely with the critique of civilisation. If we overemphasise the role of industrialisation, for example, in the history of human impact on the biosphere, we will fail to see how pre-industrial societies were quite capable of destroying and disrupting ecosystems. Moore is absolutely right that talking about humanity contra nature is unproductive and in fact, facilitates the exploitation and degradation of the biosphere. He is also right when he points out that humanity as a whole cannot be said to have any particular means of relating to the environment. We have to talk about specific communities and societies.

This is also a key point in the anti-civilisation perspective. Humanity, as such, is useless to discuss in environmental terms. We have to talk about specific issues such as agriculture, mining, domestication, technology, etc. We have to talk about communities and their practices. Lets talk about the practices of hunter gatherer communities, for example. There are to this day a number of communities that live without agriculture or urban settlements, and of course historically this has been the vast majority of human beings on this planet. When we break out of the old binary of human vs nature we can see that it’s not humanity that’s the problem but a specific way of life or specific practices. This recognition also allows us to address particular problems without falling into the trap that somehow and for some reason, usually a religious one, humanity is just destined to have an exploitative relationship to its environment. Again, the majority of human beings historical have lived in a radically non-exploitative way. Which humans are we talking about when we say that ‘humans are destroying nature’? And furthermore, lets be specific about what is being destroyed and how.

If people just hear that humans are destroying the environment, they aren’t given much incentive to act or even think much. We have to remind people that humanity, as a monolith, doesn’t do anything in particular. You have a choice, you are not condemned to exploit the earth simply by being born human. Talking about the environmental crisis in terms of ‘nature’ or ‘the earth’ is likewise insufficient and misleading. The earth is still going to be here and nature is still going to be here, what we are talking about losing is the health and vitality of specific ecosystems, millions of species of animals and plants, and perhaps the extinction of the human race. The planet will keep on turning and new species will develop and grow.

Donna Haraway’s recent engagement with this debate offers further nuance. She cites a paper by Anna Tsing entitled ‘Feral Biologies’, which suggests that we might think about the distinction between holocene and anthropocene in terms of refuge. During the previous epoch its clear that destructive human activity occurred, however, at that point there were still spaces of refuge. This is to say various ecosystems had the capacity to rebuild, species could take shelter and return, biodiversity was largely unthreatened despite attacks against particular species. Haraway writes that ‘The Anthropocene marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before.’ These refuges have all but disappeared. Ecosystems and species, humans certainly among them, do not have the time or the space to replenish themselves. In these terms Haraway argues that our only hope is to do everything we can to make sure that this current period of extinguishing refuge is as short as possible, because it is very clearly here now.

In the context of cultivating new places for biodiversity to flourish Haraway proposes a new term to add to the mix. Haraway’s Chthulucene evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic mythology though eschews its racism and misogyny. She stipulates that this term is inspired by ‘the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’ It is a concept that implies the blending of the human and the non-human, an assemblage of multiple species and beings in one. Haraway calls for a paradigm in which human beings and other forms of life come together to recreate a world that can sustain life, to recompose ourselves and reimagine ourselves as being human and non-human. We must act and think from a symbiotic perspective. We have to make kin with the fungi and the bacteria and the myriad species of life. Through this composting mentality, of constantly composing and decomposing, we can rebuild the spaces and time of refuge. Extinction, Haraway reminds us, is not just a metaphor.

Haraway closes by gesturing to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, which describes our current moment as ‘Dithering… A state of indecisive agitation.’ This may ultimately be the best way to understand human hegemony.

Ramon Elani lives with his wife and son among the hills and forests of Western Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in literature. His doctoral work focused on critiques of civilisation and continental philosophy. thetigersleap.wordpress.com

Image: Ragnarök (motif from the Heysham hogback) by W. G. Collingwood, 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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How Did Things Get To Be This Way?

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Ojibway elder Basil Johnston said that a good life is impossible for people disconnected from their history. We must know who we are. The venerable historian William Cronon was the son of a history professor. One day, his father gave him the magic key for understanding the world. He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: ‘How did things get to be this way?’

Sometime, when you’re feeling a bit bored, eager for thrills and excitement, get a library card and spend the next 20 years reading. Search for answers to Cronon’s question. Read 500 books on environmental history, ecology, anthropology, night after night, year after year, and type thousands of pages of notes.

It’s a mind-altering experience, a spiritual journey. In the process, you become something like a shaman, with the ability to pass through the veil, and discover important information in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. When you return to the ordinary reality, you can share what you have learned, and guide your people closer to the path of healing — in theory.

More commonly, finding real answers to Cronon’s question turns you into a notorious dolt, a filthy and disgusting pariah. Doomer! Go away! You’re crazy! Most folks prefer to remain in a world of illusions, a realm that has little in common with the power visions of the history shaman. Illusions are comfortable. The economy is recovering. We’re zooming toward Utopia. The best is yet to come. Right?

Conservation writer Charles Little has given many lectures on tree death in America. He is often asked one question: ‘A hand will be raised at the back of the room. “But what can we do?” the petitioner will ask. Do? What can we do? What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!’ Indeed! How can the human journey avoid one more cycle of repeated mistakes when we fail to understand most of the mistakes?

Biologist Paul Ehrlich once spent time among the Inuit of Hudson Bay, Canada. He was shocked to discover that the entire knowledge-base of their cultural information was known by everyone — how to hunt seals, tan pelts, weave a net, sew a coat, and so on. Yet, in our advanced civilisation, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information. You can get a PhD from Stanford and never learn anything about agriculture. Food is one thing we truly need. What is the plan for feeding 11 billion? Is it possible?

Meanwhile, mainstream society has invented a comical joyride in magical thinking — if we simply call something ‘sustainable’ enough times, then it is! In the blink of the eye, forest mining becomes Sustainable Forestry™ and soil mining becomes Sustainable Agriculture™. In a barrage of oxymorons, business as usual is kept on life support, by any means necessary, for as long as possible. What should we do about this? How can we revive the original meaning of sustainability?

In Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning writes, ‘There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. It does not exist.’ He says, ‘The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.’ In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery concurs. ‘Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East. With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.’ Contrary to common beliefs, history shamans have a hard time finding examples of genuinely sustainable agriculture. Have you seen recent images of Uruk, the magnificent city of King Gilgamesh?

In Here on Earth, Tim Flannery said that we are like sheep in a pasture. We no longer need big brains, because our shepherds take care of us. We have become ‘helpless, self-domesticated livestock.’ ‘While we sit in our air-conditioned homes and eat, drink and make merry like cattle in a feedlot without the slightest thought about the consequences of our consumption of water, food and energy, we only hasten the destruction — in the long term — of our kind.’ Won’t it be a healthy change when the lights go out, and we are once again required to be fully present in reality?

Flannery said that our ice age ancestors had bigger brains than we have now — 10 percent larger in men, and 14 percent in women. In Lone Survivors, Chris Stringer noted that the people of today have brains that average 1350 cc in size, and this is ten percent smaller than the average size of Homo sapiens brains 20,000 years ago. The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours. Could that imply something?

Anthropocentric scholars are fond of dismissing Neanderthals as dullards, because their tool kit changed little over 350,000 years. For 350,000 years, they lived by killing megafauna, but failed to wipe them out. Flannery noted, ‘Mammoths, straight-tusked woodland elephants, and two species of woodland rhinoceros coexisted with Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years.’ What was wrong with our incompetent cousins?

Today, every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal, with genes fine-tuned for life on a healthy tropical savannah. Infants only become consumers by being raised in consumer society. If we had been raised in a Neanderthal culture, would we live in balance?

In The Tender Carnivore, Paul Shepard wrote that when scientists raised chimps in their home, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust. Different intelligence allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it. Much of our cultural information will be lost forever when climate change pulls the curtains on life as we know it. How can we preserve the tiny portion of this knowledge that is needed for a return to the path of good life?

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos. We share something like 99 percent of our genes with them. Their ancestors have inhabited the same place for millions of years, without trashing it. Imagine that! They still enjoy a healthy life in a healthy place. Is that really so terrible? Once upon a time, our ancestors lived in the same region, in much the same way. What happened?

Chimps and bonobos did not make serious weapons, wage war against ape-eating predators, spread around the world, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases. They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate. Instead, they inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat. Is there something we could learn from their example?

Is it time to burn our Superman and Superwoman uniforms, apologise to the family of life for our furious rampages, return to the tropics, abandon words, clothes, and spears, and try to remember who we are? Can we recover a mode of enduring simplicity and stability that would no longer require a history to guide us? Can we someday heal so well that we never again have to ask ‘How did things get to be this way?’

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Richard Reese lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is the author of What Is Sustainable, Sustainable or Bust, and Understanding Sustainability. His primary interest is ecological sustainability, and helping others learn about it. His blog wildancestors.blogspot.com includes free access to reviews of more than 150 sustainability-related books, plus a few dozen rants.

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The Eden Model

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William Wordsworth was among the first. In 1802, as the Industrial Revolution began to transform England, he sensed that: ‘…we are out of tune [because] the world is too much with us – little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away.’ By 1888 similar psychic unrest had spread to Ireland. That year William Butler Yeats wistfully mused: ‘…I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, [but] always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’

Wordsworth and Yeats lamented growing detachment, not only from Nature itself, but from some vital though ineffable aspect of our being. In his 2013 Inferno, Dan Brown more concretely, if less poetically, defined some of the factors underlying their discontent: ‘The … World Health Organisation [predicts] there will be some 9 billion people on earth before the midpoint of this century. Animal species are going extinct at a precipitously accelerating rate. The demand for dwindling natural resources is skyrocketing. Clean water is harder and harder to come by. By any biological gauge, our species has exceeded our sustainable numbers… it is a bit like staring at the headlight of an oncoming train… We are facing a battle for the very soul of man… [but we’re] hovering now in a purgatory of procrastination and indecision and greed…’

Wordsworth and Yeats were ‘merely’ poets and Brown writes fiction, but the concerns they express are real. Furthermore, none of them mentions climate change, terrorism nor the widening economic gap between rich and poor. Not only poets and authors, but every thoughtful person realises that we need to address these issues more effectively than we have, yet Brown’s indictment of our political, corporate, and societal inaction rings all too true.

Humanity needs a visionary paradigm aimed at transcending our current ‘head-in-the sand’ strategic paralysis, at forcing us to appraise the dangers threatening us, and at spurring us to confront the hard choices which must soon be made. It asks, ‘What kind of world are we meant to live in and how can we achieve it?’ Yeats yearned for Innisfree; for him it represented Eden. In the 21st century we all yearn, consciously or not, for what Yeats envisioned – a reclaimed Eden.

Paradigm Shifts

In 1962 a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published. Its author was physicist and science historian Thomas Kuhn. Most general readers have never heard of Structure, nor of Kuhn, but the New York Times (July 25, 2001) observed that ‘…Kuhn did for conceptions of science what Copernicus and Einstein did for astronomy and physics.’ In 2012 the Guardian (August 18) called Structure ‘one of the most influential books of the 20th century.’ Most people do recognise a term Kuhn coined: ‘paradigm shift’. He argued that sciences progress in a series of phases, each dominated by a community of workers who share a common intellectual orientation, a paradigm. A science normally advances steadily for a length of time, but eventually ‘anomalies’ – unresolvable problems – accumulate, progressing ultimately to an impasse or crisis. Finally, the deadlock is resolved by a revolutionary change in worldview that replaces the older, now dysfunctional mindset with a new one – a paradigm shift.

Kuhn’s insight about science can be generalised. Our societal ‘anomalies’ – environmental degradation, terrorism, economic inequality and the like – are analogous to Kuhn’s unresolvable scientific problems. During the 16th and 17th centuries, understanding of the solar system changed dramatically. The older Ptolemaic Earth-centred conception was supplanted by the sun-centred Copernican model. That paradigm shift provoked intense religious resistance and general cognitive turmoil, but it led to vital intellectual and practical advances. Today’s world needs a transformation of comparable magnitude.

An emerging paradigm, applicable to our pressing mega-problems, is based on the discordance, or mismatch, hypothesis: contemporary humans have genes best adapted to Stone Age living conditions, not those that exist in contemporary society. Recognising that we and the way we live are out of sync puts our ‘anomalies’ in new, more coherent perspective. The same understanding suggests ‘out-of-the-box’, yet logically-grounded ways to make progress. The new approaches represent attempts to approximate the conditions of ancestral existence, those for which our mind-genes are designed to function best. Further, the same unorthodox, discordance-informed proposals promise a better world for our uncountable planetary co-inhabitants. We, for ourselves and them, must attempt to reclaim Eden.

Eden

Scholars speculate that the Bible’s Eden reflects a folk memory of earlier times when humans flourished in harmony with Nature. Very likely they’re right. Before agriculture, Stone Agers were hunter-gatherers, and anthropologists studying such societies during the 20th century frequently judged their lives happier, easier and more fulfilling than those of contemporary Westerners. The folk memory notion also has legs. Evolutionary psychologists postulate that our minds contain reference standards, neuronal aggregates that embody representations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – automatic, ‘go/no-go’ input that influences our response when we’re faced with choices. Is nearby movement threat or opportunity? Is a possible campsite safe or not? Who’s a potential mate? These ‘categorical expectations’ are based on genes selected during the Stone Age, and they form the basis of folk memory. Because of them people in Biblical times dreamt wistfully of a remote past when existence was somehow ‘better’.

Today the same mental mechanisms that influenced the ancients still operate, and they continue to suggest that things aren’t what they should be. They produce a vague, overarching unease superimposed on and intensifying specific concerns that dominate television, newspapers and political debates. Income inequality, women’s rights, poverty, terrorism, environmental degradation and climate change – these issues are familiar to, and affect, each of us. Superficially they seem separate and disconnected, with different underlying causes, different victims and different suggested remedies. However, there is a fundamental linkage. Each represents a departure from the primal circumstances during which the genes underlying our minds were selected. The neural assemblies that make up our mental reference modules are ancient – conserved over the ages. They still recognise situations as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ according to criteria established throughout humanity’s remote Stone Age past, in our genetic Eden.

Appreciating this relationship, that our current mega-problems all arise from discordance between what was and what is, clarifies and simplifies their analysis. It also points to corrective measures bolder, but more soundly based and with more promise of ultimate success than the insipid, uninspiring proposals put forth to date.

Genesis 1:28

God commanded mankind to ‘Multiply. Fill the Earth and subdue it,’ and we’ve done so to the extent that our species now exceeds sustainable numbers. When behaviourally modern humans appeared about 100,000 years ago we numbered perhaps 10 million in total. Now there are 7 billion of us, and what’s more, we each have a far larger ecological footprint than did our Stone Age counterparts. The resulting mismatch, between us and the world at large, has produced impending calamity:

  • Our use of fossil fuel-based energy has generated climate change, which apparently escalates the frequency of natural disasters.
  • Our need for water and other natural resources is unsustainable.
  • There is an ongoing mass extinction event for other life forms.
  • The environment’s natural beauty has been increasingly despoiled.

Technological breakthroughs and more sustainable behaviours notwithstanding, it’s clear that population growth must cease, and ideally, decline. This has already begun to happen: in 2014 childbearing rates in two-thirds of the world’s countries were at or below replacement level. Given this trend, what should be our target population? A logical objective might be the lowest number consistent with global economic sufficiency. A civilisation small compared to today’s, but nonetheless capable of affording lifestyle for all Earth’s people comparable to that now enjoyed by middle class Westerners. A total of 100 million might be optimal.

Suppose the population increases to 9 billion by 2050, but by then a worldwide one-child-per-family has become the rule. In this scenario, the population would fall to 2 billion by 2150 and reach the 100 million mark shortly before 2275, between the eighth and ninth generations.

A world populated by only 100 million people would free up immense areas to be set aside as nature preserves. Simply abandoning these territories – consolidating humanity into salubrious locations while emptying the other previously populated regions – would better preserve biodiversity than would the anaemic measures now being proposed. Reduced energy consumption would alleviate and ultimately end anthropomorphic climate change.

For a while, world economy would have to function amid decreasing fertility. Rising demands on welfare and health care due to population ageing would have to be met despite declining tax contributions from a diminishing work force. Brown University economist Oded Galor believes economic equilibrium could be maintained under these circumstances. His solution: greater investment in human capital – people’s health, knowledge, skills and competencies. Even with fewer workers, the same level of social services and retiree support could be maintained if per capita productivity were to rise. Improved productive capacity for people in the traditional worker age category, 15 to 65, would be essential, but comparable per capita productivity gains for older individuals would be of significant benefit as well. Extending retirement age to 70 would attenuate ‘elderquake’– more workers, fewer retirees.

After an optimal population is attained, a ‘post-growth’, steady state economy should ensue. Its essence:

  • A stable population with constant total size and age structure. That is, a population column instead of a pyramid.
  • A constant inventory of durable goods with equal production and depreciation rates. Relatively long-lasting items – buildings, vehicles, furniture, appliances, machinery and the like – would be replaced as needed and improved technically and qualitatively, but the total stock of such assets should not increase quantitatively.
  • A constant throughput. The flow of natural capital (resources from mines, wells, forests, fisheries, fields, grasslands, etc.), through acquisition, production and consumption and then back as waste to natural sinks (rivers, oceans, the atmosphere, landfills, etc.) should vary as minimally as possible. Where practicable, nonrenewable raw material waste should be reworked back to a form amenable to reuse.

Substantially contracting population while upgrading human capital: that’s the rational demographic agenda. Its ultimate goal is a smaller-scale, steady state economy capable of sustaining global economic self-sufficiency and biome health, while promoting happiness and meaning for humanity.

Qur’an: Suras 4:8 and 93:8

Allah commanded: ‘When needy are present, provide for them… He found you poor and made you self-sufficient.’

Homo sapiens is the only mammalian species that tolerates, and even promotes, economic inequity, where species members are divided into haves and have-nots. However, it hasn’t always been so. Even though disparity has been a hallmark of society for millennia, authorities from multiple disciplines concur that, except in a few atypical locations, substantial socioeconomic inequality began only as hunting and gathering gave way to horticulture and animal husbandry. Throughout most of the Paleolithic era, our Stone Age ancestors generally had equivalent possessions. Essential inter-personal equality was thus the psychological model that influenced selection of those genes that pertain to our sense of self-worth. That these genes persist is evident in the resentment the weak and poor still feel toward the wealthy.

Given the way we live now, how can we shift our society towards the Stone Age standard of economic parity? One of our primary goals should be the elimination of true indigence –everyone should have the basics: a home, clothing, health care, transportation, enough to eat, and access to decent education. Our pre-agricultural ancestors considered the corresponding prerogatives their birthright; necessary for themselves and for all their fellows.

Still, most of us in the contemporary world are ambivalent about providing basics for all. We instinctively recoil at the thought of giving anyone something for nothing and have long been suspicious of ‘hand out’ programs offering benefits of unlimited duration to potentially employable recipients. ‘Workfare’ and similar work plans have been proposed to address the ‘taker’ problem. Economists studying such schemes suggest they can increase employment, raise the earnings of low-skilled workers, and produce genuinely valuable output. A mandatory work project might thus minimise objections to establishing a safety net that would, to some degree, recreate ancestral conditions.

While we want to reduce the existing gap between rich and poor, how can we, at the same time, encourage and reward the hard work, ingenuity, self-sacrifice, persistence, initiative and the other desirable personal qualities that maintain society’s fabric? Capping net worth at a level ten times that of society’s least well off would be a move toward the socioeconomic conditions to which our minds’ categorical expectations were originally attuned. But would a reward system thus limited sufficiently motivate average individuals to exhibit initiative and to exert whole-hearted effort, while discouraging laziness, indifference and sloth? Economist Thomas Piketty thinks so as does his colleague, Richard Easterlin, who’s found that beyond a threshold, greater wealth doesn’t increase happiness. Although counterintuitive, this belief has been widely accepted by scientists in several fields. What’s the threshold? Research suggests that happiness increases with income up to an adjusted annual household figure of $75,000. Should this amount become the guaranteed minimum, those earning ten times the base would bring in the equivalent of $750,000 – a gracious plenty.

Piketty proposes a progressive global wealth tax as well as a higher tax rate on top incomes. The wealth tax would resemble an annual property tax, but would apply to all forms of wealth. Individuals and/or families worldwide would be obliged to declare their net worth and would be taxed upon it. The top rate might be 5% for assets exceeding $1.4 billion (~ one billion euros).

A well-developed sense of fair play is in our genes and has probably been a part of primate psyches for 50 million years. Decreasing the gap between the more and less fortunate should be non-negotiable. What is negotiable – and where creativity, innovation, and flexibility are essential – is the kind of economic structure we devise. While its details remain for the future to determine, its cardinal principles are based on the past. Whatever ensues must maintain individual ambition and effort while keeping material rewards within acceptable, human-scale limits

Eve’s Daughters

Throughout the Paleolithic, the half-million Edenic years during which our mind genes were selected and refined, women and men were economically and politically equal. This contention is based on investigations of recent hunter-gatherers, the best, if imperfect, Stone Ager analogues. Dartmouth’s Karen Endicott has studied gender relations among Congo Mbuti, Philippine Agta, Canadian Chippewa and Botswana !Kung. Her considered generalisation: foragers recognise that men’s and women’s roles are comparably important. Men make the decisions about their work and areas of expertise; women are ‘the deciders’ about theirs. Consequently, the genders were equal, but separate, a condition that worked well then, but which is now ‘incorrect’.

Agriculture changed the equation. The societal effects of farming, animal husbandry and organised warfare together undermined women’s importance and upped that of men. For the subsequent 10,000 years women have been second-class citizens, and sometimes mere property. Nevertheless, despite many centuries of socioeconomic inferiority women have retained their innate sense of equality.

Over the millennia our ancestors lived as Stone Age foragers, women’s economic and maternal functions were complementary, not in conflict. Life then allowed women to be available and effective mothers, while making vital economic contributions. Now there is inherent conflict between the demands of work and the responsibilities of motherhood, and it’s the culture of work, not the nature of mothering, that must change.

A new business model that addresses this issue is achieving recognition. Its aim is to promote easier and better integration of family and work, an improved balance of job with life. Firms pioneering this approach are usually managed by women, and they emphasise flexibility, especially schedule-setting. As political consultant Mary Matalin has said, ‘Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.’ Operationally, this concept is aided by technology that allows and encourages working from home so that the office is a base of operations, not the mandatory work focus. The key element is a family-friendly, empathetic mindset, reflecting its female management. The attitude gives workers ability to juggle the requirements of their personal lives and their job responsibilities to an extent that is otherwise uncommon at present, but which was the rule for ancestral women. Our mind genes were selected when women made the decisions about their areas of work and expertise. Woman-managed ventures, oriented toward appropriate work-life balance, don’t exactly replicate the Stone Age pattern, but they may be as close as we can come in the present

Edenism

Earth’s mega-problematic ills have elicited various corrective proposals, but none of these has generated a response even close to that required. However, no one has advocated what George Bernard Shaw termed the most powerful force in human history: a new expression of our innate spirituality. Reorienting this inherent human attribute toward a science-informed synthesis of philosophy, science and religion is worth exploring because a new conviction uniting these potent motivators could provide impetus for the unprecedented actions we must take to reclaim Eden.

A need for spirituality seems hardwired in our genome. We’re not genetically constituted to accept a world lit only by science, and ‘religion’ is piggybacked on the pre-existing condition of ‘spirituality’. Expression of this predisposition has been evident in the archaeological record at least since the emergence of behavioural modernity. However, the manifestations resulting from our drive toward the metaphysical have varied over the millennia.

For the longest segment of humanity’s existence, our fore-parents were nature worshippers. Their lives were spent in a natural setting and their immersion in nature was near total. The result: reverence for and a sense of unity with Nature. The other determining influence on our earliest true human ancestors’ belief system was the small group psychodynamic that informed Stone Age interpersonal relationships. As they interact with and influence each other, contemporary small groups develop a number of relational norms that differentiate them from a random collection of individuals. These include certain behaviours considered desirable and appropriate and others odious and unacceptable. By and large, the pattern of positively and negatively viewed behaviours observed in contemporary small groups is roughly similar worldwide. The forager moral community promotes cooperation, generosity, individual autonomy, reciprocity, humility, and non-violent conflict resolution. It acts to oppose bullying, cheating, selfishness, despotic behaviour, theft, intra-group homicide, and incest. These behavioural norms have been fundamental components of all subsequent religious systems.

Agriculture altered the dynamic. Farmers see themselves as apart from nature, not as an integral component within the natural world. Their view of humans against nature was unprecedented in the prior experience of living creatures on earth. This profound shift in orientation was a key factor underlying the demise of religion as nature worship and its replacement by religion as fertility worship.

Religious historian Karen Armstrong contends that, ‘Whenever they enter a new era of history, people change their ideas of both humanity and divinity.’ The transition from one phase of spiritual expression to its successor is not a total makeover; each succeeding religious genre maintains the core essentials that emerged from our small group psychological background as well as the spirit of mystery and awe that is an outgrowth of our innate need to know. Still, the central thrust of our spirituality accommodates over time to match existing circumstances. Thus, as nature gave way to fertility, so fertility in turn morphed into what may be thought of as allegiance-oriented religion.

Population growth and sedentary living frequently led to inter-group hostility. As the scale and sophistication of violence escalated, more men, weapons, and supplies necessitated an increasingly large and productive base for logistical support. This meant that war leaders needed to enlarge their sovereign holdings in order to improve chances of success. However, welding diverse villages, towns, and rural areas – often with varying cultural, linguistic, and faith traditions (and sometimes of differing ethnicities) – into a cohesive entity required some form of overriding bond. Religion was the answer: common rituals and deities strengthened inter-group bonds, fostered compliance and minimised dissent. Accordingly, the primarily local fertility Goddesses of the Neolithic were gradually replaced by more broadly accepted war Gods.

In the beginning, YHWH was principally a divine warrior fighting Israel’s enemies. However in 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar’s forces sacked Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and deported selected Jews to Babylon. The Captivity marked a transition in Judaism, an altered religious emphasis from allegiance to salvation. Such change was a common phenomenon during the axial age – from 800 to 200 BCE. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Taoism, as well as the flowering of Greek philosophy, all came into being or were substantially modified within this period. For the common people of the world’s nation states, life during the axial age had become nearly unbearable. Crushing taxation, grinding monotonous poverty, political oppression, brutal workloads, epidemic disease, and abominable living conditions were all utterly at odds with their innate mental reference standards of what human existence should be like. For the proletariat, hope of a better life, even after death if necessary, became psychologically indispensable. The need for such a morale booster was the major factor leading to a general shift from allegiance religions to salvation religions, even if the salvation promised required faith in an objectively implausible future, one that by ordinary criteria for decision-making was just too good to be true.

Fundamental social change was the underlying factor that led to the emergence of new (or much revised) religious beliefs during the axial age. This assertion might be generalised: when conditions which had previously fostered and supported one form of spiritual expression become fundamentally altered, a new type of religious belief is likely to emerge. The basal, genetically-programmed psychological imperatives remain in force, but their societal manifestation adapts to a new focus. This brings up a pivotal question. Is life in the 21st century so different from that during the axial age that we would be open to a radical shift in spiritual expression? Anthony Giddens, former Director of the London School of Economics, believes so, ‘Over a period of … no more than three hundred years, the rapidity, drama and reach of change have been incomparably greater than any previous historical transition.’

Scientific advances, unprecedented communications and effective birth control are revolutionary innovations. They make it rational to suggest that a fundamentally new approach –based on spiritual reorientation – be considered. To generate its motivational drive, a new spiritual makeover must centre on equality, environmentalism, societal reintegration and upgrading human potential – not on personal salvation. More rational than metaphysical, the new creed, which might be called Edenism, must be ‘a science-informed synthesis of philosophy and religion.’

‘Informed’ in this sense means ‘consistent with’ or ‘in accord with’. The proposed new conviction must conform to existing scientific understanding.

It must be deeply religious as well, drawing on those psychologically potent features that have made religions so individually relevant and societally consequential throughout human experience. Sacred music, art and architecture, ritual and sacrament, tradition, myth and precept: for acceptance a new conviction must embrace these symbolic elements. They are, and have always been, integral to human fervour and devotion. Somehow they establish connection between the finite and the infinite, creating emotions and dispositions appropriate to appreciating the transcendent.

Finally, it must be rational. Rationality is at the heart of philosophy and Edenism, as a relative of Deism, must establish rational thought as its intellectual, foundation.

Edenic, principles reflect concerns that were of less or no importance in the remote past, but that we now face as megaproblems. Family planning (the single child family), gender equity (women’s rights), cultural amalgamation (linguistic, educational, social), socioeconomic near equality (reduced discrepancy between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’), and environmentalism (especially ecological restoration and species preservation) would become expected behaviours –essentially the moral equivalent of new commandments.

These goals merely represent extension of trends that are currently in progress. What Edenism adds is the psychic catalyst that can unify and energise these processes. It holds up the ultimate promise of a world with breathing space for all life forms, where women and men can equally enjoy the best of contemporary material culture without the insufferable gap that now exists between penthouse and poorhouse, and while promoting ecologic restoration. Edenism is grounded in its resonance with our innate human nature, those genetic constructs dating to the remote past that provide neural reference points, subconscious standards for what life should be now. Unlike faith as construed by contemporary religions, this appreciation of human nature will be increasingly supported, rather than undermined, by ongoing scientific insights. Like earlier religions, it has immense emotional appeal. A sense of kinship with the earliest true humans, a chromosomal link across two thousand generations, excites the spirit and forms an elemental connection. Reverence for ancestors is a human cultural universal. Edenism entails similar respect for and understanding of our duty to posterity. We now have the technological capacity to form a true world community. Edenism may become the spiritual driver, capable of fusing us together, of creating a sense of common purpose, camaraderie, and brotherhood among all the world’s people.

Psalm 96 commands ‘Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the lord, all the earth.’ Edenism’s new/old doctrine can be that song.

Many of us recall John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Sharing all the world
A brotherhood of man

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

All of us, like John Lennon, hope for a world of peace and brotherhood in the far future, and almost everyone appreciates that reaching a distant tomorrow will involve altering how we think and behave. However, it’s not enough to merely ‘imagine’ an Earth manifesting idealistic goals. Our duty, to ourselves and to far-distant generations, is to tease out an enlightened scenario for progress, not only for Earth’s humans, but also for our uncountable planetary co-inhabitants.

In his New Yorker (September 12, 2011) article concerning theories of history, Adam Gopnik contended that, ‘The long look back is part of the long ride home.’ His conclusion: ‘We all believe in yesterday.’ Edenism’s intent is to build on that inherent belief, embedded in the genetic matrix of our minds. Fully appreciating that ancient yesterday can help us create a mind-set that will ultimately make possible the future imagined by John Lennon and all of us: a reclaimed Eden.

Images from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Would you rather have rivers, or rivers of cars?’

Stanley Boyd Eaton was educated at Duke University and Harvard Medical School, was professor in Emory University’s radiology and anthropology departments, and was medical director of Atlanta’s Olympic Village Polyclinic in 1996.  Widely regarded as the father of evolutionary health promotion (e.g. the Paleo Diet), he’s now focused on an evolutionary approach to Earth’s megaproblems – from climate change to socioeconomic inequality.

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The Path to Odin’s Lake

Path JPEG

Does it ever feel as if the only news you ever hear is bad news? That all the bad aspects of human nature are in charge and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from suffer in silence and pray for some kind of miracle? If so, you’re not alone. Depression and chronic anxiety are now so much a part of modern life that they have come to be regarded as almost inevitable. Poor physical and mental health stalks much of the world in much the same way that the world’s ecosystems are showing signs of depression and ill health.

And it’s about to get much worse.

It seems the climatic and biophysical systems that sustain human life may now be entering into a period of rapid change that is likely to surprise us with its velocity. Recent reports of sudden spikes in average surface temperatures have stunned climate scientists, and only a couple of weeks ago the temperature in parts of Greenland was over 35 degrees higher than it should have been for early spring. Last year great fires spread across Indonesia and the boreal forest biome, turning the air grey with ash and smoke for hundreds of miles and even attracting the attention of mainstream media organisations. Closer to home sperm whales have been washing up dead on the beaches of England, their stomachs filled with plastic, and our government is rushing to allow fracking to take place at any cost, and damn the consequences. Did I mention ocean acidification, the nuclear pollution and mass die-offs in the Pacific, or the melting Himalayan glaciers?

One could go on and on in the same vein – perhaps mentioning that around half of all wildlife has been wiped out in the last four decades – but what good would it do? Facing up to the awfulness of our predicament is simply too painful for most people to contemplate, and so is it any wonder they choose instead to zone out and numb themselves with alcohol and TV box sets? Such a strategy ensures a kind of personal mental safe space, even if it dooms the biosphere in the process. But it’s certainly preferable to looking the beast in the eye, which can lead to depression or feelings of nihilism and hopelessness. Yet what’s a sensitive person to do as everything they hold dear about life on this precious blue marble spinning in space is senselessly destroyed around them?

That was a question that had been going round in my head for some time and was answered, in a roundabout way, by a dream. In it I found myself looking down from some lofty pinnacle on a town or city spread across the landscape below. From this vantage point I could see a kind of toxic miasma from which I felt a strong urge to walk away. There was an urgent feeling, too, as if the very mountains wanted to speak to speak to me about some important matter, and that I had better listen up. When I awoke I was puzzled and unsettled by this dream. All day long I felt a strong urge to head off to those mountains, knowing full well that doing so was impossible. Not only did I have no money for such an
adventure, I also had the weight of commitments tying me down. And so I placed this strange yearning on the pile of other such unfulfilled wants and got on with my life.

And then, as if by complete fluke, an email arrived. I was to travel to Denmark a few weeks later and would then have two full weeks to kick my heels before my paid-for ticket brought me back home again to Cornwall. All of a sudden it was as if a path had opened up before me and I gazed at my map of Scandinavia, trying to calculate how long it would take to reach those snowy white mountains in the frozen north. And that’s how I found myself standing in Copenhagen’s main city plaza one day in early summer. I had on a backpack, a pair of walking boots and no idea what I was doing. There was a vague plan to walk into Sweden and to somehow get up to the Arctic Circle, where I felt sure my conversation with the mountains could continue, but other than that the only other thing I had was a gnawing sense of unease bordering on fear.

The fear was real and palpable. Forty-something dads are not supposed to grow beards and disappear off into the wilderness in search of talking mountains. A sense of disapproval followed me around. ‘Are you, er, all right?’ asked a concerned friend. The breaking of petty taboos aside, I wanted to find out for myself if there was some talisman to banish the despair that crawls around the basement of the aware mind and I considered the best way to do this was to simply set out in search of it. That the culture of our modern technological and materialistic civilisation was both suicidal and insane was a given, but intuition suggested the tantalising prospect of a connection to something more intelligent if you looked in the right place. And perhaps something more intelligent than us would have an answer.

But just where was the right place? Most religions would say that it’s either inside you, or else in some numinous realm, such as heaven. Well, wherever it was, I felt that immersing myself in Nature might do the trick of coaxing it out of hiding. This raised a wider question, namely: why are we so afraid to break free of the norms imposed on us by society? It has been said that we each live our lives within a gilded cage, but the only way to see the invisible bars of this cage is to reach out and touch them. And then there’s cultural opprobrium to deal with: setting out on foot for two weeks with no plan and mobile phone is most people’s definition of insanity.

I had a few rules for my adventure. The first rule was that there were to be no electronic gadgets other than my SLR camera. Being constantly distracted by pointless messages and flashes of heavily masticated information, I reasoned, would not be conducive to focusing on communications from the non-human world. And so I left my phone at home. Secondly, I was to set out with an open mind. Having been raised a non-theist, like most people from my class and background I had always considered the scientific objective reality explanation of the universe to be the most logical. However, a dawning – if somewhat fuzzy – sense of a wider reality had suggested itself in recent years and I felt as ready as I ever would to engage with it. Lastly, I was to go wherever fate seemed to be suggesting I go, and wild camp wherever possible.

My journey started badly. On the first day I was thrown out of a shopping centre – ostensibly for looking like a tramp – and then my first night camping in a small forest beneath the flight path of planes landing at Copenhagen Airport almost saw me arrested for vagrancy by an aggressive park ranger. Being a hermit in suburbia is not easy, I discovered, even if I was only a part-time hermit. For company and stimulation I had brought with me two books. The first was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Aurelius, a late-stage Roman emperor, was know as a Stoic philosopher and, as such, seemed to be the perfect companion for my doomer-ish quest. The second book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, was written by the American author Bill Plotkin. This book had been recommended to me and it was tossed into my backpack almost as an afterthought or in case I finished Meditations too quickly. As it turned out, both books influenced and shaped my journey more than I could possibly have imagined, and at times it felt as if I had these two wise souls skipping along beside me and egging me on with words of encouragement as I walked the soggy trails of Denmark and Sweden.

In the case of Soulcraft, the magical effect was immediate. Strange things began to happen. On my first evening, feeling somewhat despondent and wondering whether I should call the whole thing quits, I sat on a log and began to read. The book, it turned out, was about Plotkin’s own journey into the mysteries of Nature and how its radical message transformed him. As I read in rapt attention he finished the first section of the book explaining how his first soul quest vision had been of a caterpillar building itself a chrysalis. The meaning of this was clear, he stated; it represented a transformation from one form of being to another. Look out for your own caterpillar, was his message. I put the book down to reflect on the uncanny similarity of how he had felt at the time to how I now felt and was immediately confronted – to my complete astonishment – by a very large caterpillar staring right at me. It was on a long stalk of grass and illuminated in a shaft of evening sunlight. It was huge – almost six inches long – and it seemed to be waving its legs at me as if to say ‘Hello – over here!’ To say that I almost fell off my log in surprise would be an understatement, and yet this was just the first of several freakish happenings involving living creatures to occur on my journey. When I had recovered sufficiently to be able to reflect on it I took the caterpillar to be a harbinger for my descent into the realm of uncivilisation. ‘Walk this way,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘If you dare.’

Later, I travelled to a small national park, enduring the wettest spell of weather in recent Swedish history. Large parts of the country became flooded, and I myself became completely sodden – only my books, which I kept in a plastic bag – remained dry. By day I would hike the forest trails, sometimes meditating or sleeping beneath the trees, and in the evening I would return to my tiny waterlogged tent and read Plotkin and Aurelius until I fell asleep. With the passing of each day I felt as if I were falling deeper into a profound mystery, and that these two writers – one alive and one long dead – were my guides. I began to be afraid. But then, as Marcus Aurelius pointed out, ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’

Bill Plotkin talked of spirit animals and of plants that could communicate with you, if you knew how to listen. In one section of his book he gives a detailed explanation of how to talk with trees. Talk with trees? Surely this is some form of madness, I tutted inwardly, before reminding myself once again that madness already reigns in the world and that we sorely need to find new ways to relate if we are to wriggle out of our Faustian pact. And so I tried his approach. In The Path to Odin’s Lake I wrote:

I walked out along the plateau on the southern side of the gorge and stepped off the path into an area I had not explored before. I wanted to get lost. Not seriously lost, but lost enough that I could not find my bearings. I figured that this mental state of low-level anxiety would help suppress the controlling ego part of my mind which is said to be inconducive to the reception of messages from the plant world in a similar way that sitting beside a screaming toddler is inconducive to focusing on hushed Gregorian chanting. To further heighten the senses I abstained from eating anything for the day and headed out at dusk.

When I considered myself sufficiently lost I began to look around for a likely tree to communicate with. Beech trees may all look fairly alike when seen in the aggregate, but when you are up close to them and trying to decide which one might look friendly enough to talk with then they all begin to look very different. Some of them seemed to have faces. There were long, grimacing faces with bulging features, Pinocchio noses, Picasso eyes and ghastly mouths like something from an Edvard Munch painting; and there were faces that looked altogether more benign, if somewhat misshapen and ugly. I tried to put prejudices aside – after all, I reasoned, perhaps I seemed equally gruesome to them.

Nevertheless, as I moved between the trees I attempted to get a feeling for each of, gauging whether any caused a particular sensation within me. I didn’t want to talk to an unfriendly tree – after all, if one is truly open-minded about the possibility that they may be as intelligent as we are, that they possess characters traits, talents and foibles, then one must not discount the possibility that some of them may be bastards.

It wasn’t too long before I saw a friendly-looking tree. It was a medium sized one, probably about the same age as myself. I had discounted talking with any of the truly immense trees with their huge trunks and their gnarled roots. Perhaps I was intimidated by their size. In any case, I went up to this particular tree and introduced myself. It felt a bit strange talking to a tree, but there were no people around in this off-the-track part of the forest, so why should I feel embarrassed? I was not naive enough to expect a pair of woody eyes to flick open and for the tree to start talking to me like one of Tolkein’s ents, nevertheless I talked in a spirit of openness. I told it who I was, where I came from and what was important to me. Bill Plotkin states that trees are not interested in names or other types of human categorisation, so I outlined myself in terms of the heart. This is not as easy as it sounds, given how used we are to describing ourselves in terms that would look okay on a CV. Trying to describe yourself in terms that you think a non-human plant organism will understand is a useful way of evaluating your place in the biophysical world.

After a while I had run out of things to say so I sat down at the base of the tree and rummaged in my bag. I had brought a gift for it, as was advised by Plotkin – in this case a very large and very red rosehip from a bush near the campsite. There were no rose bushes in the deep forest because of the lack of light, so I figured it might make a reasonable gift. I placed the hip in a bole formed by the tree’s roots that looked a bit like a natural shrine. After I had done this I sat and waited. I waited for about twenty minutes or so and then shifted position so that I sat with my back against the trunk. I meditated for a bit to try and clear my mind of unwanted background noise.

One thing that I was aware of was that trees could be much more leisurely with their communication than we humans. In Soulcraft Bill Plotkin describes one of his wilderness soul questers talking to a desert tree for several days, asking how it managed to survive in such an arid place. The tree had remained silent and seemingly aloof for the whole time. Eventually the seeker became exasperated and started shouting at it, upon which the tree bellowed back ‘Deep roots!’ The inquisitor was bowled over in shock.

But I didn’t have several days to spend waiting, so my hopes of pulling off an inter-species conversation weren’t awfully high. Nevertheless, I persisted and carried on talking. I talked about my own bit of woodland in Cornwall, describing the various trees to be found there and talking about how I was planting many more with each passing year. As I was doing so I felt an almost imperceptible change of something in the air. It felt as if the tree were actually listening to me. ‘Go on,’ it seemed to say when I paused. The hairs on my arms stood on end.

And so I carried on, talking about the land and the trees, and how I had come to be in this forest and that soon I would be leaving it again, probably never to return. I repeated various points several times, trying to tune into the feelings I was getting back from the tree. I had probably been there for about an hour by this stage and was wondering whether I was just imagining things. I wanted to know if this was the case or not and so I asked the tree to give me a sign that it was listening to me. I awaited a response, somewhat fearfully.

Fearfully? Fearfully because if it’s true that plants and trees are sentient beings with an advanced state of intelligence then the terrible things we humans are doing to them in forests around the world just got even more terrible. Indeed, I myself was no stranger to chainsaws, having cut down about two hundred trees the previous winter in my woodland for coppice. So I gulped and waited for a response. And there it was. Thud. I looked down at the ground. There, beside my foot, was a large nut cupule. I picked it and examined it. There were four nuts there, healthy and ripe.

I was astonished. All morning I had been looking for beech seeds to take back with me, but despite the millions of husks lying around on the forest floor they had all been empty, no doubt eaten by birds and rodents. This was the first one I had seen with actual seeds in it. I looked up at the tree and thanked it. I would take the seeds back home and germinate them, and within a couple of years I hoped they would be good strong seedlings growing in my woodland. ‘Good,’ the tree seemed to say. I bade it farewell and walked back to the path, which didn’t take too long to find, clutching the seeds in my hand.

Was I going mad? Quite possibly, I concluded. But perhaps, as the sixth great extinction takes hold, climate chaos picks up pace and people run around cutting off other people’s heads in the name of their god, just perhaps it is the mad ones who are the sane ones in this topsy turvy world.

After I had been in the forest for a week or so I found myself being drawn towards a small but mysterious body of water known locally as Odensjön – or Odin’s Lake. It was there that I experienced a fitting climax to my journey, albeit an unexpected one. I had not intended to write about my journey but I had kept a diary along the way and so when I returned home to England it seemed like the natural thing to write the book I named The Path to Odin’s Lake. When I had finished writing it I realised with some amusement that I had unwittingly set off from beside a statue of my namesake; Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Jason, in Copenhagen City Hall. Jason, of Argonaut fame, is of course well-known for his fearless voyage into the unknown, where he battles monsters and Nature in order to win the Golden Fleece and bring it back to his king. As a myth, it is about mankind’s triumph over Nature, and yet, although I had no such pretensions, here I was some two and a half thousand years later setting out to question the very assumption that man can battle Nature – and win. What if those monsters of the mind were simply Jungian projections; our own fears writ large? What if it was a requirement of civilisation to be haunted by spectres of the psyche; shadowy projections of our own inner demons? That quixotically fighting our hidden demons might one day lead to our own demise…

To even get a feel for the answer to such questions it seems inevitable that we’ll have to plumb the depths of our own darkness. Fear of doing so is an unavoidable element on such a journey, and yet moving forwards is impossible if all we ever do is focus on the light. The process of setting out on that path can have a profound effect on the way one relates to the world, I discovered. It now seems clear to me that as individuals and as a culture we need to advance our level of consciousness and break free of the rotting corpse of industrial civilisation. There can be no techno fixes while we are still governed by a mindset that exploits and dominates and kills. The sad truth is that we have poisoned and disrupted the biosphere to the extent that its life-supporting capabilities are becoming threatened, and maybe – just maybe – we’ve already had the last roll of the dice. If this is true then our final job might simply be to bear witness with good grace to whatever calamites await. Yet to focus on this possibility would be to miss the point and might even make its passing all the more inevitable.

No, our great task now is surely the work of connection and repair. The good news is that in it there is great fulfilment to be had in remediating the damage our industries have done and healing the hurt we have inflicted on ourselves and other life forms. The collective human consciousness may appear to have hit a stumbling block, but at the same time there are many people in many cultures and nations who have already moved on from the old paradigm of individuality and egocentric thinking, and are instead working quietly and using a multitude of different tools and techniques to create a new type of human culture. This reborn culture is deeply ecocentric and recognises implicitly that when we brutalise Nature we brutalise ourselves. It will be impossible for this new paradigm to flourish without the death of the old unfit-for-purpose paradigm, meaning there is much work to be done in making this happen. And yet flourish it will, and every day more and more people hear the call to adventure and take up the challenge in whatever way they feel drawn to. Building a new life-affirming reality is the best way to address the blues caused by the old death-affirming one.

Of course, heading off on a soul-journey isn’t strictly necessary, but if that’s what appeals then the first steps to setting out on such an adventure are relatively easy to do. On my own journey, I simply headed out the door out with an open mind, twinned with a natural born scepticism and enough money to subsist simply for a couple of weeks. I never made it to those fabled mountains I yearned for, and I endured plenty of low-level hardships along the way, but the reward was a deeper connection with the mystical swirling patterns of deep nature in which humanity is embedded. To viscerally realise that everything is intelligent and connected, and that in the greater scheme of things our currently destructive paradigm is a mere ephemeral blip in the evolution of this planet and consciousness in general, is a great thing. After all, we are all consciousness, and consciousness is us. We are all born with the remarkable gift of free will and as such are able to shape our own destinies within the parameters available to us. And being a part of the collective awakening of humanity – free of the shackles of our civilisation’s dogma – is surely the best and most useful way to spend our remaining time on Earth.

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The Path to Odin’s Lake: A Scandinavian Soul Journey is published by Createspace. It can be purchased in paperback or on Kindle ebook, or in different ebook formats here

Jason Heppenstall is a former journalist and news editor who lived in Denmark for almost a decade. Three years ago he moved with his family to west Cornwall where he works in a woodland making charcoal and growing mushrooms.

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The Hungingo Hunters

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This is when the sadness of travel hits him hardest. Not when stuck at a desolate bus station, surrounded by others who hate it there as much as he does, or holed up in a cheap room in a dreary, forbidding district devoid of travellers, but at times like this. Crammed in a van like this, surrounded by people like this. He stares out of the window to avoid his fellow travellers, struggling to keep the ever more familiar chagrin from ruining everything. This is supposed to be fun.

‘Mike, how long is the drive?’ A German girl asks the driver. Linda or Linnet or something, she made a big thing about nobody remembering her name right. His name most probably isn’t Mike. It’s just Mike when he drives us. Because we can’t remember the names they have.

‘Only one more hour. Then we visit KangDa village for traditional KangDa village experience tour. Then one more hour. Then we arrive at Boloran camp six o’clock for a traditional meal with drinks and evening traditional entertainment.’

Sentences that sound like they have been practiced and uttered over and over again. With that slight feel to them you’re not sure the speaker understands all the words they use. As opposed to us, who don’t bother to practice anything more than the local ‘thank you’. But really, who says ‘o’clock’? Mike does. ‘Mike’.

‘Will there be a toilet in the village?’ Lenette asks.

‘Yes toilet.’

A ‘traditional’ toilet, no doubt.

One more hour. An hour to lose himself in the landscape some more, the rolling hills that turn into foothills. The ebb and flow of human settlements, strewing their plastic waste along roads and streams like indestructible breadcrumbs leading back home. The rough edges between cultivation and the wilderness you probably don’t love unambiguously once you live right next to it.

‘What a beautiful scenery was that, don’t you think?’ Lanet asks him when they leave the van.

Beautiful… Would he use that word for the raw feelings elicited by driving through this province? Maybe, but it would not be the romantic ‘beauty’ Linet referred to.

‘Yes, very beautiful.’

And now he wonders about the wildlife, curious what still thrives here, what has been hunted to extinction. Curious what the local kids are being scared with in bedtime stories. Their version of Red Riding Hood and the wolf. If that is how it works here. He can’t escape being a western boy.

Or maybe it was the sign they passed when entering the village:

WELCOME TO KANG DA
HUNGINGO HUNTER VILLAGE

An unfamiliar beast was painted under it. Hungingo? What were they trying to draw there? If only his smartphone worked here.

The afternoon sun glares through the village like a nosy neighbour, peeping under the sun roofs of the souvenir stalls, shining through the small windows of the tiny ‘traditional’ wooden huts they are ushered into and out of, like large, white cattle. A flock of kids follows from a distance.

In front of what seems to be a bigger hut, ‘Mike’ starts another set of well-used lines.

‘This is the house of the village hunter. Many village people today also hunt for bird or fish or some small animal like that. But before, village people hunt for hungingo.’

His hands make small and then large gestures. He pauses for effect. Lannet takes a picture with her DSLR. A couple more in the group suddenly decide to take a photograph as well.

‘Today, hungingo have almost disappear. Only very few left. Not many people know where to find hungingo. Here lives the last hunter of hungingo. The hunt only happen one time each year. So now you will hear the traditional story of hunting hungingo.’

Glorified cows? Some kind of big goat? What is he tricked into oohing and aahing over? He’ll admit the mystery alleviates his travel depression. But grudgingly. He should’ve read the leaflet when he signed up for this day trip.

Resigned, he follows ‘Mike’, ducks through the small door, enters the hunter’s house. He looks up into a space that is way, way bigger than he anticipated.

Holy damn. A gigantic skull is suspended along the entire ceiling. Possibly the biggest skull he’s been physically close to. What the hell is a crazy skull like that doing in a village like this? How does he not know about these hungingo things? What are they, dinosaurs?

And then a woman enters. She is mature but not old, short and very muscular. Her face, though covered in tattoos, exudes the calm and confidence characteristic of those who know what they know. She folds her legs on a cushion on the floor as the tourists awkwardly squat down to sit. Her tattooed hands rub her stocky underarms, and she starts her story:

I am the last hungingo hunter.
Like my mother before me was, and her mother before.
I climb the mountain, once a year.
And I find my hungingo once a year.
I find the one that wants to be found.
And when I find her, we dance.
We dance to the death of one of us.
Which is the death of us both.
I will take her name, or I will lose my name.
It can take short or long but time is different when we dance.
You only know after she dies.
Or you will never know at all.

She gets up, her feet carry her around the room like a boy ballet dancer.

Of all my tools along this wall,
I bring none. They are for later.
For when the fur has to become fur.
For when the meat has to become meat.
For when the bones are dead.
And the skull has no face anymore.

Tools glide in and out of her hands, handled with gestures so precise they feel a thousand years old. Then she unhooks a simple, curiously curved knife, hanging alone on the wall at the end.

I only bring this knife.
And a bag of string.
This string I string through the forest.
On my way back, alone, with a new name.
So we can go back together.
Bring back the hungingo together.
The string is longer every year.

She unties the fastening on a leather shoulder bag, a giant coil of handmade thin red rope rolls out on the floor.

But if I die, I die alone
I must die alone and I must not be found
Because I will become hungingo
Like my mother before me
And her mother before
I am the last hungingo hunter
And I will be the last hungingo too.

He is not sure why he didn’t google ‘hungingo’ on the computer afterwards. It would’ve been a better way to spend his time than the ‘traditional’ entertainment night. He is also not sure why he didn’t feel like blogging about it, or posting pictures on Facebook.

Ever since, he thinks about the hunters everywhere that went extinct together with their prey. He hopes they had the kind of closure the hungingo hunter woman will have. He doubts it. He doubts anybody remembers their name. He doesn’t, anyway. Or maybe that’s just him never having cared enough about these things in the first place.

Why does he care now?

At the airport on the way back home, some time later, a familiar face shows up.

‘Hi, how are you? What did you think of this country?’ she asks him. ‘Will you want to come back?’

‘Not really,’ he says.

‘I want to come back here. It is such a magical place.’

She holds up a book from the airport souvenir shop titled ‘Die letzte Jägerin der Hungingo’. The shop that disgusts him, because it is full of stuffed toys and wooden statues shaped like hungingos. It sells infinitely more hungingos than there are still left on that mountain. And it will keep on selling after they’re gone.

‘I love this story. They are really Amazons, it is so inspiring. If I have a daughter, I will read her this story.’

He doesn’t know how to start explaining why he doesn’t agree at all. There are no daughters, don’t you see. It says ‘die letzte’ for a reason.

‘Have a good trip home, Lenetta,’ he says after a while.

‘It’s Lorette,’ she smiles wryly. ‘But that’s OK. Nobody ever remembers it right.’

But at least you will have daughters, he thinks.

Not that far from there, out of his sight, out of everyone’s sight, a little girl follows her mother’s steps through the room, like a ballet dancer. Silently, a giant skull looms over them, listens to the poem they rehearse together, every night. Like she did with her mother, and her mother’s mother before.

‘Mom, what’s a hungingo smell like?’ the little girl asks.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ the woman says. ‘I have never seen one.’

Annemarie Opmeer started out as a comparative literature and gender studies major, ended up as editor-in-chief of Down to Earth, the independent magazine of Friends of the Earth Nederlands, survives by having helped the start of Against The Stream/Dharma Punx Netherlands, lives in their favourite Dutch polder.

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Of sun, rain and anti-utilitarianism: a review of ‘Degrowth’

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Book review:
Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New EraRoutledge (2015)
Ed. Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria & Giorgos Kallis

So the question is not whether capitalism will survive the technological innovations it is spawning. The more interesting question is whether capitalism will be succeeded by something resembling a Matrix dystopia or something much closer to a Star Trek-like society, where machines serve the humans and the humans expend their energies exploring the universe and indulging in long debates about the meaning of life in some ancient-Athenian-like, high-tech agora.

I think we can afford to be optimistic. But what would it take, what would it look like to have this Star Trek-like utopia, instead of the Matrix-like dystopia?

— Yanis Varoufakis, December 2015, TED Global, Geneva 

The Greek ex-finance minister’s remarks illustrate quite well, I think, why a book like Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era is both timely and necessary — while also, perhaps, giving a clue to its limitations.

In our public discourse, the future still mostly involves endless economic growth, automation, gadgets, and a better life for all, with humanity spreading its seed to Mars and, in due course, the stars. The cornucopian vision goes almost unchallenged in the public sphere, even by opponents of global capitalism. Whether they are wall-building reactionary nationalists who love capitalism but hate the ‘global’ bit, progressive internationalists like Yanis and his Diem25 movement, or even progressive nationalists, precious few political figures dare admit openly that the sacred cow of GDP needs to be slaughtered as quickly as possible. And little wonder, when the alternatives to ‘growth for the masses’ are almost invariably presented as dark, apocalyptic, and deeply unappealing.

The truth, of course, is that positive and appetising alternatives to a global economy based on the fallacy of exponentially expanding consumption on a finite planet do exist, and always have; and people have been talking and writing about these alternatives for just as long. Yes, it is possible to live better by consuming less; in fact, it’s necessary: economic growth is actually ‘uneconomic because, at least in developed economies, “illth” increases faster than wealth’ (Daly, 1990, cited in Degrowth, introduction, p.6.) Most readers will not need convincing of this, and if they do, they should probably just go for a walk or hang out in the garden.

But Degrowth is the first book I’ve seen that really sets out to synthesise these alternatives to growth into a coherent whole. As the subtitle suggests, it presents a vocabulary of concepts related to degrowth in a series of 52 short essays by different authors on topics ranging from Peak Oil to Environmental Justice, Anti-Utilitarianism to Happiness, Eco-Communities to Unions. Broadly speaking, the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to ideas, the theoretical foundations for a degrowth movement, and the last third to actions.

There are some surprising omissions: the book has no illustrations to speak of (and no index), while topics like Transition, permaculture, and agroecology are mentioned only in passing. Some of this may be a matter of cultural perspective: the editors, and many of the authors, are based in Barcelona, from where I’m sure things look significantly different than they do from the Anglophone world. Some of the essays are pretty dense and theoretical. As someone who has spent ten years at the muddy, neo-rural end of the degrowth movement, my own selection of important vocabulary would have put far more emphasis on words like land, rain, sun, tree, house, work, build, dig or (perhaps ironically) grow. I don’t spend a lot of time chatting about anti-utilitarianism with my neighbours, though on reflection, now I’ve read about it, perhaps I’ve been ‘critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics’ (p. 21) in my daily life all these years without realising it; I call it ‘building a house and planting a garden while having fun with friends’. However, there’s an old joke that defines an economist as ‘someone who lies awake wondering whether what works in practice can possibly work in theory’, and if an elaborate theoretical structure is necessary to convince economists that degrowth can work, then so be it — for the rest of us, there is enough accessible material in the book to make it worth reading even if you skip the social theory.

The reviewer, pictured critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics

The reviewer, critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics

But even so, I think that a book like Degrowth will not have as much impact as it could, and should, on the way we imagine the future. I can picture the editors presenting the case for degrowth in Yanis’ high-tech Athenian agora, engaging in debate and convincing everyone, but only on an intellectual level: the level of the logos — light, left-brain, rational, logical, yang — of which the agora itself is an almost pure representation. And it’s telling that in order to conjure his vision of a future which is almost pure logos, Yanis actually had to employ mythos by presenting a visceral contrast between two opposing stories (Star Trek versus The Matrix) that have entered the collective consciousness.

As Charlotte du Cann puts it in Dark Mountain Issue 8: Technê (p.107), ‘to walk true in the world is to walk with “one foot in the logos and one in the mythos“.’ And where the mythos is suppressed, it will inevitably erupt in unwelcome forms: thus Donald Trump, who may well be the personification of the Norse trickster god Loki.

If the degrowth movement is going to get traction on the mass level, it’s going to need better stories: visions for a positive future that tap into the mythos. Stories to guide us down the steep slopes of the dark mountain to the shelter of the valleys beyond.

Robert Alcock is an ecological designer, self-builder and writer based in northern Spain. He and his partner Almudena lived for several years in the post-industrial Zorrozaurre peninsula in Bilbao, where they founded a citizens’ forum to promote sustainable alternatives for the area, which was faced with ‘regeneration’ from a Master Plan designed by the late Zaha Hadid—a story that can be read about in his book The Island that Never Was (2015). (abrazohouse.org/island)

They now live with their two daughters in a small village an hour west of Bilbao, where they have built an ecological home and study centre, Abrazo House (abrazohouse.org).

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Ted Kaczynski and why he matters

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The Unabomber Affair

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the ‘Unabomber’, is a US terrorist known for his 17-year bombing campaign as the terror group ‘FC’, which targeted individuals involved in technical fields like computing and genetics.

In early 1995, the New York Times received a communique from FC in the mail:

This is a message from FC…we are getting tired of making bombs. It’s no fun having to spend all your evenings and weekends preparing dangerous mixtures, filing trigger mechanisms out of scraps of metal or searching the sierras for a place isolated enough to test a bomb. So we offer a bargain.

The ‘bargain’ offered by the group was simple: publish its manifesto, and it will stop sending bombs.

The manifesto, entitled Industrial Society and Its Future, was a 35,000 word polemic detailing the threats that industrial society posed to freedom and wild Nature. At the crux of the document’s analysis was a concept called ‘the power process’, or an innate human need to engage in autonomous goal setting and achievement. Despite this psychological necessity, ‘in modern industrial society, only minimal effort is necessary to satisfy one’s physical needs.’ As a result of the mismatch between human need and industrial conditions, modern life is rife with depression, helplessness, and despair, and although some people can offset these side-effects with ‘surrogate activities’, the manifesto says that these are often undignifying, menial tasks. Interestingly, these concepts have numerous parallels in contemporary psychology, the most notable similar idea being Martin Seligman’s concept of ‘learned helplessness’.

Ultimately, the manifesto extols the autonomy of individuals and small groups from the control of technology and large organisations, and it offers the hunter-gatherer way of life as a vision of what that kind of autonomy might look like. Still, the end of the manifesto only argues for the practical possibility of revolution against industry (rather than a complete return to hunter-gatherer life), and it outlines some steps to form a movement capable of carrying out that revolution.

Up until FC tried to force the publication of the manifesto, the FBI had referred to the group as the work of a single terrorist. But the proposal put the agency in a difficult situation: it had a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, but was in no position to reject this one’s offer. By that time, the FBI had been searching for the Unabomber for 17 years and had little to nothing to show for it. Much of what they did have to work with, such as the profile that pinned him as a blue collar airline worker, turned out to be complete nonsense. Even the famous FBI sketch looked nothing like the man they later captured.

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Worse for the FBI, the Unabomber was determined to strike until they agreed to the offer. Shortly after sending their proposal, FC sent a bomb to a timber industry lobbyist, who became the third death in the bombing campaign. Later, two Nobel Prize winners received letters warning them that ‘it would be beneficial to [their] health to stop [their] research in genetics.’ Finally, to make the offer even more convincing, FC sent a hoax bomb threat that delayed two flights and shut down California’s airmail system for almost the entire day.

Hoping that it would allow someone to identify the perpetrator, the FBI encouraged the New York Times and Washington Post to publish FC’s manifesto. The two newspapers took the advice, and the manifesto was soon published as an eight-page insert to the Washington Post, with publication costs partly funded by the Times. From that point on, the agency officially classified the Unabomber as ‘serial killer rather than a terrorist with a political agenda, as was originally hypothesized.’

The FBI was right about the manifesto: it did help someone identify the author. Shortly after the work’s publication, David Kaczynski contacted a lawyer to share his suspicion that the Unabomber was his brother, Ted. After examining the submitted evidence, the FBI raided the man’s home, finding everything they needed to put him on trial for the crimes of the Unabomber.

When Kaczynski was apprehended, he looked dirty and dishevelled, with an unwashed body and torn clothing and hair that reached in every direction. It was a typical look for Montana men in the winter, but it nevertheless solidified the media image of the man as a lone wingnut. In reality, Kaczynski was very likely a genius. He was accepted into Harvard at the age of 16, later went to the University of Michigan for his Masters degree, and then taught at Berkeley as an assistant professor. His doctoral thesis solved several difficult problems relating to ‘boundary functions’, which even Kaczynski’s maths professor, George Piranian, could not figure out. ‘It’s not enough to say he was smart’, Piranian said.

But Kaczynski decided that university life was not for him, and he soon left Berkeley to build his own cabin in a remote area of Montana, where he lived without running water and electricity. One FBI investigator said to the man upon his arrest, ‘I really envy your way of life up here.’

After a circus of a trial, Kaczynski ended up pleading guilty to the Unabomber crimes, and in turn he was given a life sentence and sent off to the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Today, he diligently responds to letters he receives, and he is working on publishing an upcoming book, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How.

The Response to Kaczynski

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 1

Although it is easy to dismiss Kaczynski as crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration, support for his ideas is not hard to come by. Critiques of technology similar to those outlined in the manifesto have long been available underneath the names of famous thinkers. In 1863, for example, British essayist Samuel Butler wrote in ‘Darwin Among Machines‘:

Day by day, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them…the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants…Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species.

Consider how eerily close Butler’s statement is to the recent warnings about artificial intelligence made by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Elon Musk (all of whom nonetheless continue to advocate for technical progress).

The response to the manifesto, while certainly not without a fair share of criticism, included many positive comments from well-adapted and successful members of society. One of these people, Bill Joy, was the inventor of the Java programming language and the founder of Sun Microsystems. In other words, he could easily have received a bomb from FC. Yet in 2000 Joy wrote his now-famous essay ‘Why the future doesn’t need us‘, in which he describes his troubled surprise when he read an incisive passage on the threat new technologies pose — only to discover that the passage was pulled from the Unabomber Manifesto. ‘He is clearly a Luddite,’ Joy writes, ‘but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in [his] reasoning…’

Other reactions have been similar. Journalist and science writer Robert Wright famously stated, ‘There’s a little bit of the Unabomber in most of us.’

 And political scientist and UCLA professor James Q. Wilson, the man behind the famous ‘broken windows theory’,  wrote in the New York Times that the manifesto was ‘a carefully reasoned, artfully written paper… If it is the work of a madman, then the writings of many political philosophers — Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, Karl Marx — are scarcely more sane.’

billy Perhaps most striking, however, was how much the general public expressed adoration and fascination with the Unabomber. ‘I’ve never seen the likes of this,’ said one criminologist, ‘Millions of people … seem to identify in some way with him.’ Kaczynski was arrested and on trial during the early age of the internet, and fan websites quickly popped up all over, including the famous Usenet group, alt.fan.unabomber. Stickers appeared that said ‘Ted Kaczynski has a posse’; t-shirts appeared that had the famous Unabomber sketch and the word ‘dad’ printed on it; and many organisations contributed to a nationwide ‘Unabomber for President’ campaign. ‘Don’t blame me,’ one campaign ad said, ‘I voted for the Unabomber.’

Even now Kaczynski has his open advocates. For example, David Skrbina, a philosophy of technology professor at the University of Michigan, corresponded with Kaczynski for years, edited a book by him, and has written several essays supporting genuine engagement with Kaczynski’s works. One of the essays is provocatively entitled ‘A Revolutionary for Our Times‘.

Despite all this, Kaczynski’s ideas are some of the least-talked-about aspects of the Unabomber affair. Instead, people tend to focus on the man’s family drama, his early life, or various conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Kaczynski was the Zodiac Killer. When his ideas finally do appear for consideration, they are oftentimes dismissed with inane comments on the ‘academic style’ of the manifesto or the unoriginality of its critiques of technology. Even more often, the ideas are dismissed with a statement on Kaczynski’s mental state: ‘He’s crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration’. And then, of course, there are the moral arguments, some asserting that the violence was unjustified for the stated or assumed goals, and some asserting that violence is never OK.

All of these arguments are terrible ones. Not only do they fail to address the central points that Kaczynski raises, most of the time they are unfounded or flat out wrong, and at least some of the time the arguments’ logical conclusions would be uncomfortable or appalling to the very people who argue them. Let’s take a closer look.

Was Kaczynski insane?

The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

 — Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 2

Most of the evidence used to show that Kaczynski is insane comes from his chaotic and pitiful trial. But this idea is has been thoroughly debunked. For one thing, every person I know of has confirmed that Kaczynski is not obviously insane, and most have suggested the opposite, including the journalist William Finnegan, many of his college professors, many individuals who encountered him in Montana, professor David Skrbina, and even the judge during Kaczynski’s trial.

On 7 January 1998, Judge Burrell said:

I find him to be lucid, calm. He presents himself in an intelligent manner. In my opinion, he has a keen understanding of the issues. He has already seemed focused on the issues in his contact with me. His mannerisms and his eye contact have been appropriate. I know there’s a conflict in the medical evidence as to whether his conduct, at least in the past, has been controlled by any or some mental ailment, but I’ve seen nothing during my contact with him that appears to be a manifestation of any such ailment. If anything is present, I cannot detect it.

Indeed, all throughout the Unabomber trial, Kaczynski’s mental health was a recurring point of tension between him and his lawyers. Kaczynski absolutely did not want to be portrayed as insane, even anticipating in his pre-arrest journals that the media would attempt to paint him as ‘a sickie’ if he was ever captured. In true Orwellian fashion, this fear was used as one of the main pieces of evidence that Kaczynski was insane, and the only other primary piece of evidence was his political views and writings. For example, in her psychological report Dr Sally Johnson cites Kaczynski’s ‘clearly organized belief system that he was being harassed and harmed by modern technology’.

Several factors compelled almost all involved parties to declare Kaczynski insane, most of all an ethical one. Kaczynski’s defence team was bound by personal or, at the least, professional ethics that compelled them to avoid the death penalty at all costs. The only sure-fire way to do this, they believed, was to present Kaczynski’s mental health as a mitigating factor. William Finnegan wrote in The New Yorker, ‘There was never any real doubt that Kaczynski was legally sane. But his lawyers believed that the degree of his culpability for his crimes could be made to depend on his psychiatric classification — the more serious the diagnosis, the less his culpability.’

Because of Kaczynski’s aversion to the strategy and his defence team’s repeated dishonesty, Kaczynski requested to be represented by the civil rights lawyer Tony Serra, but Judge Burrell denied his request. When the man then requested to represent himself, Burrell ordered a psychological evaluation to see if he was fit to stand trial. The result was an evaluation conducted by Dr Sally Johnson, who, as was mentioned, cited Kaczynski’s belief system, rejection of being mentally ill, and family troubles all as evidence that the man had a psychological disorder. Johnson concluded with a ‘provisional diagnosis’ of paranoid schizophrenia that was ‘in remission’ at the time, and she declared Kaczynski fit to stand trial. Still, stricken with a sudden case of amnesia regarding the man’s sanity, Burrell denied Kaczynski’s request.

The only other party to assert that Kaczynski was insane was his family, specifically his brother, who turned him in, and his brother’s wife. But they, like the legal defence team, expressed a deep desire to keep Kaczynski from receiving the death penalty. Furthermore, given that the Kaczynski family had rather strained relationships, their testimony is at worst unreliable and at the least insufficient for declaring Kaczynski insane.

Closely related to the idea that Kaczynski was insane is the idea that Kaczynski is a sadist. But the man showed explicit compassion for at least some of the people who were harmed or could have been harmed from the FC bombs. In one letter to the New York Times, FC wrote:

…we will say that we are not insensitive to the pain caused by our bombings.

A bomb package that we mailed to computer scientist Patrick Fischer injured his secretary when she opened it. We certainly regret that. And when we were young and comparatively reckless we were much more careless in selecting targets than we are now. For instance, in one case we attempted unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner. The idea was to kill a lot of business people who we assumed would constitute the majority of the passengers. But of course some of the passengers likely would have been innocent people — maybe kids, or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We’re glad now that that attempt failed.

Similarly, in his journals, one can observe Kaczynski struggling with his feelings toward John Hauser, who opened a bomb left in UC Berkeley’s computer science building. He wrote that he was ‘worried about [the] possibility that some young kid, undergrad, not even computer science major, might get it.’ He also wrote ‘I must admit I feel badly about having crippled this man’s arm. It has been bothering me a good deal.’ Still, he goes on to argue that the bombing was justified, as Hauser was a pilot and aspiring to be an astronaut, ‘a typical member of the technician class’. Later in his journals he mentioned Hauser again to say, ‘I am no longer bothered by this guy partly because I just “got over it” with time, partly because his aspiration was so ignoble.’

In other words, in Kaczynski’s eyes his ideology legitimated his killings, not his personal psychological satisfaction. Thus, in order to understand and face the real implications of the UNABOM case, we need to come to an understanding of the worldview presented or hinted at in Kaczynski’s writings, including the infamous Manifesto.

Was Kaczynski’s ideology opportunistic?

If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 3

Two arguments challenge the idea that Kaczynski justified (and continues to justify) his actions in light of his ideology. One, an implicit argument that functions as backup to the ‘Kaczynski was crazy’ thesis, claims that the entire ideology was a ruse, just a way to fulfil the man’s own emotional angst. The other, explicitly argued for most prominently by the journalist Alston Chase, argues that the ideology had two parts: a libertarian one and an environmentalist one. The latter, Chase suggests, was used to draw support for the real source of Kaczynski’s political motivation, a love of freedom.

The first is actually a reasonable argument, given the limited journal excerpts and information the public was given about Kaczynski. The man often made statements in his journals that, standing alone, suggested that his own emotional satisfaction was all that motivated his killings. These statements were a huge part of the case against him.

For example, about Hauser, the aspiring astronaut, Kaczynski wrote, ‘But do not get the idea that I regret what I did. Relief of frustrated anger outweighs uncomfortable conscience. I would do it all over again.’ Pulled from the context of the entire passage, some of it mentioned above, it certainly sounds as if Kaczynski was only interested in emotional relief. But if the context already given was not enough, consider what Kaczynski wrote immediately after:

So many failures with feeble ineffective bombs was driving me desperate with frustration. Have to get revenge for all the wild country being fucked up by the system….Recently I camped in a paradise like glacial cirque. At evening, beautiful singing of birds was ruined by the obscene roar of jet planes. Then I laughed at the idea of having any compunction about crippling an airplane pilot.

Once again, ideology plays a fundamental role in Kaczynski’s justification. This passage should inspire some empathy from anyone who has seen a wild place they loved become torn apart for development, a part of the man’s motivation that is rarely ever talked about. We hear about his bombs and his dirty clothes, but we have not been shown the forests that he loved or the rivers that he drank from. In at least two interviews, both of which have received suspiciously little attention, Kaczynski gives us a glimpse into the kind of life he lead in Montana. One passage in particular stands out:

“This is kind of personal,” he begins by saying, and I ask if he wants me to turn off the tape. He says “no, I can tell you about it. While I was living in the woods I sort of invented some gods for myself” and he laughs. “Not that I believed in these things intellectually, but they were ideas that sort of corresponded with some of the feelings I had. I think the first one I invented was Grandfather Rabbit. You know the snowshoe rabbits were my main source of meat during the winters. I had spent a lot of time learning what they do and following their tracks all around before I could get close enough to shoot them. Sometimes you would track a rabbit around and around and then the tracks disappear. You can’t figure out where that rabbit went and lose the trail. I invented a myth for myself, that this was the Grandfather Rabbit, the grandfather who was responsible for the existence of all other rabbits. He was able to disappear, that is why you couldn’t catch him and why you would never see him… Every time I shot a snowshoe rabbit, I would always say ‘thank you Grandfather Rabbit.'”

In another story, he explains how one of his favourite spots in the Montana forests was developed, leaving him heartbroken — the event that finally pushed him over the edge. The story sounds very similar to the ones that conservationists and environmentalists tell to explain why they fight. Indeed, Kaczynski is really only different from these wilderness-loving men and women because he killed in response to the devastation he saw. This makes all the difference for some people, but, as we will see, this is probably missing the point.

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Nonetheless, Kaczynski does often speak of his actions in terms of ‘revenge’, which is, after all, an emotional justification. But again, most of these entries are still accompanied by ideological justification.

For example, in 1972, six years before the first Unabomber package, Kaczynski wrote ‘About a year and a half ago I planned to murder a scientist — as a means of revenge against organized society in general and the technological establishment in particular…’

Later, after he had sabotaged some motorcycles and logging equipment around where he lived, he wrote that his acts were

particularly satisfying because it was an immediate and precisely directed response to the provocation. Contrast it with the revenge I attempted for the jet noise. I long felt frustrated anger against the planes. After complicated preparation I succeeded in injuring the President of United Air Lines, but he was only one of a vast army of people who directly and indirectly were responsible for the jets. So the revenge was long delayed, vaguely directed and inadequate to the provocation. Thus it felt good to be able, for a change, to strike back immediately and directly.

It seems that a better explanation for Kaczynski’s framework for ‘revenge’ has more to do with hopelessness than anything else. For years before he began his bombings, the man and his brother spoke to each other about the topics in the manifesto. This was, after all, the reason he was captured. Kaczynski also wrote about technological society, freedom, and wild Nature around that time and earlier. When he quit his position at Berkeley, he told his boss, ‘I’m tired of teaching engineers math that is going to be used for destroying the environment.’ And in 1970 he even wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, in which he criticises one man’s suggestion that environmental problems are caused by excessive individual freedoms and could be remedied with collectivism. ‘Actually,’ Kaczynski writes, ‘most of the problems are direct or indirect results of the activities of large organizations — corporations and governments.’

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that Kaczynski did not hold dear at least a significant portion of his ideology, and ‘getting revenge’ was the least he believed he could do in response to the intense devastation that industry was (and is) causing. That he had to justify his actions in emotional terms was not a sign of his emotional instability, but of his perceived isolation, the sense that by himself he could not do much to truly make the difference that was required. This was perhaps the primary reason Kaczynski engaged in isolated acts of sabotage and terrorism — all the more reason to reiterate that Kaczynski is not alone, and neither are those wilderness-loving men and women who feel hopeless now.

If anyone doubts that this was the case, let him read the very last entry in Kaczynski’s journal before he was caught: ‘My opposition to the technological society now is less a matter of a bitter and sullen revenge than formerly’, he wrote. ‘I now have more of a sense of mission.’

Chase suggests that Kaczynski was indeed passionate about a portion of his ideology — but the environmentalist part, he says, was just pure opportunism. However, among other things, this assertion fails to take into account Kaczynski’s professed love for Nature in his early life and journals, all more than enough to show that Chase was far off the mark. Nonetheless, one quote from his journals stands out as particularly damning:

…I don’t even believe in the cult of nature-worshippers or wilderness-worshippers (I am perfectly ready to litter in parts of the woods that are of no use to me—I often throw cans in logged-over areas or in places much frequented by people; I don’t find wilderness particularly healthy physically; I don’t hesitate to poach).

However, in order to understand this entry, one has to understand the particular strand of environmentalism that Kaczynski was influenced by, which was best embodied by a towering figure in the environmentalist movement, Edward Abbey, and the characters in Abbey’s most famous work, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel about a group of rambunctious, beer-loving rednecks who, frustrated with the industrial development of the American West, began committing acts of sabotage, such as cutting down billboards, pulling up survey stakes, and pouring sugar into the tanks of heavy equipment vehicles. The book inspired several groups, including (probably) the Bolt Weevils, who sabotaged power-line development in Minnesota during the 1970s, and Earth First!, a movement started in the 1980s and known for tactics like those described in Abbey’s novel.

Abbey, who consistently lived up to the ‘rednecks for wilderness’ image, once made a statement very similar to Kaczynski’s: ‘Of course I litter the public highway,’ the man said. ‘Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.’

The goal of the Ed Abbey kind of environmentalism (if you can call it that) is intimately linked to the notions of wildness and freedom. Further regulations are not the solution, but part of the problem. That industry and complex society require so much restriction on the freedom of individuals and small groups is a good reason to love wilderness and throw out the stuff destroying it.

The sentiment isn’t all that uncommon. In one stand-up routine George Carlin talked (or ranted, as he does) about Earth Day, environmentalism, and ‘saving the planet’:

I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is that there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet, they don’t care about the planet… You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that someday in the future they might be personally inconvenienced… Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet… The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Difference. Difference… The planet is doing fine, been here four and half billion years. Ever think about the arithmetic? Planet has been here four and a half billion years. We’ve been here, what, 100,000, maybe 200,000, and we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and a half billion. And we have the conceit to think somehow we’re a threat?… The planet isn’t going anywhere — we are. We’re going away. Pack your shit folks.

Another comedian, Louis C. K., expresses a similar sentiment:

One day I threw a candy wrapper on the street. I didn’t do it [maliciously], like ‘Take that shit, street.’ I did it cuz I was like, you know, shaking, I wanted the candy. Anyway I was with a friend who said to me, ‘You just littered on the street. Don’t you care about the environment?’ And I thought about it and, you know what, I was like, ‘This isn’t the environment. This is New York City. This is not the environment. This is where people live. New York City is not the environment, New York City is a giant piece of litter. It’s like the giantest — next to Mexico City, the shittiest piece of litter… So if you have a piece of litter, what’re you supposed to do with it? You throw it in the pile of litter! Cuz if you don’t, if you put it in a receptacle, then it gets collected, and it gets taken to a dump, and a landfill, and then it goes on a boat, and it goes out and gets dumped in the ocean and some dolphin wears it as a hat on its face — for ten years.

 In other words, Kaczynski’s ideology isn’t the urban environmentalism pushed by liberals and activists. It’s a love of Nature that’s inseparable from a love of freedom, very much the kind of love that non-activist nature-lovers profess already. But this is an uncomfortable fact to recognise, of course, because it makes Kaczynski’s ideology dangerous.

What about the deaths?

We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system. This revolution may or may not make use of violence; it may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can’t predict any of that. But we do outline in a very general way the measures that those who hate the industrial system should take in order to prepare the way for a revolution against that form of society. This is not to be a POLITICAL revolution. Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 4

One argument I have avoided addressing until now is that Kaczynski’s actions were wrong because killing is wrong. This is, most importantly, because the moral status of Kaczynski’s terrorism does not discount his ideas, which can stand or fall on their own. Indeed, many have argued that point exactly, including Bill Joy and Skrbina. Another reason, though, is that anyone who truly believes the argument can’t be persuaded otherwise. If killing is always wrong, of course Kaczynski’s actions are wrong.

But I don’t think many people actually believe that killing is always wrong. In an unpublished text, Kaczynski mentions that only three kinds of people make this argument: conformists, cowards, and saints. ‘The first two,’ he writes, ‘are beneath contempt and we need not say anything more about them.’ But the saints, he says, could be useful to ‘keep alive the ideal of kindness and compassion’, especially since a revolution would likely be a pretty ugly affair. And he’s right. While some certainly do oppose all violence on principle, the majority of people pushing for nonviolence fall into one of the first two categories, and there’s no real way to respond to any of them.

In other words, most people recognise that it is sometimes okay to kill. Self-defence is the most obvious example, but there are arguable justifications for all kinds of wars, assassinations, and other violence. It seems that the problem many people have with Kaczynski isn’t necessarily that he killed, but that his killings were unjustified in some way. And, whether reasonable or not, because Kaczynski’s violence and its legitimacy is one of the most important considerations for people assessing the Unabomber affair, dismissing it as ‘not relevant to the legitimacy of the ideas’ is insufficient. So I will investigate Kaczynski’s violence and various possible justifications for it.

Bear in mind, however, that discussions about the legitimacy of violence depend heavily on inarguable moral principles, so past a certain point, much of the discussion around political violence is beyond consideration to some readers. It is up to them, then, to decide what kind of violence is morally legitimate. Here I only examine whether Kaczynski’s actions were justifiable assuming his arguments are valid.

Finally, note that this discussion is bogged down by an important consideration: the goal of Kaczynski’s terrorism. He states in one FC communique, ‘Don’t think that we are sadists or thrill-seekers or that we have adopted terrorism lightly. Though we are young we are not hot-heads. We have become terrorists only after the most earnest consideration.’ Indeed, anyone who has interacted with Kaczynski knows that the man, meticulous to the utmost degree, was probably well aware of what he was doing. Still, we are left with only two ends. First, of course, is the implicit end of revolution. And second is the explicit statement in several places that FC was interested in ‘propagating anti-industrial ideas’ and getting its message before the public. So we might ask the question: was Kaczynski justified in killing to propagate anti-industrial ideas for the long-term goal of revolution?

Perhaps the FC bombings were unjustified because Kaczynski had other means available: democracy, free speech, the mass media, etc. Anyone who makes this argument, however, should also be prepared to argue that political violence is acceptable if all of the justifiable avenues of political expression are closed. I’m fairly confident that when this fact is brought up, many people would default to the ‘nonviolence’ position described above. But assuming that a person is prepared to accept the implication of his argument, he ought to consider a few facts.

For one thing, Kaczynski was well-aware of these avenues of political expression. The 1971 essay used as evidence against him actually concluded with a programme for legal action. It suggested that people form an organisation that would lobby for the government to defund scientific and technical research, which was the only ‘halfway plausible’ solution Kaczynski could think of at the time. Yet by the end of the essay it is clear that the solution is very plainly implausible, which would no doubt leave anyone concerned with the cited issues feeling rather hopeless. Furthermore, if one accepts the arguments given in the manifesto (especially paragraphs 99-132), revolution, even if extremely improbable, is still the only solution likely to solve the problems in a satisfying manner. According to those arguments, other political avenues are closed. This does not necessarily mean that Kaczynski’s bombings were justified, but it does mean that, assuming he was right, they should be considered justified only insofar as they promote revolution.

And, as uncomfortable as this might make some, the man’s terrorism was profoundly successful at getting his ideas in front of an enormous population. Not only was the manifesto published, in full, by the New York Times and Washington Post, it was also published in numerous smaller publications; it was placed all over the internet, including one of the first internet portals, Time Warner’s Pathfinder; it was stored in government and legal databases and archives that would ensure his ideas lived on indefinitely; and it elicited the insight and commentary of countless intellectuals and public figures, among other things. In all, the manifesto reached an astoundingly large audience, which mostly consisted of everyday Americans, and which ensured that even if no individual or group took the ideas seriously immediately after publication, it would remain stored in countless places, waiting for potential future actors to be inspired. As of yet, no one has suggested a plausible alternative that Kaczynski could have taken to publish his text with the same amount of influence, response, and immortality that he achieved through his terrorism. As Skrbina puts it, ‘In the end, we are appalled by Kaczynski — because he won.’

Still, some say, no revolution has happened yet, so his actions can’t have been that effective. Yet the manifesto was published and Kaczynski caught only 20 years ago. Considering that 69 years separated the publication of The Communist Manifesto and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, it is unreasonable to demand that Kaczynski’s Manifesto already have made as large an impact in a third of the time. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that revolution is in the air. In particular, some of Kaczynski’s political partners in Spain have been fairly active. And although Kaczynski has broken contact with anarcho-primitivists because of ideological disagreements, he’s had a demonstrable impact on many in the anarcho-primitivist and green anarchist movements, who were largely to blame for the 1999 Seattle Riots. He’s also had a demonstrable impact on Derrick Jensen, a co-founder of Deep Green Resistance, and Earth First!, a radical environmentalist organisation known for direct action tactics and ‘monkeywrenching’ (the one based on Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang). Again, Kaczynski and his political associates have strong ideological disagreements with all of these groups, but that he remains so influential within them is a testament to how powerful of a force his ideas are.

Others might argue that even if Kaczynski’s terrorism was successful, it is not necessarily justified. And this is true. But the manifesto argues that if there is no revolution, the consequences of technological development will be absolutely disastrous. If Kaczynski is correct, and if his terrorism was successful at furthering his revolution, then the consequences of his violence might very well have been miniscule compared to the threat. We see this kind of logic at work all the time. The military drops bombs on houses with civilians inside because it’s more important to kill the terrorists in there with them. Grandfather Smith shoots a potentially dangerous dog in the head because it’s more important for his grandchildren to be safe. And so on. Given that Kaczynski believed that what is at stake is our freedom and our wild Earth, it’s not hard to see why he saw his violence as justifiable.

Finally, some people argue that Kaczynski’s specific targets were unjustified. They argue that he was indiscriminate and his targets innocent, and that this was what made his violence illegitimate. But Kaczynski was far from indiscriminate. In fact, he has stated repeatedly that he deplores indiscriminate violence.

More to the point, almost all of his targets were, as he puts it ‘typical member[s] of the technician class’, who include ‘scientists, engineers, corporation executives, politicians, and so forth who consciously and intentionally promote technological progress and economic growth.’ These people are ‘criminals of the worst kind’, and Kaczynski predicts that a revolutionary movement is likely to demand that they be punished.

Again, the idea itself can be challenged, but on his own terms was Kaczynski justified? He was, mostly, except for three instances, and the FC communiques express explicit regret for two of them — see the quote above concerning Patrick Fischer’s secretary and the airliner. The third instance was the bomb placed in the University of Utah’s computer science building. If it would have succeeded at going off, the bomb would have lit an entire hallway on fire and trapped students in their classrooms — certainly the level of indiscriminate violence that Kaczynski deplored. Put shortly, not even Kaczynski could have offered justification for this. He did, however, mention it in passing in one FC communique:

We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers, especially in critical fields like computers and genetics. As for the bomb planted in the Business School at the U. of Utah, that was a botched operation. We won’t say how or why it was botched because we don’t want to give the FBI any clues. No one was hurt by that bomb.

Other than those three instances, Kaczynski’s targets are not surprising in light of his ideology, how responsible he perceived the technician class as being for ongoing technological problems, and his ideas on retribution. Dr Charles Epstein, for example, was a world famous geneticist, Percy Wood the president of United Airlines, and Diogenes Angelakos an important researcher in the field of micro- and electromagnetic waves. And although nowadays, in the age of smartphones, people may not understand why Kaczynski targeted computer store owners (twice), he did so about four years before the birth of the internet, at a time when personal computers were still the territory of big businesses, universities, and nerds. Computer stores at the time were mostly renting out whole sets of personal computers for businessmen and universities, making them an infrastructural target in line with Kaczynski’s other actions.

There’s also the question of why Kaczynski targeted universities and university professors rather than individuals who had more obvious and tangible impacts on technical development. Part of this, as FC explained in a communique, was strategic. Universities had weaker security and professors less of a reason to be wary of a suspicious package than large businesses and businessmen. But universities are no less responsible for technical development than big businesses, and in many ways they are more so. University research laboratories and university funding are the backbone of much of the research being done in the fields of genetics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. As one paper put it, ‘Since the 1970s, research universities have been widely recognized as the core of this nation’s science and technology system.’ Furthermore, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, every university targeted by the Unabomber is classified as as having ‘very high research activity’, the highest classification for a research university. This clearly makes the universities rational targets for the Unabomber.

Final thoughts

All this is not to say that Kaczynski was correct about revolution. As Skrbina says of the manifesto, ‘The logic is sound. However, we are free to challenge any of the premises.’ But a discussion about revolution would require actually engaging with Kaczynski’s ideas, not dismissing them, as has been the dominant response so far. Such engagement ultimately brings us to the final argument: that Kaczynski’s bombings were unjustified because his ideas were wrong.

This argument is the strongest one that can be made against Kaczynski, as it cuts off the strength of his analysis. Those who really want to challenge the ideas presented in the manifesto will have to provide real evidence against his premises, such as the idea that the good of technology cannot be separated from the bad; and they will have to provide an alternative value set that challenges the idea that freedom and wild Nature are primary.

I say ‘have to’ because it truly is no longer optional for anyone who disagrees with Kaczynski. The idea that Kaczynski is crazy simply doesn’t hold, and the ideology presented in the manifesto makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. Furthermore, the issues cited in the manifesto are real and pressing. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, climate change, antibiotic resistance, mass surveillance, the sixth mass extinction — all are rapidly taking centre stage in world politics, and with them the scientists and engineers, whom the general public is coming to realise have an inordinate amount of control over the circumstances of modern life. It’s very likely that some form of anti-technology populism is going to replace what was once an anti-government populism; whereas the main objects of disdain were once politicians, the new objects of disdain will be scientists and engineers, as well as technology itself.

Already we can see this sentiment in action. In the past few years we’ve seen TV shows about wilderness and outdoor-living, often with a tinge of anti-technological sentiment, skyrocket in popularity: Mountain Men, Naked and Afraid, and Duck Dynasty are just a few of the more popular examples. Books, too, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, push a similar message of freedom, a search for purpose and meaning, and spiritual renewal in a decadent, materialistic world.

On the other end, complaints about ubiquitous technology are becoming popular as well. TV shows like Black Mirror convey a fundamental scepticism toward the idea of technical progress, and books like A Short History of Progress, Our Final Hour, and so on are all questioning, to various degrees, the technologies that dominate the modern world.

Most notably, it’s pushing into the political arena. Environmentalist sentiments are extremely popular today, and young people feel the need to address problems like climate change and the sixth mass extinction. Furthermore, because of the way the problems are being ignored, sometimes by economic necessity, radicalisation occurs easily among environmentalists. In fact, the FBI lists environmental terrorism, not Islamic terrorism, as the top domestic terrorism threat in the US.

If that isn’t enough, all this is taking place on a stage that is largely being determined and shaped by the environmental problems that take centre stage in Kaczynski’s thought. Much of the instability that is occurring and will occur in the coming years is and will be magnified tenfold by climate change. One headline in the New York Times states ‘Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change’. A headline in the Guardian reads ‘Global warming could create 150 million ‘climate refugees’ by 2050.’ And the WHO has issued increasingly urgent warnings concerning antimicrobial resistance, which could, combined with modern transportation systems and densely populated city living, cause a global pandemic, or at least a very formidable one.

Clearly, Kaczynski was right about a lot, and unless someone offers a good challenge and alternative to his core ideas, the notion of ‘freedom in wild Nature’ is only going to continue attracting adherents. Dismissing the man as crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration — well, that’s not going to work for much longer.

Incidentally, I agree with Kaczynski. Wild Nature matters, industry is destroying it, and the only real way out is the collapse of industry. For sure, various aspects of the manifesto deserve criticism, especially the parts regarding strategy, but on those three points Kaczynski is on solid ground.

In regards to the man’s actions, I find myself in a tough spot. I absolutely do not condone indiscriminate violence like the kind practised by radical Islamists, and I tend to agree with Lenin that even highly targeted acts of individual violence are a terrible tactic for a revolutionary movement. A primary role of revolutionaries is to spread social values, and terroristic acts of violence are usually a sign of weakness on this front. Furthermore, while those supporting growth and progress are indeed ‘criminals of the worst kind’, I have a hunch that Kaczynski overestimated how responsible some individuals are for our current predicament.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate how successful Kaczynski was, and the man has a tendency to be right about things, mostly because he is (almost overly) meticulous about every detail. No doubt he applied the same attention to detail to his 17-year campaign. So as incompatible as it is with my views generally, it’s hard to say that Kaczynski could have done something else and achieved his goals as successfully. Still, even he is quick to tell those writing him letters that he does not think another Unabomber would be helpful for a revolutionary effort. The primary work to be done now, he says, is building cores of committed individuals who can sustain a revolutionary movement. And as I said already, I agree. In any case, I ultimately still defend my initial statement about Kaczynski’s violence: the ideas stand and fall on their own, and right now they’re still standing.

I am not arguing that everyone will come to the same conclusions. Indeed, those who simply don’t care about wild Nature and the freedom found in it won’t be very moved by the manifesto; neither will those who are convinced that technical development can be controlled by humans. But the piece is worth the read, and with complete conviction I can say that it is not only the best way to engage with the Unabomber affair, but that it is one of the most important ways to engage with the problems of our modern world.

John Jacobi is a second-year student at the UNC – Chapel Hill and the founder of The Wildist Institute. 

Cabin and mailbox photographs from www.lib.umich.edu/blogs/beyond-reading-room/ted-kaczynski-papers-fbi-files-and-photographs

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Hole Earth

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Our last extract from Issue 9 is from Robert Leaver, whose project Hole Earth is a brilliant, discomforting exploration of the guiding theme of this book: what it means to be humble on (or in) this earth.

#19

In the fall of 2013 I crawled up Broadway in New York on my hands and knees in a vintage pinstripe suit that once belonged to my father. Crawling Home began at the bottom of the island near Wall Street and ended at my apartment in Washington Heights near the top of the island. Roughly ten miles. The journey took approximately six months and was documented over the course of twenty crawls.

In the fall of 2014 I began the project I call Hole Earth. Wearing my same suit I dug a hole and got down inside, in the foetal position. I did this in Montana, NYC, Tuscany, Germany, Ireland, England, The Catskill Mountains and The Bronx. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had an audience.

HOLE #1 CATSKILL MOUNTAINS

I am reminded that I like to dig. I’ve had jobs that required digging, but not for a long time. I used to work landscaping around New York City, planting trees on the sidewalks or on roof gardens and in backyards. I could always shovel for a long time.  I liked the smell of what was unearthed and the sound of the shovelling.  When I worked as a stonemason’s assistant my job was mixing up batches of concrete with a shovel and that was painful work.

Here in the field the going is slow but steady and I start to sweat.  My 20-pound five-foot-long iron spike is doing the needed damage, breaking away things that the shovel can’t handle. It is 55 degrees and sunny and the leaves are still turning colours.  I take a break every five minutes or so and feel my heart beat and muscles start to sing and protest. My back is waking up and wondering what the deal is.  As with the crawling there are phases of warming up, phases of the body asking questions and demanding answers and then finally submitting to the task at hand.

Digging with the knowledge that the hole is literally for me to get into gives the task another dimension. I am not burying treasure, or searching for something once buried in the ground. I am not digging a bunker or a trench or a grave or a place to plant a tree.  I suppose I am planting me, but only for a little while. I will not be covered up and left to hopefully grow. I am not just some man seed in a suit.

The hole is almost ready for me. I imagine this can change me. I imagine that if I listen closely when I am in the hole I might be able to hear all the burials and all the births all at once. Is that what I want? Why am I so excited about getting into this hole?

After about 45 minutes I stand over a round hole that looks to be nearly deep enough. I step down in, sit inside, roll over onto my side and curl up into a foetal ball. My ten-year-old son informs me that my shoulder is sticking out above ground level.  He gets up on a stepladder and takes a picture. I struggle to undo myself and get out of the hole. I dig some more, making the hole wider and deeper and then I get in again. My heart is pounding inside my chest inside the ground. The earth circle is holding me in position. I’m jammed in tight and when I close my eyes all I can hear is my heartbeat and my breathing and the wind blowing across the field.

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HOLE #2  CAPE COD

After one good hole and some pictures we hike up to a high dune ridge to reconnoitre.  In the distance, towards the ocean, we can barely make out dune shack rooftops, but visibility is fast decreasing as a snowstorm blows in.  I spot a deep snowdrift nearby and I go there and attack it with my shovel. I need to find out more about geomancy. Why do some spots just call out and say: Here! Dig here!

This is a deep hole, dug all the way down to the dune grass. Down inside I am out of the wind. It is completely still. The snow around me says nothing. It smells like sky, maybe, but I don’t know. It contains no stories, not like earth does. Not stories that I can comprehend. It just falls and gathers and waits and melts and flows away. The sound of my voice in the hole is different too, as the acoustics of snow are a distant ethereal cousin to rock and dirt. The winter wind is howling across the dunescape and my friend is out there in it waiting for me to come out of my hole. I will come back here in the summer and dig again in the sand.

I leave this fine snow hole open and empty, like a white eye unblinking, waiting for more snow to fill it from above. We head back across the dunes and I feel primitive, like a half-lost hunter, or some exiled shaman, banished from his tribe, still bent on conjuring something with a hole. My friend drags the stepladder and we leave our mysterious tracks on the white face of the Earth.

robert leaver
HOLE #3 NYC

A voice in my head pesters me as I walk in my suit with shovel and spike alongside the Washington Heights graveyard.  He’s interrogating me: Holes? Really? Wasn’t crawling enough?  Have you no shame? No pride? What does this mean? Why does it matter?  Who do you think you are?

I know this voice. He is the coward who calls me a fool.  I want to hit him on the head with my shovel.  I should try to love him, listen to him, put him at ease.  I remind him that I am the CAPTAIN of this ship and HOLE EARTH is happening.  This voice, this fearful me, doesn’t really want to mutiny, he doesn’t really want to be in charge. He just wants to undermine me. I start to whistle and he goes silent.  But he will be back.

My first urban NYC hole. This is a real spring morning, maybe the first so far after the long grinding winter. 60 degrees. Sparrows frantic.  Even the helicopters sound happy. It feels good to carry my shovel and spike down Broadway. I’ve got my old ratty daypack on my back with kneepads and gloves inside. The same ones I crawled in. I don’t wish I were on my way to crawl.  Now I am burning to dig.

I’m a little concerned about my lower spine. Digging in the dunes a month ago tweaked it somehow. I went to an acupuncturist woman who says my back would be better supported if I had an ass.

HOLE #6 GERMANY

Time to dig. The sky is low and Eastern Bloc grey. It might rain. People have gathered around, maybe twenty or thirty folks.  A couple of children, some press with cameras and notebooks, some young women, some middle-aged couples, a stray weirdo. As I dig I keep my eyes mostly down. I hear cameras click and flash. Birds in the trees overhead sing. I whistle back at them, trying to match their calls as I dig. A back and forth takes place between me and the birds. My audience of humans laughs nervously and talks amongst themselves. They are speaking German. I wonder if anyone will heckle me. I would like to tangle lovingly with a heckler.

This place was bombed relentlessly in World War Two. In fact on this very day 72 years ago, 23rd May 1943, the city was devastated by a bombing raid.  Bombs destroy and make fire and piles of rubble and holes in the ground.  I think a bomb fell on this very spot where I am digging.

The ground is more or less cooperative.  I work up a sweat and whistle ‘Amazing Grace’ for a while. These people also speak English, so I could make jokes, but I stay quiet. I struggle with an urge to entertain the audience. I could start up a conversation. I could take questions, I could rant and rave. But I force myself to stay quiet.  My silence gives the dig a little bit of tension. I don’t want to be a clown right now.

I find new digging positions and I grunt and mutter to myself. ‘Almost there,’ I think I hear myself say, but that’s about it.

As I dig I wonder what, if anything, makes this hole German?  I realise I have flown over a giant hole filled with salt water to be here at another spot on planet Earth. People named this place Germany. People named The Bronx. And Cape Cod. Everywhere on Earth, every town, every street, every object, has been given a name.  A sea of names and language. Tools, like my shovel and my pick.

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HOLE # 10 ITALY/HOME

I count to one hundred, then I count again, and again, down in the hole, hibernating, eyes shut, body letting go. The sun is setting over Tuscany. I hear the soft voices and laughter of people close by. This is a Renaissance garden, the Horti Leoni, in the picturesque little village of San Quirico, Italy. I am leaving this place, flying down into the planet, a spinning foetal ball bound for the core and beyond, to the other side! A child’s voice brings me back. I hear the voice ask if I am dead and another says they can see me breathing.

I am haunted by the holes. Yesterday back home from Europe, I am building a stone wall and wearing threadbare canvas slippers. I accidentally drop a 50-pound stone on my big toe. What a mess. Now I am limping around here in the Catskills with my son in the final weeks of August. It is just the two of us. I sense myself drifting off the road into an existential dog day ditch. The pond is low and blooming green with algae. The hard tomatoes in our ragged little garden are blemished with black spots. The lettuce is tough and bitter.

I keep hearing a sound, a pulsating hum in the distance, but I can’t find the source. I’ve looked in the basement and I’ve stood outside in the field and listened for it. And I hear it! I drove down the road and turned off the truck and listened for it. There it is again!  I ask my son if he can hear it and he tries, but he says I am imagining it. I laugh it off. No need to spook him.  Am I hearing the inside of my head?  This could be a problem.

I lay in bed at dawn listening for songbirds again. Where are they? Dawn should not be silent.  There are many theories about why the songbirds have been declining so drastically. I’ve recently had run-ins with friends about the state of the Earth.  Climate change. We don’t agree on the facts.  Since I began Hole Earth I am especially emotional when it comes to this subject.  And not very articulate.  Why do intelligent people resist and dilute the facts?  When did the truth become subjective?  What is this rash of denial? Is it because the reality of what we’ve created is so overwhelming?

The emotion I feel around the state of the Earth ties directly in to the impulse that brought me to Crawling Home and Hole Earth. This is my protest?  This is my recycling?  I’m not doing enough. Where are the birds? What is that hum?

Here in the mountains my son keeps asking me if I’m OK. I tell him I’m fine. Do I not seem OK?  He keeps telling me he loves me. His voice is so kind.  He looks up from his book as I walk by.  ‘Love you, Dad.’

I step carefully from stone to stone watching him float face down. He is snorkeling down a slow moving, waist-deep river. He explores around boulders, pops up, looks for me, and shows me with his hands the size of the trout he just saw. He’ll be starting sixth grade in a couple weeks. He doesn’t really need me to take him to school this year. I’ve been with him every step of the way. Now it is time to step aside, at least a little bit.  I don’t want to let go. I am watching him grow up, up and away. He is drifting downstream with the current, in another world, and I am here on the riverbank standing guard.

Maybe the only way to cure myself of all this, the only way to shed this melancholy dog day navel-gazing baggage, is to go and dig again. No camera, no audience, no talk. I need an anonymous place in the wilderness where I can dig myself into oblivion, a place where I am the only witness.  Maybe this wants to be a secret communion. Maybe that is all it was ever meant to be. There is another level of stillness waiting.

In the end this is just between the Earth and me.

Robert O. Leaver is a writer, musician and performance artist who splits his time between New York City and a piece of wild land on a dead end road in the Catskill Mountains. He wants to hear from you. All his endeavours and contact info can be found at robertoleaver.com

The film was recorded in Hackney Marshes, London, by Caroline Mary Williams

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

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Parable del Payaso

 Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over these past couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today’s extract from Issue 9 is a short story of clowns, copper mines and the ecstatic loss of self by Nadia Lucia Peralta, with an image by Andrew Phillips. 

'Blood of the Earth' by Andrew Phillips

Andrew Phillips – Blood of the Earth

It is a foggy morning and there are oranges in the street. Calloused hands pick them up, one by one, to take them home. Abundance. It is September. It will rain between midday and evening. There were birds singing at dawn this morning. The clown, el payaso, sleeps on a pile of garbage from the festivities the night before. All who pass can smell the rank garbage that has piled to a level as high as the waist: avocado pits and skins, orange peels, cornhusks and soda cans, candy wrappers and bones. El payaso has made herself comfortable in the excrement. El payaso has made himself comfortable in the excrement. The flies are neighbourly, the smell does not gag his throat, and his back muscles, if you could see them, are completely relaxed into the mound of rubbish; her mouth is slightly parted, his tongue just barely resting beyond her painted lips. His breathing is steady and calm, palms up towards the sky that is brightening now.

The night before was chaotic, and the owl who sits in the church arches stared down the petty crime. The general, who last night was bleeding from the nose, now sleeps alone, dreaming of jaguars and low-hanging suns. Two fathers are in the local jail, two mothers’ arms are wrapped around their daughters and sons who are dreaming of a soft blue mist. Just a few nights before, around a table with their lamps of stained glass ship scenes, there were stories being told in the kitchen of the couples’ homes: old stories, grandmothers’ tales of water that remembers and has eyes that look back, of eagles that fly all the way to the edge of the sun and return to kill their prey and lick the blood from their talons. The fathers, inspired by the stories, woke up yesterday morning feeling something different than they had felt the day before. The mothers had seamless dreams of gold. The children, now asleep, laughed merrily throughout the day while crafting at the children’s day activities – cornhusk dolls and balloon animals, or just waiting in line for corn with cheese and mayonnaise on top. They are under the stars when the stars appear, they are under the stars in the light of day.

Around midnight the fireworks go off and the dogs howl and cry. Sometime when the mist of morning still hung around the cobbled streets, there came word on the radio that the United States had officially begun another war east of the Mediterranean Sea. Things are looking not-so-serious here in this ancient, volcanic crevice of a town; drink more aguardiente, chicha or Coca-Cola, turn up the boom box, invite your neighbours inside to enjoy a drink. When the sun is directly above the town, the residents of Muápulo borrow a vecino’s worn, pale, yellow truck and load the back with oranges. The fathers sit in the truck bed, and a mother drives around the neighbourhood playing the chicha music loudly while fathers throw the oranges into the street. Abundance. El payaso was on the southern corner of the town’s church when the truck went by, already dressed and listening for the birds’ evening tune. The birds did not notice the payaso as he passed under their melodies – we would have known, because their song would have changed if they had, as it does when a person without sufficient lucidity walks past.

After dark the parties begin. The children go home and the people from the lower parts of the city climb the ancient Andes crater into Muápulo looking for the festivities. It is September; it rained in the afternoon but now the streets are mostly dry and filled with oranges, and the birds have sung the day’s evening tune as the sun sinks westerly. Abundance. The generals arrive to the festivities to calm the crowds down after midnight. Upon their arrival, el payaso found herself back on the south side of the church square not far from where the general’s speech was given at dusk, for fatherland and country. She spanks a young woman’s backside who is walking backwards and laughing with friends. The mother turns, startled, and el payaso laughs into the near-full moon. The woman glares, upset at first, and then lets go the need to respond – it is el payaso after all – and so she lets out a soft giggle and releases the tension that had built up in her legs.

Stories are being told around the kitchen lamp at home. Grandmothers’ stories, stories about the stars and how they have become nestled in the sky. The crowd is drunk and rowdy; after all, it’s time for festival, and whether known or just felt, not far from here, thirty-three indigenous mothers and fathers have been murdered trying to barricade the copper mine that is destroying the water they and their children drink. The festivities de las Marías are well underway. Everyone has gotten off work and this is the last weekend of the week-long carnaval.

Outside, in the crepuscular minutes, the generals try in vain to pacify the mob of students, artists, actors, workers – beautiful mutants all of them. El payaso arrives to the scene of a rowdy crowd dancing to music in the church square, the time is unknown, but autumn’s constellations are well-set into the eastern horizon. The fathers are in the thick of it, their musk mixes in with the musk-scent of the geraniums growing from the pots around the square. The generals are sneering, and now the tanks have been brought out and the tear gas might be fired. El payaso growls but no-one can hear her. She grabs some mud that has been decomposing the cornhusks on the side of the street, and under the orange light of streetlamps throws the husks and the mud, with startling precision, into one of the general’s faces. Splat. For a moment we wonder if time has stopped; space collapses, and eternity presents itself for a second. Nothing dissolves: the silence simply swallows what once was loud. This is only an instant. Time then revokes its peace, and the general is angry but the crowd has erupted in laughter. In the commotion that follows there is pushing and shoving and yelling and the tension has reached critical capacity and erupts into song. Chaotic song. Even the general is now laughing. The fathers, inspired by the eagle who carried the bull to the sun, take it further and lunge out of the crowd, fists raised, and begin to lead the mass toward the tanks. No a la mineria!and para nuestros hijos!, they shout. The moment of song becomes a moment of fear and the generals, in a panic, fire the tear gas. Screaming ensues and the fireworks crescendo. The figure of the Virgin is burning in the pyre in the centre of the square. Death’s hand is sewing a needle through the garbage heaps at the edges of the streets. The fathers, identifiable and bold, are rounded up and taken to jail. The people, with chemicals in their eyes so that they are made to cry, disperse in search of water. El payaso, lucky to have escaped the gas without damage, is whistling low and walking towards the pyre. A garbage pile that smells of piss and rotten oranges has built up on the southern end of the square. Later, she will sleep there, dreaming of stories, grandmothers’ stories, stories of eagles and the blood that drips from their talons.

Nadia Lucia Peralta is a poet, writer, songstress and lover of plants, territories and peoples. She was born on a foggy morning on the coast of Ajachamen territory, Southern California. From a very young age, her dad taught her to observe the ocean and to be humble before entering the water. When she could swim well, he took her and her younger brother out into the big waves where they learned to not panic, dive deep, and relax if they got out too far. Nadia lives in Awaswas-Ohlone territory (Santa Cruz), California, where she is re/membering, re-membering, remembering. mineralpatience.wordpress.com

Image: Blood of the Earth (Ink and pastel on paper) by Andrew Phillips. The Earth contains the rich mysteries of both the creation of life, from the unmanifest to the tangible, and subsequent processes of decay and rejuvenation. The soil becomes the record of everything which has failed to live forever, a physical embodiment of deep history. The extraction of raw materials is not only damaging to the Earth, but also a disturbance to the psyche. Bringing unprocessed ‘prima materia’ to the surface disrupts the natural processes of transformation by exposing these dark substances to the light.

Andrew Phillips is a visual artist, musician and art psychotherapist, residing in Edinburgh. It was whilst living in Wales that Andrew first became aware of the Earth’s innate propensity for healing, apparent in many of the spoil heaps which were slowly being reclaimed by grass and animals as part of the landscape. This began an exploration of the inter-subjective experience of landscape through visual art. Presently Andrew is developing a form of group work termed Creen-Craft, combining communal sharing and discussion with image making. Creen is a Scots word meaning to cultivate a lament, and this work is about exploring experiences of both grief and wonder in the context of rapidly changing social and ecological circumstances. andrewvphillips.co.uk

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues

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Learning Carefully from the Sea

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over these few weeks, we’ll be sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today’s extract from the book is artist, writer and organiser Brett Bloom’s insightful essay on the practice of Deep Listening on the islands of the Baltic Sea.

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In July 2014 I led a two-day workshop on two different islands in the Baltic Sea with a group of ten people (1). The workshop was about de-industrialising one’s understanding of self and place and cultivating a fully embodied sense of the world. It came out of an urgency I feel in my work to build the kinds of relationships that will help us survive whatever chaos and destruction might come our way with global climate change and increasing income inequality.

In these workshops in Finland we explored various kinds of exercises together and then discussed them. The exercises were about realising the wide range of human capacities for both experiencing the world and opening up to unfamiliar and uncommon interpretations of encounters such as bird sounds, wind blowing through trees and the silences of vast landscapes.

The exploration that I want to share here was inspired by combining instructions from people who have done pioneering work around sound and listening, and thinking about how we can be more fully present in the world. The composer Pauline Oliveros and her ideas of Deep Listening have had a big impact on the shape of these exercises. Deep Listening uses our full range of capacities and not just our ears: paying attention to all the sounds we hear at once, how they interrelate, how they hit our bodies and are registered in unexpected ways. Specific to this exercise was the work by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, to preserve natural silence and combat noise pollution in national and state parks in the United States. Hempton has spent decades listening to and making recordings of landscapes. He has some powerful things to say about how to refine and pay attention to our incredible sense of hearing to do things like absorbing entire landscapes at one time.

Our task, on the island a few kilometres from the centre of Helsinki, was to listen to the Baltic Sea, to the 3050 square kilometres that were in front of us, as we sat on a stormy, rock-lined coast. Not only were we going to listen to this enormous space, we were going to listen to its silences instead of its noises, those necessary temporal spatial beings that give sound its shape, location, setting, emotional potential, and unleash billions of relationships with where we are and how we locate ourselves in ways that have sprawling meanings.

We went to a spot on the shoreline of the island. I gave instructions to everyone to look at the vast distances we could see from our vantage point. The group were asked to think about all the silences that were there to make it possible for one to understand what it was we were seeing, hearing, and experiencing. There was a lighthouse on a small island we could see a few kilometres off the shore. I asked everyone to think about a firework being set off next to the lighthouse. We would quickly hear the sound, locating it without effort. We would instantly understand the distance, the silence that the lighthouse had been enveloped in just moments before, and all the silences around that remained in order for us to locate this one sound. The sound would occur for us both in the moment but also in the context of its very recent past and future silences. We always hear the silences when we hear sounds; we just don’t realise this and pay attention accordingly. And our perceptions of time are extremely elastic, too. Many of the workshop participants talked about stepping out of time, or at least time as they usually conceptualise and experience it.

We listened to the silences in the land and seascape during the day’s strong wind and sporadic spats of rain. The wind had an immense presence, like a throng of people pushing onto a crowded subway car. This was even more of a confrontation: we had only just completed an exercise that sensitised us to how we gather sounds, how they hit our bodies in many more places than just our ears, and the enormous range and layers of things we are able to perceive when we take the time to listen deeply. We were cautious of the intensity of the wind insinuating itself into our awareness; the strength of the wind turned our ears into an active part of the soundscape.

The wind alone is completely silent. Only when it crashes into and careens around things can one discern an audible trail. This was certainly the case as the wind grabbed the sea and threw it repeatedly at the rocky seashore.

We were on the shoreline of the island of Suomenlinna, an old military base and UNESCO World Heritage site that is part geological formation and part massive landfill. It is an odd place, filled with stables, barracks, cannons from multiple military epochs, museums, churches and harbours. Bunkers lined the shore facing the open Baltic Sea.

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We stumbled down one of those staircases often found in large outdoor parks where the angle of descent is awkward and the spaces between steps are not scaled for an adult human. The harsh sea weather had also had an undue influence on the staircase, turning it green in places, causing plant life to settle in others. The stairs descended from an old fortification wall down to the place where we would do our listening, to learn something from the sea.

Everyone was eager to do another listening session, to test their new found awareness at a different location, as the first one provided such strong and varied responses. We had all heard the same things, or so we thought, but the narratives of what we each had heard, what we thought it was, the emotional impact it had, prompted significantly different understandings. There were some agreements amongst the listeners about what they had heard or how the impact of a sound the loud voices of two drunk men shouting at each other, for example had registered on their senses, but what to make out of it afterwards and in conjunction with the entire experience was very different for each person. The same thing happened during this exercise.

We sat on rocky outcroppings close to the wall of sound that was by now pummelling all of us. The sun was teasing us, appearing and disappearing, the warming and cooling of our bodies adding impact to our listening exercise almost warming the very act of hearing for some, making others more receptive to what it was they were going through. We found our places on the rocks, some closer to the crashing waves than others, sitting, working ourselves into an intimate connection between our bodies and the hard surface, getting ready to listen.

We breathed deeply, filling our lungs fully and then emptying them utterly, relaxing our bodies until we felt all muscles release their tension and settle into the task. We were ready to pay careful attention. Because of the intensity of the wind and water, it took very little time to get lost in the phenomenal encounter. It was already difficult to talk as I gave instructions on getting into a relaxed state and the task of reflecting on the silences of the seascape. Upon closing my eyes, the vast spaces that had been there moments before rushed onto my body, ears, hands and my unprepared consciousness.

Several of the participants said afterwards that they had to turn away because of the intensity of the wind and sound. When we talked after listening for about thirty minutes, many of us had very similar understandings of what we had encountered.

We had all heard a very powerful story from the sea. This was very important to understand. Things tell us stories, not in the sense that a rock starts speaking English or Finnish or any other human language, but we construct narratives instantaneously out of what it is we observe and understand. No matter how romantic, detached, analytical, mystical or skeptical you might be, you have to construct a story of your experience. You translate the sounds of the wind and water hitting the rocks, which are impossible to fully capture in any spoken language. Water hitting rocks smoothed by thousands of years of pounding by the sea sounds different than any other thing you will ever experience. We register this and attempt to communicate it to others.

The sea has a story to tell. It is a story that it has been telling for thousands of years. It can tell it in many different ways. The same spot on a shoreline can tell this story in an infinite number of variations given what the wind is like, the direction it is blowing in, the air temperature, whether it is raining or not and so on. What we heard was the sound of many waves crashing against the smoothed rocks. We know from encountering rocks before that it is no easy task to shape and smooth them as the waves have done. It would be nearly impossible for us to recreate the same process just with our bodies and no tools, even if we did it for decades on end. We understand what a rock is in a physical way as much as we do in a conceptual manner, though we are taught to privilege the latter understanding over the former.

We had heard a powerful thing during this short listening session. The sea was talking to us. Part of the story it had to tell was that it had been telling this story for a time that we are not really used to registering, deep time, time that extends beyond many generations of human lifespans. The sea was telling us that its story has been uninterrupted for this long period. What you hear at first are the waves crashing on the rocks, and this is familiar to anyone who has been to the sea. When you pay attention closely, you start to hear the diversity of tones, patterns, flows of energy that overlap, sometimes complementing one another, sometimes not. They all combine to tell the story of the relationships of the sea to the rocks, making the sounds intimate and more available to us. The crashes of the waves on the rocks, the pulling back of the sea, that wonderful crackling noise it makes, were happening all around us in multiple variations.

Because we had been sensitised by listening carefully, we could hold them all in our heads and understand them together. We heard the multiple patterns that synchronise and at times produce pleasing or jarring dissonance. Many of us felt that we were sitting on the edge of a crushing abyss. The way in which we were listening pulled the soundscape right on top of us. It comes incredibly close and when you open your eyes you are shocked by the visual distance of the sound’s source. The sound is always mediated and situated by seeing. Taking sight out of the experience allows us to pull the sound as near as it always is and to give it our close attention.

Sara Hannula, one of the participants in this exercise, had this to say about her experience:

If I think of specific moments that have stayed with me, a few things come to the fore. One of them is the Deep Listening exercise we did by the sea, and the responses that it evoked in our group. I was very impressed by the fact that so many of us were overwhelmed by the sea and the wind when exposed to them without any protection. I wonder whether it has to do with the fact that we are hardly ever asked to surrender and open ourselves to the raw elements, or things that are beyond our understanding and control. It is quite possible to go through life without having to do it by necessity, if one happens to live in the Western world. However, I think this process of exposing oneself to the immense forces that reshape our world is key now that the situation is getting more and more out of control and the conditions are increasingly unpredictable. We can no longer resist change or pretend to manage it with the tools that we have access to. We are no longer sheltered.

I was moved by how intensely the sea and the rocks seemed to be insisting on the story of their relationship. We have all heard waves hitting rocks many times before, but have not been given the training to sit down and focus in this way under these kinds of conditions. It is not a regular thing that we are encouraged to do: to try and receive all that a soundscape has to offer. Yet there is much to learn from behaving in this way. We have to be willing to slow down and give our care, openness and attentiveness. We can get a glimpse of other, geologic time scales, translated to our own short fragile ones.

There is no need to escape to an idealised ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ setting to understand the ways in which our petroleum-driven industrialised civilisation drastically limits who we are, what we experience and the vast unknowns that lurk in our embodied absorption of the world around us. These kinds of gatherings and collective work however enable us to immerse ourselves in a Deep Map of relationships within a place a layering of narratives and understandings that demonstrate our abilities to hold multiple, often contradictory perspectives. These expansive capacities can be used anywhere, in cities and remote rural locations. They can reveal the lost worlds of ‘Deep Grandmothers’ (ancestral time) and the storytelling that is encoded in our DNA. Once activated, they can help us shift away from cultures of violent extraction and abstraction and instead build up cultures of care in the face of climate breakdown and the ensuing chaos it might bring in the coming time.

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(1) The workshop was coordinated with the exhibition Dissolving Frontiers, one of many exhibitions, incubators, projects and gatherings that are part of ‘Frontiers in Retreat’, an ambitious five-year initiative that partners seven artist residency spaces ‘on the frontiers of Europe’ with over 20 artists working at the intersections of art, ecology and climate change.

Brett Bloom is an artist, writer and organiser from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a member of the art group Temporary Services. Ecological and social justice issues feature in much of Bloom’s work, including his recent book Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self (Breakdown Break Down Press 2015). Bloom has organised intensive workshops and camps where people come together to practice and inhabit post-oil subjectivities in preparation for climate breakdown and collapse. breakdownbreakdown.net

A version of this essay appeared in the book Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing our Sense of Self (2015) available here for free download

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