Preparing for apocalypse: 'It's a ton of fun'


Most of us are a little worried about what lies ahead, but members of the Dark Mountain Project believe that civilisation is about to collapse, that the Green movement has failed, and that we should be preparing to live in a changed world In some places people will start to move back to agriculture and villages, and there'll be civil unrest

TALK TO ANY group of people these days - friends, family, colleagues - and sooner or later the conversation will turn to the calamitous state of affairs we find ourselves in. But what if things are about to get a lot worse? What if the combined effects of environmental and economic meltdown do actually mean that the globalised economic system sustained by technological growth, rampant consumerism and boom-and-bust economics is coming to an end?

In an effort to grapple with this question, a group of writers, artists, social entrepreneurs, engineers and technology experts have embarked on the Dark Mountain Project. Started by the UK-based writer and community organiser Dougald Hine and the writer Paul Kingsnorth more than two years ago, the project offers a focus for people who are genuinely concerned that we are entering an age of "material decline, ecological collapse and social and political uncertainty". The central tenet of the project is that we should respond to these combined crises rather than deny that they exist.

"Dark Mountain is effectively a retreat, a place where likeminded people can go to develop ideas, themes and interpretations. It's not meant to be intellectual. It's literary, artistic and spiritual but not theological. People in Dark Mountain are politically well-informed and opinionated but not politically active," says Arthur Doohan, an IT consultant and former banker and property developer who spoke at the Dark Mountain Festival in the UK last year.

Rachel Henderson, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist from Stillorgan, Co Dublin, was among those who attended that festival in a sustainability centre in Hampshire. "I went because I am interested in the whole idea of sustainability as a citizen. I wanted to meet likeminded people and to explore the concepts," she says. "I met a lot of people trying to move out of mainstream life. Personally I'm not bogged down by a mortgage, but there are a lot of trappings of urban life which lead people to live in a bubble that will not be possible in the future," she says.

Vinay Gupta is an engineer who formerly worked for the US department of defence on disaster relief and state-failure policies. He now develops survival strategies for states in economic collapse. He is a close associate of the founders of Dark Mountain.

"I look at what the essential functions of the state are, and how to lessen the social impacts if countries lose half of their budgets," he says. "Globalisation is an averaging out of the global standard of living, and with the spread of manufacturing around the world we have mangled the environment and become poorer than we were. In some places people will start to move back to agriculture and villages, and there will be civil unrest.

"Dark Mountain is a really useful place for people to meet interesting people and talk about the times we are living in. It's a place to recharge your batteries, where nobody thinks you are weird to be worried. It's a ton of fun."

Dark Mountain asks us to question the fundamental assumptions of our everyday life that deny the fragility of the society we live in and the possibility of social collapse. "Human civilisation is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future," write Hine and Kingsnorth in the Dark Mountain manifesto.

"That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics," they state. "What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning."

This search for meaning outside the mainstream is another central plank of Dark Mountain. Dark Mountaineers argue that "today's generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before. They work longer hours with less security and less chance of leaving behind the social background into which they were born. They fear crime, social breakdown, overdevelopment, environmental collapse. They do not believe the future will be better than the past. Individually, they are less constrained by class and convention than their parents or grandparents but more constrained by law, surveillance, state proscription and personal debt."

Climate change and environmental degradation are other central issues debated by the Dark Mountain Project. Many of its thinkers believe that capitalism has absorbed and corporatised the Green movement and that, instead of becoming environmental activists, we should start by reimagining ourselves as an intrinsic part of planet Earth rather than its rulers.

"We are already responsible for denuding the world of much of its richness, magnificence, beauty, colour and magic . . . and we may well be the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth," say Hine and Kingsnorth.

THE JOURNALIST AND author George Monbiot has engaged with the Dark Mountain writers and disagrees with some of their ideas. "In some ways they are an anti-environmentalist group because they perceive environmentalists as entertaining false hopes of reforming the system," he says.

Monbiot believes that while economic collapse is no longer a crazy notion, the idea that civilisation itself is about to collapse is exaggerated. "Things would have to get a lot worse to see a retreat to a disconnected ruralism and the self-sufficient economy of sub-Saharan Africa," he says. "To retreat from our urban interconnected trading economy, you would have to be very poor indeed. And when you witness the impacts of civil collapse - the breakdown of order and authority, and the raiding and massacres - as I have done in northern Kenya, it's hard to be enthusiastic about such a notion."

Considering themselves to be realists - and not pessimists - Dark Mountaineers encourage those around them to move into a state of preparedness for disaster. Rachel Henderson puts forward a possible scenario.

"What would happen if there was a bomb in Iran and oil stopped flowing in a few days?" she asks. "How long could we continue with the standard of living we have? Is government putting money into these risk scenarios? It frightens me that so many things will not be within our control if society begins to collapse, so I think it's important to get together with other people. Change will come from the grassroots."

Dark Mountain, like many other grassroots movements, encourages people to journey together, to enjoy life simply by listening to and making music, cooking and eating wholesome food, and sharing stories.

In fact, sharing stories is at the heart of the project. The Dark Mountain manifesto encourages writers to embrace what's called "uncivilised writing" and "uncivilised art" with the aim of shifting our world view. According to Hine, uncivilised writing is "humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and easy answer, apart but engaged".

And what would this predicted uncivilised future be like? Henderson says: "I don't think it will be so terrible. It's not about getting all your things together and running for the hills. That won't help anyone. We will have to live with less and reconnect with our communities and work together with common goals and common aims."

Collapsonomics A new world order?

Collapsonomics is a word for the study of fraught, uncertain times, writes Dr Oliver Moore.It examines economic and state systems close to, or in the process of, collapse. It also refers to research into what life might be like after such a collapse.

Followers of collapsonomics include former environmental activists, bankers, economists, social justice campaigners, prison reformers, hacktivists and aid workers.

For some, collapsonomics is about finding ways to build resilient, sustainable, local-food communities that make use of creative frugality and reskilling. For others, it's about mass disaster relief planning.

"Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee," says Vinay Gupta, associate fellow at University College London's Institute for Security and Resilience Studies.

In five years Gupta's hexayurts - easy-to-assemble living spaces made to a grid design from whatever materials are around - have moved from the Burning Man festival in the US to earthquake-hit Haiti, and are now used by the Occupy movement. The blueprints for the yurts are among the documents Gupta has made freely available as tools, he says, for "holding the hands of governments when they are afraid".

The "Institute for Collapsonomics", a nebulous group set up by Gupta and Dark Mountain's Dougald Hine, congregates at events such as the Truth and Beauty meetings that took place late last year in Westminster, London. More often, though, its members converse through internet forums, blogs and Twitter.

In Ireland, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (Feasta) is involved in examining alternative economic systems. It aims to "explore the economic, cultural and environmental characteristics of a truly sustainable society". Feasta's most recent publication is Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse.

Dmitry Orlov, engineer, theorist and author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects,contributed to the Feasta book and to a recent Feasta event.

Orlov, who witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, moved from Leningrad to the US aged 12. In 2006 he sold his apartment in Boston and bought a marine plywood boat to live in, complete with solar panels, a six-month supply of propane.

Orlov thinks we should "forget growth, jobs and financial stability. The new objectives are food, shelter, transport, medicine, security". Going beyond the idea of fixing the system, he suggests that we should give up money gradually. "Withdraw your money from circulation by tying it down in durable objects that are guaranteed to have residual-use value in a non-industrial context," he says.

In the interim, Orlov says, "don't bother to accumulate financial assets, make debt payments, look for a job, protest, lobby, vote or pretend that everything will be all right". Far more productive, he claims, would be to "plan, recruit, train, educate, stockpile, provide support - and rest".

Here in Ireland David Korowitz, an author, physicist, and member of Feasta and Comhar, makes similar suggestions, saying: "We might also think of workhorses, trailers and harnesses; containers and demijohns; barges and sail boats; shovels and hoes; basic chemicals; waste recycling; curing and preserving; bottling and canning; and so on."

Dr Oliver Moore is a sociologist, feature writer and Associate Researcher with the Centre for Co-Operative Studies, UCC