At Play With The Crunchy Collapsitarians
The New York Times writes about Dark Mountain, a radical movement of deep-green types who have given up on the idea that the earth can be saved, and are dedicated to enjoying the slide into eco-apocalypse. Paul Kingsnorth is a leading light, as is his colleague Dougald Hine. Excerpts:
“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
The first thing that Kingsnorth did was draft a manifesto. Also called “Uncivilization,” it was an intense, brooding document that vilified progress. “There is a fall coming,” it announced. “After a quarter-century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall . . . Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis.”
Sitting in the hut, the air stale and the light almost nonexistent, I thought of something Hine told me earlier. “People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’ ”
Hine compared coming to terms with the scope of ecological loss to coming to terms with a terminal illness. “The feeling is a feeling of despair to begin with, but within that space other things begin to come through.”
In 2009, philosopher John Gray wrote about the Dark Mountain Manifesto, giving Kingsnorth and Hine credit for seeing through progressivist myths, but saying that they’re delusional too. Excerpt:
The notion that social breakdown could be the prelude to a better world is a Romantic dream that history has proved wrong time and again. China and Russia have suffered complete social breakdown on several occasions during their history, as did much of Europe in the period between the two world wars. The result has never been the stable anarchy that is sometimes envisioned in the poetry of Jeffers. Instead, it is the thugs and fanatics who promise to restore order that triumph, whether Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, or Hitler and assorted petty dictators in Europe. It is the old Hobbesian doctrine – one that has never been successfully superseded.
The authors do not tell us what they expect to happen after civilisation has disappeared, but it may be something like the post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval world imagined by the nature mystic Richard Jefferies in his novelAfter London, or Wild England (1885). In it, Britain is depopulated after ecological disaster and reverts to barbarism; but it is not long before a new social order springs up, simpler and happier than the one that has passed away. After London is an Arcadian morality tale that even Jefferies probably did not imagine could ever come to pass.
Over a century later, the belief that a global collapse could lead to a better world is ever more far-fetched. Human numbers have multiplied, industrialisation has spread worldwide and the technologies of war are far more highly developed. In these circumstances, ecological catastrophe will not trigger a return to a more sustainable way of life, but will intensify the existing competition among nation states for the planet’s remaining reserves of oil, gas, fresh water and arable land. Waged with hi-tech weapons, the resulting war could destroy not only large numbers of human beings but also much of what is left of the biosphere.
A scenario of this kind is not remotely apocalyptic. It is no more than history as usual, together with new technologies and ongoing climate change. The notion that the conflicts of history have been left behind is truly apocalyptic, and Kingsnorth and Hine are right to target business-as-usual philosophies of progress. When they posit a cleansing catastrophe, however, they, too, succumb to apocalyptic thinking. How can anyone imagine that the dream-driven human animal will suddenly become sane when its environment starts disintegrating? In their own catastrophist fashion, the authors have swallowed the progressive fairy tale that animates the civilisation they reject.
I didn’t know a thing about Dark Mountain until reading the Times piece, and the story’s account about the hootenanny in the English countryside is pretty unintentionally risible. That said, the Benedict Option streak in these folks appeals to me, and I agree with them that the world is not going to lower the carbon emissions, so we should quit fooling ourselves. However, in the end, Gray is right: as bad as what we have now may be in some respects, what comes after its collapse would be infinitely worse. I think for Kingsnorth and Hine, civilizational collapse is a kind of solution.
Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s The Dark Mountain Manifesto. However unrealistically Romantic these guys are, it’s hard to disagree with this:
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. Each is intimately bound up with the 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.
Outside the citadels of self-congratulation, lone voices have cried out against this infantile version of the human story for centuries, but it is only in the last few decades that its inaccuracy has become laughably apparent. We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.