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Q & A: Paul Kingsnorth, green activism is 'simply a faction of consumer society'
21st September, 2011
Writer, journalist and environmental activist: Paul Kingsnorth has been them all. Now, however, he has rejected activism in favour of a dystopian strain of thought epitomised by his Dark Mountain project. Mark Newton caught up with him to discover why
Whether you call it doom-mongering or good old-fashioned common sense, there’s no doubt that Dark Mountain – the environmental movement founded by former Ecologist deputy editor Paul Kingsnorth and social activist Dougald Hine – has proven to be one of the most influential strands of green thought to emerge within the last five years. Eschewing activism, rejecting mainstream eco-consciousness and using creative writing as a medium; Dark Mountain has enthralled and infuriated in equal measure. ‘We are fuelled by a belief that our mainstream creative culture, whether it be represented by literature, theatre, art or music, is utterly failing to engage with the magnitude of where we are as a planet and as a civilisation,’ explains Kingsnorth. ‘We demand political honesty and cultural engagement with the darkness which that reveals. We are trying to curate an artistic response to an age of ecocide based on a radical honesty – a critique of the very notion of civilisation and the religion of human progress.’ So can Dark Mountain’s unique brand of artistic, counter-cultural environmentalism win over the critics? Mark Newton spoke to Paul Kingsnorth to find out.
Mark Newton: For those readers who are not aware of the Dark Mountain project, how would you say its aims differ from other environmental philosophies?
Paul Kingsnorth: ‘The Dark Mountain Project is a cultural initiative – a creative project. We began life as a writers’ movement but have widened our scope because so many non-writers became involved. We exist to challenge the stories of civilisation, to question progress and human exceptionalism and the direction of our machine culture. We aim to create new stories more appropriate for an age of decline and contraction and rediscovery. One misunderstanding about Dark Mountain is that we’re a ‘political movement’ which uses the arts to get its message across. We’re not. We’re an open space in which people can gather when they stop pretending that everything will be all right – that the world can be ‘saved’, that climate change can be stopped, that governments will start being nice if we shout at them loudly enough, that the world will change for the better through the sheer force of rational argument, that all the trends which are currently converging towards collapse will be magicked away if we work hard enough. Once you feel ready to step into that space, we ask people to look honestly at the way the world is, and where it is going, and to respond to that culturally and creatively.’
MN: It’s not difficult for some readers to make the conclusion that the Dark Mountain project, in its acceptance of the inevitable, equates to simply giving up on environmental campaigning. What would you say to those people who still feel the need to prevent ecological dilemmas in the present?
PK: ‘Well, surely “acceptance of the inevitable” is just common sense? How would you rather deal with the inevitable – by pretending it isn’t inevitable? Shall we campaign against death or the rising of the sun in the west? It’s true that I’ve given up on a lot of environmental campaigning, and so have many people who are involved in Dark Mountain, and this persistent refusal to be honest about the limits of our abilities is one of the reasons that so many people are now walking away from the green movement. But that’s not the same thing as losing the passion and the love of nature that inspired involvement in the first place, and neither is it the same thing as ‘doing nothing.’ It’s just refusing to attempt to do the impossible. It’s a newfound realism about where we are and what is now possible. Giving up on failing methods is not the same as giving up on life. In fact, what’s quite striking to me about Dark Mountain is that almost everyone who is involved is still an “activist” in some sense. They still work to protect nature from destruction and to improve what can be improved, at local and sometimes national levels. But many, including me, have given up on the mainstream green narrative. In my view, mainstream green activism is now overly technocratic, wilfully unrealistic in its aims, divorced from the everyday reality of most people’s lives and, increasingly, simply a faction of the consumer growth society it was supposed to reject. But Dark Mountain is not about ‘giving up’ or wallowing in doom or anything like that. Some people think it is, but they’re the ones who haven’t been paying attention. Dark Mountain is a process. First you give up on the unrealistic ambitions of both the mainstream growth narrative and the mainstream green narrative – creating a “sustainable” consumer democracy for nine billion people, stopping climate change, making capitalism nice and all the rest of the utopian stuff. You give up on that and then you can move on. You embrace what we might call radical honesty, and you look at what is possible and what’s not, and you see your true place in the world and in history. Then you can start to think much more clearly about who you are and where the world is and what you can still do that will really make a difference; what’s real and what’s not. We call this the “hope beyond hope.” First you get real. Then you give up. Then you are re-inspired.’
MN: It’s been a couple of years now since the Dark Mountain project started – how have things developed over that period?
PK: ‘It’s been fascinating. We started with a website and a self-published manifesto, and we’ve since produced two hardback anthologies of writing, staged two festivals and sold thousands of books and manifestoes. We have an active global network of over 1500 people, and so far 12 local groups have sprung up in over half a dozen nations. It’s been exciting and also slightly intimidating to watch it spread. The reason I think it has taken off is that we put into words what a lot of people were thinking, and we created a space for them to gather where they didn’t have to pretend anymore.’
MN: Do you think there has been a sea-change in public response and thought given the new age of limited economic growth, and is this change something Dark Mountain has discussed?
PK: ‘When we wrote the manifesto, some people revelled in calling us names and trying to dismiss us. We got called “doomers” and “crazy collapsitarians” and “nihilists” and all sorts of other nonsense because we had openly talked about the end of growth, about the collapse of our ways of living, about hitting ecological and economic buffers – and, perhaps most of all, about our inability to ‘solve’ some of these problems withy politics or science. I’ve noticed that now, more than two years on, we don’t get called those names any more. Everything seems much more serious today. We can all see the limits being hit on all sides, and we can see also that none of the old answers are working. This is where Dark Mountain comes in – we’re a space to explore what happens when your certainties collapse.’
MN: Your latest anthology was enormously broad in scope – bringing in the creative arts as well as economic thinking. What was behind using such unconventional methods?
PK: ‘I don’t think it was anything especially unconventional: it was just an anthology of writing, some of it fiction, some non-fiction, some poetry, exploring the limits of civilisation from all angles. It was an attempt to bring together what we called for in our manifesto: this “uncivilised writing” that challenges the status quo. We’re trying to curate a new literary movement here – calling out to writers who want to tackle these subjects that this is the place to do it. I’m inspired by the literary and artistic manifestoes of the early twentieth century – another time of upheaval. We’re trying to spark something new.’
MN: If I could offer a criticism of the anthology, it would be that, while good at offering a critique of the current political and economic climate, it didn’t define the next steps. Is this something those within the movement are worried about?
PK: ‘Again, as a creative movement it’s not our job to come up with plans. Do novels have to offer plans? Do musicians have to serve up solutions? We’re not focused on giving people answers on a plate, and we never set out to offer up any political or technological “solutions” to our dilemmas. The minute you feel obliged to do that, you prevent yourself being able to think honestly and talk honestly and write honestly about the world. What if there are no solutions? What then? The idea that we can solve every problem that exists is a progressive idea; it’s part of the civilisational narrative we are questioning. Our aim is not to save the world: it’s to create a cultural insurrection which will help us, perhaps, in some small way, to see the world differently.’
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