Have we passed the point of no return?
Our contemporary industrial society is sick. But how bad is our diagnosis? Do we have a mild illness requiring a brief lie down and an aspirin, a major problem requiring emergency surgery, or a terminal illness beyond curative treatment, leaving only better or worse palliative care?
There has been an interesting debate on this question upfolding recently on the Guardian website between what may be viewed as different branches of environmentalism. To understand the debate, you first need to get a bit of a handle on a new movement in the UK called The Dark Mountain Project (DMP). Launched just over a year ago by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, DMP is a literary and cultural project exploring new stories for an age of collapse and transition. Their manifesto can be found here, though this quote might give you a taste of their perspective:
"This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop."So while being deeply pessimistic about the chances of continuing life as we know it, they are searching for new (or renewed) cultural narratives to guide us through what they expect will be a period of widespread ecological, social, economic and political change. In particular, those at the DMP are quite critical of an optimistic environmentalism that sees us developing and implementing technological solutions to ecological crises based around a low-carbon economy that will enable the continued economic development of a social and cultural trajectory not too dissimilar to the one we're already on, that the future will be merely "an upgraded version of the present". Nicholas Stern's newish book is one example of this kind of thinking. In other words, DMP are questioning whether sustainable development is really sustainable if it assumes the necessity and desirability of ongoing industrial development in even the developed world. I have previously quoted John Michael Greer, who spoke about contemporary industrial society facing a predicament, not merely a series of problems. That is the basic idea: that we need to work out how to best cushion a now inevitable descent from our current level of social complexity, and Dark Mountain wants to explore cultural narratives other than the myth of progress.
Dark Mountain is gaining a bit of a following, and are holding their first festival in Wales in a few weeks' time. One of the keynote speakers at the festival is well-known Guardian journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot.
The Guardian debate
Monbiot started the Guardian conversation on Tuesday with an article titled "I share their despair, but I'm not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain. He accused the DMP of "giving up" on industrial civilisation, being content to wait for its downfall, which will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we ignore the real opportunities to reform the current system.
Kingsnorth and Hine, founders of Dark Mountain, came back yesterday with "The environmental movement needs to stop pretending". They rejected Monbiot's portrayal of their ideas and charged mainstream environmentalism (including Monbiot) with having been co-opted by capitalist dreams of endless growth, just with wind farms replacing coal.
And then today, Simon Lewis, Royal Society research fellow at the Earth & Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds tried to find a mediating position in "Yes, we can change society before global crises overwhelm us". Lewis argues that Monbiot is too optimistic about the life expectancy of industrial civilisation while Kingsnorth and Hine are premature in issuing a terminal diagnosis. Instead, there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity.
A growing conversation
All three articles are contributions to an ethical and cultural debate that I think will only continue to grow in coming years. It is not a new debate, but it is likely to become increasingly mainstream as more people come to see the depth and breadth of ecological crises our industrial society has spawned. I think this exchange includes its fair share of misunderstandings and misrepresentations (for instance, it is clear that Kingsnorth and Hine are not advocating any kind of quietist despair, nor does Monbiot hope for endless growth. Nonetheless, these authors differ in their estimation of how deeply ecological crises cut into the arteries of our present way of life and how radically and rapidly things need to change as a result. Anyone who takes seriously our present crises will need to face these questions, and on our answers, new alliances and battlegrounds will be drawn.
Speaking of interesting Guardian articles, this one is also worth a read, pointing out that most of the current climate debate is way too simplistic and that scientific, economic, political and ethical questions are not be carefully enough distinguished.
Monbiot and Kingsnorth had an earlier run-in over these questions a little while back.