Between them, Doug and Kris Tompkins spent the last 25 years working on one of the most ambitious conservation and rewilding projects on Earth, creating protected national parks in vulnerable areas of Chile and Argentina to provide a vital refuge for endangered wildlife at a time when the human demands on the non-human world increase daily. Between them, they protected more land from ‘development’ than any other private individuals in history – over 2 million acres in total, and there were plans for more.
This remarkable display of both philanthropy and ecological ambition was a long-term project not simply to preserve wild nature and give it some chance of recovery, but also to persaude others to contribute to an overarching plan to connect protected areas throughout the continent, and in so doing to provide a wild corridor through which non-human life could move and survive. There is nothing else quite like it anywhere on Earth, and Doug’s widow, Kris, who was a partner in the work and who similarly dedicated her life to it, has made clear in the last few days that she will continue, and even accelerate, it.
For me, though, perhaps the most significant thing about Doug and his work was not the amount of money he’d made setting up the clothing companies Esprit and the North Face (which he later came to loathe as the epitome of the corporate culture destroying the planet) nor even the way he spent that money conserving and restoring so much wild land. What struck me most about Doug was the worldview which drove this work, which was rare, honest and uncompromising.
Doug saw the protection of non-human life, in the face of the human onslaught, as the crucial work of our time. He saw much of the green and conservation movements – rightly, in my view – as fatally compromised both by their need to remain broadly popular and by their increasing interest in human-centred social and political concerns. For the mainstream green movement today, human ‘social justice’ often seems as important as protecting non-human nature from human rapacity, despite the fact that the two are often in conflict (‘there’s no social justice on a dead planet’ was one of Doug’s favourite aphorisms). The deep denial which runs through our civilisation right now, across the political spectrum – a refusal to accept the reality and implications of everything from climate change to human population numbers to the impossibility of limitless growth – is to be found everywhere, including in the green movement, and in most of our lives, most of the time.
Doug’s worldview, in contrast, was so long-term as to be incomprehensible to many people. He was a deep time thinker, aiming to preserve wild places and species in order to get them through the bottleneck of the ‘great acceleration’, as the human economy consumes all around it in a desperate struggle to keep growing. The work he did was not designed to pay out today, tomorrow or next year; it wasn’t especially designed to pay out to humans at all. It was a grand project designed with just one aim: to save as much of the wild world as possible from destruction.
This kind of work will always be hard and unpopular, and perhaps only people as determined, bloody-minded and ultimately wealthy as Doug Tompkins can really do it. Doug knew that civilisation and nature were on a collision course – indeed, were already colliding, and that the consequences for wild nature were terrible. He didn’t finesse that truth, he simply spoke it, whether people liked hearing it or not – and most, including many mainstream conservationists and establishment greens, didn’t like it at all. But he spoke it anyway. And then he did something about it.
For his pains, he was often described – when his opponents were feeling polite – as ‘radical’ or ‘controversial’, words that are regularly used about anybody foolhardy enough to undertake work that does not put the interests of ‘developed’ human beings before anything else that lives. To me, what he was doing was neither of these things – it was just blindingly obvious, common sense, necessary work for the age of ecocide. The real controversy is that more people aren’t doing it.
I like to compare our culture’s treatment of Doug with its treatment of Steve Jobs, another wealthy US entrepreneur of the same generation. The two were friends, though friends with very different worldviews. Jobs, who spent his life creating a global web of oil-based digital technologies which encourage humans to divorce themselves from nature and disappear into virtual worlds, is lionised to such a degree that Hollywood will make a gushing biopic about him. Doug, who walked away from the same culture to dedicate himself to preserving huge swathes of the wild Earth, remained largely unknown until his death. Benedict Cumberbatch is unlikely to be portraying him on the big screen anytime soon, which is at least one crumb of comfort.
Being unknown, in any case, can be a blessing. In the end, the work, and the legacy, are what matters, and Doug’s is huge. If humans make it through the bottleneck, and if other life forms do as well, and if future generations come to properly appreciate a worldview that does not see the world as as human plaything, it will be at least partly because of the work done by Doug and his companions. His loss today, though, is a hard blow, and I for one will miss him.
You can read a moving tribute to Doug, written by his friend Rick Ridgeway, who survived the accident, here. As our own way of remembering Doug and his work, we’re reprinting here an interview I conducted with Doug and Kris in at their home in Chile in 2011, which appeared in Dark Mountain: Issue 3.
The Death of Birth
A conversation with Doug and Kris Tompkins
PK: So, it’s an interesting time to be in Europe, with things ostensibly falling apart, in Greece, in Italy and even now in Britain… It seems clear that some of the stories we’ve been told over the last few decades about growth have not been true, and haven’t delivered. It seems to me that it’s just beginning to sink in now, and I wonder where that’s going to lead
KT: The idea of limits … Well, of course you can say it’s taken too long, it’s taken centuries too long, but on the other hand it’s happening so fast now. People are talking about limits to growth and limits to natural resources in areas you just wouldn’t have seen even a year ago. I really believe that people don’t see themselves returning to the economic free-for-all that we all enjoyed for twenty years. I’m around a lot of money people – people with money who want to invest it, or people in the investment business – and they’re not saying (clicks fingers) – you know, they’re not saying, “well, we’re going to touch bottom in the next 24 months and then it’s going to pick up again over the next 48 months.” They don’t believe that. There’s no blue sky out there. They’re not anticipating it. I don’t hear one person talking about that, even mid-term.
I have these two recent issues of the Economist, and the front cover of the first is a giant image of a hurricane taken from a satellite, and right at the middle it says “Be Afraid.” This is the Economist! And the next week’s cover says “No Place to Hide.” And that’s what everybody thinks. Because there isn’t any place to hide. I think people believe it’s now a contracting global economy. China is sitting out there saying, where are all our customers? They’re going to be screwed before too long. I don’t know, I just think there is something happening out there.
DT: You can see that all of these economies are based on growth, and the intrinsic logic of capitalism needs growth, and so when they don’t get it they are in a downward spiral. But in the emerging countries now, like the BRICS, there is a lot of discussion in financial circles about how they can catch fire and start to spiral up. And because that’s half the world’s population in those countries, it could be a factor that will drive a new form of capitalism, one in which they are dominant but which still chases growth. I am uncertain as an observer about whether they’ll be able to do it or not do it. But I think it’s going to take the countries that are on their way to overdevelopment to reach overdevelopment before the whole system comes down, through sheer numbers, inertia, development attitudes…
PK: My worst-case scenario is that you can have a kind of hyper-developed society at just below the level at which ecological limits are reached. In other words, you can keep this over-civilised anthill society going indefinitely. Everyone’s in the race. It seems sometimes that that could be even worse than a crash. You could never change course or escape from that.
There’s a kind of division developing in the green movement over this. The greens have failed to prevent overdevelopment pushing ecosystems beyond their limits, and all of the traditional methods that we all tried for years don’t work on anything like the scale they need to. And faced with this, people do different things but there seem to be a couple of camps developing, if you like. One of them you could say Dark Mountain is part of, which is people who see the system hitting the buffers and who think we have to negotiate our way through that, culturally and practically.
The other camp is the old-fashioned cornucopians, who are coming back strongly at the moment. Stewart Brand seems to be their current spiritual leader! They can also see that the old green solutions have failed, but they argue that the world population wants to live in cities and wants advanced technology and this isn’t going to change, so we need to work with it. They’re all about this hi-tech, centralised future with GM foods and nuclear power and hypercapitalism and synthetic biology and high density cities, all very controlled and rational, lots of wild nature growing outside the boundaries, you know … we’re all Gods .
DT: The tech-optimists, right.
KT: Well, they’ve got one thing right, which is that humans should be living more densely and leaving wildlands alone. Though you wouldn’t see me living in a city.
PK: But that’s the paradox, isn’t it? I’m always interested in this. If everyone is living in a city, if everyone is personally cut off from nature, why would they have any interest in keeping it alive in giant parks elsewhere? If they don’t have any felt, everyday connection with the nonhuman world on any scale, would they care about it?
KT: I think we’re at that point already with humans and their relationship to the rest of nature. I think that train left the station.
PK: What do you do about that?
KT: I don’t think there’s much you can do about it, not that is genuinely going to have any big impact. I mean, it’s not that you stop trying, but I think we are in a stage of an urban mind, and until things begin to shift – I don’t mean collapse, but just change… It’s not just cities now anyway. Everywhere, you’re plugged into a machine. You don’t have to be in a city, you can be in Chaitén (a small town on the borders of Parque Pumalin) or someplace and all the kids, and the adults, are either on their phones or they’re plugged into an MP3 or an iPod – it’s not just cities. Kids sitting in cars, they don’t have to be bored, looking out of the window as we were when we were kids. They have a television in the car, or they have games.
This is not just about being “urban”. We need another name for it. It’s like a giant plug. Everyone is plugged in and everybody is at the same thing. It’s everyone disconnected from nature, but also from human interaction. You know, it’s people texting at the dinner table. People in the streets looking at screens instead of where they are, you see this all the time.
PK: I just call it the Machine. It’s been called that for centuries, hasn’t it? The poets and novelists have been calling it that for at least a hundred years. But it is everywhere now, yes, much more pervasively.
KT: And now people feel silly if they’re not plugged in.
PK: I think they feel anxious. They feel like they’re missing something. There is this always-on network; someone is always trying to contact you. You kind of feel you should always be available and you find people apologising for having a few days off from it.
KT: And I think this is just where we are now, it’s a stage we’re at. But you know, society is going to shift around as natural realities kick in, and that can either be a catastrophe or it can be a glide – nobody knows what it will be. But that’s what’s going to change things. I don’t see people electing to move away from this. On the contrary, I don’t hold out a lot of hope. You can’t convince someone to hook into nature. You can just expose people to it. We all need to be exposed to things. Maybe you can catch some of them, get them to hook in to a different story.
PK: It’s a strange thing, I wanted to ask you about it. I have a deep, emotional connection to this thing we call “nature”, which I’ve had since I was very young … the kind of connection to the thing itself and to what it means and represents to me. I think that comes from having had a lot of exposure to both the good and the bad bits of nature as a young child. You know, the soothing beautiful bits and the angry dangerous bits, which are all part of the same package. But I have friends who have never had these experiences and who just don’t have any interest in it. They can understand it intellectually, but it doesn’t move them on that level. Sometimes it feels like being a religious believer speaking to someone with no faith, there’s almost this unbridgeable gulf.
KT: I have friends whose parents were very famous mountaineers and who took them out at a very young age into the hills their entire lives, and not all of them understand it.
PK: No, I suppose it doesn’t always follow.
KT: I just think it’s something you recognise or you don’t. There’s something very indescribable about how people communicate with nature. And some do and some don’t.
DT: Did you ever read a Russian science-fiction writer called Yvgeny Zamyatin? He wrote back in the 1920s; he was very subversive of Leninist Russia, and they eventually exiled him. Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin are the big three. His book, We, was written in the early 1920s. It was a veiled critique of the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s set three hundred years in the future and it’s about an engineer who built airplanes out of glass. There’s been a long war, a three-hundred-year war, and now it’s over and they’re settling into the scraps. Glass has become the most perfect building material because it is malleable, it is strong and so forth. And they’ve used it to wall out nature. You can see it out there, but it’s wild and unpredictable. Perfection was a straight line, everything was smooth and straight.
It’s worth reading. Firstly he is a great writer, but also he saw which way the trends were going – this is 100 years ago remember – simply by projecting outwards from what was happening already back then. So what we need to think about now is the projection from today, how current trends in mega-technology will change the future and how it will keep walling us off from nature. He’s got it as a physical wall; the people look out at it, and there are subversives in the story who want to get out there and experience wild nature in its uncontrolled state.
KT: But of course what he hadn’t reckoned with was energy decline. For sure, a shift in petroleum, whatever and whenever it is, will change that path.
DT: We’re doing a book at the moment about energy, and when I started that I was pretty convinced about peak oil and its implications, but as I have looked into it in more detail I am a little more circumspect. Of course peak oil is going to come, it is a finite resource, but it’s a moving target, because of new energy technologies. Some of them are pure vapourware, but some of them are likely to shift the playing field.
You know – carrying capacity being overshot, crashes, die-offs, these are all very much part of natural cycles. But they’re being delayed and pushed out into the future by fossil fuels and other mega-technologies, which I think are staving off the day of reckoning. It’s a little like quantitative easing: central banks printing all this money, jacking around the whole system, the Eurozone staving off the inevitable… The financial system seems to be the house of cards that could come down. But I think that as Dark Mountaineers, so to speak, we have to create a social movement that says “this is just undesirable, this system. It is culturally undesirable.”
PK: Well this is it, it’s not enough just to rely on it all coming down is it? I don’t know if you’ve read the Russell Hoban novel Riddley Walker? It’s set in a post-apocalyptic English landscape, and it’s written in a degraded future version of English. And the culture and landscape are degraded because it is hundreds of years after a nuclear war, and everything has regressed to a kind of scavenging feudalism, but people have vague memories of times when people could fly and of cities. And the one thing they are trying to do is rediscover the recipe for gunpowder. They don’t even know what gunpowder is, they just remember a time when people had enormous power and they want to get it back again.
And it’s a kind of post-collapse moral. Because if everything does suddenly collapse the thing that a lot of people are going to want to do, because they were brought up in the culture that fell apart, is to get it all back. Collapse in itself would not lead to a cultural or emotional shift; people wouldn’t suddenly want to live a small-scale peaceful life, at one with nature, they would want to get back what they had lost, because they hadn’t been convinced before they lost it that it was not worth having.
On the other hand, the paradox seems to be that if there is no collapse, or if there’s no big shock of some kind, people will have no reason to make a cultural or an emotional shift. I go round and round with this one!
DT: I just find the system, this way of living, undesirable. I have a simmering resentment towards it. I resent having the Internet imposed upon me. It feels like it was imposed. I’m stuck in the system, because if I want to be an activist and try to change things, to play a part in environmental and social change, then I’m stuck with the internet and computers because this is the mode of communication and if I don’t use them then I marginalise myself and compromise the work. If it weren’t for that factor, I would get rid of my laptop tomorrow. I held off for a long time. Until about six years ago I operated without the Internet and I refuse to get a cell phone. I don’t have one now because it is not desirable to have one.
PK: It’s been fascinating to see how quickly the web has got a grip on us. There is a whole generation of people coming up now who have never lived without it, and every one of their relationships and the way they live their lives… The Internet is like the axle that they revolve around. I find myself forgetting what to do without it. I worked in Fleet Street journalism for a little while in the mid-nineties before anyone really used the Internet or even knew what it was, and I remember pre-Internet research: you had to get on the tube and go to a library and look through books, you had to walk the streets and make phone calls. It seems like another world now but it wasn’t long ago. If I wanted to do it now, I’d probably have to teach myself how to. You want to know something now, you put it into Google and it comes up: but it’s only been five or ten years since that’s been happening. I don’t think people would put up with having it taken away from them.
DT: But I don’t know anyone who thinks that all of these stresses in the system, with population and consumption, are going to come out well. You can’t look at the direction of travel and seriously think that we are not going to hit buffers all over the place. Things will have consequences and in the heart of hearts of thinking people, I believe they know things are going wrong, although they may not be able to articulate it.
PK: So how do you relate this analysis to your work here, to the conservation work in Pumalin and elsewhere that you’ve both embarked on?
DT: Well, first of all I think it’s good to distinguish between conservation and environmentalism. We’re kind of a strange mix, we’re both activists and conservationists. We’re working across the board as much as we can with all of our resources and so forth to firstly change policy and secondly help build the intellectual infrastructure necessary to confront the eco-social challenges we’re faced with. So that’s what we’re doing on the environmental front.
On the conservation front – well, the thing that drives everything we’re thinking about is the conservation of biodiversity. Our leitmotif, so to speak, is the biodiversity crisis as a metric which rates how civilisation conducts itself. We are currently in another mass extinction crisis, which is the mother of all crises as far as I’m concerned. There’s nothing worse than an extinction crisis. If you just follow that out, in the direction it’s currently going, if it is allowed to go all the way there then everything else we are all currently doing is irrelevant.
The concept of sharing the planet with other creatures to me is a religious position, really. I don’t know how better to describe it. That, of course, is the ethic that informs biodiversity conservation. Others may do it for other reasons, for pragmatic or utilitarian reasons and so on. But I’m talking about giving purpose or reason to what you do every day. I’ve tried to explain this a thousand times and it always comes back to this, that I have to describe it as an ethical or religious position that this work springs from. I don’t mean “religious” in the sense of organised religions; but it seems to me that one either believes in one’s deepest core that life is sacred – all of life, from other non-human species, to forests, oceans, mountains, the entire planet as a living massive organism that generally we know as “nature”, but we have a thousand names for it, from Mother Nature, Pachamama, Gaia; depending on the culture you are from. This is nothing new, of course – indigenous cultures created vast numbers of their narratives and myths around this most basic concept, and although the surface expressions of it varied, the core story is quite the same. So as children of industrial culture we are trying to reconstitute a new narrative, and it comes out in such forms as the current of eco-philosophy of the Norwegian philosopher and thinker Arne Naess, what’s known as “deep ecology”. It’s one way those of us coming from the techno-industrial culture can try to get a grip on the idea that we need to share the planet with other creatures.
But also, of course, you can look at this work practically. You can look around the world and you can see that legally and practically national parks have about the highest level of biodiversity protection in habitats and landscapes. So from a pragmatic point of view we think, Kris and I, that if you’re going to work hard to try and conserve biodiversity, then making more national parks is a practical thing to do. So we hope to make another five, maybe six more national parks if we can while we’re still alive. And we like doing that! It’s pleasant work, and we think meaningful work. At least, it gives purpose and meaning to us. I mean, we get hammered by developers on all sides, but that’s always going to happen if you’re an environmentalist or conservationist. You don’t pay too much attention to the criticisms or the names you get called; it doesn’t impair your work, you just keep doing it.
When you’ve been involved in the environmental movement for any time, any kind of sober analysis tells you that you’re losing ground, that you’re being pushed back by overdevelopment and the myth of progress and so forth – it’s all coming at you. But we also think it’s good to be both an activist and a conservationist, because you’ll find that these are two spheres that do touch each other a little, but also don’t touch all that much. And often they’re even at odds with each other. There are many land conservation organisations that are very explicit about not taking any activist stance. They see it as counterproductive to their particular aims.
Maybe it’s because I was an activist first that I’m not about to throw in any towels on activism. The front is wide and there’s going to have to be a lot of action across it if there’s going to be any kind of reversal of the crisis we find ourselves in. And if there’s going to be any kind of reversal of the extinction crisis, it’s going to take both policy change and a kind of re-appropriation, if you like, for wild nature, of lands that have been over-appropriated by humanity.
PK: Given that neither of you seem to believe that the machine can be voluntarily stopped in the near future if at all, and given that you’re not even convinced now that an energy crisis will stop it, is what you’re doing in a sense any kind of Noah’s Ark operation?
DT: That’s something I could relate to. To me, if you could get a large enough number of citizens around the world to try and set aside land to allow species to survive until…
KT: …until there’s a shift…
DT: …a shift, right, some kind of unforeseen unpredicted black swan event. That might be the collapse of the financial system, or some kind of cultural shift – who knows? I don’t see any downside to doing that. Call it Noah’s Ark if you like: we’ve got to get through this – whether you call it the bottleneck, or the slow motion catastrophe of overdevelopment, or the human project or whatever.
KT: But I think language is so important, and Noah’s Ark to me implies a kind of pie-in-the-sky idea, whereas the history of national parks is 150 years old now. You can see that for the most part a lot of the original ones are pretty much intact. It’s taken a lot of time to get the wildlife policy squared away in them, but so far anyway national parks mostly do what they were supposed to do.
PK: I don’t it mean to sound pie-in-the-sky. To me it implies the opposite: a practical response to a deluge, I suppose.
KT: Well yes, that’s exactly what it is.
DT: We’re trying to set aside, to get to the high ground, creatures which have been squeezed out of their natural habitats. We have some very specific examples of that. We’re trying to work on keeping the pampas deer in Argentina. It’s been squeezed out by industrial foresters planting exotic tree plantations, or ranchers appropriating their habitat. In the northeast where we’re working this has been going on for the last fifteen years. They’re going to be extirpated in the whole northeast of Argentina, so we’re doing a translocation, bringing them over to big protected areas.
KT: It is one strategy, and many are necessary, but it’s harder and harder to find key habitats that are A, affordable; B, big enough; and C, capable of being protected. There are a lot of areas that could be bought and put into conservation, but it’s almost impossible to actually protect them. Pressures are just too great. We have areas here where there is a very low population base, but there are other areas, on the African continent or in Indonesia and South Asia, and it’s very hard to protect them, because, first of all, you’d have to have an army to do so and the system isn’t set up to do that, and that would bring with it all sorts of other negatives. So outright land purchases work in some places in the world but not in others. Christ Almighty, in parts of the Congo, you’re contending with people who really need the wood or bushmeat, but you’re also dealing with one civil war after another that is taking place in parallel and trumps a lot of what you can do in terms of conservation. What we’re doing is just one strategy amongst many that you have to try and hope that some of it sticks. It is very complex, and there are many approaches. Conservation is really a kind of custom-made programme that has to respond to a wide spectrum of conditions.
PK: Thinking about the deep ecology platform and ideas, the core ethic it seems to me is the concept of ecocentrism: this attempt to extend compassion and the idea of intrinsic value to the rest of the world, beyond the human community. That seems to me to be something that is both completely necessary and, at least at this moment in time, almost completely impossible. I can’t see where it would come from in the short term at all, though it is an idea that is building in some quarters. I wondered what you thought about that.
DT: I don’t see how civilisation can survive on anything but an ecocentric basis. It’s like trying to repeal the laws of nature.
KT: I don’t know. There is a Finnish writer, Pentti Linkola – have you ever read any of his writing?
PK: I’ve heard of him. He’s really out there, isn’t he? He makes Jeffers look like a liberal!
KT: Well I read about half of one of his books, and one thing I thought was really true is that he’s talking about almost the impossibility for a human to be ecocentric. And he’s right. His description of it changed my whole way of thinking. He’s just saying, every decision you make, you think you’re an ecocentric thinker, but you’re not an ecocentric behaver. You’re human, you’re a member of this particular species. If you see a human baby and a puppy both drowning, you’re going to save the human. And he says you can’t void yourself of your species, of who you are.
PK: Is it possible to be emotionally anthropocentric, which we all are, I suppose – we’d all rescue the baby – but be intellectually, at the same time – to have the ethic of ecocentrism?
DT: I think you’ve got to be more rigorous. The first thing you have to do is deal with policy. You’ve got to deal with growth. We can’t keep growing forever, and if we try then it’s game over.
PK: But I’m talking about something more, I don’t know – just now, Doug, you were talking about having an almost religious view of nature, you are talking about this spiritual connection, this ethic…
KT: That sounds like pantheism.
PK: Yes, perhaps pantheism, perhaps something like Wordsworth’s attitude…
KT: I like Wordsworth for that. And John Muir – not a pantheist, but he talks of the god of nature.
PK: And what we’re talking about here is something that is maybe not exactly religious, but it’s obviously spiritual, it’s beyond the rational… I’m not sure quite what I’m trying to say, but I suppose that if that spiritual sense is what informs this idea of ecocentrism, then if people don’t have that sense, then it’s not going to mean much, it’s not going to be there?
DT: It’s an epistemological question really. And some cultures did have that attitude. I’m not an anthropologist or any kind of great scholar, but we know that there were some cultures which had what we now call an ecocentric attitude to nature.
KT: Because that’s all they had. But the minute they had something else they ran to it. Bronze. Somebody could start making nails and a hoe and they ran to it. Given the opportunity to “evolve”, a species will. It’s like Darwin’s beak of the finch. Fire came about, nobody wanted to be without fire. They started melting rocks below the fire one night and the rock stuck together and they made a hoe out of it, and they didn’t want to go back. How many examples do we have – apart from the King of Bhutan who said we can’t have television in Bhutan – how many examples do we have of people who willingly turned their backs on a technology, whatever it is?
PK: I find these two ideas argue with each other in my head all the time. Firstly the idea that the problem we are facing is mainly cultural, that other cultures have existed, do still exist, that have a different attitude towards nature, and that means we could change ours. Or, alternatively, the idea that this aggression, this expansion, this evolution through advanced technology and this colonisation of all of the rest of nature, that this is just something that we do because we’re human. It’s in the species, or maybe it’s just inherent in the evolution of life.
KT: I think that if you take a deterministic view on a question like that, then you’re buggered! You’re stuck. I think it’s better to not know how to answer it.
DT: I think there has to be a cultural override to those tendencies. I mean, that’s what religions have been doing for centuries.
PK: I keep coming back to this cultural question. Because it seems to me that what fossil fuel does – and fossil fuel is almost a metaphor – and what growth and development do, is that they give people the opportunity to be an individual. Modernity is the process of freeing the individual from the community. You can buy yourself freedom. In this high-energy society, you can buy yourself an apartment in a city and you can be alone if you want to, you can do anything, in a way that would not have been conceivable in more traditional societies. You can express yourself, sexually, materially, you can do it all. And this must be why so many people value this culture despite all its fallout – divorce from nature, lack of community, sense of isolation, the pollution and noise and all the rest of it. At the heart of it there is this promise, even if it is never fulfilled, of self-expression as an individual.
DT: The autonomous individual.
PK: Yes, exactly. And then you find, when you are campaigning against any of this, that some people see it as a campaign against the autonomous individual. And that’s why so many people react against it. And it’s like campaigning against electric lighting, people will fight you to retain it. And all these things that actually we haven’t had for very long at all suddenly seemed to people to be essential, because they associate them with freedom and self-expression.
KT: But then look at Mubarak. In our lifetime, look at things like the Berlin Wall coming down, or now the Arab spring – it’s not a long list, but it reminds you that there is a kind of tipping point, which is usually invisible moving forward and which are seen only in retrospect, when things can happen. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and it could really happen quickly.
DT: I think that if you’ve really been thinking deeply and systemically about the extinction crisis, to go back to that for a moment, you have this really deep fear that extinction is forever, okay? There’s no going back. Human civilisation today has stopped evolution, and the extinction crisis is an expression of that. Carried out to its extremes, it makes everything else irrelevant. All of nature unravels to the point where civilisation can’t survive because the oceans are being acidified, the climate is being changed, the web of life is unravelling, agriculture isn’t working – it’s just a huge spiralling down. So you can look at it ethically, from that religious position…
KT: …it’s a moral issue.
DT: It’s a moral issue. It’s a primary sin, so to speak, however you want to express it. But it is practical too, because you are sawing away the branch you are sitting on. And then you can say, well what are the other aspects of working towards the conservation of nature, or biodiversity, if you will? Well, it’s life affirming, you’re doing something that brings joy and assists other species to survive, you’re helping evolution to continue, you’re working with great people, you have a rich spiritual life. If you add up the positives, you bring it back to your own raison d’être, your own moral purpose, it seems to have everything to recommend it. And you don’t have the death of birth, which is what extinction is. So working to stop it just seems to me to be the smart course of action, for it brings meaning to one’s life.
KT: There’s not a big downside!
PK: So what was the process of moving from being in business, being in the clothing and then the fashion business, for so long, and then moving into this?
DT: Well, for me it was a series of gradual shifts. I don’t really buy this born-again stuff, the epiphany. The stories you hear about the proverbial light bulb going off and then you move from left to right in a day. It’s tough to disregard your formative worldview, it takes time. First of all, your worldview was developed very slowly. So then to reform it and to discard parts of it, it requires discipline and concentration – and reading. That’s why I believe you have to do your homework and scholarship. You can probably reform your worldview without the scholarship but it will be tougher. Better sit down and read the thinkers who have been working on these ideas for a long time to help you speed up your “reformation”! It’s the questioning of your assumptions. Why is the world the way it is? Then it all starts to open out.
You know, when I was starting all those businesses and doing all that work, I didn’t have a clue about worldview. It wasn’t until I was at least forty years old – thirty years ago now nearly – that it hit me that I had to get a grip on what my worldview was. I can remember, I don’t know how many years ago it was now, I read a book called Where The Wasteland Ends by Ted Roszak. It was about the making of the counterculture, and he wrote another book with that very title too. He is a really good social critic with a kind of green side to him. And then I read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, then I read David Ehrenfeld’s The Arrogance of Humanism – this is in the mid-1970s. Then I read Paul Shepherd’s stuff, and I started to read other thinkers – Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality and Deschooling Society. So then I started to read more about epistemology and worldview and over time I started to realise that all the people I was working with and associated with in the industry I was in – they didn’t have a clue! Their worldview was going nowhere – or nowhere good, I should say – and their techno-industrial worldview and most all that followed from it was destroying nature and it was exacerbating the extinction crisis.
And then I just worked backwards and asked myself: all these development ideas, if they’re just exacerbating the extinction crisis, where are they going to go? It can never work, the whole development worldview. And as I said, I use the extinction crisis as a metric for everything. Nobody has shown me a better one. When you think about the idea of the death of birth, and the idea of stopping evolution, I can’t think of anything more profoundly disturbing than that.
And then you’ve got to separate the strategy from the substance. I believe that one needs to get one’s worldview straight before one can come to some kind of solution. It’s important not to jump straight into strategy until you have a better substantive understanding of what the issue is. Which means epistemology, a real examination of worldview. It’s the worldview that has to be adjusted, and once it’s been adjusted then the solutions come on their own, then strategies fall into place.
PK: And that is the hard work, isn’t it? Because you probably have to do twenty years of reading in order to understand what you’ve been educated in.
DT: It takes a long time to lose what you were acculturated to, for all of us. You have to be very alert and you have to be self-critical, and that’s hard to do. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’m far more conscious of the mistakes and how I’m being swept along in the system. From my view, if you don’t make a deep, systemic analysis of the whole ecosocial crisis, you know, then you’re almost guaranteed to make the wrong strategic approach. For example, you’ve got to examine all of the technological assumptions. You know, the belief, the acculturated view, that technology will keep progressing and evolving and that it will all be positive, and the easy dismissal of technological failures. I believe – and I say this over and over again – that the technological critique is the Achilles heel of our social movements. All across the line, the social movements are not good technological critics. Nobody is ready to raise it.
PK: You see this so often when people start to talk about sustainability, don’t you? You hear this question asked all the time: “how are we going to meet our energy needs?” It’s the first question that’s asked, and you constantly hear this phrase, “our energy needs”, and the only argument it seems to be permissible to have in the mainstream sustainability debate is what kind of technology we are going to use to meet these needs. We’re hearing these constant arguments at the moment: are we going to use nukes, are we going to use big wind, are we going to use solar, what combination of these things are we going to use – but this phrase “our energy needs”, which ought to be analysed and taken apart before anything else is talked about, is barely if ever questioned. What are these needs, why do we need them, who is “we” – all that stuff just falls by the wayside. And the strange thing is, that most of the people in the green movement, they know this stuff, they know why it’s important, but that is not worth talking about.
DT: Well again, we come back to that question, is it even desirable? What is desirable? I went to a big dinner one night in California, it was a big gathering of social justice people. This was almost twenty years ago, and Aung San Suu Kyi was there and her husband, and everyone was hanging around listening to her. And I got into an argument with a woman there about electricity and about dams. We were talking about the Narmada Dam in India. We had a campaign going, and I said well, they shouldn’t build this dam. And this woman said so you mean to say that we shouldn’t have electricity? And I said no, what I’m saying is that if these dams are going to drive more species extinct, then we shouldn’t build them. So we go back and forth, and finally I asked her straight out: okay, so you want electricity, do you want electricity at all costs? If the cost of electricity was to drive some species extinct, would you still want it? Are you willing to still build that dam knowing that it will drive a species, or some species, extinct? And she said yes.
And we were standing around in a group, and it had got kind of heated, and there were all these social justice activists there, and there it was: this human-centred drive for comfort and for the benefits that electricity brings, versus the disappearance of other life. There it was, right on the table. And most people will never admit to that, they will equivocate, but she was willing to say it. She had to have her electricity. And all the people standing around, I watched this tense moment there, they couldn’t believe she would say it. They could believe she would think it! But not that she would say it. And this remains stuck in my memory, because she was just a spokesperson for a vast universe of people who will make that choice if push comes to shove. And there lies the underpinning of the biodiversity crisis – it’s there.
Now, most people are just floating along in a great stream of progress and time, so to speak, and they don’t think about this. Nothing happens to crystallise that cause and effect in their mind, and then force them to take a moral position on it: to say, we can’t be developing our society in a way that is putting at risk other species, that is causing extinction. That’s the moral position I take, which is to say that other beings have inherent worth, intrinsic worth independent of their utilitarian value to the human economy.
I mean, this is not rocket science! That’s why you’re finding there are so many Dark Mountaineers out there. There is a large body of people with common sense, who know this at some level.
PK: I think that’s true. Even the most gung-ho development freak knows what price is being paid, even if they don’t care about it. But it’s also about knowing what to do with that knowledge. You can have this worldview, you can do the reading, you can see what’s going on – but then you say, what do I do about?
DT: And the answer is that you find an issue you are close to and which matters to you and you take a position there, on that broad front. Do what you can do. And people have different skills and different capacities and different resources. Some people are good at thinking, some people are good at running a website, some people are good at political action, some people have wealth they can use, some people have leadership capabilities, some people are writers, and they find their place along this long front, where their skills lie and where they can best contribute. Everybody finds a place and they take up their spot. You’ve got to figure out what you can do – but you’ve got get your ass in gear and do something!
But you’ve got to get that systemic analysis under your belt first. I see people all the time who want to jump into action before they’ve questioned their basic assumptions and gotten their worldview sorted out. I argue with people all the time about this, colleagues in conservation or environmentalism. I say, hey, you’ve got to think about this deeper or you’ll get the wrong strategy. You know, you’re a tech optimist, you’ve got to do a little examination of why you see any new technology as being automatically progressive. You’ve got to do a deep analysis of the intrinsic logic of many mega technologies, and you can’t do that analysis with your attitude, you can’t get to first base, so you’re going to make all sorts of mistakes. You’re going to end up in the smart resource management school; you know, the green tech side – which these days is unfortunately the vast majority of the movement.
PK: Yes, it is. I get into these arguments all the time about these huge wind power stations going up all over open land, and many environmentalists have this unquestioning acceptance of this. They just think, oh it’s wind, it’s a renewable technology, that’s progress, we like that, anyone who doesn’t is a friend of fossil fuel or the nuclear industry. And they’ll be out there arguing for the mass destruction of open landscapes in the name of getting “clean energy” for a purpose they haven’t identified yet. And you get all these spurious arguments, all these people saying, “but these things are beautiful, they’re so elegant! You have to learn to love them. My heart leaps up every time I see a five-hundred-foot wind turbine on a mountain!” And that’s mainstream environmentalism today, and if you’re against that you’re a reactionary and a romantic. And it’s astonishing to see how quickly this has happened, and how unquestioningly – and how the progressive narrative that environmentalism used to challenge has been dragged in to the argument to support this case.
DT: Oh yeah, I’ve had a thousand arguments like this too. You know what I say? Well, I say first of all, it’s important to develop an aesthetic sense and make aesthetic judgments. So when you see one of those huge pylons with those enormous turning blades on it, what do you see? What does that mean to you? And they say, what are you getting at? That sounds like a loaded question! And I say, well I’ll tell you what I see, and then you can tell me what you see.
When I look at one of those giant turbines, I see the icon of techno-industrial culture. I see the contemporary expression of the Enlightenment, of Cartesian logic, the scientific revolution and then the Industrial Revolution and then the information revolution. I see this as all symbolised there, as if it were a logotype. I see it as the iconography of all that. And that whole techno-industrial society that we’ve created as an expression of the Enlightenment, you can go back and see how that whole worldview has been channelled over five hundred years. What is it? It’s global climate change! That’s the result. The way of thinking that could create those windmills is the same way of thinking that caused climate change in the first place. Just imagine for a minute, just step back and imagine ruining the whole climate! That’s the result of the techno-industrial culture which these Big Wind turbines symbolise. And I know that it requires the whole enchilada of techno-industrial culture just to produce one of these things. It requires all the mining, all the alloys, all the computers – the whole scaffolding of civilisation. And that scaffolding is undoing the world. That’s what I see when I see your big windmill on the mountain. And for that reason, I don’t think it is desirable.
PK: And then they go a bit quiet, do they?
DT: Well, if you can express that well, and if they want to listen, then you can say, I don’t want to demean you or to insult you, but there is a whole level on which you haven’t been thinking, and which you should explore. And when you do, I think that you won’t see those windmills in the same light you saw them in before. And that process, that little exercise, you can extend that to many many things. You can say, you see that cell phone in your hand? It doesn’t look good. It symbolises that huge scaffolding of civilisation that is undoing the natural world. And we should not be looking favourably on that, or on the icons of the civilisation that is doing that, and those icons are symbolised to me in things like the big windmill or the cell phone or the laptop computer or anything from combustion engines to agrochemicals.
This is fundamentally a technological critique, and you have to learn that and understand what it means, and you have to learn about the autonomous nature of technology, and what it is and as an activist articulate this to society and to culture. And you really have to understand that the technologies you use will dictate how a society is. I mean look at all these kids around now walking around with their phones in their hands, looking at their little screen, oblivious to anything. They’ve all got their heads down, they’ve lost track, they’ve unplugged themselves from the real world and put themselves in the virtual world. I used to have these fights with my old friend Steve Jobs, the Apple guy, and it infuriated him.
PK: I bet it did!
DT: Well, it was like telling a Catholic that there’s no God.
PK: So how did he answer this critique of yours? He must have had a worldview to come back at you with.
DT: No, he couldn’t. It infuriated him. I’d say to him, Steve, these computers you’re inventing here, they’re destroying the world! They are devices of acceleration, they move at the speed of light, they speed up and amplify production and economic activity. I used to really get on his case about it. He once made this gigantic ad campaign about twenty five years ago, where they had “1001 things that the personal computer could do”, and of course all the things were great, you couldn’t argue with any of them. But they only added up to about 5 per cent of what the bloody personal computer actually did. The other 95 per cent he left out, and that was the massive acceleration in the conversion of nature to human culture. Oceans, healthy water, soil, healthy atmosphere and forests: those five major components of life were all being converted that much faster – five times faster, ten times faster, a hundred times faster – because of the pace of computers amplifying economic activity. I’d say don’t give me all this shit about all the wonderful things your machines do, that’s just the cherry on top of this shit cake! He would get huffy of course, because Steve was wedded to his view that all this technology he was envisioning was the road to paradise.
You know we were talking earlier about the generation that is growing up now embedded in this; this is their epistemology. That’s just the world they were born into, it’s going to be hell trying to get them out. And nobody in the technosphere is talking about the dangers of the technosphere, of course. We don’t really understand the autonomous nature of technology. Once you’re plugged into this stuff, you can’t unplug. And if there is no way to check in on yourself, because you’re embedded in the technosphere, then you’ll never get out. The contemporary person today is swimming in the technological milieu, unaware of it, like fish unaware they are in water.
I won’t make rash predictions, and the Luddites were crushed, it’s true, but there is a movement afoot – not challenging technology per se, but challenging the larger overarching system we are all ensnared in. That’s what you’ve sensed with Dark Mountain. Lots of people in lots of different places are coming to similar conclusions without even talking to each other. And they’re coming to these conclusions in all parts of the world by simply seeing and observing what’s taking place around them. They are careful observers. And there are not many careful observers out of any hundred: there’s one or two. But they’re adding up. And it makes a fair number when you add them all up. And now we’ve got Occupy Wall Street, Indignados in Spain and other similar movements elsewhere coming to the same conclusions about the financial system. The wealth is being concentrated higher and higher up the so called social ladder, and there’s a bigger and bigger gap, and we’ve got everything we’ve been talking about tonight focused in on the destruction of nature, and it’s all coming to the boil.
Dark Mountaineers can see this fairly comprehensively. It’s expressed in a much more narrow way in the Occupy movement – but it’s happening all over the place in different guises. It’s a small base right now, but it’s the fastest-growing social awareness movement out there, all of this together. I think it’s inevitable if you look carefully. Something is happening out there, we can see the dim outlines of it, but it is still vague and without a well defined form. It’s like being Dark Sailors rather than Dark Mountaineers! Like being at sea and seeing something in the distance like the first sight of land, but we can’t see it well, it’s still slightly over the horizon. That is the moment we are in now, or so I feel.
Dear Mr. Kingsnorth / Dark Mountain,
Thank you for publishing your conversation with Doug and Kris Tompkins. The insights you shared resonate deeply and provide me with much comfort.
A very fine tribute by Paul K., which deserves a wider readership than that of DM alone.
Thank you for finding the right words for Doug.
This Dark Sailor got a lot of good bearings on that discussion, thanks!