The Dark Mountain at the End of the World

by Per Johansson

Last time I tried to write, or rather speak, about the end of the world was at the hacker conference FSCONS 2013 in Gothenburg, where Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project, also happened to be giving a talk. My own talk was titled One Person’s Utopia Is Another’s Dystopia: The Subjective Dimension of Objective Changes, and afterwards Dougald came up to me and expressed his interest in what I had been trying to convey. We had never met before but I immediately sensed a deep connection, of that preternatural kind which makes you feel like you know each other, even though you only just met. On that rainy autumn day I had to leave early, and not much was said between us, but we have managed to get together several times since, and a really good and deep conversation has started to unfold itself.

I mention this here because it is Dougald’s friendship that has made me more immediately and deeply aware of The Dark Mountain Project than I otherwise would have been. (After all, there is no dearth of ”projects” in the world, is there?) But as soon as I read The Dark Mountain Manifesto, and, somewhat critically, discussed it with Dougald, I realized that this project was one of a kind, actually the first really deep, existential reaction to ”the environmental crisis” that I have come across, and that seems to have some real substance to it.

Here I just want to offer some rambling thoughts on how my own intellectual cum existential stance, developed over decades, ties in with the impetus behind The Dark Mountain Project.

I have for a very long time regarded ”the environmental crisis” as first and foremost a human crisis, and not primarily one of ”nature”. In my book The Lure of Origins, which was also my PhD dissertation, I wrote, regarding the concepts of nature and environment, respectively:

”Nature” is a term and multi-faceted concept which is often more or less identified with the concepts of ecology and environment, even though these three concepts are not really identical. This practice is highly inadequate […]. [p 109] I think that it is [more] worthwhile to study different human-environmental (not human-nature) relations, regardless of whether the environments are abstractly classified as ”natural” or ”cultural”. In reality these domains interpenetrate each other in various ways which belie the clearcut dual categorization. So, the first step must be to broadly categorize different kinds of environment and then try to understand in which way(s) they interpenetrate each other. [p 110]

I then devoted a large part of the book to detailing three basic kinds of interpenetrating human environments, with which we as human beings (persons) are equally and inescapably interweaved, 24/7. These person-environment ensembles are the human-biological, the human-artifactual, and the human-symbolic. Their being interweaved means that together they engender an ecological totality that is not necessarily ”whole”, but the consequences of which are that, as human beings, we are everywhere and at all times simultaneously and inescapably animals, artisans or bricoleurs, and meaning-producing symbolizers. There is, for us, no pristine ”nature”, and there never has been. And there will never be a technology that somehow ”frees” us from our animalness, or our meaning — a word that should be taken as a verb. Everything we do and think and feel will always be meaningful in one way or another. Meaninglessness itself is a highly meaningful experience.

I also think that as human beings, as persons, we all potentially have one very special capacity, and that is to become conscious. Although we do not often do this, each and every one of us is potentially capable of observing ourselves animaling, artifacting, and symbolizing. This gives birth to a literally transcendent possiblility in our lives where we can recognize, if only for a terrible moment of sudden clarity, where and when we are in the world — terrible because we actually very seldom are conscious in this revealing manner, and most of us live in artifactual and cultural, symbolic, environments that incessantly conspire to keep us asleep.

Altogether this means that if someone tells me that we are ”destroying nature” I disagree, and this is not just a semantic squabble, because I think that nature is in fact indestructible. What we probably are destroying on Earth right now, is rather a particular kind of human-engendered environment, called modern civilization. To me, the possible end or collapse of this civilization is synonymous with the collapse of a certain kind of collective ”environmenting” activity on the part of collective humanity. The real crisis, in other words, is human through and through, and only human.

What?! you say. But, but, there are animals, plants, coral reefs, forests, lakes dying out there! Oh yes, and I cry over them. I feel their loss so deep in my very marrow that, honestly, I am seldom able to stand the feeling or hold the thought for very long. But the crux is that animals, forests, coral reefs are used to dying. They have been doing that for millions and millions of years. It is quite natural to them. It is the way of their world. If the cause of death is a lightning strike, or an ice age, or a bulldozer, or climate change — so what? They do not protest. Never have. Never will. They are very, very patient, in the original etymological meaning of the word. We are not, so God help us. The loss of forests, animals and lakes is a thoroughly human loss. We should ask ourselves why we cry over it, or why we don’t. Then we will have a real conversation, the very conversation that it seems to me that The Dark Mountain Project has started to foster.

Our current civilization is not used to dying at all. In fact it is constructed on the basis of a deeply held disbelief in and refusal of dying, a refusal to be patient in the face of the reaper. What the current accumulated crises mean, is that more and more people are starting to feel the truly cosmic reaper’s presence where that stern saturnine reality, by modern definition, should not be present — in everyday modern life. (”Post-modern” is really an oxymoron in this grand perspective on things.)

The conditioned response of most of us in the face of this discomforting realization is ”We have to do something! We have to save the planet!” But this is pure euphemism. What we really mean, I have realized more and more, is ”We have to save ourselves!” But why?

If we do not think and talk deeply about this impertinent question we will, together, remain thoroughly asleep. Survival, to me, is a very superficial reason to live, and it is clearly not motivating enough to make neither most people, nor the governments and corporations of the world, really care about the deaths accumulating in our civilization’s wake.

There must, then, be something very wrong with the Story of Our Civilization that we have become used to telling ourselves, in order to be able to make sense of what we do. It simply does not handle death very well, even though, in the daytime working hours, it thinks it could handle even the reaper (The Reaper, damn it) like some problem to be solved.”Let’s save the planet!”But ”the planet” does not need saving. We do. But then again: Why?

This is the central, the ultimate failure of modern institutions of all kinds. They can no longer answer that most important of questions. More and more they are just sort of idling, frantically but unconsciously hoping for some future clarification of their purpose which, it is becoming very clear once you wake up for a couple of minutes, is not forthcoming. And the human crises loom ever larger on the horizon. As it says in The Dark Mountain Manifesto: ”Once that belief [in its purpose] begins to crumble, the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable.” ”The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic.”

But that is also exactly why we, human beings, are in fact at the very center of ”creation”. The Story of Modern Civilization tells us that this means that we got to lord it over all the other animals, that the world’s springs, forests, seas, and oil fields were there just for us. If, now, we are beginning to see through that misunderstanding, it does not follow that we are any less at the center. It just means that it will be worthwhile to tell other stories, stories that re-mind us of our position, stories that actually center us, personally and collectively, not around some future goal, not around solving “global problems”, but in the face of Death. That is where Life is, too. Ask any animals of your acquaintance (don’t forget, some of them are human). And learn to improvise from them, for the time being.

Per is editor and co-founder of Mooria, historian of science and ideas, PhD in human ecology, nowadays an independent scholar, consultant, and specialist in technology-human-environment relations. Per has also produced several well-received podcast series with culture journalist Eric Schüldt. He feels honoured to be called a “Mountaineer”.

Originally published at infontology.typepad.com on April 22, 2014.

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