A Period of Mourning

co-founded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009, and was one of the project’s directors until stepping back in 2017. His books include the Man Booker-longlisted novel The Wake and his collection of Dark Mountain essays Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.
It’s been instructive to follow the news which has been all over the media for the last few days in Britain of the high speed rail network which the government has unveiled with a flourish – just in time for the forthcoming election. The idea is that, beginning in 2017, the UK will begin to build itself a number of high speed rail lines, carrying trains travelling up to 250mph, between our major cities. Eventually we’ll be able to get from London to Edinburgh or Glasgow in just three hours.  Smart tip, then: buy a flat in the Gorbals now; it’ll be worth a million in a decade or so once the London commuter belt extends across Hadrian’s Wall.

It has been hard to find anyone who doesn’t like this idea, which is always a bad sign. The government, represented by the wonderfully-named transport secretary, Lord Adonis, who if there were any justice would resemble a Marvel superhero rather than a solicitor from Shrewsbury, considers it to be modern and vital and competitive and other such things. Network Rail got to the heart of the matter, talking of our ‘modern, dynamic economy’ and how the new network would ‘drive economic growth and boost jobs’. The Tories like it too, thought they have complaints about the route, which will trash large parts of the rural, beautiful and very Tory Chilterns. Up north, the Scottish National Party are warning that the network had better get up to Scotland sharpish or they’ll be declaring independence even quicker than planned.

Environmentalists, of course, are creaming themselves. There’s nothing a mainstream green likes more than a massive infrastructure project designed to boost economic growth – as long as it’s a low-carbon one, of course. Thrilled by the idea that the new trains might take some people away from internal flights, NGOs have been jumping up and down with excitement.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the increasingly narrow focus of many so-called environmentalists, and I often do. The carbon-über-alles mentality that permeates everything said to be ‘green’ at present is going, if it is not challenged soon, both to destroy environmentalism as any kind of serious challenge to the status quo, and result in some very serious damage to the environment in its name. I can still remember when the greens got very excited a decade or so ago about the idea of growing fuel crops. Hard to believe now, but it was once seen as a good idea by mainstream greens to turn land over to producing the equivalent of petrol. This was because it was low carbon, supposedly, which was thought then, as it is now, to be the issue to which all other issues must be subsumed. Never mind challenging the supremacy of the car or the society which spawned it: just focus on the stuff that comes out of the exhaust: it’s ‘practical’, after all; it’s ‘realistic’.

Perhaps in ten or twenty years time, when many of our wild landscapes are slathered in turbines and barrages and mirrors, and central Africa is full of vast hydropower projects and the seas and rivers are full of technology and the forests are buried beneath palm oil plantations and global capitalism is still eating its way through our souls and our planet, and they have no words to oppose it because they have forgotten how to do anything but argue about high voltage wires and gigawatt hours and climate models, the greens will realise they were tilting at the wrong windmills. We’ll see.

But this is my personal bugbear. Maybe more interesting is to look at the high speed rail announcement as an example of wishful thinking. Two of the most important books I’ve read in the last year or so have been John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, which we’ve mentioned here before, and James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Both, I would suggest, are essential reading for any Dark Mountaineer. Greer writes with calm erudition about how the world is likely to pan out as fossil fuel supplies decline, while Lovelock writes with a welcome detachment about the possible consequences of climate change. These books complement each other well, and there are characteristics they share: they don’t accept any of the mainstream narratives on offer to us from either the business-as-usual or the sustainability brigades; they take a clear-eyed and sometimes quite hard-to-read look at the worst the future might bring us; and they suggest means of planning for it. Not, please note, preventing it – rather, being prepared for what it might look like.

I don’t necessarily recommend reading these two books in the same week, unless you have a lot of strong drink or sunshine to hand. Their conclusions are dark, but because they are so honest, so lacking in hysteria and so dismissive of the false hope that runs through most books of this type like words through a stick of rock, they are curiously inspiring too. I mention them because to look at things like the high speed rail announcement in the light of peak oil and climate change is to see wishful thinking in full flow.

If Lovelock and Greer, and the many sober analysts like them, are anything like correct, then this thing will probably never even be built. It is a classic example of what can seem a new idea, or a healthy development, resting on assumptions that are withering as we observe them. The idea that by 2027, when the line will be complete, our national priority will still be the kind of fuel-hungry economic growth we set up now as our national god seems staggeringly unlikely. It is unlikely to be even possible. We are going to be living in constricted times, at best. And we haven’t even discussed our astonishing national debt yet.

So why  do we make announcements like this as if it were 1960 rather than 2010? Why do we go on as if nothing were changing? Partly because it isn’t, at least in most peoples’ lives, yet, and partly because we don’t want it to, so we act as if it won’t. But there’s something else too, I think, and it didn’t crystallise until I received an email a week or two back from a Dark Mountaineer who had just come across the project and who had read what we had to say with interest.

He wrote to me to tell me he was very much in agreement with the need to tell new stories about our predicament; but he also believed we would need time to ‘mourn the old ones first.’ These underlying stories we had identified, the myths our world is built on – ideas of human supremacy and centrality and unstoppable progress – they were, he suggested, enormous and deeply embedded. He was right about that, of course. But the lesson he drew from this was that we couldn’t begin to hope for new narratives to register until the old ones had been openly mourned; accepted as dead. We were – are – in love with them, after all. They have made us all who we are. They can’t be discarded just like that.

This is a good point, and true, and perhaps one that we have not paid quite enough attention to. Sloughing off dangerous self-delusion is a long, hard process. It’s the equivalent of psychotherapy for an entire culture: long, hard, expensive, with no fixed end in sight and no guarantee of success. At present, for many people, the alternative to our failing stories seems to be despair and apathy and the contemplation of apocalypse. It doesn’t have to be, but we probably shouldn’t assume it will be easy, or quick, to move on from them. Not as quick as a high speed train, anyway.

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