Mythos and Logos: A Dark Mountain Talk

This a recording of a talk I gave last week at University College Falmouth. The 35-minute talk was given nearly three years on from the launch of the project, so it was a good opportunity for me to try and zoom in on what we’ve achieved and where we hope to go next, and to focus in on some of the key ideas we work with. I hope it will act as a good introduction to Dark Mountain’s aims and its history, particularly for anyone who is new to what we do.

 

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Near the middle of 13 Bankers, a good book about the recent financial crisis, the economist Lawrence Summers uses an analogy to suggest how to manage volatile financial markets. The emphasis is mine:

The jet airplane made air travel more comfortable, more efficient, and more safe, though the accidents were more spectacular and for a time more numerous after the jet was invented. In the same way, modern global finance markets carry with them enormous potential for benefit, even if some of the accidents are that much more spectacular. As the right public policy to the jet was longer runways, better air-traffic control, and better training for pilots, and not the discouragement of rapid travel, so the right public policy response to financial innovation is to assure a safe framework so that the benefits can be realized, not to stifle the change.

Talk to anyone with power in the modern world and this will strike them as an intelligent remark. Masquerading as sober analysis, though, Summers’s analogy is at heart a pure statement of faith. It is the modern faith, suitable for carving on all of our tombstones: a more complex system is always better than a simple one.

Summers could, as a trained economist, attempt to gauge what is lost and gained in the move to a more resource-intensive system. In the case of jet travel, the benefit consists of many hours of travel saved; on the debit side, one has pollution and environmental damage, the depletion of huge quantities of fuel, and the immense resources invested not just in the planes but the government-funded infrastructure.

What benefit to society is left after all of this work of extraction, construction, and mitigation is done? I have no idea – obviously it is not a simple analysis. What is important is that no such analysis is ever done. It is simply assumed, as Summers does, that benefits will indeed accrue, and that governments should begin spending to accommodate the new reality.

This brings us to The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter’s attempt to synthesise all of the theories of decline and fall into a single model. Tainter’s argument is that investing in complexity inevitability generates decreasing marginal returns for the society that utilises it. In his analysis, persisting in the same methods even when they have ceased to work – as Summers suggests we do – sets a civilisation on track for collapse.

Here is Tainter’s basic narrative. A civilisation forms when some benefit accrues from greater complexity. These occasions are actually quite rare in human history. For example, in the case of the Chaco Canyon civilisation of the American Southwest, two different bioregions within a modest distance of each other might have realised that different stresses affected their food supplies – a drought in one area, for example, often didn’t affect another – and decided to pool their resources.

When such pooling occurs, a new class of person springs into existence: the coordinator. Behind the leadership of these figures, a newly complex society emerges, one which is geared to pursue complexity as a strategy. And benefits do accrue – in certain human terms, and for a time – such as improved nutrition (in calorific terms) and the greater availability of certain goods.

The marginal benefits of complexity, however, eventually decline. Beyond a certain point, intensification of cultivation will produce less additional food, and the peasantry and land base will be subjected to more and more stress. In Tainter’s model, however, the society now only knows how to utilise a single strategy, and a superstructure is in place – along with a much larger population – that cannot be gracefully abandoned.

Near the end, vast resources are invested in entirely unproductive ways, such as desperate attempts at regime legitimisation: the competitive monument-building of the Lowland Maya, for example, or the lavish parades held for each new, short-lived Roman emperor.

Eventually, the burden of civilisation becomes greater than any benefit it provides and the society collapses. Then, over the next decades or centuries, the remaining population begins to form new arrangements at a much lower level of resource use.

There is endless raw material for reflection in some of Tainter’s examples. Here, for example, is Tainter’s one paragraph summary of the origins of the Industrial Revolution in England.

Wilkinson (1973) has shown that major jumps in population, at around A.D. 1300, 1600, and in the late eighteen century, each led to intensification in agriculture and industry. As the land in the late Middle Ages was increasingly deforested to provide fuel and agricultural space for a growing population, basic heating, cooking, and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. A shift to reliance on coal began, gradually and with apparent reluctance. Coal was definitely a fuel source of secondary desirability, being more costly to obtain and distribute than wood, as well as being dirty and polluting. Coal was more restricted in its spatial distribution than wood, so that a whole new, costly distribution system had to be developed. Mining of coal from the ground was more costly than obtaining a quantity of wood equivalent in heating value, and became even more costly as the most accessible reserves of this fuel were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater flooding became a serious problem.

Watt’s steam engine was developed to pump water out of these flooded mines, and it soon put humanity on the path to our modern industrial society.

Why England, I wondered, at that particular moment in the world’s history? Why did the population stresses there result in a form of resource exploitation that hadn’t developed elsewhere, even in cultures, like ancient China, that had similar population pressures, a comparable level of technology, and easily accessible coal?

Along with practical issues of historical and technological development, I think there is a spiritual dimension to these questions, involving what kind of responses a society is willing to consider when it is faced with a challenge.

Maybe a story will help explain what I mean. In Chuang Tzu, a traveller sees a farmer laboriously carrying water with a pitcher to water his crops. The traveller walks up to the man and suggests that the irrigation could be done for a hundred plots much more simply with a draw-well and channels (a piece of appropriate technology if ever there was one). This is the farmer’s response:

I have heard my teacher say: ‘When a man uses a machine he carries on all his business in a machine-like manner. Whoever does his business in the manner of a machine develops a machine heart. Whoever has a machine heart in his breast loses his simplicity. Whoever loses his simplicity becomes uncertain in the impulses of his spirit. Uncertainty in the impulses of the spirit is something that is incompatible with truth.’ Not that I am unfamiliar with such devises; I am ashamed to use them.

The Zhou dynasty out of which this story emerged lasted for over 700 years, and disintegrated without exhausting its land base. Modern industrial civilisation, on the other hand, could both collapse and render the Earth virtually uninhabitable in half that time. Why? Tainter’s answer to this question, ‘different rates of declining marginal returns,’ is not really illuminating. These are questions of culture and spirit. Why do some complex societies look with such suspicion on novelties, even ones that might make their lives simpler, while ours has come to embrace absolutely any new technology, no matter how trivial its benefits, even at the cost of our health and sanity?

Tainter is an intelligent and thorough writer, and I suppose it is unfair to expect certain kinds of insight from a scholarly work. For those of us perhaps too eager to see signs of terminal decline in absolutely every aspect of our culture, some of Tainter’s scepticism – which catalogues how often such verdicts have been prematurely passed over the years – is a useful corrective. He dismisses most mystical theories, for example, as positing the existence of a ‘vital force’ in civilisation which cannot be detected empirically, and whose ebbs and flows seem entirely based on an author’s personal preferences. Fair enough.

Still, there are moments when one feels Tainter’s want of imagination. His model has no convincing explanation for why a civilisation would be utterly unable to change course, even in the face of imminent disaster. Such an explanation would, I think, have to explore the spiritual root system of a society – out of which people like Lawrence Summers draw their assumptions – even if the resulting analysis was necessarily subjective.

As if to illustrate this shortcoming, Tainter ends the book by lying down in the trap that he has spent so many pages describing. Writing in 1988, he wonders whether modern industrial society might also collapse, since fossil fuels and other necessary resources show signs of declining marginal returns. And his suggestion is that that we begin looking for a new energy subsidy to replace them with, and invest heavily as an international community in the needed research.

So this is how our world ends, I thought: not with a bang, but with the formation of another committee. And somewhere in the room where that last committee meets, one hears the ticking of the machine heart, which only knows how to give one kind of answer and supplies it continuously.

The Collapse of Complex Societies is a useful book. Its model seems valid enough to me, and it contains a wealth of historical background. But I think most readers of this site already have a good idea where this society is headed. For the kind of wisdom that might point to renewal – towards which we still have to work, even if it happens long after we’re gone – we need to look elsewhere.

Carrying the Fire

Carrying the Fire will combine art, discussion, theatre and film in a weekend of reflection and conversation. After gathering on Friday night, with music and stories and introductions round the fire, the programme proper will begin on Saturday morning. Paul Kingsnorth will introduce and discuss the Dark Mountain Project – placing it in context, tracing its roots and looking ahead to new developments.

Later that morning Margaret Elphinstone will read from and discuss The Gathering Night – her novel which celebrates ‘wildness’ and insists that a different relationship with nature is possible. As Adam Thorpe writes in The Guardian: “the most telling achievement of The Gathering Night is that it persuades us to accept its entirely different value-system without a qualm, and even to regret that humanity ever thought of swapping the hunter’s spear for the tiller’s spade.”

In the afternoon we have a wonderful session planned with Sharon Blackie of TwoRavens Press and the soon to be launched Earthlines, and Alastair McIntosh author of Soil and Soul. Entitled ‘Restorying the Earth’, they will explore with us “the ways in which myth, story and listening to the land’s own dreaming can help reconnect us with the spirit of place.”

The last session of the afternoon will be a conversation with Franklin Lopez, director of Join the Resistance Fall in Love and his latest film,  End:Civ. Rarely to be found this side of the Atlantic, Franklin will discuss his work and show footage from End:Civ. He is a passionate and uncompromising film maker who challenges us all to rethink our stance on issues of personal responsibility and action.

On Saturday evening we will gather by the fire for more music, stories and song. I’m particularly pleased that Mairi Campbell will be performing. Mairi is a folk musician and singer who has begun to explore less traditional paths. I heard her play in Glasgow recently and was deeply affected by the intensity and raw grace of her music. Not to be missed!

After dark, we will take to the woods for Liminal – an otherworldly mix of art, poetry and physical theatre. All manner of folk are collaborating to ensure that this latest instalment will be just as powerful a performance as at last year’s Uncivilisation festival.

To start the day on Sunday, Mairi Campbell will team up with Darlene Kucken to host an  energising workshop introducing ‘Interplay: a creative practice for our times.’ After which,  Norman Bissell, poet and director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, will lead us in an exploration of George Orwell, Geopoetics and ‘the Golden Country’: ‘Living with nature in the political world of Nineteen Eighty-Four’.

As well as all of the above, we will find space for art workshops with Matthew Donnelly and a ‘wild mind’ meditation with Luke Devlin, director of the Centre for Human Ecology. There will be ecopoetry sessions, storytelling for children (and adults), and opportunities to explore the land and the woods round Wiston Lodge. On Sunday afternoon we will gather for a closing session and an opportunity to reflect on the weekend.

Creating an event is a curious experience. You begin with an idea and flesh it out with a wish list of performers and a venue. It takes shape, the date is set, and then the final piece – participants:

If you are interested in exploring the ideas outlined above, if you want to meet others who are similarly inspired by Dark Mountain, or if you simply need a break from the city and a chance to walk in the woods and to sit by open fires in good company, then come. You will be very welcome.

For more information and how to book tickets click here

The Persenbeug Prediction

 

My second sight of the Danube literally stopped me in my tracks. I was following a path through ice-snagged wetlands and I knew the great river was close, but wasn’t prepared for the transformation it had undergone. When I last encountered it, back in south Germany, it had been little more than a respectably hefty stream. Now I found myself staring down at what looked like an open vein of ice, a heaving volume of snow and slush shouldering its way slowly eastwards under a luminous yellow sky, broken rafts and bergs of ice lumbering in the current.

The sound it made was extraordinary. I had to keep stopping to listen. The constant nudging and barging of drift-ice produced a shuffling, creaking, clicking, punctuated by pops of air and occasionally a quick shushing sigh as something in the structure gave way and a larger drift pushed through. It sounded like hundreds of people murmuring and licking their lips at the same time, engaged in a whispered negotiation. Along the banks the ice had been forced into serried ridges that looked like scales, bizarre crystalline formations caused by constant cracking and refreezing, like a sci-fi illustration of an alien planet. In the middle stood a solitary heron, dimly-glimpsed through freezing mist. It could have been the ghost of a flamingo.

The river looked utterly wild and strange, but, as I soon found out, this dramatic build-up of ice was essentially man-made. A few miles downriver, I reached the brutalist concrete hulk of a hydroelectric dam, a great grey girder holding back the river. It was only the first of many – I averaged about one a day during my week’s walk to Vienna. Austria generates over half its energy through hydroelectric power, and one of the side-effects of these dams is to slow the Danube’s flow to a speed at which the water grows sluggish, and eventually freezes over. Beyond the dams the river flows clear, even sparkling blue in the sunlight, so over the course of the next few days it felt like passing from winter to summer and back again as I walked.

Ice was backed up for miles on the approach to Persenbeug, a village whose name has loomed large in my mind since I began this journey. In 1934, in a riverside inn here, Paddy met an anonymous character named only as ‘the polymath,’ an old man of aristocratic descent whose monologues ranged from the fall of Rome and the wanderings of Germanic tribes to the creeping blandness of modernisation and the future of the river’s wildlife. One utterance in particular has always fascinated me, a passage I have come to think of as the Persenbeug Prediction:

‘Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the east, they would never come back. Never, never, never!’

I have many reasons for making this journey – some of which are probably obscure to me even now, and may remain so until the end – but if I had to summarise my original impulse for setting out, these words would be the easiest way to describe what I’m after. Has Europe been tamed? Has everything vanished? These are the vague, perhaps unanswerable questions that prompted me to repeat Paddy’s journey almost 80 years later – and, maybe because of this vagueness and the fact that my feelings change every day, dependent on landscape and weather and mood and whether I’m walking past factories and billboards in seemingly endless suburbs or wandering through forested foothills, away from human sight and sound, I still wouldn’t want to give any kind of definitive answer. It’s a ongoing meditation, and my thoughts will keep changing. But Persenbeug felt like an important personal landmark.

Because of this, I had a vivid mental image of what the place would look like. I’d always imagined the polymath’s inn perched on a rock, with a backdrop of vine-covered cliffs, and water raging wildly in a chasm far below. Of course, it wasn’t like this at all. There were no vines, no cliffs, no chasm. The neat little houses of the village were huddled around a well-preserved schloss, and the schloss itself was huddled under the Ybbs-Persenbeug Donaukraftwerk – the vast hydroelectric power-dam, constructed in the 1950s, that bestrides the river. The polymath’s prediction was more accurate than he could have known. Not only did they build a power-dam here, in the very place his prophesy was made, but they actually christened it after the village itself.

There was a kind of grim satisfaction to the completeness of this discovery. It made me feel very much like drinking a beer and brooding a while – and where better to do this than the appropriate inn? The appropriate inn, however, was elusive. My only clues from A Time of Gifts were that it overlooked the Danube, and was owned by an innkeeper whose daughter was called Maria. I could find no bar within view of the river, but made inquiries in an oldish-looking place in the square opposite the Rathaus, which turned out to have an interior done up like an American diner. I found myself ushered into a back-room occupied by a single old man with a baggy, liver-spotted face, immaculate in a light blue suit, sipping a large glass of white wine. He looked like an aged mafia don, but turned out to be the village’s former mayor. With translation help from two pierced children who had come into the room to smoke, I tried to explain what I was looking for.

The old gentleman spent a long time scrutinising the map I showed him, intoning the names of Danube towns – ‘Ach, Ybbs, ja, ja… Passau… Melk… ach so… Linz…’ – and then began a rambling story about previous devastating floods, indicating the hochwasser flood marks with his hands – ‘In 2002 the water was here. Look! Here! Where this shelf is now…’ – and often he broke into laughter, his face creasing like a delighted monkey. The children soon gave up and drifted away. After some time we were joined by the cook, an enormous muscle-armed woman clutching a book called the Kronik von Persenbeug, a chronicle of village life from which she teased out a complex history of vanished guesthouses, taverns and inns, some of which may or may not have been owned by people with daughters called Maria.

In spite of the efforts of the ex-mayor and the cook, I left Persenbeug without finding a match for the inn in my mind. The image I’d originally held was further away than ever now – the inn was gone, the river bisected by a monolithic concrete block, and it seemed, in the dreary afternoon light, that this landscape had indeed been tamed. The prediction had proved true, and an older, wilder, more thrilling world had taken a big step backwards into history.

The following morning, as I walked on, the river appeared to be on fire. Freezing mist slid like smoke on the water, gliding and swirling with an eerie motion that seemed independent of wind, white-frosted trees appearing and vanishing like ghosts on the far bank.

A few days later I entered the Wachau, a valley of steep slopes and pine-stubbled hillsides, the rocks fanged with icicles as long as my body, great stalactites of yellowish ice and entire frozen waterfalls in jellyfish-like formations of domes and tentacles.

Still later, crossing into Slovakia, the Donau-Auen National Park stretched for almost three whole days – one of Central Europe’s last intact wetlands, the remnant of the Danube’s natural floodplains. This boggy and mysterious mistletoed realm was a glimpse of what the river looked like before hydroelectric power – the only dams on the water in these parts were built by beavers.

As I said, my thoughts will keep changing. But with sights like these, the wildness returns. The Danube’s vast power might be tapped for energy, but, as the ex-mayor showed with his hochwasser marks – and evident from the flood defences thrown up around the villages now – the river is still very far from tame. Its strength is still something actively feared, and its beauty, in these swirling mists, is still something to inspire a savage sensation of awe.