The Dark Mountain Project - An Owl & Ibis Assessment

More than a year ago I stumbled upon the Dark Mountain Project, a British social and literary movement to alert the world about Humankind’s threat to itself and Earth. DMP disturbed me. Most of what its founders and members had written rang true with my own thinking about the negative cultural evolutionary direction of Humankind over the past five centuries, and our rapid degradation of Earth along the way. But was DMP’s solution of a total abandonment of the Western, now global, approach to economics, politics and ecology justifiable, and would DMP’s suggestion for doing something different work?

These were questions I could not answer. So, in December 2017 I made an email proposal to my fellow participants in the Owl & Ibis Confluence of Minds hoping to answer them. The full text of that email is here. Here is an extract of the proposal itself:

I propose a close look at DMP by Owl & Ibis over the course of several meetings in 2018. This would require an O&I team approach that would investigate and make presentations on various topics contained in the following questions:

Is the DMP prediction of the collapse of the world system likely to take place, totally or in part? To find out I propose O&I compare DMP’s reasoning and evidence to that supporting the mythic-story-turned-truth standard version of civilization in the three notions presented above - Humankind’s dominance relationship with nature; trust in religion, progress and science for continuing survival and ever greater economic prosperity and social flourishing; and that current unending capitalistic economic growth and consumption is the only system that is productive and sustainable.

If we decide DMP is correct, that the current world system and vision is uncontrollable, destructive and therefore unsustainable, what are our options - damage control and contingency planning and measures? What might these be like?

Is DMP’s call for an exclusively humanities response, especially “uncivilized” writing, to ameliorate the collapse of civilization, along with a complete discard of current political, economic and scientific/technological methods, and religious approaches, sufficient?

I propose that we discuss the DMP Manifesto at the scheduled O&I meeting on Tuesday, Dec 26, 2017. If at the meeting we decide to look into DMP more deeply in 2018 as proposed here, we could then come up with a framework for an approach at the meeting.

Beginning in January 2018, a small but determined group of us, most of O&I’s regular attendees, spent six months examining and discussing the DMP with the hope of answering two questions: Is Humankind’s current heading leading to, as DMP claims, the destruction of civilization and an unsustainable planet? If so, what should our proper heading be and how might we redirect to and stay on a better course?

We sought answers by examining in detail the Dark Mountain Project’s premises and arguments. DMP’s assumptions and arguments may be found in three of their major publications: The Dark Mountain Manifesto; The Eight Principles of Uncivilization; and Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. An abridged compilation of these assumptions and arguments may be found here. Of all these works the Eight Principles of Uncivilization gives the best summary of DMP’s full message. Below we will look at the O&I group’s conclusions regarding each of the eight principles.

Here’s how we decided to assess the DMP. The Owl and Ibis core agreed that each would take a pertinent area or sector of concern addressed by DMP, research it and make a presentation to the group. Under the general title “Current Worldviews and Visions of the Future” the following multi-media presentations were made:

The Dark Mountain Project, An Overview, Jim Lassiter, Jan 23 & Feb 13, 2018
How Western Prosperity Came About Part I, Part II, Part III, Jim Lassiter, Mar 13 & Mar 27, 2018
Natural Science and Technology Futures, Steve Yothment, Apr 10, 2018
The Social Sciences, Parts I & II, Jim Lassiter, May 8 & May 22, 2018
Art, Judith Moore, June 12, 2018

Again, the over-arching goal was to find out what is currently going on in these areas and where do they seem to be heading with reference to DMP’s catastrophic forecast.

It was not easy to sum up or find consensus among the five of us who tried to collectively shine a light on the Dark Mountain Project. But some trends and general similarities did emerge. The following is a summary of my recollections of what the group concluded about the premises and assumptions of the Eight Principles of Uncivilization.

I kindly ask John, Judith, Richard and Steve to comment on this post as to the accuracy of my summing up under each principle. I am certain I have made errors of commission and omission. All others are also welcome to comment, of course.

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. All members of the group agreed with this declaration. One suggested a slight change in the wording of the last sentence so that it would read: “We will must face this reality and learn how to live with it.” All of us were not as confident to use “will” as did DMP.

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’. The group was mixed on this view. Some partly agreed but were skeptical that scientific, technological and political solutions were the best path to a survivable and sustainable future for Humankind and Earth. Others argued we have no choice but regard the future as a set of problems solvable though science, technology and politics. Most were willing to concede that this approach alone was insufficient unless it was coupled with a radically new “story” of Humankind’s place in Nature, a reworking and refocusing of its various moral systems, and a re-commitment to the scientific truths about the deterioration of the survivability, livability and sustainability of the biosphere due to unbridled capitalistic human ecology.

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 group as a whole accepted this as an accurate statement about the worldview of most, not all, of Earth’s wealthiest and most powerful people, corporations, and governments. We also accepted that the mythic story Humankind has come up with about its self-exalted place in Nature and the Cosmos is delusional. That is, the story of our belief in our ability to make progress in the direction of individual and societal perfection has become falsely regarded as an absolute truth by most of Humankind. That this story turned truth is a very dangerous delusion.

4.     We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality. The group agreed, we are a species that survives and thrives by our wits and the stories our imagination and reasoning create about how to survive and prosper. We certainly weren’t likely to otherwise survive during the early period of hominin evolution with our relatively under-sized canine teeth, weak musculature, long postnatal childcare, and slow foot speed compared to the predators we lived among during the East African Pleistocene. Language, social cooperation and accumulative cultural transmission over generations form a structure, an adaptive strategy, in which we place and improve upon ideas for surviving and flourishing. We were likely to become a minor footnote to the evolution of Life on Earth without this strategy and the stories, the life-ways, we packed into it and built upon. But stories are meant to be, must be, continuously thought about and questioned as they are retold through the generations. Environments change and the challenges they present require that humans come up with better stories, better ways of thinking about what we are, how we should relate to each other, and how we should treat all other life forms and the Earth itself. The story of human supremacy, unbridled capitalistic exploitation, and inter-national Darwinism is not proving best for our species, now and in the foreseeable short and long term future. The cost in human suffering and planet degradation the current story exacts is unacceptably high. Yes, we need a new and better story. Now.

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. All members of the group agreed. We must adjust our view of our place in Nature. In doing so we might succeed in redefining the “point” of Humankind’s existence and our “purpose” for being. The hard question is: How?

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 is the point where the O&I group’s respective points of view showed the greatest disagreement. Essentially, the group was divided, with some overlap, in terms of holding one of the three following positions regarding DMP’s claim of the primacy of art and literature in writing a new story for Humankind:
A.    Science, technology and political solutions should suffice. A good story to go along with them won’t hurt and might help.
B.    Science, technology and politics are methods we have worked hard on and steadily improved during our species’ cultural evolution. Let’s continue to improve on them and guide our efforts using them with ever new and better stories.
C.    Coming up with a new and better story is of paramount importance. Art and new stories from literature are essential but alone they are not enough. Our new and better stories must be fomented not solely by the hopes and dreams of the Humanities. Art and literature are essential, but alone they will not suffice. Our new and better stories must be informed not only by our hopes and dreams, they must also have the substance and direction that only the ever-evolving provisional truths of the natural and social sciences can provide; and knowledge of the pitfalls ahead that history and philosophy can help alert us to avoid. Art and the Humanities generally provide inspirational sparks and reflections but science, history and philosophy are the fire and light leading us to and along a path with the highest probability for survival and flourishing. A consilience is underway - a linking together of principles from different disciplines, especially those of the arts and sciences, to form a comprehensive theory.

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. The group generally thought this was insufficient. Our theories and ideologies, the group concluded, are part of our basic story, an extension of the primal story of Humankind. But they do little unless they are constantly challenged and redirected. A voice from the “dirt” is necessary but it alone is not enough.

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. We agreed, the world is likely to survive the best and worst Homo sapiens  does to it. But “will” we find the “hope beyond hope?” Some thought we would. Others hoped we would. All agreed there’s an “unknown world ahead of us,” of course, but we also concluded there is more reason for hope than what was given by the Dark Mountain Project.


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