Putting your hand up to join, or reaching to touch light on a tree?
I’m finding it hard to return to my London normality after 3 days at the Dark Mountain Project’s Uncivilisation festival at the wonderful Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. For a feel of its atmosphere, see my photos, including some of the photography installation I helped curate called Light Leaves. You can see it was a time of enchantment.
But, snap. I’ve returned immediately to the habits that dominate my urban, busy, hyperconnected life. Yet I’m so much more alert to the damage they do to my own physiology and that of the planet. I’m caught in a state of oscillating tension between movement and stillness, both actually and intellectually, in my own life and aware of it in the lives of others also passing beyond the denial stages in facing ecocide and climate disruption.
Is Dark Mountain a movement, or an opportunity for those of us who exhaust ourselves with action to come together and be still? Must we act urgently beyond our scope, or must we turn away from the busy world and just learn how to be here now? Must we rise or root? These questions aren’t new. They’ve been asked since its launch over 3 years ago, and have recently bubbled up in various critical discussions about the Dark Mountain project, following statements from one of its manifesto writers, Paul Kingsnorth. Paul has said that green activists have ‘torpedoed themselves with numbers’, that they are failing by being overly dominated by technocracy. Then there was this searing debate with Wen Stephenson entitled ‘I withdraw': A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth.
I want first of all to place some qualifiers around this: 1) It is possible and also very likely that anybody who says ‘I withdraw’ will be unable to fully withdraw from a life that is both implicated in causing global ecocide and that is also actively resistant to it. Stating an intention to withdraw may indicate focusing attention on the dimension of your implication in it, rather than your resistance to it. 2) Everybody I speak to who attends or reads Dark Mountain stuff holds their own personal position in relation to withdrawal. We aren’t devotees of the project’s founders, though we may be close friends or appreciators. 3) Dark Mountain enables us to become more immersed, temporarily, in poetic reflection and creativity. For most of us, acts of withdrawal are only ephemeral.
One significant session at the festival was ‘Rise and Root’, a big circle discussion about how we manage and what we can do in this state that hovers, differently for each of us, between constructive denial, anger, despair, hope and acceptance. This was facilitated by Cat Lupton, Tom Hirons, Rima Staines and Stephen Wheeler, who had all helped curate the festival as a temporary group called Mearcstapa (which means Borderwalker in Old English). It was more irritating than any other session but also more important, because it was so directly facing the big issue. It was irritating because it was so difficult to clearly speak and identify what the big issue was – there were too many of us (though the large number felt good too), and we were urged to speak entirely from a subjective ‘I’ position. I found this irritating because we couldn’t depersonalise a global ‘we’ as a dominant discourse towards which we are each in various ways both orthogonal and implicated. However, it did mean that there were no arguments and there was deep expression. Throughout people expressed two sides of this duality between action and withdrawal. There was ‘I can’t bear sitting here talking. We need to act. Can we form a working group and talk about action?’ And there was ‘I acknowledge that I cannot continue like this. I must turn attention to my piece of land, my home, my life and model change from that small place, and mostly stop craving’. (None of these are quotes, but they are close to what many said. Many of you will have heard these expressions many many times in similar contexts.) One person expressed irritation with the first type, saying something like ‘if you don’t want to reflect and talk, don’t come to a place for reflection and talk. When you get home, you act’. Although I agreed with this, my own statement was said out of irritation with the second type. I said something like ‘I want to counter the tendency to look too much inwards, small, local, domestic and now, to bring about culture change so that we act urgently, with a long view of the future, with global consciousness, towards the generation of biosphere capital’.
Several people were interested to hear about the idea of biosphere capital and to form a ‘node’ to develop ideas about it. Others (Jody Boehnert and later a couple of others) expressed concern that ‘capital’ is a dangerous term to use as it can be confused with the trend to put a price on nature. I have mixed feelings about the term but I use it just as the terms cultural capital and social capital were intended to qualify (not price) the value of activities that are less about extraction and consumption of goods. Systems for measuring social and cultural capital often use financial proxies but I’m uncomfortable with that. I felt, I suppose, that the oxymoronic nature of the term ‘biosphere capital’ resists the imposition of financial proxies but perhaps I’m wrong about that. The lack of an ecological epistemology means that terminology is bound to be twisted to a non-ecological sense.
Nothing is fixed in my head yet, after my return. My thoughts have been thrown up into the air and will take a while to settle. I think that I will think differently. I also think that it’s very likely that I will take action that may be perceived as a withdrawal. I’ve talked to my family about living in a place where there is a dark sky full of stars at night and where we can grow fruit and nut trees. We all agree that’s what seems right. As Marmaduke Dando says – we can do both rise and root, they’re not mutually exclusive.
Here’s a little addition: I took with me a solar light called Little Sun, designed by artist Olafur Eliasson. Here’s a short meditation by him on ‘holding the feeling’, pausing and then taking action.