The Dark Mountain Project Grieves for the World We’ve Destroyed

By Paxton Hyde

"The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.”

This excerpt from the manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project outlines their concern with the perceived ease of everyday life. It’s our willingness to believe in stability that makes it real. I know–that’s a heavy thought to be pondering on a sunny Colorado afternoon.

The Dark Mountain Project is a group of artists focused on exposing humanity’s false sense of security in a civilization that they see as gravely threatened by climate change. Their primary work is a biannual volume of “Uncivilized” writing and art. Not unsophisticated and lowbrow, but rather a genre that criticizes or simply disregards the narrative of immortal civilization.

Using art as a tool, Dark Mountain aims to rethink the unspoken assumption of human dominance over nature. Our single commonality as a species is our humanity, and so we have inadvertently (and sometimes purposefully) fed the narrative that we are separate from and superior to nature. This fundamental tenet of the Dark Mountain philosophy is adopted from ecocentrism, a radical perspective that humans do not have greater value than other life simply because we are human or because of our intelligence. Ecocentrism values nature beyond the material wealth and beauty that it provides humans, and seeks to treat it with respect. The Dark Mountain Project focuses on the human side of this relationship, holding that human intelligence does not make our species immortal or even any less vulnerable to disaster than the species and ecosystems that our activities have destroyed. The faith that we have developed in science to solve all of our problems has made us overconfident in our ability to solve climate change. In their view, the only achievable goal is acceptance of our dreary future. Unabashed in their cynicism about human self-interest and ego, they reject political and scientific approaches to climate change in favor of this subjective approach driven by the creation of uncivilized art.

Why such cynicism? It seems to have grown naturally from the experiences of Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth. As a young adult working for the London Independent in the 1990s, he found political discussions about climate change hopeless and his research useless in changing opinions. Yet, he did find satisfaction in protest. In 1992 he participated in demonstrations at Twyford Down in Hampshire, England, where a new highway was being constructed in order to reduce congestion on the commuter route into London. The protests were not defending any particular aspect or species of the Down other than its integrity. There was no particular agenda other than resistance to the advance of development. But it was this simpleminded, instinctive form of rebellion, totally contrasted with his experience with the gridlock of politics, that inspired Kingsnorth. At the core of the Dark Mountain movement is a certain stubbornness even in the face of unpopularity and defeat. Consistency and commitment are the only things that actually matter when you have forecasted your own demise.

Resisting conformity and remaining true to their principles, Dark Mountain uses art and literature to further their goal of challenging human exceptionalism. Their pronounced distaste for convention disqualifies them from serious consideration in politics and academics. Their movement seems to have more of a religious quality. Their Uncivilized Art was not created to “provoke a discussion,” but rather to be a medium for humanity to grieve and come to terms with the destruction of our planet. This approach to climate change is a spiritual alternative to the intellectual and ethical discourse that isolates people who are preoccupied with the unrelenting struggles of day-to-day life. Not to say that the idea of human extinction is appealing, but the dread and physical anxiety it triggers gives us an actual experience to associate with the intangible concept of climate change. The brutal honesty of the Dark Mountain message of human non-exceptionalism is both its most important contribution and its most significant downfall.

Colorado College Professor of Philosophy Marion Hourdequin, who specializes in environmental ethics, shared her thoughts on Dark Mountain in an interview. Similarly to Kingsnorth, she sees that typical environmental policy discussions tend to devolve into a sort of “centrist vortex” where arbitrary boundaries of the achievable and unachievable are established. Radical perspectives are useful in revitalizing these debates.

“The Dark Mountain Project is in part about breaking up certain standard assumptions about a teleological narrative of human progress,” says Hourdequin. “By calling our attention to the significant losses we are experiencing—both in human and natural communities—they challenge the notion that civilization is on a straightforward, upward march of progress. In challenging that notion, they make space for different ways of conceiving ourselves, our societies and our relationships to the natural world.”

The functional purpose of radical theories such as Dark Mountain is not to direct policy, but to provide a foundation from which people can build or differentiate their own perspectives. As for the particular cynicism of Dark Mountain, Hordequin says, “I don’t think the Dark Mountain project is meant so much to comfort as to provoke, though the vision is not exclusively ‘dark.’  It seems to me that they are also trying to weave new narratives that emphasize humility rather than hubris—this could be hopeful, when viewed from a certain angle, but their vision may not seem hopeful in relation to dominant visions of human destiny.”

The idea of more humility in the world is certainly a hopeful one. Having the resilience to commit oneself to a cause under the threat of inevitable setbacks and frustration is an act of humility. And some may interpret that this is what the Dark Mountain Project has done. Their work should not just be reduced to ravings of an impending doomsday but recognized as a call for human humility in the face of nature. On the subject of this dirty work, Edward Abbey said “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs more defenders.”