Cultured Uncivilisation

Originally posted in June 2010.

I’ve just returned from the first Uncivilisation Festival in Llangollen. This was a gathering responding to the Dark Mountain manifesto by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, about collapse, climate disruption and the role of culture. There’s too much to do a swift review of it now. The experience was quite profound for me.

I’m reflecting a lot on one particular session, with George Monbiot in conversation with Dougald. Monbiot has been very critical of Dark Mountain and some of his criticisms (if they are accurate) I can agree with. For example, I agree with him that we must promote green energy solutions and not be negative about geoengineering. Nor should we underestimate the determination of industrial capitalism to exploit every last scrap of fossil fuel riddling the planet. However, I was surprised that in painting this future picture of unarrestable growth he didn’t admit, or even mention, the tipping point and the effect that a rise to 4C will have on the infrastructure of our so called civilisation. This weekend I heard that the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, seen as the most conservative and cautious of climate centres, has recently issued a model predicting that 4C will be reached by 2050 due to the feedback effects we are now seeing. Others will articulate their challenges to these points better than me. The issue I can best address is Monbiot’s dismissal of the role of culture and creativity. He characterised Dark Mountain as romanticising ‘a feral possessive individualism’, that we must focus on working collectively and politically not artistically, that the manifesto promotes ‘going off alone to write your own poetry’. This is a misunderstanding of Dark Mountain and also of the role of art. I wouldn’t have had courage to put my challenge out to the room but I can write it here, pompous as it sounds:

I’m Bridget McKenzie. I tell you my name because I’m an individual, who believes in individual agency, but I’m also one who works in collectives with others. I think it’s not just possible but desirable for individual expressiveness and collective action to coexist. My name is the first on the list of pledgers of support for Dark Mountain. I wouldn’t have voiced the manifesto as such but I put my name to it because I believe that culture and creativity are vital. We can’t become the extraordinary creative problem solvers we all need to be without a balance of imagination and skill, or poiesis and techne. I do creative work not to escape from the world and others but to make connections with them. Culture is an entanglement. It helps us carry and share real and useful knowledge across boundaries. It is a way to be political, a way to act, a way to teach, a way to thrive, a way to cope. As Louise Bourgeois (who has just died this weekend) said, ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity’. The environmental crisis means that culture and creativity have to be understood differently. They have to be integrated into everything we do and also seen as integral with nature. Transcendence has always been seen as lifting us out of the mire of animality, helping us reach for the stars. Our capacity to make art was what defined us as humans, to be distinct from animals. Art is artifice. Now, we have to radically reassign the notion of transcendence to mean an ascent, to make us see the polluted mire of our own making, to take the long view, to fully become stewards so that we can restore the health of the biosphere.

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