Up a Mountain, Darkly

Someone (probably claiming to be wise) once said something along the lines of:  “There are many paths but only one mountain”.  Or possibly: “There’s only one mountain but many paths”.  Or some other contortion of those words and ideas.  I don’t know where it originated and a quick google doesn’t really help; there’s lots of permutations and attributions out there in cyberspace.  Whoever the author and whatever the original meaning behind it, the notion has now come to refer to religious and spiritual pluralism: believe what you like, worship how you will, we’ll all get to God in the end.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m in no way religious, and spiritual only in so far as wild landscapes, beautiful organisms, profound notions and great buildings make me feel a bit strange inside.  But it struck me recently that the paths and mountain concept could equally apply to approaches to environmentalism and biodiversity conservation.  It came out of  a conversation I’ve been following that’s going on over at Thoreau Farm between Wen Stephenson and Paul Kingsnorth.  The discussion began as a rather bad tempered exchange on Twitter but ended with a large degree of mutual respect and an agreement to differ.  It’s worth reading.

A few years ago I met writer and (former) environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth when he came to the university to give a talk about the ideas he was developing (with Dougald Hine) around the Dark Mountain Project.  Paul is an engaging writer and thinker, and the notion of the Dark Mountain intrigued me both as a metaphor and as a framework for exploring what it is to be “environmentally aware” or “green” or an “ecologist” (in all senses of that widely used word).  The debate with Seth centres around his (initial) impression that Paul and the Dark Mountain Project were promoting giving up the environmental struggle and letting things run their course: our society collapses, ultimately, and then we dust ourselves off and build something new.  However a lot of what the Dark Mountain is about is to build stories and ideas and other acts of creativity that will prepare us for this “Uncivilisation”.  As Paul argues, this is very different to “giving up”.

Some months after we met I sent Paul the first draft of an article that was subsequently published in issue one of the Dark Mountain book.  W(h)ither science was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century.  It was framed within the context of the Dark Mountain’s ideas of “what happens when it all goes wrong?”  I prefer to think of it as “if” rather than “when” because, as I originally put it, “knowledge is not predictable”.  In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, we can only prepare for a range of outcomes.  In the last two centuries England has lost about 95% of its diverse meadows and grasslands to intensive agriculture.  Linked to this around 10% of our bee and butterfly species have gone extinct and many others have declined enormously.  Yet our natural and agricultural ecosystems, and the society they support, continue to function.  How long that can last, who knows?

I am drawn to the Dark Mountain because it scares me.  The implications of its message are profound: our western (and increasingly eastern and southern) civilisation in its present form is doomed because our lifestyles cannot possibly be maintained at their present levels of resource use.  The resulting environmental degradation, intensified by climate change, will reach a point where ecosystem services will no longer be sustained and our societies will collapse.  It’s a bleak prospect but Paul sees it as an honest one;  as he puts it: “I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going.”

Sometimes it’s good to be scared.  Karin and I attended the first Dark Mountain Festival in summer 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed the mix of spoken word, music, art and creativity (but not the Welsh weather, the walk back to the camp site or the crappy beer).  However we missed the second festival in 2011 as I was teaching on the TBA Tanzania field course I referred to in an earlier blog.  Also teaching on that course was a remarkable Dutch entomologist Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra.   K.-D., as he is known universally, is an authority on the Odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies.  He is probably the most widely traveled African odonatologist there is, with an encyclopaedic memory for the details of African dragonfly biodiversity.  This week he and a raft of colleagues have published an important paper on the diversity of African Odonata and how they can be considered as “guardians of the watershed”.

Also this week, our research group has been joined by André Rodgrigo Rech from Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil.  André will be working with me for the next 12 months on his doctoral thesis on pollination and reproductive biology in some neotropical members of the plant family  Dilleniaceae.  He’s also going to get involved with some of this season’s field work.  These collaborative processes are important to scientists as they widen the scope of our knowledge: I’m going to learn a lot about some plants that I’m unfamiliar with and André will gain an understanding of temperate European plants and pollinators.

The contrast between these ways of doing scientific conservation and the Dark Mountain project is striking.  But I see them not as at odds with one another, but as complimentary.   As Paul says in one of his contributions to the debate with Seth: “Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right.”  To paraphrase: find your own path.  The mountain is dark and we have no idea what’s at the top.  But there are plenty of mountaineers traveling up its many faces, some on paths well trod and others hacking their own trails.  See you at the summit.

10 thoughts on “Up a Mountain, Darkly

  1. Nick

    In a timely fashion, one day after being introduced to Dark Mountain through this post, I came across this excellent gallery of hairy Americans living ‘off the grid’ (as they like to say) in order to “not be a part of the problem anymore”:


    They seem contented, though putting a feather in your hair strikes me as a little ostentatious.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      And using a flintlock rifle just seems to be showing off. Perhaps we should start a similar thing on Bradlaugh Fields. Plenty of rabbits….

  2. Nick

    Perhaps you can only use guns you find at the bottom of streams, or in abandoned mountainside shacks. If they’re lucky they’ll stumble across a desert drug deal gone wrong and pick up a couple of Uzis. And some drugs.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      You watch too many low budget American movies. Life’s not like that, full of strange looking character actors and wild, beautiful people in skimpy costumes.

      Oh, actually….

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