“I think many of us are great seekers of certainty. We press our spiritual and religious leaders for universal truth, always yearning for the definitive answer. Yet all around us we find ourselves immersed in a world where change seems to be everlasting and the only real constant. We expect our scientists to give us certainty, and often they collude with claims that it is only the scientific method that holds the format for certainty. In some scientific research results there appears to be a very solid bulk of certainty, however in quantum physics, the answers seem to just bring up more questions.
Unsatisfied and frustrated, we thrust this way and that for answers to life’s mysteries as if not knowing was a huge problem. For all who seek, there will always be a few ready answers and there has never been a shortage of spiritual guides. But we are talking about doubt. Let me form another question and pose an answer if I can. Can we hold both doubt and enough certainty such that we can be comfortable in saying “I have some doubt but I pursue my path discarding the need to be certain”? Can we weigh up certainty and uncertainty and make a decision based on which way the scales tip? I doubt it!
I think we act on the basis of what works for us whilst continually there is awareness of certainty and doubt in a continually changing mixture. One last question: Can we reach the joy in being without certainty or to put it another way, can we reach the joy in being and still have doubts?”
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Interview with Dougald by Willi
Please give us some examples from the Dark Mountain Project (DMP); how is it “a new cultural movement for an age of global disruption?”
Dark Mountain started as a conversation between two writers. We’d both had careers as journalists, both been involved with the environmental movement, and both arrived at a similar sense of deep frustration. Environmentalism had narrowed from a critique of our ways of living to this technocratic focus on counting carbon emissions, losing its cultural dimension. Meanwhile, you looked at the books celebrated in the Culture sections of the papers, and felt how irrelevant or offensive they would seem when people look back a generation from now, given what we already knew about the crises around and ahead of us.
So, we did what writers do and wrote about this. The result was a pamphlet we called ‘Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto’. It wasn’t a manifesto in the political sense – a set of proposals making up a party line. More like an invitation. We were opening a space in which you didn’t have to pretend that this way of living can somehow be made “sustainable”, or that life ceases to be liveable outside of the bubble of modern western consumerism people are trying to sustain.
Our first thought – again, because we were writers – was to start a publication, a journal of some kind, which would offer a home to people who wanted to write in the face of this unmanageable situation we find ourselves in. That happened – the first volume of Dark Mountain came out in 2010, a book full of stories, essays, poems, images and conversations, and we’re in the middle of editing number two. But the project also branched off into all kinds of other directions: we got invitations to run festivals and collaborate on art projects; musicians like Marmaduke Dando, The General Assembly and Chris T-T recorded songs inspired by the manifesto; we heard from reading groups around the world that were discussing it, and people who had started to organise local meetups and events.
So that original conversation has gone on to spark thousands of conversations around the world, some of which we get to hear about, many of which are going on just fine without us.
What are your “practical skills”? Why did you learn them?
You’re talking about the phrase we use on the website, right? The one about being a “movement of writers, artists, craftspeople and workers with practical skills.”
When the manifesto came out, we expected it to speak to other writers – and maybe to artists, or even musicians. But what we didn’t anticipate was the response from practical people, craftsmen, boatmakers, people building and growing things. The dialogue between the verbal and the physical, between seeing and making, seems to characterise this emerging culture which Dark Mountain is a part of. As a writer, it’s also about escaping from the privileging of the written word – the book as magical object, implement of indoctrination and tool of liberation – and returning to the larger conversation which the world is always already having with itself, in which words are only one kind of participation.
I wouldn’t claim any great practical skills myself, but being around craftsmen has shaped my understanding of the world. It taught me to respect the grain of reality, the feel you develop if you work long enough with particular materials, the kinds of knowledge which can never fully be put into words.
Do you consider the world as polarized between survivalists and all the others?
No. It’s very rarely a good idea to look at the world in polarised terms. Charles Hugh Smith wrote a great essay about survivalism, which we’re publishing in the next book. He’s coming from the perspective of being a guy who grew up in hillbilly country, watching the flatlanders come and build their heavily-defended hideaways. “The best protection isn’t owning 30 guns,” he says, “it’s having 30 people who care about you… The second best protection isn’t a big stash of stuff others want to steal; it’s sharing what you have and owning little of value.”
If the survivalists didn’t exist, though, our culture would probably invent them. We have this deep need for black-and-white oppositions, for believing that either things go on along just the trajectory we’re set on, or else it’s the apocalypse. That kind of opposition is something what we’re trying to pry open with Dark Mountain – when we talk about the importance of the imagination, it’s because we need to get better at imagining all the other futures in between “the end of the world as we know it” and “the end of the world, full stop” as written in Revelation.
As you claim, you are just responding to the world now unfolding around you, but certainly you hold certain business models, spiritual beliefs and artistic patterns higher than others? Details please!
Given that this “movement” is more like a conversation than like a political party, there’s no Dark Mountain party line I can give you about a question like this. I can tell you a bit about what I think, for what it’s worth – just don’t expect Paul or anyone else to necessarily agree with all of it.
So, I think we’ve become used to metabolising money to a dangerous extent. We’ve lost the knack of getting things done without using either money or coercion – not entirely, not everywhere or in all corners of our lives, but compared to how people have tended to live in most times and places, we’ve become very rusty. One of the things I’ve been exploring in my work with Space Makers is how we can reground our economic lives within a social and cultural whole, within custom and community, in the pockets where the mainstream economy is most visibly failing.
I tend to assume that animism is the default human attitude to reality and anything else will most likely prove a temporary aberration – that’s something I talk about in the conversation I filmed with David Abram. But I’ve been deeply influenced by friendships with thoughtful believers from various traditions. I look at my friends and I see people driven to improvise new vocational forms, new ways of living which negotiate between the known and the unknown, which may yet restore some of the social functions of religion, while letting go of much of its vocabulary.
As for artistic patterns? Well, one thing that seems to connect the writers who inspire me is that they see a pattern as the record of a process. In other words, they cannot look at a thing without seeing the past and future flowing through it, the history and prehistory of an object and its materials, the lives and experiences – often carefully hidden from view – without which this wall, or this book, or this landscape would not be as it is. What goes with this is an insistence on the value of the specific, the qualitative, the incommensurable – that which cannot be meaningfully measured – which sets them quietly at odds with many of the assumptions encoded in the institutions and ways of thinking which have recently dominated our societies.
What is sustainable design? Relate to “safety of surroundings” per your Manifesto.
This is a passage we quote from Conrad, about how few of us realise just how much the way of living with which we identify is an expression of our belief in the safety of our surroundings. It’s so easy to take the continuity for granted until the moment when it’s not there. We mistake how things happen to be for how things need to be. Every revolution is ridiculous, until it was inevitable.
Is sustainability like a new religion?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s like an old religion? I’ll tell you why I think of this.
My friend Ansuman Biswas does things like get locked up in the tower of the Manchester Museum for forty days in the name of art. (He’s also a yogi who flew a magic carpet in the cosmonauts’ training programme, but that is another story.) While he was there, each day, he would nominate a different object from the museum’s collections for destruction. If people wanted to save an object, it was not enough to make an abstract argument that it ought to be saved, they had to take personal responsibility for what should happen to it instead. Destruction is simply the natural course of events, he says: anything else is a deliberate intervention.
All of this played out on a blog which was his only means of contact with the outside world for the duration of his hermitage – and it generated reactions as extreme as any I have seen to a work of art. “In an ideal world,” one angry commenter wrote, “everything of value would be preserved forever.” And I thought, gosh, that sounds like a very cluttered world to me. Like one of those old people’s houses that are stacked to the ceiling because everything that ever came through the front door has been saved.
And I wondered what made it thinkable that this cluttered nightmare was somehow an ideal. Then it struck me that perhaps you could trace the roots of this weird assumption to a theological imbalance. Look at Christianity and – for all the rich and wise traditions around death which you find around it – there is the basic emphasis on salvation, on saving things, at the core of its mythos. There is no positive embodiment of destruction, no Shiva to balance Christ the saviour.
Now, I’m just playing around here, but if “sustainability” has come to mean “sustaining our whole way of living at all costs” – which certainly begins to feel like a religious goal – then perhaps this is an echo of our older religious heritage?
So – art will save us?!
Well, like I was saying, what’s with the fixation on being saved? Doesn’t all the language about “saving the planet” sound a lot like we inherited it from 19th century missionaries?
Apart from anything else, it casts us in this superhero role – humanity riding to the rescue. When the reality is that we are at sea, among forces we have certainly influenced, but are no way in control of.
How does DMP end war?
Who ever said it would?
“There is a fall coming”. To me and others, we are in free-fall now. How to describe it?
There’s a quote from Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher. “Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal,” he says. “The more original move is to assume that it has already happened.”
So yes, let’s say we’re already in free-fall, all that’s solid melted from under our feet and even the illusion of stability crumbling. The end of the world as we know it is also the end of a way of knowing the world. We’re thrown into the unknown world ahead, where we are still here but many of the things we took for granted are going, a weird mixture of uncertainty and normality, things you never imagined living with becoming every day.
Do you use alchemy? Are you writing new myths?
All metaphor is alchemy, isn’t it? A writer or an artist turns her gaze on something every day and finds wonders there, sees heaven in a wild flower, holds infinity in a handful of dust.
I love John Berger’s account of the dialogue between the painter and the subject – a mountain or a mouse or a child – which tells the painter, “I’ll give you what I’ve given nobody else, but it’s worthless, it’s simply the answer to your useless question.” The riddle of what falls through the net of use and exchange. Answer that, and you have found the philosopher’s stone.
As for new myths – are there any? I know we’ve talked about “new stories”. That was something we were picked up on by Chris Wood, the folk singer, who closed the final night of our festival with the most extraordinary, moving set. He said, “Maybe you’re trying to reinvent the wheel?” And I think he’s right, one of the best aids we have for the uncertain times ahead is the old stories, the ones that have made it through generation after generation. As Alan Garner says, the challenge in each generation is to make the old stories new, to find the voice that carries their truths as if spoken for the first time, the way a great actor learns the lines until you are convinced they came straight out of the moment.
Are you actively fighting those ”who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadel?” Please clearly define cosmopolitan citadel with names.
Well, we haven’t parked our tank on Martin Amis’s front lawn, if that’s what you mean! Although Paul did threaten to have Ian McEwan burned in effigy.
Rhetoric is fun, isn’t it? And if you grow up in the north east of England, as I did, and you spend your twenties living and working in Sheffield, maddened by the metropolitan parochialism of the London media which alternately ignores then caricatures the places where most of us actually live – well, you build up a fair amount of spleen. There’s an amazing passage towards the end of Stuart Maconie’s ‘Pies and Prejudice’ when he breaks out from this gentle, amusing, fascinating tone with which he’s explored what it means to be northern, into a sudden vent of anger as he’s listening to a play on Radio 4 and all that unstated prejudice suddenly comes into eloquent focus.
But then I turned thirty and I found myself living in London, not hating it as much as I’d intended to, although I still occasionally get that sense of being behind enemy lines. And beyond the rhetoric, I wouldn’t want people to feel that Dark Mountain is entirely about wuthering around on hillsides, much as I love wuthering. I’ve always seen myself more as a trafficker between worlds, moving between the known and the unknown, negotiating the awkward spaces in between. For what it’s worth, it’s those awkward spaces where I would expect the future to come from, one way or another.
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Dougald Hine Bio –
Dougald is a writer, speaker and creator of organisations, projects and events.
His work is driven by a desire to understand how we change things, and how things change, with or without us. This has taken him cross country through a range of fields, from social theory to the tech industry, literary criticism, the future of institutions and the skills of improvisation. He seeks to make connections between people, between ideas and between worlds.
In 2009, he founded the Dark Mountain Project with Paul Kingsnorth, former editor of The Ecologist. The project began with an invitation to a new cultural conversation about the deep roots of our ecological, social and economic crises.
His other projects include the web star-tup School of Everything, inspired by the radical educational ideas of Ivan Illich, and Space Makers Agency, which brings people together to revive unused urban space.
He grew up in the north-east of England and studied English Literature at New College, Oxford. In addition to several years as a BBC journalist, his early career included teaching English in China, selling books in California and busking throughout Europe.
He is currently working on his next book, ‘Collapsonomics: How we do a good job of getting poorer’.
Dougald Hine –
Dougaldhine at gmail.com
Please join us at the openmythsource reservoir for discussion and then some.