“You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
The quote above is from a recent New York Times article referred to by Wells in reply to a comment I made about the recent governmental push toward generating an environmental marketplace in the UK, something I had read about both in George Monbiot’s articles in the Guardian, and more explicitly through a revolted Facebook friend who is involved in the department overseeing it. This scheme proposes to offset environmental damage done by development in one place by modifying habitat in others. Using a hypothetical example: Lord Browne’s company wants to cut down ten acres of old growth woodland in Somerset for the purpose of oil exploration, and pay the Duke of Norfolk a to offset the damage by planting ten acres of trees on his estate. Monbiot points out that commodifying nature in an “ecosystem market” has its dangers:
All those messy, subjective matters, the motivating forces of democracy, will be resolved in a column of figures. Governments won’t need to regulate; the market will make the decisions that politicians have ducked. But trade is a fickle master, and unresponsive to anyone except those with the money. The costing and sale of nature represents another transfer of power to corporations and the very rich.
Monbiot often writes about the finer points of neoliberal capitalism and its environment. As someone who regards the natural world as something that has value in and of itself, aside from the uses to which we put it, I agree that “natural capital” is an oxymoron, and appreciate that Monbiot is advising his readers of how this will affect the countryside. However, current politics in the UK sometimes makes those of us who fight against the privatization of everything, from the postal service to disability evaluations and child protection, more than a little frustrated. Direct action against fracking has had some success here, but much of our environmental movement has devolved into arguments over what does and does not constitute sustainable development, while badgers are gassed in their dens in a mistaken attempt to halt bovine tuberculosis. Some environmental activists, such as Paul Kingsnorth have decided to take another tack. His position is that climate change is inevitable and environmental movements, such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org, give their supporters a false sense of control and blind them to the inevitable.
They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.
Recent news about the imminent collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf, which will still come about, even if carbon emissions stopped tomorrow, seems to bear out his position. He violently disagrees with ecopragmatists such as Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, who advocates the use of nuclear power, GM foods, and intense urbanization to ensure the continuance of civilization. Kingsnorth even criticises large windfarms and solar arrays as being part of a “Faustian bargain” to subdue what is left of the natural world to our purposes.
So what kind of action would Kingsnorth advise? Ultimately, he believes that we should consider the root cause of our dilemma: the stories we tell ourselves about the society in which we live. We should begin to “uncivilise” ourselves by refusing to participate in the processes of Western civilization, something he sees as inherently unstable, as it was built on a myth of eternal progress. The purpose of the Dark Mountain project is to collect the work of like minded artists, poets, and essayists to generate new myths. In the Dark Mountain manifesto, he states:
Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.
“Uncivilisation” begins with the admission that we have set ourselves apart from nature when we should think of ourselves as a part of nature. As a species we have been responsible for extinctions that possibly go as far back as the large Pleistocene mammals, and are in the process of obliterating everything from elephants to bees. By attempting to bend nature to our will through increasing applications of technology, we deny our nature as one animal among many. Kingsnorth believes that where politics and activism has failed, artists and writers must step in to provide better narratives than the one of unlimited progress,
To ‘unhumanise’ our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’ 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.
Other activists, like Naomi Klein see a troubling abdication of moral responsibility in the Dark Mountain project. Klein says, “We have to be honest about what we can do. We have to keep the possibility of failure in our minds. But we don’t have to accept failure. There are degrees of how bad this thing can get. Literally, there are degrees.”
George Monbiot, one of Kingsnorth’s oldest friends is even more forceful. In their open correspondence, printed in the Guardian, Monbiot paints an even bleaker scenario, if possible, making the points that humans are much more resilient and, if history is the judge, civilisation’s collapse inevitably lead to mass starvation, authoritarian political systems, and violence. Whatever remains of the natural world that survives would be severely diminished and unlivable for a large proportion of humanity.
This is why, despite everything, I fight on. I am not fighting to sustain economic growth. I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated catastrophe that follows. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing – an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy – might be, we must keep this possibility alive. Perhaps we are both in denial: I, because I think the fight is still worth having; you, because you think it isn’t.
The background of Monbiot and Kingsnorth are surprisingly similar. Both led privileged early lives, were educated at private schools and attended Oxford. However, both have taken their responsibility as part of the Western elite seriously. They were active in anti-globalist and environmental movements, and occasionally have put themselves in personal danger on account of it.
Most of us have never been in this position, and while many of us are concerned about subjects such as carbon levels, fracking, and extinction of ever-greater proportion of our biosphere. Many of us correctly point out that unhindered Capitalism and consumerist culture is the toxic system that encourages profits over what remains of the wondrous planet we have inherited. However, we have not examined in any detail what the global ramifications of taking sides in this argument might be, or what ethical duty we might have to those for whom this is more than an intellectual exercise.