The Dark Mountain Manifesto: Part 2 of 3 – The Mythology of Progress

by Ray Grigg

The Dark Mountain Manifesto, written jointly by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine in 2009, derives its name from a phrase in a 1935 poem, Rearmament, by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), an American poet who became progressively more disillusioned by the destructive behaviour of civilizations in general and America in particular. Granted, Jeffers was writing most of his poetry after World War I and during World War II, not a high point in the annals of human history. Kingsnorth and Hine wrote TheDark Mountain Manifesto at the beginning of the Great Recession, a financial crisis caused by an epidemic of greed and malfeasance that nearly collapsed the global economic system.

Jeffer’s poem is clear about his assessment of modern civilization and our ominous trudge down its shadowed sides. He writes that,

The beauty of modern

Man is not in the persons but in the

Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the

Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.

The “dark mountain” of civilization is not a monument to our glory but a construction of our demise. To add emphasis to this point, Kingsnorth and Hine quote the 19th century poet, essayist and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) who pronounced that, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

We, of course, would like to believe that civilizations are solid and stable. They are not. History attests to this. Kingsnorth and Hine note that war correspondents are often amazed at how little is required to unravel the delicate fabric of order and civility. The material security and social accord of cities, where most people now live, is held together by the thin threads of energy, transportation and communication. Fray only a few of these vital connections and chaos quickly ensues — most cities have food for only a few days, while a loss of electricity ends access to potable water, disables almost all modern amenities and paralyzes the vitality of almighty commerce.

The hidden force behind commerce — this “engine driving our civilization,” as Kingsnorth and Hine call it — is “the myth of progress.” It is our mythology, our equivalent to blood sacrifices for Aztecs, “warrior prowess” for Romans, “eternal salvation” for Christendom. Our civilization believes in materialism and the human ascent that is provided by the application of enlightened reason. The mythology promises that by “following this guidance, each generation will live a better life than the life of those that went before it. History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up. On the top floor is human perfection. It is important that this should remain just out of reach in order to sustain the sensation of motion.”

This sustained “sensation of motion” creates the illusion of progress. When combined with the impossible quest for human perfection, the result is massive frustration and discontent because the elusive goal provided by our myth of progress can never be reached. Progress has no end, no destination, no finality, no resolution. We never reach contentment or happiness. This illusion that we can, Kingsnorth and Hine explain, “is an underlying darkness at the root of everything we have built.” It is “something that Western civilization — which has set the terms for global civilization — was never capable of understanding, because to understand it would be to undermine, fatally, the myth of that civilization.” So we keep the myth and train ourselves not to see it because this “feeds the machine and all the people who run it…”.

We have also trained ourselves not to see our connection to nature. We have systematically removed ourselves from an incredibly complex and refined ecosystem that is wholly integrated. Our thinking is still too small and fragmented for reconnection and reintegration into the organic order that constitutes the living vitality of Earth. “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it,” note Kingsnorth and HIne. “Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilization. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.”

This “unique glory” is proving to be hollow, lonely and dangerous. As Kingsnorth and Hine explain, “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 result is a crisis in which we have “endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too.”

“We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. Even through the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us.”

And overshadowing it all is uncontrolled climate change, threatening all human endeavors, highlighting our ignorance, revealing our vulnerability, demonstrating “the head-on crash between civilization and ‘nature’,” illustrating “how the machine’s need for permanent growth will require us to destroy ourselves in its name.”