Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Dark Mountain Project

I was tipped off to The Dark Mountain Project by bekkos. It is, as indeed he suggests, a sobering read. You can read the full “manifesto” here, but here is a preview:

There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight — Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.

Ever since St. Augustine‘s “City of God” became a classic in Western Christendom, the genre of analyzing the razing of an empire has become a permanent fixture in Western literature.  In fact, it is so much so in our modern age that, when G.K. Chesterton was asked to write his own such analysis (“What’s Wrong with the World“), he begins with an analysis of the genre:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.”

We can see that, thus far, Chesterton has perfectly described the above manifesto: it begins with an analysis of the downfall of our civilization, statistics describing our contemporary “ecocide” and then moves on to what the authors see as the solution.  If Chesteron’s perspicuity is to be evaluated from only the veracity of his opening observation, than what follows should bring any reader of the genre great pause:

It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology. It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease. …

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it. …

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious [abusive? -NM] priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one. Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong. The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. …

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

This is precisely the difficulty of The Dark Mountain project: we all agree that the problems of ecocide and econocide, among others, are evil.  Yet it is precisely on this most important question, namely “What is the end (telos) of man?” for which we disagree.  This key question is a philosophical one, and I daresay it is especially a religious one.  Therefore to avoid doing this philosophical/theological work, to seek to avoid any metaphysical speculation altogether, is the most certain way to avoid finding any actual remedy for the evil upon which we all agree.  And yet, it is precisely this metaphysical work that the Dark Mountain Manifesto eschews.  The Dark Mountain manifesto assumes that man is, by nature, uncivilized and that he is unable to overcome his nature.  It is from this first premise that cause of the ecocide emerges: man has thought himself able to transcend his nature.

One thing in particular must be noted from this picture. In spite of the flow of the manifesto, the actual progression of ideas is in reverse: from solution statement to problem statement.  It is not the fact that man thought himself able to transcend nature which lead to their belief that he is unable to do so.  Rather, it is their belief that man is unable to transcend nature that leads them to conclude that our contemporary malaise is caused by denying that fact.  They themselves seem to admit this at several points. In one place they lament the loss of the myth as a feature of our modern age.  This is regretful for the authors precisely because they view the story as constitutive of existence, saying “With stories, with art, with symbols and layers of meaning, we stalk those elusive aspects of realitythat go undreamed of in our philosophy.”  In another, they quote Joseph Conrad saying “Facts! … as if facts could prove anything.’ (interestingly enough they change Conrad’s wording from “explain” to “prove”).  This flow from solution to problem highlights precisely the difficulty that Chesterton points out: it is over our metaphysics that we must debate, not the problem.

In spite of their attempt to avoid meta-narrative, otherwise stated as their desire to be “humble, questioning, [and] suspicious of the big idea,” this manifesto does exactly the opposite of its intended goal: it establishes a meta-narrative.  Further, this narrative is a familiar one: Man evolves [is created] from apes [dust].  He believes himself to be able to become a god and transcend his nature by his ingenuity [consuming the fruit of knowledge].  This false belief [sin] results in the fall of civilization.  This narrative is why, while reading this work, I at times actually chucked.  In spite of its explicit espousal of naturalism and its inapt identification of natural transcendence with Christianity, there is an unaware affirming of Classical Christian metaphysics.  The authors fail to realize that Christianity has from the very beginning taught that the chief failure of man is his audacity to think that he can constitute his own nature; and thus I could not help but think that anyone who reads this manifesto would be primed for reading St. AthanasiusOn the Incarnation, whose argument in chapter 1 (paragraphs 3-5) is roughly as follows:

  1. Man’s nature is to not exist (“By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing”)
  2. God is life (“for it is God alone who exists”)
  3. God by grace brings man into existance (“If they guarded [God’s] grace …, then [life] should be theirs”)
  4. Man therefore transcended his nature (non-existance) in existing only by God sharing His nature with them (“he bears also the likeness of Him who is, and if he preserves that likeness … then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt”)
  5. When Man refuses to contemplate God’s nature, but attempts to constitute his own existence, he returns to his own nature and dies (“For [turning from the contemplation of God] was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again”

Thus, the only significant difference in the overall flow of the meta-narrative is that The Dark Mountain project believes man’s nature to be ape-like, while Athanasius considers man’s nature to be non-existence.  While I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which view is more adept at explaining human experience, I would like to point out that, irregardless of culture, it is death which forms the ultimate existential lens of human experience, not sitting in a biology class learning the process of evolution.  I would thus suggest that Athanasius’ work represents a more serious engagement with human experience.  Though, this should come as no surprise due to the Dark Mountain project’s stated goal of avoiding metaphysical speculation.

It is thus their lack of metaphysical engagement, their inability to define what precisely is the goal of man, that causes them to be unable to accurately diagnose the problem of modern man.  Yet, all the while they tacitly accept the metaphysical assumptions which brought our civilization to the point where it is today, leading to a solution which is unable to actually transcend the problem.  They have not yet refuted Sartre’s maxim, which is, I suspect, the crowning observation of the entire modernist enterprise: “Man is a useless passion.” It is precisely at this point that their solution to the consumerism that results in ecocide and econocide is absurd: sell a book, go on speaking tours, run a website where people can publish poems about how ape-like humans are.