After Paris

The Parisian streets have emptied of journalists and activists, the negotiators are back in their capitals, the circus has left town. There was euphoria that the politicians of the world actually managed to come up with a climate change agreement at the COP21 meeting this month, but how does the deal now look in the cold light of day? And, more particularly, how does it look in the light of Dark Mountain – has it averted the great civilisational unravelling predicted by many, or is it merely another straw in the gathering wind?

Paris, the basics

Let’s first of all quickly review what happened. The COP21 meeting in Paris was the 21st ‘conference of parties’ to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It resulted in a potentially legally-binding consensus agreement by the majority of the world’s governments or their representatives, which included the commitment to hold the global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels and to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit it to 1.5 degrees C. At least in that sense it represented an improvement on previous COP meetings such as the notorious COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 which failed to produce any legally-binding consensus agreement.

But as ever the devil is in the detail, and in fact there’s little detail in the agreement as to how this daunting ‘well below 2 degrees C’ is to be achieved. The first stumbling block is that ratification is required by at least 55 of the larger signatory countries, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Probably more important is the fact that the main driver for mitigation identified in the agreement are the voluntary ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) to which countries have committed themselves, which won’t be reviewed until 2020 and which the agreement acknowledges are insufficient to hit the 1.52 degrees C target, itself a worryingly high level of warming to concede. In the case of important countries such as China and India, these INDCs are proportionately tied to the size of the economy, so may not even involve absolute reductions. And there are many omissions from the agreement such as aviation, shipping, and ‘polluter pays’ compensation from the high emission countries of the global north which are probably least likely to feel the major effects of climate change to the low emission, high impact countries of the south. Perhaps the most striking omission is that the agreement doesn’t once mention the key driver of climate change, fossil fuels. Its pages witness the eclipse of the ambition to ‘keep them in the ground’ with the better resourced ambition to keep on drilling.


I won’t further analyse the detail of the agreement, which others have already done better than I can. But I’d like to consider reactions from environmentalists and long-term climate change activists – generally one of dismay at the weakness of the deal, albeit tempered with sweet surprise that there was any deal at all. As George Monbiot put it, ‘By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.’ The New Internationalist called it an ‘epic fail on a planetary scale’ – a failure to catalyse immediate and drastic emissions reductions, a failure to provide support for transformation, a failure to deliver justice for impacted people, and a failure to focus on effective action rather than false solutions.

But other respected activists were more upbeat. co-founder Bill McKibben wrote that ‘the world has set itself a serious goal’, but only if we ‘decisively pick up the pace’. Continuing in this racy vein, he added ‘In fact, pace is now the key word for climate. Not where we’re going, but how fast we’re going there. Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. That’s what matters from here on in […] no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane […] But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.’

This is a very different kind of language to the one McKibben used in his 2010 book Eaarth, where he wrote:

We’re so used to growth that we can’t imagine alternatives. At best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim we can keep on as before. So here are my candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future:
These are squat, solid, stout words. They conjure a world where we no longer grow by leaps and bounds, but where we hunker down, where we dig in. They are words that we associate with maturity, not youth; with steadiness, not flash. They aren’t exciting, but they are comforting – think husband, not boyfriend.(1)

I won’t second-guess McKibben’s motives for his post-Paris return to youthful ardour, but I’d like to note the insidious way in which the addictive personality of the growth society is sublimated in it. In Eaarth McKibben tried to dispense with the idol of growth and the problems it causes such as climate change, only to reach out for it again after Paris in the need to rapidly grow the means for combating climate change. Of course, growing the capacity to dispense with fossil fuels isn’t the same as growing the economy. But there are affinities in its reductive, bottom-line thinking. Because for McKibben, rapid growth is all that matters. It is ‘the only important question’.

McKibben will find plenty of opinion-makers ready to agree with him. Academics Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein, for example, have written ‘climate change must transcend ideology. A particularly pernicious form of denialism is the conceit within the political left that we must cure longstanding social ills such as inequality, corporate greed, racism, and political corruption along the way to dealing with climate change […] Whatever you think of such goals, and we agree with many of them, they must not distract us from the priority of preventing catastrophic climate change.’

Pinker and Goldstein go on to outline the need for ‘Apollo-program levels of commitment’ to publicly-funded research into technological solutions such as nuclear power, batteries and carbon capture. The Apollo programme has certainly been one favoured metaphor in the techno quick-fix firmament. Another, I think more telling one, is war.

Various writers have advocated or explored the metaphor of a ‘war’ on climate change (2). The aspect of war they generally highlight is concerted, high-cost and high-tech, government-directed effort aimed at a single goal. An aspect of war typically ignored in these treatments, but implicit in McKibben and Pinker/Goldstein’s articles, is simplification of goals, perhaps even silencing of dissent or diversity. Greenhouse gas concentrations are the only things that matter – all else is at best a distraction, at worst connivance with the enemy. Another aspect of war typically ignored – except, to her credit, by Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, operating way behind enemy lines in a Daily Telegraph article – is the egalitarian levelling and self-sacrifice of the civilian population. Think food and petrol rationing for all regardless of income, dig for victory, neighbourhood pig clubs, subsidised flour, civil defence, air raid wardens etc.

Transposing the World War Two metaphor to the matter in hand, perhaps you could argue that traditional greens emphasise this levelling, down-to-earth, community-based, Dad’s Army approach, whereas the Pinker/Goldstein or ‘ecomodernist’ position resides at the Bletchley Park, Manhattan Project or Bomber Command end of the spectrum. Predictably, in the aftermath of Paris, battle lines are already being drawn around the two perspectives. Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes writes of a ‘new form of climate denialism’ involving the claim that only nuclear power, and not renewables, can address the energy transition (it’s funny how ‘disagreement’ is so often rendered as ‘denialism’ on all sides of the climate change debate). The nuclearphiles she identifies include celebrated climate scientist James Hansen, who argues that nuclear power – especially next generation nuclear power – is uniquely scalable, ‘can power whole civilisations’, and can decarbonise existing fossil fuel electricity generation at a minimum build rate of 61 new reactors a year to 2050.

Let’s leave aside the question of how feasible it is to achieve rapid climate change mitigation right now with next generation nuclear technology, and questions such as global nuclear affordability in the aftermath of COP21’s refusal of the rich to compensate the poor, and ask some other questions – starting with whether nuclear power can, or should, power whole civilisations. At present, it doesn’t come anywhere close. France, the poster-child for a nuclear future, generates 92% of its electricity from nuclear or renewables, amounting to nearly 1.7 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs), but still consumes 5.8 quadrillion BTUs of fossil fuel energy. It needs shouting from the rooftops that a decarbonised electricity supply is not the same as a decarbonised energy supply.

‘The climate issue,’ Hansen and his colleagues conclude, ‘is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking’ – one of the few conclusions with which doubtless almost everyone can agree. Unfortunately, we can’t all agree on where that wishful thinking lies. Here’s my candidate, presented in the form of a graph of actual global energy production from 1980 to the present and projected forward to 2050 on the basis of the kind of nuclear and ‘leave it in the ground’ future energy scenarios identified as necessary for climate change mitigation (3).

Energy production graph

The thin orange line up to the present represents existing nuclear capacity, sitting atop the thick blue wedge of our present fossil fuel dependency. If the actual situation in 2050 resembles the projection in the graph, with its magically expanding orange wedge of nuclear, then in the next 35 years humanity will have achieved an energy transition (4) orders of magnitude beyond anything previously imagined let alone achieved in world history – and it will have done so on the basis of the weak injunction from COP21 to slowly tighten INDCs after 2020. That, to my mind, is the wishful thinking. Hansen’s 61 new reactors a year is way off the pace.

A typically forthright ‘below-the-line’ comment on Oreskes’ article opines, ‘The notion that the emissions problem can be solved with dinky little community schemes is just ideology that dovetails nicely into an only slightly modified business as usual. It’s energy la-la land’. I find it difficult to disagree. But I also think the notion that the emissions problem can be solved with massive international high-tech schemes is, as dramatised in the graph, energy la-la land in much the same way. People seem caught in a high-energy ideology that prefers to dwell upon implausible decarbonising transitions of pathological ‘optimism’ rather than sober appraisal of the alternatives. I’d argue that we should stop deluding ourselves about how we might decarbonise the supply of energy, and start thinking more about how we might de-energise the supply of human wellbeing.

Uncivilised politics

I’d guess that that last sentiment might resonate with Dark Mountain enthusiasts, whom I suspect would more likely associate increased human wellbeing not with an increase in clean energy but with a decrease in total energy availability, if perhaps a more evenly distributed one. I’d guess too that for most of us, unlike for Bill McKibben, the pace of decarbonisation is not the only important question. At issue here is partly a range of other problems which are wholly or partially independent of climate change – habitat and biodiversity loss, other forms of air and water pollution, loss of cultivated diversity, deforestation, overdriven water use, the mining of soils and minerals, not to mention social justice and the burden of human diseases. More importantly, these are surely all symptoms of a deeper malaise connected to the ways that we relate economically, socially and spiritually to other people, other beings and other things, and they will not be fundamentally remedied by building another 2,000 or another 20,000 nuclear reactors. At best, such decarbonisation programmes may buy time for people to conjure less homicidal and biocidal ways of life before catastrophic climate change puts such niceties out of reach. But I doubt it, because it would rest on the same technocratic, top down, alienated models that underlie the current predicament. A world producing 700 quadrillion BTUs of ‘clean’ energy may solve some problems, but it will elicit other modernist monsters.

If I were to paint myself in a single hue, I suppose I’d be at the light green end of the dark green spectrum. So I might be persuaded by the likes of Bill McKibben or James Hansen that the climate crisis is so urgent that we need to deploy all available techniques to address it, possibly including nuclear power. But I agree with Dark Mountain’s principles of uncivilisation, and in particular with its rejection of the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’. Although written in the different contexts of the struggles against racism and homophobia, I find Audre Lorde’s words apposite here,

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change […] Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.

In the present context, we are our own masters, and we may need to dismantle the house of carbon with the tools that built it in order to temporarily beat ourselves at our own game. But, if we do so, at the same time we need to be reaching down to a different place of knowledge in order to overcome the terror lurking within the unreflective modernist project of civilisation, its fear of death, its dreams of domination, in order to build something less pompous and less ultimately timid. I’ve seen nothing in the official pronouncements around COP21 or in the ‘go nuclear, job done’ language of the ecomodernists that makes me think they’re remotely interested in this. So I’m drawn to Dark Mountain’s principles of uncivilisation – which I see not in terms of anti-civilisation, or non-civilisation, but uncivilisation as a verb, a project of rigorous cultural self-critique – as vital to any lasting effort to address climate change. And thus I’m drawn to the solid lexicon of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth more than to his speedy post-Paris avatar.

So I’d like to conclude by coming back to the Paris agreement and considering whether it’s created any new openings for uncivilised subversions of the mainstream agenda it represents. It’s not much to work with, but perhaps the agreed aim of limiting the temperature to 1.5 degrees C above industrial levels is something. As Martin Lukacs puts it,

The first task is to never let the richest governments forget their rhetoric. Did you say 1.5 degrees? Repeat it back to them as they return to licensing the mines, mega-dams, and monocultures that will render even their paltry emission targets impossible.

So the first plank of my uncivilised response to Paris is to suggest that people pursuing their varied projects of ‘uncivilisation’ can now justify them more boldly within the master narrative of the agreement along the lines suggested by Lukacs. Did you say 1.5 degrees? Then why are you obstructing my efforts to protect this woodland, establish this local smallholding, advocate for this indigenous group? In the short term, I doubt such struggles will encounter any less bureaucratic resistance after Paris than before. But Paris may have helped to firm the soil of the wider political culture just a little around attempts to plant alternatives to the business-as-usual political economy. And as the gap between the words of the agreement and the deeds of the governments that signed it grows year by year, perhaps projects of uncivilisation that hitherto seemed impossibly fringe to mainstream thinking may find more receptive audiences.

But only if the ideological simplicity of the war narrative is overturned. There will be many, like Pinker and Goldstein, demanding that in times of crisis like these no-one can be permitted to rock the boat. Climate change mitigation will be presented as too urgent to admit to democratic oversight, too important for other challenges to the political culture to gain traction, and too complex for anyone but specialists and technocrats to be allowed to have opinions about. So, secondly, I think this war narrative will have to be resisted fiercely by people who are prepared to be ‘uncivil’ in the directly vernacular sense. Their uncivility might take many forms and organise around many issues, but in essence it will be saying: No, your technocracy got us into this crisis, and even if we need some technocracy to help us out of it we’ll be watching you vigilantly, and you will not placate us with your leave-it-to-the-experts rhetoric. You will not position us as ‘climate change denialists’ because we disagree with your technocratic agenda. You will not sideline us by maintaining that the speed of decarbonisation is the only important question. We may find room for agreement with you, but not if you try to steamroller your own contestable agenda as the only tenable one.

Finally, and perhaps a little at odds with the preceding one, an uncivilised response may involve learning the subtle arts of subversive civility from ‘uncivilised’ peoples. The iron cage of modern bureaucratic civilisation is a curious mixture of confrontational political style neutered in practice by endless procedural ceremony. The politics of less ‘civilised’ peoples often involves, by contrast, a style of infinite decorum overlying a crafty impetus to get things done. So I think there may be scope for people to nudge their way towards their projects of uncivilisation in their capacities as local councillors, school governors, employees, students, third sector activists, local volunteers and all the rest of it. In fact, while I’m focusing on the politics of war, it’s worth remarking how Britain’s wartime coalition government was filled with left-wingers who quietly took advantage of the war’s let’s-all-pull-together narrative to pave the way for a redistributive postwar welfare state, while allowing Churchill to steal the limelight as their bellicose old imperialist figurehead. Might it be possible, now that COP21 has recognised that climate change is a “common concern of humankind” which must be addressed mindfully towards such rights as health, local communities, and intergenerational equity to likewise build alternative worlds within the citadel of technocratic civilisation?


(1) McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Times Books, pp.131-2.

(2) See, for example, Rao, V. ‘Why solving climate change will be like mobilizing for war’, The Atlantic, 15/10/15

(3) Data from Main assumptions in the projection: (i) growth in energy production by a factor of 1.25 2012–2050; (ii) fossil fuel energy sources phased out by 2050; (iii) hydro and other renewable electricity generation doubled 2012–2050; (iv) biofuels constant production 2012–2050; (v) remainder of energy produced by nuclear electricity generation

(4) Two energy transitions, actually – from fossil fuel to electric, and from mostly fossil fuel electric to non-fossil fuel electric.

I Remember

In June 2008 twenty-nine people stopped a coal train heading for Drax power station. In 2009 all involved were found guilty of obstructing a railway after being disallowed to run a ‘necessity defence’ which argued the burning of coal contributes to irreversible and fatal changes in our climate. In 2014 the convictions were overturned after a senior judge ruled that there had been ‘a complete and total failure’ by the prosecution to disclose the presence of undercover police officer, Mark Kennedy, who was planted amongst the group and secretly provided evidence against them.

I remember the first northbound passenger train waiting to pull out of the station in London and getting a feeling in some part of my body that there might be a before and an after and that if I did take that train then I would know the after and if I didn’t then I’d remain in the before.

I remember a boy with white hair and a name I couldn’t pronounce who made me self-conscious of the way words sounded after they left my mouth. I thought his girlfriend spoke too loudly and that he had beautiful hands.

I remember text messages being important and sitting next to a man with sun-dark skin who didn’t speak as he drove a van.

I remember sleeping in an industrial yard on the floor of a large barge and staying awake in the dark.

I remember it was very early and my shoe got stuck in the mud, the kind of mud that smells more like shit than mud but has no perceptible difference to mud other than a hideous smell.

I remember that while we ran alongside a hedge I couldn’t believe I was going to do this action with only one shoe. I then saw an abandoned white Nike trainer further on that looked roughly my size and so I put it on and climbed the train with one wrong large shoe.

I remember hands taking my weight and the colour of rust.

I remember seeing a friend’s face change from defiance to fear.

I remember fields and quiet.

I remember the sound of a polite journalist’s voice who was there almost before we were. In fact I think he actually was there before us and I think he said, ‘Um… hello.’

I remember seeing ropes being put up and a man clambering proudly under a banner.

I remember thinking that I was surprised by how unafraid I was.

I remember the thud of coal hitting the ground and a discussion being had about whether it was too aggressive or a little bit meaningless to drop coal off the side of the train.

I remember people using spades as puppets (I think one of those people was me) and getting an uncomfortable feeling in my throat that maybe there was a fine line between making a point and being smug.

I remember seeing policemen covering up the numbers on their shoulders and that it made me angry and glad I was there.

I remember thinking how riot gear looks quite sci-fi.

I remember being told by a policemen to stop smiling when I wasn’t smiling.

I remember faces smeared with coal and eyes looking brighter than they normally did.

I remember my friend as she D-locked her neck to a part of the train and thinking that I’d never loved her more.

I remember thinking about ladders and I wondered if the police were down there having detailed discussions about ladders.

I remember the feeling of having your den invaded but instead of sticks the other team had batons.

I remember walking down a long railway track with my wrists cuffed behind my back and a policeman on the phone behind me saying what he’d like to do to me.

I remember feeling profoundly lucky I spoke English and that I understood what was happening.

I remember thinking that Kate Middleton would become queen and I definitely would not.

I remember the way one face looked at me when he told someone not to take off my handcuffs.

I remember facing pink-tinted windows that made the sunset look like a tropical postcard. I watched it until my eyes went funny because I didn’t want to turn my head.

I remember seeing huge chimneys and smoke against a pink Yorkshire sky.

I remember the policewoman’s tight black ponytail and her forehead and realising her and I were the only women.

I remember acknowledging it was incredibly odd to be sat in a minivan with a group of police who begrudged me their Friday night.

I remember thinking about how I used to wear my hair at primary school (high ponytail, yellow ribbon, scraped flat over my scalp to avoid bumps) then as a teenager not ever wanting to have my hair brushed or even touched.

I remember one policeman describing seeing a homeless man electrocute himself when climbing into an industrial building.

I remember the sound of a Yorkshire accent on the words ‘fizzed’ and ‘popped’.

I remember the smudge of the black finger print and how it matched the smudges of coal on my arms.

I remember the relief of being spoken to kindly when a policeman began telling me his wife had been part of the Newbury bypass protests.

I remember the way yellow light reflected on white tiles.

I remember chairs with steel legs.

I remember feeling calm and clear and it reminded me of the feeling I used to get before going on stage.

I remember the sound of the cell door shutting.

I remember lying flat looking up.

I remember thinking about blankets.

I remember squinting in order to make the shapes in the glass squares above my head change and seeing in the new shapes a mermaid man that reminded me of a Paul Klee painting.

I remember thinking about the person I loved and had hurt. I imagined going to prison for not being able to love someone well enough.

I remember thinking about forgiveness.

I remember hearing singing through my cell door.

I remember acknowledging that policemen don’t have fun jobs and that if I worked there I may not be able to be reasonable to everyone I met.

I remember imagining what it would feel like if I didn’t know I would be able to leave.

I remember thinking how precious books are.

I remember the hour before it gets dark, a corner, a street and a door that opened to let cars in.

I remember the yellow light of the community centre where we slept and ate together once everyone had been released.

I remember a conversation where most of us admitted to thinking our lawyers were the best group of people we’d ever met.

I remember checking my email on a large noisy computer while everyone slept and reading that I had an important audition the next day and it seeming very strange.

I remember getting a phone call as we drove south and hearing two bin bags of papers had been taken from my room. I thought of my letters and drawings and I cried for the first time.

I remember getting ill and my mother continuing to ask me if it was because I was nervous about the trial and me explaining over and over again that this definitely was not the reason.

A few months later I sat on the train on the way to Leeds. My lawyer admitted he normally pretends to have work to do when he is on a train with a client in order not to have to talk to them but in this instance he was happy to sit and talk. We were late and so had to run through the streets of Leeds to get to the court in time. In the dock I felt very small and very large at the same time. On the way back to London I saw the chimneys of Drax out of the train window. I wondered how many more times in my life I would see them on my way north or south along this well-travelled line and if seeing them would mean something different each time.


Form taken from Joe Brainard’s book I Remember.

Doug Tompkins Remembered

The conservationist and philanthropist Doug Tompkins, who was a supporter of Dark Mountain from its early days, died last week aged 72 in a canoeing accident in Patagonia, Chile, where he lived. I knew Doug a little, having spent some time with him and his wife Kris in Chile a few years back, and I was in communication with him for a long time after that. I admired him and his work hugely. I don’t have many heroes, but Doug was one of them. I believe his loss is a tragedy, and not just for those close to him.

Between them, Doug and Kris Tompkins spent the last 25 years working on one of the most ambitious conservation and rewilding projects on Earth, creating protected national parks in vulnerable areas of Chile and Argentina to provide a vital refuge for endangered wildlife at a time when the human demands on the non-human world increase daily. Between them, they  protected more land from ‘development’ than any other private individuals in history – over 2 million acres in total, and there were plans for more.

This remarkable display of both philanthropy and ecological ambition was a long-term project not simply to preserve wild nature and give it some chance of recovery, but also to persaude others to contribute to an overarching plan to connect protected areas throughout the continent, and in so doing to provide a wild corridor through which non-human life could move and survive. There is nothing else quite like it anywhere on Earth, and Doug’s widow, Kris, who was a partner in the work and who similarly dedicated her life to it, has made clear in the last few days that she will continue, and even accelerate, it.

For me, though, perhaps the most significant thing about Doug and his work was not the amount of money he’d made setting up the clothing companies Esprit and the North Face (which he later came to loathe as the epitome of the corporate culture destroying the planet) nor even the way he spent that money conserving and restoring so much wild land. What struck me most about Doug was the worldview which drove this work, which was rare, honest and uncompromising.

Doug saw the protection of non-human life, in the face of the human onslaught, as the crucial work of our time. He saw much of the green and conservation movements – rightly, in my view – as fatally compromised both by their need to remain broadly popular and by their increasing interest in human-centred social and political concerns. For the mainstream green movement today, human ‘social justice’ often seems as important as protecting non-human nature from human rapacity, despite the fact that the two are often in conflict (‘there’s no social justice on a dead planet’ was one of Doug’s favourite aphorisms). The deep denial which runs through our civilisation right now, across the political spectrum – a refusal to accept the reality and implications of everything from climate change to human population numbers to the impossibility of limitless growth – is to be found everywhere, including in the green movement, and in most of our lives, most of the time.

Doug’s worldview, in contrast, was so long-term as to be incomprehensible to many people. He was a deep time thinker, aiming to preserve wild places and species in order to get them through the bottleneck of the ‘great acceleration’, as the human economy consumes all around it in a desperate struggle to keep growing. The work he did was not designed to pay out today, tomorrow or next year; it wasn’t especially designed to pay out to humans at all. It was a grand project designed with just one aim: to save as much of the wild world as possible from destruction.

This kind of work will always be hard and unpopular, and perhaps only people as determined, bloody-minded and ultimately wealthy as Doug Tompkins can really do it. Doug knew that civilisation and nature were on a collision course – indeed, were already colliding, and that the consequences for wild nature were terrible. He didn’t finesse that truth, he simply spoke it, whether people liked hearing it or not – and most, including many mainstream conservationists and establishment greens, didn’t like it at all. But he spoke it anyway. And then he did something about it.

For his pains, he was often described – when his opponents were feeling polite – as ‘radical’ or ‘controversial’, words that are regularly used about anybody foolhardy enough to undertake work that does not put the interests of ‘developed’ human beings before anything else that lives. To me, what he was doing was neither of these things – it was just blindingly obvious, common sense, necessary work for the age of ecocide. The real controversy is that more people aren’t doing it.

I like to compare our culture’s treatment of Doug with its treatment of Steve Jobs, another wealthy US entrepreneur of the same generation. The two were friends, though friends with very different worldviews. Jobs, who spent his life creating a global web of oil-based digital technologies which encourage humans to divorce themselves from nature and disappear into virtual worlds, is lionised to such a degree that Hollywood will make a gushing biopic about him. Doug, who walked away from the same culture to dedicate himself to preserving huge swathes of the wild Earth, remained largely unknown until his death. Benedict Cumberbatch is unlikely to be portraying him on the big screen anytime soon, which is at least one crumb of comfort.

Being unknown, in any case, can be a blessing. In the end, the work, and the legacy, are what matters, and Doug’s is huge. If humans make it through the bottleneck, and if other life forms do as well, and if future generations come to properly appreciate a worldview that does not see the world as as human plaything, it will be at least partly because of the work done by Doug and his companions. His loss today, though, is a hard blow, and I for one will miss him.

You can read a moving tribute to Doug, written by his friend Rick Ridgeway, who survived the accident, here. As our own way of remembering Doug and his work, we’re reprinting here an interview I conducted with Doug and Kris in at their home in Chile in 2011, which appeared in Dark Mountain: Issue 3.


The Death of Birth

A conversation with Doug and Kris Tompkins


PK:  So, it’s an interesting time to be in Europe, with things ostensibly falling apart, in Greece, in Italy and even now in Britain…  It seems clear that some of the stories we’ve been told over the last few decades about growth have not been true, and haven’t delivered.  It seems to me that it’s just beginning to sink in now, and I wonder where that’s going to lead

KT:  The idea of limits …  Well, of course you can say it’s taken too long, it’s taken centuries too long, but on the other hand it’s happening so fast now.  People are talking about limits to growth and limits to natural resources in areas you just wouldn’t have seen even a year ago.  I really believe that people don’t see themselves returning to the economic free-for-all that we all enjoyed for twenty years.  I’m around a lot of money people – people with money who want to invest it, or people in the investment business – and they’re not saying (clicks fingers) – you know, they’re not saying, “well, we’re going to touch bottom in the next 24 months and then it’s going to pick up again over the next 48 months.”  They don’t believe that.  There’s no blue sky out there.  They’re not anticipating it.  I don’t hear one person talking about that, even mid-term.

I have these two recent issues of the Economist, and the front cover of the first is a giant image of a hurricane taken from a satellite, and right at the middle it says “Be Afraid.”  This is the Economist!  And the next week’s cover says “No Place to Hide.”  And that’s what everybody thinks.  Because there isn’t any place to hide.  I think people believe it’s now a contracting global economy.  China is sitting out there saying, where are all our customers?  They’re going to be screwed before too long.  I don’t know, I just think there is something happening out there.

DT:  You can see that all of these economies are based on growth, and the intrinsic logic of capitalism needs growth, and so when they don’t get it they are in a downward spiral.  But in the emerging countries now, like the BRICS, there is a lot of discussion in financial circles about how they can catch fire and start to spiral up.  And because that’s half the world’s population in those countries, it could be a factor that will drive a new form of capitalism, one in which they are dominant but which still chases growth.  I am uncertain as an observer about whether they’ll be able to do it or not do it.  But I think it’s going to take the countries that are on their way to overdevelopment to reach overdevelopment before the whole system comes down, through sheer numbers, inertia, development attitudes…

PK:  My worst-case scenario is that you can have a kind of hyper-developed society at just below the level at which ecological limits are reached.  In other words, you can keep this over-civilised anthill society going indefinitely.  Everyone’s in the race.  It seems sometimes that that could be even worse than a crash.  You could never change course or escape from that.

There’s a kind of division developing in the green movement over this.  The greens have failed to prevent overdevelopment pushing ecosystems beyond their limits, and all of the traditional methods that we all tried for years don’t work on anything like the scale they need to.  And faced with this, people do different things but there seem to be a couple of camps developing, if you like.  One of them you could say Dark Mountain is part of, which is people who see the system hitting the buffers and who think we have to negotiate our way through that, culturally and practically.

The other camp is the old-fashioned cornucopians, who are coming back strongly at the moment.  Stewart Brand seems to be their current spiritual leader!  They can also see that the old green solutions have failed, but they argue that the world population wants to live in cities and wants advanced technology and this isn’t going to change, so we need to work with it.  They’re all about this hi-tech, centralised future with GM foods and nuclear power and hypercapitalism and synthetic biology and high density cities, all very controlled and rational, lots of wild nature growing outside the boundaries, you know …  we’re all Gods .

DT:  The tech-optimists, right.

KT:  Well, they’ve got one thing right, which is that humans should be living more densely and leaving wildlands alone.  Though you wouldn’t see me living in a city.

PK:  But that’s the paradox, isn’t it?  I’m always interested in this.  If everyone is living in a city, if everyone is personally cut off from nature, why would they have any interest in keeping it alive in giant parks elsewhere?  If they don’t have any felt, everyday connection with the nonhuman world on any scale, would they care about it?

KT:  I think we’re at that point already with humans and their relationship to the rest of nature.  I think that train left the station.

PK:  What do you do about that?

KT:  I don’t think there’s much you can do about it, not that is genuinely going to have any big impact.  I mean, it’s not that you stop trying, but I think we are in a stage of an urban mind, and until things begin to shift – I don’t mean collapse, but just change…  It’s not just cities now anyway.  Everywhere, you’re plugged into a machine.  You don’t have to be in a city, you can be in Chaitén (a small town on the borders of Parque Pumalin) or someplace and all the kids, and the adults, are either on their phones or they’re plugged into an MP3 or an iPod – it’s not just cities.  Kids sitting in cars, they don’t have to be bored, looking out of the window as we were when we were kids.  They have a television in the car, or they have games.

This is not just about being “urban”.  We need another name for it.  It’s like a giant plug.  Everyone is plugged in and everybody is at the same thing.  It’s everyone disconnected from nature, but also from human interaction.  You know, it’s people texting at the dinner table.  People in the streets looking at screens instead of where they are, you see this all the time.

PK:  I just call it the Machine.  It’s been called that for centuries, hasn’t it?  The poets and novelists have been calling it that for at least a hundred years.  But it is everywhere now, yes, much more pervasively.

KT:  And now people feel silly if they’re not plugged in.

PK:  I think they feel anxious.  They feel like they’re missing something.  There is this always-on network; someone is always trying to contact you.  You kind of feel you should always be available and you find people apologising for having a few days off from it.

KT:  And I think this is just where we are now, it’s a stage we’re at.  But you know, society is going to shift around as natural realities kick in, and that can either be a catastrophe or it can be a glide – nobody knows what it will be.  But that’s what’s going to change things.  I don’t see people electing to move away from this.  On the contrary, I don’t hold out a lot of hope.  You can’t convince someone to hook into nature.  You can just expose people to it.  We all need to be exposed to things.  Maybe you can catch some of them, get them to hook in to a different story.

PK:  It’s a strange thing, I wanted to ask you about it.  I have a deep, emotional connection to this thing we call “nature”, which I’ve had since I was very young …  the kind of connection to the thing itself and to what it means and represents to me.  I think that comes from having had a lot of exposure to both the good and the bad bits of nature as a young child.  You know, the soothing beautiful bits and the angry dangerous bits, which are all part of the same package.  But I have friends who have never had these experiences and who just don’t have any interest in it.  They can understand it intellectually, but it doesn’t move them on that level.  Sometimes it feels like being a religious believer speaking to someone with no faith, there’s almost this unbridgeable gulf.

KT:  I have friends whose parents were very famous mountaineers and who took them out at a very young age into the hills their entire lives, and not all of them understand it.

PK:  No, I suppose it doesn’t always follow.

KT:  I just think it’s something you recognise or you don’t.  There’s something very indescribable about how people communicate with nature.  And some do and some don’t.

DT:  Did you ever read a Russian science-fiction writer called Yvgeny Zamyatin?  He wrote back in the 1920s; he was very subversive of Leninist Russia, and they eventually exiled him.  Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin are the big three.  His book, We, was written in the early 1920s.  It was a veiled critique of the Bolshevik Revolution.  It’s set three hundred years in the future and it’s about an engineer who built airplanes out of glass.  There’s been a long war, a three-hundred-year war, and now it’s over and they’re settling into the scraps.  Glass has become the most perfect building material because it is malleable, it is strong and so forth.  And they’ve used it to wall out nature.  You can see it out there, but it’s wild and unpredictable.  Perfection was a straight line, everything was smooth and straight.

It’s worth reading.  Firstly he is a great writer, but also he saw which way the trends were going – this is 100 years ago remember – simply by projecting outwards from what was happening already back then.  So what we need to think about now is the projection from today, how current trends in mega-technology will change the future and how it will keep walling us off from nature.  He’s got it as a physical wall; the people look out at it, and there are subversives in the story who want to get out there and experience wild nature in its uncontrolled state.

KT:  But of course what he hadn’t reckoned with was energy decline.  For sure, a shift in petroleum, whatever and whenever it is, will change that path.

DT:  We’re doing a book at the moment about energy, and when I started that I was pretty convinced about peak oil and its implications, but as I have looked into it in more detail I am a little more circumspect.  Of course peak oil is going to come, it is a finite resource, but it’s a moving target, because of new energy technologies.  Some of them are pure vapourware, but some of them are likely to shift the playing field.

You know – carrying capacity being overshot, crashes, die-offs, these are all very much part of natural cycles.  But they’re being delayed and pushed out into the future by fossil fuels and other mega-technologies, which I think are staving off the day of reckoning.  It’s a little like quantitative easing: central banks printing all this money, jacking around the whole system, the Eurozone staving off the inevitable…  The financial system seems to be the house of cards that could come down.  But I think that as Dark Mountaineers, so to speak, we have to create a social movement that says “this is just undesirable, this system.  It is culturally undesirable.”

PK:  Well this is it, it’s not enough just to rely on it all coming down is it?  I don’t know if you’ve read the Russell Hoban novel Riddley Walker?  It’s set in a post-apocalyptic English landscape, and it’s written in a degraded future version of English.  And the culture and landscape are degraded because it is hundreds of years after a nuclear war, and everything has regressed to a kind of scavenging feudalism, but people have vague memories of times when people could fly and of cities.  And the one thing they are trying to do is rediscover the recipe for gunpowder.  They don’t even know what gunpowder is, they just remember a time when people had enormous power and they want to get it back again.

And it’s a kind of post-collapse moral.  Because if everything does suddenly collapse the thing that a lot of people are going to want to do, because they were brought up in the culture that fell apart, is to get it all back.  Collapse in itself would not lead to a cultural or emotional shift; people wouldn’t suddenly want to live a small-scale peaceful life, at one with nature, they would want to get back what they had lost, because they hadn’t been convinced before they lost it that it was not worth having.

On the other hand, the paradox seems to be that if there is no collapse, or if there’s no big shock of some kind, people will have no reason to make a cultural or an emotional shift.  I go round and round with this one!

DT:  I just find the system, this way of living, undesirable.  I have a simmering resentment towards it.  I resent having the Internet imposed upon me.  It feels like it was imposed.  I’m stuck in the system, because if I want to be an activist and try to change things, to play a part in environmental and social change, then I’m stuck with the internet and computers because this is the mode of communication and if I don’t use them then I marginalise myself and compromise the work.  If it weren’t for that factor, I would get rid of my laptop tomorrow.  I held off for a long time.  Until about six years ago I operated without the Internet and I refuse to get a cell phone.  I don’t have one now because it is not desirable to have one.

PK:  It’s been fascinating to see how quickly the web has got a grip on us.  There is a whole generation of people coming up now who have never lived without it, and every one of their relationships and the way they live their lives…  The Internet is like the axle that they revolve around.  I find myself forgetting what to do without it.  I worked in Fleet Street journalism for a little while in the mid-nineties before anyone really used the Internet or even knew what it was, and I remember pre-Internet research: you had to get on the tube and go to a library and look through books, you had to walk the streets and make phone calls.  It seems like another world now but it wasn’t long ago.  If I wanted to do it now, I’d probably have to teach myself how to.  You want to know something now, you put it into Google and it comes up: but it’s only been five or ten years since that’s been happening.  I don’t think people would put up with having it taken away from them.

DT:  But I don’t know anyone who thinks that all of these stresses in the system, with population and consumption, are going to come out well.  You can’t look at the direction of travel and seriously think that we are not going to hit buffers all over the place.  Things will have consequences and in the heart of hearts of thinking people, I believe they know things are going wrong, although they may not be able to articulate it.

PK:  So how do you relate this analysis to your work here, to the conservation work in Pumalin and elsewhere that you’ve both embarked on?

DT:  Well, first of all I think it’s good to distinguish between conservation and environmentalism.  We’re kind of a strange mix, we’re both activists and conservationists.  We’re working across the board as much as we can with all of our resources and so forth to firstly change policy and secondly help build the intellectual infrastructure necessary to confront the eco-social challenges we’re faced with.  So that’s what we’re doing on the environmental front.

On the conservation front – well, the thing that drives everything we’re thinking about is the conservation of biodiversity.  Our leitmotif, so to speak, is the biodiversity crisis as a metric which rates how civilisation conducts itself.  We are currently in another mass extinction crisis, which is the mother of all crises as far as I’m concerned.  There’s nothing worse than an extinction crisis.  If you just follow that out, in the direction it’s currently going, if it is allowed to go all the way there then everything else we are all currently doing is irrelevant.

The concept of sharing the planet with other creatures to me is a religious position, really.  I don’t know how better to describe it.  That, of course, is the ethic that informs biodiversity conservation.  Others may do it for other reasons, for pragmatic or utilitarian reasons and so on.  But I’m talking about giving purpose or reason to what you do every day.  I’ve tried to explain this a thousand times and it always comes back to this, that I have to describe it as an ethical or religious position that this work springs from.  I don’t mean “religious” in the sense of organised religions; but it seems to me that one either believes in one’s deepest core that life is sacred – all of life, from other non-human species, to forests, oceans, mountains, the entire planet as a living massive organism that generally we know as “nature”, but we have a thousand names for it, from Mother Nature, Pachamama, Gaia; depending on the culture you are from.  This is nothing new, of course – indigenous cultures created vast numbers of their narratives and myths around this most basic concept, and although the surface expressions of it varied, the core story is quite the same.  So as children of industrial culture we are trying to reconstitute a new narrative, and it comes out in such forms as the current of eco-philosophy of the Norwegian philosopher and thinker Arne Naess, what’s known as “deep ecology”.  It’s one way those of us coming from the techno-industrial culture can try to get a grip on the idea that we need to share the planet with other creatures.

But also, of course, you can look at this work practically.  You can look around the world and you can see that legally and practically national parks have about the highest level of biodiversity protection in habitats and landscapes.  So from a pragmatic point of view we think, Kris and I, that if you’re going to work hard to try and conserve biodiversity, then making more national parks is a practical thing to do.  So we hope to make another five, maybe six more national parks if we can while we’re still alive.  And we like doing that!  It’s pleasant work, and we think meaningful work.  At least, it gives purpose and meaning to us.  I mean, we get hammered by developers on all sides, but that’s always going to happen if you’re an environmentalist or conservationist.  You don’t pay too much attention to the criticisms or the names you get called; it doesn’t impair your work, you just keep doing it.

When you’ve been involved in the environmental movement for any time, any kind of sober analysis tells you that you’re losing ground, that you’re being pushed back by overdevelopment and the myth of progress and so forth – it’s all coming at you.  But we also think it’s good to be both an activist and a conservationist, because you’ll find that these are two spheres that do touch each other a little, but also don’t touch all that much.  And often they’re even at odds with each other.  There are many land conservation organisations that are very explicit about not taking any activist stance.  They see it as counterproductive to their particular aims.

Maybe it’s because I was an activist first that I’m not about to throw in any towels on activism.  The front is wide and there’s going to have to be a lot of action across it if there’s going to be any kind of reversal of the crisis we find ourselves in.  And if there’s going to be any kind of reversal of the extinction crisis, it’s going to take both policy change and a kind of re-appropriation, if you like, for wild nature, of lands that have been over-appropriated by humanity.

PK:  Given that neither of you seem to believe that the machine can be voluntarily stopped in the near future if at all, and given that you’re not even convinced now that an energy crisis will stop it, is what you’re doing in a sense any kind of Noah’s Ark operation?

DT:  That’s something I could relate to.  To me, if you could get a large enough number of citizens around the world to try and set aside land to allow species to survive until…

KT:  …until there’s a shift…

DT:  …a shift, right, some kind of unforeseen unpredicted black swan event.  That might be the collapse of the financial system, or some kind of cultural shift – who knows?  I don’t see any downside to doing that.  Call it Noah’s Ark if you like: we’ve got to get through this – whether you call it the bottleneck, or the slow motion catastrophe of overdevelopment, or the human project or whatever.

KT:  But I think language is so important, and Noah’s Ark to me implies a kind of pie-in-the-sky idea, whereas the history of national parks is 150 years old now.  You can see that for the most part a lot of the original ones are pretty much intact.  It’s taken a lot of time to get the wildlife policy squared away in them, but so far anyway national parks mostly do what they were supposed to do.

PK:  I don’t it mean to sound pie-in-the-sky.  To me it implies the opposite: a practical response to a deluge, I suppose.

KT:  Well yes, that’s exactly what it is.

DT:  We’re trying to set aside, to get to the high ground, creatures which have been squeezed out of their natural habitats.  We have some very specific examples of that.  We’re trying to work on keeping the pampas deer in Argentina.  It’s been squeezed out by industrial foresters planting exotic tree plantations, or ranchers appropriating their habitat.  In the northeast where we’re working this has been going on for the last fifteen years.  They’re going to be extirpated in the whole northeast of Argentina, so we’re doing a translocation, bringing them over to big protected areas.

KT:  It is one strategy, and many are necessary, but it’s harder and harder to find key habitats that are A, affordable; B, big enough; and C, capable of being protected.  There are a lot of areas that could be bought and put into conservation, but it’s almost impossible to actually protect them.  Pressures are just too great.  We have areas here where there is a very low population base, but there are other areas, on the African continent or in Indonesia and South Asia, and it’s very hard to protect them, because, first of all, you’d have to have an army to do so and the system isn’t set up to do that, and that would bring with it all sorts of other negatives.  So outright land purchases work in some places in the world but not in others.  Christ Almighty, in parts of the Congo, you’re contending with people who really need the wood or bushmeat, but you’re also dealing with one civil war after another that is taking place in parallel and trumps a lot of what you can do in terms of conservation.  What we’re doing is just one strategy amongst many that you have to try and hope that some of it sticks.  It is very complex, and there are many approaches.  Conservation is really a kind of custom-made programme that has to respond to a wide spectrum of conditions.

PK:  Thinking about the deep ecology platform and ideas, the core ethic it seems to me is the concept of ecocentrism: this attempt to extend compassion and the idea of intrinsic value to the rest of the world, beyond the human community.  That seems to me to be something that is both completely necessary and, at least at this moment in time, almost completely impossible.  I can’t see where it would come from in the short term at all, though it is an idea that is building in some quarters.  I wondered what you thought about that.

DT:  I don’t see how civilisation can survive on anything but an ecocentric basis.  It’s like trying to repeal the laws of nature.

KT:  I don’t know.  There is a Finnish writer, Pentti Linkola – have you ever read any of his writing?

PK:  I’ve heard of him.  He’s really out there, isn’t he?  He makes Jeffers look like a liberal!

KT:  Well I read about half of one of his books, and one thing I thought was really true is that he’s talking about almost the impossibility for a human to be ecocentric.  And he’s right.  His description of it changed my whole way of thinking.  He’s just saying, every decision you make, you think you’re an ecocentric thinker, but you’re not an ecocentric behaver.  You’re human, you’re a member of this particular species.  If you see a human baby and a puppy both drowning, you’re going to save the human.  And he says you can’t void yourself of your species, of who you are.

PK:  Is it possible to be emotionally anthropocentric, which we all are, I suppose – we’d all rescue the baby – but be intellectually, at the same time – to have the ethic of ecocentrism?

DT:  I think you’ve got to be more rigorous.  The first thing you have to do is deal with policy.  You’ve got to deal with growth.  We can’t keep growing forever, and if we try then it’s game over.

PK:  But I’m talking about something more, I don’t know – just now, Doug, you were talking about having an almost religious view of nature, you are talking about this spiritual connection, this ethic…

KT:  That sounds like pantheism.

PK:  Yes, perhaps pantheism, perhaps something like Wordsworth’s attitude…

KT:  I like Wordsworth for that.  And John Muir – not a pantheist, but he talks of the god of nature.

PK:  And what we’re talking about here is something that is maybe not exactly religious, but it’s obviously spiritual, it’s beyond the rational…  I’m not sure quite what I’m trying to say, but I suppose that if that spiritual sense is what informs this idea of ecocentrism, then if people don’t have that sense, then it’s not going to mean much, it’s not going to be there?

DT:  It’s an epistemological question really.  And some cultures did have that attitude.  I’m not an anthropologist or any kind of great scholar, but we know that there were some cultures which had what we now call an ecocentric attitude to nature.

KT:  Because that’s all they had.  But the minute they had something else they ran to it.  Bronze.  Somebody could start making nails and a hoe and they ran to it.  Given the opportunity to “evolve”, a species will.  It’s like Darwin’s beak of the finch.  Fire came about, nobody wanted to be without fire.  They started melting rocks below the fire one night and the rock stuck together and they made a hoe out of it, and they didn’t want to go back.  How many examples do we have – apart from the King of Bhutan who said we can’t have television in Bhutan – how many examples do we have of people who willingly turned their backs on a technology, whatever it is?

PK:  I find these two ideas argue with each other in my head all the time.  Firstly the idea that the problem we are facing is mainly cultural, that other cultures have existed, do still exist, that have a different attitude towards nature, and that means we could change ours.  Or, alternatively, the idea that this aggression, this expansion, this evolution through advanced technology and this colonisation of all of the rest of nature, that this is just something that we do because we’re human.  It’s in the species, or maybe it’s just inherent in the evolution of life.

KT:  I think that if you take a deterministic view on a question like that, then you’re buggered!  You’re stuck.  I think it’s better to not know how to answer it.

DT:  I think there has to be a cultural override to those tendencies.  I mean, that’s what religions have been doing for centuries.

PK:  I keep coming back to this cultural question.  Because it seems to me that what fossil fuel does – and fossil fuel is almost a metaphor – and what growth and development do, is that they give people the opportunity to be an individual.  Modernity is the process of freeing the individual from the community.  You can buy yourself freedom.  In this high-energy society, you can buy yourself an apartment in a city and you can be alone if you want to, you can do anything, in a way that would not have been conceivable in more traditional societies.  You can express yourself, sexually, materially, you can do it all.  And this must be why so many people value this culture despite all its fallout – divorce from nature, lack of community, sense of isolation, the pollution and noise and all the rest of it.  At the heart of it there is this promise, even if it is never fulfilled, of self-expression as an individual.

DT:  The autonomous individual.

PK:  Yes, exactly.  And then you find, when you are campaigning against any of this, that some people see it as a campaign against the autonomous individual.  And that’s why so many people react against it.  And it’s like campaigning against electric lighting, people will fight you to retain it.  And all these things that actually we haven’t had for very long at all suddenly seemed  to people to be essential, because they associate them with freedom and self-expression.

KT:  But then look at Mubarak.  In our lifetime, look at things like the Berlin Wall coming down, or now the Arab spring – it’s not a long list, but it reminds you that there is a kind of tipping point, which is usually invisible moving forward and which are seen only in retrospect, when things can happen.  You don’t know what’s going to happen, and it could really  happen quickly.

DT:  I think that if you’ve really been thinking deeply and systemically about the extinction crisis, to go back to that for a moment, you have this really deep fear that extinction is forever, okay?  There’s no going back.  Human civilisation today has stopped evolution, and the extinction crisis is an expression of that.  Carried out to its extremes, it makes everything else irrelevant.  All of nature unravels to the point where civilisation can’t survive because the oceans are being acidified, the climate is being changed, the web of life is unravelling, agriculture isn’t working – it’s just a huge spiralling down.  So you can look at it ethically, from that religious position…

KT:  …it’s a moral issue.

DT:  It’s a moral issue.  It’s a primary sin, so to speak, however you want to express it.  But it is practical too, because you are sawing away the branch you are sitting on.  And then you can say, well what are the other aspects of working towards the conservation of nature, or biodiversity, if you will?  Well, it’s life affirming, you’re doing something that brings joy and assists other species to survive, you’re helping evolution to continue, you’re working with great people, you have a rich spiritual life.  If you add up the positives, you bring it back to your own raison d’être, your own moral purpose, it seems to have everything to recommend it.  And you don’t have the death of birth, which is what extinction is.  So working to stop it just seems to me to be the smart course of action, for it brings meaning to one’s life.

KT:  There’s not a big downside!

PK:  So what was the process of moving from being in business, being in the clothing and then the fashion business, for so long, and then moving into this?

DT:  Well, for me it was a series of gradual shifts.  I don’t really buy this born-again stuff, the epiphany.  The stories you hear about the proverbial light bulb going off and then you move from left to right in a day.  It’s tough to disregard your formative worldview, it takes time.  First of all, your worldview was developed very slowly.  So then to reform it and to discard parts of it, it requires discipline and concentration – and reading.  That’s why I believe you have to do your homework and scholarship.  You can probably reform your worldview without the scholarship but it will be tougher.  Better sit down and read the thinkers who have been working on these ideas for a long time to help you speed up your “reformation”!  It’s the questioning of your assumptions.  Why is the world the way it is?  Then it all starts to open out.

You know, when I was starting all those businesses and doing all that work, I didn’t have a clue about worldview.  It wasn’t until I was at least forty years old – thirty years ago now nearly – that it hit me that I had to get a grip on what my worldview was.  I can remember, I don’t know how many years ago it was now, I read a book called Where The Wasteland Ends by Ted Roszak.  It was about the making of the counterculture, and he wrote another book with that very title too.  He is a really good social critic with a kind of green side to him.  And then I read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, then I read David Ehrenfeld’s The Arrogance of Humanism – this is in the mid-1970s.  Then I read Paul Shepherd’s stuff, and I started to read other thinkers – Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality and Deschooling Society.  So then I started to read more about epistemology and worldview and over time I started to realise that all the people I was working with and associated with in the industry I was in – they didn’t have a clue!  Their worldview was going nowhere – or nowhere good, I should say – and their techno-industrial worldview and most all that followed from it was destroying nature and it was exacerbating the extinction crisis.

And then I just worked backwards and asked myself: all these development ideas, if they’re just exacerbating the extinction crisis, where are they going to go?  It can never work, the whole development worldview.  And as I said, I use the extinction crisis as a metric for everything.  Nobody has shown me a better one.  When you think about the idea of the death of birth, and the idea of stopping evolution, I can’t think of anything more profoundly disturbing than that.

And then you’ve got to separate the strategy from the substance.  I believe that one needs to get one’s worldview straight before one can come to some kind of solution.  It’s important not to jump straight into strategy until you have a better substantive understanding of what the issue is.  Which means epistemology, a real examination of worldview.  It’s the worldview that has to be adjusted, and once it’s been adjusted then the solutions come on their own, then strategies fall into place.

PK:  And that is the hard work, isn’t it?  Because you probably have to do twenty years of reading in order to understand what you’ve been educated in.

DT:  It takes a long time to lose what you were acculturated to, for all of us.  You have to be very alert and you have to be self-critical, and that’s hard to do.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’m far more conscious of the mistakes and how I’m being swept along in the system.  From my view, if you don’t make a deep, systemic analysis of the whole ecosocial crisis, you know, then you’re almost guaranteed to make  the wrong strategic approach.  For example, you’ve got to examine all of the technological assumptions.  You know, the belief, the acculturated view, that technology will keep progressing and evolving and that it will all be positive, and the easy dismissal of technological failures.  I believe – and I say this over and over again – that the technological critique is the Achilles heel of our social movements.  All across the line, the social movements are not good technological critics.  Nobody is ready to raise it.

PK:  You see this so often when people start to talk about sustainability, don’t you?  You hear this question asked all the time: “how are we going to meet our energy needs?” It’s the first question that’s asked, and you constantly hear this phrase, “our energy needs”, and the only argument it seems to be permissible to have in the mainstream sustainability debate is what kind of technology we are going to use to meet these needs.  We’re hearing these constant arguments at the moment: are we going to use nukes, are we going to use big wind, are we going to use solar, what combination of these things are we going to use – but this phrase “our energy needs”, which ought to be analysed and taken apart before anything else is talked about, is barely if ever questioned.  What are these needs, why do we need them, who is “we” – all that stuff just falls by the wayside.  And the strange thing is, that most of the people in the green movement, they know this stuff, they know why it’s important, but that is not worth talking about.

DT:  Well again, we come back to that question, is it even desirable?  What is desirable?  I went to a big dinner one night in California, it was a big gathering of social justice people.  This was almost twenty years ago, and Aung San Suu Kyi was there and her husband, and everyone was hanging around listening to her.  And I got into an argument with a woman there about electricity and about dams.  We were talking about the Narmada Dam in India.  We had a campaign going, and I said well, they shouldn’t build this dam.  And this woman said so you mean to say that we shouldn’t have electricity?  And I said no, what I’m saying is that if these dams are going to drive more species extinct, then we shouldn’t build them.  So we go back and forth, and finally I asked her straight out: okay, so you want electricity, do you want electricity at all costs?  If the cost of electricity was to drive some species extinct, would you still want it?  Are you willing to still build that dam knowing that it will drive a species, or some species, extinct?  And she said yes.

And we were standing around in a group, and it had got kind of heated, and there were all these social justice activists there, and there it was: this human-centred drive for comfort and for the benefits that electricity brings, versus the disappearance of other life.  There it was, right on the table.  And most people will never admit to that, they will equivocate, but she was willing to say it.  She had to have her electricity.  And all the people standing around, I watched this tense moment there, they couldn’t believe she would say it.  They could believe she would think it!  But not that she would say it.  And this remains stuck in my memory, because she was just a spokesperson for a vast universe of people who will make that choice if push comes to shove.  And there lies the underpinning of the biodiversity crisis – it’s there.

Now, most people are just floating along in a great stream of progress and time, so to speak, and they don’t think about this.  Nothing happens to crystallise that cause and effect in their mind, and then force them to take a moral position on it: to say, we can’t be developing our society in a way that is putting at risk other species, that is causing extinction.  That’s the moral position I take, which is to say that other beings have inherent worth, intrinsic worth independent of their utilitarian value to the human economy.

I mean, this is not rocket science!  That’s why you’re finding there are so many Dark Mountaineers out there.  There is a large body of people with common sense, who know this at some level.

PK:  I think that’s true.  Even the most gung-ho development freak knows what price is being paid, even if they don’t care about it.  But it’s also about knowing what to do with that knowledge.  You can have this worldview, you can do the reading, you can see what’s going on – but then you say, what do I do about?

DT:  And the answer is that you find an issue you are close to and which matters to you and you take a position there, on that broad front.  Do what you can do.  And people have different skills and different capacities and different resources.  Some people are good at thinking, some people are good at running a website, some people are good at political action, some people have wealth they can use, some people have leadership capabilities, some people are writers, and they find their place along this long front, where their skills lie and where they can best contribute.  Everybody finds a place and they take up their spot.  You’ve got to figure out what you can do – but you’ve got get your ass in gear and do something!

But you’ve got to get that systemic analysis under your belt first.  I see people all the time who want to jump into action before they’ve questioned their basic assumptions and gotten their worldview sorted out.  I argue with people all the time about this, colleagues in conservation or environmentalism.  I say, hey, you’ve got to think about this deeper or you’ll get the wrong strategy.  You know, you’re a tech optimist, you’ve got to do a little examination of why you see any new technology as being automatically progressive.  You’ve got to do a deep analysis of the intrinsic logic of many mega technologies, and you can’t do that analysis with your attitude, you can’t get to first base, so you’re going to make all sorts of mistakes.  You’re going to end up in the smart resource management school; you know, the green tech side – which these days is unfortunately the vast majority of the movement.

PK:  Yes, it is.  I get into these arguments all the time about these huge wind power stations going up all over open land, and many environmentalists have this unquestioning acceptance of this.  They just think, oh it’s wind, it’s a renewable technology, that’s progress, we like that, anyone who doesn’t is a friend of fossil fuel or the nuclear industry.  And they’ll be out there arguing for the mass destruction of open landscapes in the name of getting “clean energy” for a purpose they haven’t identified yet.  And you get all these spurious arguments, all these people saying, “but these things are beautiful, they’re so elegant!  You have to learn to love them.  My heart leaps up every time I see a five-hundred-foot wind turbine on a mountain!”  And that’s mainstream environmentalism today, and if you’re against that you’re a reactionary and a romantic.  And it’s astonishing to see how quickly this has happened, and how unquestioningly – and how the progressive narrative that environmentalism used to challenge has been dragged in to the argument to support this case.

DT:  Oh yeah, I’ve had a thousand arguments like this too.  You know what I say?  Well, I say first of all, it’s important to develop an aesthetic sense and make aesthetic judgments.  So when you see one of those huge pylons with those enormous turning blades on it, what do you see?  What does that mean to you?  And they say, what are you getting at?  That sounds like a loaded question!  And I say, well I’ll tell you what I see, and then you can tell me what you see.

When I look at one of those giant turbines, I see the icon of techno-industrial culture.  I see the contemporary expression of the Enlightenment, of Cartesian logic, the scientific revolution and then the Industrial Revolution and then the information revolution.  I see this as all symbolised there, as if it were a logotype.  I see it as the iconography of all that.  And that whole techno-industrial society that we’ve created as an expression of the Enlightenment, you can go back and see how that whole worldview has been channelled over five hundred years.  What is it?  It’s global climate change!  That’s the result.  The way of thinking that could create those windmills is the same way of thinking that caused climate change in the first place.  Just imagine for a minute, just step back and imagine ruining the whole climate!  That’s the result of the techno-industrial culture which these Big Wind turbines symbolise.  And I know that it requires the whole enchilada of techno-industrial culture just to produce one of these things.  It requires all the mining, all the alloys, all the computers – the whole scaffolding of civilisation.  And that scaffolding is undoing the world.  That’s what I see when I see your big windmill on the mountain.  And for that reason, I don’t think it is desirable.

PK:  And then they go a bit quiet, do they?

DT:  Well, if you can express that well, and if they want to listen, then you can say, I don’t want to demean you or to insult you, but there is a whole level on which you haven’t been thinking, and which you should explore.  And when you do, I think that you won’t see those windmills in the same light you saw them in before.  And that process, that little exercise, you can extend that to many many things.  You can say, you see that cell phone in your hand?  It doesn’t look good.  It symbolises that huge scaffolding of civilisation that is undoing the natural world.  And we should not be looking favourably on that, or on the icons of the civilisation that is doing that, and those icons are symbolised to me in things like the big windmill or the cell phone or the laptop computer or anything from combustion engines to agrochemicals.

This is fundamentally a technological critique, and you have to learn that and understand what it means, and you have to learn about the autonomous nature of technology, and what it is and as an activist articulate this to society and to culture.  And you really have to understand that the technologies you use will dictate how a society is.  I mean look at all these kids around now walking around with their phones in their hands, looking at their little screen, oblivious to anything.  They’ve all got their heads down, they’ve lost track, they’ve unplugged themselves from the real world and put themselves in the virtual world.  I used to have these fights with my old friend Steve Jobs, the Apple guy, and it infuriated him.

PK:  I bet it did!

DT:  Well, it was like telling a Catholic that there’s no God.

PK:  So how did he answer this critique of yours?  He must have had a worldview to come back at you with.

DT:  No, he couldn’t.  It infuriated him.  I’d say to him, Steve, these computers you’re inventing here, they’re destroying the world!  They are devices of acceleration, they move at the speed of light, they speed up and amplify production and economic activity.  I used to really get on his case about it.  He once made this gigantic ad campaign about twenty five years ago, where they had “1001 things that the personal computer could do”, and of course all the things were great, you couldn’t argue with any of them.  But they only added up to about 5 per cent of what the bloody personal computer actually did.  The other 95 per cent he left out, and that was the massive acceleration in the conversion of nature to human culture.  Oceans, healthy water, soil, healthy atmosphere and forests: those five major components of life were all being converted that much faster – five times faster, ten times faster, a hundred times faster – because of the pace of computers amplifying economic activity.  I’d say don’t give me all this shit about all the wonderful things your machines do, that’s just the cherry on top of this shit cake!  He would get huffy of course, because Steve was wedded to his view that all this technology he was envisioning was the road to paradise.

You know we were talking earlier about the generation that is growing up now embedded in this; this is their epistemology.  That’s just the world they were born into, it’s going to be hell trying to get them out.  And nobody in the technosphere is talking about the dangers of the technosphere, of course.  We don’t really understand the autonomous nature of technology.  Once you’re plugged into this stuff, you can’t unplug.  And if there is no way to check in on yourself, because you’re embedded in the technosphere, then you’ll never get out.  The contemporary person today is swimming in the technological milieu, unaware of it, like fish unaware they are in water.

I won’t make rash predictions, and the Luddites were crushed, it’s true, but there is a movement afoot – not challenging technology per se, but challenging the larger overarching system we are all ensnared in.  That’s what you’ve sensed with Dark Mountain.  Lots of people in lots of different places are coming to similar conclusions without even talking to each other.  And they’re coming to these conclusions in all parts of the world by simply seeing and observing what’s taking place around them.  They are careful observers.  And there are not many careful observers out of any hundred: there’s one or two.  But they’re adding up.  And it makes a fair number when you add them all up.  And now we’ve got Occupy Wall Street, Indignados in Spain and other similar movements elsewhere coming to the same conclusions about the financial system.  The wealth is being concentrated higher and higher up the so called social ladder, and there’s a bigger and bigger gap, and we’ve got everything we’ve been talking about tonight focused in on the destruction of nature, and it’s all coming to the boil.

Dark Mountaineers can see this fairly comprehensively.  It’s expressed in a much more narrow way in the Occupy movement – but it’s happening all over the place in different guises.  It’s a small base right now, but it’s the fastest-growing social awareness movement out there, all of this together.  I think it’s inevitable if you look carefully.  Something is happening out there, we can see the dim outlines of it, but it is still vague and without a well defined form.  It’s like being Dark Sailors rather than Dark Mountaineers!  Like being at sea and seeing something in the distance like the first sight of land, but we can’t see it well, it’s still slightly over the horizon.  That is the moment we are in now, or so I feel.

A Bell for Lost Species

It takes several days to make a bell: two or three to prepare the mould, one to pour the molten bronze, another to clean and polish it once it has cooled. In the age before industrialisation, when transporting heavy objects by road was much harder than today, they were often made by itinerant founders who travelled from town to town, and church to church, making bells on site – building a furnace and kiln in the grounds of a church or monastery, constructing a mould from loam, and asking the local landowner for silver to give the bell ‘a nice silvery ring’ (the silver, more often than not, would end up in the founder’s pocket and no one would be the wiser). Other customs and superstitions surround the craft of making bells, not all of them connected with minor acts of theft. In Germany, bells were embossed with sage leaves as symbols of good luck, reflecting older pagan beliefs, and all over Europe bells were baptised before being rung for the first time, endowing them with a soul. The creation of a bell has always been an event of deep symbolic importance in the life of a community.

The tradition of itinerant bell-making is continued today by David Snoo Wilson and Jo Lathwood, who have built a travelling foundry they can unload from the back of a van. Most of their kit is homemade – the furnace and kiln are built from recycled gas canisters – and their knowledge self-taught, partly from Dave’s journeyman visits to foundries in Central Europe but mostly from trial, error and plenty of spilled metal. For several years they have founded bells at festivals, weddings and other happenings, and a couple of summers ago they invited me to join them. I help with a couple of practical things – skimming the impurities, or ‘dross’, from the surface of the golden soup – but my main role is to explain to spectators what’s going on. With their visor-like face shields, and the roar of the furnace, it’s hard for Dave and Jo’s voices to be heard. So I provide the words. I tell the stories.

Image by Nick Caro

At the end of last month, Brighton’s ONCA Centre for Art and Ecology commissioned us to make a bell to be rung on the 30th November – the International Remembrance Day for Lost Species, which has been observed every year since 2011. The event has emerged from a convergence of extinction-related memorials that have appeared in Brighton in recent years, notably Feral Theatre’s carnivalesque Funerals for Lost Species, and the stone-by-stone growth of the Life Cairn on the nearby Sussex Downs. Similar observances have mushroomed across the world, including funeral pyres for the great auk in Scotland and Wales, a candlelit vigil for butterflies in Belgium, and cairns for lost species appearing from Sweden to the Galapagos Islands.

There are various names for what’s happening, and most of them will be familiar to readers of this blog – the Sixth Extinction, the Holocene Extinction, the age of mass ecocide. Whatever you call it, it has the distinction of being the only so-called ‘extinction event’ to be caused by the actions of one species: us. It started perhaps 13,000 years ago with the disappearance of the megafauna – the wooly mammoths, cave bears and ground sloths alongside whom modern humans evolved – but has accelerated massively since the start of the industrial era, when our ability to wreck havoc on the non-human lifeforms that share our planet has reached awesome proportions. By one estimate, the Earth has lost 40% of its wildlife in the past 40 years. By another, 140,000 species vanish every year. These statistics are meaningless, of course – as unhelpful for comprehending disaster as knowing how many units of carbon enter the atmosphere every hour – and push the horror of what’s happening into the abstract realm of statistics, safe from emotional access. There are landmark dates that bring the story closer, garnished with brutal facts: the last dodo was shot or clubbed to death in 1662, the last great auk was strangled by a sailor in 1844, the last passenger pigeon died alone in a cage in 1914, the last western black rhino was butchered by poachers in 2011. Then there is the knowledge of future extinctions, as inevitable as sea-level rise: two and a half weeks ago, with the death of an individual named Nola, a quarter of the northern white rhino population vanished in an afternoon.

Neither the statistics nor the stories seem enough to help us understand such loss. So how can we start to comprehend it? How can we process this great unravelling? We need something more than facts and words – and this, I think, explains the emergence of the lost species funerals, the building of cairns, the remembrance vigils and all the other expressions of grief that our times seem to make necessary. Loss of life, on any scale, has always engendered ritual.

Image by Nick Caro

Bells are ritual tools. We have used them for a long time. The first bells appeared in Neolithic China about 5,000 years ago, and they made their way from east to west with migration, trade and religion, arriving in Western Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Our English word ‘bell’ comes from the Saxon bellan, meaning to bawl or bellow. A Celtic word for bell was clocca, from which we get the word ‘clock’ – from the earliest times bells have been associated with the measurement of time, giving shape and structure to the day. In Christian communities they regulated every part of daily life, telling people when to wake up, when to eat, when to sleep and when to pray – on a larger scale, they marked the thresholds of life and death. Bells were rung to announce birth, to celebrate marriage and to mourn death – they warned of impending disaster, of war, invasion, fire and flood, and were rung to celebrate the occasional outbreak of peace. They were tolled in times of loss. They were tolled to help people remember.

Image by Nick Caro

We founded the Bell for Lost Species on a windy Sunday afternoon on the Level, a traffic-ringed strip of grass that runs towards Brighton’s seafront. From the back of Dave’s van we unloaded two canisters of propane gas, our furnace, our kiln, our crucible, a medieval-looking assortment of tools including tongs and an iron ‘cradle’ to transport extremely hot metal, placed 4kg of bronze in the crucible, and fired up the furnace. The bell mould, made of ceramic shell – and embossed with the extinction symbol and a beautiful design by seven-year-old Jared Masters depicting the extinct island rail – was placed in the kiln to heat to the temperature of 1100 degrees. We waited, drinking tea. A small audience assembled. We donned our heatproof leather tunics, aprons, gloves and face shields. The bronze began to sweat, and drip, and slide into liquid form like butter melting in a pan, and as this alchemy took place I read a roll call of the names of creatures we will never see again – the auroch, the giant short-faced bear, the Darling Downs hopping mouse, the elephant bird, the Syrian wild ass, the pig-footed bandicoot, the Ilin Island cloudrunner, the laughing owl, the bluebuck, the quagga, the sharp-snouted day frog, the tarpan, the turquoise-throated puffleg – and when the bronze was at temperature, and flux had been thrown in the liquid metal to separate the pure from the dross, we turned the roaring furnaces off. There was a lovely silence. In this silence we asked those assembled to think about why they were there – to respectfully mourn the death of life, to give focus and clarity to grief. And then Dave and Jo cradled the crucible over to the mould, glowing bright orange-hot, and poured out the liquid bronze. Some people applauded, some cried.

On the evening of the 30th November, the Bell for Lost Species was rung. It was tolled 108 times – a sacred number in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious traditions – while a small audience listened in the rain. The reverberations hung in the air like the names of the species spoken aloud – and then, like the species themselves, they faded into nothing.

Screenshot 2015-12-05 at 22.12.02
Image by Nick Caro

You can find the travelling foundry Ore + Ingot at, and the ONCA Centre for Arts and Ecology at


Dancing the Cailleach

Last month on the road to Holt in Norfolk a man came across a deer as he was speeding homeward. It was a fully pregnant doe. The man did an unprecented thing: he slit open the belly of the dead creature and delivered a live fawn.

I am holding a copy of the Eastern Daily Press where the story has just made the front page, in spite of all the terrors and hostilities clamouring for attention. The tiny fawn looks calmly outward, suckling on a bottle of milk, held in the large tattooed hands of the man. When asked what made him stop that morning he said:

‘It is perhaps something you will never come across again in your lifetime and I am just thankful that I knew what to do.’

The instructions were simple. Catch the 16:21 train from Glasgow to Fort William. Get out at Corrour and follow the stag.

Some part of us knows that beneath the noise and strife of the modern world, beyond the headlines, there is a deep place where our presence on the Earth is not for nothing. That when we come across it on an empty road at dawn we will know what to do. For thousands of years our negotiation with life was understood in terms of our relationship with the horned beasts we once lived alongside, and a mythical being, sometimes known as the Mistress of the Deer. In Scotland, and particularly in this part of the Highlands, she is known as the Cailleach (pronounced Call-y-ack). Samhain – All Souls, Day of the Dead and Halloween – is the time when the Cailleach, Queen of Winter, takes over the mantle of Earth from Bridget, the bright one, in a similar way the Oak cedes to the Holly at the summer solstice in England.

The instructions were simple. ‘You’re going to be the Cailleach’ said Dougie, ‘and dance to a piped lament on the moor.’

‘It will be dark then,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Very dark. And maybe raining’.

So that was it how it was when we set out on a moonless wet night: Jack (the Stag), Wilf (the Wolf), Dougie and I on 30 October to walk the track toward Corrour station. I will bring up the rear, Dougie said. Martha (the Cook) remained at the hostel to hold the hearth. I was left on the hillside with instructions to light the fire (rags soaked in citronella) and start the music (in a box hidden by the rock) and do my thing.

I don’t really know what I am going to do of course. I have a red velvet dress on and a furry cape and a large fashion hat I have wreathed in birch twigs and barn owl’s wings. A midge veil is covering my face – not that there are any midges at this time of year, though there are roving and rutting stags. One is out there. We have just seen him. He was massive and did not move away when Jack flashed his torch.

I have done some challenging gigs in my time, but this has to be the mother of all of them.

ctf hostel

Carrying the Fire is a series of events created by artist and Dark Mountain curator Dougie Strang. So far there have been three, all set at Wiston Lodge on the Scottish borders. They have been small gatherings, for about 60 people, shaped in a similar way to the Uncivilisation Festivals – workshops, music, performance, discussion and of course a storytelling fire. This year’s was a departure. It was for a smaller group (20) built around the festival of Samhain and located deep in the heathery heart of Rannoch Moor. We would be based at a wooden hostel, once the boathouse of the shooting lodge, beside Loch Ossian (Osh-een) at the foot of Beinn a’ Bhric, the Cailleach’s mountain. The nearest road is 18 miles away.

The structure for the event was woven around three mythic stories embedded in this territory, which Dougie would tell over the weekend: on arrival beside the crackling stove with mugs of cocoa, by the Samhain fire, and on the platform of the highest station in Britain as we departed. On Saturday we would be taken by Neil Harvey (of Wild Journeys) up the mountain trails to do a ‘Whakapapa’ – a walking exchange between pairs of people, sharing our lifestories and geographies. On Sunday I would lead a workshop based on the Earth Dialogue and send folk out into the hills on their own. They would come back and relate what they experieced to each other in groups of four and then draw a collective dream map.

Like all Carrying the Fire events the fire would be a focal space where people sing and tell stories and pass round a bottle of malt. This part is mapped out. What we don’t know is that Gavin will also pass quartz rocks around, so we can make sparks in the dark; that Ben and Darla and Tamsin will teach us a Georgian song taught to them by Ivan who used a giant staff to protect orphaned children; or that Jonny will read a passage about the last wolf making her trek across the snow fields of the north where the swans sleep. And out of the darkness a skein of whooper swans will fly over the loch, calling.

The instructions were simple. You go out and stand in the land, you come back and relate what happened. What you say, what you do with what you know, is the thing that the Earth waits for. Your gift. What is that story? You forgot it. Ah. Here is a hint.

Arrive in the dark.
Follow the stag.
Wait for the people to come round the hill.

ctf 5-walking-gavin

When Jack comes round the corner his flambard has gone out. Luckily I can see a tiny infrared beam from his head torch. I leap into action — light fire, switch on music — and begin to sway, arms moving about like antlers and birch trees in the wind, boots anchored on the slippery rocky slope. I can’t see or hear anything through the veil. I don’t know whether anyone is there, or whether they have gone past. I keep dancing until I hear people howling and laughing in the distance. They have discovered Wilf! I gather everything up and go to find him. I feel exultant.

‘You looked about ten foot tall!’ exclaims everyone, when we walk back in (without costumes). ‘And then you would disappear! And reappear. It was scary. It was magical!’

‘Is dance your practice?’ asks another. ‘You were so rooted!

‘No.’ I laugh, ‘but I do love to dance’. (I didn’t like to say I couldn’t move my feet in their massive boots on that rock in case I fell over).

DSC_0383Samhain is a door. It is a door to the ancestors, and this is what we are doing up here, connecting with the ancestor that lives in our bones, out in the wild places. The Cailleach is the ancestor creator of these high places. Out of her creel she once tossed big stones that became the peaks that now tower above the golden deer grass and shiny lochans of the valley floor. She brings the cold sharp winds of winter, commands the weather and wildness. Her face is blue and sometimes veiled like the mist. In the spring she washes her plaid in the Corryvreckan whirlpool between Jura and Scarba, and then she turns into a rock.

We walk over this springy rocky rainsoaked moor, sprinkled with the flowers of heather and milkwort like a fading summer dress. I pocket the last of the year’s bilberries and bearberries and Martha shows me some fragrant crackly leaves from a plant I haven’t seen in years, bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale, and says she will make a tea from them all. A tea that will have the bitter taste of farewell.

ctf 17-samhain-map-gavinSamhain is a door. Sometimes you need a set and a setting, a space, permission to do things differently: to dig deep, to sit alone, to dance in the night with a veil over your head. You don’t know what will happen except something will happen. A small thing that makes sense of everything. That expectancy, that sharpness, that not-knowing is part of its territory.

I could tell you about the people who came, and the laughing around the tables as the feast of venison and pumpkin was served, or the sight of twenty pairs of boots hanging from the rafters, or the drama of crossing the stream, or how my Whakapapa companion, 18 minutes into his 20 minute story, told me that something dark happened on the mountain when his friend slipped and fell to his death. There were always hills and mountains, he said, that came at a pivotal point, that changed the direction of everything. The Dales, Mont Blanc, Glencoe. How that all our lifechanging territories and encounters that we recount on our return make some kind of collective pattern: woods which were torn down for houses, a tsunami in Sri Lanka that nearly drowned a family, a broken road in Iceland that snapped a connection between people,  housing estates in Britain where art and writing reforged them.

I could tell you how how I woke to find Venus and a sickle moon in a clear sky and swam into the cold waters of the loch. How I watched the sun creep downwards from the peaks, turning the dun hillsides gold, the mountains like beasts crounching, attentive, so alive I could almost touch them.

How the star Sirius rose over the mountain, as it has always risen over the mountain, heralding winter.

ctf deerskin

When Donald of the Brown Eyes hunts his last deer he slits open the belly and finds a ball of wool. It is the beginning of sheep herding in the Highlands and a domesticated relationship with the creatures. In modern Scotland deer are killed on the road, deer are shot by blood-hungry elites and deer (and sheep) chew every last tree standing. When the wolves and the Cailleach roamed on these mountains and the people met around the fire everything was held in balance. Something of that balance, what is sometimes called medicine, is contained in these old stories and in, we are hoping, this event.

Carrying the Fire’s name is taken in part from the dystopic novel, The Road, where the father explains to his son that the purpose of being human is ‘to carry the fire’ and that if that spirit is lost the art of being human is also lost. The Cailleach is not human: she is a mythic being that lives deep in our bones and sinews, the parts of us that resonate with stones and wild weather. She reminds us of human beings’ original bargain with Earth. Sometimes we need a reminder that she is still there, so we can carry the fire, come what may. So, in spite of living in a 24/7 world, we can mark time; in spite of living in a world where we are told we do not belong, we can make ourselves at home.

I took eight stones out of the loch and laid them on Jack’s deer pelt. Here is a medicine wheel, I said: the blue stones represent the Earth cross and red stones represent the sun cross. The eight work like doors, marking gateways you go through. In the Americas the medicine wheel is about space and the directions that bring different challenges and riches. The north is where the ancestors live.

‘The wheel of these British islands however is all about time. The stones mark a clock on which you can measure the time of the year and your own time and the time we are all in now – which is a time of breakdown and decay. What old forms need to go and what ancient roots need to hold fast in this time? What are we all doing here together at this moment with the ancestor mountain behind us and the lake of the bard before us?’

Everyone leaves and goes out on the pathways toward the hillsides. Some crouch down beside the loch or the roots of the birch trees at the back of the hostel. Some walk out of sight.

I go out and sit on a rock striped with white quartz, and sing a chant to the mountain: it is a song that comes from the Andes, that comes from the Sierra Madre, that come from a sky island known as the Place of Many Springs. No one taught me that song.

beinn a bhric

Sometimes you contact something from the dark peaty layer, as Dougie calls the Cailleach’s territory, that bursts through the dimensions, through time and space. It calls you to attention: the part of you that knows what to do when you find a dead deer on the roadway. You can deliver the fawn, you can do your thing in the dark and the rain. You can remember. Remembering can take you away from the light of the fire and the kitchen, and yet in the dark you feel you belong, you matter, in a way no culture, no family, no work, no political ideology, can ever make you feel. I am not sure I can take you there with words. I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself:

‘It was not a psychological or therapeutic setting’, wrote Caroline Ross, afterwards,

but a deeply connected almost mythic space.  As I have only seen properly described in the words of Riddley Walker, or perhaps the books of Ursula K LeGuin, People are not the only people there. Land, rocks, mountains and lakes, beings and heroes of the past, forces and gods are at the fireside too…

…if you showed me a far-off society where Samhain was celebrated as we did at Carrying the Fire, I would go into exile from this country to live there with those good people and become part of that culture. Ceremony, gathering together and marking the passage of the year and of our lives are so lost in the wider human culture in Britain from which I am mostly alienated, and manage to evade by living moored beside a tiny island in the middle of a river.

My heart was at home over Samhain, and through unparalleled good fortune, I was at home both culturally and geographically. People are made refugees every day and must leave their hearths for uncertain futures. Even within this country, Britons are displaced from the beneficial aspects of their culture and nature, by the market, homelessness, delusion and a thousand other causes. 

But the deer are still here, and so are the mountains, and the wind, and there is still enough wood to make a fire. There are people who can still remember the stories that makes sense of everything, and the movements that are the shape of antlers or a tree moving in the wind. And if on a winter’s day in the Highlands you hear a raven croak behind you, the Cailleach will still be there to show you her misty face that is sometimes blue.


Way out

Images by Gavin MacGregor, Sarah Thomas, Jon Randall and Charlotte Du Cann.

You can see a full photographic report about the event here

This weekend Charlotte is taking part in a series of DM workshops and talks, curated by co-founder Dougald Hine in Sweden. This month’s will be based on her story about the Underworld The Seven Coats (Issue 6).

Keep an eye out for next year’s Carrying the Fire/Dark Mountain gathering. Details to be announced next year.