I don’t recall where I got the idea to read this short book (or booklet) as part of my project. I think Phil Smith mentioned it somewhere in passing, but my notes are not forthcoming on the question. I’d heard of the Dark Mountain Project before but knew little about it. And I’m terrified by what climate chaos is going to mean for everything living on this planet. I just looked at Facebook and there was a Guardian article in my feed telling me that the ice in Antarctica is melting even faster than the ice in the Arctic, where it’s 90 degrees and the permafrost is turning to mush (releasing more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it does). And meanwhile Canadians are squabbling over a tiny carbon tax. We are in big, big trouble.
Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto begins with an introduction to the 2014 edition written by one of its authors, Dougald Hine. (The other author is Paul Kingsnorth.) Hine notes that when the manifesto first appeared in 2009, it received a two-page lead review in the New Statesman, and started a cultural movement that the New York Times suggested was changing the European environmental debate (vii)—quite a response to what is essentially a pamphlet. “We get emails most days from readers who have found something here that resonates with their own experience,” Hine continues. “They write about hope, recognition, a sense of feeling less alone” (vii). But there are also attacks: “We have been called all sorts of things: Romantic dreamers, crazy collapsitarians, defeatists, utopians and nihilists” (vii-viii). “Putting all these different reactions alongside each other, trying to make out the pattern that they form,” Hine writes,
what strikes me is how little it resembles a taking of sides over a recognisable argument. Something else is going on: something that reaches into murkier corners of ourselves than are generally given space on the shores of public debate. The lines of thinking that run through this manifesto are also the contours of a dark shape, an inkblot shape of our puzzlements, doubts and fears—so that, even more than is always the case with the slippery substance of language, every reading is also a veiled reflection of the reader. There are monsters here, if you look for them; there are dead ends, but there are also slender threads of possibility waiting for someone to pick them up. (viii)
Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto was written in 2008, just as the financial crisis began (viii-ix). At that time, Hine contends, “we found ourselves in an age where crisis has become the new normal. An age of widening extremes and darkening horizons, when outbreaks of hope spark sporadically like broken power lines across networks and onto the streets, but the future no longer holds the promise it used to” (ix). Hine and Kingsnorth tried to make sense of their own experience, and in doing so, Hine writes,
it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared and that has become more widespread in the years since. A feeling that there is no way through the mess in which we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unraveling that is underway, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down. (ix-x)
At the time, the co-authors were disillusioned with the state of environmentalism: “It seemed that sustainability had come to mean sustain the western way of living at all costs, regardless of whether this was possible or desirable” (x). They were also disillusioned “with the state of literature and the cultural landscape,” feeling that the books celebrated in the Sunday newspapers “were going to look irrelevant or offensive in a generation’s time, given what we already knew about where things were headed” (x). Something different was needed, they decided—and that is what this manifesto calls for.
Uncivilisation does not offer suggestions about what to do—although the succeeding Dark Mountain books provide one possible answer (xiii). Instead, Hine writes,
at the heart of this manifesto is a hunch that sometimes it is right to walk away, to withdraw, to give up on hopes that no longer ring true, even though you have no answer to the accusing questions that will follow. Sometimes retreat is the only action left that makes sense. To give up on things you have held dear—beliefs, identities, habits—is an end, but it can also be a beginning, though it makes you no promises in advance. Only the chance that, having let go, as your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, you may catch sight of something that your bright certainties had hidden from you” (xiv)
This manifesto was their first attempt at saying something, at working out where our society is going, and they are still discovering its “fuller significance” (xiv).
The manifesto proper begins with Robinson Jeffers’s 1935 poem “Rearmament,” which ends with the lines,
The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain (qtd. 1)
Its first chapter, “Walking on Lava,” begins with these words: “Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die” (3). Ordinary life is fragile, and when its pattern is broken, “by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric,” many of the activities in which we are habitually engaged “become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives” (3). War correspondents and relief workers report on the speed with which that fabric can unravel (4). Civilization is fragile—and that realization is nothing new (4). Take, for instance, Bertrand Russell’s comment about Joseph Conrad’s writing. Russell suggested that Conrad thought of civilization as “a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths” (qtd 4), a quotation that lends the chapter its title. For Kingsnorth and Hine, human civilizations are fragile, as any historian can confirm; they are “built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; above all, perhaps, belief in its future” (5). Once those beliefs begin to crumble, “the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable”—and all civilizations do fall, sooner or later (5). “What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning,” the co-authors continue (5). They believe that it’s our civilization’s turn “to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. “ (5).
Our story, they write, is one of a people who believed that their actions did not have consequences, of how that people “will cope with the crumbling of their own myth” (5-6). Without the myth of progress, our efforts cannot be sustained; our civilization is the optimistic Enlightenment grafted onto Western Christianity, resulting in a belief in an earthly paradise, where each generation expects to live better than the one before: “History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up” (7). The 20th century, though, “too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on earth,” and even prosperous Western societies have failed to deliver: “Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before” (7). “Most significantly of all, there is an underlying darkness at the root of everything we have built”—beyond the edges of our civilization, there is something it was never able to understand (8).
The second chapter, “The Severed Hand” (the title is taken from another Robinson Jeffers’s poem), begins with a discussion of the myth of progress. That myth, they write, “ is founded on the myth of nature”—a myth that claims that greatness comes without costs (10); that we have been able to attack nature and win (10). “Outside the citadels of self-congratulation, lone voices have cried out against this infantile version of the human story for centuries, but it is only in the last few decades that its inaccuracy has become laughably apparent”: we are now surrounded with evidence that our attempts to separate ourselves from nature are “proof not of our genius but our hubris” (10). “We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence”—and the result is a crisis of extinction, of overexploitation of resources (10). “Even though the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us,” they write (11). And, looming over everything else: “runaway climate change,” which “threatens to render all human projects irrelevant” while demonstrating that we don’t understand the world in which we live, even while we are utterly dependent upon it (11). “Climate change,” they write, “brings home at last our ultimate powerlessness” (11).
We hear about technological solutions, about our ability to manage the situation, about our need to become “more ‘sustainable’”—but built into those suggestions is the notion that that everything will be fine and that growth and progress will continue (11-12). “We do not believe that everything will be fine,” Kingsnorth and Hine write. “We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be”; that’s because “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” (12). “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,” they continue (12). We sometimes imagined there would be a Plan B, that we might live under bubbles on the moon, but there is no Plan B, and the only bubble is our civilization (12).
That civilization is based on geological foundations—coal, oil, and gas (13). Above that are industrial abbatoirs, burning forests, and wasted soil (13). Finally, on the top layer, we stand, “unaware, or uninterested, in what goes on beneath us; demanding that the authorities keep us in the manner to which we have been accustomed; occasionally feeling twinges of guilt that lead us to buy organic chickens or locally produced lettuces; yet for the most part glutted, but not sated, on the fruits of the horrors on which our lifestyles depend” (13). “We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age—the age of ecocide,” they write (13). “Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become—and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch” (15). Now, they continue, “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” (15). Their questions are these:
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. (15)
The shape that looking down might take is the subject of the third chapter, “Uncivilisation” (16). “If we are indeed teetering on the edge of a massive change in how we live, in how human society itself is constructed, and in how we relate to the rest of the world,” Kingsnorth and Hine write, “then we were led to this point by the stories we have told ourselves—above all, by the story of civilisation” (16). That is the story of our mastery over nature and our glorious future, a story about “human centrality” (16). “What makes this story so dangerous is that, for the most part, we have forgotten that it is a story,” they continue (17). Stories have always been important as a way of approaching reality, but, “as the myth of civilisation deepened its grip on our thinking, borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown,” and the old tales, the ones “by which generations had made sense of life’s subtleties and strangenesses,” were abandoned (17). “Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories” (17); most of them are entertainment, “a distraction from daily life” (18), which cannot “make up the equipment by which we navigate reality” (18). “On the other hand,” they continue, “there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders,” which are presented as “direct accounts of how the world is,” and not as stories at all (18).
“So we find ourselves, our ways of telling unbalanced, trapped inside a runaway narrative, headed for the worst kind of encounter with reality,” Kingsnorth and Hine argue. “In such a moment, writers, artists, poets and storytellers of all kinds have a critical role to play” (18). Now it’s time for those storytellers and artists to “bust” the last taboo: “the myth of civilization” (19). “We believe that artists . . . have a responsibility to begin the process of decoupling”—the decoupling, that is, of our position on the earth and the ecocide we are creating. “We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken—and that only artists can do it” (19). The ongoing ecocide demands a response, and 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” (19). “We believe that art must look over the edge, face the world that is coming with a steady eye, and rise to the challenge of ecocide with a challenge of its own: an artistic response to the crumbling of the empires of the mind,” they write (20). They call this response “Uncivilised art,” and they are particularly interested in what they call “Uncivilised writing”: “writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence,” who “have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project,” which has been “to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when the exploit their fellow creatures” (20). “Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective,” they continue, “but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves” (20-21). “It sets out to paint a picture of Homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own . . . might recognise as something approaching a truth,” and it aims “to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards” (21). “It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation—and us—into perspective,” they write (21).
Uncivilized writing, though, is not environmental writing, or nature writing; it is “more rooted than any of these” (21). “Above all, it is determined to shift our worldview, not to feed into it,” they argue. “It is writing for outsiders. If you want to be loved, it might be best not to get involved, for the world, at least for a time, will resolutely refuse to listen” (22). They offer poet Robinson Jeffers as an example, an exemplar (22). In his work, they write, we see “[t]he shifting of emphasis from man to notman: this is the aim of Uncivilised writing” (23).This is the literary challenge of our age, and few have taken it up (23), although there are those whose writing approaches the shores of the Uncivilized, such as Wendell Berry or Cormac McCarthy or W.S. Merwin (24). Uncivilized writing, they continue, is
[h]uman, inhuman, stoic and entirely natural. Humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and the easy answer. Walking the boundaries and reopening old conversations. Apart but engaged, its practitioners always willing to get their hands dirty . . . that keyboards should be tapped by those with soil under their fingernails and wilderness in their heads. (25)
Kingsnorth and Hine are resolute on the need for this kind of writing and of art:
We tried ruling the world; we tried acting as God’s steward; then we tried ushering in the human revolution, the age of reason and isolation. We failed in all of it, and our failure destroyed more than we were even aware of. The time for civilisation is past. Uncivilisation, which knows its flaws because it has participated in them; which sees unflinchingly and bites down hard as it records—this is the project we must embark on now. This is the challenge for writing—for art—to meet. This is what we are here for. (25)
In the fourth chapter, “To the Foothills!” they suggest that a movement needs a starting point, and while they hope their book has “created a spark,” they need others to get involved (26). “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side,” they proclaim. “ We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths” (26-27). They name their project after that line from Jeffers’s poem that begins the booklet: the Dark Mountain Project (27). They intend to collect Uncivilized writing (27), although they don’t know where that will lead (28). And they cannot do anything by themselves: “Uncivilisation, like civilisation, is not something that can be created alone. Climbing the Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise. We need bearers, sherpas, guides, fellow adventurers. We need to rope ourselves together for safety” (28). They end with a call for others to participate: “Come. Join us. We leave at dawn” (28).
That’s the end of the manifesto, but not of the booklet. There is an appendix which outlines “The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation”; these principles are a summary of what we’ve already read. First, “[w]e live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling” and our way of living “is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it” (29). Second, they reject the faith in “solutions” (technological or political) to “problems” (29). Third, they believe the root of the crises we face “lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves,” and so they intend to challenge those stories and the myths they express (29). Fourth, they assert that storytelling is not entertainment, that it is the way “we weave reality” (29). Fifth, “Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble” and “reengage with the non-human world’ (30). Sixth, “We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time” (30). Seventh, “We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental” (30). And, finally, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find in the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us” (30). This edition also includes a chronology of Dark Mountain’s activities after the manifesto was published.
In an odd way, Kingsnorth’s and Hine’s belief that something will come after our civilization is rather optimistic; it’s not a belief that, even on a lovely, sunny holiday afternoon, I find it easy to entertain. I wonder if the kind of writing they call “Uncivilised” might not be represented by the essays by Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst that I wrote about here some months ago. Perhaps. I saw Jan Zwicky and Randy Lundy read their poetry last week, and the conversation afterwards quickly turned to ecological grief—and let me tell you, the participants in that panel were grieving. It was moving. I wasn’t expecting such emotion to be expressed. But I don’t know. Sometimes I feel that I don’t know anything any more—except that climate change is going to bring a lot of species to and end, and ours will likely be among them–and that somehow, that needs to be part of my project. I wish I knew how.
Bringhurst, Robert, and Jan Zwicky. Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. U of Regina P, 2018.
Kingsnorth, Paul and Dougald Hine. Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Dark Mountain Project, 2019.