They promised that the starting point of their festival would be “we’re all
doomed.” They promised it wouldn’t be about tinkering around the edges, or doing reformism. They promised they’d give “brief, provocative snapshots of what the world looks like when we give up on false hope and look at the future differently.” They lied. They did a bait-and-switch.
I suppose it’s fitting that the “Dark Mountain festival”, something about catastrophe should be, well, catastrophic. I just wish I’d not pissed a day and £70 away on it.
The “Dark Mountain manifesto” was put together by Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine. It’s a bit turgid and florid, and the kernel of it is that we have overshot the planet’s limits, and we need to face up to that. So far, so unobjectionable. They announced they were holding a festival. I signed up.
I got there after the official start, and dived straight into a workshop/lecture entitled “Breaking the Tools of Disconnection”. As I walked in, the lecturer, Keith Farnish, was advocating refusing bank loans as a form or resistance to the System. I shit you not. I tapped George Monbiot on the shoulder and implored him to tell me that I had arrived during a momentary dip in the quality of proceedings. Let’s just say that he shook his head.
There were then the usual series of questions/statements from the audience that were a mix of insightful through to banal with the usual smattering of uninformed and barking. Actually, it was more than a smattering. People drifted off (in both senses).
I slipped into the Main Hall for a conversation on “Improvising the Future”. Talented actors were doing some improv showing how non-verbal communication from the audience (clapping). But it wasn’t what I came for, so I used the law of two feet, and read the FT. In doing so I missed what I am told was a really good set by Jon Boden, the “BBC Folk Awards Folk Singer of the Year 2010.” So it goes.
After lunch I caught a few clips of a movie called “Just Do It” that will be released next year about Climate Camp 2009, Climate Rush, the Copenhagen jollies and Plane Stupid. Principal filming has finished. I asked if they’d done any interviews with people who had been involved in those organisations but who had left. “No, but it’s an interesting idea” they said. Well, no danger of the film being a nauseating self-congratulation piece there then.
Then to the meat of the matter. Most everyone (300 to 350) came to the main hall for “Time to Stop Pretending 1: Three Pictures of the Future”. Except that’s not what we got. The whole goddam event has been one big bait-and-switch and I WANT MY MONEY BACK. [Ed: you've done this already]
Look. I know what it’s like when, as an event organiser, you give a speaker a brief that they agree to but then ignore and do their standard stump speech. It happens. It shouldn’t, but it does. But, when you, the organiser, are the first speaker, and YOU don’t speak to the brief, then things really have come to a pretty pass. And you should give a refund to people who demand one.
Paul Kingsnorth, who set this whole thing up, did emphatically NOT give a “brief, provocative snapshot of what the world looks like when we give up on false hope and look at the future differently.”
Instead he just gave an overview of the last 40 years of environmental campaigning, lamenting that it had lost its way and become a cover for maintaining an unsustainable exploitation of the planet. He lamented NGOers sitting writing policy papers and losing their connection with Nature, and he bemoaned hearing NGOers slagging off people objecting to windfarms as NIMBYs.
Yeah Paul, some of that is true (though George Monbiot flayed your arguments in the following session). All that’s fine, but it is NOT what you said you were going to talk about. Trading Standards should have a go at you, really.
Next we had some ****artist called Lottie Child. The less said the better, really. She started with some self-referential po-mo stuff that got the Derrida-readers in the room tittering. She then just talked about doing street-theatre and getting City Bankers to appreciate a sunset and pile into a phone box. I am not being unfair, by the way.
By now I was losing the will to live. Along came Vinay Gupta. He started promisingly enough – at least he had appeared to have read the title of the session he was in. “To stop pretending about the future means to stop pretending about the past” he said. And he laid out some of the basic facts of history and economics- that the west de-developed India (he called the west/colonisers land pirates), that of the 60 million people who die every year, 20 million die of poverty (diarrhoea, malaria, HIV/AIDS etc). He pointed out that our lifestyle is built on violence to other humans and to other species.
Yes, look, this is all fine. I like a bit of epatering the bourgeoisie as much as the next guy, and I agree whole-heartedly But I didn’t come all this way and spend all this money to hear that the world is an unfair and unsustainable place. That was supposed to be this conference’s STARTING point.
He closed out by paraphrasing (but not citing) Gandhi- “each of us must live simply so all of us can simply live.”
So, to use a stale metaphor; the first class passengers should agree to stop being so mean to the steerage passengers and the crew, and then the ship will be a nicer place. But the whole point of the fucking conference is that the Titanic has hit the iceberg, is taking on water, is listing, and now it’s about who can get in what lifeboats and what does a lifeboat look like anyhow? Gupta just epic failed.
After a brief break (and an opportunity for me to rant twice- once to acquaintances and then to a camera) we had George Monbiot and Douglas Hine, the other half of Dark Mountain.
This was an odd format. If you’re going to have a discussion like that, it really is best to have some sort of impartial chair, especially for the Q and A session (which repeatedly reverted to Monbiot and Hine talking to each other). It’s also probably better to put up your A team when you are going up against Monbiot, who – whatever you think about him – is a smart and sharp debater.
I wrote down a lot of what they said, but I am going to summarise instead, because life is short and you’re dead a long time. In passing I should say that Monbiot never really needed to get out of first gear.
Monbiot remarked that the “collapse inevitable” stuff reminded him of forms of Marxism that said “shouldn’t ameiliorate workers conditions because it will delay the Revolution”, and that the imminent collapse lot were similar to the cornucopians.
Monbiot reckons that the system (Capitalism, Industrial Hegemony, whatever you want to call it) is far more resilient than the Dark Mountain lot give it credit for, and that there are far more fossil fuel sources than admitted by the Peak Oil crowd (Gasification under the North Sea, f’rinstance).
Monbiot also took umbrage at the characterisation of all NGO campaigners as naïve reformist sell-outs.
He had fun mocking the “chiliastic fantasy” of shot guns, running around in torn denim with girls in fur bikinis.
He was repeatedly pressed on the meaning of movements and what they could/should be. He said the problems are complex, so there needs to be a complex set of responses. His most telling point, I felt, was that DM doesn’t seem to believe in movements or their efficacy, but is looking at atomised/individualised responses. He said movement building is a slow, tedious and disappointing process, but it remains the only thing we’ve got.
When accused of having a romantic view of movements, Monbiot pointed to successes (women’s suffrage, air quality) and shot back that while he may romanticise movements, Dark Mountain romanticised individualism (he threw in the words feral pessimism and atomisation for good measure)
There were then definitional debates around what was a movement (whether it had to be hierarchical) and issue networks. But by now we were well over time (having started that session late), so the only interesting bit of the conference came to an end.
By now I really was at my wit’s end. Given how untrustworthy the organisers had been, I didn’t want to risk sticking around for another day of the same bait-and-switch. I legged it.
Crucially, work has been done on this stuff. Joanna Macy‘s brilliant “Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age”, written in 1983 when it looked like Ronnie and co would bring on a thermo-nuclear exchange, has been updated and is still dead relevant. Nary a mention. There’s stuff that Starhawk does. But crucially, that would have been about for people who have been, or want to, you know, DO something. This was more a gathering for those wanting excuses to continue NOT doing anything, a trough for those who want to wallow. [Disclaimer; Or that's what it seemed like. I know I am on weaker ground here since I only spoke to a small number of the 300 people who were there. Doubtless I will be told off for leaping to conclusions, but hey, it's the only exercise I get these days.]
The apogee of anomie
The audience didn’t look to me like burnt-out activists, people who’d spent years fighting the system, getting ground down by the obstinancy of bureaucracies, the brutality and intimidation dished out by the police, the greenwash of corporations. They looked to me like a slightly declasse version of the sorts of people who go to Schumacher Society lectures and think that by that they are improving the world. Middle-aged, middle-class (culturally if not financially), who believe that eating organic is more important than campaigning on trade tariffs or GM or whatever. Ones who, as soon as you start pointing out that there are exploiters and exploited, will gently and smugly upbraid you for “creating divisions” because “we are all in this together.” Dark Mountain? Dire Mountain.
The booklet claims that the event will “bring together a network of people who are on a similar journey.” Well, if they were on a network-building jive, they did as crap a job of it as the last event I attended at Langollen (October 2008- the “launch” of the Low Carbon Communities Network).
What a waste of a day, what a waste of a concept. It now makes it that much harder for people wanting to explore the consequences of the Pending Ecological Debacle to do so without being tarred with this dumb brush.
SEE SEQUEL POST imaginatively titled “Dire Mountain two- the sequel“