“False hope gets us nowhere”

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, a literary movement built on the belief that ecological disaster is inevitable – and mainstream environmentalism hopelessly naive. Here, he explains his outlook to Matt Sellwood.

Paul Kingsnorth is a British journalist and author of books including One No, Many Yeses and Real England. His current focus is the Dark Mountain Project  described as “a cultural movement for an age of global disruption”  which has raised both interest and criticism throughout environmental circles in the United Kingdom and United States. Matt Sellwood asked him what it is about, where it comes from and why it has been so controversial.

Matt Sellwood: Along with Dougald Hine, you founded the Dark Mountain Project last year. Can you briefly summarise what the project is about, and why you felt it was needed?

Paul Kingsnorth: I am asked this question all the time, and it is difficult to summarise in even a few sentences. I suppose that points to the fact that it straddles a lot of concerns, and is still evolving as a project.

I have been an environmental campaigner and activist for quite some time, but I had a growing sense over the past few years that the campaigns I was working on weren’t really connecting with the way the world actually is. I felt that when I looked at the evidence that was building up about climate change, the level of carbon in the atmosphere and the direction of societies around the world, it was quite clear that we were heading towards an ecological disaster. And yet the campaigns I was working on refused to acknowledge this. I started to ask myself why.

I increasingly came to the realisation that a lot of what the environmental movement was doing was not having a great deal of impact  particularly on the global scale. Lots of small battles were being won, but we were not, and are not, anywhere near to changing the direction of society. We are still heading towards a brick wall at high speed, and the prevalent campaign narratives about our imminent environmental success are increasingly ringing hollow.

Everyone seems to be agreeing that there are lots of issues with the way our economy is organised and the way we produce goods, but the mainstream view is also agreed that we can deal with it if we work hard, create a sustainable economy and make a few changes to the way we do business. I simply don’t believe that this is true. The Dark Mountain Project is an attempt to explore what people should do if, like me, they don’t believe in the prevailing hope that everything is going to be alright.

MS: What do you think is at the root of the current narrative? And what is wrong with it?

PK: Well, the root of the Dark Mountain Project is the conclusion that we face a cultural problem  a problem with the kind of stories that we tell ourselves as a society. Having a respectful and realistic relationship with the planet is not about the latest technology or quick-fix, but rather about the way that we view the world. We wanted to find what our current stories are, and what new ones we might need to tell ourselves to reorientate towards reality.

The project started as a literary movement, simply because Dougald and I are writers by profession. But actually it has really taken off amongst all sorts of people, from artists to farmers, teachers to musicians. We seemed to press a button with the stark honesty we attempted to deploy about how bad things are and what the real situation is. Lots of people seem to have been thinking this, but did not feel that they could say it, or even in some cases admit it to themselves. The act of verbalising it has brought a lot of people together and generated a lot of new thought.

MS: Is it fair to say that your recent work draws on already existing strands of western environmentalism  particularly deep ecology  or is it something new?

PK: Yes, the Dark Mountain Project certainly draws on existing cultural and philosophical strands of thought, not just from the environmental movement, but from historical traditions of all kinds. One of the things that people have been pointing out as they get involved in the project is that we don’t need to invent new stories to live in an environmentally realistic world. In fact, they are already out there across the globe, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Personally, I certainly did draw on the ecocentric perspectives of early western environmentalism. I have always been inspired by the idea of nature’s intrinsic value, and I guess that this project is a logical extension of that point of view  and an attempt to place nature back at the heart of the environmental movement. Strangely, over the last few decades, the environmental movement has lost sight of the fact that the world is not here solely to provide for our purposes.

In my opinion, if you don’t have ecocentrism at the heart of your world view, you are inevitably going to be drawn down a path which ends up compromising with business as usual and, in consequence, ends up accommodating environmental destruction.

MS: You’ve talked about replacing our current stories with older, more realistic ones. Can you give an example of what you mean?

PK: Well, the stories that condition modern society are not surprising ones, although we often do not notice them because they are simply assumed to be true. I’ve already mentioned the importance of ecocentrism to my world view, and obviously the opposite of that  anthropocentrism  is at the heart of our current culture.

Our society believes that the world exists to serve humans, and that there is no intrinsic value to nature. Indeed, the very concept of a split between humanity and nature, this idea that goes back to Cartesian thought, is another important cultural story in modern society. Perhaps most importantly of all, however, is society’s ironclad belief in the myth of progress. People have serious trouble wrapping their heads around the concept that things might not be better in the next generation than they are now. We have had a couple of centuries of fossil fuel led growth, and essentially we have become accustomed to the idea of technology fixing everything, and progress always being possible.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to look at the environmental facts and the society we are heading towards to know that some of these cultural stories are going to have to change. They can either change as a result of catastrophe, or they can change because we have consciously chosen to think about things in different ways. And those old stories still exist. In China, for example, there are millennia of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian thought of various kinds to draw on.

In Europe, we still have the traditions of the past, also, though much of it has been lost over the last few centuries. We hope to help rebuild some of that knowledge and, more importantly, those ways of thinking.

MS: That’s a big task, particularly given the rapid industrial growth of countries like China.

PK: I recently met with Jonathan Watts, the author of When A Billion Chinese Jump, which is exactly about the issue of China’s massive growth. His view, and I tend to share it, is that China is the place where the industrial model of fossil-fuelled society will hit the wall. China is the place where you simply cannot go any further, because there aren’t enough environmental sinks to offload the waste into. The kind of growth we are seeing in China and India is the kind of growth that is going to lead to a major restructuring of the way we live, one way or the other.

Essentially, we need to rediscover how to live life in a sane way. There are some things  and western culture finds this very hard to accept  that you just can’t trick your way out of. There are only so many resources, and only so much pollution you can emit before things start going really wrong. Progress isn’t inevitable, and not everything can be fixed by machines.

MS: Some prominent environmental commentators have suggested that you almost seem to be relishing the prospect of a coming collapse. What do you have to say to that?

PK: Well, it’s nonsense, clearly. No one who is humane would ever relish something which could be an unprecedented disaster. I think people make that accusation, and react in that way, because the Dark Mountain Project is saying things that are not meant to be said. If you say that we have reached a stage at which it is impossible to stop some form of environmental collapse, some people hear you saying that you think that is a great thing. That is not my feeling at all. I just think it is inevitable.

Perhaps the best example of all of this is the recent debate that was staged in The Guardian between myself and George Monbiot on this topic. He didn’t disagree with any of the facts I laid out about the prospect of environmental catastrophe, but gave his view that we have to “keep fighting”. As far as I can tell, that means doing everything the environmental lobby has been doing for decades, but more so. That seems hollow to me.

I don’t think we have to believe that you either “keep fighting” and ignore reality or give up and do nothing at all. The dichotomy between the two is false, and there is a middle ground to be had. We don’t have to be the kind of people who hold out false hope, and there are not just two futures. Of course, we should still campaign to halt the burning of fossil fuels where we can, for measures which make sustainable living easier and so on  but we need to be honest about what we can achieve. If we are not honest, then we end up with the kind of demoralising disaster that Copenhagen represented, a classic example of the problem of false hope if ever there was one.

People aren’t stupid, and they can tell that marching more or writing ever increasingly unrealistic pleas to world leaders isn’t going to get us anywhere. People want honesty, and achievable goals, and the environmental movement isn’t delivering much of either at this point.

MS: What do you think people should be doing if the mainstream environmental movement is failing?

PK: I don’t necessarily have all the solutions to these issues. What we have tried to do at the Dark Mountain Project is to ask questions and understand better the cultural drivers behind our current society. The first thing, I think, is to be brutally honest about our situation, where we are, and what we can do about it. The second thing is to be prepared to have our assumptions about what we can achieve fall away. This can be depressing! But in my experience, it leads to a certain sense of relief  and a sense of purpose. And that purpose is about thinking, “If we’re going towards decline and collapse, what does it still make sense to do? How should we live?”

“How should we live” has always been a central question for the Green movement, and you simply can’t answer it unless you are being honest with yourself. That is all we are trying to do.

Matt Sellwood is a freelance journalist on environmental and social
issues, and a former member of the Green Party National Executive (England and Wales) 

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