Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain is a defeated environmentalist’s version of a think tank. Call it a sink tank.
Environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth’s pessimism is getting a lot of attention, thanks to a popular article in the New York Times that provides a lot of detail–not least that climate change is irreversible and that Kingsnorth has “sweeping brown hair.” Kingsnorth, 41, has worked his whole life away in a futile fight against carbon and the human addiction to fossil fuel. Around 2008, just as the global financial markets lost their potency, Kingsnorth lost faith in his cause. By 2009, he’d come to the conclusion that Greece and Goldman Sachs could expect bailouts, but earth would receive no such largesse. Taking inspiration (desperation?) from the poet Robinson Jeffers and others, Kingsnorth joined the conclusion of essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who predicted “the end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” Emerson was most famous for “Self-Reliance.” Kingsnorth had placed much stock in self-reliance. too. But then he realized that the end was nigh, if not here.
So he began Dark Mountain, which isn’t a coffee flavor, but a depressed environmentalist’s version of a think tank. Call it a sink tank. The Dark Mountain manifesto is a learned disquisition on catastrophe–quoting everyone from Bertrand Russell to Joseph Conrad in service of excoriating the “myth of progress.” Its lugubrious message contains, among other disconsolate platitudes, that news that there is “no Plan B.” It happens that there was no Plan A either–as “neither Caesar nor Hume, Thatcher nor Lenin” ever understood what they wrought, oblivious to the “underlying darkness at the root of everything we have built.” You can’t get any darker than that, with that “everything” assuring us that nothing is spared a dark root–not kindness, not penicillin, not the eradication of polio or yellow fever. Doubt is the new normal, asserts Kingsnorth, summoning even the dyspeptic, eloquent Philip Larkin to express it with him. The philosophy, borrowed from Jeffers is called inhumanism, a shifting away from attention on man. It’s difficult to reconcile this particular Jeffers idea from 80 years ago with a vision of a liveable future, because it’s precisely man who damn well better do something. But if it’s really too late, inhumanism is just as well. The great John Berger is also called upon by Kingsnorth to testify in the manifesto. Kingsnorth cites W.S. Merwin and Mary Oliver, too–believing that the rare and moving work of these very special writers is important because it considers people who “know their place” and remain “wary of the siren cries of metrovincial fashion and civilised excitement.” But it is the rare, rare human who knows his place–and this inherent nomadic quality was not born with big cities and industrial/technological revolutions. Kingsnorth is a brilliant communicator, yet were we all to drink his Kool-Aid no one might persevere in challenging the problems we’ve made together–Caesar and Maggie and you and I. Yes, the narrative must change–lies and misconceptions outed, disinformation denied. The Dark Mountain books should be vital in this turnabout. But in too many ways Dark Mountain is merely a place to grieve, which, really, is no way to live.