Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



September 6, 2010

Climbing a Dark Mountain, and Thoughts on a New Culture

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 14:42

towards-a-sustainable-culture

I‘ve recently finished reading Dark Mountain issue 1, the first publication of the global artists’ collective of the same name, of which I am a member. It’s an astonishing collection (work of 37 different authors) of appreciation and reflection on our civilization’s beginning collapse, and I recommend it without hesitation to anyone who has reached the point of understanding that our unsustainable civilization culture can’t be saved, and is trying to cope with that terrible knowledge. I am working on a submission (a work of fiction, I think) for issue 2.

And if you haven’t yet read the Dark Mountain Manifesto, which started the whole project, please, please do so.

The book begins with a wonderful poem by Rob Lewis that explains the purpose of the whole project: To encourage and enable artists to add their perspective and voice to the scientists and activists and transitioners and new-culture pioneers proclaiming our civilization mad, unsustainable and suicidal, and looking for a better way. “Meanwhile, poor scientist holds extinction | in a palm full of numbers | with nothing but data to howl with.” The artist’s role, indeed responsibility, we assert, is not only to speak out, but to do no work that does not either (a) hold a mirror to our crumbling civilization and show it as it really is (not as the corporatists, technophiles and media portray it), or (b) help us imagine a better culture, a better way to live, now or after civilization’s fall. This work is what founders and editors Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine call “finding the new stories.”

John Michael Greer’s submission to the book is a remarkable review of Robinson Jeffers’ prescient poetry and a re-cap of the environmental ‘movements’ three stages: from recreational through sentimental to apocalyptic environmentalism, all of which have fallen victim to our propensity for anthropocentrism and seeing ourselves as apart from “the environment.” Whereas climate change is a narrative on human power, he explains, peak oil is a narrative on human limitation, and hence is embarrassing to us and gets much less attention in the media, even though it will, along with economic collapse due to “peak debt”, almost certainly stagger our civilization culture well before climate change delivers the final blows.

Louis Jenkins’ lovely poem Wrong Turn begins “You missed your turn two miles back because you weren’t paying attention, daydreaming, so now you have decided to turn here, on the wrong road”, and ends “You are going to have to follow this road to whatever nowhere it leads to.” A great example of the work of holding the mirror to our civilization culture that Dark Mountain is all about.

Paul Kingsnorth’s essay confesses “I don’t have any answers, if by answers we mean political systems, better machines, means of engineering some grand shift in consciousness… What am I to do with feelings like this? Useless feelings in a world in which everything must be made useful… Feelings like this provide no “solutions”… But this is fine; the dismissal, the platitudes, the brusque moving-on of the grown-ups. It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see… I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving.” The job of the artist is not debate, but truth and imagination. There are others better suited to the debating. If there is still any purpose to debating at all.

The book includes an illuminating discussion that Anthony McCann had with Derrick Jensen, in which Jensen explains the need for a culture of resistance that recognizes that we cannot battle civilization culture on its terms (i.e. through voting, choices of consumption etc.) but rather on our own — what do we really want and how do we get there, who is the enemy, what do we have to do, and what’s stopping us?

Ran Prieur chimes in with a review of the history of previous civilizations, a refutation of the “noble savage” myth, and this insightful statement: “I think the root of civilization, and a major source of human ‘evil’, is simply that we became clever enough to extend our power beyond our empathy.” Our brains evolved, fortunately, to give us the ingenuity to adapt to and survive the ice ages, but such brains are also capable of inventing technologies, and hence weapons, prisons, and empires (all hallmarks of civilizations). This is the point John Gray makes in Straw Dogs. We cannot be other than who we are. Evolution is slow, and the sixth great extinction, which we have unwittingly unleashed, is proceeding at lightning speed.

There is much more, including a beautifully-crafted essay on the history of colonialism by Jay Griffiths, but this will give you an idea of what the book is about.

The non-fictional works in the book succeed, I think (and perhaps necessarily so at this early stage) more than most of the poetry, graphic art, and fictional works. I am impatient for issue 2 of Dark Mountain, which I hope will be much braver, more creative and edgier, without losing the coherence of the essential messages: Pay attention. This is how the world really is, right now. Learn. Prepare yourself and help prepare those you love, especially the young. Become resilient. Be generous. Imagine a better way to live, and experiment now with such imaginings, so that when civilization falls the survivors will have some useful models to go on with.

.     .     .     .     .

Last month I spent nine days at a “new culture” event, which I will tell you much more about in an upcoming post. The event was focused on personal growth and healing in community, self-sufficiently. It got me thinking about how different ‘movements’ are developing different models to cope with the beginnings of civilization’s collapse, but doing so in a completely uncoordinated and largely disconnected manner. I sketched out the diagram I’ve shown above of four such movements and the models they are pursuing:

  • The Transition Movement, which is focused on helping us cope better physically in the world, as the triple crises of economic, energy and ecological collapse begin. The essence of this movement is economic generosity — sharing, cooperating, not competing.
  • The New Culture Movement, which is focused on helping us cope better socially in the world, as we face endless and endemic violence, war, abuse, cruelty and suffering. The essence of this movement is emotional generosity — caring, empathizing, healing.
  • Modern Activism, which is focused on helping us cope better politically in the world, as we face corporatist atrocities, inequity, lies, theft, corruption, media propaganda and the desolation of our natural world. The essence of this movement is courage — relentless, untiring battles with forces of enormous power and wealth, holding actions.
  • The Dark Mountain Movement, which is focused on helping us cope better intellectually in the world, as we face an onslaught of useless and meaningless information, distortion and distraction. The essence of this movement is aesthetic and creative generosity — a willingness to hold a mirror to the world to show it as it really is, complex and nuanced and full of intractable challenges, which requires an enormous amount of attention and investigation and deep thought, and the imagination to conceive of better ways to live as our world slips deeper into monoculture, anomie, rigidity and mindless homogeneity.

I’ve drawn these four movements/models as overlapping because, obviously, they are connected: The Gift Economy and Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, for example, are rooted in the New Culture Movement but focus as well on what we can do as activists, and aspects of both Gift Economy and Work That Reconnects are taught as part of Transition Movement training programs. All four movements are also essentially community-based, bottom-up, focused on the local, the land and people and ecosystems of the specific place we love.

What is disconcerting is that there is relatively little awareness among those in the four movements of what the others are doing, and the possible synergies between the models. At the recent New Culture event I attended, for example, almost no one had even heard of the Transition Movement, and none had heard of Dark Mountain. Although most of us will be better suited to work in one or two of these Movements than the others, I believe it’s essential to build better bridges and connections between them, so that we can help and learn from each other.

.     .     .     .     .

Since I’ve read and written about Straw Dogs, and acknowledged that I believe very strongly that our civilization is in its final century, I often get asked why I still bother to write about these movements and models, or about anything at all for that matter. How, people ask me, can I live, and go on, knowing and believing that a horrific collapse is imminent (at least within my grandchildren’s lifetimes) and inevitable?

I guess my answer is that I can’t do anything else but go on. It is in my nature as a human being to do what I must, to focus on the needs (mine and of those I love) of the moment, to do what I do well, what I care about, and what I believe needs to be done. This is what all creatures, I think, do, even when they know, in their hearts, and deep in the calcium of their bones, that it will all, sooner or later, be undone. Life is joyful, and I feel a deep responsibility to future generations and to all-life-on-Earth to do what I can to learn and tell the truth, to mitigate the growing desolation of the Earth that, by my actions and inaction, I am complicit in, and to imagine and convey, as best as I can, how we might have done better, and how we might do better in the future, if we are blessed with the chance.

I think that’s best done cooperatively, collaboratively. That’s why I’m part of the Dark Mountain collective and the Transition Movement. That’s who I am, I guess, now; and what I do.

13 Comments

  1. The movements you’ve listed fit nicely into Ken Wilber’s four quadrants:
    Dark Mountain (internal/aesthetic) would be Upper Left Quadrant (I)
    Transition Movement (external/physical) would be Upper Right Quadrant (It)
    “New Culture” (internal/social) would be Lower Left Quadrant (We)
    Radical Activism (external/political)would be Lower Right Quadrant (Its)
    – I read in a previous post that you don’t really like the jargon associated with consciousness-raising movements, and personally I’m still not sure how I feel about Wilber’s prescriptive philosophy, but I think his descriptive mapping of the ‘Kosmos’ is unmatched. Just as you say, an integral approach to ecological collapse would involve a teaming of the movements you list here. We need internal change, we need external change, we need personal change, and we need collective change. Each movement is essential, and I’m with you, they need to communicate and understand their place in the entire movement.

    Comment by Jeff Patton — September 6, 2010 @ 16:18

  2. Dave,

    Once again, another amazing piece of work!

    I want to go over this again and may post about your essay on my blog.

    You’ve left me with a series of pivotal phrases and a wonderful overview.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Antonio Dias — September 6, 2010 @ 17:51

  3. Great summary and consolidation of positive movements towards a RESILIENT CULTURE Dave. I prefer calling it “Resilient” instead of “sustainable”, I think we missed that chance.
    Anyways, that is only a word. In my mind, the key, common threat across all these “movements” are the concepts of empathy, compassion, truth, love, respect, caring and sharing for each other, reverence for life, tolerance, working together, interdependence and interconnection.
    The key question is: are we (humanity) going to be able to make this collective aweakening on time?
    thanks,

    Comment by norberto rodriguez — September 7, 2010 @ 07:37

  4. Hi Dave,

    I really appreciate what you have done and said in this post. I resonate with your characterization of the four movements and models, and I too find it strange and unfortunate that a lot of people in these movements seem unaware or uninformed about the others, and what the others add to the common effort to help humanity (and the natural world) make it through this century of declines. I guess that is the reason I spent three years trying to synthesize a worldview and vision for the future based on an eco-psycho-spiritual perspective. I thought you and your readers might appreciate knowing about my brand new website and blog that includes all of the above: http://www.dharmagaians.org/index.html It is meant to be a resource for navigating through the disintegration that is now apparent in so many realms of experience.

    Best wishes,

    Suzanne Duarte

    Comment by Suzanne Duarte — September 7, 2010 @ 07:42

  5. Siloes are everywhere. Many in the peace movement don’t think much about poverty & development & vice versa; and I’m surprised how reluctant to talk about, or ignorant of ecology/climate/peak oil.

    Thanks for speaking out on this.

    I’d never seen it formulated this way. Provocative and useful.

    Comment by Jim — September 7, 2010 @ 12:03

  6. Thanks, Dave. I really appreciate the way that you’re trying to map the relationships between Dark Mountain and other emerging approaches to our situation. And thank you for your kind words about the book.

    Here in the UK, there’s been quite a bit of fruitful dialogue with people involved in Transition and the permaculture movement. There have also been conversations with people with an activist background, looking for what activism does next – it’s probably fair to say that this has been less helpful, partly because Dark Mountain was never intended as a way to answer that question.

    I’m still getting the measure of the complexity of how Dark Mountain relates to politics. It doesn’t offer a political line in any straightforward sense and is reluctant to be drawn in that direction. At the same time, I have a deep feeling that the conversations we’re having are a precondition to the emergence of any kind of politics that will have something left to say in the kind of situations we’re very likely heading towards. Perhaps it’s only by a withdrawal from today’s political questions that we can do the thinking which will leave us with a politics for the day after tomorrow?

    I don’t know. I’m still working things out – and have become increasingly aware that the unresolved ambiguities of Dark Mountain, the resistance to boiling things down to slogans and soundbites, are a strength – in that they are an invitation to slow down, to stay puzzled rather than to simplify too quickly. (This may also suggest the value of a degree of distance between our conversations and the other movements you name – at least, a caution about too neat a synthesis?)

    Anyway, your engagement is greatly appreciated. There are things you can see which we can’t – and this kind of mapping of how what we’re doing may relate to other things going on is certainly one of them.

    Comment by Dougald — September 7, 2010 @ 13:54

  7. Thanks everyone. I think we’re going to do some really interesting things together over the next few years.

    Dougald, I’m really honoured to be part of Dark Mountain and I am working hard to create something worthy of Issue 2. I think we each have our calling, and sometimes it’s hard, when you see all the work that must be done, to limit yourself and focus attention on the work that’s in your sweet spot — what you do well that you love doing and that’s needed in the world. Since I wrote my book Finding the Sweet Spot I keep coming back to this model as a means of answering the question: What am I here to do — What is my gift to the world? (I think it’s a more generous and important question than What is the purpose of life?) It’s always a tough question for artists to answer because there is no reliable ‘market test’ of the appreciation of what we do (at least not in our lifetimes). I write because I can’t not — there is always stuff inside me that is seeking expression through me, and I must express it.

    The idea of an “artist collective” is a bit like the idea of a “herd of cats”. Yet throughout history collaborations of artists (the various Schools, Eliot/Pound, Lennon/McCartney etc.) have supported each other in ways that have produced great works that would probably never have resulted from purely individual effort. I see Dark Mountain as the newest of these, and it comes at a very important time in our history. As long as we keep remembering that it’s all about the art and resist the temptation to get drawn too much into the politics, I think we’re destined to play a vital, provocative, worldview-changing role in the last chapter of our civilization. We may even be the ones ‘called’ to write its epitaph.

    Comment by Dave Pollard — September 7, 2010 @ 16:59

  8. [...] The book includes an illuminating discussion that Anthony McCann had with Derrick Jensen, in which Jensen explains the need for a culture of resistance that recognizes that we cannot battle civilization culture on its terms (i.e. through voting, choices of consumption etc.) but rather on our own — what do we really want and how do we get there, who is the enemy, what do we have to do, and what’s stopping us?…Continue reading this article [...]

    Pingback by Dave Pollard: Climbing a Dark Mountain, and Thoughts on a New Culture : Chelsea Green — September 8, 2010 @ 06:01

  9. In Transition Training there was a “hearts and minds” segment that was heavily influenced by the work of Joanna Macy. So I don’t think the boundaries presented are that cut and dried. Of course, this was the training, not how Transition is applied in the real world. I wouldn’t know since I can’t seem to get Transition going in my town.

    Comment by Ed Straker — September 8, 2010 @ 08:16

  10. Just downloaded the dark mountain manifesto, and have to admit thinking negatively about it before even reading, since it required such a vast consumption of paper with its three inch margins, and issued only on a pdf format where I could not configure it to print on 4-5 pages. Content follows form….but I’ll try to be open minded and find it something other than pretentious.

    Comment by jerry silberman — September 8, 2010 @ 10:15

  11. Jerry -

    Fair comment about the three inch margins. The manifesto was originally published as a smaller format booklet and the PDF file came straight from our designer. But when I get the chance I’ll upload a .doc file so people can adjust the format for printing.

    Thanks for pointing this out. I hope you’ll look past what, in this case, was an accident of form and read with an open mind.

    Comment by Dougald — September 9, 2010 @ 08:50

  12. Dave and Dougald,

    In Dave’s response to Dougald, I really resonated with these bits:

    “What am I here to do — What is my gift to the world? (I think it’s a more generous and important question than What is the purpose of life?) It’s always a tough question for artists to answer because there is no reliable ‘market test’ of the appreciation of what we do (at least not in our lifetimes). I write because I can’t not — there is always stuff inside me that is seeking expression through me, and I must express it.

    “The idea of an “artist collective” is a bit like the idea of a “herd of cats”. Yet throughout history collaborations of artists (the various Schools, Eliot/Pound, Lennon/McCartney etc.) have supported each other in ways that have produced great works that would probably never have resulted from purely individual effort….
    As long as we keep remembering that it’s all about the art and resist the temptation to get drawn too much into the politics, I think we’re destined to play a vital, provocative, worldview-changing role in the last chapter of our civilization.”

    I’m a former enviro-activist who has withdrawn from politics. This coming US election is the first I will not vote in – although I occasionally add my name to online efforts on behalf of biodiversity, habitat and species protection. I recognize that the political system is irreparable, but my heart will not allow me to give up on the nonhuman world.

    Maybe some of you saw this: Xenophobia all over the place? by Immanuel Wallerstein?

    His concluding paragraph pretty much sums it up for me, with an exception:
    “The willingness fully to embrace egalitarian values, including the right of all kinds of communities to observe their autonomy, in a national political structure that accommodates the mutual tolerance of multiple autonomies, is a politically difficult position both to define and to sustain. But it is probably the only one that offers any long-term hope for humanity’s survival.”

    This reminded me that healthy spirituality and culture arise in listening to and reciprocity with the land, the place, the ecosystem that a group of humans depends upon and is rooted in. Thus, in my personal vision of the future, national political structures as we know them will be a thing of the past. There may be “nations” of peoples, as there have been with indigenous nations (and other species can also be considered ‘nations’), but not these gigantic, centralized, hierarchical, patriarchal, political structures that we are accustomed to. So withdrawing from the toxic political games of these structures and putting one’s energies into envisioning what will replace them sustainably seems to be an appropriate form of resistance for me at this time.

    Also, thanks to Dougald for:
    “Perhaps it’s only by a withdrawal from today’s political questions that we can do the thinking which will leave us with a politics for the day after tomorrow?” And this:
    “the unresolved ambiguities of Dark Mountain, the resistance to boiling things down to slogans and soundbites, are a strength – in that they are an invitation to slow down, to stay puzzled rather than to simplify too quickly.”

    Yes, we need to create space to slow down to contemplate more deeply, and resist the current speed of commercialized culture to reduce everything to sound bites.

    Thanks also for your gracious response to Jerry and for planning to create a .doc file of the Manifesto. I would appreciate that.

    Suzanne
    http://www.dharmagaians.org/index.html

    Comment by Suzanne Duarte — September 10, 2010 @ 07:08

  13. Jerry & Suzanne -

    I’ve now added DOC and ODT versions of the manifesto to the site for those wanting to print off a copy:

    http://bit.ly/R4566

    Sorry this took rather longer than I’d hoped!

    Thanks again to all for a good discussion here.

    Dougald

    Comment by Dougald — October 19, 2010 @ 12:53

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