Getting Practical

Thanks to the good people of the Guardian, the Ecologist and Treehugger, there’s been a lot of talk about the Dark Mountain Project around the internet today. So it seems like a good time to restate a few things – and clear up some misunderstandings.

This project is not about ‘doing nothing’ or ‘giving up’. It’s about what we do, after we stop pretending that the way of living we grew up with can be made sustainable, if only we go on enough protests or change enough lightbulbs.

This is not all about poetry. It is about recognising that climate change, resource scarcity and the precariousness of our social and economic systems present a cultural challenge as well as technical and political challenges. It’s not just our lightbulbs that need to change, it’s our ways of looking at and making sense of the world. But the questions we’re asking are drawing responses from engineers, designers, scientists and policy makers, too. It turns out that it’s not just writers who are fed up with a version of environmentalism which expects us to go on pretending.

This is about asking what will go on working, if and when the ways of doing things we grew up taking for granted let us down. That includes everything from the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world – through to the most practical questions about how we meet our basic needs.

This is not, as one commenter put it, about treating ‘very real social mechanisms as mere intellectual abstractions’. Within the Dark Mountain network, there are people working hard on solutions to real social problems – but who also value the ability to distinguish between ‘very real’ basic needs and socially and culturally-constructed ideas about what makes life ‘liveable’.

As an illustration of that, I wanted to share one of the pieces that will be published next month in Dark Mountain Vol.1. ‘Black Elephants and Skull Jackets’ is a dialogue with the engineer and infrastructure expert Vinay Gupta – and the designer of the Hexayurt emergency shelter.

You can read or download the full interview, but here’s one of the passages that stands out for me:

A third of the people on the planet [live] with really serious daily personal problems like no dental care beyond having your teeth pulled with rusty pliers.

This is poverty – and it’s everywhere…

Now, think about the kind of will-to-blindness it has taken us all to build our consumer paradise while all this is going on around us. That blindness, that wilful ignorance, is what climate change threatens. But it did not start with climate, it started, as everything on earth does, with poverty.

All of these people who discovered climate recently? They’d been ignoring poverty their whole lives. The denial is cracking, and it’s going to be messy, but do not assume that the environment is all that’s under the rug.

For me, Vinay’s work – whether with grassroots NGOs, squatters or the US DoD – gives one answer to the question, ‘What do we do after we stop pretending…?’ But it’s not the only one. There are far more directions in which these questions can lead than can be contained in a manifesto.

That’s why we’re bringing together Uncivilisation as a lived experience, a gathering of people thinking about this stuff and acting on the basis of their thinking. For those who can make it to Llangollen early, Vinay will be hosting a free five day Dark Mountain Camp from Monday 24th to Friday 28th, which will be a chance to really dig in to these ideas and practical skills for navigating difficult times. And whether you can come to that, or just to the weekend itself, I look forward to the different voices and experiences which you’ll be bringing to the conversation.

As Paul says in the Guardian article, ‘Once we stop pretending that the impossible can happen, we are released to think seriously about the future.’

Getting Real: An Election Message from the Dark Mountain

Following the opening days of the UK general election campaign, I can’t avoid a sense of unreality. The scale of the issues likely to play out within the term of the next parliament is so much vaster than the ground on which the parties are picking their fights.

Looking at the issues which defined recent parliaments, you can excuse the politicians for not anticipating 9/11 during the 2001 campaign – and even the economic chaos of the past two years was of a scale not widely foreseen in 2005.

But look at the issues being flagged up by major, mainstream voices as likely to hit us between now and 2015:

  • The US military now warns of a real chance of Peak Oil leading to major global instability by 2015. (Remember the political impact of our little local fuel crisis in 2000?)
  • Currency markets see a real prospect of a sovereign debt crisis which could throw the UK and other economies into a chaos deeper than the financial crisis of 2008. The response to that crisis has had the effect of nationalising risk from failing institutions – not getting rid of it, but transferring it onto the nation states on which we rely for public services and basic infrastructure. Two years ago, we were bailing out banks – today, we’re bailing out countries.
  • Then there’s the scale of cuts in public services in the near future – not a risk, but a certainty, which is being ignored while parties argue about ‘efficiency savings’. People I talk to in local authorities are gearing up for 20-30% cuts across many areas of spending. None of them believe that these can be achieved in a way which isn’t felt, often painfully, by the public – and the kind of dishonesty about this that we’re getting from politicians can only increase the likelihood of social unrest as the cuts start to bite.

None of this is to say that we’re heading into immediate social collapse – though, as Paul and I wrote in opening of the Dark Mountain manifesto, the fragility of much that we take for granted is underestimated. But it does mean it’s time to get real. In the words of Vinay Gupta – who’s organising Dark Mountain Camp, in the week leading up to Uncivilisation – ‘If the risk of an event is higher than the risk of a housefire, our governments should be preparing for it – and if they aren’t, then we need to.’

So while Uncivilisation should be a hell of a lot of fun, it’s also about building a stronger community of people who are thinking hard about what we do in situations where ‘life as we know it’ is seriously disrupted.

There’s never been an event which brought this kind of network of people together – and it’s not just for a weekend, but it should be part of the fabric of something which exists year round, which leads to conversations, collaborations, new ideas and new work which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

For me, Uncivilisation matters because it’s a chance to bring together some of the most high profile people thinking and working in this area with brilliant, radical thinkers and projects which have been relatively isolated until now. If things get as difficult as they could well do over the next five years, the existence of informal networks of people working on these problems from the kind of outside perspectives Dark Mountain invites could end up making a real difference.

That’s one of the reasons why – if you’re feeling as frustrated as I am with the unreality of those who want to lead us – I’d encourage you to join us in Llangollen at the end of next month.