Anthea Lawson on what comes beyond despair
It is July 2011, and I am sitting cross-legged on the dusty ground of Hyde Park in London, looking vacantly at cigarette ends and broken plastic cups. I’m not crying, I’m beyond that. Everyone else is singing along. The forest of legs around my small clearing of gloom is performing the awkward sequence of weight-shifts and jerks that British legs do when their owners are having a good time at gigs, so this isn’t Jarvis Cocker’s fault. I’ve loved Pulp since I first heard ‘Babies’ in 1994. I could have claimed to have been at their legendary 1995 Glastonbury gig if I hadn’t been falling properly in love for the first time, missing my lift from a friend who was going to get us over the fence. And now here’s Jarvis in all his glory, leaping about the stage, being rude about the offshore tax dodgers who’ve bought the overpriced flats in the One Hyde Park development behind him. Really, I ought to be enjoying myself.
I’ve been an environmental and human rights campaigner for nearly ten years, and I’ve just realised that we’re all fucked and nothing I am doing will change that. That is why I’m in despair. This civilisation is hitting its ecological limits and will collapse; the work I am doing cannot save it. Everything I can see here announces the truth to which I have just opened my eyes. The relentless commercialism: merchandise, tat and food stalls lining the arena. The plastic rubbish on the ground. The crowd, dressed in the output of abusive supply chains, unbothered by it all. It’s a visual summary of everything I can’t bear: our growth-hungry economy, the enormity of unacknowledged and unmet human desires that fuel it, its unthinking spewing of devastation.
I’ve been a campaigner for nearly ten years, and I’ve just realised that we’re all fucked and nothing I am doing will change that.
This was Dark Mountain’s fault. Ten weeks earlier, I’d bought the first book. It found me in Ullapool, at the end of a week of camping and walking among the strange and ancient mountains of Sutherland. One of those small bookshops where everything is so beautifully chosen that you want only to set up home and not leave until you’ve read everything. That not being an option, I walked out with Nan Shepherd’s book about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, and with Dark Mountain: Issue One, which burned a hole in my bag until I could open it.
I read Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ in the early sunlight at a campsite near the river Lune, on the way home through Cumbria. I read his despair at the environmental movement to which he had given so much energy, his loss of faith in its attempts to fix the system on the system’s own terms. ‘I withdraw, you see’, he said. ‘I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.’ I woke up twice that morning. Once in reading bliss: warm in my sleeping bag, tent door open to the cool April air, sounds of birdsong, sheep and the tiny gas burner roaring at a kettle of water for tea. And the second, to an appalling knowledge that I’d already possessed, but been unable to look at.
Even if I achieved all of the ‘campaign aims’ on the carefully constructed ‘campaign plan’ that my NGO submitted annually to its funders, it would not be enough. We were working on the ‘resource curse’ – the built-in tendency of the oil, diamond and timber industries to make impoverished countries poorer, more corrupt and more prone to conflict. It meant tweaking the rules of capitalism, making it play more nicely. But we weren’t tackling the values that drive industrial growth; we were just trying to keep a lid on the worst effects.
I had felt like I was doing my bit, even helping to ‘win’ some new laws to control what companies and banks could do. But I was realising that whatever we did, they would continue to exploit people and nature, because they are driven by their only real imperatives: to grow and profit. Our growth society would continue to breach more and more ecological limits; we would collapse. Indeed, there were many places, outside the bubble of those who benefit from globalised capitalism, where people were already facing collapse. The only thing that might be ‘enough’ would be a paradigmatic shift in our way of relating to the world and each other. My experience of trying to gain support for much lesser change told me how impossible this might be.
This knowledge had been creeping up on me slowly; Dark Mountain was a catalyst. The dark money investigations I’d been doing, and my attempts to change laws, had schooled me in just how deeply vested interests were committed to the status quo, just how abusive to humans and non-humans the status quo was. At weekends, I was emptying my mind by rock climbing, and the time spent on mountains and cliff faces was kindling a transformed relationship with non-human life. A green door was already opening, and I was primed. The shock of a book full of people acknowledging that we are headed for ecological and societal breakdown tipped me over, into no-longer-deniable clarity.
Allowing in the idea of collapse brought desolation. Friends counselled avoidance. There’s no point thinking about it, they said. You can’t do your own head in, you have to find a way to get on with the work you’re doing. Translated: please, stop talking about it; you are doing our heads in. Meanwhile the modus operandi of the campaigning NGOs I was involved in depended – and still does – upon not admitting it. The only way they can raise funds from grant-makers who have to demonstrate impact, or from the public who – we were told – need a positive story, was to keep on with the narrative that there was something we could ‘do’. If I hinted at the limitations of what we were doing, one colleague would put it down to ‘your Dark Mountain thing’ and we’d carry on as before: action as a form of denial. The only place for me to even think about the possibility of not saving the world was in the pages of Dark Mountain. I felt that I was having conversations with these writers, learning new ways to think. I no longer felt I was going mad.
My response was just one reaction, of course. There were writers and readers of that first book who had been grappling with these ideas for years and were delighted to see a flag being raised in search of fellow travellers. There were environmental activists crashing and burning without the help of Dark Mountain; as the Copenhagen summit failed at the end of 2009, or as Climate Camp disbanded in 2011. There were campaigners who had already experienced deep, isolating grief about climate change in the nineties or noughties and, through grief work, had found a way to act again. ‘I didn’t have much patience with Dark Mountain,’ one of them told me. ‘There was too much that could be done.’
There were people involved in the burgeoning Transition movement who were still fairly new to the idea of collapse but – immersed in the story that a powerdown was necessary, possible and, done in community, might even be fun – could hear what Dark Mountain was saying without being jolted out of their sense of agency. When she came across Dark Mountain in 2009, Ruth Ben-Tovim, a theatre maker and community artist, was recovering from a car crash that nearly killed her, as well as experimenting with Transition and designing creative projects inspired by the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. ‘Reading that manifesto shook them all together and I arrived on a different shore,’ she said. ‘I can remember sending it round to loads of people. Something about the print of it, the font of it, the text of it, the call. It felt like it was a call, and it called me.’
In the fragile ecology of places where collapse could be named ten years ago, Dark Mountain wasn’t quite the only niche. It was implicit in Transition’s response to peak oil and climate change. It was explicit in Joanna Macy’s writing and workshops, which offered a way of understanding grief as part of a process that could move, through gratitude and ‘seeing with new eyes’, to being able to take action again. However, in different ways, there was still lots of ‘doing’ in these two. In the Venn diagram that could be drawn of these spaces, Dark Mountain was the only one where ‘not doing’ was so clearly an option. Sometimes, the most radical thing an activist can do, perhaps, is not to act. Not just as a rest, to gather energy before heading back into the fray, but to step away, with no end in sight.
Eight years – almost to the day – after I opened that Dark Mountain book, and I am nine miles from Hyde Park, in a cell in Wembley police station in northwest London. The walls are higher than the room is wide, the white tiles are broken at chest height by a single stripe of blue, and a filthy skylight tells me it is daytime. It’s uncomfortably chilly. The wipe-clean blue mattress is hard, albeit marginally more comfortable than lying on the tarmac of Waterloo Bridge on a cold night had been. I’ve barely slept in 24 hours. I pull my hat down over my eyes, turn up the collar of my coat, curl up on my side and try to rest.
I wake to a high, ethereal melody echoing through the thick walls. I was standing outside the custody suite between 2am and 4am waiting to be booked in with two other protesters, and I will later hear that a chap in his sixties from my town was in the same station; it is unlikely to be them. I don’t manage to identify the singer when I am released that afternoon, greeted by a welcoming committee with peanut butter sandwiches and flasks of tea; I can’t rule out having heard that singing in my head.
I can still hear it, though. The singing from the police cell, and the singing on the bridge. Of those surreal yet sharply drawn hours when I was waiting to spend the night in the road or to be arrested, when I was so tired that time slowed (parents of small children don’t go past 10pm), it is the music I remember most. As the lines of police approached those sitting at the front of our group, and the legal observers started to bob about with their notebooks and pens, energy would rise and we would fire up the call-and-response songs, drums banging, a rising tide of support to those who were submitting themselves to custody.
After a dozen arrests, each taking up to five officers as people were lifted out, the vans would head off to distribute prisoners (they call you that as soon as you are in their hands) to police stations around the capital. We’d be back in the quiet, dozing under tarps and sleeping bags, the support teams passing round snack bars and tea, the moon wheeling another few degrees west. It was in one of those lulls that Helen Yeomans and her London One World choir started singing ‘We Got All The Love’ in angelic a cappella harmony. ‘I wrote it years ago on the back of a cigarette packet and it’s somehow become a bit of an activists’ anthem,’ she says. Funnily enough, that’s the precise example provided for ‘anthem’ in the dictionary: ‘the song became the anthem for hippy activists.’ There are, undeniably, a number of hippies to be found on the internet singing Helen’s composition. But that night it felt more than a rousing expression of group bonding. The choir carried on singing as the police returned in stronger numbers; as grandmothers were carried out of our circle of light and noise into the night; as I waited, still, for my turn. The voices, as we started to join in, were both ground anchor and celestial transport. They connected me to a bigger-than-self consciousness that understood every reason in the cosmos why I was doing something terrifying, that previously I wouldn’t have contemplated.
Ten years on from the Dark Mountain manifesto, its subversive naming of the environmentalist’s despair is at the core of Extinction Rebellion. Ten years on, the taboo of the myth of civilisation is being broken, up and down the land, as Extinction Rebellion groups gather and plan. I can’t get through a local church hall meeting without feeling tears at seeing this secret knowledge openly spoken and shared by my friends, my neighbours and my children’s teachers.
My fear and desolation start appearing in public places. First in that church hall. Then on schoolchildren’s banners. I see them in the words of the sixth-former I help with a press release so she can keep on top of her ‘A’ level revision at the same time as coordinating strikes. By April, my innermost thoughts are appearing in quotes from other Extinction Rebellion participants in the Financial Times. These are words I was chary of using in an environmental NGO – what could we do? Either throw it all in the air, or get back down to the campaign plan. Next thing I know, I am stepping into the road at the south end of Waterloo Bridge with a banner. We let a lorryload of trees past us onto the bridge, hundreds of people join in… and suddenly we are speaking our fear and grief in police interview statements and on breakfast show sofas.
Sociological theorising about activism speculates about the factors that are required to create a social movement. The psychology of the individual and their likelihood of going against received cultural conditioning; their family background and whether they were raised by rebels or conformists; their understanding of the causes of the problem and the support they might receive in developing their analysis. Other factors concern the availability of a form of action: the presence or not of organisers, people already doing something that makes sense, who help channel unease, anger and grief into action. Finally, there is the judgment that must be made by each individual, as to whether their joining in is likely to make a difference.
Without a possible course of action that makes sense, you can have all the feeling that something is wrong, but nothing seems to be worth doing. Three years after stumbling upon Dark Mountain, I left my senior job at an NGO and walked away from the campaigning I was doing. I could no longer throw all of my energy into a form of activism whose theory of change, in the face of what is coming – in the face of the infernos, droughts and floods that are already here, for some – didn’t stack up.
But what I couldn’t quite see, then, was the egotism in my despair. Of course, there was grief for the world, for the global injustice, for the fate of other species, perhaps even our own. But there was also a personal component to my acknowledgement of collapse, and it was this: if my campaigning is not working, is not ‘enough’, then the problem is that my actionsno longer have meaning.
Jem Bendell, whose academic paper on ‘Deep Adaptation’ has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, offers suggestions for ‘living beyond collapse-denial’, for the campaigner’s difficulty in acknowledging they cannot personally save the world. Recognise, he suggests, that resistance to information about catastrophe ‘may come from what you have been consciously or subconsciously telling yourself about your own self-worth, purpose and meaning … If you are a mission-driven professional in fields related to the environment or social justice then expect that you may be driven to rebuild a sense of self-worth and that this need of the ego, while natural and potentially useful, could become a frantic distraction.’
I was not only experiencing grief for the world, but also the loss of what had been my meaningful role within it.
I was not only experiencing grief for the world, but also the loss of what had been my meaningful role within it. As the Dark Mountain manifesto said, even when everything else has gone, we will still have our need for survival, and we will still have our need for meaning. Campaigning is a massive great meaning-generator for those who do it, but campaigners’ ideas about what is meaningful – what might be ‘enough’, what might ‘work’ – are often organised around the possibility of an outcome.
Having to be reasonably sure of the outcome before embarking on a course of action is precisely the kind of instrumental approach that has got us into this mess. Like the need to put our name to what we do, or the saviour mentality, it’s a manifestation of our culture. While campaigning tries to change the dominant culture, without very deep reflection campaigning itself emerges unchanged from the dominant paradigm. Activists forget, too easily, Audre Lorde’s reminder that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.
Spiritually minded activists have always known that you engage in activism without expectation of outcome. You do it because it is the right thing to do, because it is the practice that matters, not the attainment of a goal. I used to be impatient with any campaign that wasn’t fixated, laser-like, on a goal that had to be achievable. Now I can see there is a lot of ‘me’ in such stories, a lot that is about ‘my’ purpose. It’s also the perspective of privilege. Those who are fighting for their lives, and not from a position of comfort because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, don’t have a choice about whether it will ‘work’. And they can’t collapse into despair at the prospect that it might not.
I don’t think I’ve ever had such clarity about what I was doing as when I sat on Waterloo Bridge and in that police cell. Yet that clarity existed separately from whatever I might feel about Extinction Rebellion’s three aims. Do I actually believe we are going to prompt all of the necessary changes to reach net-zero emissions, to halt the accelerating extinction of species, and to do so in a just way that accounts for the unequal responsibility for our current predicament?
At the first local meeting I attended, we were asked to show our agreement with the statement ‘It’s too late to avoid runaway climate change’, by choosing where in the church hall to stand. The end where the chairs get stacked was ‘strongly agree’, the end by the kitchen hatch and the tea urn was ‘strongly disagree’. Nearly a hundred people were there, dozens of whom would later be arrested on Waterloo Bridge, strung out right across that room. A few of us were doing a jig in the middle. Extinction Rebellion provides space for despair, and it also provides space for acting without needing to know if it will work, or if it is too late, or what will become of our actions.
I’m struck by the paradoxes. That when you fully acknowledge it may already be too late to change things, you can perhaps start to do so
Dark Mountain didn’t know what it would become when it launched either. ‘It was only some years in that I saw clearly that this project wasn’t the place from which to ‘do’ anything’, wrote Dougald Hine in Issue 14. ‘We’re like a jar of kimchi,’ Charlotte Du Cann told me. The vegetables get mixed, are left alone, the alchemy of fermentation takes place. Something is created, we don’t know exactly what it will taste like. A cultural space does not have an instrumental purpose.
For Dark Mountain, acknowledging the grief and fear of collapse brought liberation from feeling that you have to act. For Extinction Rebellion, a decade later, acknowledging grief and fear is precisely what allows people to act. I’m struck by the paradoxes. That when you fully acknowledge it may already be too late to change things, you can perhaps start to do so. That, liberated from trying to save the world, you are substantially freer to do something that might be useful. That by naming the impossibility of activism and providing a space where it was legitimate to not act, Dark Mountain may have nonetheless contributed to the emergence of a different kind of activism, one that, like the art and writing it has encouraged, flowers from the soil of grief.
‘The way I think about it is a kind of morphic resonance perspective,’ says Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. Morphic resonance is Rupert Sheldrake’s contested yet narratively compelling theory that memory is inherent in nature; that once a shape or structure or behaviour has occurred, it is more likely to occur again. ‘It’s this idea that some bit of the universe has worked out how to do something, then other people can do it,’ she says. ‘There’s something about the depth that Dark Mountain went into, the idea of stopping and saying: this isn’t working for us. That incredibly important piece of work had to be done by somebody.’
It might seem strange that there was so much dancing and singing on Waterloo Bridge. Or perhaps it’s just typical for a bunch of activists. The damn hippies have blocked the road, now they’re having a rave. But for some, the song and dance on that bridge was another form of secret knowledge coming into the open. It was a re-emergence of ways of being that have been flattened by the same processes that have led us to the brink of ecological collapse.
‘We had a lot of waiting,’ recalls Eliza Kenyon, a voice and movement facilitator. She writes:
We needed to be alert in our dialogue with the police, and relaxed enough to sustain our energy to be there. So we dance and we sing, and some of us call that praying. There was a kind of awkwardness in the bodies, then… it’s a buzzword, but suddenly, indigeneity is ours. It’s our relationship with the River Thames and the land of the South Bank. That land is speaking through our bodies, and in that moment, that’s enough. That’s life in its fullness. Not in some veneer of harmony, but in a visceral, all-cells alive togetherness that we can’t help but long for because it’s part of our original instructions. It’s about life and death learning how to dance together, without anybody telling us what to do. Without music, song, dance on that bridge, I don’t know what it would have been.
‘There’s a risk of it seeming fluffy. But these things meet deep human needs for body, song, prayer,’ says Eliza. ‘Something about that experience on the bridge showed us all our power in a way that we don’t often get the opportunity to see. Our food is killed for us, our crops are grown for us, our dance is danced for us on a stage, our song is sung for us. We don’t have the muscle, psychically or physically, to be truly human.’ This feels true to me. With full respect to Jarvis Cocker, I want to sing, as well as be sung to. In this light, acknowledging despair doesn’t just bring the agency to act. As near-death experiences tend to do, it brings an ability to live, to fully inhabit our selves. To live, so long as we are here.
Anthea Lawson is an Associate at Perspectiva, and author of The Entangled Activist, forthcoming from Perspectiva Press
Join Anthea Lawson and Sophie Banks in London on 2nd December for a Workshop on Wise Activism.
This essay first appeared in Dark Mountain Issue 16 – REFUGE