Sometimes – rarely – online debate can be useful. This was one example.
This email debate with American journalist Wen Stephenson, about the current state of the world and what can be done about it, was prompted by his scepticism about my essay Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. It’s a rare example of an online exchange leading to an interesting and grown-up discussion, rather than a bad-tempered slanging match. You can read the debate, complete with Wen’s personal introduction, on his Thoreau Farm website.
Thanks so much for engaging in this exchange.
I confess that I’ve only recently come to know your work. You caught my attention with the essay in Orion. It’s a beautiful piece â€” I honestly think so, despite my reaction to it. The thing that initially hooked me is the way your trajectory is almost precisely the inverse of my own. Whereas you’ve grown deeply disillusioned with modern environmentalism, and what’s universally known as “sustainability” â€” including urgent and necessary efforts to cut carbon emissions â€” I’ve never been an “environmentalist” in the first place (if anything, I’m a recovering journalist!). And yet here I’ve gone and become an advocate for climate action. Strange times we live in.
But while there are many things about the essay that I genuinely admire â€” especially the way it nails the state of anxiety in which environmentalism seems to find itself today, the internal tensions and contradictions â€” I found your dismissiveness toward the climate movement, and especially your conclusion, profoundly frustrating and discouraging. That conclusion appears, essentially, to be a resigned withdrawal: “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marchingâ€¦. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”
Look, I’m all for walking â€” especially if it means clearing one’s head and reconnecting with the reality outside our windows. But not as withdrawal, not as running away. The idea that in the face of climate change â€” humanity’s greatest crisis (and I mean all of humanity, especially those who have done little or nothing to cause it, including future generations) â€” someone with your experience, and your conscience, could simply choose to “withdraw” â€¦ well, it was incomprehensible to me. And it was especially ironic given that the same issue contained the interview with Tim DeChristopher.
That interview’s title is drawn from DeChristopher’s now-famous words to the judge: “This is what love looks like.”
And so, of course, I turned to Twitter and responded to you and your essay: “This is what giving up looks like.”
Whereupon you accused me of naivete for joining in a worldwide rally for climate action (and organizing a walk to Walden Pond) last September. TouchÃ©!
So, yes, you might say our correspondence got off to a rocky start.
But we’ve patched things up! And your essay and our Twitter exchange has led me, I’m glad to report, to the Dark Mountain Project. I think I now have a much better understanding of where you’re coming from, and where you’re trying to go, and I have to say, once again, that we’re largely in agreement â€” up to a point. I think it’s quite likely that you’re right about the situation in which civilization now finds itself, given what science is telling us and the state of our political and economic systems. As you encapsulate it in Dark Mountain Issue 1:
[The manifesto’s] message â€” that it’s time to stop pretending our current way of living can be made ‘sustainable’; that ‘saving the planet’ has become a bad joke; that we are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we canâ€¦
Indeed. But it’s the “live through it as best we can” part, and how we’re going to do that, where our viewpoints begin to diverge â€” because you seem to reject the possibility that any combination of mass political engagement and human technological (and yes, industrial-economic) ingenuity might help us do just that: live through it as best we can. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.
So I’d like to pose a series of questions for you, in reaction to specific passages in the manifesto.
You write in part one that the “the myth of progress” is “the engine driving our civilisation.” Then, in part two, you suggest that our response to climate change and environmental crisis has yet to give up this myth:
We hear daily about the impacts of our activities on ‘the environment’ (like ‘nature’, this is an expression which distances us from the reality of our situation). Daily we hear, too, of the many ‘solutions’ to these problems: solutions which usually involve the necessity of urgent political agreement and a judicious application of human technological genius. Things may be changing, runs the narrative, but there is nothing we cannot deal with here, folksâ€¦. There will still be growth, there will still be progressâ€¦ There is nothing to see here. Everything will be fine. We do not believe that everything will be fine.
Nor do I. But to dismiss the search for “solutions” â€” which I assume must include efforts to stabilize the climate in the coming century â€” seems a bit too cynical, or fatalistic. As if to say that nothing can be done. The task, we agree, is no longer to “prevent” or “avoid” the “perfect storm,” but to live through it, and still maintain our humanity. At the very least, we can still work urgently to minimize the human (and non-human) suffering that is coming. Unless you believe that compassion is also a myth.
You write that “time has not been kind to the greens.” And then,
Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naive as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.
This is followed shortly after by one of the manifesto’s central (and most memorable) passages:
_And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look downâ€¦. Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us? We believe it is time to look down._
This is a striking passage. But wait â€” “Would it be as bad as we imagine?â€¦ Could it even be good for us?” Do you mean that the future could in fact be better than the present? That it might be (gasp) sustainable? Does that imply your own myth of progress? Before you answer that, here’s another question.
Your project is fundamentally a literary and cultural one. It’s based on the idea that our stories â€” the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves â€” are what make us who we are. And so you want to change the story, the myth, of civilization. You write:
Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? â€¦ What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?
These are excellent questions. But art and storytelling won’t stabilize the climate. The only way to do that is to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transfomation of our energy systems. Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?
You say that Uncivilised writing “is not environmental writingâ€¦ It is not nature writingâ€¦ And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.” You then conclude that the project of Uncivilisation “will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty â€” like truth â€” not only exists, but still matters.”
There’s something almost hopeful about that last page of the manifesto, and the last lines: “Climbing Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exerciseâ€¦. Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.”
But it occurs to me that “beauty” and “truth” (like politics) are human “confections” â€” anthropocentric categories. And this seems to imply a belief that something like civilization, which gave birth to art and philosophy, will not only survive, but is worth fighting to preserve. And yet, how does one propose to preserve beauty and truth, these human constructs, unless the climate is stabilized? And how does one propose to do that without engaging in politics? Are you suggesting that a new art and philosophy will give rise to a new politics? Maybe it will. But do we really have time to wait for that?
All the new storytelling in the world will change nothing without politics. In fact, it seems to me that the ultimate cynicism is to give up on politics â€” because it means giving up on the possibility of change. Not necessarily “progress” (i.e., material progress). I mean the preservation of what makes us human.
You write: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”
But unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.
Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.
But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals &emdash; because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.
This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.
I’d like to start this response with your very last line. Here it is:
Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.
This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this â€” really get it, at a deep level â€” there will be no change worth having for anyone.
I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner. My feeling, my philosophy, if you like, across that whole period has been rather different to yours, and rather different also to that of Tim DeChristopher, who you mention in your e-mail, remarkable though his current stand is. My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position &emdash; it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.
You might find that an odd position, or even a dangerous one, but I see it as quite cogent and rational. The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Perhaps it’s the Holocene: the period of the planet’s history in which homo sapiens sapiens (cough) was able to build a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites.
‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture â€” this lifestyle â€” afloat. I have two problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced it is a good idea! To put it mildly. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Its ravaging of all non-human life is not incidental; it seems to be a requirement of the program. Economic growth of the kind worshipped by our leaders could be described as a process of turning life into death for money. With nine billion humans demanding access to the spoils, there is not going to be much life left to go around. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.
But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going. The journey I am on is intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual too. I’m not sure I will find any answers. Certainly I won’t come up with any better ways to ‘save the world.’ But what world are you saving, Wen, and why? Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours.
I sense in your response a lot of the confusion, and the passion, that drove me for many years (I am still both passionate and confused, of course, though perhaps for different reasons.) There is a plaintive quality to your questions. ‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?’ The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.
But as for the ‘transformation of our energy systems’: the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are ‘our energy systems’ for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the ‘developed’ world, and ‘our energy systems’ are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?
Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect. I notice that a US-government backed plan to cover much of the Mojave desert in solar panels is currently running up against resistance from both conservationists and Native Americans; and let’s not even get started on the battles over carpeting vast areas of mountain, rangeland and countryside with giant wind power stations. This new world of yours is beginning to look a lot like the old one: business-as-usual without the carbon. The beast must be fed; the only question is what it will eat.
As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well â€¦ I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them. There is no ‘climate movement’. Sure, there are a few thousand people who may take to the streets in the wealthy West, or on the odd threatened atoll, and there are many more people who, when asked in opinion polls, will say they want to stop climate change. But how many of these people will be taking to the streets to demand personal carbon budgets? How many of them will be taking to the streets to demand much higher gas prices, limits on their holiday aeroplane flights and their daily electricity use, and radical reductions in their ability and right to consume at will? And how many of the two thirds of the planet not living in the rich world will be taking to their streets to demand that they do not have access to the consumer cornucopia that we have, and which we are using so effectively to destroy non-human life without even really noticing?
I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ‘1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. Here I am writing to you on a laptop computer made of aluminium and plastic and rare earth metals, about to send you this e-mail via undersea cables using as electricity created by the burning of long-dead deposits of fossilised carbon. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25% of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.
I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it. I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either. I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it.
How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality â€” living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle â€” seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.
Sometimes people say to me: ‘But you have children! How can you say all this? Don’t you want a better world for them?’ Other people say other things to me, things like: ‘We know this might not work, we know it’s a long shot â€” but it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than giving up!’ I find this kind of thing very telling, because what is actually being said is: ‘doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the something being done is ineffective and powered by wishful thinking!’ I don’t agree. Sometimes, I think stepping back to evaluate is a lot more useful than keeping on for the sake of keeping on.
I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine, for example. Some of the best projects I know of creating islands and corridors of wild nature and trying to keep them free from our exploitation. Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is a worthy cause if ever there was one: probably the most vital cause right now, I’d say. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. You asked me about hope for the future: the thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are â€” animals â€” and not what we believe we are â€” gods â€” gives me a kind of hope.
There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.
All the best,
So, just as I sat down to write this reply, I reached for the remote to turn off the TV, and realized I was looking at a concert video of Arcade Fire. They were playing (I kid you not) their anthem “Wake Up” to an enormous outdoor crowd of beautiful bright-faced young people in Galicia, Spain, in 2010. As the camera panned over the audience, you could see that these kids were â€” what’s the word? â€” rapt? ecstatic? (Was religion in Europe ever this good? The band certainly seemed to relish a revivalist role.) But where will those young people be in twenty years? Thirty years? 50? And are they to blame for what’s in store? Those 20-year-olds? (I won’t even ask what responsibility the culture industry bearsâ€¦. whoops, I just did.)
“Children â€¦ wake up.”
So, yeah, for whatever that’s worth.
I want to pause for a moment and emphasize what we have in common, before venturing another question or two about where we differ. I’ll try to keep this brief.
We agree that humanity is headed for a cliff, that climate change cannot be “solved,” if that means “stopped” or “prevented.” It’s too late for that. We have to live through it now, as best we can. I don’t claim to know with any certainty how close we are to the cliff, or how much time we have to prepare. I also, to be clear, still hold out the possibility (the hope?) that we’ll avoid going off it entirely. So, we’re heading for a cliff â€” whether we actually go into free fall, and how soon, remains to be seen.
We agree that human beings are, as Thoreau once wrote, “part and parcel of Nature.” You (and others) call this perspective ecocentric, but I dislike that term â€” it’s weighted toward the “eco-,” as something distinct from the human, the “anthro-,” and so still clings to a dualistic man-vs.-nature mindset. Personally, I value the human every bit as much as the non-human. I believe there are aspects of human civilization â€” “beauty,” “truth” â€” worth preserving and fighting for. I think you do as well. It may only be language that’s dividing us on this point.
We agree that the environmental movement, per se, for all its hard work and best intentions, has failed. (Never had a prayer, is more like it.) What I mean is, it has failed in the fight against climate change. Of course, it has won countless other battles, especially local ones, all around the world in the past 40 years and more, and I have great respect for those achievements. But climate is simply too great a challenge for the environmental movement, by itself, to tackle. I think this is largely because of its historic ecocentrism, which failed to inspire the sort of broad-based political movement necessary. This may explain why so many mainstream environmentalists (and climate campaigners, not always the same folks) have moved away from an ecocentric message.
Where I think we differ â€” and please correct me if I’m wrong â€” is that you are driven primarily by a desire to restore what you’d say is a proper relationship between humanity and non-human nature. (This is why, as I remarked at one point in an earlier exchange, your Dark Mountain Manifesto reminds me of the American jeremiad form, if you substitute nature for God: it suggests that the green movement betrayed its sacred covenant with nature, and must now return to the truth faith: ecocentrism.) And it’s as though you welcome an inevitable collapse in so far as it aids or hastens this correction. Am I wrong? But why should we think that collapse would do anything to improve humanity’s relationship to the non-human world?
While I believe correcting our relationship to the non-human is a noble ideal, I’m primarily driven â€” and I know plenty of others who are as well â€” by a desire to prevent as much suffering as possible in the decades to come. I guess I’m with Tim DeChristopher on this. As he tells Terry Tempest Williams, “I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people.” It’s a humanitarian imperative. As Bill McKibben and I recently discussed, the climate justice movement (and of course it exists, whether or not it’s “in the streets” at any given moment) has more in common with the 19th-century abolitionist movement than with modern environmentalism. It transcends environmentalism and environmental politics.
(And speaking of 19th-century abolitionism, Thoreau didn’t retreat from activism, as you say. He remained engaged even while living at Walden, and became even more so thereafter. He sheltered runaway slaves. He spoke forcefully in public. He championed John Brown and put his own body on the line. His awakening in nature led him back to society and to political activism. People think he was the first environmentalist â€” but he was at least as much a human-rights activist. His legacy is as much Gandhi and Martin Luther King as Greenpeace or EarthFirst!)
So it’s simply wrong to suggest that someone like Tim DeChristopher went to prison to save our consumer civilization â€” to save shopping malls. He went to prison to save lives. You might argue that his tactics are hopeless, that his radicalism is self-defeating â€” that could be a useful debate â€” but it doesn’t change his motivation, which is plenty clear. I take him at his word. And I hope you’ll take me at mine. (Not that I possess half DeChristopher’s courage.)
But the most important way in which we differ, I think, is on the question of what is to be done, right now, in the present moment, given the pressing reality that we face. We’re not going to stop global warming at this point. But we may still be able to preserve a livable planet. There’s every reason to think that a last-ditch effort to cut carbon emissions â€” together with serious adaptation efforts at all levels, and local grassroots movements to create resilient local communities â€” will help prevent or alleviate the suffering of countless numbers of people in the latter half of this century. People who will have done nothing to cause the situation they inherit. It’s not about sustaining our current lifestyles, or getting ourselves off the hook. For Christ’s sake, no. It’s about giving future generations a fighting chance. It’s about giving my own children â€” and everyone else’s â€” a fighting chance. It’s not their debt, but they’re the ones who will have to pay it. Don’t we owe them something?
So my question is, what would you have us do? If not something like what I’m suggesting (unoriginal as it may be) â€” rapid carbon mitigation at national and regional levels combined with serious adaptation and resilience-building at local levels â€” then what?
It’s not enough, if you ask me, to merely “look down.” We need to look up and out, too, and find the horizon. We owe it to those who come after us.
Peace to you,
There is a lot I could say to you, but I’m having a strange sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. Three years ago, when we launched the Dark Mountain Project, I engaged in a debate very similar to this one in the Guardian newspaper here in Britain with its resident environmental writer George Monbiot. You might have heard of him. George took a very similar position to yours, though he took it much more aggressively, and we ended up arguing each other to a standstill. It was frustrating, which was my fault as much as his, and perhaps the fault of the format most of all. I have lost count of the number of ‘debates’ like this I have come across. I try not to get involved in them these days, because I think they generate much more heat than light.
So what am I doing here? Well, I think I’m talking to you because you are an open-minded writer. You don’t seem to be taking a position which you then feel obliged to defend. This seems less a debate than a conversation. You seem to be genuinely exploring this stuff, which is what I try to do these days. A question that interests me when I do explore it, especially with other people is: what’s going on behind the politics?
What I mean by that is that it seems to me that political arguments are mostly a cover for much deeper, psychological battles. When we argue about whether we like nuclear power or not, or whether we are liberal or conservative, or whether we believe in climate change or taxation or invading the Middle East, we are really arguing about our inherent worldview, our temperament, our psychology, our prejudices. Are we hopeful people, or are we cynical ones? What are our values, how do we see others, how do we balance community versus individual, freedom versus authority: all that stuff. All the stuff that makes us who we are and what we want the world to be. The facts, and the politics, are the decorations we use to make these deeper currents seem ‘rational’ in the eyes of others.
In that context, I wonder what it is that makes me so ‘ecocentric’, and you such a humanist? I wonder what fuels my sense of resignation, and my occasional sneaking desire for it all to come crashing down, and what fuels your powerful need for this thing called hope. I am struck by the title that you have given to this exchange: ‘Hope in the age of collapse’. Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whisky bottle. It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?
This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission give up hope. What I mean by that is that we help people get beyond the desperate desire to do something as impossibly as ‘save the Earth’, or themselves, and start talking about where we actually are, what is actually possible and where we are actually coming from. We have created a space, possibly accidentally, in which people gather who are disillusioned with our current cultural narratives. Not just the ‘business as usual’ narrative but the ‘sustainability’ narrative too. I find that a lot of campaigners are trapped in hope. I used to be. They believe – they feel pressured to believe, from within or without – that they must continue working to achieve goals which are plainly impossible, because not to do so would be to ‘give up hope’. What they are hoping for is never quite defined, but it’s clear that giving it up would lead to a very personal kind of collapse.
I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. Keep the lights on, keep the emails flowing, keep the nice bits of civilisation and lose the nasty ones; keep control of their narrative, the world they understand. Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult.
None of us knows what will happen, and I’m certainly not making any predictions. But whether or how this civilisation falls apart â€” and it looks to me like it is already happening â€” is, to me, less important than whether it takes the rest of nature with it. This seems to be the main place where you and I differ. The Tim DeChristopher quote which you use approvingly is something which divides us. I admire anyone who can go to prison for their beliefs (well, not anyone, it rather depends what those beliefs are) but I’m of the opinion that the last thing the world needs right now is more ‘humanitarians’. What the world needs right now is human beings who are able to see outside the human bubble, and understand that all this talk about collapse, decline and crisis is not just a human concern. The main victims of the disaster we have created in the name of development are not humans, they are the other lifeforms we are pushing into extinction by the day and the year. When I look to the future, the thing that frightens me most is not climate change, or the possibility of the lights going out in the lit-up parts of the world, it’s that we may keep this ecocidal civilisation going long enough to take everything down with it. And what really keeps me awake at night is the possibility that this civilisation could survive having destroyed 90% of the rest of life on Earth. I guess it would be possible, theoretically, in that situation to create a perfectly fair society of the kind of which you and TimDeChristopher would approve, but I wouldn’t want to live in it. I don’t suppose you would, either. You take my point.
I suspect I’m rambling. Perhaps Thoreau would approve. I wonder if he would approve of what either of us are saying? I find it interesting how Thoreau is interpreted by so many people. I don’t really see him as an ‘environmentalist’ at all, I see him as a spiritual explorer. After all, his Transcendentalism seems to have been what defined him most &emdash; that and his refusal to be slotted into anyone else’s boxes. What I think I like most about Henry David was his refusal to be bound by what other people constantly told him he ought to be doing.
This is how I feel when I am exhorted to get involved in politics again to try and save the world. Again, we should distinguish between the personal and the political. One reason I have ‘walked away’ from activism is because I want to concentrate more on my creative work. It’s what fulfils me most and it’s what I think I am best at. So that’s purely selfish. The other two reasons, as I’ve explained already, are straightforward enough. Firstly, I don’t think what you’re calling for will work (as an aside, I’m struck by the declaration you open this exchange with; it could have come from any report from any global eco-conference over the last 40 years. There have been so many. ‘Rio +20â€² indeed! Another UN beanfest at which nothing will be agreed and nothing will be done. They’d all be better staying at home and saving on the carbon emissions). Secondly, I just don’t feel part of the ‘movement’ that is calling for it. I don’t feel part of it because its main concern is keeping humans happy. Everything else comes second. I don’t think we can afford this kind of mediaeval thinking any more.
At last, then, let me get to your question (thanks for bearing with me.) You ask me: ‘what would you have us do?’ My answer, which sounds a little like the kind of thing Thoreau would have written, is simple: do what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right. I’m not an evangelist; that’s one of the things I have walked away from. I can’t give myself to this supposed movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping. And I don’t think we will stop burning fossil fuels until there are none left. So: I don’t think it will work, and I suspect its motives. But I don’t expect anyone to follow me. I don’t want anyone to follow me. Who wants to be followed when they go out walking?
I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. I could make any number of soapboxey pronouncements or ‘demands’ here, but would it matter anyway? There is no shortage of hot air in the world. No shortage of demands, plans, insistent calls for more ‘action’ from people with no power to do anything at all to make it happen. Where has it got us? It’s twenty years since the Earth Summit. In that time, everything has got worse for the Earth. I wonder where ‘Rio +40â€² will be held? Somewhere hot, I’m sure, with nice hotels and easy airport access.
You spoke in your last letter about a ‘covenant with nature’. You suggested I saw it as having been broken by humanity. I think it’s a lovely phrase, and I think it’s precisely what has happened. If you are uncomfortable with any religious or spiritual overtones which that idea might carry, you could just as easily see it through the lens of science. We had a very practical obligation, as a species, to maintain the ecosystems we found ourselves part of in some semblance of health and balance. We have spectacularly failed to do that. Now climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and, possibly, economic collapse are going to be the result. I don’t welcome any of this as a way to ‘restore balance.’ I’m not that naive. Collapses bring many things, but balance is rarely one of them, at least initially. Still, I think that’s where we are. Covenant broken; consequences upon us. It’s too late to start worrying about the approaching army when it’s already encircled the city.
I feel I have to respond to all of this by giving up hope, so that I can instead find some measure of reality. So I’ve let hope fall away from me, and wishful thinking too, and I feel much lighter. I feel now as if I am able to look more honestly at the way the world is, and what I can do with what I have to give, in the time I have left. I don’t think you can plan for the future until you have really let go of the past.
Here’s to more exploration,
Thanks so much for this. It’s lovely. It’s heartfelt. I appreciate the tone and tenor of it so much more than your first response. I feel you’re no longer giving me the Dark Mountain “platform,” no longer “debating,” but are really speaking to me as yourself, as one human being to another. If nothing else, I find hope in honest human connection, even technologically mediated!
I’m not sure we can bridge the serious differences you’ve rightly identified, but I’d simply offer that my “humanitarian” impulse doesn’t preclude caring deeply about what happens to the non-human world. I don’t see it as an either/or proposition.
And we finally agree about HDT! I think you’re absolutely right in what you say. And trust me, it’s his spiritual search that I’ve always thought is the key to understanding him â€” and to coming to grips with our crisis. Thats what my personal essay, “Walking Home From Walden” (which led to my blogging here at Thoreau Farm in the first place), is all about.
Hope. I can understand the need to let go of “hope,” conventionally defined. But I think what you’re doing here is redefining it â€” for yourself, at least, and maybe for others gathering with you for your dark mountain trek. If you want to jettison the word altogether, as a piece of that past we must let go of, very well. But you’ve clearly found something â€” or at least started the search for something! â€” which keeps you going. And who am I to take that away from you or anyone?
p.s. I’m heading up to Concord and the Farm this morning, along with my Transition Wayland colleague Kaat Vander Straeten, to meet with one of the farmers at Gaining Ground â€” the community food project that shares the Thoreau Farm property and donates all of its produce to hunger-relief in this area (yes, shamefully, hunger in America). I plan to volunteer there this season, and bring my son and daughter along. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, I can’t imagine a better neighbor to Henry’s birthplace: a small, organic farm with a social conscience. And as you like to say, it’s good to write with some dirt under our fingernails. I have no doubt Henry would agree.