Hope in the Age of Collapse (Part 3)

The RoostThe conclusion of my exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project

(See part one and part two of this exchange.)

.     .     .


From: Wen Stephenson
To: Paul Kingsnorth

Hi Paul,

So, just as I sat down to write this reply, I reached for the remote to turn off the TV, and realized I was looking at a concert video of Arcade Fire. They were playing (I kid you not) their anthem “Wake Up” to an enormous outdoor crowd of beautiful bright-faced young people in Galicia, Spain, in 2010. As the camera panned over the audience, you could see that these kids were — what’s the word? — rapt? ecstatic? (Was religion in Europe ever this good? The band certainly seemed to relish a revivalist role.) But where will those young people be in twenty years? Thirty years? 50? And are they to blame for what’s in store? Those 20-year-olds? (I won’t even ask what responsibility the culture industry bears…. whoops, I just did.)

“Children … wake up.”

So, yeah, for whatever that’s worth.

I want to pause for a moment and emphasize what we have in common, before venturing another question or two about where we differ. I’ll try to keep this brief.

We agree that humanity is headed for a cliff, that climate change cannot be “solved,” if that means “stopped” or “prevented.” It’s too late for that. We have to live through it now, as best we can. I don’t claim to know with any certainty how close we are to the cliff, or how much time we have to prepare. I also, to be clear, still hold out the possibility (the hope?) that we’ll avoid going off it entirely. So, we’re heading for a cliff — whether we actually go into free fall, and how soon, remains to be seen.

We agree that human beings are, as Thoreau once wrote, “part and parcel of Nature.” You (and others) call this perspective ecocentric, but I dislike that term — it’s weighted toward the “eco-,” as something distinct from the human, the “anthro-,” and so still clings to a dualistic man-vs.-nature mindset. Personally, I value the human every bit as much as the non-human. I believe there are aspects of human civilization — “beauty,” “truth” — worth preserving and fighting for. I think you do as well. It may only be language that’s dividing us on this point.

We agree that the environmental movement, per se, for all its hard work and best intentions, has failed. (Never had a prayer, is more like it.) What I mean is, it has failed in the fight against climate change. Of course, it has won countless other battles, especially local ones, all around the world in the past 40 years and more, and I have great respect for those achievements. But climate is simply too great a challenge for the environmental movement, by itself, to tackle. I think this is largely because of its historic ecocentrism, which failed to inspire the sort of broad-based political movement necessary. This may explain why so many mainstream environmentalists (and climate campaigners, not always the same folks) have moved away from an ecocentric message.

Where I think we differ — and please correct me if I’m wrong — is that you are driven primarily by a desire to restore what you’d say is a proper relationship between humanity and non-human nature. (This is why, as I remarked at one point in an earlier exchange, your Dark Mountain Manifesto reminds me of the American jeremiad form, if you substitute nature for God: it suggests that the green movement betrayed its sacred covenant with nature, and must now return to the truth faith: ecocentrism.) And it’s as though you welcome an inevitable collapse in so far as it aids or hastens this correction. Am I wrong? But why should we think that collapse would do anything to improve humanity’s relationship to the non-human world?

While I believe correcting our relationship to the non-human is a noble ideal, I’m primarily driven — and I know plenty of others who are as well — by a desire to prevent as much suffering as possible in the decades to come. I guess I’m with Tim DeChristopher on this. As he tells Terry Tempest Williams, “I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people.” It’s a humanitarian imperative. As Bill McKibben and I recently discussed, the climate justice movement (and of course it exists, whether or not it’s “in the streets” at any given moment) has more in common with the 19th-century abolitionist movement than with modern environmentalism. It transcends environmentalism and environmental politics.

(And speaking of 19th-century abolitionism, Thoreau didn’t retreat from activism, as you say. He remained engaged even while living at Walden, and became even more so thereafter. He sheltered runaway slaves. He spoke forcefully in public. He championed John Brown and put his own body on the line. His awakening in nature led him back to society and to political activism. People think he was the first environmentalist — but he was at least as much a human-rights activist. His legacy is as much Gandhi and Martin Luther King as Greenpeace or EarthFirst!)

So it’s simply wrong to suggest that someone like Tim DeChristopher went to prison to save our consumer civilization — to save shopping malls. He went to prison to save lives. You might argue that his tactics are hopeless, that his radicalism is self-defeating — that could be a useful debate — but it doesn’t change his motivation, which is plenty clear. I take him at his word. And I hope you’ll take me at mine. (Not that I possess half DeChristopher’s courage.)

But the most important way in which we differ, I think, is on the question of what is to be done, right now, in the present moment, given the pressing reality that we face. We’re not going to stop global warming at this point. But we may still be able to preserve a livable planet. There’s every reason to think that a last-ditch effort to cut carbon emissions — together with serious adaptation efforts at all levels, and local grassroots movements to create resilient local communities — will help prevent or alleviate the suffering of countless numbers of people in the latter half of this century. People who will have done nothing to cause the situation they inherit. It’s not about sustaining our current lifestyles, or getting ourselves off the hook. For Christ’s sake, no. It’s about giving future generations a fighting chance. It’s about giving my own children — and everyone else’s — a fighting chance. It’s not their debt, but they’re the ones who will have to pay it. Don’t we owe them something?

So my question is, what would you have us do? If not something like what I’m suggesting (unoriginal as it may be) — rapid carbon mitigation at national and regional levels combined with serious adaptation and resilience-building at local levels — then what?

It’s not enough, if you ask me, to merely “look down.” We need to look up and out, too, and find the horizon. We owe it to those who come after us.

Peace to you,


.     .     .

From: Paul Kingsnorth
To: Wen Stephenson

Hi Wen,

There is a lot I could say to you, but I’m having a strange sense of déjà vu. Three years ago, when we launched the Dark Mountain Project, I engaged in a debate very similar to this one in the Guardian newspaper here in Britain with its resident environmental writer George Monbiot. You might have heard of him. George took a very similar position to yours, though he took it much more aggressively, and we ended up arguing each other to a standstill. It was frustrating, which was my fault as much as his, and perhaps the fault of the format most of all. I have lost count of the number of ‘debates’ like this I have come across. I try not to get involved in them these days, because I think they generate much more heat than light.

So what am I doing here? Well, I think I’m talking to you because you are an open-minded writer. You don’t seem to be taking a position which you then feel obliged to defend. This seems less a debate than a conversation. You seem to be genuinely exploring this stuff, which is what I try to do these days. A question that interests me when I do explore it, especially with other people is: what’s going on behind the politics?

What I mean by that is that it seems to me that political arguments are mostly a cover for much deeper, psychological battles. When we argue about whether we like nuclear power or not, or whether we are liberal or conservative, or whether we believe in climate change or taxation or invading the Middle East, we are really arguing about our inherent worldview, our temperament, our psychology, our prejudices. Are we hopeful people, or are we cynical ones? What are our values, how do we see others, how do we balance community versus individual, freedom versus authority: all that stuff. All the stuff that makes us who we are and what we want the world to be. The facts, and the politics, are the decorations we use to make these deeper currents seem ‘rational’ in the eyes of others.

In that context, I wonder what it is that makes me so ‘ecocentric’, and you such a humanist? I wonder what fuels my sense of resignation, and my occasional sneaking desire for it all to come crashing down, and what fuels your powerful need for this thing called hope. I am struck by the title that you have given to this exchange: ‘Hope in the age of collapse’. Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whisky bottle. It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?

This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission give up hope. What I mean by that is that we help people get beyond the desperate desire to do something as impossibly as ‘save the Earth’, or themselves, and start talking about where we actually are, what is actually possible and where we are actually coming from. We have created a space, possibly accidentally, in which people gather who are disillusioned with our current cultural narratives. Not just the ‘business as usual’ narrative but the ‘sustainability’ narrative too. I find that a lot of campaigners are trapped in hope. I used to be. They believe – they feel pressured to believe, from within or without – that they must continue working to achieve goals which are plainly impossible, because not to do so would be to ‘give up hope’. What they are hoping for is never quite defined, but it’s clear that giving it up would lead to a very personal kind of collapse.

I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. Keep the lights on, keep the emails flowing, keep the nice bits of civilisation and lose the nasty ones; keep control of their narrative, the world they understand. Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult.

None of us knows what will happen, and I’m certainly not making any predictions. But whether or how this civilisation falls apart — and it looks  to me like it is already happening — is, to me, less important than whether it takes the rest of nature with it. This seems to be the main place where you and I differ. The Tim DeChristopher quote which you use approvingly is something which divides us. I admire anyone who can go to prison for their beliefs (well, not anyone, it rather depends what those beliefs are) but I’m of the opinion that the last thing the world needs right now is more ‘humanitarians’. What the world needs right now is human beings who are able to see outside the human bubble, and understand that all this talk about collapse, decline and crisis is not just a human concern. The main victims of the disaster we have created in the name of development are not humans, they are the other lifeforms we are pushing into extinction by the day and the year. When I look to the future, the thing that frightens me most is not climate change, or the possibility of the lights going out in the lit-up parts of the world, it’s that we may keep this ecocidal civilisation going long enough to take everything down with it. And what really keeps me awake at night is the possibility that this civilisation could survive having destroyed 90% of the rest of life on Earth. I guess it would be possible, theoretically, in that situation to create a perfectly fair society of the kind of which you and TimDeChristopher would approve, but I wouldn’t want to live in it. I don’t suppose you would, either. You take my point.

I suspect I’m rambling. Perhaps Thoreau would approve. I wonder if he would approve of what either of us are saying? I find it interesting how Thoreau is interpreted by so many people. I don’t really see him as an ‘environmentalist’ at all, I see him as a spiritual explorer. After all, his Transcendentalism seems to have been what defined him most — that and his refusal to be slotted into anyone else’s boxes. What I think I like most about Henry David was his refusal to be bound by what other people constantly told him he ought to be doing.

This is how I feel when I am exhorted to get involved in politics again to try and save the world. Again, we should distinguish between the personal and the political. One reason I have ‘walked away’ from activism is because I want to concentrate more on my creative work. It’s what fulfils me most and it’s what I think I am best at. So that’s purely selfish. The other two reasons, as I’ve explained already, are straightforward enough. Firstly, I don’t think what you’re calling for will work (as an aside, I’m struck by the declaration you open this exchange with; it could have come from any report from any global eco-conference over the last 40 years. There have been so many. ‘Rio +20’ indeed! Another UN beanfest at which nothing will be agreed and nothing will be done. They’d all be better staying at home and saving on the carbon emissions). Secondly, I just don’t feel part of the ‘movement’ that is calling for it. I don’t feel part of it because its main concern is keeping humans happy. Everything else comes second. I don’t think we can afford this kind of mediaeval thinking any more.

At last, then, let me get to your question (thanks for bearing with me.) You ask me: ‘what would you have us do?’ My answer, which sounds a little like the kind of thing Thoreau would have written, is simple: do what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right. I’m not an evangelist; that’s one of the things I have walked away from. I can’t give myself to this supposed movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping. And I don’t think we will stop burning fossil fuels until there are none left. So: I don’t think it will work, and I suspect its motives. But I don’t expect anyone to follow me. I don’t want anyone to follow me. Who wants to be followed when they go out walking?

I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. I could make any number of soapboxey pronouncements or ‘demands’ here, but would it matter anyway? There is no shortage of hot air in the world. No shortage of demands, plans, insistent calls for more ‘action’ from people with no power to do anything at all to make it happen. Where has it got us? It’s twenty years since the Earth Summit. In that time, everything has got worse for the Earth. I wonder where ‘Rio +40’ will be held? Somewhere hot, I’m sure, with nice hotels and easy airport access.

You spoke in your last letter about a ‘covenant with nature’. You suggested I saw it as having been broken by humanity. I think it’s a lovely phrase, and I think it’s precisely what has happened. If you are uncomfortable with any religious or spiritual overtones which that idea might carry, you could just as easily see it through the lens of science. We had a very practical obligation, as a species, to maintain the ecosystems we found ourselves part of in some semblance of health and balance. We have spectacularly failed to do that. Now climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and, possibly, economic collapse are going to be the result. I don’t welcome any of this as a way to ‘restore balance.’ I’m not that naive. Collapses bring many things, but balance is rarely one of them, at least initially. Still, I think that’s where we are. Covenant broken; consequences upon us. It’s too late to start worrying about the approaching army when it’s already encircled the city.

I feel I have to respond to all of this by giving up hope, so that I can instead find some measure of reality. So I’ve let hope fall away from me, and wishful thinking too, and I feel much lighter. I feel now as if I am able to look more honestly at the way the world is, and what I can do with what I have to give, in the time I have left. I don’t think you can plan for the future until you have really let go of the past.

Here’s to more exploration,


.     .     .

From: Wen Stephenson
To: Paul Kingsnorth


Thanks so much for this. It’s lovely. It’s heartfelt. I appreciate the tone and tenor of it so much more than your first response. I feel you’re no longer giving me the Dark Mountain “platform,” no longer “debating,” but are really speaking to me as yourself, as one human being to another. If nothing else, I find hope in honest human connection, even technologically mediated!

I’m not sure we can bridge the serious differences you’ve rightly identified, but I’d simply offer that my “humanitarian” impulse doesn’t preclude caring deeply about what happens to the non-human world. I don’t see it as an either/or proposition.

And we finally agree about HDT! I think you’re absolutely right in what you say. And trust me, it’s his spiritual search that I’ve always thought is the key to understanding him — and to coming to grips with our crisis. Thats what my personal essay, “Walking Home From Walden” (which led to my blogging here at Thoreau Farm in the first place), is all about.

Hope. I can understand the need to let go of “hope,” conventionally defined.  But I think what you’re doing here is redefining it — for yourself, at least, and maybe for others gathering with you for your dark mountain trek. If you want to jettison the word altogether, as a piece of that past we must let go of, very well. But you’ve clearly found something — or at least started the search for something! — which keeps you going. And who am I to take that away from you or anyone?



p.s. I’m heading up to Concord and the Farm this morning, along with my Transition Wayland colleague Kaat Vander Straeten, to meet with one of the farmers at Gaining Ground — the community food project that shares the Thoreau Farm property and donates all of its produce to hunger-relief in this area (yes, shamefully, hunger in America). I plan to volunteer there this season, and bring my son and daughter along. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, I can’t imagine a better neighbor to Henry’s birthplace: a small, organic farm with a social conscience. And as you like to say, it’s good to write with some dirt under our fingernails. I have no doubt Henry would agree.


I offered Paul the final word here, but he felt this was a good place to conclude the conversation. I hope others have found it useful. Please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

-Wen Stephenson

(See part one and part two of this exchange.)

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