“We live in a time of social, economic, and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.”
This is a small extract from the Dark Mountain Manifesto released in 2009 by the British writers Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, who founded The Dark Mountain Project, where the manifesto sets out the ideas and goals of the project. The project invites writers and artists to tell stories “through articles and their bi-annual books” centred on the idea that society is not seeing the effects of environmental change and that there is a need to challenge the current societal narratives. And for us, in the safety of the Global North, this discussion also becomes prevalent regarding how democracy can deal with environmental disasters. But whoever is searching for concrete answers should not start this walk up the mountain. The essays, articles, poems and stories published by The Dark Mountain Project do not give direction or instruction for what kind of political or technological reforms and changes are needed to deal with the current environmental crisis. Instead, the aim is to challenge established conceptual frameworks, or as Kingsnorth and Hine explain it, “we believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation”.
As we walk through the pillar vault of the democratic world, the capitals still shine, representing the achievements of the long political process of democratisation. However, achievements in a more turbulent world are under threat. This is not news nor a revolutionary statement; it simply is. In the past few years, we have experienced the rise of right-wing populism in several countries. These movements and parties sometimes stand for views and ideologies that many consider undemocratic. For example, in Italy, the election of the far-right national conservative Giorgia Meloni in September 2022 as Prime Minister prompted fear for the country’s future amongst Italian liberals, as reported by CNN, as Meloni has driven a platform on anti-migration reforms and anti-LGBTQ themes. Or we can see reforms in countries that restrict certain democratic principles—such as the recent law change regarding foreign espionage in Sweden passed in the middle of November. This will change the constitutional laws regarding freedom of expression and the press. Also, making it a punishable crime in some situations to disclose secret information resulting from Sweden’s international cooperation could harm Sweden’s relationships with other countries or international organisations. The list of possible threats to democracy goes on. Still, perhaps even more foundational or terrestrial issues such as environmental collapse pose a more significant threat to democratic societies.
While buffing and polishing the heads of these democratic pillars to protect the generational work to establish democratic societies, the base of the pillars is cracking. These are not signs of old age or the aesthetic crackles on any generic vase purposely broken and glued together to be put on your table kitchen; these are cracks in the world. Our democratic societies, whatever shape or form, are and will experience the effects of undergoing rapid environmental change. The Dark Mountain Manifesto here proclaims that these signs of cracks, represented as inaction or misunderstanding of the current ecological situation, unravel the myth of progress. This myth sustains civilisation and, thus, democracy. This is, however, not only doom and gloom. What is aimed here is not to proclaim that democracy cannot survive or not handle the ongoing environmental crises. Instead, we could gain insights from the voices of artists and writers trying to confer new stories to change the current narratives regarding man and its relation to the environment, a narrative many people in the Global North live with, which is unsuitable. These voices can act as an alternative to technological attempts at climate change mitigation or huge international meetings against climate change, such as the recent COP27 in Egypt.
Second in line is to abandon the myth of nature. This myth states that civilisation and democracy are cost-free and that nature, as separate from the construction of democratic societies, is unsustainable. The Dark Mountain Project does not provide a remedy to save current civilisation but how acceptance and truth must be a more significant part of the conversation. We are “highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence”. The aim is not to create pessimism or deny the achievements of our current civilisation but to highlight that we need a shift in the stories we make. This suggests that the story of democracy could be re-evaluated. Our existing ideas about how democracy is situated in the world and its functions might not be compatible with the environment. However, this is not a suggestion to abandon the democratic project humanity has embarked upon. We instead realise that democracy at its core will not handle the environmental crises by relying on technocrats or international agreements and that democracy must become un-humanised. To be un-humanised means to shift our perspective from seeing humanity’s stories as separate from the world itself. And the writings for the project aim to recreate the societal narratives that have placed us in a bubble cut off from nature and the environment. In their texts, “there is no such thing as nature as distinct from people, and to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the attitude which has brought us here”.
This little exploration into uncivlisation is not a call to arms in the literal sense. Instead, it is about questioning humanity’s centrality in the world and asking people to start walking up the dark mountain and unravelling the myths which will not aid our democratic societies’ head-on collision with the environment. Climbing the mountain is also about daring people to explore other avenues and options beyond settling on mars, constructing CO2 vacuum cleaners or making what sometimes seem like void international agreements. To explore The Dark Mountain Project is to try and rework your conceptual framework about humanity and the world, hopefully giving any weary traveller up the mountain food for thought to come to terms with the environmental crisis and the hope to act.
By Noé Mazza
Image: Naja Bertolt Jensen