The Dark Mountain Blog

Pod Tune

My childhood was steeped in science fiction.

My favourite was the original Star Trek. It shaped the way I looked at the world. Captain Kirk enrolled at Star Fleet Academy to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before.’ Following in his footsteps, I signed up with the Peace Corps, United Nations, and Doctors Without Borders. I eventually transitioned into environmental activism as protecting the world as a whole became my passion.

A fundamental concept of Star Trek always stayed with me. Nearly every episode featured some type of alien. The crew of the Enterprise regularly initiated contact, negotiated, dined, forged treaties, made love, and occasionally battled with highly-intelligent aliens — usually friendly, sometimes grumpy, and occasionally hostile. Aliens were just part of the universe. Aliens and humans comingled. Aliens and humans belonged together.

About three years ago I was hit by a sudden insight: we share our planet with a myriad of highly-intelligent, non-human, alien-like creatures. The most striking examples, in my mind, are the whales.

Whales are by nature profound. They have the largest brains and hearts of any species on the planet — and the largest songs*.

Humpback whales in particular produce complex vocalisations that can last for ten to twenty minutes and then get repeated for hours at a time — sometimes for an entire twenty-four-hour cycle. Scientists are still not certain about the purpose of the songs.

While we’ve been sending private rockets to the International Space Station and landing probes on passing comets, deep within the planet’s vast and unexplored oceans live enormously intelligent whales who seem to be waiting for us to engage them in conversation.

The idea behind POD TUNE was to take this conversation to a new level.

Over the years, I have helped groups like Rainforest Action Network, Forest Ethics, and Greenpeace with their story-based messaging. The impetus was showcasing how human actions are endangering ecosystems in addition to individual species.

With POD TUNE the objective shifted to creating an experience of interspecies communion through collaborative music.

Listen to ‘Altus’ by Loscil

The music would have to be accessible — sounding special and ordinary at the same time. Pure humpback whalesong is utterly fascinating, but I never play it all by itself in my everyday life. Whale sounds feel too otherworldly on their own at a dinner party, business meeting, or morning commute. POD TUNE would have to work equally inside a car, cubicle, bedroom, yoga studio, restaurant, and coffee shop.

The music would also have to be good. Eco-schmaltz or New Age sap would never suffice. Accomplished musicians from all over the globe would be called in to give different perspectives, but remain within a single genre. The final line-up would involve composers from the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, and Taiwan. Ambient was the obvious choice as it is both well suited for whalesong and also enjoying an international renaissance.

Finally, I envisioned a sonic experience that could capture the imagination of a first-time listener. This happened to me in a San Francisco coffee house when the first notes of Radiohead’s Kid A drifted out of the speakers. I stopped working and remained transfixed until it ended — at which time I implored the barista to share the name of the composer and album. The POD TUNE album would likewise take audiences on a journey through mythic imaginary landscapes.

Listen to ‘Marine Layers’ by Mikael Jorgensen

Many of the major whale researchers and institutions agreed to share the catalogues they had spent decades accumulating. Three years of experimentation eventually resulted in a cohesive album. Most importantly, the atmosphere it generated while being played interweaved just enough introspection and repose to allow it to be replayed many times without getting stale.

I’ve heard it innumerable times and I still enjoy being taken on the audio pilgrimage where two sentient species seem to inhabit the same soundscape.

Isn’t this an example of an evolved environmental philosophy that might lead our civilisation to affirming all kinds of life — seemingly ‘alien’ and human living and working together — just like Star Trek?

*Except for Thom Yorke who recently created a 432-hour song for an Australian art installation.

Listen to ‘My Jaw Was Made Of Ancient Whale’s Bone’
by Eric Holm

You can listen to the whole of POD TUNE on Soundcloud

or purchase the album here

Harold Linde (Producer) creates new ‘eco-myths’ using multi-platform media and innovative storytelling to demonstrate how humans can creatively collaborate with other species and the environment. He has worked with such organisations as International Fund for Animal Welfare, Forest Ethics, Greenpeace, TckTckTck, Rainforest Action Network, Free the Slaves, Doctors Without Borders, Peace Corps and the United Nations — as well as such film and television projects as 11th Hour, Battle in Seattle, DragonflyTV, 30 Days, and Big Ideas for a Small Planet. He is the recipient of the WorldFest Gold Special Jury Medal, Gold Medal International CINDY, New York Film & Video Gold Medal, Catalyst Gold Medal, OMNI Intermedia Bronze Medal, San Jose Film Festival Joey, TELLY, Instructional Video EarthVision Environmental Film Festival Trophy and Japan Wildlife Film Festival Message Awards. 

A Beacon in the Sand


We might begin with the image of American history as a great tidal wave of progress. A wave launched with the appearance of the colonists; a wave rolling with greater and greater momentum westward across the continent. It brushed aside everything that resisted it. It used covered wagons and steamships, homesteads and railroads, guns and axes; it used laws and politics, noble speeches and the rhetoric of free enterprise; it used corporate charters and city charters and civic pride. It remade everything it touched.

This is a rather unreconstructed metaphor we are, for example, bypassing the question of what this wave might look like to a Native American standing in its way – but it is at the same time a useful one. It captures something of the old notion of Manifest Destiny, and a bit of the American view of its own history as one of an inevitable, necessary advancement. It captures something of the feeling of propulsion that can seem at times to occupy the heart of the so-called American experiment. But it is also useful because of the questions it raises. If our history is to be seen, metaphorically, as a wave of progress sweeping across the continent, what happens when that wave collides with the western wall of the Pacific Ocean? That is, what happens when the wave runs out of land?

At least two possibilities suggest themselves. It might be the case, first, that the wave of progress (we might call it ‘progress’) cannot be stopped. We can imagine it reaching the boundary of the Pacific and simply continuing to accelerate, if not geographically, then into other realms. If we keep pushing on the image, we come to the image that the West Coast, and California in particular, often project: they are the furthest point of advancement, the tip of the still-moving spear, the prow of the boat. This seems to be the self-imagining of Silicon Valley, which would like to see itself as riding at the edge of an accelerating frontier, a force (or the force) for progress and goodness in the world. It is also the imagining forwarded by the rhetoric of Hollywood, with its proclaimed position as the country’s ‘dream factory’, the place that points the way towards what the rest of us can only imagine ourselves being. Under these readings, our westward progress is still continuing. We advance, restlessly and unceasingly, towards some better place.

But there is another possibility. It might also be the case that the progress cannot go on forever. It may be that we should understand American civilisation as becoming increasingly enervated and deracinated as it spreads across the continent, thinner and less substantial, like a wave moving up a beach. Under this view, as it advances, our culture loses strength and decency. Our downfall is inevitable, and you can see that if you look westwards; California is the land of fad and fantasy. There is little more out there than a construction of cultureless suburbs, plastic and unrefined, deadening. This is the old view of the New York stage industry towards Hollywood; it’s the contemporary view sometimes exhibited by the East Coast establishment towards Silicon Valley: they are frivolous, substanceless dreamers with no grasp on either reality or propriety. All flash, no substance. Under this imagining, American civilisation has become increasingly self-corrupted as it has pushed towards the Pacific; the West Coast is not a beacon but a symbol of dissolution. The motion is not towards intensified life, but towards senescence. In the indelible image of the poet James Wright, ‘At the bottom of the cliff / America is over and done with / America, / Plunged into the dark furrows / of the sea again.’


 We might continue with a fact: California is running out of water. This is not a metaphor. The details are fairly straightforward. Precipitation has been extremely low for four years. We might also note an example of the difficulty the state has had in approaching this problem: in January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, and requested that citizens of the state reduce their water consumption. He set a goal of a 20% reduction in water usage. In July of that year, the governor was back with another announcement: the first summer water usage statistics had appeared, and despite the declared state of emergency, people were actually using more water than they had the previous year. Since then, despite rationing to farmland and rapidly-intensifying restrictions by municipalities, things have not improved. There is only so much slack in the system. People use water; they need water. And people need to eat. California produces 71% of spinach consumed in America, and 69% of carrots, 90% of the broccoli, 97% of the plums, 95% of the garlic. And more. It is the breadbasket of American agriculture.


 We might offer an observation. It involves Starbucks, a west-coast company (it began in Seattle), and one that heralded the cultural boom of the boutique excellence of the everyday product with which we are now surrounded, from craft coffee and beer to farm-to-table food and excellent television shows. Last year, at Starbucks in California and across the country, coffee cups appeared bearing paper sleeves emblazoned with motivational sayings from Oprah Winfrey. The program, affiliated with the company Teavana (a subsidiary of Starbucks) was familiar in its outlines. It combined notions of corporate philanthropy – a portion of profits was donated to one of Oprah’s own charitable foundations – with self-help jargon; the underlying motive was, of course, to increase sales for Starbucks and fame and profit for Oprah. In terms of the dynamics we expect from our corporations, there was little unusual in this.

But if we pause for a moment, and step outside of our own familiarity, it’s possible to see how absolutely strange this is. We were drinking from cups of coffee bearing self-help slogans. What on earth for? What, if we step back from our position of familiarity, does this mean? One obvious place to start is by examining the intention of this campaign: what was the effect it wanted to create? How exactly did it intend to increase sales? We might first note that these slogans made us, or tried to make us, feel better about ourselves. As Slavoj Zizek is fond of pointing out, programs like this one allow us to consume without guilt. When we patronised Starbucks last year, those coffee sleeves assured us that we were no longer simply buying a product from a large, faceless corporate entity that did not much acknowledge our existence. Instead, we were buying a product that both gave to charity and reinforced our notion that, through the purchase, we were actually increasing the degree of our self-actualisation. The product was, in some sense, engaging with us on a level that was separate from its existence as a simple commodity.

But what, exactly, was the content of this engagement? One of the messages from Oprah on the cardboard sleeves read: ‘Be more splendid. Be more extraordinary. Use every moment to fill yourself up.’ Splendid is descended from the Latin splendidus, meaning bright, or shining, or gorgeous. Extraordinary is also from a Latin word, meaning outside of the common order. So what Oprah and Starbucks were urging is that we be bright, shining, glorious stars of our own, outside the realm of the ordinary, that last world here presumably meaning ‘everybody else’. So far, so good. This message, like the program itself, is so familiar to American culture as to serve as an entirely unremarkable background, or perhaps foundational element, of it. Each of us can shine. Each of us can be perfectly individuated from the mass.

The second half of Oprah’s exhortation showed us how: ‘Use every moment to fill yourself up.’ Here again we have the familiar element of ‘using every moment’. Life is precious; waste none of it. And how? By ‘filling yourself up.’ It’s this last phrase that contains the pure distillation of the message, as though each of the preceding ideas has suddenly and sharply come into focus. There is, of course, the not-so-subtle pushing of the product through the reference of ‘filling’ (as in another cup of coffee.) Beyond this, however, resides the deeper image: we will become splendid and extraordinary by filling ourselves. We are to take every moment and use it to draw the world into us, to consume it; this moving of everything into our being will be the feat that actualises us.

This logic was pushed to its final conclusion by another slogan on a sleeve. ‘You are not here to shrink down to less, but to blossom into more of who you really are.’ That is to say, the exhortations of the first message are not exhortations to change ourselves. Rather, they are indications of our real, if hitherto unknown, potential. They are about our true purpose. You are not here to change, you are here ‘to blossom into more of who you really are.’ You already contain the seeds of greatness. To be ‘more splendid’ and ‘more extraordinary’, you need to fill yourself up. But this will not alter you, or make you into someone else. It will, instead, release your true self. It will reveal your deepest actuality. Do not change, and do not let people tell you to change; instead, fill yourself up until your true inner perfection begins to emerge.


We might consider the Peoples Church of Fresno. This is an entirely ordinary evangelical church, of the kind that can be found across the nation; however, for our purposes it is worth remembering that the history of American evangelism is intimately connected, for worse and for better, with the history of American westward expansion and American exceptionalism. The eradication of the Native Americans had religious as well as social and economic roots – one has only to remember the famous Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer’s 1901 sermon, in which he argued that ‘when the Indians had, for countless centuries, neglected the soil, had no worship to offer the true God, with scarcely any serious occupation but murderous inter-tribal wars … the Indian [was] swept from the earth, and a great Christian nation, over seventy-five million strong, [rose] up.’ At the same time, however, much of the movement to abolish slavery in this country was religious, and evangelical, in nature: the seminaries in the (then frontier) Midwest were hotbeds for radical abolitionist thought, and John Brown was an evangelical Christian who started his career as a violent religious radical in Kansas. There has always been contradiction in our religious history; there have always been both anti-human and pro-human forces at work.

At the Peoples Church of Fresno last summer the lead pastor, Dale Oquist, taught a series of lessons on ‘Jesusology’. The title, like the title of Oprah’s project with Starbucks – ‘Steep Your Soul’ – was mostly a sales pitch, designed to stimulate intrigue while maintaining just enough referential force to indicate its content. So Jesusology was the study of the ‘life, significance, and ministry of Jesus.’ So far, so good. This is exactly what we might expect to be happening at a church of this sort. The online summary of the first sermon in the series listed three main points, and two of the three were unremarkable: ‘Jesus was in the business of reshaping people’s views of who God is,’ and ‘We are to make straight the paths of our lives for Yahweh to come to us.’ These indicated that the sermon, like many evangelical sermons, was both a discussion of what the life and teachings of Jesus reveal about the true nature of God, and a discussion of the Biblical injunction to work on reducing the obstacles in our lives that prevent our communion with God.

But the third main point of the sermon is worth pausing over. It bore italics in the summary, and read: ‘God is not mad at us! It was explained in the following way: ‘People tend to believe God causes or allows things to go wrong because of something they did wrong. Today we learned Jesus was in the business of reshaping peoples’ views of God. We can know that God is not angry at us. (Italics again in the original.) In a sense, this too is a common piece of Biblical teaching. The point is that our sins have been pre-forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus, and that (if we accept God into our hearts) the path of salvation is therefore open to us. We will not be punished if we repent of our sins.

But there is still something remarkable about that initial phrase: God is not mad at us! Thinking this over, it might occur to us to ask a question: Why, exactly, would we think that he is mad at us? Or, to put it differently: What was Pastor Oquist is seeing in his congregation that made him want to reassure them in this way? The answer is given in the explanation that follows: ‘People tend to believe God causes or allows things to go wrong because of something they did wrong.’ So Pastor Oquist seemed to feel that we are afraid things are going wrong in the world because of something we did, and his natural inclination was to comfort us. God is not angry at us; we should not live in fear, or sadness, or guilt. Our goal, as articulated in the other bullet points, is instead to open ourselves up to God so that we can know the truth about the world.

One begins to see the connection to the platitudes of Oprah Winfrey on the Starbucks cup. Both originate in assumptions about the unhappiness, or un-fulfillment, of their audience. Starbucks and Oprah assume that we feel un-actualised, so they try to reassure us that there is a path open to actualisation; Pastor Oquist believes we are afraid that God is mad at us, so he reassures us this isn’t the case. And beneath both of these vision lies the old notion of progress. Progress westward, progress towards a greater place, towards a promised destiny. Progress towards a world in which, through filling ourselves up as individuals – through our personal splendour, through our personal relationship with God – we will somehow find our way through to a world that is better for everyone.

There is a
strange sleight of hand a work in all of this. It takes place in the assertion that through focusing on the ‘I’ we will improve the ‘we’. The path to community, that is, takes place through individualism. Consider a final example: the architecture, or built geography, of suburban California, and indeed, suburban America. It has often been claimed that there is a sort of anesthesia in this geography, composed as it is of interstates and strip malls, endless one and two-story responses to population growth, streets like inescapable mazes, identical houses strung one after another to the horizon. There is a truth to these observations: from the outside these suburbs can come to look like a physical manifestation of what Adorno and Horkheimer loathed in what they the termed ‘the culture industry’. The repetition and flatness of affect can appear ideological, designed to perpetuate a culture in which, ‘conformity has replaced consciousness.’


But from the inside – that is, actually driving among these neighbourhoods and interacting with their owners that ‘conformity’ takes on a new aspect. We see that the birds-eye view of the horror of the place must be somehow integrated with an understanding of the experience of its residents. To many of the people who live in these suburbs, they are not a repository of conformist horror, but a confirmation of achievement. Each property is a small, inviolable personal kingdom. They are fenced. Kids splash in backyard pools. The lawns are manicured. The cars are cared for meticulously, and there are very few older models. As with the houses themselves, the point of the cars is not that everyone else may have exactly the same model, but that I too have one. That is to say, from the inside, these suburbs are not representations of conformity, but of success. It is the success of I too. It is purchased with sweat, and perseverance, and hard-won dollars. All of my neighbours may have one, sure, but I too have a small castle of my own.

Looking closely, we can see the way in which this is a physical synthesis of the Oprah/Starbucks exhortation to splendidness and Pastor Oquist’s reassurance that God is not angry, you simply have to open yourself up to him. It is a geography, physical as well as social, that assures you of the possibility of achievement. It is a geography that reinforces the notion that even if there are awful things going on out there in the world, here you can have stability and comfort and be among the like-minded. Here, God is not angry. All of this is possible; achieving it, deeply and truly, simply requires faith in the dream, along with a continued and constructive work on the self. For Oprah, this work is a filling up of the self; for Pastor Oquist, it is an acceptance of what was done for you, that is, an acceptance that it was on your behalf that Jesus died on the cross. In both cases, what is required is that belief in the validity of the self, the joy in the self, the acceptance of the self, the perfectibility of the self. And the ultimate reassurance is that it is through this focus on the self that the ‘we’ lurking behind all of the encomiums will be created. We will have our malls and our movie theatres, our clothing stores and our cars. It is through the ‘I’ that the ‘we’ will be triumphant.



 We might return to the drama of the drought in California and the difficulty of taking measures to offset it. What becomes clear, if we look at the way people are living and what they are being told, is that to be asked to reduce, be it water or any other consumable, runs counter to nearly every mandate, belief, and historical self-understanding of our culture. California, and by extension America, is about having. It is not about not having. It is about doing, not about not doing. If the choice is between some relatively abstract notion of preservation on the one hand, and washing the car on the other, we will choose washing the car. We will choose to eat out-of-season vegetables to promote our health, and we will choose to take our regular showers to maintain our sense of hygiene. Why? Because when we are confronted with doubt, or difficulty, the accumulated weight of the system of beliefs in which we have operated for the entirety of our lives rests on the side of continuing to fill ourselves up. It rests on the side of displacing our fears that we might bear responsibility. It rests on our belief in our own destiny, and our movement towards it; it rests on our belief that through the consuming ‘I’ we will reach the promised ‘we’. These bad things are not happening because of anything we’ve done; God is not mad at me, he cannot be punishing us.

In these ways, the need to use less water is nearly impossible to negotiate, because it is a worldly annoyance running up against transcendent imperatives. It is competing with self-actualisation. And self-actualisation, we are told over and over again, is the entire goal of our lives. It is through self-actualisation that we will, in Donald Trump’s phrase, ‘Make America Great Again.’ We are meant, we have been told more times than we can count, to have our own small place in the sun; we have worked for that place, we have been promised it, and we’re sure as hell not giving it back.

It is here, I think, that the great sad force of the metaphor of American culture as a wave becomes finally and fully apparent. A wave is not a movement of water, it is a movement of force through water. And the force that moves through us is the very notion of progress itself. When it runs up against the reality of California, the reality of the drought, we see that it is boundless and unstoppable, and at the same time enervated, dissipating. It is a force at once ever-expanding and ever-thinning, an endless taking-in, an endless self-fulfilment, and the continual emptying-out of these things. It is the notion of California, land of the blossoming star, land of the internet billionaire, land where we can each have our personal kingdom; it is the notion of the new electronic frontier sweeping out away from us and across the world, promising a California for every human on earth, regardless of how devoid of meaning that promised land is.

It is this force, this idea of progress, with which we need to contend. When we see Oprah’s slogans on our coffee cups, we should howl with laughter at the idea that we will be made better by coffee. When we hear of Pastor Oquist’s sermons we should ache with sadness at his need to so reassure his congregation. We should long to tear down the sterility and separation of the suburbs, their imprisoning message of false achievement. We should agitate and organise and foment. We should proclaim that the natural world has an inherent value that is greater than the value of our personal or financial success; that transcendence comes not from a filling-up of ourselves but from a re-awakening of our connections to each other and to the non-human world; and that we must not pretend that we are something other responsible agents, fully capable of destroying ever single thing around us.

But we should do none of this in service of the idea of progress. We should do it because if we don’t we are not living, experiencing, cognisant beings. We are simply inanimate objects through which destructive force is transmitted.



Tyler Sage lives and teaches in California. His fiction and essays have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Common, Bright Lights Film Journal, The L.A. Review of Books, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can find him at


Farm workers and Mt. Williamson by Ansel Adams (1943)
Las Vegas Suburbs by Damiel Ramirez (2008)

Ars brevis vida longa

Field trip to Old Tjikko with documentary film crew, March 2015

jean charles at old tjikko

Early Tuesday morning. I enter the decommissioned military tunnel complex on Skeppsholmen, an island in the middle of Stockholm. The postwar naval installations in the bedrock have been turned into exhibition spaces. Undulating sheets of corrugated sheet metal mark the entrance to the mountain, where the most recent exhibition featured artifacts and sculptures from the Yoruba culture of Ife in present day Nigeria. My friend Mats comes to let me in and takes us through a series of doors that require passkeys and codes. The air inside is surprisingly dry and warm. While working on the Nigerian exhibition, I remember the auxiliary outer tunnels being significantly wetter and colder than the innermost exhibition tunnels that were duly climatised to protect the objects on display. Mats points to a large banner advertising an art fair in the mountain and explains that the climate system finally has been tuned to work throughout the tunnels, creating an artificial but decidedly pleasant atmosphere in the hollows of the mountain.

I lug a cheap backpack that I have spent some hours modifying at the studio, sacrificing the backpack, the hose to my vacuum cleaner and my best darkroom funnel to construct what I hope will be a functional portable container/dispenser for the finely granulated black sand I have come to pick up. The sand is a slag product from processing iron ore commonly sold as a sand-blasting agent. We used the sand to create a non-reflective, organic looking floor in some of the displays of the exhibition, and Mats managed to retrieve a good deal of it when taking down the show for future use. I have estimated a need for about thirty kilos, and we load up my backpack with as much as we can. I give it a try. It is very heavy. Ridiculously heavy in fact. Very doubtful that I will be able to carry it for any length of time or distance, and I make a quick calculation of alternative possibilities. I could pour the sand into a mound shaped heap but that would entail a lot of running back and forth to replenish a smaller dispenser (funnel? sack? tray?) which might jeopardise the overall feeling of the performance… but… the sand is in any case necessary, and we haul it onto a dolly and roll the swollen backpack to the staff coffee room in one of the side tunnels. I will have to think of something. I half knew it when sawing off the vacuum cleaner hose: this is not going to work the way I want it to.

I will use the sand to make a large-scale drawing in the snow around the world’s oldest tree. The krummholz spruce known as Old Tjikko is close to 10,000 years old and resides in the national Park of Fulufjället in Dalarna, Sweden. It will be my third trip to this particular tree in less than a year, making me, I suppose, a frequent visitor to the park. This time I will be going up there with a French documentary film crew who are going to shoot the tree for a series on very old and remarkable trees in Europe.This segment will be the last in the series, and has the working title Histoires d’arbres. It is produced by ARTE and scheduled to air sometime this fall.

The drawing I am making is directly inspired by the Nigerian exhibition. I came across a design of the Vodou deity Papa Legba when researching the Yoruba creation myth, a narrative in which sixteen Orishas descend on the Earth and give rise to humankind in the region of Ife in Nigeria. Papa Legba is the god of the crossroads, the guardian of the threshold between this world and the other side. I thought his veve — a graphic symbol used in Vodou — would be a pertinent symbol for a tree that has lived throughout the Holocene and come to see the dawn of our present predicament — the geological era known as the Anthropocene. Papa Legba is usually invoked by libations of rum and other savory offerings — cigars, meat and such. I will bring a bottle of water from the nearby waterfall and pour it around the tree.

I meet up with the crew at Arlanda airport and the five of us pack into a rental van and head up north. I am usually the driver and take advantage of being a passenger this time, confident that the satellite navigation system will guide us right. When I wake up an hour or so later, the GPS has directed us to a small village off the highway, a place where I was was stranded a few years ago with a broken car in a snowstorm. We pull up in front of a combined petrol station/ roadside café, but the establishment is all boarded up and empty behind tangled window blinds. I direct us back onto the highway where I know there is an open truck stop a few miles ahead. We pass a towering Chinese construction that seems to have been forever suspended in a state of almost-finished on the banks of Dalälven. I first saw the building in 2007 when I drove north on the recently opened highway and it has lost none of its weird apparition-like qualities since then.

It becomes apparent that we are on a filming schedule right away. Henri de Gerlache, the film’s director, allows for a quick sandwich and a coffee before we get back on the road. He wants to get some shots from a lake en route, with water, ice and sun setting on what I imagine might be an opening sequence of the film. I estimate that we will be able to make it to Lake Siljan in Dalarna before dusk. The lake would be a good place to start, I tell the crew — it’s very much in the heartland of Swedish vernacular tradition, sitting in a landscape flush with midsummer poles, ornate clothing and the ornamental design known locally as kurbits. Also, in the spirit of deep time, the lake itself is the largest known meteorite impact crater in Europe. The event took place some 377 million years ago and although most of the characteristic crater shape has since eroded, there is still a sense of the truly ancient about the area. Driving westward we hit upon the southwestern shore of the lake just before dusk. Taking pictures of people taking pictures in a muddy field overlooking the waters that shift in a full range of blues, greys and silver streaks, canopied by a intensely technicolored sky. This is the money shot. If we were real tourists, we could pack it up, call it a day and descend on the hotel bar.

We get to the village of Särna in the valley below Fulufjället a few hours later and gather round the table in a rustic, quaint and somewhat confusing dining room — all wood, very Scandinavian country-style, but with walls adorned with vintage theatre posters from London. I spot a grinning Dave Allen, a comedian I distinctly remember from my childhood as making a lot of fun of nuns and Catholics while proceeding to get increasingly drunk on his barstool. We are served a fantastic dinner. Alan and his wife run the place, which can best be described as an upscale B&B, and Alan rather promptly informs us of his establishment’s top rating on Trip Advisor. How very un-Swedish of him! We are having bear and reindeer for dinner. I mumble something about me being a vegetarian, but then again — I’ve never had bear, and the food is already on my plate. It’s very good. And I am very hungry. Bears are prolific in the area, and Alan thinks that this one was shot a few miles north of here. Local bear. The beer is local too, from one of the many micro-breweries that cater to discerning drinkers about.

The great naturalist Linnaeus was deeply disappointed in the scant variety of species found on his trip up this valley in the late 1700s. He had expected more abundance perhaps, something on par with the plethora of cold-loving plants that he had come across on his trips to the northernmost parts of Sweden. Little did he know that although the variety here might be scant, contemporary locals have come up with many ways to make do with what’s available: we are served blueberries from last fall, preserved with characteristic green leaves and all, and among the many things on offer at next morning’s breakfast table I find jars of pickled mushrooms. Removed from times when supplies had to be brought by horse and sled in the winter through roadless land by some hundred-plus years, traditional ways of preserving and preparing foods have swung back in fashion. Careful husbandry of food stuffs – be they cultivated, hunted or foraged – reflects a sense of care and respect for the local environment. It helps, then, that the stuff tastes great too, and comes in a pleasant lack of packaging. No need to peel any annoying little stickers from either bear or mushrooms.

We set out early the next day and trade our van for snowmobiles that will take us up the mountain’s north slope. The dress code for these machines is all hyperbole: big overalls, massive gloves, hightech goggles and helmets. It feels a bit odd, bringing all this gear and noise into an environment that at least superficially exudes pristine serenity. On my previous trips I have carried my modest equipment on my back, and although there are no guarantees that more is better, I am still excited to visit the tree in the company of a professional film crew. Hauling my burlap sack with some thirty kilos’ worth of blasting sand onto one of the sleds, I send a grateful note to whoever invented these obnoxious machines. There is no way I would have ventured to drag that load up the mountain on foot.

When planning for this trip and my performance I toyed around with various options for the actual piece I was going to do. The solitary tree on a snow-covered mountaintop. A large-scale drawing on the snow. I thought an aerial view would work the best, particularly since the tree itself is no more than some 3.5 meters tall counting the foot-deep layer of snow. I tested different ways to shoot from an improvised boom, using a tree of similar height and volume by my studio, but the results were never satisfactory and I had a hard time to make a construction that would be lightweight, collapsible, sturdy and able to withstand strong winds. I thought of a drone, seeing as they were able to hover in place; this, however, necessitated a day with no or very little wind, and the chances for that were slim. I got in touch with the production office in Paris about this, but the particulars of my enquiry — what equipment they would bring and to what extent I needed to make my own preparations — got lost in the general frenzy of organising the shoot. In the end, I decided to bring a contraption that would allow me to capture the tree and my performance from five metres above ground with a regular video-camera: a heavy surveyor’s tripod with a collapsible extension pole with a jerry-rigged camera mount at the top. I felt a bit foolish when I met up with the first half of the crew at the airport who informed me that Jean Charles, the cinematographer, was on his way — he just had to retrieve several cases with parts for boom and drone out of special luggage.

Three park rangers accompany us on our first visit to the tree. Because this is a production visit by a documentary film crew, I suppose there is a certain protocol to follow. I can’t help thinking that the rangers might also be a wee bit curious about the project. I ask one of the wardens what she thinks of this particular tree, and her response takes me by surprise: ‘No different from other trees in the park’ she says. Her view on the old spruce’s impressive age is decidedly pragmatic — to her this tree merits the same level of protection as do all the other trees and plants that fall under her supervision. A supervision which for most part is conducted on snowmobiles in the cold months. The park rangers make regular rounds up here in the winter, extending assistance to tourists, taking stock of wildlife and making sure that the rules and regulations particular to Sweden’s national parks are observed. Even though the sudden celebrity status of one particular tree does not impress them much, they all concede that there have been some overall benefits in terms of publicity and visitor numbers. I inadvertently slot myself into a growing number of tree-gazing tourists that have started frequenting the park since the tree was ‘discovered’ by professor Leif Kullman in 2004. I would probably not have come here otherwise; much less thrice in a single year.

alexandre march15

A few days later, the rangers Veronica and Peter arrive at our cabin with an outsized sled in tow, loaded to the brim with logs of spruce and pine from the valley below. They are bringing a fresh supply of firewood for heating the cabins and fueling the sauna that is housed in a separate building down by the lake. The trunks are almost the exact same size and girth as the tree we are here to document, albeit of considerably younger age. I am reminded of a Tao narrative where the old age and beauty of an old gnarled oak is chiefly attributed to its relative uselessness as a source of wood for fire, construction or furniture. To cut down a solitary scrawny spruce far away from your house simply does not make much sense when the forest just a few hundred metres below is awash with more suitable specimens. This relative uselessness may have been a saving grace throughout the centuries and millenia. The current concern of the rangers is that the quality of novelty (World’s OLDEST tree!! Right HERE!!!) recently attributed to Old Tjikko may well turn out to be a potential threat to the tree and its immediate surroundings. The modest fence around the tree is simply not enough to handle large numbers of visitors, much less to deter anyone from snapping off a branch or two.

What is at the core here is the way in which we humans attribute value and non-value to our surroundings. It is becoming abundantly clear that too keen an interest in any particular resource for material gain or just simply as a vehicle for transient comfort — think firewood on a blistering cold mountain — will have negative effects that go way beyond the eventual depletion/ extinction of that particular resource. The negative outcome of our endeavours in mining, dredging, harnessing, hunting and, recently, fracking the bejeezus out of our environment also has the unfortunate tendency to be long-lasting, if not downright terminal. I think it is a good idea to feature ‘the world’s oldest tree’ in a documentary like this because it can serve as an inroad to a discussion about resilience and sustainability with a living, albeit gnarled, representative of these concepts as a starting point. This is a smarter kind of exploitation of natural resources, and it is one that I am quite happy to partake in. This does not mean that I am above using a variety of fossil fuels, rare earth metals and other tokens of contemporary life on a daily basis; what it does for me as an individual is to provide a possible alternative to climate-change-angst-cum-paralysis on the one hand and a blissful state of mindless shopping on the other.

Our stay at the cabin on top of Fulufjället lasted for four days, and we were rather lucky with the weather — crisp, clear and temperatures moderately below freezing. It’s difficult to make even the world’s oldest tree look good in sharp sunlight though, and I think some of the best sessions were filmed at the crack of dawn and in the long dusk of early evenings. Looking at my own footage I was struck by the intense blue tint that colours the snow at nightfall, rendering the layers of snow with an almost ocean-like quality.

The sparseness of the landscape with a solitary tree on an almost completely flat plateau some six hundred meters above sea level is an apt framework for an ancient tree, like a showcase for ‘old tree in landscape’. The immediate context is visually reduced almost to the level of modesty (small rocks, tiny explosions of coloured lichens here and there) while at the same time affording qualities of grandeur and landscape monumentality in the panoramic view. This makes Old Tjikko a thankful subject for image making. It is one of the few remarkable trees I have seen that is scaled to fit within a single frame against a backdrop of visually neutral surroundings.

An opportunity to try out the drone presented itself on the third day of the trip. With only a whisper of wind in the afternoon and a mountain enveloped in an eerie stillness, the conditions were just right for this fragile piece of equipment. The director and cinematographer went on ahead to set up the shoot, and got the drone ready for launch. I stayed behind on a nearby hillock with Alexandre the sound engineer. We watched the toylike contraption go airborne in the warm afternoon light, with the rest of the crew at the controls below. We squatted next to a bent and twisted shrub of arctic birch when Alexandre suddenly motioned for me to lean forward and put my ear to one of the branches. In this almost complete stillness I could not hear much else than the synthetic creaks of my thermal overalls, but I bent down and put my head close to the tree. As my breathing slowed down and my body came to a rest I could hear it: a barely discernible hum of the fine limbs of the tree vibrating in the stillness. For a moment I felt, or at least felt able to imagine what it must be like to perceive the world as a wild animal — a fox or a hare with ears attuned to a universe of the minute and barely audible.

On my last day on the mountain with the crew it was time to perform. I started out in a rather clumsy and self-conscious manner. Benjamin and Henrí directed me to make an exit from the cabin, don my gear, and set off towards the tree along a specified route. I could appreciate the benefits to both narrative and cinematography in these directions and reminded myself of my supporting role in this enterprise. I do not do well with instructions, which is one reason why I tend to do my performances and actions all by myself, having neither audience nor crew on site. Another reason is that I am a very poor actor. I need the trappings of real ordeals to keep me focused. Get the tripod straight. Make sure I can guess where to enter and exit the frame. Try to avoid serious injury. Tuck in my white shirt under the suit. Not smoke on-screen and avoid looking into the camera.

But a little make-believe is OK, and I had come to trust the members of the team enough to suspend my initial hesitation and overcome what must be a kind of stage fright. I approached the old tree with my backpack, my black sand and my very tall and awkward tripod. And after doing a bit of libation around the tree with a draft of spring water from the nearby waterfall, I brought out my GOJNNNNGGGGG… and banged on it at even intervals as I paced around the tree for three full revolutions; banging and twirling the gong to draw out the reverberations across the plain and into the stillness. When I got to the heap of sand at the end of the third round, I started sifting out the black granules onto the crusty snow. Old Tjikko’s trunk became the centre-point of Papa Legba’s symbol; a Vodou veve on this Scandinavian mountain. I drew stylised crosses, swirls and cones in the cardinal directions, working my way from centre to periphery and back again. I had done a last-minute substitution of the heavy backpack with vacuum-hose dispenser just before leaving Stockholm, and opted instead for a store bought orange funnel. This turned out to be a more precise drawing instrument, with the drawback being a constant need for replenishing the sand. Going back and forth between drawing and sand heap soon became a dance of routine, and I soon forgot about the looming camera crane overhead and Alexandre’s microphone. I was just too wrapped up in my version of invocation; a ritual which regardless of what transcendent powers it might hold, de facto had been part of bringing the five of us to spend this afternoon filming, recording and beholding a 10,000-year-old tree in northern Sweden.

old tjikko video mars15 3


Among the many images, snippets of video and notes from this trip, there is one photo I never took: that of a linoleum tabletop in the kitchen area. Our rustic mountaintop cabin had no running water, no grid connection or other fixings of contemporary life save for a diesel generator that kept humming away in the deep snow just outside the front door. A long black power cable snaked its way inside and branched out in a motley array of extension cables that fed the gear on the tabletop: chargers for triple-A battery packs, GoPro cameras, iPhones and laptops, flashlights, pocket warmers for freezing fingers, terabyte hard drives, studio lights and a portable mini studio. The contrast to our cosy but rudimentary shelter was striking, and I thought of taking a picture on several occasions, but there always seemed to be something practical to tend to when inside: making sure the fire was lit, taking turns cooking, washing the dishes etc. As dusk set in on the mountain the cabin was completely dark save for some candles on the dinner table and the glow from the wood stove in the corner. In the small hours of night the dying embers grew too faint to see, much less to navigate by. The one remaining source of light was blinking LEDs on chargers and battery packs. Drop-size, intense pulses of red and green that felt oddly reassuring in the dark, like a token of purpose up here in the middle of nowhere. I stuck my feet into the nearest pair of oversized snowmobile boots and shuffled outside into the bitter cold. The firmament was alight with stars and the wind sucked my breath away as I unhooked a stainless bucket from its hook and turned down towards the frozen lake for fresh water.

Patrik Qvist is a Swedish artist based in Stockholm. His first trip to Old Tjikko was described on the Dark Mountain blog in June 2014. His website is here.

At the Mercy of Fools


Book review:
Guantánamo Diary
by Mohamedou Ould Slahi


Mohamedou Ould Slahi first appeared on the radar of American intelligence in 2000. Slahi, a Mauritanian, was then living in Montreal, and attended the same mosque as Ahmed Ressam, who tried in 2000 to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport.

A number of things made Slahi suspicious. First, he had fought with Al Qaeda in 1991 and 1992, when the organisation — with American support — was trying to overthrow the communist-led government of Afghanistan. Before moving to Canada, Slahi had lived in Germany, and a few encounters there set off intelligence alerts. Abu Hafs, one of Bin Laden’s advisers, was married to Slahi’s wife’s sister, and Slahi had twice helped his brother-in-law transfer money back to his family during the Ramadan holidays. Also, it was later discovered that Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who was involved in planning 9/11, had spent a night in Slahi’s house in Duisberg. For these associations, Slahi has, for the last fourteen years, lived under the control of America’s shadow government — by this I mean all of the parts of our military and intelligence agencies that operate outside of public scrutiny, and to a significant extent outside of democratic control.

Slahi left Canada in 2000, partly out of terror at the surveillance that began there, and returned home to Mauritania. After turning himself in for further questioning after September 11th, he was kidnapped and taken to Jordan, then to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo Bay. At every stop, he has been subjected to torture: extreme temperatures, beatings, sexual humiliation, borderline starvation, sleep deprivation, threats to his family and life, and extended periods of total isolation.

After one such period of torture in Guantánamo, Slahi told his interrogators he was ready to confess. ‘If you’re ready to buy,’ Slahi said, to quote his account in Diary, ‘I am selling.’ He then penned a confession indicating that he planned to blow up the CN Tower in Canada. His interrogators, pleased, asked for some corroborating details. When they became frustrated with his responses, Slahi said, ‘Just tell me the right answer. Is it good to say yes or to say no?’

Apparently some particularly odd elements of his confession — such as Slahi’s claim that he planned to mix sugar with the explosives — prompted his interrogators to give him a polygraph. On October 31st, 2004, after years of torture and confinement, the polygraph registered ‘No Deception Indicated’ or ‘No Opinion’ when Slahi asserted that he knew nothing about any terrorist plots.

After this point, his treatment seems to have improved. In 2005, Slahi handwrote a writ of habeas corpus, and also the pages of this book. A US District Court judge ordered him released in 2010, but he still remains in Guantánamo pending the government’s appeal. It is unclear what, if anything, he can be charged with.


I picked up Guantánamo Diary purely out of a sense of guilt and obligation as an American. Very quickly, though, I began to read, to my astonishment, with delight. Written in a slangy American English that the author has picked up from his captors, the pages are filled with such liveliness and insight that you forget the circumstances in which they were written — on sheets of unlined paper in a segregation cell, with no end in sight and no guarantee that any of it would be read. In his curiosity about virtually everything, his extraordinary fairness to his persecutors, and the warmth of his humour, Slahi reminds me a great deal of Primo Levi. Like Levi’s great memoirs, Slahi’s Diary is a work of witness, a catalogue of brutal torments and occasional joys, and a guide to survival and sanity under obscene conditions. It is also — and in this way Slahi is unique — a first-hand tour of the shadow government under which all of us, in some form, live.

Fantasies about this government are difficult to avoid. Mine, I will admit, are particularly incoherent. A repressive surveillance state is about to descend on us, so we need to be vigilant; but we can also ignore them entirely, because they will soon wither away like sick flowers and leave us to dig our cabbages in peace.

Never, though, in all my rumination and reading and watching of spy movies did I imagine a scene like the following. Here, in Slahi’s own words, is the American intelligence community’s attempt to forge a letter from his brother:

… the forgery was so clumsy and unprofessional that no fool would fall for it. First, I have no brother with that name. Second, my name was misspelled. Third, my family doesn’t live where the correspondent mentioned, though it was close. Fourth, I know not only the handwriting of every single member of my family, but also the way each one phrases his ideas. The letter was kind of a sermon, ‘Be patient like your ancestors, and have faith that Allah is going to reward you…’

Perhaps naively, I was stunned by this. I went into this book expecting evil, and evil, for me, has always been bound up with the concept of intelligence. The dark power behind the throne — from the scheming minister to the angel Lucifer to our shadow government — is supposed to be good at what it does. Remember that these are a few hundred of the highest value detainees the Americans possess. Surely the best people have been sent to interrogate them. Could something else be going on with this amateurish letter? Slowly, though, the evidence in the book piles up: these are their best people. The letter is an entirely representative sample of their abilities.

So, when the interrogators attempt to disorient Slahi in terms of time, their plan fails because their wristwatches are clearly visible. Their printouts, which they show to Slahi, contain date and timestamps, and they are then flummoxed when he knows the time and date. One white interrogator, who Slahi describes as ‘very silly’, threatens him with the prospect of a black colleague. Slahi is confused about why this should scare him, since he points out that ‘half of my country is black people.’

Other interrogators tell Slahi that they have an incriminating videotape of him planning terrorist attacks. When he is almost convinced that he did plan such an attack, they show him Bin Laden speaking to an unknown operative. Slahi can only respond, ‘You realise that I am not Usama bin Laden, don’t you?’ Another interrogator, Slahi writes, ‘is one of the laziest people I ever knew. He didn’t take time to read reports, and so he always mistook me for other suspects.’ I’m not sure what sort of information you can get when fiercely interrogating a suspect you think is another person.

One can go on and on. It is hard to imagine a less competent interrogation than the one depicted in the pages of this book. For every reasonably intelligent guard or interrogator, there are six or seven like the ones above. And the stupidity clearly rises all the way up the ranks. There are over two thousand black-bar redactions in Guantánamo Diary. These people have high-level security clearance and the responsibility to guard America’s national secrets; presumably many people work under them; and on every page of this book they display some mixture of sloth and ignorance.

Names are redacted on one page and revealed on the next; some of the redacted names are historical figures, like Gamal Nasser, who the censor seems not to have recognised; female pronouns are the only ones blacked-out, and it has occurred to no one that this makes it pretty obvious which officers are female. Larry Siems, the Diary’s editor, has done a fine job making educated guesses, but much of the censorship is so careless that he doesn’t even have to work hard.

‘Orwellian’ — this word has great currency in our society. Politicians use it almost reflexively when criticising the overreach of various intelligence agencies. There is, though — and Orwell would have appreciated this irony — a compliment hidden in the word. ‘Orwellian’ indicates not just fearsome technological capacities of surveillance and repression, but the accompanying skill and insight to use them to achieve desired ends. Remember, when Winston is being tortured by O’Brien, how he is almost grateful to be at last so profoundly understood.

I would like to coin a new word in honour of the author of this book: Slahian. A Slahian situation is where an entity possesses those same fearsome resources, but can only wield them bumblingly, because there is insufficient intelligence left in the system to use them in any other way.

This is the truth that Orwell missed in 1984, or perhaps hinted at in his sly appendix: tyrannies — and there is no question that America is field-testing tyranny in Guantánamo Bay — have a built-in limiting agent, because the mature fruit of tyranny is idiocy. This fruit has clearly been ripening for some time in America; it is very soft right now, and quite possibly about to fall on all of us.

There seem to be two processes at work in this decay of intelligence: first, the driving out of capable people, and second, a belief that human capacity is not important anyway, because it can simply be replaced by more sophisticated technology.

One can see the first process at work in the account of Slahi’s detention that Siems provides in his introduction. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch was the first prosecutor in the case. After realising that Slahi’s confessions were produced under torture, and in any case highly implausible, he had a crisis of conscience. Couch describes being at a baptism one Sunday, and hearing words spoken about human dignity:

And when we spoke those words that morning, there were a lot of people in that church, but I could have been the only one there. I just felt this incredible, alright, there it is. You can’t come in here on Sunday, and as a Christian, subscribe to the belief of dignity of every human being and say I will seek justice and peace on the earth, and continue to go with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

In an earlier era, this evidently decent man, with intelligence enough to connect his faith and his conduct, would have gone to his superiors and worked to get Slahi released. In today’s military, all he can do is free himself from the contagion. Couch withdrew from the case, Slahi’s life remained unchanged, and the military became a little less capable than it was before.

Couch is not an isolated instance. Throughout this book, the dumb and the brutal stick around; everyone else leaves or gets transferred. The commander of Guantánamo’s detention operations in August 2002, for example, told journalists that he and his uniformed officers were questioning the ‘enemy combatant’ designation that denied the detainees Geneva Convention protections. Apparently little was being accomplished by mistreating the low-level operatives — along with the totally innocent — who were imprisoned there. ‘The Pentagon’s solution,’ Siems writes, ‘was to replace that commander and ratchet up the camp’s intelligence operations.’ I have some guesses about the character and abilities of the person he was replaced with.

As smart people leave, higher-order responsibilities are simply transferred to computers. The motto for today’s shadow government might as well be, ‘Thinking? Our machines will do that for us.’ Slahi’s only crime, as noted above, is suspicious associations. These are the kind of things — phone call records, money transfers — that a computer can spot. After the computer finds its connections, though, you still need some sort of human discrimination to recognise which patterns are consequential, and this is precisely what is in short supply.

Notice that the Americans interrogators, who spend countless hours with Slahi, never consider that he might be innocent based on their own observations; it is only the polygraph, an extremely unreliable mechanical device, that changes his fortunes. So when SKYNET, a tracking system named — my God, consciously? — after the mainframe which enslaves mankind in the Terminator films, analyses phone call data to flag a man as Al Qaeda, there is inadequate human judgement behind the computer to spot that this is because he is a journalist.

A computer tells another computer to drop a bomb; it kills a grandmother picking okra in Pakistan. No one can explain the reason; this is a state secret, and the secret, almost certainly, is that there is no reason. The computer told them to do it. There are various intersections of data, and some of them happen to result in dead grandmothers. Since mistakes have no consequences for the perpetrators, the shadow government keeps on doing the same thing, and anyone smart enough to see that this is counter-productive — or simply disgusting—cannot survive for long inside this organism.


I think Guantánamo Diary will eventually be seen as one of the central documents of our time. Aside from the depth and wit of its writing, it contains the best available portrait of our decaying shadow government, and has valuable insights on ways to live with it while it maintains its power.

Early on, when Slahi is about to be handed over to the Mauritanian state for questioning, he entertains various plans for escape, and then, as he gives up on his fantasies, coins this wonderful aphorism: ‘The key to surviving any situation is to realise that you are in it.’

Here is an incident that gets at the heart of the Slahian situation. A bored guard teaches the detainee chess. Within a few games, the detainee begins to beat the guard easily. This enrages the man. The detainee must then carefully plan a strategy that ensures that he will lose each game. The guard is pleased with his great skill and continues to treat the prisoner well.

The central lessons of Slahi’s experience of American detention can be gleaned from this story. First and foremost, don’t display any intelligence. Stay silent or don the mask of an affable simpleton. Slahi manages this much of the time, but putting this sort of straightjacket on your consciousness ends up being impossible for someone as lively and open-hearted as he is. The results are a few genuine relationships with sympathetic guards (soon transferred away), and also this great book, which poured out in the months after the polygraph ended the worst of his treatment.

This leads to a depressing thought: if Slahi hadn’t written the Diary, and had, like the Good Soldier Svejk, kept up his mask of amiable idiocy, he might be a free man by now. The Americans have released other detainees they couldn’t charge with anything, and there seems to be no explanation for why they are so determined to hold onto Slahi other than his ability to sympathetically communicate in English about the conditions of his detention.

We are in a strange moment in America — and I am very curious what the view looks like from readers in other countries — between types of societies and forms of government, where a book can be published while its author remains imprisoned without charges for fourteen years; where the most damning information freely circulates while public silence becomes, quite possibly, a better strategy for survival than speaking out.

I don’t mean to sound deterministic, because it has taken a lot of good, hard work from people like the ACLU to make this book available to us. There are decent people even in Guantánamo — Slahi always acknowledges them, and the small kindnesses he has received. Every one of these counter-currents is to be valued and supported. But behind every black line in this book, I see a bored, vacant face — terrible at chess and convinced that it is a grandmaster; destroying itself and convinced that it is winning — and I have no idea how to reach it, or how to hide from it.

Here, though, is a person living in a present as bad as any future I can imagine, and displaying more grace, flexibility, and resourcefulness as a prisoner than most of us manage under kinder conditions — a living example of how a Slahian situation can be survived with dignity and wit intact. At the end of the Diary, you will find the following Author’s Note:

In a recent conversation with one of his lawyers, Mohamedou said that he holds no grudge against any of the people he mentions in this book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.

Akshay Ahuja is a freelance writer and editor. He grew up in New Delhi and the suburbs outside Washington, DC, and now lives in Ohio with his wife and son. He blogs, very occasionally, at The Occasional Review.

The Humbling: An invitation to contribute to Dark Mountain issue 9

The older I get, the more I begin to understand the irrational, under-the-surface nature of whatever it is that drives the writing process. I’m sure the same thing must be true for all creative endeavours. One of the comforting stories our civilisation likes to tell itself is that the truth of what it means to be human must ultimately be accessible to exploration. Everything, in the end, must be unpickable by reason, logic, discursive thought, science and measurement. Everything must be amenable to being turned into ‘data’ and measured against everything else. How else would we tell if ‘progress’ was really happening at all?

This is nonsense, of course, and the process of creativity demonstrates it well. One of the questions you sometimes get asked as a writer is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ I don’t suppose anybody has the first idea how to answer this. I certainly don’t. Whenever I sit down to write something, I am guided by something bubbling away under the surface. I have a strong sense that something needs to be said, but often I don’t quite know what it is before I say it. The best things I have ever written have been guided by this invisible thing, either inside or outside me. Sometimes it can feel like I’m not even gripping the pen.

This was certainly the case when I sat down to write what would become the Dark Mountain manifesto, seven or so years ago now.  I had a strong and strange sense that the world was shifting on its axis, that change was on the horizon, that it was big and unknowable and unstoppable and that it demanded a response. I still have this sense, and I think that many other people do as well. That great, unstoppable thing seems dimly visible across the horizon now, as the global economy continues to crumble, as climate change kicks in faster than  predicted, as ecosystems continue to deteriorate, as methane bubbles up from under the tundra. I don’t think we have the luxury of planning for the future anymore. I think the future is already here.

Recently, on this blog, we have featured analyses from Chris Smaje and Dave Foreman of one response to this bubbling and rumbling: so-called ‘ecomodernism’.  In the past, I’ve also written about this coalescing movement of people, who I’ve referred to as ‘neo-greens.’  I also contributed an essay to a recent book on the subject, which is well worth a read if you want to understand what is becoming an increasingly popular push for total human control of the Earth.

In one sense, this project – to turn humans into gods, who control everything that lives – is as old as humanity itself. Every religion warns against it, every old story features a version of it. Perhaps we have always wanted to be gods, in the civilised world at least. But now there is a kind of urgency to it which we haven’t seen before. Now we are told that being gods is the only alternative to the mass destruction of non-human nature which must inevitably result from our current path. Now we are told it is our moral duty to control, through advanced science and increasingly frightening interventionist technologies, the very detail of life on this planet.

It’s a grim, despairing vision, in my view. Who wants either of these futures? Either the majesty of nature being run into the ground by human desire, or a totalitarian, locked down, uber-technological world of total human planning and control. To me, they both sound like hell. But given the choice between tightening our grip and loosening it, what will be the popular option? The answer to that seems pretty clear to me. We are going to keep digging until we can’t dig anymore: until we reach solid rock, and bang our heads against it.

What does this mean for those of us who reject this vision, and the assumptions which it is built from? I’ve been brought back to that question by reading these recent blog posts, and seeing this debate intensifying in other places too. All of it has taken me back to the moment when I began writing that manifesto, and when we began planning this project, because in many ways it was a project which  set itself up against this vision. We saw many elements of our culture –  including literature and art, including environmental campaigning – beginning to slide into the dark tunnel of instrumentalism, scientism and hubris, and we wanted to hold up an alternative to it. We wanted the Dark Mountain Project to be a place where people could gather to look for alternative visions, to question the assumptions behind the narrative of the so-called Anthropocene, to take us back to older ways of seeing, to make them relevant to where we are now. As I look around me,  this seems a more important task than ever.

The next Dark Mountain book, our eighth, which is published in October, takes a close look at the technological underpinnings of the current human project. It’s a departure for us, and we’re excited about it. This book is in production at present. After that, next April, we will be publishing another of our  anthologies of writing and art. This blog post opens the call for submissions for that volume: Dark Mountain issue 9.

Issue 9 is not a book with a formal ‘theme’, but as I think about the kind of writing and art we’re looking for, I look back to that moment of writing the manifesto, I look around me at the fight over the Anthropocene narrative, and I am reminded again of one of the roles of Dark Mountain: to be a refuge for people who are unpicking our dominant stories, and offering alternatives to them. Perhaps this tale of humans usurping the gods is the most dominant, and the most ancient, of all.  In the face of it, I wonder: how might we humble ourselves again? Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves. What might the aternatives to the Humans-As-Gods story look like, told in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art,  starting from where we are?

That’s a question you might like to bear in mind as you think about submitting work for our ninth collection of uncivilised writing and art. We very much look forward to seeing what you send us.

The submissions deadline for DM book 9 is 30th November 2015. We are looking for writing and art in all genres and none. Please don’t send us anything without first reading our submissions guidelines. Send all submissions to  We respond to everything we receive, but we are a small, part-time team, so it may be a few months before you hear back from us.

The Anthropocene and Ozymandias


Much has been made lately of the so-called Anthropocene — the idea that Homo sapiens has so taken over and modified Earth that we need a new name for our geological age instead of the outmoded Holocene. One remorseless Anthropoceniac writes, ‘Nature is gone… You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene — a geological era in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.’

One of the reasons given today for renaming the Anthropocene is that we have so impacted all ecosystems on Earth that there is no ‘wilderness’ left. Insofar as I know, other than babbling about ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’, and so forth, none of the Anthropoceniacs ever define what they mean by wilderness, which is not surprising in that none of them give a hint of having been in a Wilderness Area or having studied the citizen wilderness preservation movement.

Moreover, they behave as though their claim about wilderness being snuffed is a new insight of their own. In truth, we wilderness conservationists have been speaking out about how Homo sapiens has been wrecking wilderness worldwide for one hundred years. Bob Marshall, a founder of the Wilderness Society, warned eighty years ago that the last wilderness of the Rocky Mountains was ‘disappearing like a snowbank on a south-facing slope on a warm June day.’ Congress said in the 1964 Wilderness Act that the country had to act then due to ‘increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization’ or we would leave no lands in a natural condition for future generations. My book Rewilding North America documents in gut-wrenching detail how Man has been wreaking a mass extinction for the last 50,000 years or so.

Anthropoceniacs do not seem to understand that when we wilderness conservationists talk about Wilderness Areas we are not playing a mind-game of believing that these are pristine landscapes where the hand of Man has never set foot. Although wilderness holds one end of the human-impact spectrum, it is not a single point but rather a sweep of mostly wild landscapes. Over seventy years ago, Aldo Leopold, the father of the Wilderness Area Idea, wisely wrote that ‘in any practical program, the unit areas to be preserved must vary greatly in size and in degree of wildness‘ (emphasis added). Senator Frank Church of Idaho was the bill’s floor manager in 1964 when the Wilderness Act became law. He understood as well as anyone what Congress meant with the wording of the Act. Ten years later, in the heated fight for Wilderness Areas in the Eastern National Forests, when the Forest Service ‘would have us believe that no lands ever subject to past human impact can qualify as wilderness, now or ever,’ Church said, ‘Nothing could be more contrary to the meaning and intent of the Wilderness Act.’ The words pristine and purity are not found in the Wilderness Act, which is the best short explanation of wilderness. It seems that intellectual wilderness naysayers, whether wilderness deconstructionists or Anthropoceniacs, if they look at the Wilderness Act at all, see only the ideal definition of wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

In truth, the Wilderness Act has four definitions of wilderness. The first, which I have already quoted, says why we need to protect wilderness. The second, also quoted above, is the ideal, while the third immediately following the ideal is the practical:

An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable. (Qualifying words in bold.)

The wish of the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser, the main author of the Wilderness Act and one of its congressional champions, was to keep the idea of wilderness a bit fuzzy. The fourth definition, however, is not fuzzy. It has the lawfully binding language on how federal agencies are to protect and steward the Wilderness Areas under their hand:

Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purposes of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

Too often, there is confusion between the loose, fuzzy entry criteria for Wilderness Areas and the tougher rules for management after designation. Before being designated as Wilderness, a landscape might have a few roads or acres that were once logged. After designation, however, the roads must be closed, vehicles banned, and future logging prohibited.

So. In the sense of the US Wilderness Act (with over seven hundred areas totalling over 109 million acres) and like wilderness systems in other lands worldwide, there is, indeed, wilderness. Moreover, some 25% of Earth’s land is lightly or seldom touched by Man.

But the Anthropoceniacs are really saying that there is no wilderness in its ideal pristine meaning. To answer this assertion, I think we need to put Homo sapiens in better perspective.

Life first wriggled on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. That is a long time. So, let’s take an easier timeline and only go back to the unfolding of complex animal life — the Cambrian Explosion of 545 million years ago. Make that a book of 545 pages with each page being one million years. With 250 words per page, a word would be four thousand years.

Where are we? Well, if the last sentence on the last page of the book is a long one of some thirteen to fifteen words, we behaviorally modern Homo sapiens left Africa at the beginning of that sentence. We began to ransack biodiversity then as well. As we spread, we killed the biggest wildlife as we came into new lands. In the middle of the third-­to-­last word, some of our kind began farming— remaking ecosystems to suit us. In the middle of the second-to-last word, civilisations began.

The very last word in this book of 545 pages takes in the time from 2000 BCE to today. Nearly the whole world met the strictest definition of wilderness until well into the last sentence. Through almost all of that last sentence the share of Earth’s biomass held in our bodies grew very slowly. Much of Earth was untrodden by us for thousands of years. Other than the Overkill of the ‘Big Hairies’, the wounds we inflicted on the Tree of Life only slowly grew. Not until the last hundred years with our exploding population and systemic pollution of Earth with radioactive fallout, antibiotics, artificial biocides, and greenhouse gases, have we finally gotten to the day where we are having an impact everywhere. That is an impact, not total control, not even leaving no lands or seas where Man does not dominate the landscape. When I was nearly run down and stomped by a woolly bully of a musk ox bull in a 16-million-acre Wilderness Area in Alaska a few years ago, I swear to you that Man did not dominate that landscape.

Call the last hundred years the period at the end of the last sentence on the last page of the book of the history of complex animal life. Do you now have a feeling for how long the Tree of Life and Wilderness have been without any harm from a ground ape self-named sapiens?

I’ve taken this twisty path to get to my main damnation of the Anthropoceniacs. Though one can hammer them for major mistakes in history and science as many of my friends have done, my beef is with their view of Man’s place in evolution and on Earth. It is the ethics of the Anthropoceniacs that gives me shudders.

My anger with the Anthropoceniacs is not that they see how Man has taken over Earth (though they overstate greatly). The first third of my Rewilding North America tallies and weighs the ecological wounds we’ve wrought over the last 50,000 years. I know our impact is great — but not thoroughgoing. By and large, the Anthropoceniacs grossly overstate the degree to which we ‘control’ Earth.

No, my wrath is for the outlook many Anthropoceniacs have toward the ghastly, grisly slaughter of so many wild things. Where is the grief? Where is the shame? Where is the passion to save what’s left? Where is the outrage? Where is the sadness for the loss of so many of our neighbours?

Instead, I see many making merry over the coming of the Anthropocene. ‘We’ve done it!’ they seem to say while high­fiving one another. ‘Man has finally taken over!’ In the writings I’ve read, they seem blissful, even gleeful. ‘Now we are gods!’

The mass extinction of other Earthlings seems not to bring them a tear. Witness the words of Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, ‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function… The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’ Field biologists and others have shown that this claim is so much biological balderdash — there have been big upsets. However, the true harm, the wound, the loss, the sin was the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the ongoing extinctions of countless other Earthlings who have just as much right to their evolutionary adventure as we have to ours. Maybe more, because they are not screwing up things for others. To say the ‘passenger pigeon… went extinct’ is akin to a mass murderer saying his victims ‘became dead.’ The passenger pigeon did not go extinct; we slaughtered them in a spree of giddy gore in little more than a score of years!

How can anyone who works for something called the Nature Conservancy not feel woe and emptiness at the extinction of the passenger pigeon and all those others we’ve wrought and are causing today and tomorrow to make way for our Brave New World — or is it our Brave New Conservation?

Such uncaring, careless, carefree brushing away of all other Earthlings but for the ecosystem services they give the last surviving ground ape is — how can I say this — WICKED. It is washed in sin, it is treason to life, to Earth, and to all other Earthlings.

Such Anthropoceniacs behave like our takeover of the Tree of Life was foreordained, that evolution meant us and meant us to take over. This is teleology if not theology, my friends, one of the deep misunderstandings Darwin cast out 150 years ago. My children’s tale of the 545 ­page Book of Life shows how we are but one of countless species that come and go. The late Stephen Jay Gould was unsparing on this conceit:

[T]he worst and most harmful of all our conventional mistakes about the history of our planet [is] the arrogant notion that evolution has a predictable direction leading toward human life.

Man is not the unerring outcome or endpoint of hundreds of millions of years of life’s descent with modification, but is, rather, a happy or unhappy (hinging on what kind of Earthling you are) happenstance. We were not ‘meant to be’. Nor is anything Man has done in its flicker of time been meant to be. We happened to become, just as did the curve-billed thrasher getting a drink right now from the birdbath outside my window.

We only happened to be.

This is maybe the hardest lesson from evolution to swallow — one that is stuck in many an Anthropoceniac throat.

It is Homo sapiens’ arrogance that blinds us to our fate. We think that we, unlike every other species, will live forever. It’s not a Thousand­ Year Reich we celebrate but an eternal Kingdom of Man Triumphant, of Man over all (über alles) other Earthlings. It is we and we alone who decide who lives and who dies, who offers ecosystem services and therefore gets to stay, and who is mere waste biomass. Some may soothe their conscience by making believe this blood-bath, like us, was meant to be. But it is not so. It is our choice to strip off one third of the limbs of the Tree of Life. We do it willingly, even gleefully, all by our own free will.

The first sentence in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac spells out much of the moral conflict between wilderness and wildlife conservationists and the Anthropoceniacs and their so-called New Conservation (which is truly only the latest version of Gifford Pinchot’s resource conservation). Leopold wrote:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

We who fight for wilderness and all wild Earthlings cannot live without wild things. We believe wild things are good-in-themselves and need offer no services to Man to be of great worth. Those who blithely welcome the Anthropocene and can live without wild things see worth in Nature only in what it offers us as ecosystem services.

The Anthropoceniacs seem to believe that not only is Man running evolution now but that all the lessons scientists have learned about how evolution has worked for billions of years have been thrown out for Man in the Brave New Anthropocene geological era.

One who understood this mindset well, this will to power over Earth, was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Some two hundred years ago he wrote:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Yes, we can read our tale as the steadily growing sway over Earth by Lord Man. But the Anthropocene technocrats who prattle about grabbing the rudder of evolution and making Earth better are the wanton heirs of a Pharaoh’s hubris. Their lovely human garden will stand unclothed as either a barnyard or Dr Frankenstein’s lab for other Earthlings. Three ­and ­a­ half billion years of life becomes a short overture before Man in all his Wagnerian glory strides singing onto the set. Does our madness have no end? Have we no humility?

For six thousand years, each coming age has puffed out its chest. As each Ozymandias falls to the lone and level sands, a greater and more prideful Ozymandias takes his stead. Goodness is overridden more and more by might and the will to power.

Wilderness Areas are our meek acknowledgement that we are not gods.

Essay adapted from the forthcoming book True Wilderness: Deconstructing Wilderness Deconstruction.

Dave Foreman has worked as a wilderness conservationist since 1971. From 1982 to 1988, he was editor of the Earth First! Journal and one of the outfit’s most visible leaders. He speaks widely on conservation issues and is author of The Lobo Outback Funeral Home (a novel), Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, and The Big Outside (with Howie Wolke). His book on conservation biology and continental-scale conservation, Rewilding North America was published in 2004. His latest books are Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World and The Great Conservation Divide, a history of the 20th-century battle between grassroots conservationists and the resourcists in the Forest Service and other agencies over the future of the last wilderness in the United States. He was named by Audubon magazine in 1998 as one of the 100 Champions of Conservation of the 20th Century. For more information see

Image: ‘Habitus’ (2013) Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, by Robyn Woolston

Why I hear music when I read the Dark Mountain manifesto


I am sitting at the old pine kitchen table, listening. I can hear the sounds of my fingers tapping on keys; the sounds of sparrows squabbling and blue tits singing. I can hear the sound of a police helicopter levitating. I can hear the sound of a dog barking and a child laughing. I can hear the sounds of cars, vans, motorbikes and aircraft. Some of the sounds I hear are close, others distant. In the course of a day, I hear sounds that tell unique stories about the whole gamut of human experience: love; departures and homecomings; life and death; fear and contentment; and happiness and sadness. Importantly, all the sounds I hear tell a story about the world we live in and the world we are going to bequeath to future generations.

We live in a world of sound, yet few of us actively listen to these sounds. In a world dominated by images and words we are increasingly cut off from the messages that reside in sound. We may hear words spoken directly to us but do we search for meaning in the other sounds that permeate our daily lives?

Perhaps it is time for us to open our ears and to hear the world anew. Every issue our politicians discuss; every campaign our activists wage; every environmental catastrophe we bear witness to; every historical event that has shaped our world; every relationship; every love affair; every birth; every death; everything on this little planet, since it came into existence 4.54 billion years ago, has either created a sound or has a sound associated with it. Sound is important and we ignore it at our peril.

In my lifetime, the sonic environment in which I have existed has changed dramatically. Perhaps the most telling change has been the ‘muting’ of the dawn chorus. I have returned to my childhood home many times; when I was a boy I would be woken, as the east began to glow, by the joyous song of my avian friends. Today, in the same bedroom, I’m woken by sounds of traffic on the nearby road drowning out the sounds of the few birds that still have song left in them. We know that Britain’s songbirds are in serious decline. While much has been written about this decline, nothing attests to this reality with as great an impact as the fact that we are losing bird song from our lives.

I have a memory of what once was, but what of my baby daughter? She may grow up in a world populated by a few dominant bird species that generally ‘squawk’ rather than ‘sing’. Perhaps she is the lucky one as she will have no memory of a past filled with bird song to make her sad.

It is only relatively recently that I have started to acknowledge that sound has been one of the most important determinants of the life I have chosen to live. The realisation that Rachel Carson was right and we would soon experience ‘silent springs’ is one of many reasons why I ended up becoming an environmentalist. Sitting in the forests of southeast Australia listening to the harmony of biodiversity made me a passionate spokesperson for the preservation of the wild. Walking through the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, being assaulted by a cacophony of human generated ‘noise’, made me an ardent advocate for re-connecting people to nature as a way of fighting poverty. Sound has helped me understand that the ways we are trying to solve the many crises we face are misguided and almost certainly wrong. Forget all this nonsense about economic growth being the solution.

The sound of economic growth is disharmonic and is totally at odds with the cadence and rhythms of the natural world. Sound has helped me understand that through actively listening to the world we will be better able to find solutions to our most intractable problems.

The impact of actively listening should never be underestimated. Twenty years ago, I was in Australia doing a PhD on the links between climate change and human security. I was using words and images to describe the impacts that a changing climate could have on the small island states of the southwest Pacific. In various formats, I started to tell people about what I was discovering through my research. If action were not taken to halt emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases then some islands, namely Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau, would disappear under rising seas.

Despite my protestations that action was needed to avert catastrophe, no one was heeding my message. Despite powerful images and emotive words my message was impotent. No one was listening to what I was saying.


I resided in a perplexed — perhaps depressed — state for many years trying to understand why the human race continued to act in a way that would lead to its inevitable demise. It took me a long time to realise that the reason no one was willing to change was because the story I, and like minded people, were telling was far less compelling than the one Ronald McDonald was telling about his ‘tasty’ burgers, Coca-Cola was telling about its fizzy beverages, and Apple was telling about its computers. Despite years of cogitation — often in beautiful wild spaces — I couldn’t see how a story about saving the planet from the ravages of human greed could ever be as compelling as the stories that encouraged, and fostered, that greed. Only recently have I realised something important; the story I have been telling has been without sound. I, like many other concerned individuals, have had no ‘soundtrack’ to go with their message whereas Ronald McDonald, Coca Cola, and Apple, have! Upbeat music, linked to shiny products or fast food, is an intoxicating mix.

As I had never really understood the power of sound, I was unprepared for the impact a particular sound was to have on my life. Late one sultry afternoon I went for a beer in a bar in Balmain, Sydney. I sat down outside, with a schooner of VB, and took out my notebook, probably to write some slightly maudlin poem about the state of the world. Before pen had touched paper I had an auditory experience that was to change my life forever. From inside the bar came the sound of the didgeridoo. It was a sound that literally blew my little mind apart — every concept I had faith in, every belief I held, every value I lived by, every ego-based perspective I projected, every preconceived idea yet to be confirmed, everything just dropped away. Indeed, everything I thought I knew about the world was challenged by that sound. The sound of a hollow piece of wood transformed my world. To this day, I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn’t heard Australia’s foremost didgeridooist, Charlie McMahon, playing in a bar in Balmain?

The story of an environmentalist being drawn to the sound of the didgeridoo is, perhaps, a little hackneyed. I’m not given to slipshod statements about the ‘power’ of the didgeridoo. I do not subscribe to the view pedalled by some New Agers that by simply blowing the instrument you change the world. I am sure someone with an understanding of quantum physics could legitimately challenge my view; however, in my mind, changing the world requires a bit of banner-waving and anger too! Equally, if I were religious, or particularly spiritual, I might say that the sound of the didgeridoo had connected me to a ‘god’ or to a cosmic consciousness but none of this would be true.

My experience of the didgeridoo was profound but very simple; the instrument, and the sound it made when played, connected me to what Aboriginal people term ‘country’ — landforms, the sea, the sky, water, air, plants, animals, stories and special places (1). Somehow, the sound connected me to the Australian environment; an environment that, as an immigrant, I had loved but had never felt truly connected to — until playing the didgeridoo I had never been able to call Australia ‘home’. The sound of the didgeridoo made sense of the land — it was of the land and it connected me to that land. I have since realised that this power is not geographically specific. I have played didgeridoo throughout the world and every time I play I feel a deep sense of connection.

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What has this discussion of sound, and the didgeridoo, got to do with the Dark Mountain manifesto?

When I first read it I heard, in my head, the sound of the didgeridoo. I heard rhythms, I heard animal calls and I heard harmonies between the sound of the didgeridoo and what I was reading. Everything I read turned into sounds and, in some cases, music. The more I read of the manifesto the more I realised that sound can make sense of everything the manifesto speaks of. Sound can teach us about our disharmonious relationship with nature. It can tell us how we have constructed nature as ‘other’ through our collective amnesia of how to feel the rhythms of this nature while, at the same time, creating new rhythms that are at odds with this planet. As Jeffers states: ‘The beauty of modern Man is not in the persons but in the disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the dream-led masses down the dark mountain.’

Sound can tell us everything we need to know about the world we have created and why we have created it. Importantly, sound can help us understand how to address the planetary ills that our greed and fear have precipitated. As the Dark Mountain manifesto points out, Freud wrote of the inability of people to hear things which do not fit with the way they see themselves and the world. The key word here is ‘hear’. If we learn to listen to the world — to truly listen to the sounds we are creating and, even more, the sounds we are extinguishing, then we may well heed the message that ‘is screaming at us’. We will know that our current path is doomed — it is a path that has been constructed around rhythms that our planet cannot feel; around sounds that have no reference point and therefore have no harmonies to form; and importantly, around noises that tell of our disconnection to the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible. While playing didgeridoo cannot ‘heal’ the world it can tell us of these lost connections and help us navigate a new relationship with the ‘other’.

Since hearing the sounds of the Dark Mountain manifesto I have decided, with my co-conspirator Harry Coade, to dedicate my life to making a noise about issues that matter to me. Through an organisation called Sound Matters we aim to use sound to tell new stories about the world. We want people to hear different soundscapes and understand the impact they have. We want to capture ‘dying’ sounds and re-introduce them into people’s lives. We want people to hear the lofty shrill song of the skylark and the jaunty call of the song thrush. These sounds are important; they situate our lives in something bigger, something meaningful and something enduring. We want to use sound to change the world!

I am no longer interested in the transient sounds of a modern culture that will surely die. I want to celebrate the enduring sounds of this and other lands. Our soundscape tells us stories of the lives we are living and the lives we may wish to create. If we wish to float in a world of computer generated ‘beeps’, ‘buzzes’ and ‘hums’ then that, in itself, speaks volumes about the state of our souls.

After reading the Dark Mountain manifesto, Harry and I sat down with cellist Hannah Lloyd and created the following piece of music. I am not sure why we called the piece ‘Western Wilderness’ but is seemed, at the time, a fitting title.




Mike Edwards has spent much of his life trying to prevent the destruction of ‘wild’ spaces — both real and imagined. He lived in Australia for 11 years where he did a PhD on the links between climate change and security. Since completing his Ph.D., Mike has dedicated himself to music and teaching. Over the past 17 years, he has roamed the world playing didgeridoo and teaching people why it is crucial to love nature. Mike is the co-founder of Sound Mattersan organisation that uses sound and music to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues.

Top image ‘Australia from Afar’ by Lena A Edwards


Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism


It’s been a year for manifestos. With the dust only recently settled on the British general election, much has been heard about the different (though not that different) ‘narratives’ offered by the major political parties in their manifesto commitments. Meanwhile, a cabal of environmentalist thinkers and activists were busy putting together a manifesto of their own in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (henceforth, EM), which was published in April (1).

Unlike some of those election manifestos, the EM is a model of clarity. It has a goal to be reached, a process for reaching it, a problem that must be solved along the way, and a solution to the problem. The goal is ‘vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom’ (p.28). The process is modernisation. The problem is leaving ‘room for nature’. And the solution is decoupling: decoupling human consumption from the drawdown of natural resources, and decoupling humans themselves from the world of nature and from their dependence upon it.

Dark Mountain has a manifesto of its own, of course. It could hardly be more different from the EM. I assume that people reading this blog have an idea of its contents, so I won’t dwell on it here. Nor will I pretend to be neutral in my estimation of these two manifestos’ respective merits. But like any ornery voter, I don’t willingly surrender myself to other people’s manifestos of whatever kind. When it comes to manifesto ‘narratives’, I want to find the stories that lie beneath the words, and compare them with my own. So here I’m going looking for the stories of ecomodernism in Dark Mountain’s light – and if that sounds oxymoronic, so be it. Perhaps there are some truths that only reveal themselves in another’s shadow.

Material wellbeing

Looking at the list of ecomodernist goals the key one is surely ‘vastly improved material well-being’ because things like public health are implied by it, while things like economic integration are a (debatable) means for achieving it. But the question arises, ‘vastly improved’ compared with what? The EM seems to have two answers. One is vastly improved with respect to people who lived in the past. The other is vastly improved for poor people living in the present.

On the first point, the EM states that humanity has flourished in the past two centuries, citing various pieces of supportive evidence: life expectancy increasing from 40 to 70 years, reductions in infectious diseases, a decline in violence and the rise of liberal democracy. Most of these claims are debatable. Two hundred years ago the global human population was around a billion; today, it’s seven billion and counting, but a billion are clinically undernourished – as many as existed two hundred years previously. Is that flourishing?

Well, maybe. I don’t see much merit in arguing the counter-thesis that the human condition has worsened in that time, but there are issues of emphasis and interpretation. Indeed, the EM is peppered with tendentious statistics and factoids that prompt an exasperated ‘yes, but…’ Take life expectancy. In England in 1841 (when records began) it was indeed around 40. But that was because of stunningly high infant mortality, which an urbanising country was only beginning to control in the cities. The modal age of death for females over ten in 1841 was 77, and it wasn’t until 2001 that ten more years were added to that figure, giving a more sober sense of the pace of change. The upward trend came mostly through rather basic public health improvements such as adequate diets and clean water, which don’t in themselves suggest any particular need for us to embrace complex ‘nature-distancing’ technologies today. Good diets, clean water: such fundamentals of human flourishing have often been the birthright of ‘non-modern’ peoples both past and present as well as modern ones.

Let me pursue the EM’s two-century timeframe a little further. In England in 1815, parliamentary enclosures were putting the finishing touches to a process of land divestment that had turned rural peasants into urban proletarians over the previous 50 years. Waterloo brought a shuddering end to one particular ‘modernising’ project that very year. The Peterloo massacre was four years in the future, the Reform Act 17. Slavery in the British Caribbean only had another 23 years to run, but plantation agriculture with coerced labour was gearing up in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and British depredations in India had barely started. ‘Modernisation,’ states the EM ‘has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labour, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance’ (pp.28-9). Maybe so, but it has also delivered ever more people into them, both in the past and still today, often through colonial and neo-colonial projects of extraordinary violence which have always been part of the modernisation package. So if today we can celebrate the improvements wrought over the last two centuries, what we’re ultimately celebrating is the ability of modernisation to solve some of its own internal contradictions, usually through the struggles of those who’ve suffered at its hands, and usually without thought to the longer term environmental consequences. To compare 1815 with 2015 is in many ways to compare a low point with a high point in a longer, messier modernisation cycle.

So much for poverty in the past. What of it today, for those people or those countries living in straitened circumstances in the midst of modernist plenty? A word you won’t find in the EM is inequality. There are glancing references to poverty, poor people and poor nations. But in the ecomodernist vision poverty is equated with a lack of modernisation. There is no sense that processes of modernisation cause any poverty. So there is no mention here of the vast literatures on the changing and varied economic fortunes of the many civilisations that have come and gone, or the changing and varied ideas they’ve had about themselves. There’s nothing on uneven development, historical cores and peripheries, proletarianisation, colonial land appropriation and the implications of all this for social equality. The ecomodernist solution to poverty is simply more modernisation. And you then begin to understand why the improvement in material wellbeing needs to be ‘vast’. Every year, for example, US citizens each eat 100kg of meat on average, whereas the rest of the world makes do with 31kg. Since ecomodernism lacks any critique of consumption, instead choosing to equate increased consumption with increased wellbeing, its only feasible solution to this maldistribution of meat must be to raise up global meat consumption. If global levels equated with US levels, we would need to conjure something like another half billion tonnes of meat from global agriculture annually, and that probably would require the impressive breakthroughs in technology and resource use efficiency that the ecomodernists crave.

An obvious question is whether increasing meat consumption from 31kg to 100kg, or likewise increasing the consumption of anything much else, really does equate with ‘vastly improved material wellbeing’, still less with wellbeing writ large. A humbler ecomodernism might acknowledge that other people construe wellbeing and humanity’s place in the world differently, and consider how its programme might interact with theirs.


But the EM doesn’t do this. Instead, it insists there is no alternative. Once the historic brakes are off, it claims, modernisation is intrinsic to human nature. And the ecomodernists want to release the brakes. This, they say, is no matter of narrow ideology: ‘Too often, modernisation is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions’ (EM, p.28). At first this move seems generous, but its effect is to make modernisation something universal and ineluctable, a process to which all right-thinking humans are committed, apart perhaps from a few straggling hunter-gatherers, peasants, backward agrarians and their latter-day champions, for ‘modernisation is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy’ (p.13).

Now, there really is no such thing as a ‘subsistence economy’ – or if there is, then every economy is a subsistence economy inasmuch as it produces what those in control of it deem necessary for human subsistence. The anthropology of those so-called ‘primitive’ societies that we like to call ‘subsistence economies’ documents the elaborate measures they take to prevent the multiplication of material ‘needs’ and the emergence of inequality. Pierre Clastres, for example, has written, ‘when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men’s axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter'(2).

Only in ‘modern’ societies does it strike people as obvious that the correct thing to do with superior technology is to produce more with it, and though not all modern societies have been capitalist ones capitalism has pushed this logic of modernisation furthest. Its basic feature is the insecurity of both capitalist entrepreneurs and the populace at large before the impersonal dictates of the interest-bearing loan, forcing entrepreneurs into a ceaseless search to lower relative input costs and the populace into a wholesale reliance on monetised market exchange. In that process lies the fury of capitalist modernisation to find new markets, new human relationships to monetise, new ways of improving efficiency and extracting value. And the result of that process is the ‘modern’ world that the ecomodernists describe – with its incredible material wealth for the few and its misery for the many (the true ‘subsistence agrarian economies’ are the ones that have been made such by losing out in the battles of modernisation), its prodigious energy use, its constantly revolutionising technology, its relative resource efficiency and its absolute resource drawdown, its profound disruptions of the human and non-human environments.

The EM devotes considerable space to arguing that preindustrial peoples were worse environmentalists than we moderns – for example pointing to the relative inefficiency of foraging over farming, and raising the issue of the North American megafauna extinctions arguably associated with Paleoindian hunting. As a matter of historical accuracy, it seems hard to sustain the view that the environmental impact of the North American Paleoindians was any match to that of North Americans today. But the larger question is why the ecomodernists should feel the need to scorn the doings of peoples who preceded them by over 10,000 years. What exactly is their beef?

Perhaps one answer is that the ecomodernist worldview depends upon a universalising narrative of smooth and pristine forward progress: ‘smooth forward progress’ in the sense that the human story it wishes to tell is one of almost uniform ascent towards greater wellbeing and greater control of nature; ‘pristine’ in the sense that the process involves no major contradictions. If the Paleoindians were indeed responsible for the megafauna extinctions, perhaps this makes them modernisers too, but not necessarily worse ones than us. Human actions always have consequences in the wider world, but we have choices over how we respond to them. The ecomodernists replace choices with an unyielding historical progression: their worldview demands that there can have been no past times in which people might have lived as well or better in their own terms than we live today.

I accept the dangers of primitivism: we achieve little by simply reversing the modernist narrative of progress towards future perfection with a primitivist narrative of degeneration from a perfection in the past. But all these dualities of progress-regress, Eden-Fall, heaven-hell etc. are products of civilisation itself and its doctrines of modernisation. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern China the evidence is clear: development implies underdevelopment, material wealth implies material poverty, freedom implies slavery and so on. These couplets are not two ends of a historical process, with modernisation ringing the death knell for the misery of the past, but contradictions within the modernisation process itself. Often, the negative term is merely placed beyond sight of modernisation’s victors. Thus, the EM notes the reforesting of New England but fails to note the deforesting of New Guinea, or any possible connection between the two. It claims that reforestation is a resilient feature of development, without noting that global net reforestation rates are negative. And it implicitly assumes that ‘development’ is some unassailable historical achievement that can never be undone, rather than a temporary flux in longer-term political relationships that are always subject to renegotiations of the kind we’re currently seeing in the gradual transfer of America’s economic assets to China.

For its part, the Dark Mountain manifesto describes progress as a myth. I largely agree, or at least I reject the metaphorical topography of going ‘back’ or moving ‘forwards’ as a way of thinking about ‘progress’ historically. Here is the anxiety in the ecomodernist argument: once you abandon the notion of a smooth upward progress undergirded by technology, once you abandon the common or garden ethnocentrism that our own times and our own people sit at the apex of human achievement, then it’s possible to look at other peoples and ask open-mindedly whether there is anything we can learn from them, not so that we can live just like them, but so we can live better in our own terms.

The whole thrust of the EM is to answer ‘no’ to that question, but it becomes ensnared in contradiction. It states: ‘The parts of the planet that people have not yet profoundly transformed have mostly been spared because they have not yet found an economic use for them – mountains, deserts, boreal forests, and other “marginal” lands’ (p.19). And yet these places have long been occupied by hunter-gatherers, herders, ‘primitive’ agrarians, the uncivilised, the ‘marginal’ and supposedly inefficient non-moderns whose ‘economic use’ of them stretches way back. I think the answer is ‘yes’. I think we can learn much from the uncivilised about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness and what we, but not they, might call ‘natural resource management’. So much of the discourse of the modern world religions and so much of the angst in contemporary civilised society chafes on those very points, because we know that modernising civilisation hasn’t got them right.

In that sense, the EM reads like a religious tract. Despite all the trappings of science and policy analysis, it’s really an attempt to keep the barbarians from the gate and to insist that, while few now believe in the perfectibility of humanity in heaven as a sacred process, we can still believe in the perfectibility of humanity on earth as a historical process. We can, in the words of the EM, have a ‘great Anthropocene’. Well, maybe – but I don’t believe in perfectibility, sacred or profane. So I’m standing uncertainly at the gate, ready at least to give the barbarians a hearing.

The EM also reads like a literary tract. Curiously, despite adopting the moniker of modernism for themselves, the ecomodernists don’t identify with modernism as an aesthetic movement – and yet their programme meshes perfectly with that of the literary modernists. Like Baudelaire wandering through the less salubrious streets of 19th-century Paris, the ecomodernists want to invent a new language that scorns romanticism and the naturalistic, and embraces the city in general and the slum in particular as the engine of a new world order involving a self-conscious rupture with everything that has gone before. I won’t dwell on all the connections, or on the career and aftermath of modernism: from Baudelaire to Eliot to Iain Sinclair, from Marx to Stalin to Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, from Le Corbusier to Ronan Point to the mock Tudor semi, from the Factory Acts to Henry Ford to Mark Zuckerberg. But as self-avowed ‘modernists’ the eco-modernists might do well to ponder the long career and drawn out death of modernism in the arts and policy sciences. Certainly, modernism was an important moment in its time. But now it’s over. The moment for eco-modernism is over too.


Inasmuch as modern civilisation’s drawdown of non-renewable natural resources is a problem (for the ecomodernists it’s essentially civilisation’s only problem; I’d offer a wider indictment), it makes sense to seek technical innovations that make more sparing use of resource inputs for a given output. This is called relative decoupling. But relative decoupling is only useful if it enables societies to use less total resources or emit less total pollution, in other words to achieve absolute decoupling.

Clastres’ story of the Indians, the white men and the axe comes to mind here, for though we’re achieving relative decoupling on some measures, we’re not achieving absolute decoupling. In 2012, CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas were more than double their levels in 1980, with petroleum emissions over 40% higher – and yet the EM claims that nations have been ‘slowly decarbonising’ (p.20) . Nitrogen pollution is also rising, as the EM acknowledges, while adding the irrelevant qualification that ‘the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations’ (p.14). Another example is meat consumption, which the manifesto correctly states ‘peaked in many wealthy nations’ (p.14). But in 2012, the world produced about 238 million tonnes of meat, up a third from 179 million tonnes in 2000. And so it goes on. The EM consistently muddies the water between relative and absolute decoupling to create a rosier picture of global resource use than the data warrant.

It also consistently muddies the water between the certain, available technologies of today, and the uncertain, possible technologies of the future. ‘Human civilisation can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion’ it states (p.10), without acknowledging that there are scarcely any full-scale power plants currently in operation using these technologies. It follows this with an upbeat assessment of human prospects ‘given plentiful land and unlimited energy’. That raises the bar for disagreement pretty high, given those givens – but first I’d like more evidence about how ‘given’ they are. Despite excitable talk of unlimited nuclear energy, the truth is that currently only 31 of the world’s 200 countries have any nuclear energy capacity, and this furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. That figure may well go down. India, a leader in the push for a thorium-powered nuclear future, is also planning to treble its per capita coal use by 2030. This alone would make a mockery of the ecomodernists’ equation between development and decarbonisation. Present global energy scenarios remain almost wholly wedded to a fossil fuel future.

The other kind of decoupling the EM advocates is a physical decoupling of people from nature through urbanisation, agricultural intensification and the restoration of wildlands, for in its words ‘Nature unused is nature spared’ (p.19). As noted earlier, the Eden myth, the notion of a pristine and uncorrupted nature, has such a deep currency in our ‘modernising’ culture that this sentence probably seems uncontroversial to many. But I find it strange and troubling. For uncivilised thought, its sentiments are unintelligible. ‘Nature’ is not something that goes ‘used’ or ‘unused’. And though humans can probably never escape entirely from a godlike differentiation of self from nature-other, our power lies not in ‘sparing’ nature but rather in moving purposefully within the realm of its power. Here the EM is caught in a morbid dialectic of capitalism, which first reduces everything in the world to a set of instrumental use values and then, abhorring what it’s done, tries to extricate a sacred wholeness from the consequences of its own ugliness. In contrast to the more anti-modern strands of radical environmentalism, ecomodernism is often characterised as an optimistic doctrine. But listen to the melancholy:

We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves. They connect with their deep evolutionary history. Even when people never experience these wild natures directly, they affirm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual well-being. Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree (p.25).

As a philosophical statement, there seems a grand absurdity in advocating rupture from something that you need to be a part of. I empathise with the sadness, but it’s a pity the ecomodernists try to overcome it with chest-thumping affirmations of human independence. They sound like the jilted lover, at once defiant: ‘I don’t need her anyway, I’m better than her’; then alone, and afraid: ‘she was everything to me, what will I do without her?’ Eventually, the lover moves on. It’s less clear where a denatured humanity would move to. Here, again, the modernism of the ecomodernists already meets its end.

So, the ecomodernists seem to be saying, despite our human need for nature, we can’t be trusted to get along with it. We need a divorce, a division of the spoils: to us the city, and the minimum amount of farmland necessary to support it, to the rest of creation the wilderness where humans can go to look but not to live. I think this will prove self-defeating. Absent people from the production of their subsistence and install an economy of modernisation which offers no philosophical challenge to the proliferation of material demands and you unleash the bedlam we see already: the ecological reach of wealthy cities is global. Beyond global – the demands of ‘developed’ urbanised countries exceed the planetary capacity to furnish them long-term. Maybe city wealth buys the ecological conscience to shop in farmer’s markets and subscribe to Greenpeace, but it buys a lot of other things as well – too many for the world to provide. And the notion that, properly managed, capitalist modernisation will deliver fair wages, efficient production and ecological restoration for all is a utopian fantasy, just as it has always been. The ecomodernists’ programme will more likely terminate with an entrenched urban poverty that allows them, the elite, but not the newly enclosed urban masses, the luxury of ‘connecting emotionally’ with a cowed nature, or else perhaps just with metrogeddon.

The policy framework of ecomodernism is equally concerning. The EM in muted fashion, and other writings by some of its authors more forcefully, are in favour of urbanisation and agricultural intensification, and against low-yield farming, people who depend on firewood for fuel, and the consumption of bushmeat. The targets here are obvious. Better to knock peasants, hunter-gatherers, commoners and other people not yet fully coopted by the capitalist dialectic off their perch and corral them into the slums of the growing global metropolis. ‘Let no one romanticise the slum conditions’, EM co-author Stewart Brand has written, before doing precisely that, ‘But the squatter cities are vibrant‘ (3).

It’s true that the fizz of urban economies draws in the rural poor – often temporarily, sometimes permanently. But it rarely delivers them out of poverty. And though it’s doubtless true that non-moderns can cause local environmental degradation, in the ecomodernists’ hands this small tail wags the large dog of the widespread degradation caused by wealthy, modernised citi-zens – and the tragic results of this kind of thinking reverberate around the nature parks and forests where indigenous peoples are cleared in the name of progress. Twenty-first century ecomodernism is an enclosure movement, much like the discourse of 18th-century ‘agricultural improvement’: clear the commons, for the commoners are poor and indigent. Better they labour for others, where they will earn more and cause less trouble. As in the case of that earlier debate, there’s scope for much massaging of the evidence on both sides, but it’s by no means settled that modern, high-tech agriculture produces higher yields than small-scale farming; that the ‘intensive’ arable grain farming on which the urban world relies better promotes biodiversity or food security than small, mixed plots; that city slums provide good routes out of poverty for the rural poor; and that the nature-dependent rural poor exert a more baleful environmental influence than the nature-decoupled urban wealthy.

The same ‘improver’ arguments were used by John Locke in the 17th century to justify colonialism in words that, barring changes in literary convention and racial sensibility, wouldn’t be out of place in the EM:

For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres [will] yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated? (4)

Civilisation and Uncivilisation

That brings us back to the American Indians. Locke in his time and the ecomodernists in ours presumably considered the ‘modernisation’ they underwent at the hands of European ‘improvement, tillage or husbandry’ beneficial. It’s not a view I can share. That’s not to say I’d endorse the Eden that other currents of civilised thought might wish to make of the uncivilised Indian, but I am drawn to Dark Mountain’s notion of ‘uncivilisation’ – not so much as a social state to aspire to, but as an idea we might use to escape from false dualities in ‘civilised’ thought.

What lies beyond civilisation? I’m not sure, and I’d need another essay to even begin outlining it. But, in brief, I think something more attuned to social contradiction and the need to keep certain human tendencies (acquisitiveness, hierarchy) in check. Something that values the quality of human relationships in their everyday particularity rather than their quantity in relation to abstract manifesto-style nostrums like development, freedom or productivity. Something that doesn’t reduce wellbeing to material wellbeing, and reduce the latter to questions of energy, objects and infrastructures. The EM’s narrative, like that of the major political parties, tells us that if we knuckle down we’ll soon be back on track. But, beyond civilisation, the tracks are many, and it’s high time we explored off the beaten one.

Ecomodernism: a response to my critics

This article provoked a vociferous reaction online from some ecomodernists, most notably from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. Chris Smaje responds to this criticism with another essay published on his blog, further developing his analysis of ecomodernism as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’. Read this essay here.


(1) Asafu-Adjaye, J. et al (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto

(2) Clastres, P. (1989) Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.196.

(3) Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline, Atlantic Books, p.36.

(4) Locke, J. (1689) The Second Treatise of Government, 37.

Chris Smaje works a small mixed farm in Somerset and blogs at, where a fuller version of this post is available. He’s written on environmental and agricultural issues for publications like The Land, Permaculture Magazine and in Dark Mountain: Issue 6, and also in academic journals (Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems; the Journal of Consumer Culture; the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture). Trained in anthropology and social science, he previously worked at the Universities of Surrey and London.


Our Footprints on the Earth


Why don’t people want to remove all their footprints from the Earth? Everything people do has an impact, so what’s the big deal about carbon? Where did this carbon fixation come from? Rather than a biological or meteorological perspective, I’m more interested in the sociological impacts of the climate change movement on the environmental community; the shift in values that happened when the focus went from local ecosystems to planetary issues, establishing the new globalised environment.

I began working in the environmental movement in the late ’90s, and spent many years on campaigns to protect the last old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. That’s how I learned about the development of environmental policy. I could tell both grassroots organising and direct action were needed in the battle for wilderness preservation.

At the time, the core values we used to ‘market’ environmental legislation to the public were ‘clean water, wildlife, and recreation’. We were told by the campaign director not to mention ‘global warming’ in our outreach work, and if someone asked one of us what our group thought of global warming, to say we didn’t have a position on that subject. He said that would be the best approach because the science was still inconclusive, and it was a bizarre, fringe, tin-foil hat idea. A brilliant, diplomatic fellow, he designed our campaigns to target the ‘average, middle of the road folks’. That strategy turned out to be effective, we were successful in protecting lots of wilderness.

It’s empowering to discover ‘we the people’ can sometimes win grassroots campaigns. While it’s true there was support and funding from some organisations that can most politely be described as ‘right wing’, in my personal experience these forests were saved through policies that were created and pushed through from the ground up. Our blood, sweat and tears went into these campaigns. We went door to door, gathering support from key legislative districts. Some of us devoted the best years of our lives to this. On glorious, endless summer days, we did not lose focus. In the fall, when the mood became suddenly more thoughtful, and others were enrolled in classes, some of us did not relent. We had to win. Undeterred by rain and snow, driven by a passion that kept us warm in the bleakest winter, we continued.

Why did we do this? What kept us going? We simply thought the forest was beautiful. Our souls were stunned by the beauty, so we became devoted to protecting Mother Earth in any way possible. Of course, when we explained this to ‘the public’, we used the jargon provided to us by the ‘green culture’: biodiversity, the web of life, watersheds, threatened and endangered species, habitat protection, ecosystem restoration, and saving places to be enjoyed by future generations. Back then people still talked about salmon and owls; they complained about dams. Somehow it seemed we could sense a bigger picture… we were an army in defence of beauty, and we were unstoppable.

And what was it exactly that was so lovely? Was it the way mist can sometimes make little rainbows in small alcoves of a rushing, sparkling stream? Was it the way huge tree roots form hollow caves, big enough to crawl into, that must certainly be the homes of fairies, goblins, gnomes and elves? Was it those giant trees that get so tall it’s impossible to see the top; so big they look like they hold up the sky? Maybe it was the look on a friend’s face as they walked barefoot in the soft, springy, green moss that carpeted everything, the way their eyes lit up as they admired the tiny white flowers that grew so shyly, secretly… or it could have been the surprise of climbing a mountain to see what was up there, and discovering a waterfall rushing down the side of a cliff, a sight more joyful than it had any right to be.

Beauty, I suppose, is a matter of perspective. How can one explain it to those who are unable to see it for themselves? We must employ vaguely scientific sounding terminology to get the message out. ‘Marketing’ the importance of saving the forest had to be done very delicately. The idea of wilderness is one that makes some people uneasy, and others delighted. A place where however far you walk you won’t see a trace of ‘civilisation’, a place where you can gaze forever in each direction and only see trees, brings peace to my heart, but fear to others. The word ‘wilderness’ conjures up primeval fears that city people don’t often contemplate. Fear of the dark, the savage beasts, the unknown. They don’t venture out to spend a night in such territory, so they don’t know how good it feels to hear the wind in the trees, to have no city lights that interfere with the sight of all the incredible stars. In the city they can never know how many stars there really are, or how it feels to be free.

We worked to gather bipartisan support, and there were times when it seemed like the campaign leaders were pandering to Democrats or Republicans, but actually they were very savvy and did exactly what needed to be done to protect the last wild places. In our hearts and minds we were neither democrats nor republicans. In our spirits we knew we were not statistics and demographics. We were wild too. We could look deep into your eyes and you would see you were looking at someone who was truly free, untamed inside. We were anarchists at heart. Also, we were family. Other grassroots groups are aware, somewhat jokingly, of the cult-like atmosphere that often develops in campaign work, but we took that to the next level. We really cared about each other. We all moved in with each other and formed small households of friends. Some of us fell in love, and others even stayed together and had families. We would celebrate our victories and comfort each other through our misfortunes.

We went to see Julia Butterfly speak after she spent two years living in a redwood tree and was successful in protecting the headwaters forest in California. Her victory inspired us to keep going. We kept each other going. Some people got land, and lots of them had beautiful children, and they named them mostly after flowers and trees.

We marched together at the Battle of Seattle, at the end of 1999, to help our city successfully shut down the WTO in solidarity with cities across the world who cheered as we stood up to the global corporations that threatened us all. I was amazed by the bravery of my brothers and sisters in the movement, who put their lives on the line in defence of what seemed to be workers rights, environmental rights, fair trade — but was actually this more obscure sense of beauty and freedom, which had become the most important thing in life.

Another protest, tiny and quiet, went unnoticed. About a dozen of us volunteered on behalf of an international organisation to protest at Fidelity Investments, part of a campaign targeting stockholders to make them aware of the damage being done by Occidental Oil. In the Colombian Andes, a tribe called the Uwa were threatening to commit mass suicide if Oxy didn’t stop drilling in the rainforest where they lived. Fidelity did eventually divest from Oxy because of the pressure put on stockholders from people like us. Protests on behalf of the Colombian people continue.

Long ago it was clear to us all why the Earth should be ‘saved’. The Earth was an awesome place to be! Mountains, forests, oceans, and all the creatures who lived in them were beautiful, so we thought they all deserved to live in peace and flourish. Although we couldn’t manage to explore very many wild places, just knowing they were there was comforting. They were not there for us to explore, but for their own sake. The idea was that such living ecosystems had an intrinsic value that was more important than the resources that could be extracted from them for human use. It was understood that if an old growth forest is logged, it will never grow back. A tree farm is not a forest. When replanting is done in a clear-cut, the soil is soaked in toxic herbicide and mono-crop plantations are grown for later harvesting. It was silly to pretend this replanting was somehow replacing the old growth forest ecosystem that had been destroyed.


These days, in the ‘new green economy’, trees are seen simply as things that make the air better for people to breathe. This new, modern functionality stems from the next generation of green propaganda, which strives to homogenise everything into one giant communist planetary pie chart. Small ecosystems like a forest or river no longer matter in this grand global picture. It sounds almost acceptable now to hear someone say something like ‘But after they clear-cut the old growth forest, they replant way more trees than were there before, so they improve the climate, now it’s even better than it was!’ Marketing air as a commodity from trees created things like carbon credits and off-setts.

It’s not just trees that have been given a new global importance. Any ecosystem must now prove it has value according to what it has to offer humanity. As we are all linked in the web of life, and humans are most important, it’s possible to see how everything in the natural environment is somehow important for human survival, so now to care about the environment has become… humanitarian. Was this a ‘natural’ trend within the environmental movement and scientific community? Or was it put into motion by things like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment? A worldwide 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment enlisted hundreds of scientists to develop a view of ecosystems through the lens of services those ecosystems provide humanity.

Although climate change seems like a selfish movement, such attitudes make it look altruistic to care about the molecules that compose our atmosphere. I, on the other hand, question the whole idea of an ‘ecosystem’. I propose an ‘ecochaos’ instead, where things are random sometimes. These things might be not only unpredictable, but also unknowable, mysterious and undiscovered. Nature might not be systematic and balanced. People seek to find ‘harmony’ in nature, but is it really there? Is nature only a machine? No, nature is alive.

Climate change is something that appeals to shallow consumers, so even they can get involved in environmental issues. Once people think maybe they themselves may become uncomfortable, they fear change. Even if it isn’t always getting hotter, change is happening left and right. It scares them. What about Greenland? What about the hole in the ozone? What about Fukushima, Hanford, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Gone are the days of blaming god for floods, fires, and storms. Atheists have found a new religion in climate change. It’s a weak form of megalomania. They indulge in a common pseudo-scientific superstition by thinking their SUVs are responsible for freakish weather patterns all over the world.

If rivers flow red in China and Lebanon, and a red flood swallows Hungary, and rivers flow black in Venezuela, how does climate change manage to capture everyone’s attention year after year? Pollution is still deadly to the people nearby the source of it, not so much to those far away. Who is going to stand up for people whose local environment gets destroyed? Local bureaucrats can’t afford it, and the US Environmental Protection Agency appears just as worthless as it ever has been. We have to hold these bureaucrats accountable on the local level, we have to go to meetings, submit comments, do our part. Yet forests are still being deforested, even if you recycle.

In the ‘new green economy’, corporations can pay to continue polluting and deforesting. They can pay someone else to implement a ‘green’ policy somewhere else, one that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. Maybe some of those projects are fine and good. What irks me is how they make everything a globalisation, a commodification, a tiny particle of a planetary climate in a disastrous cycle, so the devastatingly singular incidents of ecocide are overlooked. In any environmental organisation around today, I’ll bet you five bucks you won’t find anyone to speak out about the Belo Monte Dam.

It’s weird to me personally that people want to stop using fossil fuels in order to clean up their personal and global oxygen supply, rather than doing so because of what oil production does to local areas. They still continue with the tar sands and the keystone pipeline.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, people still work to protect the environment for actual reasons. Yet, in a global movement for protecting a global atmosphere, local areas often seem obsolete. Local communities, driven to extinction and even mass suicide, go mostly unnoticed as rich, white people worry about carbon.

The truth is everyone isn’t equally to blame for the destruction of this planet. Some folks are more to blame than others.

And when was the last time you heard of the Marbled Murrelet?

Ilira Walker is an artist in Washington state. She enjoys gardening, drinking and overthrowing the government.


‘Willapa clearcutting’ by USGS – USGS aerial survey. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘Old growth forest’. Licensed under Pubic Domain via Wikimedia Commons



Fàd a’ Chaorain


I’ve experienced agoraphobia, or at least that’s one explanation for what it was, only once in my life. I was travelling by train from Glasgow to Fort William in February, one of only a handful of passengers spread between the two carriages of the train. We crossed Rannoch Moor late in the afternoon. I remember peering out of the window into what seemed like emptiness: the moor stretched and fading, a monochrome of rock, turf, bog and water. Everything solid was smeared with thin, wet snow, appearing indistinct and yet oppressive. Even the mountains that circled the moor were both far away and looming.

I became disorientated, clinging to my seat while at the same time floundering out on the moor. The sensation was brief but overwhelming. I’ve never felt so lost. I pulled myself together – that’s how it seemed, as though I had to haul some part of me back onto the train – and spent the rest of the journey unnerved, buried in a book for distraction, grateful that, as night fell, the windows reflected back the lights of the carriage, keeping out the dark.

Rannoch Moor is a big chunk of land in the Central Highlands. It’s no wilderness – its ecology has been drastically affected by the presence of man – but it’s certainly remote and, in these overcrowded islands, it has a rare sense of spaciousness. You can walk for days without crossing a road or bumping into another human; although, of course, it wasn’t always thus. Like everywhere in the Highlands, the moor bears the terrible imprint of the Clearances – that period during the 18th and 19th centuries when so many communities were forcibly uprooted and pushed out to the unproductive margins, the rocky coasts, or else herded onto emigrant ships bound for America and Canada. You don’t need to wander far on the moor to find signs of the people who once lived there: at a bend in a river, an old settlement, the houses roofless but with their walls intact, the lintel stones above the hearths still black from cooking fires.

Since that train journey in my mid-­twenties, I’ve returned to Rannoch Moor again and again. I’ve walked across it and climbed the mountains at its edges. I’ve gained a bright store of memories: a glorious swim in the Allt na Caim after a hot day’s walk, the water peat­stained and golden in the sun; two days in a tent reading Sorley MacLean while a gale scoured the moor, the tent like a curach, prow to the wind, its skin keeping me dry and buoyant in the pouring rain; an evening on top of Glas Bheinn, watching the sun burn the ridges and peaks of the Aonach Eagach as it fell.

The moor’s a good place to learn to be alone, and often, when out on it, I’ve felt a loosening of self that seems far healthier than that first experience of dislocation on the train. I’ve also begun to learn about the moor itself, its seasons and its plants and birds and beasts. And I’ve delved into its cultural ecology, its stories, spending hours doing detective work online and in the National Library, sifting through books and journals, seeking versions of a particular story or making the connections between place-­names and events. Better still, I’ve sought out and learnt from those with a life’s store of passed-down tales. It’s been a joyful learning.

Rannoch Moor is rich in all the different layers of story, from local tales of memorable events and characters, to legends of the Fianna. Tales of Fionn and his men abound on the moor and the glens that surround it, a wild theatre for their exploits, and at the heart of the moor lies the loch of Fionn’s son, Oisien the Bard. These stories animate the land, drawing us to a deeper relationship with it and the people who once lived there. Through them we glimpse the world view of a Celtic culture that flourished in Scotland for fifteen hundred years. But there are deeper layers still, older stories.

Out on the moor you’ll find traces of the peat banks that were worked by generations of families, cutting the peats each summer to dry and then store for winter fuel. This is still practised in Scotland, though mostly now only on the Outer Hebrides. On a fresh cut bank you can see most clearly the different strata: from the turf on top to the first spongy layers of peat and down to the fàd a’ chaorain, or bottom layer. This is where you find the darkest, densest peat. There are stories from Rannoch Moor that equate to the fàd a’ chaorain, that carry the deepest myths of the land: stories of giants and earth shapers; stories of the Cailleach herself, ‘the veiled one’.

It’s said that there are three great ages: the age of the eagle, the age of the yew tree, and the age of the Cailleach. These aren’t spans of time as we moderns perceive them. This is big, deep, ancestor time and the Cailleach is the oldest of all. She’s first mother, mountain maker and loch former. She’s also the goddess of winter and controller of the elements. And in Scotland, uniquely, she’s the mistress and protector of deer. There are countless tales in the Highlands of the Cailleach tending to her herd of hinds, as well as accounts of her shape­-shifting into a deer herself. Such stories suggest a link to other northern cultures and their shamanic traditions, like the reindeer-­herding Sámi (it’s worth noting that some experts date the extinction of reindeer in Scotland to as late as the 12th century). It’s also been argued that these tales represent surviving fragments of a deer-­cult that came north with the hunter gatherers who gradually populated the glens at the end of the last ice­-age.

What I find remarkable, what prickles my hair and sets my head spinning, is that here in the UK – one of the epicentres of modernity – there remains what the folklorist Hamish Henderson called a ‘carrying stream’: an oral tradition of song and story that survives even to the present day. And borne on that stream are tales that take us all the way back: folk memories from a pre-­Christian and possibly even pre­-Celtic people; stories that collapse time, defying the distance between us and the earliest inhabitants of this land.

The Cailleach is closely associated with a particular mountain on Rannoch Moor: Beinn a’ Bhric, ‘the speckled mountain’. It’s to the high corries of Beinn a’ Bhric that she leads her hinds in the summer. By day they graze the sweet mountain grass and in the long evenings she milks them, singing songs to let any hunter nearby know that she’s present (woe betide those who disturb the Cailleach at her milking). Today modernity intrudes even on Beinn a’ Bhric. A wide stalker’s track has been laid half way up the mountain, so that wealthy businessmen can be hauled up to shoot the deer that still frequent the corries. But you can climb away from the track, and if you know where to look you can find, near the summit, the Cailleach’s well. And drinking from it – the same well used by those early hunters who would have quenched their thirst and made their offerings – it feels like no great thing to shrug off a few thousand years, it feels possible to enter into some kind of communion.


Dougie Strang curates Carrying the Fire, a Dark Mountain gathering. This autumn it will be held on Rannoch Moor over the weekend 30th October – 1st November. Accommodation will be in the Loch Ossian Hostel and places are limited to 16. For more information, and to find out how to book a place, visit the Carrying the Fire website.