What If It’s Not a War?

is the co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, of which he was director from 2009-2017, He is the author of nine books - three novels, two poetry collections and four works of non-fiction - all of which, it turns out, tell the same story: how we walked away from the wild world, and how we might get home again, if we can. He runs the Wyrd School which teaches wild writing and art and lives in the west of Ireland.
If there’s one thing humans love, it’s war. Even those of us who pretend we don’t like war: really, we love it. We can’t get away from it. Even the pacifists are at it. Even the vegans. The anarchists enjoy it more than the marine corps, at least if they can hide their faces. In my years in the green movement – supposedly a fluffy, caring, co-operative kind of environment – I saw, heard and used more military metaphors than you could shake a stick grenade at. It was always the bad rich guys screwing the planet and the heroic, Earth-loving masses opposing them. When I was a young Earth First!er, back in the nineties, there was a slogan we used all the time. We would scrawl it in oil on the sides of earth-moving machinery when the security guards weren’t looking: The Earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those who are killing it have names and addresses. Yeah! This was exciting and heroic. The names and addresses, of course, were never ours.

Look at any movement for political or social change and you’ll see the war stories proliferating like Japanese knotweed. The 99% must rise up against the 1%! Donald Trump is a fascist and we are the resistance! Ordinary working people must stop the globalist elites! Corporations are causing climate change, and we must fight them! Black versus white, men versus women, elites versus masses, people versus planet: whatever your favoured battle, your choice commits you to fighting. Of course, your team are the goodies. Right is on your side, and the other lot are deluded haters. You are always Luke Skywalker, never Darth Vader.

War metaphors and enemy narratives are the first thing we turn to when we identify a problem, because they eliminate complexity and nuance, they allow us to be heroes in our own story, and they frame our personal aggression and anger in noble terms. The alternative is much harder: it’s to accept our own complicity. The alternative is an environmental campaigner accepting that they are as much a cause of climate change as the CEO of Exxon. It’s a progressive supporter of open borders accepting that they prepared the ground for Trumpism. It’s a European nationalist accepting that their wealth is built on globalisation. We don’t want to deal with this kind of thing. It stops us in our tracks, and the war machine runs on without us. We feel lonely out here on our own. Much easier to run on and catch up.

My favourite war metaphor is the one which pits modern humanity against the Earth itself. I think that civilised, post-Enlightenment humanity has been, and remains, a dark and destructive force. In only a few hundred years we have precipitated a planetary crisis, the details of which readers of this blog will be depressingly familiar with. We have destroyed wildness and beauty and meaning. We have eaten life itself. There is a black magic about our civilisation, I think. If you want me to build a case, I can build a case easily enough. I’ve done it before. But right now I’m more interested in what happens if I don’t.

If it’s not a war, what is it? If we’re not warriors, what are we? Are we monks or hermits? Are we nihilists or hedonists? The thing about war metaphors is that they suck you right in, like wars themselves. If you won’t enroll, you can easily be condemned as a coward: handed white feathers in pubs and spat at on the street. Still, we don’t want a world at war, do we? We want something else. But what? And how?

At the moment, I’m thinking that a trial might be a better metaphor and guide than a war. ‘You might see the situation we are in as an emergency,’ says Wendell Berry, ‘and your task is to learn to be patient in an emergency’. Being patient in an emergency seems harder and more worthwhile than playing soldiers. If I attempt to transmute my favourite war story – people versus planet – into a trial story instead, what do I get? I get a long story of patience and hard work and attention to nature; a story that will outlive me and my children. The poet Gary Snyder has suggested that we are in the early stages of what may be a 5000 year journey towards living well with ourselves and the Earth. All of us, whatever our tribe or team, are on the same journey. That’s a trial: a long, complicated test.

If it is a trial, a long emergency, an intergenerational test of patience, what qualities would we need to undertake it? They would be very different qualities to those – anger, aggression, might, tactical cunning – needed by a warrior. We might need to drop back into the past for a moment and explore some of the non-martial virtues that defined our culture before it was overtaken and half drowned by the siren song of commerce.

Community and religious life in pre-modern Europe – as in more traditional parts of the world even now – pointed people towards two notions. The first was that we were not primarily individuals but were members of a community: tribe, family, village, county, nation. Our work should not be for ourselves, but for this community. The second was that humans did not stand at the pinnacle of life, and should remember to bow their heads before something greater than themselves; some mystery within which our lives resided.

It’s hard to think of two ideas more likely to get you spluttered at in the West today. But take them seriously and they lead us towards some equally unfashionable, and therefore radical, values: humility, stillness, forbearance, discipline, honour. If these were not always not adhered to in the real lives of our ancestors, they were at least held up as aspirations. We could do worse than to aspire to them again. They seem less likely to set the world on fire in the name of saving it.

How could we re-cultivate values like these? How could we pay obeisance to our inner wildness and to the outer wildness? What happens if we look inwards rather than outwards? What happens if we are not the goodies? What happens if there are no goodies, and no baddies either? What is the work now?

As I’ve watched the political and cultural temperature hot up in the West over the last year, as I have watched people divide into opposing factions and come out swinging, these questions have seemed to me increasingly urgent. I don’t really know how to answer them. I suppose it might take 5000 years. I suppose the answers will be changing all the time. But I like the questions better than the one I used to ask: who is the enemy, and how can we beat him? Because, of course, we can’t beat him. We strike him down and take off his mask and he turns out to be part of the family. That’s the point at which the hard work begins, and the wisdom becomes available.

Over the next year, I plan to explore these questions more, here on this blog and in the outside world. Starting in May, I’m going to be one of the teachers and guides on an experimental programme which Dark Mountain is running with our friends over at Way of Nature. We’ve worked together before, taking people out into wild areas and focusing on the big questions in our lives and in the world. This year we’re experimenting with an eight month programme, which we’re calling Fire and Shadow.

We’re putting together a group of people – reminiscent of one of those tribes or communities, perhaps – which will start to explore the work of transmuting war into trial, and asking how we might take the first steps in that 5,000 year journey. What values do we need? How should we live? How do we step back from the battle and still remain engaged in the world? What do we see when we look into the darkness? In the course of two week-long retreats in wild parts of Scotland and Romania, connected by online and ongoing conversations over eight months, we’re hoping to begin coming up with the answers to these questions and others.

We’ve filled up more than half of the places on this course already, but there are still spaces available for those who are interested. You can read more about it here. It’s a big commitment of time and money, and it won’t be for everyone. What I plan to do though, is bring some thoughts, feedback and perhaps the beginning of some tentative conclusions from the programme over to this blog at various points over the next year. I hope this will make up something of a resource pack for those who can’t come on the programme itself or wouldn’t want to. I can’t, of course, know yet what we will find. But I have a sense that this is a good path to explore, however winding it turns out to be.

  1. At the risk of being “spluttered at” I am delighted and grateful to feel a small part of a mysterious community of life in it’s many forms. This blog reminds me of some of the points put forward by Mark Boyle in his book Drinking Molotov cocktails with Ghandi. On a semantic note I like to replace a “deadline” with a “lifeline”. I also found the analogy of taking off the mask to find a family member very powerful. It is similar to something I have found calms me and reminds me not to be an aggressive or verbally abusive driver, that the person I am shouting at might be my son, my mother, my best friend, kindly neighbour etc etc. And of course in a car I am only really shouting at myself! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and exciting projects to come with Way of Nature. Fuggo

  2. How can a sadistic pedophile hurt and kill a child?

    Because their brain is inter-regionally unconnected.

    How can an author write of disconnected things?

    Because their brain is inter-regionally connected.

  3. Well, yes. The war metaphor is very seductive, isn’t it? Don’t we love to project our shadow side onto some other (witches, blacks, Reds, fascists…) in order to not have to deal with it in ourselves?

    Good luck with the course, which sounds great; but I would hesitate to describe the group that is being formed as a “tribe” or “community”. I think these are much over-used words these days. All of us want to feel connected, to feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves, but it seems to me that a tribe isn’t something you can join just by signing up for a course. It has to be more organic than that, I would say…

    1. Very relevant to this is the idea of the “wetiko” disease. To quote:

      “Psychologically speaking, shadow projection is at the very root of wetiko disease. Shadow projection is a process in which we split-off from and project out our own darkness onto others. It is our misguided attempt at a ‘final solution’ to the problem of the evil within ourselves which actually deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil. Projecting the shadow opens up the door and invites in the vampiric entity of wetiko to make itself at home in the most intimate spaces of our own psyche.”

      (From http://realitysandwich.com/84778/lets_spread_word_wetiko/)

      1. I have to object a bit to the idea that may be hinted at here…that if we see evil in the world it is because of evil in our psyche that we project into the world. In the passage through the phases of the dark night, I have had periods of terrors. At the end of 2013, I had a few weeks of intermittent terrors that had in the previous years only woke me up at night, but that fall 2013 the terrors came day and night, even in my waking hours. I do not think those episodes came from my own psyche. There is an external force that is at work. Now, I am coming to the stage where it seems “darkness is fleeing” before me, but the last 10 years have been hell….a hell I did not create, but had to endure. There is a war between good and evil. This is depicted in many myths in many different cultures. It is very real to me.

  4. Ah yes, the endless militarization of our language and our thoughts. I find this very true and troubling when dealing with cancer, which I have done twice now. All of the language is victim/survivor/winning the battle. Very unhelpful. Was I supposed to be at war with my own body? Evidently. Our western civilization is a form of cancer, consuming the entire planet. Rogue cells which decide to take over neighboring cells, consuming them, laying waste to the entire body.

  5. No, it is a war. A ruthless war of extermination, conquest and plunder with human technology pitting Homo Sapiens and their fellow domesticated minions (dogs, cattle, corn etc.) against all the rest of life on the planet. It has also been going on for much longer then the ‘modern’ era, just ask a Mastodon or American Cheetah, or a Haask’s Eagle – oh, but you can’t because they are not around anymore.

    To use another military analogy anyone who realizes the extent of this ecological dilemma is likely to find himself in a similar conundrum to a ‘Das Reich’ soldier circa 1942 who suddenly realizes that the Ukrainian woman you just saw shot after you helped torch her village was probably not a Jewish-Bolshevik terrorist. Your faith in the Führer and the superiority of German culture has been shattered – but now what? You, your comrades and even your family are integrated into a machine of destruction that none of you has any control over. Do you throw down your rifle and start walking towards Switzerland? Betray your comrades and desert to the other side? Most likely you will keep your head down, not volunteer for any’ anti-partisan’ operations and hope that the war will be over soon, that ‘your side’ will lose and that most of your loved ones will somehow survive.

  6. The peer-reviewed medical literature is replete with examples of how neoliberal austerity spikes premature deaths through its mandated cutbacks in public health, surveillance systems of emerging epidemics, and the like.

    Millions continued to be forced to a premature grave, through no fault of their own.

    As one example, I post an artice from The Lancet, the most prestigious medical journal in the world, which asserts the recent Ebola epidemic was amplified by large cutbacks in public health mandated by the IMF. This is but one data point of many.

    Paul’s points about the shortcomings in reflexively using metaphors of war to describe the path forward are brilliantly stated and insist upon more than a single reading.

    I would like to add, however, for those in the Global South, who are dying like flies due to ths irrational neoliberal agenda of deep cuts in public health, metaphors like “war” may convey a bit more needed urgency than the metaphor of a “trial”.

    Here is that Lancet article on how austerity amplified the Ebola epidemic:


    1. The post is about using war metaphors in situations where others might be more appropriate, because they are divisive, mock-heroic and often simply wrong. Of course, some situations are actual wars – or at least conflicts. The EZLN launched a literal war against NAFTA for that reason. This is a piece for Western folk who might need calming down. It’s not likely to be relevant to anyone in a truly desperate situation.

  7. It strikes me that the kind of thoughts and reflections that arise out of dealing with our own complicity which helps form a different view of the world is quite central to any work such as the Dark Mountain Project.

  8. Reading this, I was reminded of sentiments in Chris Hedges’ brilliant book, ‘War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning’.

    Answering the call to arms and being swept up in the euphoria of a moral crusade against the forces of evil offers us something missing from our ordinary lives: it promises transcendence from the mundane. And whilst usually states create the stage, time and time again we are more than willing to don the robes of war as actors in their shallow plays. We swallow the lies which claim our exceptionalism while turning a blind eye to those things which connect us to our enemies. Yet the reality of war shatters the dream. Everything we believed in is shown to be false. There is no good or evil on the battlefield, only scared humans killing other scared humans. People with hopes and dreams like us. Yet still we are gripped by war.

    Now is the time to walk away from our metaphorical wars, lay down our keyboards, and step outside into our communities – big and small – to attempt to understand what it is that connects us, not what divides.

    Being currently in Japan, I won’t be able to take part in the course, but I look forward to seeing and reading about what answers it provides.

  9. Isn’t yours a romantic, privileged, even civilised take on what is essentially going on, and has been since the beginning of time: a battle for territory and food?

    1. I’m not sure how disliking Donald Trump’s policies, or complaining about Brexit or arguing about climate change can be described as ‘a battle for territory and food.’ They’re a battle for a cultural narrative. In that narrative, calling someone ‘privileged’ is currently the most fashionable way to dismiss their arguments in some quarters.

      1. Was I not clear? Sorry.

        I suggested that territory and food are at the heart of Trump, Brexit et al – not (at the heart of) your response.

        Let me elaborate.

        No one (animal, bird, insect, human) on the small off-grid farm I manage feels, or is safe. Nor did your and my grand or great grandparents feel safe. Fortunately for you and me there was a brief respite during the privileged years of plenitude when the baby boomers and their progeny could practise peace, love and justice. Now as displaced and desperate refugees stream into your country (and mine) those primordial fears of invasion (territory) and scarcity (food, as in jobs) return, and manifest as Trump or Brexit.

        I believe it’s more useful (as you suggest) to live those self-same fears in myself than to preach (although I know you’re not preaching, but nevertheless it might come down to the same thing): community, stillness, forbearance, humility, discipline, honour on a (romantic and civilised) ‘5000 year journey towards living well with ourselves and the Earth’.

        1. That makes a lot of sense to me. What I’m doing here is, I hope, not preaching; rather, it’s trying to get to the heart of those fears and share them. But yes, I agree on how rough it will get.

  10. thank you.
    i enjoyed this piece immensely and agree with much of its premise…
    you almost lost me at the beginning with what felt like a snide and uneccessary remark in relation to anarchists “love [war] more than the marine corps, at least if they can hide their faces.”
    it is a piece full of searing truths, poetic justice and profound insights that i would have reposted elsewhere … but the sales pitch and fund raising toward the end made me feel you sold it short and left me wanting.
    i look forward to seeing what else comes out of your experience.

  11. Just a comment on one aspect of what you have written: I’m not sure I understand how “an environmental campaigner …[is] as much a cause of climate change as the CEO of Exxon.” Yes, we are all involved in and responsible for the “mess” around us, but there are very serious distinctions that need to be made. Some of us/most of us are to a great extent “pawns”, while others wield tremendous power. I don’t think this idea of shared responsibility is that useful. The structures and levers of power are controlled by limited groups of persons with interests that are seemingly distinct from most of us.

    1. We’re all complicit, but some of us are more complicit than others. I’m not suggesting a kind of equality-of-guilt: as you say, of course distinctions need to be made. But still, if we decide to separate off those who have ‘power’ from the rest of us poor saps, we simplify the complexity of the situation. Why do governments not act on climate change, for example? At least partly because of huge industrial vested interests. But also – and very significantly – because their populations will not accept a trebling of the cost of flights, fuel rationing, carbon taxes, no availability of satsumas in the winter and any restrictions on cheap plastic goods and affordable holidays. Again and again, at local level, I have come across the stark reality that ‘ordinary people’ – often romanticised by right and left alike – do not want any radical change that would affect their lifestyles. So if you build a war narrative – as so many greens do – around cackling oil CEOs versus a radical mass that wants ‘climate action’, you’re just wrong. That’s why, in my view, the whole situation is so intractable.

      1. The situation is intractable, but glimses of a different way can be seen. Oil workers and coal workers in some areas are coming to thier senses. The slogan from the International Trade Union Confederation is: no jobs on a dead planet.

        The miners Union in Australia knows that the days of King Coal are coming to an end. Here is a speech from one of their leaders http://cfmeu.com.au/your-union/secretary-message/archive/why-australia-needs-a-just-transition

        A coal miner used to come to the camp for climate action/climate camp in Australia.

        The kauapa of the union approach a Just Transition. The question then becomes what are we transitioning from? and what are we wanting to transition towards?

        Everyone knows what the problems are. The where to next… is the tricky bit.

  12. Getting better at living in tune with nature, that’s the thing. It’s not easy or quick. Maybe Gary Snyder’s right and it will take 5000 years.
    It’s something we have to learn by doing: trusted writers, teachers, groups and friends can inform, guide and point, but it’s only our own doing which takes us forward.
    It isn’t just the doing when we’re “in nature.” It’s a whole mindset, skillset and awareness which we learn when we’re there and then bring back into the mainstream world: living lightly, respecting other life forms, reducing waste and over-consumption. Not just fossil fuels and their spin-off, plastics, but all the resources which are bred, dug, quarried, mined, processed, piped and transported only to be poured away, trashed and discarded.
    Civilisation traumatises us and we have to live in denial of its downside – the pollution, environmental destuction, the famines and the wars – to lead “normal” lives. Chellis Glendinning likens recovery to that of an alcoholic: it’s not until you and I acknowledge that we have a problem that we can begin to move forward.
    See her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilisation, and her article ‘Technology, Trauma and the Wild’ online at http://www.primitivism.com/technology-trauma.htm

  13. It would be useful I think to pay close attention to what is transpiring at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota US right now in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline project and other oil pipeline projects in the US and Canada. I suppose these Water Protectors could be considered to be at war with the pipeline companies, but they do not think of themselves as Protesters, they are Protectors and they are using prayer and love and perseverance so as to not have their land and our water destroyed. They follow in the footsteps their ancestors and have been cultivating respect for mother nature and peaceful communal living for 5000 years already. The elders and young people still belong to the tribes of these past millennia and carry on that accumulation of knowledge.

  14. Charles Eisenstein has a recent article that deals with this question of war and confrontation. He points towards simplicity and non-violence, which is not unlike Wendell Berry’s formula as earlier described by Paul. And this of course goes back to Gandhi, who also knew a thing or two about creating communities, in ashrams. He may be the man for our times, both on the front lines and in the everyday choices we make.


  15. Mmm, lovely, thank you.

    Someone once said that a good trick in moving towards, rather than against or away from, is to make the world/people the subject of your heart rather than the object of your mind, then compassion will flow.

    Good luck with your tribequest

    I look forward to hearing tales from the far side

  16. I’ve been alienated by militant terminology and attitudes in green groups and on the left too. We can’t fight war with war! I’d agree that we need to start examining the ways human lived for a million years before the disaster of the last few centuries – as you say, community, religion, humbleness before more-than-human world. I can’t afford the course but will be following avidly.

  17. PS – “I offer” may have been misleading in my last post. I did not author that piece. I offered a link to it only. I found it a thoughtful and useful contribution to the dialogue.

  18. I commend you Paul, man, the idea of a resource pack for those who can’t attend is spot on, inclusivity is essential in moving ideas forward and growing consensus, as any movement that doesn’t engage the masses (or at least attempt to) is nothing more than a vanity project. Good hunting.

  19. I believe the planet is being eroded away by a lethal bacteria called humans. We have travelled from planet to planet without having previous knowledge from our infancy. The only thing that can destroy us is either ourselves or this planet through a natural disaster.

  20. Ahh! Finally getting round to reading this. It’s been on an open tab for months now. Hope Fire and Shadow started well. I spoke to Andries about joining but realised, this time round, practically it wasn’t possible…. I often wonder if our drawing to conflict in part is a counterbalance to struggling to feel. Lightness and seeming intangibility of being are harder bedfellows to sit with. Feel with. They give rise to acknowledging our fragility and impermanence and possibly insignificance. War offers blood. Guts. Bones. Is it a way to access the physical-ness of the body? Is our dance with it, our play, a way to feel fear in an imagined ‘safe’ form? Could our ‘fight’ be a basic way to ascertain a sense of value? Purpose? Does it posit our relationship with God in more comprehensible terms?Does it’s drama help create a shadow over our own? …..


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