by Ray Grigg
Failure is difficult to accept, particularly for those who are committed to a cause so obvious and important. But failure is the reluctant conclusion reached by a small group of dedicated environmentalists in the United Kingdom who, for years, have been active in innumerable local, national and international campaigns against everything from climate change and deforestation to overfishing and habitat destruction. Their admission of failure is lucidly captured in a document called The Dark Mountain Manifesto, written in part by Paul Kingsnorth, a fifteen-year campaigner, journalist and former deputy editor of the Ecologist, one of the leading publications in its field.
Kingsnorth’s poignant and searching reasons for writing The Dark Mountain Manifesto were given in an April 29, 2010, edition of the Ecologist. If the reasons seemed justified four years ago, they seem even more justified now. His words give clarity to a dawning realization and a deepening feeling that many others have found difficult to confront and articulate. In brief, Kingsnorth stopped believing that environmentalists could save civilization from its own destructive momentum. His two reasons are worth thoughtful consideration.
“The first,” Kingsnorth wrote, “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.”
Indeed, he wasn’t. Written in 2009 with fellow journalist Dougald Hine, Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto quickly attracted huge attention and a following of thousands from around the world. Most expressed relief to discover that they were not alone in the silent thoughts and uneasy feelings underlying their secret dread.
If hope is the last resort, then profound despair should collide with exhausted relief as the admission of failure meets the end of struggle. The inner battle is over. The best of effort has absolved the conscience of guilt. The search for optimism in the frayed history of humanity’s sorry saga is no longer necessary. All that remains is a peaceful waiting. The caring and worry that once tried to lighten a heavy burden of responsibility could now become a quiet gathering of perspective and a patient exercising of compassion. Tragic as the outcome might be, the meeting of people of a similar mind “who wanted to forge a new way of looking at the future,” wrote Kingsnorth, was a consoling and exciting event.
The Dark Mountain Project, as he explained, “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 civilization might be, and neither green technology nor ethical shopping is going to prevent a serious crash.”
“Curiously enough,” noted Kingsnorth, “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.”
With the admission of failure, an entire framework of pointless strategizing and ineffective action could be abandoned, freeing creative and imaginative energy to be marshalled in a fresh and positive direction. What could realistically be done? What were the attributes of civilization that were worth preserving and using as the foundations for a subsequent system? So the Dark Mountain Project brought together “thinkers, writers, artists, musicians and artisans” who spent a long hours and weekends pondering the challenges identified in The Manifesto and “building the post-oil world in a century of chaos.”
Thinkers like Paul Kingsnorth illustrate the gulf that separates differing opinions on a global subject of incredible complexity. Much of humanity, of course, is either inert with ignorance or numb with indifference to the deepening environmental crisis. Many are buoyed to optimism by their faith in the redemptive power of technology. Some continue to resist the notion that our collective behaviour is unravelling the stability of ecologies essential to our civilization’s comfortable survival. In contrast, a growing number of others are assessing the evidence, calculating the consequences and trying to salvage the worthy remnants of a civilization they believe is heading toward ruin. The Dark Mountain Manifesto may not be comfortable reading, but it must be acknowledged as a sign of the times.