I’ve just been catching up on some of the recent conversations online around this project. One post that caught my eye was from Matt Sellwood (Green Party candidate for Hackney North), who pins down one of the subtleties of what Paul and I have been trying to say over the last few months.
He starts by summing up and rebutting a couple of the regular charges which have been levelled against us. First, that we aren’t offering solutions to the ecological crisis:
They are explicitly not suggesting another solution to ‘the problem’, but rather a way for humans to deal with the reality of our existential situation.
Precisely. The second charge he tackles is that we are “giving in to despair”:
Kingsnorth and co argue that false hope is in fact unhelpful, and further, identify it as the prevailing emotion of the environmental movement over the last decade. I can certainly sympathise with this. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have forced myself to give an up-beat, positive, hopeful speech on climate change, when really I’ve wanted to acknowledge my innermost feelings – that we are very near the edge – and that we might already be over it.
Coming from a Green Party candidate, that’s refreshingly honest. Too often, listening to “leading environmentalists” repeat familiar phrases, I have the impression of a priesthood which has lost its faith, but continues to recite the liturgy, believing that the truth would be too much for the sheep in the pews.
So what happens if we stop pretending? In many ways, that was the central question of our manifesto – and Matt pushes at it. Does giving up “false hope” become, as he puts it, “an excuse for having given up on any change being possible at all?”
Paul can answer for himself – but for me, there are two answers to this question.
The first is what I do. Besides Dark Mountain, I spend most of my waking hours creating projects like the Space Makers “slack space” operation that’s been running in Brixton over the last couple of months, turning a half-empty market into a rolling festival of pop-up shops and events. How does that relate to writing about “the end of the world as we know it”? Either I’m totally dissociating, or – and this is the interpretation I prefer – there are things in this kind of improvisational, reappropriational activity which in some way rehearse the skills we need for living in the ruins.
The second level answer is summed up by something I wrote last autumn:
‘Changing the world’ has become an anachronism: the world is changing so fast, the best we can do is to become a little more observant, more agile, better able to move with it or to spot the places where a subtle shift may set something on a less-worse course than it was on. And you know, that’s OK – because what makes life worth living was never striving for, let alone reaching, utopias.
There’s a big difference between the task of trying to sustain “civilisation” in its current form – supermarkets and all – which is what “sustainability” has largely come to mean, and the task of holding open a space for the things which make life worth living. I’d suggest that it’s this second task, in its many forms, which remains, after we’ve given up on false hopes. (Note that this doesn’t mean organising a campaign against supermarkets, which is the default mode of a lot of what’s called activism.)
And, although Dark Mountain is an avowedly cultural, imagination- and ideas-centred project, this emphasis does not imply a disparagement of practical, hands-on or even technology-focused approaches towards our situation. Engineers as much as artists can choose to engage with the (probably impossible) challenge of sustaining our current way of living, or the (as I see it, more genuinely hopeful) challenge of creating possibilities for liveable and meaningful lives, when and where that way of living is not an option.
That’s one reason I’m glad to have filmed a dialogue with Vinay Gupta, the founder of the Hexayurt Project, exploring the relationship between Dark Mountain and the territory he has been exploring in appropriate technology, infrastructure and disaster relief. If you’ve not heard of him before, check out ‘Hexayurt Country’, published ten days ago – an outline plan for rebuilding Haiti on a shoestring budget, using local skills, which draws on the last eight years of his work.
When we sat down to talk, the conversation soon came round to the relationship between villages and cities, a theme which connects our cultural and technological concerns. The video starts from the point where he asked me about some of the writers and thinkers championed by this project – as he put it, “cultural figures who could have had a Manhattan penthouse, but chose to go and live in a village.”
It’s conversations like this which I hope we’ll be able to open up, as this project develops: on this site, at UNCIVILISATION: The Dark Mountain Festival in May, and in the pages of the Dark Mountain itself – the book-length publication, the first issue of which we’re currently editing. If you want to help us get that into print – bringing together voices like Derrick Jensen, Jay Griffiths, Alastair McIntosh, John Michael Greer, Ran Prieur, Melanie Challenger and lots more – please pre-order your copy and consider making a donation towards our current fundraising campaign, by visiting this site:
Thank you for your support.