Can Civilization Survive the Now Unavoidable Environmental Catastrophe?

We have, it seems, led the planet into the age of ecocide. Can civilisation survive the unavoidable environmental catastrophe? To stand a chance we will need cool heads, not fiery dreams.

September 10, 2009 | Source: The New Statesman - UK | by John Gray, reviewer

During the past century empires crashed, new states foundered, utopian projects failed and entire civilisations melted down. Revolutionary change was the norm, as it has been throughout modern times. Yet today many of us assume our present way of life will last for ever, and any suggestion that it may be facing intractable difficulties is dismissed as doom-mongering. The result is that the precariousness of modern civilisation is underestimated and the impression that things can go on indefinitely, much as they do now is touted as hard-headed realism.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto begins with the observation that this appearance of stability is delusive. “The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next,” the authors write, “disguises the fragility of its fabric.” Written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, this slim pamphlet aims to demolish contemporary beliefs about progress, industrialism and the place of human beings on the planet, and up to a point it succeeds. Much in contemporary thought is made up of myths masquerading as facts, and it is refreshing to see these myths clearly identified as such. The authors are right that none is more powerful than the idea that we are separate from the natural world, and free to use it as we see fit.

But is it true that civilisation is also a myth, as Kingsnorth and Hine claim? Would human beings – or the planet that they are ravaging – be better off if civilisation collapsed? The authors tell us that our present way of life “is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species”.

These legends, they continue, have “led the planet into the age of ecocide”. The spread of civilisation and the destruction of the biosphere have gone together. The human future, it seems to the authors, must lie in “uncivilisation”.

Kingsnorth and Hine seem to present uncivilisation as chiefly a project for writers and artists. They do not appear to be fixed on tackling environmental crisis with new policies or any kind of political action. A change of sensibility is what they are after, and it is interesting to note the writers they pick out as exemplars of this new view of things.

One is Robinson Jeffers, the once-celebrated and now much-underrated Californian eco-poet from one of whose verses the Dark Mountain project takes its name. Others include Wendell Berry, W S Merwin and Cormac McCarthy. Joseph Conrad is mentioned more than once, and cited approvingly for his view (summarised by his friend Bertrand Russell) that civilised life is “a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths”.