The World Without Us

What kind of books do you write when you believe civilization is doomed?

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

“The world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction, and social and political unravelling,” the network of writers, artists, and thinkers called the Dark Mountain Project believe. “We want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” In Dark Mountain’s view, the reformist stance of big environmental groups who stump for “sustainability” is delusional; civilization as we know it is toast and deservedly so. It’s time everyone stopped pretending and time we started acknowledging humanity’s impending diminishment into a ragtag smattering of survivors. A profile of the group, focusing on its British co-founder, the novelist Paul Kingsnorth, caused a minor sensation when it appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2014. Dark Mountain and Kingsnorth—whose second novel, Beast, will soon be published in the U.S., along with a collection of essays, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist—have been called nihilistic and “collapsitarian” by critics. But it’s becoming ever harder to deny their point; witness the sensation caused this month by David Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth,” the most-read story in in New York magazine’s history, on the latest and most alarmingly apocalyptic news on climate change.

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What sort of art comes out of such a dire reckoning? Is Dark Mountain fierce and menacing, environmentalism’s version of an Icelandic black metal band? Kingsnorth appears in the Times Magazine in a photo taken during a Dark Mountain gathering in Southern England. He is wearing a rather billowy white shirt and standing on a stump. Some of the people around him sport deer-antler headdresses, and one tunicked fellow carries an oversized horn. As metal as these get-ups may sound, such costumes and paraphernalia are fixtures in certain circles in Britain: New Age–y, druidic, and otherwise benignly countercultural. An American friend who attended a Dark Mountain gathering described the vibe as earnest and hippie-ish, not exactly anyone’s idea of the bleeding edge.

Kingsnorth would hasten to add that he doesn’t aspire to be a fashionable thinker, and he certainly won’t be recording a TED talk anytime soon. Or ever. In Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Kingsnorth explains that he “did the big book stuff” in his 20s, but “I just don’t want it anymore.” Success came in 2008, when he published Real England: The Battle Against the Bland, based on travels and interviews conducted throughout the nation. The book documented the loss of small, idiosyncratic local businesses to chain stores, of wildflower meadows and ancient woodlands to commuter housing developments. The organic character of rural England is, Kingsnorth warns, rapidly becoming “Londonized.” Real England received clamorously positive reviews. In the Guardian, Nicholas Lezard insisted that “everyone should read it” and that Kingsnorth should be “given a powerful position in government.” But Kingsnorth eventually tired of the small celebrity he earned from Real England. He got rid of his TV and moved his family to rural Ireland, where he and his wife grow as much of their own food as possible and home-school their kids. He teaches classes in scything: cutting tall grasses with an ancient tool that Kingsnorth insists is superior to its motorized replacement, the brushcutter.

Kingsnorth presents a conundrum to those seeking to place him on the customary political divide between left and right. He is, in some respects, a small-c conservative, despite his background in environmental and anti-globalization activism. He voted for Brexit, because he dislikes the detached bureaucracy of the European Union and the corporate economy it sustains. “I’m instinctively in favor of small groups of people running their own affairs, close to the ground,” he told the New Statesman. “Democracy only works when it’s close to the people.” He also describes himself as “an anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist environmentalist.” He has passionately defended the English identity, which he takes pains to distinguish from the imperial schemes of the nation’s elites: the “human scale, vernacular ways of life in my home country” which are “disappearing, victims of the march of the machine.” But this Englishness need not, he argues, be limited by race or family history. Instead, his notion of national identity has to do with putting down roots in a “place, landscape, and the cultures which spring from it.” He doesn’t object to immigration per se, but he wants it to be limited to what the land can support without becoming ruined by overdevelopment.

Any romanticization of the past and the land rings alarm bells for political historians; it’s one of the hallmarks of fascism, and Kingsnorth has also been accused of that, albeit not persuasively. Uncivilisation, the manifesto Kingsnorth wrote with his Dark Mountain co-founder, Dougald Hine, looks forward to the collapse of all centralized power structures, not to the rise of a unifying strongman. But what it does share with the wave of angry populism currently making news in England and America is its anti-urbanism, its disgust with the “self-absorbed and self-congratulatory metropolitan centers of civilization” and the rootless professional classes who kid themselves that their high-tech, consumerist way of life can go on indefinitely.

At the heart of this delusion, the authors maintain, is “the myth of civilization,” a story in which humanity transcends its animal origins and attains separation from and mastery over the natural world, a story that places human beings at the center of the universe, “unconfined by the limits that apply to other, lesser creatures.” It’s an attitude that Dark Mountain believes has resulted in “ecocide,” but for Kingsnorth in particular, it also leads to a form of cultural erasure that’s the equivalent of extinction, the replacement of home-grown local cultures with homogenized corporate outlets. In his introduction to Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Kingsnorth writes that he now recognizes that the central theme of the essays in the book is “the breaking of the link between people and places, between the past and the present, between instinct and reason.”

Not all of Kingsnorth’s anarcho-primitivist thinking translates readily to the American scene, where environmentalists are often viewed as the enemies of rural communities dependent on coal mines and factories. Yet his defense of the primal meaning derived from a deep and abiding connection to a place and the community located there would probably ring true with many small-town Americans. When the journalist Brian Alexander returned to his hometown in Lancaster, Ohio, to write a book about how it had fallen into decay, he met a waitress with a college degree and asked her why she didn’t just pack up and head out for a place with better job opportunities: “She looked at me with wide, pitying eyes and said, ‘This is my town’—as if my asking the question meant I’d been deprived of the quiet power of belonging to a place.”

The rational advice often given to such people is that they must abandon their old ways of finding meaning in life and embrace a new identity as part of a frictionlessly mobile, educated, corporate labor pool. Many don’t find this a satisfactory alternative; it feels hollow, shallow, unmoored. In his recent book, The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra argues that much of the current global turn toward populist nationalism springs from a rejection of this way of life and a refusal to accept that it must inevitably supplant older, traditional ways, that the village must give way to the city. Kingsnorth doesn’t have much in common with the Hindu nationalists that disturb Mishra’s homeland, India, but when he denounces the “myth” of progress or civilization, he’s speaking out of the same vein of discontent. Human beings aren’t, he argues, “primarily rational, logical, or ‘scientific’ beings,” and any social order that insists on treating them that way will crush their spirits as well as the environment.

Kingsnorth is a writer, not a politician; the viability of his longing for a return to a sort of yeoman-farmer idyll may be beside the point. The longing is his subject, and Dark Mountain itself is primarily an artistic movement. The third item on its list of the eight principles of uncivilization is “We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves.” Its objective is “to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’ ” These myths, the manifesto warns, “are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.”

As the most prominent voice in the Dark Mountain network, the gifted Kingsnorth makes a perplexing example of what an “uncivilized” novelist should be. Perhaps some dissonance is baked into the proposition; was there ever a literary form more civilized, more bourgeois, than the novel? Both The Wake, Kingsnorth’s Booker-longlisted first novel, and his new novel, Beast, are written in an experimental style. In his first novel, Kingsnorth invented a “shadow” version of Old English for his narrator, Buccmaster, an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon farmer whose property is burned and wife killed by Norman invaders. He becomes a “grene man,” leader of a guerrilla resistance against the French conquerors, convinced that he has been chosen by the old Germanic gods to cast out both the colonizers and Christianity from “angland.” Buccmaster loves his land with an ardor that equals Kingsnorth’s, but he’s more Walter White than Robin Hood. Vain and paranoid, jealous of any other grene man leader, he spins off into violence and impotence.

“Worlds,” Kingsnorth writes in the introduction of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, “are always ending.” From Buccmaster’s perspective, the Norman Conquest has destroyed the world. From the contemporary reader’s, it’s just another one of history’s fluctuations, which is in part how Kingsnorth chooses to regard the end of his own civilization: a turn of the cycle of continual destruction and rebirth that inevitably chews up every creature.

Buccmaster rages against his fate; the narrator of Beast, on the other hand, goes in search of disintegration. A modern-day secular hermit, Edward Buckmaster (presumably a descendent of Buccmaster; the two books are part of a trilogy) has left his wife and infant daughter in the city and taken up residence in a semi-ruined farmhouse on a lonely moor. “I came, to this high place,” he explains, “to be broken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut to pieces. I came to measure myself against the great emptiness.” For 13 months, in retreat from “the furious thoughts and opinions, the views and the positions soldered together with impatience and anger” and the “screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West,” he has sat in silence, eating little and sleeping badly. Then, in the middle of a ferocious storm, the roof falls on him and when he wakes up, seemingly with no memory of his past or identity, he is badly wounded and lying in a farmyard. Patching himself up as best he can, he finds the world around him silent—no animals, birds, or insects—the sky white, and the air oppressively hot. If night falls, he’s never awake to see it. When he gathers the strength, he tries to walk to a village he dimly remembers but finds that no matter how many times he tries, he can get no further than a deserted stone church. Then, from a distance, he glimpses a large, black animal slipping into the bushes.

Almost all punctuation and capitalization fall away from Beast as Buckmaster becomes obsessed with tracking down this animal and looking it in the eyes. He seems to slip in and out of memories and dreams and spiritual reveries but is also capable of drawing up a grid map to aid in a systematic search for traces of the beast. He subsists almost entirely on spring water. Snatches of what appear to be Buccmaster’s past, when he traveled by boat through England’s marshy eastern Fens, drift through his mind as the prose takes on a similar cadence to The Wake:

i see that there will be a time yes a time will come again not for lifetimes but it will come. the woods will be flooded as they were and hung with moss and we will take boats through them flat wooden boats and there will be no-one full enough to believe that any of the real things of the world could be counted or named.

Buckmaster’s search for the beast becomes more determined and, given the size of the thing, perilous, but he will not be dissuaded. Like Buccmaster, he is the heedless victim of his own hubris.

Both The Wake and Beast are fine novels whose challenging prose is counterbalanced by striking, archetypal imagery, rich characterization, and solid storytelling. They aren’t, however, the least bit polemical or obviously pertinent to the ideas Kingsnorth has expressed in his nonfiction writings. If anything, Buccmaster represents the dark side of his author’s prediction of coming catastrophe, and Buckmaster enacts the folly and irresponsibility of seeking an ecstatic union with nature. This makes them better novels than more didactic works could be, but it does prompt the question of how these books—more than, say, the novels of Jim Crace—represent a maverick effort to grapple with the truth of our times.

According to Uncivilisation, “[t]he big names of contemporary literature” fail at this cause in part because “their writing reflects the prejudices of the placeless, transnational elite to which they belong.” But as a transnational elite myself, I wonder if Kingsnorth should buy back his television, because his notion that “the stories we tell ourselves” blithely ignore the doomy portents of the day is comically mistaken. In the horror and fantasy narratives that rule both pop culture and, increasingly, literary fiction, it always seems to be the end times. The warring kingdoms of Westeros refuse to recognize the threat of the White Walkers. The authorities will not shut down international air travel before the contagion has time to spread. The monsters who walk among us and want to kill us are made of our fellow human beings, and soon enough we’ll all be monsters, too. Contrary to what Kingsnorth and his Dark Mountain cohorts believe, the stories we prefer to amuse ourselves with are haunted by the sense of an approaching catastrophe, and our imaginations are preoccupied with what might be required of us on the other side of it. For all of the good that does.

Beast and Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth. Graywolf.

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