Dougald Hine

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.11, Autumn 2015
by Luke Carter

I interviewed Dougald Hine, co-founder of the Dark Mountain project (DM), about the literary journal, Ivan Illich’s ideas on technology, and how it’s not a question of preventing ecological unravelling but more of how we collectively respond to the crisis.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: The Dark Mountain project is not, as it’s often charged, an attempt to undermine environmentalism but, rather, to question some of its assumptions. Challenging the business of sustainability, which your co-founder Paul Kingsnorth describes as the same “expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon”, has caused some obvious discomfort. Five years on, what do you think accounts for the initial reception to the Manifesto and how has it changed?

Dougald Hine: If you read the Manifesto, we were proposing to create a literary journal. The framing of this was a set of very stark statements and questions about the nature of the mess the world is in. I’m not sure anyone would pretend that a literary journal is a way that you’re going to fix or solve everything, or offers the future of the environmental movement. Or, even, an attempt to undermine the environmental movement. But the other thing to say is that the environmental movement does not have a monopoly on the mess the world is in, and part of what we were trying to do was step outside of the subculture of environmentalism that Paul and I had both been involved in and ask questions that there didn’t seem to be enough space for within that subculture. Now, the way in which Dark Mountain came to many people’s attention was through George Monbiot or John Gray’s engagement with the Manifesto, so it was met, perhaps, as a platform or campaign, in some sense, rather than what it was: a cultural movement, the creation of a space where certain conversations could take place.

Dark Mountain is easy to misunderstand. One of the things it took me a while to realise is that the difficulty of summarising it isn’t a problem, it’s part of the nature of the thing itself. What this means is that readers tend to have one of two reactions. They either hit it and bounce off the side, exasperated, bored, indifferent or angry, or if something in it sparks with something in them, then the sheer tangledness of it means that, in order to engage, they have to slow down. And that slowing down is responsible for much of what matters to people about the encounters and experiences that they have around Dark Mountain. It creates a space where there isn’t a rush to action, there isn’t a rush to answers and that’s a space that is quite rare in our society in general, but particularly in the ways that we tend to come together to talk about the mess in which we find ourselves. Yet the scale of the mess is such that, despite the obvious urgency, if we don’t slow down and question a whole lot of the assumptions we bring to it, then the kinds of action we take and the kind of answers we proclaim are likely to lead us further and deeper into the mess, rather than help us catch sight of the possibilities that might still be there. If I look at my shelves, they are full of books that tell us what’s wrong and give an analysis of the nature of the problem. Then there are books—and sometimes it’s the second half of the same book—that offer plans, solutions, that seem to say, ‘If everyone listens to me, we can fix this.’ What is rarer are the books that hold the space between stimulus and response, where we can ask ourselves what this means, how we make sense of where we find ourselves. Books that aren’t simply about delivering information about the problem or the instructions for how we can fix it all. This sense-making, thinking and feeling our way through the implications, is the space of Dark Mountain and I think that, compared to five or six years ago, there is a little more room for that.

JGF: How do you respond to the argument that DM is a form of  accommodation to this “ecological unravelling” and how would you it distance it from collapse writing?

DH: One of the things that we were responding to when we wrote the Manifesto was the sense that environmentalism was in danger of becoming a church where the priests had lost their faith but didn’t think the congregation were ready to hear the bad news. Prominent people were standing up at meetings and rallies, giving the same speeches that they’d been giving five years earlier, encouraging people to believe that one more collective push and we’ll stop climate change. Then if you caught that same person, quietly, at the end of a meeting, over a pint, you would find that they were actually in a place of pessimism, verging on despair. I don’t think it’s accidental that Dark Mountain, as a project trying to break out of that, comes from a cultural place. In art, there is a duty of truth that is different to the kinds of calculation that might be appropriate in more pragmatic contexts such as campaigning and politics. Art operates at a strange angle to the political: it’s weaker, it doesn’t have the instrumental effectiveness, and when you try to use art instrumentally, in the ways you see with most projects that connect art and climate change, you end up with bad art that doesn’t work.

When art works, it has a property of truthfulness. Mark Ravenhill, the playwright, talks about this. He says that your duty, as the artist, is to be the most truthful person in the room and that is why you are on the stage and why everyone else is giving you their attention. If you break this duty, if you knowingly do not say that which seems to you to be the truth, then something breaks in a way that is fatal, artistically. Whereas, as an activist or campaigner, strategist or spin doctor, you can make a calculation that people may not be ready to hear this. Now, I think environmentalism, at the point where Dark Mountain came along, was at a point where those calculations no longer made sense. There was a hunger for something that would break the frames in which we had got stuck. But it is easier to do that as writers, artists, as a group of people creating a literary journal, than it would be as if we’d come along and said, ‘You all need to stop campaigning like that, and campaign like this, because this is what is going to work.’

If we’re talking about accommodation to ecological unravelling, then part of what we’re talking about is accommodation to reality. Climate change is not a looming threat in the future that we can stop. So much of it is already baked in, that even in the best case scenarios, it is going to up-end our way of living. But environmentalism, on the whole —and this is an unfair generalisation, I realise—through the 90s and 00s, precisely when climate change started to enter the mainstream agenda, fell into a certain way of talking about sustainability. And whatever it may have started out as meaning, sustainability came to mean sustaining at all costs the way of life of one in seven of the people on the planet. As if that was either possible or desirable. If the choice is between making the lifestyle of the Western middle class sustainable or the apocalypse, then there is a problem with the way the choice is being framed. What we were trying to do with Dark Mountain is break that framing. One of the things we said in the Manifesto was, ‘The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world, full stop.’ If we can’t tell the difference between those two things, then we will make really bad decisions in the decades ahead.

I think I know what you mean when you ask about collapse writing and, to me, it’s a very American phenomenon, it’s very male, and it is often saturated with a fantasy that life will get more exciting if and when the end of the world as we know it happens. The best thing I’ve read in that genre recently is a post by Ann Amnesia, who blogs at More Crows Than Eagles, where she talks about the realisation that this collapse blogging subculture is centred on a fantasy, the fantasy of the wealthy playboy who can buy out and retire young. It’s just that ‘The End Of The World As We Know It’ has taken the place of ‘the day when my share options vest’. Against that, she suggests asking yourself: Who would I be in a refugee camp? Vinay Gupta came to the first Uncivilisation festival and told us, ‘What you people call collapse is living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.’ What lies ahead of us is not some Hollywood adventure and it’s also not Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But it may well be the going-away of much that you and I grew up taking for granted, and if so, that still leaves us with the tasks that don’t change so much from one century to the next: How do we look after each other? How do we get through and try to live well under the circumstances in which we find ourselves?

JGF: The Dark Mountain project refers to itself as part of a movement of ‘uncivilisation’ and, at the beginning of the Manifesto, you introduce the American mystic poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who claims we will, “eventually die of civilisation.” You are also very close to Ivan Illich’s idea that, “Tools can rule men sooner than they expect; the plow makes man the lord of the garden but also the refugee from the dust bowl.” What do you see as the dangers of a technocracy and do you think technology has made us lords or refugees?

DG: Well, the refugees definitely outnumber the lords, which should have the lords worried. Firstly, I think we should be careful of the monolithic idea of Technology: we should be really talking about technologies. Part of what we’ve been trying to do with Dark Mountain is create a space where we can have this kind of conversation more carefully, moving beyond the simple ‘technology is good, technology is evil’ positions, or progress versus anti-civilisation, into the grittiness of what we’re actually living with. You mentioned ‘uncivilisation’. In the Manifesto we define that, not as some attempt to bring down civilisation, but as a process of decoupling, disentangling the elements within our way of living that we would do everything to try and salvage from those that we desperately need to leave behind, if we are going to do a less bad job that we currently are. If we’re going to make it through the difficult decades and generations ahead.

JGF: Is that how you would characterise the best scenario: ‘less bad’?

DH: I think it’s important to have a description of a future that feels plausible and that feels plausibly within our influence. Some people think that you need a vision of utopia to inspire and motivate people, but I think that if you offer people visions of utopia today, then you are destroying your own credibility. The claim that things may turn out less badly than expected, that feels more plausible.

JGF: Going back to the dangers of technocracy, how does Dark Mountain see this problem?

DH: You mentioned Illich just now and one of the things that I appreciate in Illich’s way of writing about technology is the concern that we may be closing down our ability to choose together the ways we would like to live. He says that, if we take for granted that the goal is maximising the energy intensity of our societies within ecological limits, then a whole set of ways of living and working together have been removed from the discussion.

I’ve been reading some of the texts around the Accelerate group, which you could easily see as the antithesis of Dark Mountain. Enthusiasts for that kind of technological vision often say, ‘What we want is luxury for everybody!’ Spiked Online, the more absurd predecessor to Accelerate, has a side-project called Ferraris For All. But it’s not as easy as that: when you make a technology ubiquitous, it is no longer luxurious in the way it was when it was available to only a privileged minority. As it become ubiquitous, it becomes a source of dependency, a necessity for participation in society. Even if you could hack the climate so that we could pour as much carbon as we’d like into it, and print Ferraris on 3D printers, you still have a failure of the imagination as to what it means to have a Ferrari in a world where everyone has a Ferrari. It’s not just that its status has gone down, it’s that the roads they show you in the adverts—where you are the only car in the road—are not the roads that we generally find ourselves driving on.

JGF: Returning to Illich, who are the lords and who are the refugees?

DH: Well the lords are metaphorical, except in the UK, but the refugees are very literal. I moved to Sweden three years ago and I spent much of last year in Swedish For Immigrants classes, so the first friends I made here were men and women who’d been on extraordinary journeys to escape from Syria, where something that began as a revolution became a hellish tearing-apart of their society. If you look at the factors driving the Arab Spring and what became the Syrian war, the impact of drought and crop failure, food prices and speculation with global commodity markets, the way that money being poured in as Quantitative Easing amplified the consequences of bad harvests in 2010, you realise that climate change and the insane financial system that dominates the world are already transforming ground-level political reality, even in countries like Sweden that feel removed from the hard end of this crisis. As we speak, the Schengen Agreement is crumbling, one of the pillars of the dream of the European Union. It is falling apart under the unwillingness of many countries to deal, in a remotely humane and compassionate way, with the human realities of what’s happening in Syria and other countries. So when we talk about the refugees and the lords, it’s not a metaphor to me.

JGF: The commons is a re-emerging paradigm that is allowing us to rethink the traditional relationship between the market and state, a change that is, you argue, breaking the frame. What do you think the commons, “less an ideology than intellectual scaffolding” as David Bollier puts it, has to offer our present political situation?

DG: The commons has been on a strange journey over the last thirty years, from something that only historians talked about, to a buzzword in domains from economics, architecture and environmentalism to grassroots political movements to internet culture. Part of why that is happening is that we need another term for the things we might have talked about as ‘public’ goods, a term that reflects a loss of faith in the state, and if things are going to turn out less badly than often looks likely in the years ahead, then the logic of the commons, which is different to the logic of public and private, may be part of that turning.

Dougald Hine is co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project and leader of artistic development at Riksteatern, Sweden’s national theatre.

Vinay Gupta came to the first Uncivilisation festival and told us, ‘What you people call collapse is living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.’

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Published in STIR magazine no.11, Autumn 2015