Possiblity

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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Are green blogs failing to convince?

Commenting on the possiblity of creating a new .eco domain, Al Gore said this week:

We fully support Dot Eco LLC in its efforts to secure the .eco top level domain through the ICANN application process and look forward to working with Dot Eco LLC to promote .eco. This is a truly exciting opportunity for the environmental movement and for the internet as a whole.

Exciting? Really? Really?

Like Matthias Merkel Hess, who occasionally wrings his hands with regret at calling his admirable site, Eco Art Blog, I inwardly cringe at the word. Here at Arts & Ecology we are always pleased that we never fell for the single-syllable option, keeping the subtler, more powerful term “ecology”, with its implicit sense of connectedness. Why having it as a suffix creates anything more than an internet ghetto, I don’t understand.

Anyway, to the point. Meaghan O’Neill, the woman behind Treehugger.com and Planetgreen.com is perkily bullish about the future of green blogs in general, writing in an article in last week’s Guardian. In an age in which conventional media are shedding staff as fast as they can, she believes that blogs can and should take over the role of reporting on environmental issues:

Anecdotally speaking, the audience for green content appears to still be growing, even as budgets for green media outlets are cut.

If you look at what she says with web2.0 spectacles on, things look rosy. Green bloggers have formed a community which educates and reinvigorates itself. As Abi Silvester of hippyshopper.com says in a comment on O’Neill’s article:

One element of blogging that’s particularly relevant here is that as bloggers we treat the issues as a basis for dialogue rather than presenting them as facts in the way that mainstream media tends to do… I do understand why some are uncomfortable with the idea of unqualified bloggers spurious scientific “facts”on the environment or any other topic, but so is any blogger worth his or her salt. In my experience, the blogs that gain credibility and respect are those that don’t set themselves up as “experts” but as interested parties that want to get involved and explore solutions creatively. There’s really no better place to do that than online at the moment.

Which is why green blogs are failing to change minds. Web2.0 is a great thing. But it’s not an end in itself. .

O’Neill says her faith that growing green audiences is “anecdotal”. Silvester too is a fan of the anectotal: “In my experience, the blogs that gain crediblity are those that don’t set themselves up as ‘experts’,” she says .

We don’t really have to prove ourselves right because we have the moral highground. A community that talks hihg-mindedly to itself is of value, but not when faced by an opposing community of sceptics which is, frankly, making all the running. In fact, as the barbed comments below O’Neill’s article show, climate deniers retain a much more powerful voice on the internet given their relatively small numbers, and green bloggers don’t appear to be able to do anything to dent that. Last month, to the horror of green bloggers everywhere, the climate-sceptic blog wattsupwiththat.com was nominated Best Science Blog of 2008 by the Best Blog Awards, to the delight of denier-trolls everhwhere.

The thing is, if blogs are going to replace the mainstream media, they must start assuming their authority. And that means finding more ways to do old-fashioned research and reporting – what the old mainstream media regarded as its central role. Moral highground is cheap. A reputation for accuracy is much harder to come by. That’s happening, but still so slowly.

The web is, as we are so often told, only 5,000 days old.

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