Five years on a Mountain

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.
Five years ago today, I stood in the draughty backroom of a pub on the banks of the River Thames, on a slightly elevated stage next to a man I didn’t know very well, and together we launched the Dark Mountain Project. Perhaps 50 people were there. It rained, I think.

What did I think I was doing? Trying to recover the past from the vantage point of the present is always hard: perhaps it’s impossible. We tend to mythologise our own stories, or at least to construct after the event a narrative that makes them seem more seamlessly interlinked or rational than they actually were. ‘We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives’, wrote WG Sebald, ‘as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’. This little event turned out to be a decisive step in my life, and it’s taken  me about five years to become more conscious of what those adjustments were.

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At the time and on the surface, what I thought I was doing was quite simple:  I was starting a new literary movement. With Dougald, my co-conspirator and soon-to-be friend, I had written a strange little manifesto, which demanded that its readers open their eyes to the huge shifts which our world was undergoing, and then start to write as if they were real. This was always supposed to be an artistic rather than a political document. For me, its inspirations were not Leninists or Maoists but Dadaists and Vorticists. Like its forebears a century ago, I wanted this manifesto to emerge from the collapse of the old world and herald something new.

Despite this grand and probably self-regarding ambition, the movement I envisaged emerging from this little document was to be something quite modest. I thought we might get a writers’ circle together, perhaps. Maybe we’d meet every couple of weeks in the pub, ten or 20 of us, and talk about how to bust open the rotten citadels of literature and pour the healing waters of uncivilisation down upon its thirsty inhabitants.

Things did not go quite to plan.

Five years on, this Dark Mountain Project is many things. It is a sprawling global network of like-minded people. It is a small ‘organisation’ which produces two books a year of art and writing. It is a series of happenings and comings-together, events and festivals and gatherings. It is a conversation. It is a search for new stories. It is one part of a much wider global shift towards a new way of seeing nature and civilisation. It is a controversy and a call to action and a call to contemplation. It is a journey. It is a place you can come to give up hope so that you can find it again in a new shape. It is a crucible and a strange shape-shifting beast. Even after five years, it is almost impossible to describe the thing. But we know it works, and we think it is needed, because we’re still here and we’re still running to keep up.

A few weeks back, Dougald and I gave a talk at Schumacher College in Devon, in which we challenged ourselves to draw out some lessons we had learned on this five-year journey. You can watch a film of that event at the top of this blog post. I thought I’d mark this anniversary here by offering up five lessons I’ve learned: one for each year. I’m a slow learner, but I’m pretty sure that through this journey I’ve picked up a few useful lessons about myself and about the world I’m living in, as well as something about this odd thing I spawned. If that’s the case, it’s thanks to the many people I’ve met this past half decade, whose company and wisdom and friendship are the most valuable thing I will take away from it all in the end.

1.  Never have a plan

Seriously. Having a plan is simply setting yourself up for failure. Look what happened to me. More usefully, look at what’s happening around the world: there is no shortage of plans for a Sustainable And Just Society, and none of them are going anywhere other than the remainder bins of bookshops. Having a plan is a recipe for frustration. Having intentions and precepts and guidelines and nimble feet, on the other hand, might get you somewhere, if luck is on your side for a while.

2.  There is a space between hope and despair

Our manifesto and some of our early work was interpreted by some, particularly campaigners and activists, as promoting  giving up or giving in, hopelessness and despair and inaction. Accepting that great changes were underway, and that our powers were limited, was seen by some people as a betrayal of a better possibility. From this vantage point, I can understand this reaction. But there is a space between hope and despair, which it is necessary to inhabit. False expectations and foolish dreams lead to the very despair they claim to want to banish. And that despair  is a rational reaction to much of what is going on in the world; sometimes it is necessary to embrace it. Between the forced hope and  gritted teeth of the activist worldview and the dark hopelessness of the  apocalyptic narrative lies a space that is worth sitting in for a while.

3. Grief matters

We are in an age of climate change and mass extinction and much of this is irreversible. This is what we were given to live through. To be able to look at what the human machine is doing to this living world without feeling grief or despair is an impossibility for anyone who experiences normal human emotions. Grief is not only a natural reaction to the state of the world today, it is a useful one. It is something that should be navigated and understood and accepted and discussed. Like the death of a loved one, the current death of much that is good in the world is something that can’t be denied or wished away: it has to be lived with. It doesn’t follow from that nothing good will ever happen again, or that you can be of no use in the world.

4.   I am not alone

… and neither are you. Barely a week has passed over these five years without us receiving a communication from somebody, somewhere in the world, along these lines: I have felt like this for years, I thought I was alone, my friends think I’m mad, I’m so glad to find you. What this tells me is that there are many people in the world whose honest reaction to the current state of things can’t be incorporated within either the mainstream story of progress and growth, or the acceptable dissident stories about enlightened people power leading to radical change.  In this context, our work of tentatively exploring new stories and new ways of seeing is hopefully useful.

5. Stories matter

This was the central insight of our little manifesto, and it’s one that I think has held up. Everything is a story: everything about the way you see the world, everything you think about the way the world works, and who you are and whether you’re anyone at all, and how things are organised and what change means and whether it matters. Everything. All cultures and all civilisations run on stories like cars run on fuel, and like fuel, the wrong story can be poisonous. I get the sense now, in a way that I didn’t five years ago, that this recognition is becoming more widespread.

The world has changed a lot since that day five years ago. Back then, an economic crisis was just beginning and nobody knew how quickly it would play out. Back then, people still talked about preventing climate change rather than mitigating it. The world has changed a lot, and not changed at all. But some shift is being played out around us: some change in the weather, some groping towards a new way of understanding the world. Something is changing; something has broken and will not be put back together. This shift will long outlive us, but if we have played some part in it – well, that’s not bad work.

More than anything, perhaps, I’ve discovered that this strange expedition up this forbidding peak is more enlightening and enjoyable (not to mention safer) if it is not undertaken alone. And I wonder what lessons my fellow mountaineers can draw from this half-decade. I’d love to hear them.

Comments
  1. This shift will long outlive us, but if we have played some part in it – well, that’s not bad work.

    That’s the conclusion I have also reached. Abandon despair and unrealistic dreams as foolish and instead concentrate on the one small part that you can play. None of us will ever know whether our actions have a meaningful effect on building a less destructive future, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t participate. That’s the only hope we have of influencing the narrative of our own culture.

  2. Congratulations on marking the 5th year of Dark Mountain! Thank you for this meditative, restorative review of the past half-decade, Paul.
    Over this time period, I’ve learned that though people generally maintain a belief in progress and efficacious solutionism, more and more are discovering a sense that something’s not right with how they’re living their lives; that something about the qualities of their existence is deprived. It is this expressed discovery of a ship having charted off course that nourishes my hope for a different, more vitalizing existential narrative.

    1. After the forest fire, new green growth appears. I’m no fan of the civilized way of life, and the tremendous harm it causes. This way of life definitely has an expiration date, and there isn’t anything we can do to prevent its collapse. Things are going to get messier, maybe for generations, but I have a hunch that the new growth that eventually rises from the ashes will be much less insane — one way or another.

      For those deeply invested in the consumer way of life, the future is full of doom, and it seems appropriate to be pessimistic. For those who have a connection to the family of life, and grieve about the senseless destruction, the passing of the madness is part of a long overdue healing process, and it is appropriate to be somewhat optimistic — these dark ages shall pass. It seems unhealthy to hope that the current insanity persists for as long as possible.

      I’ve been thinking that despair is curable. Despair seems to be grieving for the loss of a fantasy. Reality crashes into impossible dreams. Ouch! But the experience could lead to personal growth. Grieving doesn’t need to be a lifelong career. It seems like the path to elderhood is littered with discarded fantasies and illusions.

      I think we are strongest when we are present in reality, in the fullness of the darkness. I hope that we can learn something from the inferno we ignited. I hope we learn a lot.

      Happy birthday!

  3. Grateful to find this shared here, Paul – many thanks. A second crack at a talk which gave me the slip. It’s a great taking stock of what was first heard, by me as by so many others, with a deep sense of relief, and encouragement.

    Especially good to hear Dougald’s points about standing aside from all attempts to ‘instrumentalise culture and creativity as a form of message-delivery’. That’s been the nub of DM’s value, for me – an affirmation of what art and story do for us, and a refusal to see that co-opted into ‘a sophisticated form of PR’.

    There’s a great passage from 1939 by W H Auden in The Dyer’s Hand, where he says (roughly) that the world’s always been in crisis, there’s always been far too much work to be done to waste your time writing poetry …but fortunately, that’s never stopped people doing it. I loved Dougald’s comment: “right down in the depths and the strangeness of where writing and art come from, we have to get down there to deal with the depth of the mess that we’re in”.

    I recently heard a friend say (supportively) of DM, that ‘they’re about a search for the stories that might serve us better in the future’. Did you ever put it that way? I can’t recall, but for me its always been about what kind of stories we need right now – to disentangle from false hope, and from the despair that clings onto its legs. To turn towards how things are when you’re not trying to bend them to fit with your plans, and then to see what still matters.

    Something else that Dougald said here struck me. Not sure if it’s a casual or a careful choice of word, but he spoke several times of being ‘with’ the dark: “to actually sit with the dark and let your eyes adjust, and then see what you notice, and see what kinds of space of possibility, what forms of action, what kinds of hope, live in, grow in the darkness”. That ‘sitting with’ seems important – and different, perhaps, to simply being ‘in’ the dark? Overlooking the difference between those two propositions (prepositions!) might sum up a good deal of the hostility DM’s attracted over the years.

    And yes, Happy 5th Birthday!

    1. Hi I just came across you guys.
      I agree with your approach to the point where you stated don’t have a plan.
      I am a little left field here in that I believe that it is survivable and with sufficient planning a better future can come about. I am with you in that the vast majority of humanity will not make it.
      The science would indicate 40 – 70 years of hell, and then multi-generational hardship.
      Through sufficient planning a better form of civilization can develop from the ashes. Without planning, I think our kids will end up with more of the same. There are a lot of complicating factors.
      It needs;
      Logistics
      Knowledge
      Water
      Food
      Shelter
      Community
      Protection from heat
      Security
      3D printing
      To provide a regional service for financial stability while society crumbles.

      I don’t know if I can provide links here so I will try one;
      http://preppingforexile.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/beginnings.html
      Have a look anyway particularly at the “where to live” and logistics posts.

      All the best,
      Paul

  4. Dark Mountain has been a place of refuge for many of us. I’m glad to find people who are comfortable with confusion, like the mystics are. There are too many prophets, too much certainty at a time when the systems we’ve created are now creating us. We don’t know what’s next, we have to feel our way. I’m grateful to Paul and Dougald, and salute your courage in starting this.

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