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.’