Uncivilisation Republished

It’s early in the morning and, in between the tasks that get the day started, I have been reading snatches of the news from Greece. Hopeful news, for once, though who can say how much of that hope will survive the collision with financial and political institutions that must follow? We’ll take whatever snatches of hope we can, these days.

The reading sets me thinking back, six years now, to the time when we were writing the Dark Mountain manifesto, the new edition of which is published today. The text came together over a period of six months between the summer of 2008 and the early weeks of 2009. It was the autumn Lehman Bros went under: the panic of powerful men was visible on the TV screens, even as they continued to insist that all of this was under control.

If the manifesto travelled further than Paul or I could have guessed when we wrote it, one reason is that it has helped people find their bearings in a world where the ongoing crisis is no longer a far-off consequence of systems in which we participate, but a visible unravelling of those systems that comes close to most of our homes. The crisis through which we are living – economic, social, political, ecological – plays out on a timescale that intersects only intermittently with the attention span of the news industry, the statistical representation of the economic cycle, or the day-to-day rhythms of getting on with life. People look for larger frames within which they might be able to make sense of what they see around them. This manifesto has offered one such frame.

It is not a political manifesto, a plan of action, a platform for government or for revolution. In the early days, when we were still working out how to explain what we were doing, someone asked me if Dark Mountain was a political project. ‘I think there may be times when it is necessary to withdraw from today’s politics,’ I wrote, ‘in order to do the thinking that could make it possible for there to be a politics the day after tomorrow.’ Not that any of us can sustain the detachment this suggests, not consistently. None of us spend all our time up on the mountain, but the perspective we get there may change what we do when we return to today’s tasks.

The manifesto was not a definitive statement, but a first attempt to articulate the perspective we had begun to find. What did that consist of? Here are some of the elements that I recognise now, as I reread it.

A sense of the precariousness of most of what we have grown up taking for granted. (Who is the “we”, here? The manifesto was written by two white men, both English, both ex-journalists, Oxford graduates, bookish and middle class. It continues to amaze me how many people with lives quite different to ours have recognised something of their own experience in what we wrote.)

A sense of the depth of the mess – social, economic, political, ecological – in which we find ourselves. (Here the “we” is broader.) Also, a sense that there is something powerful about naming this and looking hard at it, rather than trying to avoid it, or rushing immediately to the language of solutions, answers and action.

A suggestion that the depth of the mess in which we find ourselves has been obscured by the stories that we have been telling ourselves – about history, about the world and our place within it – and that these stories have played a greater role than is often acknowledged in how we got into this mess. The manifesto names two of these, in particular: the myth of progress and the myth of human separation from nature.

Another suggestion – that the power of myths cuts both ways. That humans live by stories, that the idea that we outgrew the need for myths is itself a myth, more dangerous for not knowing itself to be one. In this light, the problem with the myth of progress or the myth of human separation is not that they are myths, but that they are bad myths, or at least myths that are badly out of joint with the situation in which we find ourselves. They are maps that probably never fitted the territory as well as we thought, but that have now become actively dangerous.

Out of this grows a project, sketched only loosely in the manifesto, but based on the suggestion that culture has a role to play in this mess in which we find ourselves – a role that goes beyond the invitation to help get the message out, to enlist as a sophisticated extension of the communications department of campaigning organisations. How good or bad a job we make of living through the times ahead will have a lot to do with whether we find other myths by which to steer. These are unlikely to be found by any systematic process, but they are likely to come from the margins, from those who are already living with one foot in the unknown world ahead and from those who have kept alive the supposedly obsolete.

That is one route through the manifesto, not the only one that can be taken. To summarise it in this way is to be reminded that there is much here that had been said before, in other contexts. Even as we wrote, others were arriving at similar thoughts from different directions. What we did was to assemble it as it looked from where stood, during those months as 2008 rolled into 2009.

It is not common for a self-published twenty-page manifesto to be given a two-page lead review in the New Statesman, and rarer still for it to start a movement which the New York Times can introduce to its readers as “changing the environmental debate in Britain and the rest of Europe.” These are two of the more official markers of what happened next. The reactions were so intense and so contrasting that it feels now as though the lines of argument running through it are also the contours of a dark shape, an inkblot shape in which readers find reflections of their own fears and hopes.

The text of the manifesto has always been available on our website, but last year we sold out of the fourth edition of the hand-stitched pamphlet in which it was originally published. After some discussion with our friends at Bracketpress, we decided that rather than wear out their hands with a larger print run, it was time to republish it as a paperback. This also allowed room for a new essay, introducing the manifesto and reflecting on the process by which it came about.

Six years have passed, six years further into this unfinished crisis. If you were to ask either of us now whether we stand by what we wrote, what would be our answer? As I put it at the end of the new introduction:

We stand by it, not as a stockade to be defended, but as a first attempt to say something, to work out how to say something, the fuller significance of which we are still discovering in the company of a growing gang of friends and collaborators, most of whom would never have met if we hadn’t been brave enough, or foolish enough, to commit these words to print.

The new paperback edition of the Dark Mountain manifesto is available here.

The Eumenides

In the morning, flocks of children take to the air. They jostle, they elbow for position. Occasionally one throws another to the ground. Children stacked like sardines in the air, as dawn spreads forth its first tentative probes of pink. The sky is black with them.

Below, the Eumenides crunch across the frost on their way to work. They rub the sleep out of their eyes. Their breath condenses before them, and they pull on their gloves. The metal will be cold on their hands.

These four are the first shift. They take their places at the guns, and start to aim.

No ear protection. The Eumenides are deaf to all appeal. Suddenly the air shatters with a cacophony that will last the rest of the day, and from the air, the children start to fall.

Even miles away, on the Island, the Virgin could hear the guns. Like the baboons, she paid them no heed. She was too far away to see the falling bodies. She didn’t care about them.

How do you think she got to the Island in the first place? She was a fallen body too. She just happened to have lived.

baboons_swimmingThe Virgin played war games while the apes made origami. They roasted banana and fish on the beach. The sun was warm, the food was plentiful, and the sound of the guns was far away.

And then one day, the apes ran out of typing paper. A great wail went up from the island, and the animals cried real tears. There would be no more origami.

Weeks passed. Suddenly idle, the baboons had no idea what to do with themselves. They fought. They stole. Some smoothed out old pieces of origami, someone else’s origami, any scrap of paper they could find, tried to fold it anew, but inevitably another would be looking on, enviously.

Paper. They had a lust for paper.

More often than not, two apes would engage in a tug of war and each would be left with a shred.

The origami got smaller and smaller. Tinier and tinier shreds of paper.

And finally, not even shreds.

And then the first murder.

The Virgin did not do origami. She did not understand the passion for folding. But she knew that peace on the island was over.

Someone would have to get more typing paper.

The Island was a beautiful place. White sand beaches and palm fronds swaying in the breeze. Hot sun, blue sky and blue water. In the distance, where the sea met the sky, the horizon blurred. Water became air and air became water, and all was in consonance in the world. It was as though from the Island you could see Eternity.

It was nothing like the Mainland. It was nowhere near the Mainland.

And although she had left as a child, she still knew, the Mainland was the only place you could get something that had been manufactured, something that had been man‐made. How to get back?

The Virgin had arrived by air, so she tried to return by air. She tried a hop, a leap, a running jump. No way to launch; every time she went up she came straight back down. How long had it been? Had it been years? She had forgotten how to fly. She would have to find another way.

The journey to the Island had taken no time at all. It was an Icarus fall, over in seconds. But that was air. The journey by sea – she had no idea what she was getting into.

The water was cold and rough. She didn’t realise how far she would have to swim. It seemed to take years. It seemed to take years off her life.

By the time she washed ashore, almost dead, she was an old woman. She lay in the dark shivering and waited for the sun.

She had crossed an ocean, she had crossed latitudes, but the ground she found was not a beach. It was a northern shore, rocky and covered with seaweed. A tan froufrou of foamy pollution edged the water, kissing the mussels. About a quarter of a mile away, she could see oil tanks. Flanked by an embankment, a narrow ribbon of sand traced the coast. Above that loomed the highway. Even at dawn, cars whizzed by.

The Gunner had been up all night. He had drunk until there was no more money and no more booze. He was happy. He was walking home along the beach.

He didn’t see her until he tripped over her, then the ground slammed his cheek. ‘Ow,’ he said, in delay.

She opened her eyes but said nothing. He was a young man, handsome, wearing the uniform of the Eumenides.

She remembered from way back. Even children know about the Eumenides. She remembered them on the street, with their guns. Even as a child, she noticed their beauty. The Eumenides stand tall and straight and proud, like ideal men. And they kill.

‘What you doing there, naked lady,’ he said. ‘You’re a pretty lady.’

She surmised she didn’t look as old as she felt. ‘I’m cold,’ she said. He puked and passed out beside her.

The sun rose in the sky. She didn’t get up because she didn’t have the strength. She needed food. She needed rest and warmth.

He awoke fresh as an athlete in training. ‘Hey look, it’s a girl,’ he said, having forgotten the night before. He nudged her. ‘Hey, girl, are you OK?’ She shook her head. ‘Can you get up?’ Again, the shake. He got to his feet, bent over and threw her over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to take you home.’

Home was a basement apartment with Masonite clapboards and broken steps to the front door. Dirty, drafty windows. He laid her on a flowered couch of astonishing ugliness and covered her with a granny‐square afghan. Grateful, she fell asleep.

He woke her with a bowl of ramen noodles and a peanut butter sandwich. He wasn’t eating; he had a beer. She consumed the food as though she hadn’t eaten in weeks and asked him if he had anything more.

He said, ‘Yeah, it is funny that I don’t have a TV but the truth is I put my foot through it when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, so I just watch at the bar now.’

She asked him if he knew where she could find typing paper.

He said, ‘Yeah, the uniform. I work as a gunner for the Eumenides. My old man was a gunner too, he always was pushing me to do this. I hate this work, it sucks.’

That was when she remembered that the Eumenides are deaf.

‘My old man,’ he said, ‘He was big on manhood. He always said, “The Eumenides, now that’s a job. You thin out the herd, pick off the weak. The Eumenides, you gotta be a hard man to do it. You can’t feel mercy. You gotta be a man.” My old man was an asshole.’

She realised she would have to ask someone else.

He offered her a beer but she turned it down. She pretended to have her mouth all stuck up and made the motions of a joke: beer doesn’t go with peanut butter.

He laughed. ‘Everything goes with beer.’

The next day he went to work, and she put on some of his clothes and went for a walk. Every person she met, she asked them where she could find typing paper. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing. She walked and walked.

Bodies lay haphazardly on the street and on the sidewalk. Occasionally one fell from the sky; she had to keep her eyes open. Some of them were dead but most were still alive.

On the sidewalk, a young woman of extraordinary beauty lay, crying.

The Virgin helped her up and saw that half her face, the side on which she had been laying, had been shot off. The woman said to her, ‘Now no one will love me. Why couldn’t I die?’ The Virgin had no answer.

Once she encountered a Eumenides walking his beat. He came upon a body that was still alive, shouting for help. He shot it in the head. She gasped and put her hands over her mouth. He shrugged his shoulders and explained, ‘Mercy.’

Another day, she went into a 7‐11 and asked the clerk, ‘Why does no one stop the Eumenides?’

The clerk said, ‘Stop them from what?’

She tried a different tack. She said, ‘Is there any way to help these people, all these bodies in the street? Is there any medicine?’

He laughed and said, ‘Oh no one can heal them. They have to heal themselves. Look.’ He showed her two little bald spots, one on both sides of his head. ‘Bullet went in one side and out the other. And look at me! I picked myself up, I’m right as rain. Just because someone shoots you down, it doesn’t mean you have to stay there.’

She wondered, ‘Are you brain‐damaged, or are you right?’

On the fifth day, she stumbled into a Staples. The clerk told her no one typed anymore so no one made typing paper anymore, but you could buy printer paper if you had the money. It occurred to her, she had been on the Island a long time. She asked him what money was and he got sarcastic. She asked him how one went about getting money and he laughed at her. ‘What do you think I’m wasting my life here for? You get a fucking job!’

She applied for waitress work. She applied for secretarial work. She applied for metermaid and mail carrier and barmaid. No one would hire her.

One day she stumbled into a zoo. She saw the baboons pacing behind bars, and tears came to her eyes. She grabbed a guard and pointed to the apes. ‘They need an occupation,’ she said, ‘or they will go mad. Get them some ty – printing paper.’ The guard made her leave the zoo.

But she came back, day after day. The baboons knew when to expect her, and they brightened up at her arrival. When she asked the warden if she could have work feeding the baboons, he agreed. She had a job. And she had a troupe of new friends. ‘When I get some money together,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll bust you out.’ She winked, and the baboons winked back.

swimming_with_baboonWithin a couple of weeks, she had bought her own clothes. She could have left the Gunner, but she stayed because she liked him.

‘I can spot them a mile away,’ the Gunner said, ‘all the hopefuls.’ He was playing inside with a soccer ball. He tossed it up with his instep, hooked it with the curve of his arm, coursed it over his body as sinuously as a snake. He flowed around the ball, the ball flowed over him, like water around a rock. He and the ball in motion together was the most graceful sight she’d ever seen. While he played, while he kept the ball in motion, he talked.

‘The Eumenides, they picked me,’ he said, ‘because I almost made it. I was good. I was a star. I lived for the game. And I was just a kid, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. By the time I was eighteen I started to lose it. It was the booze. But hey, it’s part of the game. You play hard, you party hard. Only I partied a little harder, and soon I couldn’t stop it, and I wasn’t playing well anymore. That was when I got shot out of the sky. They didn’t leave me to die, they came and got me. I was a recruit.

‘Now I can see, when I’m at my guns, who are the ones with talent. I can smell them. Not just soccer. Baseball, football, anything. Who are the hopefuls. Who’s arrogant. Who thinks he’s invulnerable. Who needs to be brought down, taught what the ground feels like. I am a Fury. I am Fate.

‘They picked me because I can and will pick off the ones who fly too high. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you belong to me. I keep order in the universe. I keep everyone even.

‘And maybe I won’t kill them. Maybe I’ll just give them the opportunity to learn how to go on when they’ve lost everything. I show them what they’re really made of. Some of them never really heal, they just limp through life – most people just limp through life. Some of them don’t even pick themselves up. Sometimes what they’re made of isn’t much.

‘Course sometimes I miss. I mean, you drink as much as I do, sometimes you’re going to miss. Some get through. But most, I’m pretty efficient.’

The Virgin didn’t know she had a look of repulsed horror on her face. He noticed, and the ball stopped in mid‐flow. She opened her shirt and showed him her scar. Just under the clavicle, where she’d been shot.

‘Did I do that?’ he said. He folded her in his arms. ‘Maybe it was a stray bullet,’ he said. ‘Maybe it was one of my buddies. It had to have been an accident. I wouldn’t have shot you.’

She looked in his eyes to see if he was telling the truth, and he was.

She said, ‘If you’re so sad about not playing soccer anymore, why don’t you quit drinking and go back to it?’

Of all things for him to understand. He looked at her blankly, looked out the window, then threw the ball down hard, turned, and left.

The apartment was strange without him around. He didn’t come back that night, or the night after, or the night after. The Virgin was worried and went looking for him.

She went to the Anti‐Aircraft Control Station, where the gunners take their posts. He wasn’t there. One of the other gunners saw her and elbowed the one beside him. The other gunner looked, saw her, and the two laughed. She came up to them and asked if they had seen him. They didn’t even turn around. They just went on shooting. Oh yeah, deaf. Still, she knew they knew something. No one’s that deaf.

Then she thought of their laugh, and she really started to worry. What did they know?

He didn’t come home for a week. One night the doorbell rang. He leaned in the doorway, newly skinny. His face, his normally‐pressed uniform, his hands, everything was covered with filth. He looked sheepish.

She threw her arms around him as though she’d thought he was dead, which she had.

‘I lost my keys,’ he said.

She laughed, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She hugged him again.

‘And my wallet,’ he said. ‘I passed out and when I woke up, everything was gone.’

He flopped down on the bed, still in his filthy clothes, still in his shoes. ‘I lost my job,’ he said.

She crawled onto the bed with him, then leaned down and gave him a kiss. She smiled broadly. ‘Congratulations,’ she said. ‘You did it on purpose, didn’t you?’

‘Not me,’ he said.

She noticed that now they spoke the same language.

After that, they shared his bed. She held him at night.

‘You got a name?’he asked.

‘I don’t remember,’ she said.

‘You need a name.’ She wracked her head. The only names she remembered were the ones she had known as a child. Dick and Jane. She didn’t want to be Jane. She didn’t want to be Dick.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked him.


‘Isn’t that a disease?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s cool. It’s brutal out there, you don’t want some pussy name. You want a name that’ll kill.’

‘Typhus sounds very masculine,’ she said. He nodded in the dark. She said, ‘I think I should be called Copralalia.’

‘What the fuck is Copralalia?’

‘It’s when you can’t stop cursing.” It seemed to her that if you got shot out of the sky, it would be perfectly right and normal not to be able to stop cursing.

‘That’s a stupid name,’ he said. ‘You can’t die of that.’

‘OK,’ she said, ‘then how about Pneumonia? If you hadn’t saved me, I would have gotten pneumonia.’

‘Pneumonia’s a very feminine name,’ he approved.

He didn’t quit drinking. He couldn’t. She didn’t make enough money to support him, and the amount of money he could spend on alcohol was bottomless.

Meanwhile, Pneumonia thought at night of the baboons back on the Island. Of how long she’d been gone. She wondered if they were still alive.

‘I’ve got to get on,’ she thought, but the problem was no longer just bring back a ream of typing paper. She would have to bring several reams of printer paper.

She would have to keep them dry in the passage. She would have to figure out how to make the passage and still survive. She would have to bring all her friends from the zoo. What had once been a difficult task was now insurmountable.

A boat, she would need a boat. She saved her money a little at a time. A dollar here, a dollar there.

Then sometimes it would all be gone. The Gunner needed it for booze. Didn’t matter where she hid it. He always found it.

Still. He was looking for work. It’s not like he wasn’t trying.

When they had sex, he would hold her tight with his arms all around her, cheek to cheek. She couldn’t see his face. He didn’t want her to see his face. When he came, he wailed, as though in anguish, as though he were trying to crawl all the way in, and the anguish was that he couldn’t.

When she was with him, her eyes leaked. When he was gone, she yearned for him.

‘I don’t know why you love me,’ he said.

‘I don’t either,’ she said, ‘but I do.’

‘I love you more,’ he said.

‘Let’s not get into that again,’ she said. ‘I have to get back to the Island.’

He looked away, then left the room.

At work, the baboons were losing patience. ‘You lied to us,’ they said. They began to hate her. When she came to work, the mandrills snarled, then showed her their blue butts. They narrowed their eyes. They thought about biting.

Every penny she saved, Typhus knew it was to get back to the Island. He drank it away.

‘It’s not going to work,’ she thought, and started taking long walks again. ‘I’m not going to be able to earn a way back.’ She wrestled with this problem night and day. She walked the streets. She walked the shore.

One day, about a hundred feet out, she saw a skiff, moored to an anchor marked by an empty bleach bottle. She worked it out in her head. Swim to the skiff. Row it to shore. Fill it with paper, and take off.

She would steal her boat.

Could she take anyone? Could she take a single baboon? Could she take Typhus?

Could she live without Typhus?

Pneumonia worked it out in her head. On the Island, there would be no booze. Typhus would go nuts, but he would quit. If he didn’t kill her. And then he would be OK, he would be healed, and they could be together, with the baboons. They would roast bananas and fish on the beach. They would sleep in each other’s arms.

The case of printer paper was too heavy to bring to the beach all at once. On her day off, she brought it, ream by ream, with the box to keep them all together. Assembled them, then went back for Typhus.

‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘I’m leaving.’

‘Then go,’ he said, opening a beer. ‘Fucking go.’

Pneumonia stood in the doorway, not knowing what to do, and then she turned and went.

A block away, she heard his feet pounding as he ran after her. Typhus ran with the grace of a born athlete. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.

‘Come with me,’ she said.

‘I can’t,’ he said.

Just then, she heard a shot. He was already dead before he hit the pavement. The Eumenides had got him.

The row back across the ocean was long and arduous, but far easier than the swim. As the air got warmer, as the sun got brighter, Pneumonia thought of her friends and the beautiful Island and couldn’t wait to be back. She hoped she had not been gone too long. In her mind’s eye, she saw a crowd of happy baboons, jumping up and down when they see the reams and reams of paper. She and they would run together, they would groom each other, they would swim in the blue lagoon.

When she made land, the devastation of the beach shocked her. It was littered with bones, and the bones were half‐covered with sand. She lay on the beach with the useless printer paper still in the boat, and cried and cried for her friends. For the baboons here, for the baboons there, for Typhus, for all the children shot out of the sky. She looked to the horizon, to Eternity, so cheerful, so blue, and felt the big universe. She had saved no one, and to Eternity, that was just fine.

Two days later, one baboon came to greet her. A tiny old male, who had hid during the murders. The baboon had pulled out all his hair, had hot spots all over his flanks. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. The old baboon was mad.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked the baboon.

‘I don’t have a name,’ he said.

‘Can I call you Dick?’ He nodded. She changed her name to Jane.

They roasted bananas and fish on the beach.

Retrieval, resilience and wild planning

Resilience must be a central concept for retrieval – that is, for the capacity of communities to bring something humanly habitable out on the other side of the unpredictable stresses and dangers to which climate change will (now unavoidably) expose us.

Rob Hopkins in The Transition Handbook defines the idea of resilience more specifically thus:

‘…the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as still to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.

after sust

He glosses it as referring ‘in the context of communities and settlements…to their ability not to collapse at first sight of oil or food shortages, and to their ability to respond with adaptability to disturbance’. Retrieving socio-economic resilience clearly means taking the ‘too big to fail’ tendency out of all our systems: food distribution, energy supply, transport, banks – the lot.

The components of resilience as Hopkins identifies them are diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks within a system. Respectively, these refer to the number and variety of system elements; the extent to which these elements are not vulnerable to a ‘domino effect’, but can self-reorganise to survive a shock which takes out of some of their number; and the ability of parts of the system to register and respond to impacts on other parts – that is, the capacity of the system as a whole to use internal information flows effectively in the process of self-reorganisation.

In its account of what will need to be done, locality by locality, to recreate these features in communities from which they have been progressively stripped over the past century by the centralising and alienating processes of an oil-based economy, Hopkins’ Handbook seems to me second to nothing of its kind which has recently been produced. Its leading themes for the transition which we must all now get ready to make are ‘energy descent’ (preparing to do with less centralised output, rather than relying on the implausible substitution of renewables for all fossil fuels at something near to current consumption levels); regenerating the local economy, in particular as regards food production (replacing ‘food miles’ with ‘food feet’, and similarly for much else of what we need); and rebuilding the networks and institutions of real human connectedness within which communities will have to operate to achieve and maintain these recovered local strengths as the globalised systems surrounding them start to unravel.

These have of course been familiar themes of green thinking for as long as there has been a green movement, but they have latterly been much overlaid by the mainstreaming of that movement as ‘sustainable development’. The coming coincidence of Peak Oil with intensifying climate change means the end of that fantasy of modulated progressivism, and Transition offers both a timely reassertion and a lively, congenial framing of what the green movement had kept in its heart all along.

For all that, it badly needs underpinning by the understanding and practice of what I have called existential resilience. This means the strength to accept (rather than resolutely denying, as progressivism so characteristically does) that the human condition is tragic. That involves recognising that good and evil are inextricably intertwined in our experience and cannot be weighed off against one another; that we can’t ever be sure of the future, and are never really in control; and so that there are never any guarantees that things will get better, nor even that they won’t get worse. And it means a welcoming openness to the fact that these conditions of human action require us to listen for and trust to our wildness, in order to go on living in anything deserving to be called hope.

The easiest way to see the practical need for resilience of this order is to flag up a fundamental problem with on-the-ground resilience as Transition envisages it. This is essentially a business of ‘preparing for the unexpected’: we need to be ready for anything, and in particular to be ready for what happens in any given case to turn out differently from what we had been anticipating would happen. But this can’t mean being ready for literally anything to happen, or all sense drains out of the idea of preparation. To be prepared for anything (even if such a state were psychologically imaginable) would be to be prepared for nothing. As a matter of logic, it would seem, expectation and preparation must involve at least some focussed anticipation.

But then: any focussed anticipation of what we judge likely to happen, equally as a matter of logic, must concentrate our attention on what is thereby prioritised as focal, and thus leave us to just that extent unprepared for anything different. So being ‘prepared for anything’ seems to mean: not being.

The process of building resilience is liable to be analogously exposed to paradox. The UK Government’s National Adaptation Programme, for instance, affirms robustly that ‘through good risk management, organisations can become more resilient’. The same expectations, and commitment to a concerted managerial response, inform the very recent Royal Society report on Resilience to extreme weather. And it is certainly true that accurate estimation of the likelihood of something’s happening can contribute to our developing the ability to respond to and hopefully survive that anticipated impact, if it does indeed materialise. But implicitly or explicitly quantifying risk in this way can also reduce resilience: it will focus anticipation and preparation in particular directions, and so generate increased path-dependent vulnerability to something unanticipated happening. This is all the more a danger, to the extent that we are moving in a domain of the unpredictable and in various ways indeterminate, as with environmental and climate futures we always are. Here the real risk is that the quantified prioritising done in ‘risk analysis’ will reflect what we want to think probable or possible, or (still more insidiously) it will tacitly frame out what we just don’t want to think about at all, with the chances of what actually materialises coming on us unexpectedly increased pari passu.

This matters hugely when we are confronting what might well be called billowing indeterminacy. Climate-change and environmental futures are not completely unspecifiable – what we must recognise to be coming isn’t just random. These futures do however involve very significant uncertainty over, in the first place, which among the range of possible impacts – on food, water and energy supplies, ecological support systems and human physical and psychological health – are to be anticipated. And then right across this spectrum, uncertainty also attaches to the scale of impact in each kind (from small shift to upheaval), their timing (from short-term to distant future, several centuries out), their multiple interconnections and their significance in terms of our reactions to them. All this amounts to effective indeterminacy across the whole arena of climate change consequences. To know what we know when we have stopped pretending – that is, that what is inescapably coming is going to be somewhere on the range between very severe and catastrophic – is to know, if we are honest, hardly anything about the combinations of factors in which those conditions are actually going to manifest themselves. Indeed, the extent of our inevitable sheer ignorance here is an important part of what we mean by ‘severe to catastrophic’.

Now building on-the-ground resilience must involve – otherwise we should never get started – building capacities to pursue pre-identified pathways through all the above. An example is Hopkins’ local Energy Descent Action Plans, each of which ‘sets out a vision of a powered-down, resilient, re-localised future and then backcasts, in a series of practical steps, creating a map for getting from here to there’. But creating genuine resilience also means designing into our systems options for shifting onto other plausible pathways, sometimes at short notice, and a review and revision function, to ensure that scenarios, options and plans are re-crafted ongoingly as necessary in response to emergent conditions. Moreover, making this function effective involves maintaining as far as possible not just alertness to the current plan (tracking milestones, indicators and measures) but the very best we can achieve by way of what might be called ‘full-spectrum alertness’, in order to inform this ongoing review function with earliest-possible awareness of all relevant unanticipated factors which may be emerging to affect scenario plausibility, option status, and therefore the need for new arrangements ad hoc.

The crucial thing in all this is that under ramifying uncertainties of the range, scale and volatility outlined above, ‘full-spectrum alertness’, the fourth requirement just noted, is going to be absolutely vital to genuine resilience – but it calls for a kind of non-directed attention which option- and scenario-based planning will inevitably tend to be channelling in particular already-identified directions instead. So there is a clear and potentially disabling tension between the first two and the second two requirements for building on-the-ground resilience. Given a broad spectrum of fairly open possibilities, organising for real action always involves taking a bet on reduced full-spectrum alertness.

The issue here, of course, is that of Donald Rumsfeldt’s notorious ‘unknown unknowns’ – the upcoming shocks which escape getting factored into risk quantification because they are off our risk-assessment radar altogether, so that we don’t even register that we don’t know their probability of happening. Building capacity to absorb disturbance and system shock involves anticipating likelihoods among potential sources of that shock, and in a situation of significant uncertainty this is likely to veil from us ‘left-field’ possibilities. The danger that shock will come from unknown unknowns is indeed increased in a situation where we think we have our bases covered in respect of the known unknowns, because our plans and preparations for building path-dependent resilience actually create unknown unknowns just insofar as they focus attention on the possibilities for which we know we have to condition.

How do we prepare for those shocks? The only possible appeal here is to a notion of responsiveness without control, or poised spontaneity, which we might call ‘wild planning’. This is preparation which is not under our control – an intuitive readying for whatever might come, corresponding to the intense non-specific sensitivity to its impinging environment which a wild creature must constantly deploy in order to survive. It is a matter not of identifying what is likely, but of living in and from the permanent possibility of the unidentified and indeed unidentifiable. In human beings, this must rest on a capacity and readiness to deploy alertnesses which we don’t know we have, in support of those of which we are aware.

‘How do you know what’s going to happen until it happens?’ That is usually a cogent challenge to over-confident prediction, but it is also plain that nothing capable of envisaging its own future, about which that question expressed the whole truth, could possibly have survived. Creatures which can register the world as including a dimension of futurity have to be able reliably to anticipate that future on at least the large majority of occasions – since consciousness of that kind brings with it also the capacity for self-delusion into a false sense of security, and unless a creature is able routinely to correct the associated tendencies, it will not be fit for any environment in which it finds itself.

Human beings are no exception. We ‘reliably anticipate’, and to a far greater extent than any other conscious creature, by reflexively conscious prediction, which ordinarily involves assigning probabilities, and in the standard case where some kind of action has to be based on the anticipation, we rely on this assignment in order to invest preparatory effort proportionately. I might judge, for instance, that it will quite probably rain, because those dark clouds to the West most likely mean rain and they will be driven in this direction unless the wind changes, which it shows no signs of doing: and I might therefore plan to do something requiring a significant time-commitment indoors, but not something which I absolutely couldn’t put on hold in case it doesn’t in the event rain and I can get out into the garden. Here my judgement of the probability of its raining expresses my degree of confidence in the way the evidence of the clouds and of the wind combines – the rain is only quite probable, because I could be wrong about either.

But now it might seem that a question should arise as to how probable it is that I have got my judgements of the evidential factors right. That would be to ask, for instance, how probable it is, and on what grounds, that the given darkness of the clouds does on this occasion portend rain – and if I take that to be highly probable on the grounds that all such clouds that I can recall have yielded rain, how probable it is that my memory isn’t playing me false here? Clearly a regress is in prospect, which I can only stop by taking some level of evidential grounding as non-probabilistically given. But I cannot do that on the basis of what I explicitly know about the coming rain, since that has already been summed up in my judging that rain is quite probable. Thus not everything I need to rely on as knowledge, about the future can be probabilistically warranted if I am to have probabilistic knowledge at all. We must always be in possession of more grounds for the assignment of an operational probability than are ever explicitly committed in that assignment.

In other words, all planning must be fundamentally ‘wild’, in the sense that it must tacitly rely at some level on our having more grounds than we can know ourselves to have about the probabilities in question, and so on our ceding authority, just so far, to a warrant which must shape our plans from the life in us which lies beyond our conscious awareness and cognitive control. The application of this to planning for resilience in face of serious climate jeopardy should be clear. The greater the uncertainty under which we are predicting and planning, and the more potentially destructive and even catastrophic the unknowns could prove, the greater our overt reliance on the element of wildness in all planning has to be.

A suggestive analogy, though perhaps an initially surprising one in this context, is that of battle-readiness. A soldier going into battle confronts an individually catastrophic possibility – his own sudden and violent death – under conditions of almost complete unpredictability. He cannot do this as an ego-self, since ‘my life is for me’ would be a paralysing awareness at that juncture and must be transcended for him to act. Armies have training and drilling methods to ensure that this happens, making disciplined submission to the goal-directed activity of the relevant collective – unit, platoon or other formation – a kind of second nature even under these conditions. The component corresponding to wildness here is the subsumption of individual awareness of dangers and opportunities into the multiple, diverse and de-centred awareness distributed across the collective entity of which the individual soldier feels himself an integral part. The soldier is able to go into battle resolutely because he goes not only with the multiple eyes and ears, but also with the common being and purpose and the (comparative) indestructibility of his unit, just as a wild creature can be protected not just by its own alertness but by a shared alertness distributed through the group or flock in which it belongs. Achieving goals under conditions of battlefield danger needs a collective form of survival knowledge-in-readiness, something in which each individual participates, and on which he relies for his chances of individual survival, but which he cannot know himself, as merely an ego-self, to have.

But then, how do we bring that kind of recognition to bear on our present case – on the News-from-Nowhere version of Transition, the chummy Garden-City and farmers’-market models of retrieval which are all we presently have to work with? Currently Transition protagonists, and more generally environmental activists, tend to come preponderantly from the left-liberal end of the political spectrum and are predisposed to disregard, where they are not actively hostile towards, the kinds of association in which wild preparedness could flourish. These intuitive communities of retrieval must be held together by local or patriotic feeling, flowing from beyond its members as individuals, in forms of unity which are not negotiated or conditional but borne on the currents of livingly coherent cultural tradition. For building real resilience, that kind of association is going to be indispensable. To confront dangerously unknown unknowns, we shall need to base our common action not in intellectual analysis and means-end rationality, but fundamentally in what the philosopher Roger Scruton has dubbed oikophilia. This is love of the household, or more broadly of home – meaning, wherever we can think of ourselves as unconditionally belonging, as the soldier in battle belongs, to an actual or imaginable object of one of the most basic forms of loyalty. For the kinds of reason which we have been considering here, recovered real localities and territorially-defensible nation-states towards which such loyalty is strong, or could feasibly be strengthened, offer by far the best prospects for retrieval in the conditions which are coming. That is why the strong movement towards such recovery presently visible right across Europe (for instance) is so vitally important, however much it presently manifests itself in blind and ecologically-ignorant forms of nationalism.

Retrieval, in other words, is going to involve some new and on past form politically quite uncomfortable alliances, for a green movement which takes it seriously. The need for them is a long way from being widely recognised as things stand. But the more we condition for retrieval and survival in acknowledgement of our tragic situation (including our inability to predict or control, which will only increase, and the associated absence of guarantees), the more we will be opening ourselves to a kind of attention which corresponds as closely as we can yet come to the relevant kind of ‘battle-readiness’ – to forms of community which inherently know more than we can know ourselves to know, and help us find in ourselves more active hope than we can rationally expect to be available.