Former deputy editor of the Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth, explains why he became disillusioned with the parables of environmentalism, so decided to write his own instead
It started last year with two men in a pub. It spiraled from there, and gathered in thousands of people from across the world who shared its vision. It is still expanding; so much so that the two men now have rather less time to spend in the pub, because much of their day is spent just trying to keep up with a minor global movement which they have accidentally brought into being.
This is the story of the Dark Mountain Project, a new cultural movement for an age of global disruption, of which I was one of the co-founders less than a year ago. It seems much longer; a lot has happened in a year. We seem to have touched a nerve. This is all the more interesting to me because this project began life as a response to a sense of disillusion with what environmentalism has become.
Angry young men
For fifteen years I have been an environmental campaigner and writer. For two of these years I was deputy editor of the Ecologist. I campaigned against climate change, deforestation, overfishing, landscape destruction, extinction and all the rest. I wrote about how the global economic system was trashing the global ecosystem. I did all the things that environmentalists do. But after a while, I stopped believing it.
There were two reasons for this. The first was that none of the campaigns were succeeding, except on a very local level. More broadly, everything was getting worse. The second was that environmentalists, it seemed to me, were not being honest with themselves. It was increasingly obvious that climate change could not be stopped, that modern life was not consistent with the needs of the global ecosystem, that economic growth was part of the problem, and that the future was not going to be bright, green, comfy and ‘sustainable’ for ten billion people but was more likely to offer decline, depletion, chaos and hardship for all of us. Yet we all kept pretending that if we just carried on campaigning as usual, the impossible would happen. I didn’t buy it, and it turned out I wasn’t the only one.
When I met Dougald Hine, like myself a former journalist, I found someone equally skeptical about the rose-tinted vision of the future that permeates society, and has even taken hold of those who ought to know better. It wasn’t just environmentalism that we believed was peddling false hope: we saw the same refusal to face reality permeating the world of culture. Both writers, we wondered where the writing, the art, the music was that tried to move beyond the self-satisfied stories we tell ourselves about our ability to manage the future.
A manifesto for change
Out of this huddle came a slim, self-published pamphlet that we called Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto. It was a clarion call to those who, like us, did not believe that the future would be an upgraded version of the present, and who wanted to help forge a new cultural response to the human predicament. It called for a clear-sighted view of humanity’s true place in the world.
We had no idea if this would resonate, but it did – all over the world. We sold hundreds of manifestos and attracted enthusiastic support from thousands of people. A movement began to coalesce. What was most fascinating – and telling – about it was the common thread running through it. So many of the communications we received were from people who professed a profound sense of relief. They too had been going through the motions about ‘saving the planet’ but had long since stopped believing it. Coming across other people who didn’t believe it either, and who wanted to forge a new way of looking at the future, got a lot of people very excited.
To me, this is the most exciting thing about the Dark Mountain Project. It has brought together people from all over the world, from varied backgrounds – writers, poets, illustrators, engineers, scientists, woodworkers, teachers, songwriters, farmers – all of whom are tied together by a shared vision. It is a vision that a few years back would have seemed heretical to many greens, but which is now gaining wide traction as the failure of humanity to respond to the crises it has created becomes increasingly obvious. Together we are able to say it loud and clear: we are not going to ‘save the planet’. The planet is not ours to save. The planet is not dying; but our civilisation might be, and neither green technology nor ethical shopping is going to prevent a serious crash.
A new hope
Curiously enough, accepting this reality brings about not despair, as some have suggested, but a great sense of hope. Once we stop pretending that the impossible can happen, we are released to think seriously about the future. This is what the Dark Mountain project is doing next. At the end of May, we are hosting a gathering of thinkers, writers, artists, musicians and artisans, who will spend a long weekend responding to the challenges laid out in the manifesto.
This is the first Dark Mountain festival: part literary festival, part musical weekend, part training camp for an uncertain future. It features writers and thinkers ranging from the already-known – George Monbiot, Alastair McIntosh, Jay Griffiths, Tom Hodgkinson – to the new and fresh. It features nights of radical and engaging music; workshops; cinema and theatre. And in the run-up to the festival iself there is a week-long ‘Dark Mountain Camp’, co-ordinated by practical people with hands-on ideas for building the post-oil world in a century of chaos.
What is ultimately most interesting about the Dark Mountain Project is that it has only taken off because so many people all over the world already shared a vision of the future that is far outside the mainstream; all we did was give it a name. Where it goes next is anybody’s guess. But with the world changing so fast, it doesn’t look like going away.