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General · 18th February 2014
Ray Grigg
Most of The Dark Mountain Manifesto is sober reading, an inner searching that feels both uncomfortably illuminating and emotionally freeing — it is our civilization on a psychoanalyst's couch being forced beyond evasive contortions to reveal its deepest secrets. Indeed, an honest and penetrating exploration of civilization's hidden recesses is the only place to find a cure for a behaviour that, many now believe, is becoming self-destructive.

Not everyone, of course, will acknowledge that our civilization is a problem needing a cure. Many still see it as the apex of human accomplishment, even as its supporting mythology continues — with barely diminished enthusiasm — to justify a wholesale assault on nature. The resulting ecological havoc is now unequivocally evident, and is precisely the reason why our unquestioned trust in civilization is fraying. As “Hubris meets Nemesis” — to use Kingsnorth's and Hine's uncomfortable expression — some thoughtful people are beginning to ask searching questions. What does progress mean? Where does it end? Will enough ever be enough? How much civilization can Earth's ecosystems endure? If the price of civilization must be ecological disaster, what kind of thinking would interpret this as a worthy endeavour? Is humanity to be measured by the folly of knowingly committing ecocide?

In their measure of civilization, Kingsnorth and Hine conclude, “We do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be. Of all humanity’s delusions of difference, of its separation from and superiority to the living world which surrounds it, one distinction holds up better than most: we may well be the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth. This is a hypothesis we seem intent on putting to the test. We are already responsible for denuding the world of much of its richness, magnificence, beauty, colour and magic, and we show no sign of slowing down...”.

But the mythology supporting this civilization is showing cracks, and the untameable spirit of human creativity is escaping from its confinement. “The last taboo is the myth of civilization,” note Kingsnorth and Hine. “It is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species.” Given the plethora of sad environmental news now beleaguering us, the words of this old story no longer sound so convincing.

As we approach the stark reality of ecocide, conclude Kingsnorth and Hine, the required response “is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers...”. This is a time when “writers, artists, poets and storytellers of all kinds have a critical role to play. Creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces: without it, the project of civilization is inconceivable, yet no part of life remains so untamed and undomesticated. Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history.”

So the Dark Mountain Project proposes to inspire artists of all kinds — “painters, musicians, sculptors, poets, designers, creators, makers of things, dreamers of dreams” and especially writers — to begin the process of “decoupling” our civilization from its destructive myth. “We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken — and that only artists can do it.”

Charging artists with the responsibility of reshaping a civilization may be unrealistically ambitious — the time has long passed when “the word of a poet was once feared by a king.” Nonetheless, Kingsnorth and Hine are proposing “uncivilized art” and, in particular, “uncivilized writing” — “writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble” so we can perceive ourselves with a detachment commensurate with a species whose future depends on its ability to evolve from being self-absorbed to being holistically conscious. This will require that we suppress the urge “to tame, to control, to subdue or to destroy — to civilize — the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas...”. It will require that we transcend the numbness that allows us to feel nothing when we “exploit and destroy” our “fellow creatures.”

The Dark Mountain Project hopes to shift the emphasis from “man” to “notman”. Or, as the poet Robinson Jeffers suggested about 70 years ago, to “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.” As Kingsnorth and Hine stress, “This is not a rejection of our humanity — it is an affirmation of the wonder of what it means to be truly human. It is to accept the world for what it is and to make our home here, rather than dreaming of relocating to the stars, or existing in a Man-forged bubble and pretending to ourselves that there is nothing outside it to which we have any connection at all.”

Their proposal to replace the present myth of civilization with a viable alternative will require an audacious revolution in consciousness. This still may be possible — if we have time. An information explosion has changed circumstances immensely since Robinson Jeffers was cast into poetic obscurity for his censure of civilization. Innumerable writers are attacking the dark old ways and are shining new light on fresh possibilities. Naivety is becoming an untenable option. A stark awakening is forcing everyone to engagement, insisting that each of us become an artist for Earth. The early changes are already occurring, though not as soon as required nor as pervasive as necessary. But a readiness is beginning to ripen.