This is the last of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.
“WHAT DO YOU DO after you stop pretending?” This was the question – or one of the questions – with which we launched the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. We were – still are – a network of writers, artists, thinkers and doers who had become disillusioned with our own work to change or ‘save’ the world, and who wanted to question more deeply the stories that underpinned our attempts to do so. Many of us had come through environmental activism, and had become disillusioned, or even despairing, about our ability to make the necessary changes in time.
On every metric from population growth to resource consumption, deforestation to fisheries exploitation, atmospheric CO2 concentration, to the rise in GDP, the lines on the graphs have careened almost vertically upward since the 1950s, and show no signs of stopping, however many green campaigns are launched.
The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy which shows no interest whatsoever in changing its direction of travel – indeed, probably could not do so even if all its leaders suddenly had a change of heart, such is its momentum now. It seems to me these days that these facts are giving us a simple, uncontroversial message: our civilisation is going to hit the buffers very hard in the not-too-distant future, and then it is going to fall apart.
Quite how or when this will happen, I couldn’t begin to say, but the alternative – a mass change of hearts and minds – seems more preposterous still. Yet very few of us seem interested in looking honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us.
The obvious question – ‘why not?’ – can be puzzling if you assume, as both Marxists and neoliberals tend to, that humans are sensible creatures who assess evidence and then act in their own rational self-interest. The reality seems rather more complex: man is a prejudiced, confused, emotional animal who, in the famous words of Paul Simon, “hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.
There is also a deeper problem: the stories we tell ourselves about who we are prevent us from believing what actually appears to be going on. Every civilisation has its foundation myth, and ours is the myth of progress.
Enlightenment rationalism grafted its own vision of the perfectability of humanity through science and the intellect onto Western Christianity’s utopian rootstock, and we have all eaten of the strange fruit that resulted. We believe – we have to believe – that everything will keep getting better for us.
What does getting better look like in this culture? Usually it looks like solving every problem that comes our way with new technology.
“Give a Western man a job of work to do,” wrote George Orwell in the 1930s, “and he will immediately set about inventing a machine to do it for him.” Nothing has changed since then; we are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the current experience. Present 2.0.
‘We still believe in ‘progress’, which we lazily define as the inevitable continuation of Western techno-industrialism.
Climate change? Overpopulation? The mass destruction of ecosystems? A collapsing economic model? No worries: the machines will come to our rescue.
It is this attitude that leads ‘climate deniers’ to do what they do, but it is also this attitude that leads environmentalists to adopt their quasi-religious attitude to renewable energy, in which the destruction of a mountain by a turbine range is simply the price we have to pay for our inevitable salvation-by-machine.
The mainstream green movement has bought completely into the myth of techno-progress, and has bet its house on creating a ‘green economy’ and a ‘sustainable society’ which, when examined, turns out to be much like the world we have now, only with more trees, a mysteriously stable climate and windfarms instead of coal.
It looks to me like a fantasy. It was Einstein who said, famously, that problems are not solved by the same mindsets that created them. We are not going to get ourselves out of the trap that this civilisation has flung the Earth into by accelerating deeper into the technosphere and discarding only the carbon. Something else is going to give. I’d guess that the myth of green progress may be one of the first victims.
Paul Kingsnorth is a writer, poet and recovering environmentalist. A former deputy editor of The Ecologist magazine, he is co-founder and Director of the Dark Mountain Project, a network of writers and artists who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.