Dark Mountain 3 - Review Article

A review article, and since this is a blog post of no great import, a personal reaction to Dark Mountain Book 3 (DMP3), an anthology of themed writing from writers asscociated with The Dark Mountain Project.


4/22/201211 min read

What is the ‘Dark Mountain Project’##

Well there’s a lot about it on their own website but perhaps this Guardian article by Paul Kingsnorth sums it up better. In short a bunch of clever and thoughtful ecologists and campaigners who have been active for a good number of years figured out that their efforts, while certainly the right thing to do, were as effective as pissing in the ocean. They pretty much accept that we are in the process of knocking the climate and ecology of the planet into a new, uncharted and quite likely catastrophic period of change.

The axioms seem to be:

  • Generally speaking, as a civilisation, we are pretty much screwed if we think things are going to get better (a denial of the optimism bias in long-term planning).

  • The Green Movement has failed, or rather, not been allowed to succeed. Bags for life and recycling are not going to save the planet.

  • We should create a position where the acceptance of the above points doesn’t lead to mass wrist-slitting - is there a way to live genuinely and authentically within the reality of a failing civilisation?

Or, to be brutal about it; we’re fucked, how do we live now?

Why me, now?

Not ever been a campaigner, ecologist, strong greenie or even, it must be said, much of a countryside user beyond cycling and walking in the hills on occasion, this is not my usual territory.

So far in life I have been pretty much a city boy, happy in the theatre or gallery, best at constructing written realities, but even I have found it impossible to ignore the climate change realities. Like most middle aged middle class people I guess my childhood ignorance persists somewhat. I grew up the eighties and nineties in a kind of ecologically empty zone. We a long way from green hippies and the crusties, in fact we defined ourselves in opposition to the hippies - we were urban, urbane and ironic, and out of touch with the concerns of the planet.

The news might have been there but I wasn’t reading it, I had my head up the bottom of post-structuralism at the time. Also growing up in NZ meant that we had an automatic ‘green card’. No nuclear for us!

However even people like me get it in the end. Given my finely honed sense of hatred of corporations (the 80s and 90s cynicism of GenX) in the end it was the incessant banging on the drum of George Monbiot that got me interested. The way he ties corporate criticism, bad-faith science, limp politics and the fate of the planet is a good story for us Guardian reading lefties. Reading him has periodically depressed the hell out of me and I have become aware that the way of life that I consider entirely normal is a huge privilege and there is no guarantee that it will be around in twenty years. I have also come to realise a couple of other things about his work. One, that it’s on the conservative end of climate criticism and, two, you can’t mention it at dinner parties as you will have people moving away from you as fast as is polite. The privilege feels normal, it might even bring its own discontent, so it must not be questioned. So we go on talking about schools and the outlines of our careers.

And then of course you have children and you wonder what the hell you can say about all this to them… sorry mate we screwed up the planet to maintain this position of privilege that you now think is normal, and you will lose that position of privilege as you age and most probably watch a significant proportion of the population of the planet go through hell as we try to maintain a ‘standard of living’ that, in truth, we’re never been able to afford. Cornflakes or Weetabix son?

So, despite not being anywhere near the territory that the DMP founders have been in, the basic premise resonates. We’re fucked, what do we do now?

Enough about me, back to The Book

First of all it’s a lovely volume. Hard-bound, well designed without being flashy, good typography, some colour reproduction pages, nice to hold. They know what they are doing when it comes to publishing. Really nice cover image by Mattais Jones who does single line drawings on an epic scale.

The basic idea seems to have been to publish writing of the DMP initiates, those searches for authenticity in the face of the key question posed in the Editorial: How do we come home?

DMP3 is a miscellany, there’s clearly a lot of work in here that is FOAF sourced and it’s clear that it’s a network that is mostly talking to itself. This might normally be a indulgent annoyance and become like reading FanFic, performance for the sake of belonging, however once you start to dig into DMP3 you realise both that the miscellany is the idea, and that some of the articles really pack a punch.

There are a number of themes that pieces are assembled under (tools, journeys, roadkill, endings, places, wilderness, creatures, home, places, creatures) and the pieces themselves range freely from paintings to essays on philosophy, memoirs, interviews, poetry and prose. The nature of the individual piece seems to matter less than the thematic and this makes the book very refreshing, you feel as you read that you are turning a problem around in your hands rather than using a scalpel to cut it open as you would in, for instance, a themed philosophy magazine.

The beauty of this is that you encounter this idea - what is it to come home - in a full range of modes, from the full intellectual engagement of considering medieval philosophy through Locke and Kant, through to a grafitti artist finding roadkill and teaching himself how to stretch skin to make a ‘canvas’.

While some might find this annoying I embraced this range and eclecticism. Inevitably you will want more of one thing than another. My personal preference was for more intellectually based material and less poetry, but there was more that enough to keep me happy.

As a way of review I am going to pick out some of the work I liked the most, but there is plenty I am skipping over (the table of contents list over seventy pieces).


The central mood of the book is stated in the opening Editorial:

‘We live in an age of loss, we are saturated with it… a time of loneliness and desolation. Time like this are hard to live through for people who understand both what is at stake and their own small part in the cycle. But we have to live through them.’

Then the question that the volume asks is ‘How do we begin to find our way home? Looking for what we lost on the way, making it matter again, working to save what can still be saved - these themes run through this third issue of Dark Mountain.’

To paraphrase, how do we dare to beleive that our civilisation is ruining everything of value in it, and how do we live in that civilisation when we can’t really save it?

Taken as a whole that the DMP’s reason for being. It’s a movement that says the unspeakable things, it’s a movement that calls out the perverse logic of the new-environmentalists while being honest enough to say that the old stuff failed, and the stuff we’re doing now isn’t going to do a thing to stop the decline.

The solution? In a way they acknowledge there isn’t one and that’s part of the point. Finding ‘a solution’ is just an indicator of our own planet-sized ignorance and arrogance. This is why there’s the emphasis on finding the way forward. The DMP way seems to be to do honest things well. There’s an awareness that ultimately this isn’t going to stop global capitalism screwing the planet, but never the less these things are important, if only to strengthen the vein of things that might get remembered as this civilisation passes into history and something else takes its place.

Dark Ecology

This mood of general, unstoppable decline through over-development that is endured through small acts of authentic is very well demonstaretd in the first essay in the book, ‘Dark Ecology’ by Paul Kingsnorth. He should know what he’s talking about.

I like this so much I summarised it as a way to understand it.

But in short this piece is a sustained questioning of ‘what to do now’ bracketed with some writing on tool use and technology. This is fairly typical in the volume, there’s often a deliberate step away from something too clinical and manufactured, back towards a thing or an idea that has a closer relationship with the body, something that involves movement, impact, effort.

If you were churlish you might say that it’s the middle classes rediscovering proper work, and in a way that is probably true. But it’s also beside the point as the aim here is not to merely do proper work, but reinvent our whole relationship with the nature/culture nexus. It’s not about learning to build a new kitchen (though that would be nice!) but, in one sense, to practice for the demise of ‘labour-saving’ technologies and the infrastructure that consumes and relies on such things.

Towards the end of the article Kingsnorth asks himself the inevitable question of what to do now. This feels very personal, like we are looking at a young(ish) man trying to figure out what the hell to do with his life now his first love has passed. His options, our options, are, if not bleak, then certainly hard. You can read them in full at the bottom of my summary. The very short version is:

  1. Withdraw

  2. Preserve non-human life

  3. Get your hands dirty

  4. Insist that nature has value beyond utility

  5. Build refuges

Many of the remaining pieces in the book are about pursuing one of those options.

Last days, last words - by John Rember

This is a subtle and reflective piece by an American professor and writing teacher who lives in the mid west. Part memoir, part reflection on the practice of teaching and learning, it’s also a tour through the expectations of a whole generation of middle class Americans who are going to come a cropper if they expect their lives to be a smooth continuation of their parents’ lives.

His take on the difficulty this university generation are going to face certainly chimes with the experience of recent and current graduates in the UK - no jobs, not a hope of a house for twenty years, a reduced standard of living; can they see this as a challenge worth taking on or just sink into regret?

Buy yourself a wilderness

In keeping with the theme of wilderness there is an interview with the two founders of Timberland and Patagonia who used their sale money to buy whacking great parts of Peru. They have basically done what Kingsnorth was talking about earlier - option four, ‘Refuge’.

Finding Roe Deer

Graffitti artist Thomas Keyes trades spray cans and the urban jungle for creating work on road-kill sourced stretched skins. He sets himself the goal of creating art only from materials foraged from the his environment. Initially this proves difficult. Comparing home brew with the dense rich tones of commercially grown wine, he has the same disappointment with natural ‘paint’ which lacks the ‘thick opaque, pressurised colour that delivers at the speed of thought’. But then he makes his own vellum and finds a material that ‘leads him forward’.

It’s not just about the art though. He also finds his family comes together over the celebration of eating the deer, ‘it was as if they had been absorbed into our lives…’ and, in using the complete animal, he finds a richness revealed in the carcass ‘the hides and tendons provided months of craft and experimentation.’

The colour plate of the resulting work is beautiful enough, but the enriching of the art through Keyes’ stumbling towards integrity with his materials makes it rich. I would love to see the finished work where Keyes feels the deer have been deified.

It’s an inspiring piece - it really makes you want to get your hands dirty (option three) and move away from the squeamish vacuum-packed version of meat and game the supermarket thinks we want. And also it made me wonder again at the intensely groomed quality of so much visual art, where the canvas is a neutral surface. In Keyes world it is anything but, a world where he needs to ‘converse with, rather than paint over, the deer skins.’

There’s an article by Keyes on the role of fineart in Transition which is worth a read if you want to know a little more about his perspective.

Conversation with Dimitri Orlov

Dimitri Orlov is new to me, a prophet of collapse and something of a maverick. His thoughts are perhaps best summed up in this piece Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century. As he succinctly puts it, ‘The experience of the first collapse may be instructive to those who wish to survive the second.’

The key idea is that he’s watched the implosion of Russia and he thinks it could/will happen to US (and by extension any civilisation). Committed to survival he sails his boat and tries to start post-collapse living methodolgies right now. It’s bracing stuff and the interview reveals a man who values outright ownership of simple physical goods, community (because you need social capital and hard-skills more than money when money becomes worthless) and hopes that the die-off of humans will be fast when it comes.

Orlov is then either the baddie in a bad thriller or a visitor from the future of the planet. His inclusion in Dark Mountain seems to be to cast an extreme view, and in that context the interview is effective. Whether you think the man is unhinged or simply factual in his predictions they are worth listening to, if only for the deep black humour which runs though his work. ‘Having large quantities of money in your possession causes some kind of neurological damage’ is a typical sentence, observational, insightful and worldly.

As a day trip to a potential future, it’s worth the ride.

And plenty more, including prose

That’s a good sample of things. There are other articles and stories/memoirs that I very much enjoyed:

  • There’s an interview article on Ivan Illich and the Venacular which is a good introduction to a thinker I knew nothing about.

  • ‘Bending like a peasant’ is a about finding the physicality of work and a meditation on how we may find ourselves working the land sooner than we think - and that if that happens we would be the lucky ones.

  • ‘Following Nature’s Course’ a lovely piece on philosophy and the broad idea of ‘the way of ideas’ and the dissolution of the medieval cosmos into that of the object(ive)world of the rational enlightment. A clear and engaging piece on our relationship with nature and our loss of the ‘friendliness of life.’

I am in danger of misrepresenting the book now! There are a few piece of fiction as well, but I have concentrated on articles because they have had the most to say to me at the moment.

Some of the stories are good, some passable but all of them stay mercifully far away from being easy narrative and neat turning points in the last paragraph. There’s a shared sense in the stories that things are being worked out, that strangeness lurks, and the ongoing attempt to locate an effective authenticity continues.

Skipping over the rhyme

I am not much into the english tradition of pastoral poetry. That puts me on the outside of much of the poetry that’s in the volume, and I should probably not critique it, both for fear of seeming churlish and because, well, it’s just not my thing at the moment. I did the terrible thing of skimming a few lines and then moving on. That feels pretty cheap and I would like to go back over it all again and give it a fair shot now my excitement over the articles has died down a little. I would probably like the poetry if I could see it being performed.

Conclusion then

It should be clear I really enjoyed this book - if enjoyment is the right word… engaged might be better.

DMP3 is like a literary journal that actually has a point, and it manages to escape the ‘invite the well known writer to comment about XXX’ disease of themed anthologies.

These writers are really writing about what concerns them deeply. Style is a quality of the work rather than the main show. You obviously had to want to be in this volume to get in it and that level of commitment shows through.

There’s pain and uncertainly in this book, and plenty of it, but it’s a necessary and evocative pain, exactly that kind of pain that contemporary commercial interests would rather we avoided because it’s genuine, useful pain, a corrolaary to that ‘friendliness of life’ mentioned in the article on philosophy.

So, a great read. So good that after I’d taken the time to digest the book and write this I went back and ordered the first two volumes.

I have also started following a good few of the people in the volume on their blogs (The Dark Mountain blog itself is also good) and have effectively discovered an interesting and diverse group of people. One day I might even meet some of them. It will sure beat what passes for discussion at walk, talking about the ‘latest news’ as decided by The Metro and having serious meetings about business strategy.