Riders on the Storm: the climate crisis and the survival of being, AlastairMcIntosh (Birlinn)
Wolferland, Martin Shaw (Cista Mystica)
The two books that I will be reviewing here – written by long standing friends of the Dark Mountain Project – would not have come about, if it weren’t for the new climate movements that erupted in the second half of 2018. Their timing is apt; even without the intervention of a global pandemic, it’s likely that two years in, the early fires of Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes would be burning lower. It’s in the nature of social movements: there is a rhythm of rise and fall, fire and ashes, and what has marked these latest movements as a rupture from the climate activism that went before is a willingness to see the worth in ashes, in grief, in the voice that comes from a place beyond hope.
If that’s where we are – if it’s time for the kind of reflection in which we ask ourselves which parts of what we’ve seen in the past two years are worth taking with us, and which parts to leave behind – then these books from Alastair McIntosh and Martin Shaw are good medicine for that work. Not least because they start from somewhere else, away from the frontline of activism.
A man goes alone into a Devon forest. He takes a different route each day, bashing his way through brambles and thorns, to sit at the foot of a hazel tree. He goes to call to the forest and listen for a response. He does this for 101 days, a ritual on a mythic timescale. On an island in the Outer Hebrides, a group of elders gathers in the ruin of a house. Over an open fire, they steam blue-shelled mussels fished up from the nearby sea loch. Half the group comes from the island, the other half from far-off Papua. One of the locals starts to tell a story, about loss and displacement, the violence of colonialism and the Clearances – and about a daughter of the island, whose family lived in a black house like the one in whose ruins they sit, who went away across the seas, and whose son now occupies the White House.
This is where we meet them, Shaw and McIntosh: these are the coordinates from which they ask us to start a journey into ‘the climate crisis and the survival of being’, as the subtitle of Riders on the Storm has it. In the case of Wolferland, out of the many ‘climate change books’ I’ve read, I can’t think of one which speaks so little about the subject, yet gets so close to it. Shaw’s gift is to use the dark reflective shield of myth to approach matter so monstrous that, if looked on directly, it would turn something in us to stone.
Shaw’s gift is to use the dark reflective shield of myth to approach matter so monstrous that, if looked on directly, it would turn something in us to stone.
Those familiar with Shaw’s storytelling, on the page or in the flesh, will find plenty of it here: the 18 ‘calling songs’ that show up on his journey through the winter darkness include tales from Russia, Ireland and Crete, alongside stranger material, riddles, maxims and sayings out of the Dark Ages. Yet the stories are told in a different mode, narrated by one or more of the characters within them, and their voices carry the bitter aftertaste of experience: they tell of the ways we screw up and screw each other up, our capacity for brutal stupidity and the sheer cost of life. There is a wolfish impatience with softness in the way Shaw writes, with no time for the manners of the village or the court. Another etiquette rules here; its claws are sharp, its warnings blunt.
At one of the turns in the book, several weeks into his daily vigils, Shaw has a strong dream of Doggerland, the once-inhabited territory at the bottom of what is now the North Sea, known to us through the strange discoveries of trawlermen who brought up mammoth bones and antler tools in their nets. This leads to a dark, prophetic vision of a time of rising tides, spat out in stinging words:
Your offerings didn’t work, your sympathetic magics, your fith-fath, your fucking nothing. Shamans gabbled and shook, swine were slaughtered and tied upside down to pines and fuck all helped, waters rose and Big Mama Earth, lovely old Gaia, took everything you ever loved away and buried it under the waters.
The climate movements of the past two years have been marked by a darkness of vision that exceeds the terms in which activism has talked about climate change before. McIntosh writes about the ‘prophetic’ voice of Greta Thunberg telling the world’s leaders: ‘I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.’ It’s a long way from the tone struck by Al Gore and the other leading voices during the last major wave of public attention around global warming, more than a decade earlier.
For many of those engaged in or affected by these movements, the encounter with the dark matter of climate change has resembled an initiation, a liminal experience, a crossing of a threshold. This is the experience of encountering what we know and what we have grounds to fear about climate change, not as a problem to be solved or managed, but as an unfolding reality that calls us into question, that rips away our stories of who we are, where history is headed, what kind of world this is. There’s much in this that resembles (and, in some cases, draws on) the work Dark Mountain has done over the years, though it’s taking place on a different scale, in the glare of a level of media attention this project has mostly been spared. There are also differences, especially in the ways of dealing with climate science.
Several chapters of Riders on the Storm are taken up with a summary of the state of scientific knowledge about climate change, as represented by the most recent reports of the IPCC. Thorough and readable, McIntosh dwells on this material because of his concern over the ways in which climate science is being used or exceeded by some of the prominent voices within the current movements. He spells this out in a chapter which offers varying degrees of criticism of Jem Bendell, the author of the Deep Adaptation paper, and Roger Hallam and Rupert Read, both influential figures within Extinction Rebellion. ‘The tension,’ McIntosh writes, ‘is between science and multiplying up its extreme ends of likelihood in ways that are tantamount to pseudoscience’. As it happens, this tension came to a head while Riders on the Storm was on its way to press, with an exchange of articles on openDemocracy that began with a critique of the Deep Adaptation paper and the movement it has sparked.
This is tricky territory, because there are questions about climate change which climate science cannot answer. To take one example: do we find ourselves in this mess because of a piece of bad luck with atmospheric chemistry, or is it the result of a way of approaching the world that would always have brought us to grief, by one means or another, even if the climate system had proved more tolerant of industrial carbon emissions? The urge to ‘unite behind the science’ might sound reasonable, but consider its resonances for indigenous scholars and activists whose communities have been subject to legal discrimination, skull-measuring, forced sterilisation, the theft of human remains and sacred objects, all justified by the needs and theories of Western science, not many generations ago. None of this is an argument for the denial or rejection of scientific knowledge, but it suggests that science belongs within a wider conversation, rather than the rest of us falling in silently behind it.
Five years ago this autumn, I invited Martin Shaw to Stockholm to launch the Dark Mountain Workshop, a year-long project with the Swedish national theatre to investigate the roles of art under the shadow of climate change. This was to be a journey to the underworld, and among the gleanings I returned with was a conviction about the need for different languages. Most of the public talk about a thing like climate change takes place in a daylight language, an arm’s-length language of facts and figures and strategies. We need this language, no question; it’s just that, on its own, it’s not enough. We need other, stranger ways of talking, too: the midnight language of loss and longing, the subtle language of twilight, the raw language of the wolf hour before dawn.
Part of the power of these new climate movements has been their ability to draw on other languages, often coming from practices of performance and ritual. I think of the unforgettable presence of the Red Rebel Brigade within Extinction Rebellion, to take just one example. The strange, dark languages and images woven through these movements speak to parts of us that don’t show up when addressed with charts or slogans. Where this can tip into confusion is when the distinction between languages is lost and those whose role it is to speak in daylight terms are called out for not striking a sufficiently prophetic tone. The careful, cautious voice in which scientists tend to speak is not a personal or collective failure, a lack of nerve or a lack of honesty; it belongs to the activity of science and its in-built limits. To speak of a theme such as ‘the survival of being’ requires us to go beyond the part of the story which science can tell, not by curating our own alternative arrangement of scientific facts, but starting from a recognition that something will always be missing from a description of the world that speaks in terms of facts alone. Moving between climate science, poetry, cultural psychology, radical history, spirituality and community building, McIntosh exemplifies the weave of languages it will take to hold the weight and mystery of climate change, not as scientific theory and evidence alone, but as an unfolding reality, reshaping what it means to be human and to be part of a living planet.
McIntosh exemplifies the weave of languages it will take to hold the weight and mystery of climate change, not as scientific theory and evidence alone, but as an unfolding reality
This is initiatory work and initiation involves getting broken. Far more than in earlier waves of climate activism, these recent movements have been led by people who are visibly and articulately living out what it means to be at a breaking point, to find a power in the cracking apart of old hopes and expectations. Their example gives others permission to experience and speak about their own sense of breakage. And if it’s true that Extinction Rebellion has been a disproportionately white and middle class movement, what marks it out from the Transition Towns movement – which had similar demographic and geographic roots – is the effect of a night in the cells, which has taken on the quality of an initiatory vigil for many whose previous lives had never brought them into contact with the criminal justice system.
But initiation is about more than getting broken; it’s about having a chance of mending, and this requires not only fellow initiates to model the process, but elders capable of holding the frame and retelling the story of your experience back to you. In different ways, both these books offer some of the eldership that’s called for. It’s there in McIntosh’s weaving of the story that leads through clearance and collapse to the hollowness of consumption, but then beyond it into community and the re-embedding of meaning. It’s there, too, in Shaw’s journey through the darkness of winter. In the wolf hour of the all-night vigil that ends his 101 days of ritual, a thin thread of language comes to him, offering an onward path. It’s not a matter of happy endings, bright lights at the end of tunnels; it’s that we are in the company of writers who have sat long enough in the dark for their eyes to adjust and their ears to become attentive to the echoes between the outer and the inner worlds. Even in the underworld, they retain – as Shaw has put it – a ‘responsiveness to wonder’, a willingness ‘to entertain possibility’ and ‘to deepen’. That is the stance to which they invite us, the invitation waiting for us in the pages of these books.
* Martin Shaw, Alastair McIntosh and Vanessa Andreotti of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective will be guests in ‘Homeward Bound: The Climate Sessions’, a four-week series of live online events hosted by Dougald Hine. The series begins on Sunday, 15th November and booking is through the website for a school called HOME.