Portraying a perilous reality
Greg Webster looks at 10 years of The Dark Mountain Project, which aims to unite writers and artists to change the environmental debate
In the summer of 2009, two former journalists and environmental activists, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, launched their Uncivilisation manifesto at a small gathering on the banks of the River Thames in Oxford. This heralded the arrival of The Dark Mountain Project, which within three years the New York Times would describe as “changing the environmental debate in Britain and the rest of Europe”.
The manifesto issued a call to writers, artists, and creators to abandon the prevailing myths of our civilisation, of perpetual growth, human primacy, and separation from nature, and create new stories that reflect the truth of the perilous reality those myths have forced us to collaborate in – the ongoing mass extinction, rampant climate change, the unravelling of the web of life that sustains us. We must reconnect with the earth, to write “with dirt under our fingernails”.
One aspect that resonated strongly was the project’s being prepared to say some uncomfortable, almost unthinkable truths about our civilisation and the movements notionally dedicated to limiting its worst excesses; even how environmentalists had unwittingly become the new face of the development machine in the unquestioned drive to maintain business as usual. As Paul Kingsnorth described it at the first of several Uncivilisation festivals that the project curated: “The purpose of environmentalism is no longer about anything as naïve as saving the actual environment, it is now about threats to our way of life.”
The manifesto was followed by a website and an ongoing series of hardback journals of “uncivilised writing”, which offer a space from which to stare into the abyss, accept that we have far exceeded the bounds of planetary stability our whole civilisation has evolved within, and somewhere to start to map out what our path from here might look like.
The project was not, perhaps understandably, universally welcomed by the environmental community. Some saw it as defeatist, nihilistic even. But what many found – me included – were kindred spirits, who all looked at the statistics and the never ending flow of depressing news reports and thought: “Am I the only one who can see this madness for what it is?”
Judging by reaction to recent IEMA events such as the Psychology of Environmentalism: How to be an Environmentalist during Environmental Breakdown webinar earlier this year, one suspects there are many others looking for shelter from which to gaze out at the gathering storm.
As the project moves into its second decade, the twice-yearly journals continue to thrive, guided by an editorial team that coalesced from the early Uncivilisation festivals – and new initiatives on the website, such as Find the Others, help new local groups come together and continue the conversation.
Much has changed since that original manifesto launch. Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikes have dragged uncomfortable truths into the glare of the mainstream. But Dark Mountain continues to provide an essential space to reflect, to share stories, and to perhaps rediscover some aspects of ourselves that we lost in the mad rush for “progress”.
Dark Mountain’s tenth anniversary book Refuge: Ten Years on The Mountain is available now from: dark-mountain.net
Greg Webster, PIEMA, is an Oxford based writer, consultant, and Dark Mountaineer