The Dark Mountain

This project of 'uncivilization' is the conception of the writers Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine as a response to a world constrained by depleting resources and advancing shifts in climate. It is a response born of a felt realization that our attempts to 'fix' our complex crises of environment are failing.

As Bill McKibben shows in his latest book, 'Eaarth', all the careful scenarios of forthcoming climate change appear to be arriving ahead of 'schedule' (as if we could imagine that nature might obey our scheduling) and that the stable world we have enjoyed since the last Ice Age is unraveling.

They write:

"The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Both are intimately bound up with each other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained."

But it is a temporary fictitious glory, slowly fading, and one that may simply shatter at any time.

How do we prepare for such an eventuality? In many ways but the way focused on by 'Dark Mountain' is the creation of new stories about ourselves and our place in the world - a de-centring of ourselves - recognizing that we are one species amongst many, that our lives are significant to us but not central in the greater scheme of things, and that we can fashion humbler, more enduring, resilient spaces for ourselves if we imagine ourselves a part of a whole in a cycling movement of nature rather than in the ascending progress of history (that has proved and will prove again a fragile god).

They quote that great, neglected poet of nature as the measure of things, Robinson Jeffers to their account:

                                         The severed hand

Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history … for contemplation or in fact …
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
          Robinson Jeffers, The Answer

They have been criticized by environmentalists, like George Monbiot, as counselors of despair, of having given up on 'solutions' and even condemning millions to death (if you 'welcome' collapse [or see and name its inevitability] you must be responsible for it: a curious logic to say the least)!

I find them at once bracing - calling time on this peculiar notion that merely by walking forward, we must ascend into the air, that civilization is an essential and programmed advance, rather than a fragile good, that is achieved temporarily and though resilient can collapse, often when it encounters limits imposed betwixt our knowledge and of the nature of the world. I find them questionable partly because they endow the complex uncertainties of science (about climate, resource constraint, technological change) with too great a certainty, nothing is wholly inevitable and our resilience or creativity or ability to change should not be so easily underestimated.

But mainly my doubt is about their fundamental premise: that our care within the world, our ability to forge a new relationship within our common nature is conditioned by our accepting our 'de-centring', as one species amongst others, with no universal significance. The testimony of history would appear to be that we live within limits of the natural ordering most deeply and effectively when we see ourselves, are ourselves participating in a sacred order. When our lives are shaped in a meaning from 'above' we, being secure in understanding, do not then seek to make status our counterfeit source of meaning, a source that drives us to consume the world.

The paradox being the more deeply our meaning is sourced 'beyond the world' the more free we are to be in the world.


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