I spent last week at a Dark Mountain retreat at Schumacher College in Dartington just outside Totnes, UK. Along with the brilliant authors of the Dark Mountain Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, 16 remarkable artists, an equal number male and female, from 7 countries around the world, and all but three from what I could ascertain much younger than I (age 20-38), explored our shared worldview of the coming collapse of civilization, the myths of our culture and the possibility of creating new stories that might be of better service to us in the challenging decades ahead. The main building in which we met, Postern House, is pictured above; it was built in 1380. (While I was there I also had the pleasure of meeting Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of Transition Network and Isabel Carlyle, the Transition Network’s education coordinator, and later, by chance, Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition and author of several books about Transition, and his wife.)
A myth is a story that many people believe to be true. It may or may not be true.
The danger with myths is that if people live their lives as if a myth is true, when it is not, they can destroy their lives, the happiness of everyone they know and care about, the world, everything.
At this week’s Dark Mountain retreat, we collectively attempted to identify the dominant myths of our time, in the belief that many of these myths are no longer serving us well, if they ever did. It might be more accurate to say these are prevalent myths in different circles of power and influence, since there are so many of them — seemingly competing for our attention and belief, some of them directly contradictory to others, and some growing in influence while others are losing their hold.
Here is the Harvest, in alphabetical order (grouping seemingly related myths, and some of their opposites):
- Activism: that well-coordinated activism at the right scale can change the world. Or that activism beyond the local scale is futile, that our future is fated and unalterable.
- Beauty: that anyone can be perfectly beautiful. That beauty is goodness. That everyone is already beautiful.
- Centralization and Globalization: that by centralizing, globalizing, homogenizing, standardizing and scaling human systems, they necessarily become both more efficient and more effective. Or that small is necessarily beautiful, and through decentralization and true anarchy, human activity can be optimized.
- Choice: that we have real choices in our lives, and the quality of our choices determines our degree of self-realization.
- Collapse: that collapse is a sudden, dramatic and final event that occurs simultaneously everywhere to everyone in a society. Or that collapse is a gradual and healthy response to a complex system failure and will lead to the emergence of a better system.
- Commensurability: that we get what we ‘deserve’, as a result of our valiant effort or good character.
- Conflict: that life is inevitably full of conflict and resolution, struggle and the overcoming of obstacles. That a story without conflict and obstacles that are overcome is not a story at all.
- Control: that humans are or can be in control of our own destiny, and that we have the power to change things. Or that our destiny is controlled entirely by gods or fates, and that we have no power to change anything.
- Cycles: that everything in life is cyclic, so everything that’s good, and bad, will come around again.
- Doing is More Important Than Being: that doing everything we can to try to deal with the world’s intractable problems, even if it’s inevitably futile, is our responsibility and duty, and failure to do so is slacking, giving up.
- Duality: that the complexity of understanding and decision-making can be usefully simplified to pairs of often polar alternatives.
- The End of Myths: that the myths of the human world have all been smashed, and there are no new ones, and that we no longer have need of them anyway, since our new stories are scientifically ‘true’. Or that there are some good myths. Or that human mental models and function require myths.
- Failure is Bad: that success, no matter how achieved, is laudable, but failure is shameful.
- The Fall and Redemption: that humanity once was perfect, but fell from grace, and now our lifelong and primary duty is to redeem ourselves.
- Free Will: that we have it. Or that there is no such thing.
- Good vs Evil: that in every struggle there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side, and those who are evil will always be provoking new struggles.
- Happiness as Purpose: that a happy life is a good life, and that achieving it is a worthy goal in life.
- Hierarchy and Order: that human society requires hierarchy to function effectively, and that there is a ‘natural’ order of things, with humans at the top/centre, and with the superior/strongest/fittest humans at the pinnacle.
- Heroes: that the great changes in history were inspired and made possible principally by the work of exceptional individuals (or the Margaret Mead variation, by very small determined groups).
- Human Centrism and Dominion: that the world, and Nature, were made or inevitably evolved to bring our species to the fore, and hence are there to tame and conquer for our purposes. Or that Nature rather than humanity is central to our world (ecocentrism), is inherently sacred (biophilia) and should be studied to learn how to live better (biomimicry). That Gaia and the other-than-human world cares about the plight, success and survival of the human species. And that all humans are damaged by our culture and spend their whole lives trying to heal.
- Immortality: that we do or might somehow live on in some form forever, so death need not be feared. Or that death is utter and final, or evidence of our failure.
- Individualism & Separateness: that we are separate and apart from other humans and all other life on Earth, and that we are “all of a piece”, rather than a complicity of our component cells. Or that we are merely “the collaborative open source project of a trillion cells”, and an integral and inseparable part of the organism of all-life-on-Earth (Gaia).
- Inevitability: that things are the way they are for a reason, and that we can’t change them until/unless we understand that reason (Pollard’s Law of Complexity). And that certain occurrences, once a tipping point is passed, are inevitable no matter how we intervene.
- Information: that having the right information is essential to effective action, and that more information is better. Or that all information is propaganda and we should trust our intuition, or our traditions, or our leaders, to tell us what to do.
- Ingenuity: that human ingenuity is unlimited and can solve all problems and predicaments.
- Linearity: that history moves forward through time in some coherent and inevitable way.
- Mate for Life: that we and all admirable species are meant to love just one other for our whole lives.
- Meaning: that all human activity is driven by the search for meaning and purpose. Or that life is meaningless and the search for meaning is futile.
- More is Better: that sufficiency is not sufficient.
- Near-Term Extinction: that because of multiple positive feedback loops, all complex life on Earth will be extinct by mid-century.
- Necessary Politeness: that outrage is always an inappropriate and excessive response, even to atrocity.
- Necessity of Conflict and Struggle: that the world and our species are so terrible that anything of value can be achieved only through struggle, conflict and sacrifice. Or that the way to peace is one of acceptance and non-struggle.
- Noble Savage: that the important truths of how to live optimally can be found by listening to and learning from ‘uncivilized’, aboriginal peoples. Or that humans are by virtue of our nature and/or large brains always fated to destroy the world.
- Objectivity: that there is an objective, rational, absolute truth.
- One Right Answer: that there is one for every situation.
- Original Sin: that humans are inherently sinful, lazy, evil, and in need of controlling. Or that humans are inherently good, and that people who cause pain and suffering do so only because they are ill, damaged and traumatized.
- Perfect Markets: that deregulation and non-interference in individual attempts at self-optimization will produce a perfect collective outcome, or at least the best possible one.
- Perpetual Growth: that through human ingenuity it is possible to make and do more and more with less and less forever. Or that through human ingenuity it is possible to shift our global economy to a steady-state, sustainable one.
- Progress: that the natural direction of human civilization is toward a collectively better and better world for humans.
- Rationality and Knowability: that the complexity of the world can be simplified or made merely complicated and hence completely known and predictable. Or that the world is utterly unknowable, and we have to accept our lot as inevitable, and have faith it is in some way necessarily good.
- Salvation: that if we live a good life and work hard, we will be saved from suffering and misfortune, by the gods, by a righteous elite, or by our own ingenuity and collective efforts, either with, through or despite technology.
- Scarcity, Sacrifice and Struggle: that everything is scarce, and our task is to struggle, sacrifice, compete and mete out what little of everything there is. Or that everything is abundant, if only we can see it, and the illusion of scarcity is manufactured.
- Self-determination: that with hard work and a little good fortune, anyone can accomplish anything they set out to do, and be whatever they want to be.
- Self-improvement: that we need to work hard to personally grow and improve. Or that we are who we are and cannot ever be otherwise.
- Urgency Trumps Importance: that things considered urgent will always get done before things that are merely important, and that merely important things will never get done because once the urgent work is done, we are too exhausted to do more than what is easy and fun (Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour).
- Urbanization is Natural: that the natural migration of settled human society is from farm to town to city.
- Wealth is Happiness: that happiness depends on and is proportional to material security, or at least that the lack of material wealth precludes happiness. Or that “money is the root of all evil” and “can’t buy happiness”.
What do we do with such a list? Here are some possibilities:
- We can acknowledge both the myths we believe to be true, and the ones we dismiss as false. We can compare our myths to others’ to understand their different worldviews and what those differences mean in terms of mutual understanding and openness to change.
- We can ask, Byron Katie style, whether we believe the opposite of each of the myths on the list that we dismiss as false, and whether the opposite of each of the myths we believe is true might, instead or equally, be true.
- We can then question and reassess both our beliefs and our doubts. We can ask ourselves whether the myths we believe, and our doubts about those we do not, are of service or disservice (or neither) to us in our work and connection with the world. We could earmark the myths that are of service when thinking about what stories we want to tell, and how to tell them. And when we tell stories, we could acknowledge, at least to ourselves, the myths that underlie them.
- We can explore whether our propensity to believe a radically different set of myths from those of the majority leads us to feel smug or superior, or (when we find others who agree with us) simply (and perhaps falsely) reassured “we aren’t crazy”.
Later in the week we began to identify, via brainstorming, a set of candidate stories that might serve us better, while trying to avoid jumping on the antitheses of the myths from the list above that we found most objectionable and dangerous. In my view we didn’t get far enough in this process for a meaningful consensus to arise, but perhaps it is enough that we have started thinking about it.
I believe that the adoption of stories as ‘true’ (turning them into myths) by a large group of people, is an emergent process. As such it is terribly slow, as people have to be ready to believe a story, and that’s a process that (as the media have learned) cannot be rushed or controlled. There is some truth to the Goering claim that “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself”. But that’s a fragile way of myth-creating — if people don’t really feel it, ‘know’ it deep down, all it will take is someone else to repeat the opposite often enough and people will start believing that. There is some value in telling our truths, loudly, repeatedly, clearly and passionately, and in the case of truths about collapse, courageously. But the impact of any one doing that is inevitably going to be small. Paul, I think, believes that the Ecocentrism story (see under Human Centrism in the list above), is ready to go viral and might become a new prevalent myth; while I agree with him, and hope he’s right, I’m not sure a few more of us telling that story will make a significant difference in its spread.
On the other hand, although the acceptance of stories is, I think, an emergent process, the creation of stories is, well, a creative process, not an emergent one. And what group could be better equipped to create such stories than an informed and sensitive group of artists?
Therefore, what I am hoping will come out of this past week’s connection, work and reflection will be some continuing small-group conversations (probably using Hangout etc.), and then some invitations to creative collaborations (hopefully of the calibre that produced the Dark Mountain Manifesto), that will result in the creation of some entirely new stories that explain what is happening, or what seems ‘real’ in the world or in our culture, in a way that has never been articulated before, and which offer some powerful new insights, ideas, understandings, appreciation, perceptions and perspectives that will affect how those stories’ listeners think and feel about the world, what they believe, and ultimately what they do and even who they are.
Story and art can do that. Darwin did that, with his dangerous new story about how humans evolved, just one of many species, adapting to ever-changing circumstances. Stephen J. Gould did that, with his unpopular story about the emergence of life and then vertebrates (let alone humans) on our planet being an incredibly improbable accident, a random walk. Lovelock and Margulis did that, with their mind-boggling story about all life on Earth being a collective self-managing organism, Gaia, looking to balance the interests of all her inseparably connected and interdependent parts, just as our bodies do. These are myth-makers extraordinaire.
I hope for nothing less from us collapsnik artists — new stories that will make us say “ah!” New stories that will make us smile and fill us with the recognition and realization of what should have been obvious, but somehow was not. New stories that will change our appreciation, in fundamental and useful ways, of what it means to be alive and to be human. New stories that will make the challenges ahead of us more bearable, more joyful, and guide us in making decisions on what to do, and how to be. New stories that will want to be told, again and again.
At the risk of this being an anticlimactic end to this post, I want to proffer a half-formed story that came to me as I listened to my amazing new artist friends talk about what brought them to Schumacher College this past week and what they see their role as, beyond simply chronicling civilization’s collapse. This story occurred to me as I realized that (a) since the sixth great extinction actually began many millennia ago, we are not now going in to a dark time, but rather coming out of one, and (b) we are not climbing or descending a dark mountain, so much as passing through one (perhaps one that looks suspiciously, from above, like a ‘normal curve’).
It needs a lot of care and attention, and perhaps collaboration, but I think there is something in this that wants to be told:
You are on this journey, through a great dark mountain. All the living creatures of Earth are with you, travelling alongside, or at least they seem to be — it’s hard to tell in this dim light what’s real and what’s imagined, or what’s just wishful thinking. It seems as well that there are more humans but many fewer and less diverse other-than-human creatures marching along each day. You don’t know your purpose, here. Some time ago, for some reason that must have made sense at the time, your ancestors decided to enter this dark mountain, and you have never known any other life, any other way to live. When you look back, miles back there seems to be some dim light. And behind you, holding hands through the dark all the way back as far as you can see, are your ancestors and the ancestors of all the creatures that now travel with you. And when you look ahead, miles ahead there seems to be some dim light as well. And ahead of you, holding hands through the dark all the way forward as far as you can see, are your descendants and the descendants of all the creatures that now travel with you. Where the light is, so far ahead you do not expect to reach it in your lifetime, or even expect your children to reach it in theirs, you cannot see well enough to see what creatures, if any, are emerging into the light at the end of the mountain.
What is your role on this seemingly-endless and possibly ill-fated journey? Are you a healer, helping others to cope with the mounting diseases and accidents of darkness? Are you a mentor and teacher, humbly recalling and demonstrating and passing on the skills and preserving the memories your ancestors passed on to you? Are you a student, acquiring the knowledge and capacities that may be needed on the road ahead, in darkness and, perhaps, in light? Are you a facilitator and peacemaker and community-builder, helping your fellow travellers to self-manage each day’s journey so they do their collective best? Are you an artist or story-teller, filling your fellow travellers with pleasure and trickster wisdom? Are you a scientist or philosopher, helping others to make sense of what seems impossible, unbearable? Or are you an exemplar, showing others by what you do, and how you are, a better way to live and be? How are you of service to your fellow travellers, those you’ve come to love or have always loved, those you’ve left behind, those you don’t know, marching quietly or not-so-quietly alongside, those running ahead, impatiently. And, perhaps most importantly, those you will never meet, far beyond where you can see, striding ever-closer towards the light?
Thank you, Dougald and Paul, and thank you my fellow travellers of the past week. You are awesome beyond words and I am honoured to have shared your company.