Dire Mountain: more abysmal than abyss-mal

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.

Network schmetwork
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

Further Reading-
Overshoot by William Catton
Is Capitalism Sustainable? ed Martin O’Connor

About dwighttowers

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25 Responses to Dire Mountain: more abysmal than abyss-mal

  1. Dear Drighttowers

    Thank you for your incisive analysis of my session – I suspect you must have “walked in” about 30 minutes late because that’s the point at which I was suggesting that even such things as refusing loans are potential undermining activities, given that loans closely tie people to the economic system, thus making it less likely they can escape.

    Here’s the full analysis: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2010/03/01/throwing-off-the-shackles-of-debt/

    As for George Monbiot (your friend, yes?) – well, there are at least two sides to any story…

    http://thesietch.org/mysietch/keith/2010/05/31/a-church-full-of-underminers-and-george-monbiot/

    Best

    Keith :-)

  2. Apologies – make that “Dwighttowers”

  3. ajl says:

    I had hoped to attend but family illness prevented us. So I am trawling the web to read what people are writing.

    What would your vision be of how to move forward knowing what we do about the direness of climate chaos and its social consequences, following, say, the Titanic metaphor?

    Maybe the conference failed but surely the questions remain open, stimulating and challenging? Maybe I’m more a Monbiotist than a Farnishite but lots of what feels relevant to me is articulating a vision of how to spend dwindling resources …. Can you say more about what you were hoping for?

    • dwighttowers says:

      Thanks AJL,

      I am more of a Monbiotist than a Farnishite too (with reservations that I will blog about soon). My vision of moving forward? Well, it is very difficult, since we have been “dis-visioned”, as Sarah Maitland writes. It’s so hard to articulate any sort of positive vision that will ‘rally’ people to the cause. I think the big NGOs and also the Social Movement Organisatons (I think here of Climate Camp, Campaign against Climate Change) have fundamentally dropped the ball, for reasons that are easy to understand, less easy to forgive.
      What to do? Well, we need social movements (in this I am with Monbiot, against DM). But we need them to raise their game dramatically. We need to work at international levels via our towns and cities. I’ve done two things in the last two years that I am proud of, that I think (modestly!) that should be mimicked elsewhere in the UK (or for that matter in the West generally; the problems in the developing world are very different, and I couldn’t presume to offer advice). The two things are a) Manchester Climate Fortnightly, a newsletter I have done since June 2008. It keeps tabs, as best it can, on the local council (Manchester), local campaigning groups etc. It’s far from perfect, but it exists. We’ve just done a youtube video!
      b) Call to Real Action- we got inside our local council’s policy making process, and had some impact? HOw much? not much. Enough? Nowhere near. We then fundamentally dropped the ball, for reasons that are easy to understand, but less easy to forgive.
      So it’s about being persistent, offering up “feasible but uncomfortable” solutions, and keep pushing the logic of freedom of speech, democracy etc. Is it going to work? Nah. But then, that’s why I went to the Dark Mountain conference. I battle with despair (I have some good coping mechanisms- fantastic wife, fantastic job) and feelings of inadequacy and futility. But I refuse to give up. How the hell could I look myself in the mirror in the morning if I gave up?

      Does any of this resonate with you?

      PS A couple of blog posts I did on Dwight Towers a while back may explain more-

      http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/knowing-were-doomed/

      http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/dilemmas-of-democracy/

      there’s another one somewhere that I thought was OK, but I can’t find it….

  4. Thanks for the bile and the accusations of bad faith. They haven’t been very widely replicated. Ironically, given your litany of complaints about what you were apparently promised, you’ve said nothing here about what should have been on display (wall-to-wall-Monbiot perhaps?) For someone with such strong opinions, you’re remarkably light on specifics.

    For my part, there was some great stuff achieved at the weekend. Many people have come away inspired and excited. Some parts worked better than others, things can be improved … it was only our first time after all. If you were at all serious about wanting the project to have an impact, rather than simply slagging it off, I’d guess you’d actually try, as many others have, to try and improve it rather than hurling poison from the sidelines. But each to their own.

    The Sunday was great, by the way. And no, you’re not having your money back.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Thanks Paul, for the content-free reply that confirms to me several things that peopel have told me- and I suspected – about you.

      I note with interest that you do not address the central point I raised- that your speech, and those that followed you, in *no* way even attempted to fulfill the expectation you set [I am quoting your pamphlet] of “brief, provocative snapshots of what the world looks like when we give up on false hope and look at the future differently.”
      Interesting that the main substantive point about you is ignored by you. Too close to the bone? Do you have the emotional courage to see it?

      You say I’ve “said nothing about what should have been on display.” You seem unable to read the post I wrote. Did you see the comment about Joanna Macy and her work on despair and empowerment? Follow the link, you might learn something. Or the reference to Starhawk? Did you see the ‘Illustrations’ about Green Confucianism, or Panarchy? These were ideas that would have been usefully deployed during the course of the weekend. Panarchy especially. Buzz Holling? Ring any bells?
      Ironically, Paul, given your litany of ad hominem assertions, you’ve said nothing here about what was on display in my blog post.

      Also, if you were looking to build a network (as you claimed) there was a bunch of stuff you could have done but didn’t. Open Space Technology, for example?

      Just because Monbiot wiped the floor with you, doesn’t mean “wall-to-wall Monbiot” would meet my criteria for success. You have set up a strawman, can you see that? Probably you can’t. Have you heard of the dangers of dualistic thinking? Maybe is some Rupert Sheldrake or some Fritjof Capra or whoever is flavour of the month these days?

      What I wanted, which was very clear from my blog post, was that you met the promises you made. That was clear, wasn’t it? Instead we got the standard litany of tinkering and laments “oh the world’s an unfair place and the big NGOs are bad”. Tedious.

      Oh, and I LOVE how the only people allowed to criticise them are ones who the ones directly involved in the project, as opposed to “on the sidelines”. Gee Paul, how long do I have to sit at the feet of the Great Masters before my criticisms are actually acknowledged instead of ignored? Six months? A year? Two? Sorry, I am actually busy having a life, holding down a full-time job, and, campaigning flat out in Manchester. The implication is that only criterion you have for ‘legitimate criticism’ is if I get in with your gang. Feeble mate, very feeble.

      Of course you’re not going to give the money back; you are intellectually incapable of seeing what you have done. I will approach Trading Standards, but I don’t expect any joy. I suspect I will have to chalk it up to experience.

  5. Firstly, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick, it seems to me, on what DM is actually supposed to be about. I can’t help you with that, of course, but the fury you displayed in the few sessions you did attend – fury that was noted by a number of people on the day, who wondered what was wrong with you – seems evidence that you didn’t quite know what you were doing there. As it happens there were a number of sessions which might have given you some of what you wanted, but you didn’t stick around long enough for them.

    ‘Straw men’? That was George’s thing. His persistent misrepresentation of what we’re doing was, like yours, rather silly, and didn’t go down too well. We didn’t set that session up as a fight, because we don’t do fights. DM is about questions – what comes next, how do we act, how do we begin to live and create culture after we stop pretending that the kind of failed political project we have engaged in for so long is going to get us anywhere? We’re not setting ourselves up as gurus, unlike some people I could mention, and we don’t think aggressive bullying and misrepresentation is a useful way to explore the issues surrounding decline. But there we are.

    A lot of people came away from this weekend feeling they were beginning to have some very useful answers to these questions. George’s response was to parody us and spread misinformation (we’re survivalists, we’re against renewables, blah blah.) Your response here is similar.

    I’m sorry that you didn’t get what you wanted, but the fact that you left so quickly and so angrily suggests you brought your own issues with you. You seem to want nice clear answers to questions we’re not even asking. We did our best to explore the territory we had set out to explore and we couldn’t do much more than that.

    This was a base to build on, for us. Not everyone will get what they want from it, and that’s fine. Criticism? Great. Plenty of people are giving it to us, much of it very constructive. But to accuse people of deliberate dishonesty and spray them with insults is not ‘criticism’, it’s school playground behaviour. We worked our arses off for this, and funnily enough I don’t respond well to responses like yours – not because I’m ‘dishonest’ but because I don’t have the energy to deal with pointless and entirely unproductive poison. Maybe stick to the Tuesday columns in future, eh?

    • dwighttowers says:

      You’ve yet again failed to answer the central point- you didn’t in your speech on Saturday after lunch do what you said you would do. I realise now that you can’t.

      You seem to think that anyone who disagrees with you must be a Monbiot acolyte. Dualistic thinking in the extreme.

      You aren’t acting in bad faith, this I admit. I assumed conspiracy was the case, when it was simply a cock-up by a bunch of cocks. You aimed to do something that, in the end, you were simply incapable of doing.

      This was why I was angry- because you misrepresented your abilities. The person filming my rant (at my request) agreed with me, as did people nearby, who felt that Gupta had simply not answered the question. We didn’t talk about you, partly because there was nothing to discuss. You’d whined about how unfair the world is, rather that give the provocative portrait you wanted to, but were not able to.

      It’s also interesting to see the observations on facebook about how few women were on the agenda, and how hard they had to fight to be heard. Bit macho, mate?

      This discussion is terminated.

  6. Vinay Gupta says:

    I think you really wanted to be at my Sunday session, which is where I hauled out the state failure planning toolkit and talked people through the financial and political faultlines which could cause cascade failures at the nation state level.

    It’s recorded – http://collapsonomics.org has a link. Why don’t you listen to that and see if it’s not that you impatiently left before we got to the harder technical content.

    The diagrams which go with that talk are at http://butteredsidedown.co.uk/scim.html and I recommend the rest of that site if you’re looking for the toolkit for handling this stuff.

    It sounds to me like you’re still in the mindset of thinking that some movement can arise which is going to sort all of this mess out and preserve our quality of life.

  7. Vinay Gupta says:

    Posted a link to my Sunday session, audio of which is on the Collapsonomics site (google for it) but it didn’t show up – I’m guessing it needs moderator approval because it had URLs in it.

    That’s really where we got down to business, and concrete technical plans were suggested. Why don’t you give it a listen and get back to us.

  8. Vinay Gupta says:

    You might also find some of the planning work I did for Haiti directly relevant to your questions about whether we have the low end tied down.

    http://hexayurt.com/hexayurt_country/

    I think you’ll find that we do. It takes time to build a mature risk culture in any organization, and trying to do so in wider society is nothing short of audacious.

    It sounds to me like you didn’t quite understand what was going on, frankly.

  9. There was someone in my workshop wearing a red and black coat, who seemed to want the answers to everything immediately and anything on a smaller scale wouldn’t do.

    Was this you, Dwight? (Paul?)

    There are no simple, all-encompassing solutions; there is no one right way to do things; there is no one right way to live. But there are *some* things that *might* create change towards something that could be survivable.

    That’s the best I, or anyone, can offer at the moment.

    • dwighttowers says:

      No, it wasn’t me. I was dumbstruck at the flaccidity and inanity of it all. Woke up later.
      Never said there were simple, all-encompassing solutions. You might be projecting. Best to get that checked out.
      This conversation is terminated.

      • Strange isn’t it that no one who is antipathetic towards the Undermining concept has *ever* found a logical flaw in the thesis – or bothered to look. I suppose terminating a conversation is one way of avoiding such effort.

        K.

        P.S. Why take such umbrage if you weren’t the person I mentioned?

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  11. Dwight

    There’s a little crossover with what you and I think (Keith – I’m not sure the workshop really worked for most people. EF! had some similar ideas 15 years ago, such as writing subversive slogans on paper money, but it was generally found to be rather less effective than D-locking yourself to bulldozers) but the main difference is I can see that DM is still finding its feet.

    Most of all I found that Paul, Dougal, Vinay (who has a lot more to say than he got a chance to in his 10 minute slot on Saturday) and the rest are actually interested in what you and I think and want DM to evolve.

    Even Monbiot is still on board. “DM is important becaus it helps us look at the broader issues” he said in answer to a question oif mine. I agree DM should have trained up a champion to take him on, but basically he was firing warning shots, not trying to sink the ship.

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  13. Elisabeth says:

    Uncivilised was a mega-disappointment

    Despite its promise it was not cutting edge. The opposite.

    To quote one participant, it was (bar one exception) “white men with microphones”

    On stage, pontificating.

    No discussion, no debate, and camping was in a conventional camping site with not a compost loo or organic food stall in sight.

    The most truly original, inspiring and progressive event was the Feral Choir where non-hierarchical but clear musical direction produced harmony.

    Despite its avowed intentions, I felt Uncivilised was organised by green careerists – not pioneers.

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  19. Elisabeth says:

    I have just re-read your post and have to smile: a) at your ranti-ness b) at the memory of the most civilised festival I have attended!

    It did promise what to do now the Titanic has bust, and yet it was weirdly business-as-usual: a talking shop; “white men with microphones”; and yes, I agree – why no mention of Joanna Macy’s work or Starhawk’s?

    I got the impression that the organisers had not been green activists very long and had got fed up with the internal politics that might drag down action. So, it set up an alternative: Dark Mountain. But the alternative replicated the same problems.

    The issue of what we DO is still very relevant. Thanks for the notes on Monbiot’s talk on movements. Yes, movements are key. WHICH movements to join would have been useful to discuss (I was also pressing Monbiot from the audience on that one).

    I think most people in the green movement including the organisers of the Dark Festival are doing their bit….what more can we do?

    So, I feel a bit bad calling the organisers “green carereerists”. After all, I am one too!

    By the way, if you eat organic, you ARE helping campaign against GM – eating is a political act!

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