The Dark Mountain Project is a creative project, a writers' movement that has become something far more important. If you claim to be an environmentalist, this unique initiative may challenge your way of thinking, because it rejects much of what the green movement has become.
Many of its writings suggest that the green movement has become a part of the very consumer society that is the fundamental problem to begin with, and that it fails to engage with the real problems. Perhaps it's easy to see this as many environmental websites become fascinated by cosmetics or lifestyle features: hardly the sort of thing that will help reduce carbon emissions or stop corporate land-grabs.
The Dark Mountain project tells us the things we don't want to hear, and it is a no-nonsense Zen-like response to the 'age of ecocide' that our civilisation is causing: climate change, economic chaos, resource depletion. Those responsible for the project are not activists and aren't concerned with developing apocalyptic visions of what lies on our economic and environmental horizons.
Recently I read one of their collections of essays, poems and prose, Dark Mountain Issue 2, which was remarkably broad in its scope. Creativity was used in a constructive manner, to provoke thought, and wasn't so much a trivial add-on: it was core to the experience, supporting the non-fiction it accompanied. It was only upon reading this book that I realised what the project is really about: ideas, expression, discussion, a chance to blow away old ways of thinking. It is not so much about offering new answers, but possessing an intellectual fecundity in which new answers might develop. What's more, it places a strong emphasis on the arts, something not all that common in both the environmental movement and the wider political sphere.
So while much has been written about the Dark Mountain project's manifesto and what they reject, it was their methods that particularly fascinated me. I got in touch with Paul Kingsnorth, one of the co-founders of the Dark Mountain project, and a former deputy editor of the Ecologist magazine, who was kind enough to answer a few questions on the subject.
MN: When you decided to embrace wholeheartedly the creative arts, were you at all inspired by any previous examples in history, or was this something you simply felt was lacking in current political narratives?
Paul Kingsnorth: I've spent a long time as both a writer and a politically-engaged campaigner, and I came, over time, to see more and more clearly that what we face is not primarily a technological or political or scientific challenge, but a narrative challenge. As humans, we all live through stories - the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we're going are the basis of our cultures - and our stories, in this culture, are deeply damaging ones. If we continue to believe in human exceptionalism, in our separation from 'nature', in endless progress, in salvation-by-machine, then we will continue down the same civilisational path - the one that is destroying the Earth's living systems. We need new stories, or perhaps a rediscovery of old ones, or probably both. I'm inspired in this by artists and writers from the past who have rewritten the stories of their age, usually from the sidelines. We need this kind of ambition now, because our political radicals have become technocrats and the old answers are not working.
MN: What is it in particular about the creative arts that make them so useful to a political movement?
Paul Kingsnorth: One misunderstanding about Dark Mountain is that we're a 'political movement' which uses the arts to get its message across. We're not. We're something quite different. We're an open space in which people can gather when they stop pretending that everything will be all right - that the world can be 'saved', that climate change can be stopped, that states will do the right thing if we shout at them loudly enough, that the world will change for the better through the sheer force of rational argument, that all the trends which are currently converging towards collapse will be magicked away by machines or new fuel sources or global treaties. Once you feel ready to step into that space, we ask you to look honestly at the way the world is, and where it is going, and to respond to that creatively. We are fuelled by a belief that our mainstream creative culture, whether it be in literature, theatre, art or music, is utterly failing to engage with the magnitude of where we are as a planet and as a civilisation. We are trying to curate an artistic response to an age of ecocide, based on radical honesty - a critique of the very notion of civilisation and the religion of human progress. This is an artistic project - it's not aimed at formulating a political manifesto.
MN: Do you think people might take the Dark Mountain project less seriously because it employs a more artistic stream?
Paul Kingsnorth: Some political activists might, but that would be their problem, not ours. Dark Mountain is a place you can come when you give up on the denial and self-delusion that is associated with a lot of political activism these days. I've been interested to see that the people who instantly 'get' what we're doing have been the creative folk: writers, artists, musicians, craftspeople, and some creatively-minded engineers, scientists and farmers. The people who fail to get it, or are irked by it, are the political activists who have allowed themselves to get stuck in some very well-worn ideological ruts and are frightened to peer over the top of them.
MN: How have the creative offerings, be they poetry or prose, informed or changed the project's political, economic or environmental philosophies?
Paul Kingsnorth: Everything we do is intended to be a creative offering, because that's the point of what we do. We don't aim to offer up answers, or write a political manifesto. We're a space to ask questions. How do we live in this world? What still makes sense? What new stories are needed? Why has politics and activism failed? How do we live? When you ask these questions with honesty - with all the groupthink and wishful thinking stripped away - you can come up with some fascinating answers. And the writing we have published in our books, and the stories and tales and music and theatre and talk at our festivals, is creating a real buzz. It's very exciting to see.