Falling or Jumping?: The Dark Heart of Environmental Writing

Writers such as former activist Paul Kingsnorth are responding to an era of environmental uncertainty.

Is writing capable of responding to our new, uncertain environmental epoch? Photo courtesy of KimJaxon.com.

The culture of our time?

In 2006 Phaidon, one of the world’s leading art and design publishers, released a photography book that was remarkably of its time – but today, only ten years on from its publication, it feels somewhat antiquated. Spectacle, edited by design and architecture gurus Bruce Mau and David Rockwell, is a celebration of mass participation in ephemeral, man-made, massive events staged across the world. In a flurry of “eye-popping photographs”, the book conflates religious festivals, sporting events and national holiday celebrations under a singular phenomenon that can be simply described as “spectacle”. The “society of spectacle” that the likes of Guy Debord railed against in the 1960s is here heralded as an expression of “the culture of our time”. Rockwell explains in his interview for the book: “This is looking at things that are temporary and the power of something that can burst and happen and go away.” The suggestion seems to be that the “culture of our time” is itself throwaway, ephemeral, infinitely changeable. Who needs substance, when you can have experience?

There is a section at the back of the book that encourages readers to travel to these far-flung and exotic festivals themselves. But the publication of Spectacle fell not long before the banking collapse and financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which are still being felt by many people, and such an invitation today somehow feels like decadence. This is not to say that there are those who still can and will make these trips, but you are less likely to see this reflected in much of British cultural production in 2016, which seems far more geared towards domestic pursuits: baking, gardening, craft, and enjoying the great outdoors closer to home.

You just have to walk into your local Waterstones and see the crowded shelves of the “Baking” and “Gardening” sections to see what I mean. These books are aimed at a luxury market, encouraging those who can to spend their money on domestic pastimes. We are still a society of spectacle, but the flavour of these spectacles has altered somewhat in David Cameron’s austerity Britain. Spectacle somehow feels like the printed equivalent of the old television series Wish You Were Here or Holiday. These days popular television no longer encourages viewers to aspire towards exotic holidays but instead to bake cakes and build bird boxes.

The new back-to-nature culture

Many have come to appreciate the detrimental environmental impact that has been the product of a 30-year throwaway society of spectacle, as well as the emotional and social consequences of an increasingly digital and ephemeral existence. While network communications have come to proliferate throughout our lives, there has been a countercultural resurgence of pursuits that are distinctly non-digital. Caught by the River is an example of this trend, a website that started in 2007 as a “meeting place” for such pursuits, listed as “walking, fishing, looking, thinking. Birdsong and beer. Adventure and poetry”.

There has been a renaissance in nature and landscape writing in Britain, which Caught by the River has found itself in the middle of – including among its contributors writers who have gone on to great acclaim in this genre, including Amy Liptrot, Melissa Harrison, Richard Benson, Will Burns and Benjamin Myers. The website’s founders have also ventured out of the digital sphere and into live events. They aim to celebrate the culture of substance that continues to flow through our lived experiences. This August they hosted the festival Caught by the River Thames, billed as two days of music, arts and nature, a gathering of thoughtful authors and musicians to entertain city folk with money and time on their hands on a sunny summer weekend. And thoroughly pleasant it was too, but I am left wondering about what is missing from this and other proliferating British festivals celebrating getting”‘back to nature”: that is, any notion of the very social, economic and environmental crises that all this cultural activity appears to perpetually spirograph around.

I could not read Amy Liptrot’s impressive and affecting debut The Outrun as a nature book without first experiencing it as a book about restlessness, heartbreak and disappointment, a kind of generational disillusionment, by-product of a culture of decadence that could not be sustained. The book has to work through all of this in order for the impact of Liptrot’s new-found engagement with the natural world to be fully appreciated. As a thirty-something myself, I too have found it a disorienting experience being born into and growing up through heady times of economic over-optimism only to find myself outliving it before I have even reached middle age. In response I have pursued more earthly enjoyments: hills and beaches, the overgrowth of the forgotten byways and pathways of the British countryside. On my journeys I have found fellow generational misfits, torn apart from the ideologies we were fed on, unable to perpetuate them, trying to make sense of what we see left behind. Along the way it seems we have all become nature lovers of a sort.

A new epoch

While cultural theorists, economists and politicians perpetually tussle and debate over the future of local, national and global economies, an even more alarming discussion has just this month been happening at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town. The Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) has presented its recommendation for the formal designation of a new geological epoch, one defined by the physical impact since 1950 of man-made nuclear tests and plastic pollution (and, bizarrely, domestic chickens). The 12,000 year-old Holocene epoch has been irreparably transformed by the human life it gave rise to. We simply do not know the real implications of this. Most of us who are alive today have in fact been witnessing the advanced growth of capitalism while simultaneously living through the growing pains of a new geological era which nobody has yet been able to conceptualise. In light of this new knowledge, while championing the virtues of the natural world, as opposed to a man-made one, how can anyone be sure anymore of what it is they are really celebrating?

Among the speakers at Caught by the River Thames was writer, activist and former journalist Paul Kingsnorth. He was speaking about his latest novel, Beast, the second in a series of three experimental books about three men, three generations separated from one another across thousands of years. The first book, The Wake, is set in 11th-century Lincolnshire. Beast is set in an unnamed deserted moor in the present day. Both men share some form of existential crisis related to the specific cultural situation they are faced with. The third book, which Kingsnorth admits will surely be the most difficult to write, will be set well into the future.

Given what we know (or what we know of how little we know), what exactly will that future look like? This question is one of Kingsnorth’s preoccupations, and these days he is far more interested in pursuing questions than finding answers. In 2009 he co-founded with Douglas Hind The Dark Mountain Project. After spending years as an environmental campaigner, Kingsnorth admitted he no longer believed in the organ grinder which was powering the ideologies behind the movements he stood for. He discovered he was not alone in disbelieving the notion that the world can any longer be saved. “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling,” the authors decry from the project’s website, “and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it”.

The project’s main output comes in the form of a blog, and a series of regular anthologies of “uncivilised writing”, 300-page hardback books which aim to showcase radical essays, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art and other uncategorisable things that challenge the status quo. Anyone can contribute to the books and there are regular calls for contributions via the Dark Mountain website. The project also organises events for producers of culture in various mediums, who in some way see themselves and their work on a critical edge of civilisation.

A dark form of hope

If that all seems pretty bleak, it is – but as Kingsnorth has observed, accepting and articulating such reality has not brought about despair but a sense of hope. From the individual disillusionment, pessimism and cynicism has evolved a united sense of freedom, as people have been released from pretending that everything is going to be OK. The writer and activist Rebecca Solnit has remarked upon the significance of naming an experience in order for it to be acknowledged or shared. Words have tremendous power.

Kingsnorth’s specific use of the word “hope”, and his interest in asking questions rather than forging artificial solutions, chimes with Solnit’s essay Hope in the Dark, which has recently been republished with a new introduction from the author: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” We no longer have the answers, but nor should we seek to know them. Instead what Solnit, and The Dark Mountain Project, calls for are new ways of understanding the human race in relation to its environment.

The challenge for writers

Is fiction – or creative writing more broadly – up to the task of responding to and reflecting this new, erratic and uncertain epoch we find ourselves in, and in the process letting hope in through the dark? The novel is a cultural product of the modern era of capitalism, enlightenment thinking, industrialisation and colonialism (epitomised by early novels like Robinson Crusoe), all of which are phenomena that have played a part in creating the environmental disasters we currently face. I think that the author Amitav Ghosh, in his latest essay The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is right to ask the question, “Is it possible that the art and literature of this time will one day be remembered […] because of their complicity in the Great Derangement?”

Further challenges are aimed at the rational construction of narrative in literary fiction. To encounter an event like a freak act of nature in a novel can feel like a contrived plot device, and to make them seem plausible would require a great deal of “set up” from the author. Ghosh says that this is in part to blame for the fact that serious fiction has struggled to deal with the subject of the climate crisis that is upon us. “Considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth,” he writes, “it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over—and this, I think, is very far from being the case.”

Ghosh aims to provoke. Kingsnorth’s response to this challenge for contemporary literature has been to turn most of literary fiction’s conventions on their head and create new rules as he goes along. It makes for intoxicatingly writing, thrilling in parts, frustrating and even distressing in others. And that’s the point. I would like to invite Paul Kingsnorth, Rebecca Solnit and Amitav Ghosh round a table and I would like to record the ensuing conversation, as we plunged into the dark heart of a new, truly global, environmental writing movement. I wonder if the proof of such a movement’s effectiveness may not be in the final product but in the process of its creation, and the realisations later shared once we all break through everything that we think we know.

“We are all on the edge,” declares Kingsnorth, as he sat facing the crowd gathered to see him at Caught by the River Thames, in the comfortable, lush and green surroundings of Fulham Palace. His manner is calm and lucid, his eyes clear. The conversation has turned to the prophets, and what it must feel like to be forced to tell a story one does not fully understand. We have all been brought to the brink, but it is up to each of us to realise this for ourselves. Our agency as writers, for the time being at least, comes from deciding whether or not to jump.

Find out more about Caught by the River by visiting their website. Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is currently out in hardcover, published by Faber & Faber.

Becky Ayre

About Becky Ayre

Becky is a writer, editor and researcher of visual arts and the environment. She lives in Oxford.

She works collaboratively with Inheritance Projects—a small group of independent curators and researchers that organise exhibitions, events, new commissions, publications and research projects.

She blogs at Atmospheres of Uncertainty.

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