This is Why We’re Here

[This article is cross-posted from my blog at Dark Mountain. In my preamble to the other artists in the Dark Mountain network I wrote:

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a flurry of attention in the blogosphere given to the Dark Mountain project. This has been accompanied by some criticism of what we’re doing, of what happened at the Festival, and some serious misunderstanding, I think, of the entire focus and purpose of Dark Mountain.

So I thought it might be useful to go back to the Manifesto and to re-articulate why we’re here. I’ve done so in a new Dark Mountain blog post called This is Why We’re Here.

My thesis is that the work of Uncivilization has three roles, each of them vital but distinct: Activists, Healers, and Artists. I believe, as the Manifesto says, our role is the Artist’s role, and that when we get distracted from that we lose our focus and fail to do our best work.

I hope you find it a worthwhile contribution to Dark Mountain.]

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(cartoon by Hugh Macleod from

Like many of you, I was drawn to the Dark Mountain project by and Paul and Dougald’s amazing Manifesto. I have recently come to realize that our civilization is beginning a collapse that will be complete by the end of this century, and no amount of technology, innovation, political action or global consciousness-raising is going to save it. As John Gray put it so well in Straw Dogs:

Political action has come to be a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition. However radical, political programmes are expedients — modest devices for coping with recurring evils. Hegel writes that humanity will be content only when it lives in a world of its own making. In contrast, Straw Dogs argues for a shift from human solipsism [belief in our aloneness and our disconnection from everything else]. Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair. It does not need saving. Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making.

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

My blog How to Save the World has been labeled by some readers as “doomer porn”, because it accepts this collapse as inevitable. Most of the world is not ready to acknowledge this, but in the founders and followers of Dark Mountain I feel I have found kindred spirits, people who have the understanding and intuitive sense to appreciate that most of what we are told (in school, by politicians and business, and in the media) are lies, and that we have a responsibility as artists to accept and represent — to hold a mirror — to our civilization’s inevitable collapse in this century.

My concern is that, because what Dark Mountain represents is so threatening to the worldview and belief systems of so many, we run the risk of trying to defend and argue what we intuitively know, and that such debate is not only useless (like the debate over abortion or veganism, it almost never changes anyone’s mind) but a drain on our creative energies, a diversion from what we, as artists and dreamers, do best: representing and chronicling our civilization’s collapse and, with our imaginations and perceptions, not our rhetoric, provoking the majority out of their ignorance, denial and lethargy of how the world really works and how we might find better ways to live. Daniel Quinn warned us of this, in Beyond Civilization, when he wrote:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

So now we are debating, with brilliant debaters like George Monbiot no less, about whether civilization can and should be saved. We are caught up in the arguments about whether we should devote more time to activism, even if it won’t “save” civilization, because we have a responsibility as knowledgeable, privileged members of our society to do what most lack the information or resources to do.

Have we forgotten the message of the Manifesto so quickly? Are we so easily unsettled by the attacks of the ignorant, the technophiles and the hopeless idealists that we lose focus on the whole, vital purpose of Dark Mountain before we’ve even begun our essential work? Here’s what Paul and Dougald told us:

We believe that artists – which is to us the most welcoming of words, taking under its wing writers of all kinds, painters, musicians, sculptors, poets, designers, creators, makers of things, dreamers of dreams – have a responsibility to begin the process of decoupling. We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken – and that only artists can do it.

Ecocide demands a response. 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. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? Where are the poems that have adjusted their scope to the scale of this challenge? Where are the novels that probe beyond the country house or the city centre? What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?

If the answers to these questions have been scarce up to now, it is perhaps both because the depth of collective denial is so deep, and because the challenge is so very daunting. We are daunted by it, ourselves. But we believe it needs to be risen to. 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.

This, dear brave comrades, is why we’re here. Not to engage in debate, in rhetoric, in analysis, in conceptual thinking, but to be artists — to re-present the world as we see it, in all its terrible beauty, when everyone else is seeing only manufactured illusion and hearing only relentless propaganda, and to imagine and present possibilities through our creative stories and art that most of our fellow humans, stunted from childhood imaginatively and creatively by civilization’s brutal and homogenizing systems, can no longer conceive of. Our responsibility is not to respond to doubters, deniers and apologists, but to show our weary human comrades that the world is not as they’ve been told, and that the only life they know is not the only way to live.

I have enormous respect for activists, and the courage and perseverance they show, every day, in their valiant struggle against empire, to speak truth to power. And I have enormous respect, too, for the healers, those like Joanna Macy and the hard workers in the alternative culture who work relentlessly to heal the anguish, the disconnection, the grief and the suffering that so many of us are afflicted with in this terrible world.

But that is their work, not ours. Ours is the third way, and we are the third force in the uncivilization revolution. Our work is, as Paul and Dougald say, the artistic response. Our work is to show the world, in our art and stories, as it really is, and to imagine it as it might be. Our work is the creative work of poetry, song, film, and story. The activists have the Transition Movement and the Permaculture Movement, the healers have the Work that Reconnects and the Intentional Communities movement.

And we, dear colleagues, have Dark Mountain. Let’s not forget why we’re here. Our work is at least as important as that of the activists and the healers. We must not get distracted. We have waited our whole lives for this moment, this responsibility, this realization, this charge. Remember who you are. This is why we’re here.

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10 Responses to This is Why We’re Here

  1. Catherine says:

    Thank you Dave. This is a wonderful statement about why Dark Mountain matters, and why all the different contributions to living with the prospect of collapse – activism, healing, art – matter. Yes, let’s stop fighting resource wars over what each person ought to be doing, and respect each branch, each twig, each leaf; what each person does best.

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  3. Mike says:

    I’m afraid I’m one of the ‘technophiles’ of which you speak, although I’m just as pessimistic and can agree that the Dark Mountain project is worthwhile and important.

    I don’t believe a solution can be obtained from the government, or rather, that the only solution government will provide involves using the armed forces. Perhaps in one of his darker moods, Bruce Sterling seems so far alone in naming such a solution, which, while it will likely never be called that, would be, in fact, genocide.

    We in the privileged classes are ‘lucky’ in the sense that we’ll see such a solution applied to others long before it’s applied to ourselves. (It may serve to sharply focus our thinking).

    When I argue for a technological solution, in great part this is due to not seeing any political or sociological solution. Certainly, a vastly depopulated humanity will find its own sociopolitical solutions. While planning and storytelling of such can be fun and informative, I consider it much like drawing up plans and charters for intentional communities: fun to do, but totally different from the challenge in getting people together and actually forming a community.

    In short, a technological solution may be the only option we have open to us, that preserves most of humanity. Certainly, computer evolution is many more orders of magnitude faster than sociopolitical evolution. (Greg Egan’s novel _Dispora_ takes this to an extreme, with all ‘humanity’ living as simulations inside a basketball-sized chunk of computronium buried some kilometers underground).

    In any case, whether a technological succeeds or (more likely, in many peoples’ opinion) fails, it is the contribution *I* can make. I’d like to be part of the ‘save the world’ community, and contribute where and how I can, and not simply be summarily dismissed.

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  5. Constance says:

    Well, well, well… No longer slogging, huh? Still talking the talk but refusing to walk the walk (how much does it cost to heat that mini-mansion ot your’s?)… Another armchair leftist.

    “Oh, Canada”, indeed.

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  7. Indigo Ocean says:

    If art is to represent what is, it has to be able to reflect multiple layers of what is, multiple perspectives as well. Which isn’t to say that every piece of art has to tell the whole story, or even every artist’s body of work. Sometimes an artist represents a particular perspective in an enlightening way. But woe to him if he ever thinks that his viewpoint it the whole truth.

    In truth there is beauty and cruelty, hope and despair, disintegration and growth, and an endless arrays of cycles and polarities. We are both unbecoming and becoming. Just as this structure emerged, others are yet to emerge. If there is any point in art, it is to reveal the complexity of what is in ways that bypass the mind and initiate a deeper knowing of who we are, including the world that we are a part of. If art is to envision what is possible, as you say, why not envision a possibility of a joyful transition and engage in one’s own life in enjoying such a transition oneself even before it becomes a necessity of circumstances? Why would the artists not live together with the permaculture, deep ecology, and soul healing communities, working in harmony to add their unique skills and insights to create a joyful evolution?

  8. Tree Bressen says:

    I don’t see healing and art and activism as separate. They interweave. Not always, but not uncommonly, especially when done well.

    Where is the writing and art appropriate to the Dark Mountain moment, you ask?

    It’s in Drew Dellinger’s poem “hieroglyphic stairway”–astonishingly, read out to the U.S. Congress:

    It’s in the “altars of extinction” created at Samhain rituals by the Reclaiming collective:

    It’s in the artwork of Chris Jordan:

    And more.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    I’m sorry that some interpreted this post as suggesting that political action and technological innovation are valueless; I just see them as what Joanna Macy calls ‘holding actions’, keeping the situation from getting much worse, but not, ultimately, making it any better. It is essential that those who are called to these types of work persevere at them, and I respect enormously the people who do this largely thankless, grueling work.

    But it is also essential that we help the large majority of people wake up and realize that other people’s political and technological efforts will not be enough, and that every one of us has a personal responsibility for doing everything we can to help each other and our descendants to prepare for, struggle through, and create a new society after, the coming civilizational collapse.

    Likewise, I am not saying that the work of activists, innovators, model-builders, facilitators, healers and artists is disconnected from each other — each can draw on the others, and we can draw strength and courage from each other. What I am saying is that we each need to determine what we do best, and do that work, rather than the work we may perceive ‘most needs to be done’ or is most urgent, or easiest. When artists get distracted into doing activist work, for example — organizing, debating with deniers, writing rhetorical articles etc. — I think they often end up doing mediocre work, and waste time and energy that could be better spent doing what they are really gifted at doing, and which needs to be done just as desperately — even if that may not yet be appreciated.

    An additional challenge is that in doing this work — as activists, innovators, model-builders, facilitators, healers or artists — we are constantly walking a line between arrogance and self-doubt. We need to have the self-confidence and self-knowledge to know what is needed and what we can do (that we do well), and to do it regardless of opposition and indifference, yet have the humility to appreciate that this is not about us, not about what one person can do, not about genius or leadership, but rather about serving, about being of use, about being a part of a vital collective effort that unites us all, and that what we are doing will probably not get much recognition, or much appreciation, until we are gone, if ever. That is a fine line to walk.

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