Almost a decade ago two English writers, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, published Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto, calling for a literary response to the “social, economic and ecological unravelling” of our time. Surrounded by a nearly deafening silence about the now nearly (?) unavoidable collapse of civilization,1 this dissident voice seemed a pleasant diversion, and the idea to use literature and art to change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our relation with the world around us is a very sympathetic idea as well. However, the Manifesto itself raised several red flags, and made it very clear that this is not a new voice but one that has been raised several times before, and that is, moreover, a deeply problematic voice. The Dark Mountain project is not the right answer to impending catastrophe.
In this blog post I will have a closer look at the Manifesto and suggest a more appropriate response – a different story – to the collapse of civilization. But first, let’s have a look at the Dark Mountain’s ideological roots. (Note that for argument’s sake I’m simply assuming that civilization is collapsing indeed. I will refrain from arguing that it is – or isn’t – here, and leave that question to my “Crisis and Inertia” series.)
civilization and its enemies
In Phaedrus Plato likened reason to a charioteer dominating his unruly horses, the passions. The contrast – reason versus the passions – was probably a much older one and became a prominent trope of Western thought.2 For early Christian thinkers like Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, reason was God’s gift to man by means of which he was to control his body and much besides that.
In the Enlightenment the idea of reason’s control over the body and the passions was elevated to civilization’s control over nature and tradition. The concept of “civilization” referred to a stage in the social and intellectual development of nations reached in much of Europe – and sooner or later to be reached by the rest of the world as well. “Civilization” was the Enlightenment’s battle cry. It summarized in one word the beliefs in progress, science, reason, modernity, the priority of the city over the countryside, individualism, and so forth that defined the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment’s belief in science also resulted in the application of scientific methods to the study of history and society. This lead to rationalist excesses in economics on the one hand, and more empirical, observation-oriented work on the other. An early example of the latter was Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois, an empirical study of the interrelationships between social and natural phenomena. While the core ideas of the Enlightenment included a belief in the universality of much of human psychology, Montesquieu’s work – and that of other early social scientists following in his footsteps – refuted that. Instead of universals, they found cultural differences.3 A second blow to the foundations of Enlightenment thought came when David Hume and (especially) Immanuel Kant revealed essential limits to reason. But even without these two “blows”, a reaction would have sprung up sooner or later. The Enlightenment radicalized certain themes that ran as red thread throughout must of European intellectual history, and thus wasn’t a real break with history. But it was a new force in the landscape of ideas, and any force sooner or later invites a counter-force.
That counter-force, the Counter-Enlightenment, came in a number of waves. The first wave grew out of dissatisfaction with Enlightenment ideals, reinforced by the two aforementioned “blows” that put the spotlight on human diversity and the limits of reason. This was the Romanticism of the early and middle 19th century, which would provide the intellectual mold for future waves of Counter-Enlightened thought. Instead of universalism (i.e. the idea that all people are essentially the same), Romanticism preached (national) diversity. Instead of reason, progress, and the city, it idealized the passions, tradition, and the countryside. And while the Enlightenment upheld cosmopolitan ideals (which really are just another form of universalism), the Romantic Counter-Enlightenment gave birth to nationalism.
The second wave of the Counter-Enlightenment started around the end of the 19th century and lasted until the middle of the 20th. This wave was strongest in Germany, and even more explicitly than the first, it rejected the ideal of civilization. “Kultur” (culture), particularly national culture, rather than universal civilization, was the Romantic ideal. I’ll have to say more about this second wave below, but let’s summarize the key differences between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment first.
|(universal) civilization as ideal||(national) culture as ideal|
|(psychological) universalism||(cultural) diversity|
|progress, science, technology||tradition|
|the future||the past, history|
|intellectualism, scientism||idealization of “the people”|
|intelligence||strength, will, power|
|scientist as hero||warrior as hero|
|nature is structured and reasonable||nature is lush, chaotic, and unreasonable|
|nature is to be understood and controlled||nature is to be admired|
Despite these obvious contrasts, the Enlightenment and its reaction also shared certain characteristic. Firstly, they were both Utopian, even if their Utopias differed in almost every respect. The Enlightened Utopia is an urban, technological, and intellectualist Utopia that is located in an idealized future – it is a progressive Utopia. The Counter-Enlightened or Romantic Utopia is a rural, traditional, and Völkisch (popular)4 that is located in an idealized past – it is a reactionary Utopia.
Secondly, in either movement, this Utopianism tended (and tends) to support or involve dreams of catastrophe and rebirth. A catastrophe like a (violent) revolution or some other kind of (artificial or natural) social upheaval would wipe away the old, and make space for a new order and a new man. Often such dreams of a different, Utopian society (populated by a different, Utopian mankind) rising up as a phoenix from the ashes of the current (decadent, imperfect, unjust, etc.) social order were mere literary fantasies, but for radicals on either side of the divide these weren’t (and aren’t) just dreams.
(On a side note, most of the political ideologies (and their Utopian visions) we recognize today have their roots in the early 19th century – that is, in the struggle between Enlightenment and its reaction. Classical liberalism is the ideology of the Enlightenment (but modern versions of liberalism are far removed from its classical form), while nationalism originated in the Counter-Enlightenment. (Conservatism slightly predates the Counter-Enlightenment, but is also closely associated therewith.) Most other ideologies, such as socialism and anarchism combined elements of both. Marxism, for example, includes both obvious Romantic elements (such as its focus on overcoming alienation) as well as Enlightened elements (such as its scientism). Socialism tends to be closer to Enlightenment ideas, while anarchism (especially its primitivist variants) tends to be closer to the Counter-Enlightenment (but Kropotkin, for example, is an exception). Fascism is of later date, but we’ll turn to that ideology below.)
Thirdly, both the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment inherited the opposition of man (i.e. humankind) to nature. The Enlightenment and its reaction conceptualized nature very differently, but both kept nature at a distance. Nature is something apart from us humans; something that should be studied or admired, but something that is not us. This distancing of man from nature is probably rooted in a psychological need to emphasize that humans are not animals (even though we really are), because recognizing our animal natures confront us with our mortality.5
* * *
The second wave of the Counter-Enlightenment started in the end of the 19th century and was strongest in Germany. It further strengthened the nationalistic aspect of the Counter-Enlightenment, as well as the idolization of strong, passionate heroes. (Wagner’s operas may serve as examples of the latter.) This second wave explicitly rejected “Zivilization” (civilization) as decadent, against the national spirit, and so forth. And Oswald Spengler’s influential Untergang des Abendlandes (translated as The Decline of the West), published just after the First World War, even predicted the fall of civilization.
A bit earlier, the English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that
civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By dealing with the unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but the traitors within our gates.6
The quote is interesting because it nicely sketches the Counter-Enlightened view of nature (the “chaotic world” we are “making war” with), but most of all because it gives voice to a very common misconception, namely that civilization and its intellectual roots are a radical break with what preceded it, a “rebellion” against more natural, or historically common arrangements. This idea – that the Enlightenment represents a radical break and that the Counter-Enlightenment is more akin to historical continuity – became one of the central myths of the Counter-Enlightenment.
It is true, of course, that civilization is very different from tribal society, but history didn’t jump from one to the other and there has been a very gradual development from the second into the first. More important, however, is that the idealization of civilization in the Enlightenment as well as related ideas (see the table above) were not new and were no radical break with what came before it. If anything, they naturally evolved out of classical thought (of the Greeks and Romans) and out of Medieval Christianity. The idea that man was given reason to understand and control the natural world was a cornerstone of Medieval Christian thought; not an invention of the Enlightenment. The ideal of spreading civilization was a slightly (but only slightly) more secular version of the ideal of spreading Christianity. And so forth. The Enlightenment did not break with history, but merely radicalized certain tendencies and ideas that were already there. (I’ll return to these issues a few times below.)
That the Enlightenment was not a radical break doesn’t imply that the Counter-Enlightenment was, however. Certainly it rebelled against dominant beliefs in science, progress, and civilization – giving it the nickname of “Romantic rebellion” – but its intellectual roots and core values are as old as those of the Enlightenment. Most of the ideas and ideals of the two movements were already there. Neither movement invented those. They just put different, opposing ideas and ideals on a pedestal. And in its priorities (i.e. in what it put on a pedestal) the Enlightenment was the most conservative of the two: it prioritized what had been prioritized since Antiquity at least because those were the ideas and ideals that had given us medicine, order, and peace (even if none of those was (and is) perfect). But for some, the relative security that resulted from this was synonymous to boredom. The priorities of the Counter-Enlightenment were priorities of luxury, focusing not on basic human needs, but on beauty, awe, and glory (after basic needs were increasingly met, at least for the middle and higher classes). Civilization is part of humanity’s natural development, and it is the success of that development that made the Counter-Enlightenment possible.
In a sense, it is the Counter-Enlightenment that breaks with history – not because it suggested new ideas, but because it much more radically changed priorities than the Enlightenment did. Where the Enlightenment chose to prioritize ideas and ideals that are traditionally associated with light – reason, science, progress – the Counter-Enlightenment prioritized darkness. How dark became all too clear during its second wave.
If the table above is used as a checklist, there isn’t a single item in the right column that would be left unchecked for Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler rejected civilization as “an enemy of true height of spirit and life”7, glorified strength and “das Völkische” (the popular – see above), disparaged reason and intellect, and so forth. Indeed, fascism is Counter-Enlightenment on steroids. Or perhaps, not even on steroids – perhaps, it is its logical conclusion. The only substantial differences between fascism and less malignant varieties of the Counter-Enlightenment are the authoritarianism and intolerance of the former, but those grew out of the idolization of strength, will, and unreason – that is, out of the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment itself.
After the Second World War the second wave of the Counter-Enlightenment was (mostly) dead and buried, but it wouldn’t take long before a third wave started to gain strength. That third wave needed to dissociate the Counter-Enlightenment from fascism, however. Thankfully, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno provided this third wave with just what it needed in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the war. In that book, Horkheimer and Adorno presented a convoluted argument to defend the patently absurd claim that fascism was the (indirect) product of the Enlightenment rather than of the Counter-Enlightenment. Their argument is based on two claims. Firstly, they accept the Counter-Enlightenment myth that the Enlightenment was some kind of radical break with history (see above). Secondly, they reduce the Enlightenment’s ideas and ideals to “instrumental reason”.
The Enligtenment’s program – according to Horkheimer and Adorno – was the demystification (Entzauberung) of the world, and “to take away fear from people and install them as masters”8 This is not completely unaccurate, but it is misleading. Reducing fear and suffering by mastering parts and aspects of nature was not just a goal of the Enlightenment, but has always been a human goal. It defines humanity, rather than the Enlightenment. Furthermore, there is little reason to believe that what Horkheimer and Adorno call “instrumental reason”, a focus on means-ends reasoning and the “rationalization” or systematization of procedures and (production) processes, is a product of the Enlightenment. Instrumental rationality is a feature of capitalism and industrialization. Both came up around the same time as the Enlightenment (give or take a century), but that doesn’t mean that they are the same thing, or even that they share the same essential features. In other words, Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument depends on a misrepresentation of the core ideas and values of the Enlightenment.
Unfortunately (⸮), Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument turned out to be too opaque even for many contemporary enemies of the Enlightenment, and those, therefore, more often rely on simplified versions. One such argument is pointing out the development of military technology in Nazi Germany as an example of Enlightened science, and/or the systematic extermination of Jews as an example of instrumental rationality. Using systematic, “rationalized” methods to achieve some goal has little to do with the Enlightenment and its ideas and ideals, however (but lots with industrialization and capitalism, as mentioned above). And military technology is hardly an example of the kind of fundamental science idealized by the Enlightenment either. Furthermore, even if military technology and procedural rationality could be pinned on the Enlightenment, the argument makes no sense. The ideas and goals of fascism are a variety of the ideas and goals of the Counter-Enlightenment. Even if fascists used Enlightenment-based methods to achieve those goals that doesn’t suddenly and magically turn those goals themselves into Enlightened goals.
Fact of the matter is that fascism and Nazi Germany were products of the Counter-Enlightenment (although not just of the Counter-Enlightenment – let’s not fall in the trap of oversimplification). No rhetoric can change that. But perhaps, the point of the rhetoric was more to incriminate the Enlightenment than to absolve the Counter-Enlightenment.
So, let’s return to the third wave of the Counter-Enlightenment (or the third Romantic Rebellion). Despite its historical association with a movement that also resulted in fascism, this third wave is not fascist. It is characterized by most of the keywords in the right column of the table above, but not (necessarily) by all of them. And it is more diverse. The most prominent strand in this third wave is post-modernism, which explicitly rejects universalism and some related aspects of Enlightenment thought, but which is usually not associated with nationalism, for example. Perhaps, this is the most fundamental difference between the second and third waves: the third wave substitutes relativism for nationalism, and thus, does not translate diversity into superiority of the in-group.
The “Uncivilisation” Program
If the Dark Mountain project would be a wave, it might be considered the fourth wave of the Counter-Enlightenment. It is, however, a mere ripple.
Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto, ends with eight principles. Let’s start with the first and go through them in order.
1. We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
The claims of the first two sentences are probably true. As I wrote elsewhere, I’m not certain about this, but I’m sufficiently pessimistic to accept them as very likely true. What I find most sympathetic about the Dark Mountain project is the next phrase – “we will face this reality honesty” – because all around I just see dishonesty and attempts to brush reality under the carpet. I’m more doubtful about the last phrase, on the other hand. Is it even possible for us to learn to live with it? Should we really want to live with unravelling? Such unravelling will lead to great human suffering – much greater than the world has ever seen – learning to live with that seems callous.
2. We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
Any crisis can be “reduced” to a problem – that has nothing to do with faith. A crisis (or set of converging crises) is a problem if it produces massive suffering. That, again, has nothing to with faith. Probably, the point of mentioning “faith” here is related to the next principle which is foreshadowed in the notion of faith in technological or political solutions. It can, perhaps, be said that there is faith involved in the belief in the possibility of such solutions, but the notion of some faith that holds that certain kinds of problems need a solution makes no sense. It has nothing do with faith to say that a crisis that causes massive suffering (of humans and animals!) needs a solution. Moreover, rejecting such a need and thus accepting that massive suffering is a sickening form of callousness.
“Myths” of Nature and Progress
The third principle is where things get really interesting, but also deeply problematic.
3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
The stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are play essential roles – I am not denying that, although I’m not convinced that the roots of the crises lie just in the stories we have been telling ourselves – but almost every thing else claimed by this principle is questionable at best.
Much of this principle is rehash of the Counter-Enlightenment trope that civilization and Enlightenment are a radical break with history and are based on a myth (an idea that also plays a central role in Horkheimer and Adorno argument – see above). There is no such radical break, however – civilization is nothing but a stage in humanity’s natural development. (More about this below, and above.)
The authors of the Manifesto specifically mention three myths: “the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’”. The myth of progress is – according to them – the idea that history is like an escalator with human perfection on the top floor, but that top floor can never be reached “in order to sustain the sensation of motion”. They don’t get much clearer than that unfortunately. What exactly is this myth of progress? Is it the idea that there is some kind of automatic and continuous progress? Is it the idea that progress is possible if we work for it? Is it the idea that we should progress? These three interpretations are very different, and they are not the only options available.
There are a number of candidates for the label “myth of progress”, but I’m not sure whether any of them is sufficiently widespread and sufficiently uncritically accepted to warrant the “myth” label. The first is the idea that all change is progress, which is obviously false. Mankind is not standing still, but not every step we take is a step forward – some steps are sideways or even backwards – an unfortunately we don’t always know in advance in what direction we are moving. All of this appears to be so obvious that I doubt whether there is anyone who seriously believes that all change is progress – if there isn’t, then this candidate is off the table.
The second is a more or less absolutist or essentialist view on progress: if something is progress in some respect, then it is progress in all. This too is obviously false, however, which is most clearly illustrated by weapons technology. The development of nuclear weapons was technological progress, but I doubt that anyone believes that they embodied progress in any other respect (which is not to say that they didn’t have offshoots that lead to progress in other respects). And smartphones are indubitably technological progress as well, but I can’t really see those as progress in any other sense either. A closely related – an equally nonsensical – idea would be that if something is progress for some people, then it is progress for everyone. The same development may be progress for one social class, and regress for another. Progress is often uneven, both in the sense of who benefits from it and in the sense that it is progress in some respect, and not necessarily in others. This too, is rather obvious, however, and for that reason, the absolutist view on progress is not a plausible candidate “myth of progress” either.
Neither is the (related) idea that progress is somehow “automatic” a plausible candidate “myth”. Progress has never been automatic, and I doubt that anyone ever believed it is. Progress is something we always had to work for, and that we always did work for (regardless of whether we always were successful). Heroes of the Enlightenment are heroes because they worked for progress. There is no myth that progress would be automatic. The closest to that myth – and perhaps the best candidate for the label “myth of progress” – is the promise of continuous progress that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, but that was a product of post-War economic growth rather than of Enlightenment thought. And I completely agree with the authors of the Manifesto that that promise has been broken and that we entered a period of destruction and decline. But that doesn’t mean that there is anything mythical about progress itself. We made progress in many respects, even if progress is uneven and punctuated by periods of regress and even collapse. And most of all, it doesn’t mean that we should reject progress. If we learn to cure cancer, then that would be progress – and that would be a good thing.
The myth of human centrality (the second myth) has nothing to with civilization and the Enlightenment, but is a Christian (or monotheistic) myth (or possibly even a universal human myth, although I’m not sure about that). I completely agree that we should discard that myth, but so did many thinkers of the Enlightenment. (Human centrality – especially heroic human centrality – is closer to the Counter-Enlightenment, by the way, but perhaps that matters little here.)
The third myth – the myth of our separation from nature – is the most important of the three. I already mentioned this myth above – it is a myth shared by much of the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment. It has much older origins than either of those two, and is much more widespread as well. It has nothing to do with civilization or the Enlightenment. Or actually, it has nothing to do with civilization in this sense, but there is another sense of “civilization” that is more or less synonymous to “culture”.9 A civilization in this anthropological sense includes religion, language, values, beliefs and so forth of a group of people. Any group of people belongs to a civilization/culture in that sense. And according to Ernest Becker, the ideas and beliefs of any civilization in this sense include “death denying” beliefs that are needed to control a potentially debilitating fear of death.10 Separating ourselves from animals – and thus from nature – is one of those ideas. It is, for that reason, a universal idea shared by all cultures/civilizations. This is not the sense of “civilization” intended here, however, so this is mostly irrelevant. The Manifesto argues against the Enlightenment project of (modern) civilization, which is a much more specific notion. (Civilization in that sense is just one particular (kind of) civilization/culture in the anthropological sense.)
The Manifesto’s argument against the myth of our separation from nature is mainly laid out in the section titled “The Severed Hand”. It starts of with one of the silliest arguments I have ever encountered in what is supposed to be serious writing: “The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it”. We also have a word for “mankind”, which then must be evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of mankind either.
Silliness aside, there is, of course, a “myth” of our separation from nature. It is – as pointed out above – a (universal) religious/cultural myth. It is not a myth of the Enlightenment. Rather, Enlightenment science pointed out that we are part of nature. Much more than the Enlightenment, its reaction (i.e. the Counter-Enlightenment) wished to distance man from nature by emphasizing men as artists and/or heroes, and nature from man by advocating a conception of wild and untouched nature, free from human meddling.
The real issue is not so much the essentially religious idea that we are not part of nature, but how we relate ourselves to nature, or how we approach nature, and there are important differences between Enlightenment (and civilization) and Counter-Enlightenment in that respect. This isn’t a single issue, however, but a collection of issues some of which are descriptive while others are normative. Normative issues concern whether and to what extent we should (try to) admire, understand, control, use, and/or exploit nature. Descriptive issues concern whether and to what extent we actually understand and/or (can) control nature. And somewhere in between is the question whether we have a right to use/exploit nature (which could be considered descriptive if you believe there are objective rights and normative otherwise).
These issues aren’t entirely independent from the separation myth, however. Rather, our attempts to control and understand nature (as well as our aesthetic appreciation of nature) may seem to place ourselves outside nature. This (often implicit) line of reasoning is closely related to the idea that our mind’s control of our body is evidence that the mind is not part of the body, leading to a mind/body dualism that philosophers have shown to be untenable a few centuries ago,11 but that just refuses to die (outside philosophy, at least). The mind controls the body from within the body – it is not separate from the body. Similarly, man’s attempt to control aspects of nature may be attempts at control from within.
There is no shortage of strange ideas when it comes to human nature and humans-in-nature. Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, assumed that the natural state of a human being is a state of isolation. To understand human nature, a human being has to be seen in isolation from society (which according to Rousseau has a corrupting influence). This is a nonsensical idea, as Eric Schwitzgebel pointed out:
Biologists do not, for example, separate the ant from the colony or the wolf from the pack to see how they behave “naturally.” The ant and the wolf are naturally social. Their behavior within their social structures is their natural behavior – an isolated ant or wolf is an aberration.12
And the same is true for humans: we are naturally social.
Similarly, it is natural for human beings to try to control aspects of our environment, or parts or aspects of nature. (And not just for humans, by the way – some animals also try to do that.) Tending wounds, trying to cure diseases, cooking food, and sowing seeds are all attempts to control some aspects of nature. We have been trying to control parts and aspects of nature from the “day” that we evolved. Trying to control nature is our nature.
The more we tried to control nature, the more we learned. Probably we learned most from our failures, but thanks to those failures, we also learned what did work, and gradually the number of aspects of nature we could (more or less) successfully control increased. This progress was – and is – a natural process. The continuous attempt to improve our living circumstances is our nature. It is in the nature of ants to build ant hills. It is in our nature to build knowledge, and fields, and fires, and cities. “This was the order of human institutions,” wrote Giambattista Vico in the early 18th century: “first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.”13
To suppose that an ant hill is nature (or natural) and a city is not is to separate animals from humans. Ant hills are (part of) ants’ nature. Cities are (part of) our nature; civilization is (part of) our nature; and as we are undeniable part of nature ourselves, civilization is as natural as an ant hill or a bird’s nest.
To recognize that we successfully manage to control a few aspects of nature is not the same as saying that we are the masters of nature, however. That would be hubris. It is a rather common form of hubris, unfortunately, and one with ancient roots. It is closely related to the hubris that places us at the pinnacle of creation. Aristotle believed that the whole universe ultimately served the purpose of man, and Christianity enthusiastically defended the same idea. There isn’t much in nature that we can control actually, and many of our attempts to control parts or aspects of nature failed or even had/have disastrous results. The current environmental crises are probably the best examples thereof. Hubris is a problem, because hubris produces disaster, but that doesn’t imply that all our attempts to control aspects of nature are problematic.
This brings us to the normative issue: Whether and to what extent should we (try to) admire/understand/control/use/exploit nature? From the Christian perspective the answer to this question is easy: we are the crown of creation and God gave us reason to understand and exploit the world. This Christian view has thoroughly infected Western thought, but looking at the normative issue through the lens of history doesn’t settle the question.
Everyone agrees that undeserved suffering is bad. Disease is bad; famine is bad; innocent deaths in war are bad; and so forth. We try to control aspects of nature to fight disease, and to prevent famine. (Our attempts at mastery of nature serve to combat fear – as Horkheimer and Adorno put it (see above) – but that is a universal human strive and not a characteristic of the Enlightenment.) We build complex social systems to try to create order and reduce needless suffering. We progressed from tribal societies to civilization in an ongoing attempt to increase security and to decrease disease, hunger, fear, and war. Civilization and the attempt to control aspects of nature are a continuing project to reduce suffering. Therefore, civilization and the control of nature are attempts to counter what everyone agrees to be bad.
That there have been failed attempts is no reason to give up the project. Progress is not a straight line, but a tortuous path with many sidesteps and failures. (And often it was/is only the elite that benefited from “progress” at first.) Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the change from hunter/gatherer societies to agriculture did reduce average health, for example, and right now, it seems that our careless exploitation of nature is going to destroy civilization itself. Failure doesn’t imply that the intention was bad, however. That we failed to obtain the results we hoped to get from controlling aspects of nature doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have tried. But probably it does mean that we should have tried more carefully. It is the aforementioned hubris that is partly to blame for failure – but only partly. (We’ll return to the latter point below.)
Rejecting human attempts to control aspects of nature is rejecting medicine and agriculture. Such a rejection advocates a primitivism of the most radical kind. It also is a sickeningly callous idea, as it aims to abolish all attempts to reduce human suffering.
Furthermore, to reject human “meddling” with nature is to separate humans from nature. It is to demand that nature is to be kept pure and separate from human influence. This is a variant of the Counter-Enlightenment view of nature as something to be admired, something wild and unpredictable and beautiful that we look at but not really belong to, and something that should be kept that way. While the Enlightenment – thanks to Darwin and his many predecessors – rejected the religious myth of the separation of man from nature and firmly placed us within nature, it was the Counter-Enlightenment that brought that myth back. It was (and is) the Counter-Enlightenment that couldn’t stand the demystification of man.
Let’s summarize the foregoing in a few key points:
- There is a myth of our separation from nature, but it is a religious myth and not a founding myth of civilization.
- Humans are undeniably part of nature, but it is equally undeniable that it is our nature to try to control parts or aspects of nature. That is control from within nature, however. And civilization is the result of (and a stage in) the natural human “project” to control aspects of our environment. Civilization is part of our nature.
- The human “project” to try to control parts and aspects of nature is a project to (continuously) improve the circumstances of our lives – it is a project to reduce human suffering. Since everyone agrees that undeserved suffering is bad, it is a good project – it is a project we should engage in.
- However, progress in this project is neither automatic nor straightforward and there have been many disastrous failures and mistakes. Hubris – overconfidence in our ability to control nature and ignorance of our limits – is one of the causes of these failures and mistakes (but not the main cause – see below).
I take it that the last sentence of the third principle of the Manifesto – “These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths” – is intended (among others) to point out the danger of the hubris mentioned in the last point above. However, blaming “unravelling” just on hubris (and myth) is a much too simplistic answer. It isn’t because of hubris that our exploitation of nature is turning into a disaster, because hubris is a combination of overconfidence and ignorance and we aren’t that ignorant. Already in the 19th century some scientists wrote about the environmental damage caused by industrialization, and we have known for several decades already that climate change – if left unchecked – will lead to disaster. The problem isn’t hubris, but an active campaign to suppress and deny this knowledge. The problem is that the global financial and political elite has too much to gain – on the short term, but that’s the only term they care about because on the long term they will be dead – from continuing on the current path. We are not exploiting and destroying nature out of hubris (or at least not just out of hubris), but because we live in a system that only cares about short term financial gain for a small elite.
By blaming the “unravelling” of civilization just on “myths” (and hubris really is just a facet of those myths) – on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – the Manifesto wipes this under the carpet. It ignores the political and economic structures that cause environmental disaster and that obstruct its prevention or alleviation. All the Manifesto does is to tell another story, a story that keeps those who gain from “unravelling” and those who are most responsible for it conveniently out of sight. That is not the story that needs to be told. That is a lie.
Stories, Citadels, and Theories
Let’s continue with the next five principles.
4. We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
I’m assuming that “weaving reality” is a metaphor here. We don’t literally “weave” or create reality through stories, but merely our perspectives on it. Mountains aren’t woven or created through stories but by geographical processes. (But it is true, of course, that it is our “stories” – in a broad sense of “story” – that determine how we distinguish mountains from hills and where we draw the boundary between a mountain and an adjacent valley.)
The first point is an important point exactly because our stories determine our perspectives on reality. Stories are indeed much more than entertainment, and storytelling should not be left to the “culture industry”. Aside from trying to incriminate the Enlightenment, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (see above), Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno also introduced the notion of the “culture industry” to refer to the commercial manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of a certain perspective on reality. Through its products, such as movies, music, and other forms of commercial entertainment and infotainment, the culture industry largely determines how we perceive and understand the world around us. Importantly, the perspective that the culture industry feeds us is the hegemonic perspective – it is the perspective that serves the interests of the ruling elites. It is the perspective that includes and reinforces certain myths, but not exactly the myths mentioned in the Manifesto. It’s main myth is that liberal democracy and free markets will solve all problems and guarantee continuous progress and better lives for all. (Or something very similar.) That myth needs to be exposed, and to do that, we need to change the stories. Storytelling is indeed much more than entertainment. It is as essential in maintaining the status quo as in trying to change it.
5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
I have no objections to the first two sentences, but the third is strange for at least two reasons. Firstly, it separates humans from nature (“the non-human world”), thus reaffirming the myth the Manifesto was supposed to expose. Secondly, it suggests that we stopped engaging with the non-human world, while much of the argument in the Manifesto seems to be that we are engaging with the non-human world in the wrong way (namely by destroying it) and thus should disengage (rather than reengage).
6. We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.
This principle is interesting mainly because it so obviously builds on typical Counter-Enlightenment ideas: a recognition (possibly even celebration) of diversity rooted in place and time, and a rejection of the city (“citadels”).
7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.
Here too, we find some Counter-Enlightenment tropes: a rejection of theory (a variety of anti-scientism) and anti-intellectualism (“our words will be elemental”). The first sentence is more interesting for slightly different reasons, however. Firstly, by explicitly rejecting ideology the Manifesto implicitly rejects (or even forbids) a political analysis of the current crises. In this way too, it conveniently keeps those who are most responsible for those crises and those who have most to gain from them out of sight.
Secondly, the rejection (or ban) of theory appears to be incoherent given that the Manifesto’s conception of stories effectively erases the boundary between story and theory. Stories (as perspectives on reality) are theories (of reality) and theories are stories.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Manifesto is theoretical itself, and this rejection/ban of theory is thus effectively a rejection/ban of further theorizing. What the authors are saying is that their word is the final word. They don’t allow a response. They don’t allow any attempts to show them wrong. They don’t allow critique. They don’t allow new ideas. With their Manifesto all theorizing ends. This is a peculiar – and somewhat revolting – form of authoritarianism, but it fits well with the Counter-Enlightenment that has seen many similar theoretical rejections of (further) theorizing.
Lastly, is see no inherent contradiction between theorizing and having dirt under one’s fingernails. Socrates was a stonemason, and there have been plenty of other philosophers and other kinds of theorists who got their hands dirty in a non-metaphorical sense.
8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
So that’s the point, or so it appears, at least – to dream of a post-apocalyptic future. Utopians of various colors have been doing that for centuries. It becomes a bit disconcerting, however, if one considers that hundreds of millions of people will have to die of hunger, thirst, heat, natural disasters, and war first. That is not facing the reality of unravelling honestly as promised in the first principle. That is closing your eyes for suffering, and dreaming selfish dreams.
* * *
Let’s briefly summarize my main comments on the Manifesto before proceeding:
- The Manifesto presents a particular version of a fourth wave or ripple of the Counter-Enlightenment, repeating familiar Counter-Enlightenment tropes such as a rejection of civilization (as is obvious from its title), a rejection of theory, anti-intellectualism, the celebration of regional and historical diversity, a rejection of the city, a view of nature as something that is and should be outside the sphere of human influence (thus reconfirming the myth of the separation of man from nature rather than rejecting it), and so forth. It is, therefore, neither new nor original.
- The Manifesto is based on a number of misconceptions about civilization, human nature, and humanity’s relation with nature. We are not separate from nature indeed, but trying to control parts and aspects of nature (from within nature) is our nature. Civilization is nothing but a stage in the human “project” of trying to reduce suffering and fear by trying to control (or master) parts and aspects of nature.
- The Manifesto consistently ignores the political dimension of crisis. It mentions “capitalism” only once (without saying anything about its role in the current crises), and rather than pointing out the political and economic systems, ideas, and elites that are largely responsible for the current crises, it conveniently keeps them out of sight by blaming everything on “myths” and by rejecting (political) theorizing and ideology.
- The Manifesto knowingly ignores human suffering and even goes as far as to condemn attempts to alleviate suffering (such as the use of technology to limit climate change or its effects). This is the kind of Romanticism that believes that spoiling a traditional landscape by means of a windmill is worse than children dying of thirst, hunger, and violence due to climate change. It is a kind of callousness that borders on psychopathy.
This last point suggests that, much more than the authors seem to realize, their Manifesto is a product of this age. In my little book/pamphlet The Hegemony of Psychopathy I attempted to show that a kind of egocentric callousness bordering on clinical psychopathy has become hegemonic – it has become a “normal” mode of thought infecting all (post-) industrialized societies. Cultural psychopathy is the product and cultural corollary of neoliberalism, sharing its values and beliefs, and it is what supports the political and economic status quo by preventing people from seeing (and formulating) alternatives and from organizing any real resistance. The Manifesto’s callous neglect of suffering perfectly fits within the hegemonic stories. Ultimately, all the Manifesto preaches is to dream your selfish dreams of Utopian futures while keeping your eyes shut for the increasingly Dystopian present and its widespread suffering.
The Dark Mountain project is intended to tell different stories about our future and our place on Earth, but if their Manifesto is a reliable guide, those aren’t new stories, and those aren’t the right stories.
We need to honestly face the reality of climate change and environmental disaster indeed. We also need to honestly face the reality of economic disaster. We need to change the story or stories indeed. We need to tell different stories – different, that is, from the dominant stories. We need to tell stories that lay blame were blame is to be laid.
Our present situation is not a product of myths – that is a myth – but of an economic and political ideology enforced by those who profit from it. That is a story that needs to be told. It is neoliberal capitalism that caused environmental disaster and that prevents any solution. It is neoliberal capitalism that created poverty in the “developing” world through neocolonial policies. It is neoliberal capitalism that creates alienation, poverty, and increasing inequality in wealthy countries. Those are stories that need to be told.
We don’t need more convenient lies that keeps the responsible systems, ideas, and elites out of the spotlight, allowing them to further enrich themselves while continuing to plunder the Earth and everything that inhabits it. We don’t need stories that help this plunder by blaming “myths”, by diffusing blame, by confusing and obscuring. We don’t need stories that close our eyes for suffering.
Rather, we need stories that open our eyes to the truth. We need stories that tell the reality of climate change and its causes. We need stories that tell the reality of poverty and inequality and their causes. We need stories that tell the reality of suffering and its causes.
And we don’t need hope. We don’t need dreams about a post-apocalyptic future built on a graveyard. That is closing our eyes to suffering.
We don’t need stories of hope. We need stories of compassion and rage.
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- The silence is “deafening” in the mainstream media and arts/entertainment only, of course. Anyone who looks beyond that will soon stumble upon a world of books, articles, and artworks that deal with environmental collapse.
- It doesn’t seem as prominent – or at least not in this form – in Chinese and Indian thought.
- But they didn’t have the modern concept of “culture” yet. (And neither did they have the modern concept of “society”, for that matter.)
- The German word “Völkisch”, which is literally translated as “popular”, means something like “belonging to or characteristic of the common people”. It better expresses the Romantic elevation of the common people than the English words “popular” or (especially) “populist”.
- This idea is part of Terror Management Theory. For an accessible introduction and an overview of empirical evidence, see: Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Thomas A. Pyszczynski.(2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House).
- G.K. Chesterton (1901), “A defence of detective stories”, in: The defendant, pp. 118-123 (London: R. Brimley Johnson): pp. 122-123.
- “eine Feindin wahrer Geistes- und Lebenshöhe” (p. 282). Adolf Hitler (1925). Mein Kampf (München: Franz Eher Nachfolger).
- ”Seit je hat Aufklärung im umfassendsten Sinn fortschreitenden Denkens das Ziel vervolgt, von den Menschen die Furcht zu nehmen und sie als Herren einzusetzen.” Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (1947). Dialektik der Aufklärung (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1971). p. 7.
- Or actually, there are several other senses of “civilization”, but those other senses are mostly irrelevant here.
- Ernest Becker (1973). The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster).
- Substance dualism – the idea that mind and body are two completely different kinds of things – makes interaction between mind and body impossible and conflicts with the laws of physics.
- Eric Schwitzgebel. “Human Nature and Moral Development in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau”, History of Philosophy Quarterly 24 (2007), 147-168. p. 148.
- Giambatista Vico (1725/44). The new science of Gianbattista Vico: unabridged translation of the third edition (1744) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). §239.