I usually try to avoid looking at the seriously nutty end of environmentalism. Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘Dark Mountain Project‘ is one such collection of madness.
The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes.
New stories are needed for darker, more uncertain times. Older ones need to be rediscovered. The Dark Mountain Project was created to help this happen. We promote and curate writing, storytelling, art and music rooted in place, time and nature. We aim to offer up a challenge to the foundations of our civilisation. We know this is ambitious, and possibly foolhardy. But we think it is also necessary, and we hope we can act as a catalyst and curator in helping to begin the process.
The tragedy of the ‘Uncivilisation’ (their word) project is of course, that once you reduce the entire world, its past and its future to mere narratives, the unavoidable conclusion is that your own dysphoria is also merely a narrative, and as such completely disconnected from reality. The Dark Mountain is a dystopian fantasy of escape from… its prequel… a dystopian fantasy, which is dystopian by virtue of a prophecy of doom.
Speaking of prophets of doom peddling silly narratives of dystopias and utopias, this nutty chap has far more clout than the average eco-warrior:
“We become unbalanced as individuals if we become cut off from nature”, claims Professor Jeffrey Sachs, senior UN advisor, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, world expert on poverty, amongst many other things.
It is one thing, of course, to say that we depend on ‘ecosystems’ for material sustenance. It is quite another thing entirely to claim, as Sachs does, that we are nourished in some other way by nature.
I disagree with both things, however. Sachs begins his story with what appears to be a common sense view — that we depend on ecosystems, which in the environmental perspective,
clean and transport our air and water, pollinate crops, fix nitrogen, and so on. But the term ‘ecosystem’ mystifies what are natural processes. And the extent to which we depend on natural processes is a function of our wealth, fundamentally. It is simply been more economic to situate ourselves near natural water courses than to pipe it hundreds of miles. And it is similarly cheaper to use solar power to grow crops than to put them under lights. But that will surely change one day, when using artificial light becomes more productive than using ‘free’ sunlight. It would be ‘natural’ for me to use a horse, rather than a car. But my car is far, far cheaper than a field, the labour necessary to keep the field in good condition, and so on. It is not inconceivable, then, that we might one day replace all of our dependencies on natural processes with dependence on systems of our own making, save for that which are part of our own biology. There is no virtue in things, simply because they are ‘natural’.
The concept of ‘ecosystems’ is nebulous — they have no clear boundaries or identity. But they are presupposed to exist, as complex, fragile, and tangible entities. Even more nebulous, then, is the claim that our lives depend on them, rather than natural processes, the boundaries and limitations of which can be understood. Sachs gives the game away when he says we become ‘unbalanced’ as individuals when distance is put between ourselves and ‘nature’.
We are programmed to have… We evolved in the savannah. … People all over the world are attracted to the same kind of vistas, the horizons, being on a hill overlooking a lake. These are things that make life pleasant for us. And interestingly, all societies tend to share some of those basic traits because they’re really hard wired in our evolutionary experience as a species.
This ‘web of life’ stuff now descends to armchair evolutionary psychology. Now, I probably like being on top of a hill as much as anybody else. But can I really talk about it being anything more than a subjective experience? And even if I can say that the enjoyment of natural drama in landscapes seems to be universal, does it really say anything about the urban vista, such that too much of it produces an ‘unbalanced’ individual? I happen to have found the view of New York from Brooklyn Bridge as awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen in nature. Only the February cold — exposure to nature? — moved me on. More importantly, can it really be claimed that this capacity for a subjective, but universal experience has any consequences for our understanding of development?
Sachs was apparently asked ‘How can we balance quality of life and sustainability?’ His answer is predictable.
Humanity in many cases at a local scale has blown it by over-farming, depleting nutrients in soils, taking too much ground water away. But in past history, when the local environment was wrecked as it often was, people moved. Migration was the safety valve. There is no safety valve [?] that way now. We’ve filled the planet with seven billion of us and there’s no place to move. There’s no other planet, there’s no alternative. Either we save the planet, save the millions of species under threat or we’re going to wreck things and its so odd. This is our generation’s time. This wasn’t the generational choice fifty years ago. It won’t be the generational choice a hundred years from now because it’s going to be too late if we haven’t gotten this right by then. This is our time, this is why I think sustainable development is this generation’s major challenge.
Did you see what he did there?
Or rather, did you see what he didn’t do there? He didn’t answer the question: ‘How can we balance quality of life and sustainability?’
What we got instead was hand-waving in the form of cod evolutionary psychology, claims about ‘ecosystems’, and the promise that we’re all going to die. He is very keen on emphasising the imperatives of environmentalism, but is not so keen on explaining what they mean.
Central to these claims is the concept of ‘balance’ alluded to in his discussion about people being deprived of nature becoming ‘unbalanced’.
It is of course, an instance of the naturalistic fallacy. In Sachs’s perspective, the good life has been dictated by nature. It restores ‘balance’ in individuals. Ditto, the iron logic of nature determines what is right in wider terms — of ‘balance’ in society. This is, I’ve argued before, nothing more than a search for a basis on which to build a form of politics which does not need to take a mandate from the public — the demos. The role of political institutions in this form of politics is — at face value — to manage the relationship between humans and natural processes.
In reality, however, it is a naked attempt to create authority for a political elite. This is shown most vividly by his inability to answer the question. And it is shown again in a second video, in which Sachs is asked “Is it possible for all the world’s nations to be developed, or must there be winners and losers?”
The answer is ‘no’. Sachs imagines low and middle income countries enjoying the lifestyles that the richer world enjoys. It would mean ecological disaster. The only way it is possible, he says is through a concept he calls ‘decoupling’…
… using sustainable technologies that allow for economic progress, especially in the poor and middle-income countries without damaging the environment because those technologies decouple the progress from the use of primary resources or from carbon emissions.
Solar power is the answer, he suggests, citing recent falls in the price of PV cells on the world market. Yet those falls are, as we all now know, the consequence of over-production in the East, not advances in production of them, after markets were created for them by absurd levels of subsidy, especially in Europe. And even more so in Germany… a first world country in which 800,000 people a year cannot afford to pay their electricity bills and so get cut off thanks to its renewable energy policies — especially solar — causing ever rising prices. Not even Germans — whose GDPPP was $ 38,400 in 2011 — can afford solar power!
The developing world will just have to wait for the technology it would seem. Which isn’t really an answer to the question, Is it possible for all the world’s nations to be developed, or must there be winners and losers?” The losers will have to remain losers until Sachs’s pipe dream becomes a reality, meanwhile the coal, oil and gas that they might enjoy now, or in the very near future will remain in the ground. A man, in such a position of influence as he — with the ear of presidents throughout the world, and as former adviser to the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Development Program, and as the author of many projects seemingly intended to realise ‘sustainable development’ — really ought be able to answer the question.
Instead he unwittingly gives the lie to the claim that sustainable development is necessary — ‘sustainability’ is in fact hostile to the very concept of development.
Perhaps Sachs believes his own verbiage. But I see no reason to take at face value what has very little scientific basis. It is not simply bad science, bad politics and bad faith — these things justified on mystical concepts of ‘balance’, and ‘ecosystem’. It is woo-woo, passed off as planet-saving insight. Shame on Sachs.
I agree with most of what you said. I dislike Sachs and I couldn’t agree more with your judgement.
But (you know it was coming), this paragraph is filled with wrongness:
“As we all know”? Perhaps the problem is another, namely a certain lack of knowledge on your part over this particular industry. Solar Power is the fastest in its increase of productivity, a rate in its learning curve that is well beyond coal, oil, wind, nuclear, and so on, and which is remarkably stable in itself for over more than three decades. This is why people are so psyched about solar.
However, it is still uneconomical, and until it is, many people will disagree on which policies should be taken by the governments. Should they subsidize a currently uneconomical energy source so that it can be taken seriously by investors and technological private R&Ds? Should they leave it alone for the government can only do harm by distorting the market?
All those are fair game and good questions, and we can disagree with them honestly. What is not correct is to claim that the prices “only” fell because of lack of demand. Not because it is untrue, but worse, it is half-true – (before the current excess of production some years ago there was a shortage of silicon and thus a shortage of supply, which also inflated the solar prices in the market).
Luis – However, it is still uneconomical…
Balance is a concept from new-age and alt-med religions. They took if from eastern religion (Buddhism/Hinduism). Vague language and invented words is common to new religions, and academia promoting it instead of science.
Forbes explains the drop in prices for PVs. Any reduction in production costs due to technological advances were quite clearly not the issue. Solar power advocates have, nonetheless, claimed that the price drop was the result of advances in technology.
It would be ‘natural’ for me to use a horse, rather than a car.
I would just like to point out the that modern horse is as much a human construction as a car, albeit it is organic and “constructed” through thousands of generations of extremely careful breeding. There are no “natural” horses left, because the wild ones have all interbred with our improved versions. The first horses were no good for riding – so you would need un-natural chariot even if you could find natural horses.
Petrol is, of course, a natural product. Apparently that doesn’t count, because it isn’t “renewable”. (Technically neither is sunlight though.)
People all over the world are attracted to the same kind of vistas, the horizons, being on a hill overlooking a lake.
Here is just flat out wrong. Until the Romantic age people in the West didn’t go in for natural vistas or enjoyment of wilderness. Gardens were strictly formal things (they still are in large parts of Asia).
Even today English people may marvel at the severe beauty of the Sahara, but they build country houses to look out over English countryside that resembles the natural only vaguely. Meanwhile peasants build houses where it is convenient, with little regard to their aesthetic values.
People all over the world do not share Sachs’ values of the relationship between natural and beautiful. It’s an affectation that rich people that don’t actually have to live in nature have, not a natural one at all.
” I happen to have found the view of New York from Brooklyn Bridge as awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen in nature”
I always find myself somewhat disappointed when people express such opinions, for me the ‘natural’ beats the ‘artificial’ every time.
so give live in a cave.
What do you think entitles you to be “disappointed” that someone has a different opinion from you?
Just because nature is beautiful and inspiring it does not tell us how to live. One can recycle all one wants and still cut people off in traffic–in fact a recent survey in California found Prius drivers to be the rudest drivers. Smugness and politeness are incompatible. Nature says nothing about freedom of speech or table manners, or whether to insult people or if being fat is bad or whether unkempt clothing is good or bad. Nothing.
Second, his prescription is simply wrong. If you want to protect wilderness in Africa the best possible thing you could do would be to vaccinate children, string electric lines, and improve farming methods. In the USA many species were almost hunted out (including deer and turkey in E. US) while people mainly lived on farms. In Africa if you are starving it is a great idea to eat monkeys, but I am not going to bother with that because here we raise chickens and cows. Per acre, land in USA produces many multiples of the typical farm in a developing country, so more acres are needed. Much food is wasted as a result of the inability to store it or get it to market. If you want to bring population down, increase per capita income. Sachs advice to governments and UN etc is likely to prevent development and endanger nature more than help nature.
Lots to comment on. E.g., Mooloo, I think that your mention of the Romantic movement is very apt, as there is a strand of modern green-ism that goes right back to the early 19th century and the Romantic writers and poets. Keats and his fellows drank confusion to Newton because he reduced the rainbow to a mere prism (no nasty Enlightenment values for them!) Wordsworth preached a spiritual re-connection with nature and a rejection of commerce and materialism; I think he might feel at home on the Dark Mountain, were he alive today. This sonnet in particular seems to sum up his philosophy – very Kingsnorth:
Ben, everyone, the thing about all the nuttiness and woo-woo, is that it’s insinuating itself into the mainstream, even as we write. Here’s a recent podcast on the BMJ website on the subject of “ecological public health”. It features Geof Rayner and Tim “food miles” Lang, who “argue that public health today needs an overhaul, and to focus on our co-existence with nature and relationships with each other”:
Here’s Geof Rayner (with Tim Lang, very much part of the current war on obesity, and a fan of “nudge” – control freakery lite) talking about the concept:
That last sentence again: “it may not have mainstream political engagement yet, but it will do.” So you might not be interested in woo-woo, but it appears woo-woo is interested in you.
That is slightly sleazy. What I mean to say is that he is not that wrong in proclaiming that the “answer” might well be solar power.
Problem is, in the future.
Luis – What I mean to say is that he is not that wrong in proclaiming that the “answer” might well be solar power.
Without some crystal ball, who can really say? In the present, however, the claim that rising living standards for the world’s poor — and for that matter, the rest of us too — cannot rise, and must be balanced against nebulous environmental imperatives the answer exists in the forms of energy which do work.
What annoyed me however, was the claim that I didn’t know what I was talking about. It turned out that the answer may be in the future — something which you don’t know about either.
When solar electricity produces cheaper electricity at industrial scales, I shall be singing and dancing about it on the rooftops.
… Ben – “[Sachs] unwittingly gives the lie to the claim that sustainable development is necessary — ‘sustainability’ is in fact hostile to the very concept of development”.
I agree. ‘Development’ usually describes the movement towards a more complete state. The act of developing things (such as a photograph or a piece of land) implies an anticipated condition in which the object will be of greater benefit and value than in its former state. This process also takes place in nature – seasonally and generationally.
Of course, anyone wishing to opt out of this cycle might attempt to do so by introducing the idea of sustaining development for as long as possible. An anorexic teenager, for example, may believe that by masochistically starving herself of food she will sustain the development phase of her body and thereby delay, or defer, its maturing into a woman’s… with all the (unwanted) responsibilities and new types of relationship that completion will bring.
If ‘sustaining development’ of an object (such as a body) can be described as the will acting to subordinate the need and desire for resources to complete growth – so as to retain an idealised image of the object – then we might wonder what sustaining someone else’s development looks like? If that same human will had the unchallenged power to subordinate the need and desire of a whole region towards completion or maturity – for no other reason than to keep it fixed to an idealised state of immaturity – we might, at best, think of it as a cruel tantalisation and, at worst, recognise it as raw sadism.
By stripping away the ecological ephemera of this movement, the only thing left unsustainable is its underlying intent.
The “decoupling” idea isn’t actually new – you can find something like it being mentioned in the early 1970s, by Paul R. Ehrlich (who needs no introduction) and fellow Stanford University academic Dennis Pirages. Here’s a news article from June 1972:
And one from May 1972:
Re creating the authority for a political elite, with a mandate to redesign society, here are Ehrlich and Pirages again in a 1974 publication “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”:
Looks like all this stuff’s being recycled.
You know, Ben, I think we are in a very absurd era, in fact, the era of the absurd – of neurosis, of hysteria, of stupidity – (hence, my despair) – I might call it, the Jimy saville era (that will get you some hits – what of it – and, perhaps, they might linger and think?) – where everyone is accused and everyone is guilty, where, if, our lives are petty and stupid, no matter, we can dig up some old ‘weird’ git and spit at his skull. How strange? How perverse? How not to be a human? No matter.
It is boring but suggestive (!) of our world that we see it as an ‘object’ and, we, as the ‘subject’ that subjects it to ourselves. The lack of imagination is quite shocking but, almost, taken for granted. The fact that humans, us, myself, you, could be creative, we can and do create a present and therefore a future ‘environment’ is forgotten because it is conceived as not possible. What is possible? What is not possible?
Lewis – It’s interesting that you throw Jimmy Savile into a discussion for no apparent reason other than his activities being in the news. But then again, your thoughts follow on from my comment about humans sometimes fixating upon objects idealised in a pre-mature state. Such a tendency, of course, also represents a refusal to appropriately interact with (ie, intercourse with) objects that have reached maturity… along with a rejection of all the values that maturity places upon the world.
If we call the sexual idealisation of the pre-mature human object ‘pedophilia’, I wonder what we might call the political idealisation of the pre-mature social object? Ecophilia, perhaps?
“…we might wonder what sustaining someone else’s development looks like? If that same human will had the unchallenged power to subordinate the need and desire of a whole region towards completion or maturity – for no other reason than to keep it fixed to an idealised state of immaturity – we might, at best, think of it as a cruel tantalisation and, at worst, recognise it as raw sadism.”
PeterS is describing in psychological terms what we simpler souls might describe as neocolonialism, as practiced by Oxfam et al when they persuade Tanzanians or Bangladeshi to press for reduction in carbon emissions instead of increases in energy production.
Alex Cull’s quotes from Ehrlich and Pirages are most appropriate. It was their book ”Ark II” which was the source for the statements which form the “New Environmental Paradigm” – the battery of questions at the heart of New Age social science (the only kind which gets funding). When, in 1978, they found large majorities of the population agreeing with such statement as:
– We are approaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support
– When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences
– Humans are severely abusing the environment
– The earth is like a space ship with very little room and resources
– The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset
etc., they prepared the way for the likes of Sachs to spout their stuff without fear of opposition.
Kingsnorth and his poetry-reading friends are rather benign in comparison, since they aim to persuade us by the quality of their art, rather than bludgeon us with peer-reviewed science.
And PeterS’s remarks to Lewis Deane about Jimmy Savile are relevant to the wider question of why Ben is writing on blogs and not in the “adult” media:
“..a rejection of all the values that maturity places upon the world.”
That’s how PeterS characterises Savile and ecology. It’s also a good characterisation of the attitude of the BBC when they promote a Savile or a Brian Cox at the expense of serious pop music and/or science.
The appeal of Brian (“Lindzen is bollocks”) Cox and Savile is similar.
Have I overstepped the mark there? I hope so.
Indeed it is perennial elitist-separatism behind the ‘green’ movement, but it indisputable than man is part of and not separate from or above nature. They key data is the the ‘demographic transition’, which indicates a population crest circa 2050 and steep falls subsequently to bring the population down to billions less than it is today. At such levels techno-fix can solve resource issues — and any AGW that is not fiction correspondingly is greatly diminished.
but it indisputable than man is part of and not separate from or above nature.
Sorry, but I dispute your “indisputable”.
“Nature” is a charged term, used generally to force an emotional response. We live in an environment, that includes organic and inorganic parts, none of which have volition or agency above individual drives to eat and breed. There is nothing mystical or special about the organic parts that separate them in any real way from the inorganic parts.
I am quite capable of living entirely separate from nature. The food I eat isn’t natural. (It is, of course organic in the real meaning of that word, but it can’t be found the wild.) The clothes I wear are all man-made. I drive an entirely artificial car, live in an entirely artificial house, go to a very artificial workplace, where I do a job that is not found in “nature”.
In fact when I drive in the countryside I see an man-made environment (as beautiful as the fields are, the grass is non-native, and the farming is even less natural). I actually have to go quite a long way out of my way to find a part of the world more or less untouched by people. There must be people living in Europe who have never been to a part of the world not substantially altered by people. They seem to get along.
This is not to say we should not protect our natural resources. But we should protect our natural resources for the same reason we protect our non-natural resources. We want the world to be a nice place to live.
If I began to write, again, it would be something new,
Totally new. No longer the blond and blue eyed cruel Muse
But God or, better, Eternity might be my song. Or mockery,
A knock about of this present ‘man’ that’s anything but…
I’d want to be serious and yet laughing (Horace), to make,
Perhaps, a difference, not to ‘now’ (Who would want that?)
But to a coming time, a better time (for there was a better past).
A time of rational, reasonable people and beautiful women.
Geoff and PeterS,
I brought up the ‘S’ factor (for we cannot speak his name! I’m rereading Horace’s Satires so I’m very light of mood – how to say what is serious, whilst laughing – How not to laugh at the absurdities of our present?) in, perhaps, a moment of irritation at the hysterical absurdity of it all. (By the way, by definition, he is innocent and must always be so, legally speaking. Think about it. Enough said.)
One used to believe in that absurd superstition of the ‘rational human being’. Read Hume. Or even Freud. Jung. Nietzsche. There was a strange, historical, shall we say, collusion of events, that produced something that appeared to be very near this mirage but it was a mirage and always will be and is passing now. We are just unfortunate enough to be born on the declining side.
You cannot ‘argue’ against irrationality – irrationality only meets irrationality and a force only a countervailing force. Those polled statements you list, rationally speaking, make no sense since they are, by definition, ‘moral’ statements. Sach et al are all ‘moral’ people. They have God on their side. (But I have the Devil and, what’s more, he plays Bach as if he was the Devil himself!)(And that’s the point – all ‘moral’ people have no music!)
“You want to LIVE “according to Nature”? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraudulent words! Think of a being such as nature is, prodigal beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without aims or intentions, without mercy or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: think of indifference itself as a power—how COULD you live according to such indifference? To live—is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, “living according to Nature,” means actually the same as “living according to life”—how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature “according to the Stoa,” and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and universilisation of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise—and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves—Stoicism is self-tyranny—Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature?… But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.”
I must thank you for the efforts you have put in penning this site.
I really hope to see the same high-grade blog posts
by you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my very own website now