Coral reefs are dead or dying and great ice shelves are collapsing. The air is polluted, the oceans swirl thick with litter, oil and chemicals and multiple extinctions of endangered creatures are happening every year as a result of a combination of rising seas, pesticides, land and species mismanagement and further acts of corporate greed. It is difficult to see how human life as we have known it will be sustainable over the next few millennia without entering new realms of artificiality, or the colonisation of another planet. That’s if we survive at all.
The only solution is to stop everything. Stop right now. Everyone. Look around. Ask: “Is it worth it?” And also: “How long is left?” Even then, with a large percentage of the planet’s population either trying to get food, sanitation and clean water, or in bafflingly aggressive denial, this seems unlikely.
An international network, the Dark Mountain Project, is one attempt to jolt collective thinking by corralling writers, artists, thinkers and doers into addressing, halting and reversing ecocide, primarily through the sharing of new narratives. Stories, they argue, are all we have and across 11 volumes of print anthologies and with an annual festival, the project has strived to create a sense of poetry correspondent with the language of evolving science in order to evince real responses to ecological disaster. It began, as so many movements have before it, with a manifesto, Uncivilisation, which was published in 2009.
Readers of the fiction, essays and journalism of the Dark Mountain founder, Paul Kingsnorth, will know that his is a voice unafraid to deliver hard truths about the state of mankind. If eco-geddon is happening right now, his work broadly argues, why sugar-coat the cyanide pill? As such, like most valuable commentators whose work sits shin-deep in the soil around them, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau through to Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard, the import of his essays will more than likely increase with time.
The Dark Mountain Project, wrote Kingsnorth in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, was “a way to work through the grief caused by the end of much of what we hold dear”. Grief certainly looms large throughout this rich and varied collection – co-edited by Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Kingsnorth – as do themes of loss, greed, hubris, folly and intellectual resistance, though quite often with a measured sense of melancholy at the inevitability of our fate.
Many of the pieces in Walking on Lava are as sad as they are angry, as solemnly nostalgic as they are well informed. This is not a criticism. The human propensity towards sentimentality, so often seen as a weakness, could be mankind’s saving.
Salient points emerge. The Russian-American writer Dmitry Orlov points out that all of the human bodies in the world could be packed into just a cubic kilometre, yet this tiny dot of biomass is destroying an entire planet. In just three centuries, carbon-burning industrialisation has raped the world’s resources, and as John Michael Greer writes in “The Falling Years: An Inhumanist Vision”, “All the feverish dreams and accomplishments of that era were simply the results of wasting a vast amount of cheap fuel.” Nature has not been conquered then, but plundered.
Greer also quotes the poet Robinson Jeffers, whose influence is felt throughout this collection, describing mankind as “neither central nor important in the universe”. It’s an obvious fact perhaps, but one that is so easily forgotten.
Jason Benton goes one step further in “Prospecting for Equanimity”, a moving and elegiac essay about the effects of the mining and fracking of farming country in the Appalachian foothills of western Pennsylvania. The landscape was once “hospitable to nimble horse” but is now torn by mile-long trains transporting “coal, oil and chemicals” and pillaged into ugliness, not to mention the attendant ailments inflicted on its population. Here, widespread environmental disaster is dragged down to the personal level – a place of poverty, depression, asthma, cancer and “stink bugs”, an invasive insect brought in on Chinese cargo a decade or so ago.
Elsewhere, in Tom Smith’s conversation with the Bolivia-based writer Chellis Glendinning, we learn about the Luddites of old and their influence on the hyper-technological world of today. The Luddites were not against technology or modernisation per se, but the systematic exploitation and dismantling of communities.
Fiction offers a different angle. Akshay Ahuja uses epic Indian myths to illuminate contemporary power struggles and, by way of a shadowy dinner party, Nick Hunt’s “Loss Soup” creates a nightmarish meditation on loss – of species, language, flora and people. It is a reminder that extinction is not just about symbols such as the dodo or the woolly mammoth, but about individual and collective responsibility. It is about consumption and the choices we make.
Offering a lighter touch, Gregory Norminton’s “Visitors Book” records the differing written observations of people holidaying in an eco-friendly Scottish bothy run by a truth-telling guide (“left-wing claptrap” notes one), while poetic contributions from Em Strang, Cate Chapman, the late Glyn Hughes and Kim Moore distil messages of insight, beauty and protest. In “How Wolves Change Rivers”, Moore uses just 14 lines to detail neatly the chain of events that links soil and river, wolf and moon, bird and berry.
Hope exists in these writings and their accompanying artworks, although it is tempered and weighted towards a belief (one that I happen to share) that Mother Nature is infinitely more durable than we are, that the Earth is self-healing and the current Anthropocene epoch – in which human activity is the dominant force on our ecosystems – is a dark shadow on an otherwise healthy planet. Short-term thinking may have pushed us to the brink, but long-term thinking could be our salvation. And if it’s not, then we had it coming anyway.
Era-spanning and global in its scope, Walking on Lava may offer just one small step for mankind – but it’s one made in the right direction.
Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times
The Dark Mountain Project
Chelsea Green Publishing, 288pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia