Edward Abbey

Environmentalism: towards civilisation, or “uncivilisation”?


The environment movement is failing because it has only a negative vision of the future. Discuss.

That’s the nub of the argument suggested by Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club in her essaythat we published last week, and one echoed by Emma Ridgway’s recent article for theRETHINK exhibition catalogue. Environmentalism, the argument goes, is about limiting possibilities. It’s about what we shouldn’t do. Appleton believes that art has a visionary role in thinking beyond this drought of possiblity; humanity must instead accept its place as the species that transformed the earth – we must take on that leap of consciousness when we start to think of solutions and not start from the romantic baseline of earth as a wilderness, despoiled by man. We must move forwards, not back.

A radical idea. And the polar opposite to another radical idea proposed recently by poet/writer/activist Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. For them and their Dark Mountain Project, human civilisation itself is the toxic factor that has plunged the earth into crisis. In the blink of an eye – the five thousand years or so  in which  humanity has accelerated towards modern civilisation – we have so stamped over the intricacies of nature that the wheel is now flying off the machine. We must prepare our exit from civilisation, for “uncivilisation”. In the visual arts, this has echoes in the recent work of Heather and Ivan Morison, whose How to prosper in the coming bad years discussion takes place in The Black Cloud (see above) next weekend in Bristol.

Art, a place where the imagination can roam to extremes, is an excellent laboratory for ideas.  The Dark Mountain Project finds its inspiration in literature, particularly in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers – the Californian who shared a romantic vision of wilderness with environmentalist Edward Abbey, referred to below. It was Jeffers who had first suggested the idea of  “inhumanism” that  inspired the Dark Mountain Project. Human civilisation was, Jeffers suggested, always too self-centred to understand the complexity and beauty of the world around it. The Dark Mountain Project also plant their flag in the literature of Joseph Conrad and his “heart of darkness”.

There have been some interesting responses to the Dark Mountain provocation. In the New StatesmanJohn Gray responded to the Dark Mountain provocation by demonstrating that literature has in fact been much more successful at showing the catastrophic results of “uncivilisation” than eulolgising it. There is nothing romantic about the crumbling of civil society. Gray too cites Joseph Conrad, to make the point that Conrad, like J G Ballard – shows the genuine  horror of what a society in disintegration actually looks like. Both Conrad and Ballard were witness to the atrocities that happen when the crust of civilization is removed.

(On a sidenote, Paul Kingsnorth and I have disagreed elsewhere about whether Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road is a novel primarily about climate change. Gray’s line of argument  reminds you that MacCarthy’s book, in which baby-eating survivors scavage the land,  displays the awful consequence of uncivilisation.)

But as both suggest, it’s time to rexamine the givens. Environmentalism hasn’t produced the major shift in culture that the global warming era requires. Something radical has to shift.  Appleton’s idea is that to save civilisation we need more civilisation, not less:

The anthropocene is here, and there is no way back. To wish that we could retreat is the mythical fantasy of wishing that we never ate the apple or stole the fire. It is a wish that we were children again, back in a former stage of history. We cannot reverse out of the anthropocene but only go forward.

I doubt John Gray would quite see eye to eye with Appleton’s thesis either. Gray’s book Straw Dogs was a vigorous assault on the idea of that idea of human centrality in nature. Appleton’s argument is unashamedly anthropocentric; in fact the very notion of the anthropocene, by definition, is a human-centred concept. Gray follows James Lovelock: such assumptions of human supremacy over nature are fundamentally arrogant and hubristic.  Myself, I find the technological postivism of Appleton’s approach hard to embrace. Above all, I don’t believe, as she does, that, ” The climate moves slowly; we have time.”

The Black Cloud by Heather and Ivan Morison (Bristol, 2009)photographed by ac (y su camarófono)

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Robert MacFarlane on literature that inspired action

There was a great article on Edward Abbey by Robert MacFarlane in the weekend’s Guardian.  [I’m inclined to superlatives here, as MacFarlane generously bigged up the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre and our fellow organisations TippingPoint, The Ashden Directory and Cape Farewell in the article].

Anyhow, to the point.

MacFarlane writes about how Abbey’s gloriously rambunctious novel Monkey Wrench Gang became the inspiration for the Earth First! environmental movement in the US, who set about turning Abbey’s fiction into non-fiction through a series of direct actions. Climate change, suggests MacFarlane,  requires not just a technological and political shift but a cultural one too – which is what Abbey’s writing set ablaze for the American conservation movement.

But then MacFarlane starts to ponder where that’s going to come from in relation to climate change. American authors, from Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Bill McKibben, Gary Snyder, Cormac MacCarthy and others have produced significant passionate works which have indeed had a galvanising impact on environmental movements. But where, he wonders, are the British equivalents? The British equivalents, he suggests, have an emotional distance which doesn’t “kick your arse off the page” in the way that Abbey’s prose does. But there’s something else too:

Perhaps the key ethical principle of British environmental literature has been that making us see differently is an essential precursor to making us act differently. So it is that each new generation of British environmental writers finds itself trying to design the literary equivalent of the “killer app”: the glittering argument or stylistic turn that will produce an epiphany in sceptical readers, and so persuade them to change their behaviour. I used to believe in the possibility of this killer app, both as a reader and a writer. But I’m increasingly unsure of its existence. Or, if it exists, of its worth. At least in my experience, environmental literature in Britain gets read almost exclusively by the converted to the converted, and its meaningful ethical impact is minimal tending to zero. As Vernon Klinkenbourg noted with glum elegance last year, most documents of environmental literature are “minority reports – sometimes a minority of one. The assumptions, the hopes, the arguments [of such literature] are contradicted by the way the vast majority of us live, and by the political and economic structures that determine that lifestyle … sceptical readers so seldom pick up this kind of writing, or submit to its evidence.”

The point is that Abbey’s fiction was in many ways hackneyed, fed by the cliche’s of the western pulp novel, but it was great because of the scope of its passion and the sureness of Abbey’s vision. In comparison, are European artists and writers just trying too hard to be clever? Does this create a kind of parochial vision that hobbles artists, blunting their chance of having the kind of impact Abbey did?

One of the things that I hope Arts for COP15 will be able to produce is some idea of how effective the various events are at doing what they all, presumably, set out to do, which us change minds.

Illustration: Robert Crumb-designed sticker for Edward Abbey’s book (1985).

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