First Review

The first review (that we’ve seen) of issue one of Dark Mountain, written by Alastair McIntosh, has been posted today on the Bella Caledonia website. Alastair is, of course, a Dark Mountain contributor, but by no means an uncritical one and he brings a great integrity to everything he does. Worth a read.

There was a recent debate about Dark Mountain on the same site, which is now to be turned into a live action event. I’ll be talking about Dark Mountain, and the issues surrounding it, with a few other people, possibly including Alastair, at the Big Tent Festival in Fife in July. Come and contribute if you’re in the area. Later in the year, I’ll also be talking about the book at the Edinburgh Radical Bookfair, so I hope to meet some Scottish mountaineers at both events.

Defining the Mountain

Uncivilisation already seems as if it happened several years ago. Looked at from another angle, it seems as if it happened yesterday. The fallout from the festival has given us a lot to digest. It’s been fascinating and fun digesting most of it, but it does take time.

Responses to and reports about the festival – the first substantial Dark Mountain gathering – are popping up all over the web. I think it would be fair to say that they are very largely positive, with a good number of useful suggestions about what could be done better next time (assuming there is a next time), what worked, what didn’t and what could change.

For the two of us, the most significant part of the festival was simply bringing together 400 people for whom Dark Mountain means something. For some of those people, this project has become an important part of their development and even their lives. Others had a passing interest and turned up to see what was going on. What was fascinating was that there seemed to be no-one there who didn’t have something significant to say. We had hoped this would be a gathering of participants, not a show with an audience, and that seems to be what happened. This is probably the reason why the most common demand for future events was a lot more time and space for people to self-organise, get together and just talk and spend time, away from the manic menu of talks, debates and the like. This is something we’ll certainly listen to. If there’s one thing we learned from Uncivilisation, it’s that we probably tried to do too much. We can perhaps plead over-excitement here: there were so many good people and groups that we wanted to showcase that we probably tried to cram too much in. We also took too much on our own shoulders. You live and learn.

Uncivilisation also showed us how much energy has gathered around this project and what a remarkable collection of people have been drawn to it. More than before, this now feels like a real movement. There are enough people involved, making things happen (see the network for evidence, and join it if you haven’t already) that we can happily begin to stand back a bit and not take everything on ourselves. We never wanted this project to be focused around us as two individuals, so this comes as a relief. It’s thrilling to see others taking ownership – and to start thinking about the best ways of acknowledging this – as well as to respond to the offers of help, suggestions, proposals and plans that have been coming our way over the last few weeks. It’s beginning to look like Dark Mountain really is meeting a need that is not being fulfilled elsewhere.

But the festival also focused our minds on which aspects of the Dark Mountain journey this project ought to be focusing on. The strength and the weakness of this project has always been its wide range. The issues we addressed in the manifesto, and the interests and experiences we have as people cover a wide range – politics, journalism, poetry, art, community organising, activism. Applying ourselves to even one of these areas would be a big task. Sweeping them all up together, as we have sometimes done, is a vast undertaking, and perhaps not a desirable one. On occasions, we have probably lost our focus. This recent blog, from mountaineer Dave Pollard, makes that case, and restates eloquently what Dark Mountain could, and in Dave’s view ought, to be about.

In the wake of Uncivilisation, and the many possibilities it has thrown up, we think it’s time for a restatement of what Dark Mountain is – and what it isn’t. Time for a paring away of the fat and a focus on where we go next.

For us, the Dark Mountain Project is an invitation to face the converging crises of our century as a cultural challenge – rather than only a technical or political one. We use the word ‘cultural’ in several senses. In the sense that anthropologists use it, since this is about changes in our way of being in and making sense of the world. In the sense, too, that the Culture sections of the newspapers use it, because writers, artists and musicians have a particular role in the way we make sense of the world and find meaning in it as it changes. But our list of those who work in the field of culture would be broader, taking in craftspeople and those with practical skills, and embracing, too, the need to move beyond the ‘Two Cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities famously identified by CP Snow. (We find it encouraging that responses to the manifesto have come from mathematicians, psychologists, engineers and biologists as well as poets and songwriters.)

We do not dismiss technical or political responses to the crises we face, although we may question the assumptions behind them, and the extent to which they rely on wishful thinking. But they are not the focus of this project. Rather, we invite people to explore certain questions: in what ways are these crises rooted in our cultural assumptions, the stories we have told for generations and the ways in which we have seen the world? How do we disentangle ourselves from those assumptions? How can we forge cultural responses that undermine the poisonous myths we have inherited – the myths of humanity’s centrality, materialism, progress, the separation of ‘people’ from ‘nature’? Where do we find new stories, or old stories whose time has come? What other ways of seeing might alter our understanding of our situation? And how do we help send these stories and ways of seeing out into the world?

This is what, for us, Dark Mountain is. So, what is it not?

Dark Mountain is not intended as a vehicle for theoretical or abstract arguments about the future. While we anticipate a difficult century ahead, our emphasis is on the unknowability of the future, not on attempts to predict it. We do not want to construct a boxing ring in which fights between worldviews are staged, nor a vehicle for apocalyptic fantasies. And, perhaps crucially, this is not an ‘activist’ project: if you are looking for new ways of ‘saving the world’, you have come to the wrong place. Dark Mountain is not a political movement, in that specific sense, nor was it meant to be.

Having said which, we recognise that we have not always been so clear. Sometimes we have forgotten the starting point of our journey – and sometimes others have misunderstood our purpose. (Among other things, this has led to too many fruitless arguments about whether we are ‘giving up’ on ‘saving the world’.)

If you approach Dark Mountain as an open question – approach it seeking, or wanting to help craft, a cultural response to an age of crisis; and understand that it starts at the point where we stop pretending that our current narratives can provide us with what we need – then you may find much nourishment in it. We have been heartened by the responses of people who have encountered the project in this way.

On the other hand, if you approach it as a political project, and you come to us looking for programmes, five-point plans or suggestions for what the next stage of your journey through activism should be, then you are likely to find yourself frustrated. Answering these questions is not what we are here for. Admittedly, we’ve engaged in enough publicly political dogfights over the last year to make it understandable that some should see us this way. And small-p politics will always be, as someone once put it, the ‘background hum’ of our work; it could hardly be otherwise. But it’s not the central focus, and if you’re looking for political answers, this project is unlikely to satisfy you.

This, then, is the basis on which we’ll be going forward. The festival and the book have been, we hope, good attempts at providing forums for this cultural response to flourish. We’ll be on the case with a new book later in the year, and we’re looking for contributions now (more on that here soon). Other events and approaches are taking place all over the network. And we’ll be announcing a call for submissions for a more specific project on this blog in the next week, which we hope will get some juices flowing.

What we’ll also be doing over the next few weeks is posting film, photos and responses to the festival up here, so that those who couldn’t make it can engage with what was on offer. This should be enough to keep us all busy for the summer. In the meantime, your responses to what we’ve said here would be very useful.

Finally, thanks again to everyone who made Uncivilisation possible: to the speakers and performers who gave their time and their talents, to Michael and Kat who held things together, to the stewards, to the sound and lighting crew and the rest of the Pavilion staff, and to everyone who came. A great deal of hard work, perspiration and inspiration, patience and generosity went into making the festival happen. We feel grateful and inspired by the way that people came together.

New Stories for Old

I am exhausted, and doubtless I’m not the only one. I found Uncivilisation an intense experience. A knackering one too. Over 400 people gathered in Llangollen over three days and made something quite special happen. There was a wide range of voices and questions, and a lot of fertile ground was explored. It was, I think, a very good start.

I’d really like to know peoples’ thoughts on the event. It was hard to evaluate an kind of general mood – if there was such a thing – as I was run so ragged. I’ve started a feedback thread on the Uncivilisation network, as have other Mountaineers this morning (thanks all). Please let us know what you thought and what you think about the future. Or post on this blog, or send us an email.

I’m about to take a holiday until my head stops buzzing. At the moment I am full of ideas and thoughts provoked by the many people I met at the weekend. Thoughts, too, about how Dark Mountain is developing. One in particular stays with me right now: something Chris Wood said on stage during his intense and mesmerising set on Sunday night, and something which I’d discussed with him over some beers beforehand.

‘I wonder’ he said, ‘whether you’re trying to reinvent the wheel.’ He was referring to our declared search for ‘new stories’ with which to negotiate the age of decline. As a folk singer, Chris suggested that the stories we need might be out there already – that in past human experience we could find the narratives we are looking for, dust them off and re-engage with them.

The same point seemed to come up, from different directions, all weekend – from Alastair McIntosh, Adrienne Odasso, Jay Griffiths, Vinay Gupta and many others. I think they were right. While in many ways the things we are facing are entirely new – climate change, for example, or human-induced mass extinction – in other ways, they are ancient. Civilisations have fallen with regularity in Britain alone over the last millennium, and as they did so people wrote stories, sang songs, told tales to help them relate to what was happening. Those tales are still out there. Even the age of ecocide is not entirely unpredecented – humans have been doing the same thing, on a more local scale, ever since they evolved. Those tales are still out there too.

Digging, I think, is what we need. We’re not so much looking for something new as looking to re-engage in a new way with something very old. This is the image I’ll take away with me from this weekend – digging, looking for treasure beneath the soil, trying to unearth something that’s been there waiting for us. We excavated a good bit of topsoil this weekend, I hope.