Walking on Lava: Apocalypse and Uncivilization

Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. We have, it seems, led the planet into the age of ecocide. Can civilisation survive the unavoidable environmental catastrophe? To stand a chance we will need cool heads, not fiery dreams.

During the past century empires crashed, new states foundered,
utopian projects failed and entire civilisations melted down.
Revolutionary change was the norm, as it has been throughout modern
times. Yet today many of us assume our present way of life will last
for ever, and any suggestion that it may be facing intractable
difficulties is dismissed as doom-mongering. The result is that the
precariousness of modern civilisation is underestimated and the
impression that things can go on indefinitely, much as they do now is
touted as hard-headed realism.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto
begins with the observation that this appearance of stability is
delusive. "The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the
same from one day to the next," the authors write, "disguises the
fragility of its fabric." Written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine,
this slim pamphlet aims to demolish contemporary beliefs about
progress, industrialism and the place of human beings on the planet,
and up to a point it succeeds. Much in contemporary thought is made up
of myths masquerading as facts, and it is refreshing to see these myths
clearly identified as such. The authors are right that none is more
powerful than the idea that we are separate from the natural world, and
free to use it as we see fit.

But is it true that civilisation
is also a myth, as Kingsnorth and Hine claim? Would human beings - or
the planet that they are ravaging - be better off if civilisation
collapsed? The authors tell us that our present way of life "is built
upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our
indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species".

These
legends, they continue, have "led the planet into the age of ecocide".
The spread of civilisation and the destruction of the biosphere have
gone together. The human future, it seems to the authors, must lie in
"uncivilisation".

Kingsnorth and Hine seem to present
uncivilisation as chiefly a project for writers and artists. They do
not appear to be fixed on tackling environmental crisis with new
policies or any kind of political action. A change of sensibility is
what they are after, and it is interesting to note the writers they
pick out as exemplars of this new view of things.

One is
Robinson Jeffers, the once-celebrated and now much-underrated
Californian eco-poet from one of whose verses the Dark Mountain project
takes its name. Others include Wendell Berry, W S Merwin and Cormac
McCarthy. Joseph Conrad is mentioned more than once, and cited
approvingly for his view (summarised by his friend Bertrand Russell)
that civilised life is "a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely
cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink
into fiery depths".

It is intriguing to see which writers do and
do not make it on to the authors' list. J G Ballard, whose entire work
can be seen as an exploration of the flimsiness of civilised existence,
is left out, while Conrad's inclusion shows only that the authors have
seriously misunderstood him. In a passage quoted in the pamphlet,
Conrad writes: "Few men realise that their life, the very essence of
their character, their capabilities and audacities, are only the
expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings."

For
Conrad, the safety of civilised life was always partly illusory, if
only because "civilisation" itself is never more than partial; the
heart of darkness was as much in London as in the Congo. But even
though civilisation is indelibly flawed, that does not mean it deserves
to be destroyed; on the contrary, Conrad was convinced civilisation
must be defended with unyielding determination. In reality, the
alternative - a raw version of which he witnessed in King Leopold's
private fiefdom in the Belgian Congo - is madness and unrestrained
violence, a state that can reasonably be described as barbarism.

The
authors' misreading of Conrad provides a clue to their reasons for
excluding Ballard from their list of kindred spirits. Ballard's early
life in a Shanghai internment camp taught him that the disintegration
of society does not produce any better version of the human animal. It
may lead to a kind of personal liberation - at least if you are an
adolescent boy, as Ballard was when he was interned - but overall the
result of social collapse is to give free rein to the most psychopathic
and predatory among us.

The notion that social breakdown could
be the prelude to a better world is a Romantic dream that history has
proved wrong time and again. China and Russia have suffered complete
social breakdown on several occasions during their history, as did much
of Europe in the period between the two world wars. The result has
never been the stable anarchy that is sometimes envisioned in the
poetry of Jeffers. Instead, it is the thugs and fanatics who promise to
restore order that triumph, whether Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in
China, or Hitler and assorted petty dictators in Europe. It is the old
Hobbesian doctrine - one that has never been successfully superseded.

The
authors do not tell us what they expect to happen after civilisation
has disappeared, but it may be something like the post-apocalyptic,
neo-medieval world imagined by the nature mystic Richard Jefferies in
his novel After London, or Wild England (1885). In
it, Britain is depopulated after ecological disaster and reverts to
barbarism; but it is not long before a new social order springs up,
simpler and happier than the one that has passed away. After London is an Arcadian morality tale that even Jefferies probably did not imagine could ever come to pass.

Over
a century later, the belief that a global collapse could lead to a
better world is ever more far-fetched. Human numbers have multiplied,
industrialisation has spread worldwide and the technologies of war are
far more highly developed. In these circumstances, ecological
catastrophe will not trigger a return to a more sustainable way of
life, but will intensify the existing competition among nation states
for the planet's remaining reserves of oil, gas, fresh water and arable
land. Waged with hi-tech weapons, the resulting war could destroy not
only large numbers of human beings but also much of what is left of the
biosphere.

A scenario of this kind is not remotely apocalyptic.
It is no more than history as usual, together with new technologies and
ongoing climate change. The notion that the conflicts of history have
been left behind is truly apocalyptic, and Kingsnorth and Hine are
right to target business-as-usual philosophies of progress. When they
posit a cleansing catastrophe, however, they, too, succumb to
apocalyptic thinking. How can anyone imagine that the dream-driven
human animal will suddenly become sane when its environment starts
disintegrating? In their own catastrophist fashion, the authors have
swallowed the progressive fairy tale that animates the civilisation
they reject.

A change of sensibility in the arts would be highly
desirable. The new perspective that is needed, however, is the opposite
of apocalyptic. Neither Conrad nor Ballard believed that catastrophe
could alter the terms on which human beings live in the world. Both
writers were unsparing critics of civilisation, but they never imagined
there was a superior alternative. Each had witnessed for himself what
the alternative means in practice.

Rightly, Kingsnorth and Hine
insist that our present environmental difficulties are not solvable
problems, but are inseparable from our current way of living. When
confronted with problems that are insoluble, however, the most useful
response is not to await disaster in the hope that the difficulties
will magically disappear. It is to do whatever can be done, knowing
that it will not amount to much. Stoical acceptance of this kind is
practically unthinkable at present - an age when emotional
self-expression is valued more than anything else. Still, stoicism will
be needed if civilised life is to survive an environmental crisis that
cannot now be avoided. Walking on lava requires a cool head, not one
filled with fiery dreams.