Despite Despair, I'm Not Ready to Climb Dark Mountain

Those who defend economic growth
often argue that only rich countries can afford to protect the
environment. The bigger the economy, the more money will be available
for stopping pollution, investing in new forms of energy, preserving
wilderness. Only the wealthy can live sustainably.

Anyone who has
watched the emerging horror in the Gulf of Mexico in the past few days
has cause to doubt this. The world's richest country decided not to
impose the rules that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,
arguing that these would impede the pursuit of greater wealth. Economic
growth, and the demand for oil that it propelled, drove companies to
drill in difficult and risky places.

But we needn't rely on this event to dismiss the cornucopians' thesis as self-serving nonsense. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
calculates deforestation rates between 2000 and 2005 in the countries
with the largest areas of forest cover. The nation with the lowest rate
was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The nation with the
highest, caused by a combination of logging and fire, was the United
States. Loss of forest cover there (6% of its own forests in five
years) was almost twice as fast as in Indonesia and 10 times as fast as
in the DRC. Why? Because those poorer countries have less money to
invest in opening up remote places and felling trees.

The wealthy
nations are plundering not only their own resources. The environmental
disasters caused by the oil industry in Ecuador and Nigeria are not
driven by Ecuadorian or Nigerian demand, but by the thirst for oil in
richer nations. Deforestation in Indonesia is driven by the rich
world's demand for palm oil and timber, in Brazil by our hunger for
timber and animal feed.

The Guardian's carbon calculator
reveals that the UK has greatly underestimated the climate impacts of
our consumption. The reason is that official figures don't count
outsourced emissions: the greenhouse gases produced by other countries
manufacturing goods for our markets. Another recent paper in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the UK
imports a net 253m tonnes of carbon dioxide, embodied in the goods it
buys. When this is taken into account, we find that far from cutting
emissions since 1990, as the last government claimed, we have increased
them. Wealth wrecks the environment.

So the Dark Mountain Project,
whose ideas are spreading rapidly through the environment movement, is
worth examining. It contends that "capitalism has absorbed the greens".
Instead of seeking to protect the natural world from the impact of
humans, the project claims that environmentalists now work on
"sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world's
rich people - us - feel is their right".

Today's greens, it
charges, seek to sustain the culture that knackers the planet,
demanding only that we replace old, polluting technologies with new
ones - wind farms, solar arrays, wave machines - that wreck even more
of the world's wild places. They have lost their feelings for nature,
reducing the problem to an engineering challenge. They've forgotten
that they are supposed to be defending the biosphere: instead they are
trying to save industrial civilisation.

That task, Paul
Kingsnorth - a co-founder of Dark Mountain - believes, is futile: "The
civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and
it is too late to stop it." Nor can we bargain with it, as "the
economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it
relies upon ... growth in order to function". Instead of trying to reduce
the impacts of our civilisation, we should "start thinking about how we
are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its
collapse ... Our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can,
whilst creating new myths which put humanity in its proper place".

a fair bit of this takes aim at my writing and the ideas I champion, I
recognise the truth in it. Something has been lost along the way. Among
the charts and tables and technofixes, in the desperate search for
green solutions that can work politically and economically, we have
tended to forget the love of nature that drew us into all this.

I cannot make the leap that Dark Mountain demands. The first problem
with its vision is that industrial civilisation is much more resilient
than it proposes. In the opening essay of the movement's first book,
to be published this week, John Michael Greer proposes that
conventional oil supplies peaked in 2005, that gas will peak by 2030,
and that coal will do so by 2040.

While I'm prepared to believe
that oil supplies might decline in the next few years, his coal
prediction is hogwash. Energy companies in the UK, as the latest ENDS report shows, are now beginning to deploy a technology that will greatly increase available reserves. Government figures suggest that underground coal gasification
- injecting oxygen into coal seams and extracting the hydrogen and
methane they release - can boost the UK's land-based coal reserves
70-fold; and it opens up even more under the seabed. There are vast
untapped reserves of other fossil fuels - bitumen, oil shale, methane
clathrates - that energy companies will turn to if the price is right.

all cultures, industrial civilisation will collapse at some point.
Resource depletion and climate change are likely causes. But I don't
believe it will happen soon: not in this century, perhaps not even in
the next. If it continues to rely on economic growth, if it doesn't
reduce its reliance on primary resources, our civilisation will tank
the biosphere before it goes down. To sit back and wait for what the
Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation's imminent collapse,
without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the
destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.

Nor do I
accept their undiscriminating attack on industrial technologies. There
is a world of difference between the impact of windfarms and the impact
of mining tar sands or drilling for oil: the turbines might spoil the
view but, as the latest disaster shows, the effects of oil seep into
the planet's every pore. And unless environmentalists also seek to
sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation - health,
education, sanitation, nutrition - the field will be left to those who
rightly wish to preserve them, but don't give a stuff about the impacts.

can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can
embrace engineering while rejecting many of the uses to which it is
put. We can defend healthcare while attacking useless consumption. This
approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less
ugly than the alternatives.

For all that, the debate this project has begun is worth having, which is why I'll be going to the Dark Mountain festival this month. There are no easy answers to the fix we're in. But there are no easy non-answers either.

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