KIUC Juggernaut

SOURCE: Ken Taylor ( SUBHEAD: Who protects us from corporate greed trampling our rights, health, and security in our own homes?  

By Mark Naea on 4 May 2012 in Island Breath -  

Image above: Star Wars Imperial A6 Juggernaut deployed in tropical jungle against the rebels. From (
What do 56 local governments and almost four million people have in common? It’s not what you think, and crosses all boundaries, classes and categories.
Give up? They all oppose and reject the installation of smart meters, for health reasons, safety reasons, privacy reasons, and financial reasons. But it also goes to the fundamental right to exercise ones freedom of choice.
This polarization is now being experienced here on the sleepy little island of Kauai. With less than 35,000 accounts, KIUC has arbitrarily decided what’s best for our coop and residents.
With little or no input from residents, ignoring the mountain of adverse health studies, safety and security issues, as well as five years of data that shows no financial savings, KIUC has lied to and bullied our Ohana, our County Council, our Mayor and the PUC.
With promises of a better future, they have gotten the blessings of the PUC. But not one of those promises has any foundation in reality. KIUC uses words like “it can” and “we could see” and “could use less” and my personal favorite, “you could save money and save the environment”.
But when KIUC is asked for any factual data, all of a sudden they don’t want to talk about it. “Could, can, might”; see in the future, are the terms that KIUC has bandied around as if this is an actual reality.
It’s like being in a casino, the way that KIUC has bet $11 million of our money on a future outcome with no real world winners to showcase. This is not betting, this is closer to money laundering of an unbelievable scale for a tiny little island like Kauai.
Where are the checks and balances that our forefathers gave their lives for, what our parents and grandparents fought two world wars for? Who protects us from corporate greed that tramples our rights, our health, and security in our own homes?
From our Mayor to the County Council, to our state representatives and state senator, the silence has been deafening. And the only response from the few that have taken the time to respond is to pass responsibility to the PUC.
Since when has the PUC taken over the responsibilities of Kauai’s elected government and the state’s Health Department? How long has the PUC had the power to authorize wire-tapping and surveillance device installation without a court order? By what Hawaii constitutional decree or law does the PUC exercise these powers?
It is disconcerting to see such rampant abuse being forced upon the people of Kauai. Are our duly elected officials not given the power of oversight, to protect the public from corporate greed or departmental apathy? Who do I need to contact to get a straight answer? Who will stand up and protect our Keiki, our Kupuna, our families and health?
In the spirit of Ho’oponopono, who will do us justice, not just for Kauai’s Ohana , but for the Aina of Kauai that speaks out against this injustice?
I for one have stood up, and others have as well. But when will our elected government take their place among us, and be counted?
See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: KIUC Power Play Meeting 4/24/12


Japan is Nukeless

SUBHEAD: The Tomari plant shutdown leaves Japan without electricity from nuclear power for fist time in forty years. By Staff on 5 May 2012 for BBC News Asia - ( Image above: Tomari Nuclear power plant in Hokkaido prefecture Japan. Note the Mondrian-like painting on the 4 foot thick reactor containment structures. Do you remember the cute blue-sky white-cloud motif on the wrecked Fukushima buildings? From (

Japan is switching off its last working nuclear reactor, as part of the safety drive since the March 2011 tsunami triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima plant.

The third reactor at the Tomari plant, in Hokkaido prefecture, is shutting down for routine maintenance.

It leaves Japan without energy from atomic power for the first time for more than 40 years.

Until last year, Japan got 30% of its power from nuclear energy.

Hundreds of people marched through Tokyo, waving banners to celebrate what they hope will be the end of nuclear power in Japan.

Power shortages

Since the Fukushima disaster, all the country's reactors have been shut down for routine maintenance. They must withstand tests against earthquakes and tsunamis, and local authorities must give their consent in order for plants to restart.

So far, none have.

Two reactors at the Ohi plant in western Japan have been declared safe. The government says they should be restarted to combat looming shortages.

However, regional authorities would still have to give their approval.

Ministers have warned Japan faces a summer of power shortages.

The BBC's Roland Buerk, in Tokyo, says the government could force the issue, but so far has been reluctant to move against public opinion.

Organizers of the anti-nuclear march in the capital estimated turnout at 5,500.

Demonstrators carried banners shaped as giant fish. The "Koinobori" banners, traditionally the symbol of Children's Day, have been adopted by the anti-nuclear movement.

"There are so many nuclear plants, but not a single one will be up and running today, and that's because of our efforts," campaigner Masashi Ishikawa told the crowd.

Engineers began the process of shutting down the final Tomari reactor, inserting control rods to bring the fission process to an end.

All operations at the plant will have stopped by 14:00 GMT, a spokesman told Associated Press.

Japan will then be without nuclear power for the first time since 1970.

Businesses have warned of severe consequences for manufacturing if no nuclear plants are allowed to re-start.

In the meantime, Japan has increased its fossil fuel imports, with electricity companies pressing old power plants into service.

If the country can get through the steamy summer without blackouts, calls to make the nuclear shutdown permanent will get louder, our correspondent says.

The six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was badly damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Blasts occurred at four of the reactors after the cooling systems went offline, triggering radiation leaks and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.

A 20km (12 mile) exclusion zone remains in place around the plant.

See also: Ea O Ka Aina: Fukushima worse than Chernobyl 4/24/12 .

Poisonous mud in Hanalei

SUBHEAD: Lab tests indicate that there is a sandbar in Hanalei Bay laced with toxic heavy metals.  

By Terry Lilley on 28 April 2012 in Island Breath - 

Image above: Recent aerial view of the mouth of the Hanalei River and mud sandbar. From Terry Lilley.

You may know I have been studying the reefs in Hanalei Bay since 2006 trying to find out why the corals are dying in shallow water. It appears the coral die off is related to the continual mud flowing out of the Hanalei River.

These materials are also making large sand bars at the mouth of the river. I found several ongoing digging projects in the wetland that were not permitted under the Endangered Species Act. Two projects are private and one is government. None of these projects are using the mandatory sediment traps to keep mud from flowing into the bay.

Just go North out of Hanalei right now and you will see a bridge rebuilding project taking place on a small creek. Notice in the creek you will see the mandatory yellow sediment traps being uses properly. Several weeks ago I took several mud sample for testing by a professional lab in Honolulu called "Test America" to see what is in the mud in the river and bay. This mud is building up right now near the Hanalei Pier like it did last summer.

Image above: Muddy sandbar at the mouth of Hanalei River with the pier in the background. From Terry Lilley.

The test results just came back and they are stunning!! Here are some of the results right out of the report and I have the report available for review.
Arsenic 29 ppm (parts per million) Barium 19 ppm Chromium 120 ppm Lead 2.4 ppm
We are also testing for Dioxin which is the most dangerous chemical on earth! I bet it will be in the bay and river since it was used in agent orange testing in the river years ago. The EPA website (Environmental Protection Agency) has on their web the legal limit of these chemicals in drinking water and they are less than "one" ppm! That means our samples have more than 29 times the legal level for drinking water for Arsenic!!

Heavy metal poisoning can cause serious illness. Just read the info on the EPA web site. It is a violation of the Clean Water Act to dump mud and heavy metals into the Hanalei Bay but this occurs daily! I have lots of video and pics with GPS, time and date. I believe and can show with video and lab test, that this mud and heavy metal release is killing the reef in Hanalei Bay and making people sick!

The DOH in Honolulu (Watson Okubo) told me in an email that their department did similar lab test of the mud in the Hanalei Bay a year ago but have not released the results to the public, as they are still being analyzed! It only took us one hour to analyze our reports and I believe they both were done by the same lab!

If you are bothered like I am to have high levels of heavy metals in the water where we surf and swim, then maybe you could call the DOH, EPA, DLNR and Mayor to express your concerns and demand a clean up.

Image above: Handful of mud from Hanalei River that was is laced with heavy metals. From Terry Lilley.

The numbers are in the phone book. I have already sent these agencies a full report but they are not responding. This is not a right wing, left wing, good old boy network, or political issue. It is a simple heath issue that effects us all and it is getting worse with time. This problem can be fixed!!

It just needs a little public attention. We are also raising funds through our non profit to do more testing to see if the heavy metal concentrations are high through out the bay or just in localized spots. If you can help with funding please let me know as we have spent over $2,000 so far on these expensive test. Feel free to forward this email to anyone who may care about the health of Hanalei Bay.


Japan tsunami aftertaste

SUBHEAD: A staggering mess as Japanese tsunami debris hits Alaska coast early. By Michael Van Baker on 30 April 2012 for The Sun Break - ( Image above: Plastic container seems untouched by long journey as flotsam from Japan. From original article.

Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a non-profit organization that estimates it has cleared nearly 1,000,000 pounds of plastic debris from Alaskan coasts over the past 10 years, is reporting “tons” of what it believes is likely tsunami debris washing up on the coasts of the Kayak and Montague islands. Chris Pallister, president of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, told Alaska’s KTUU TV that ““It’s a staggering mess [...] the magnitude of this is just hard to comprehend and I’ve been looking at this stuff a long time.”

In an email to The SunBreak, Pallister let loose:

In my opinion, this is the single greatest environmental pollution event that has ever hit the west coast of North America. The slow-motion aspects of it have fooled an unwitting public. It far exceeds the Santa Barbara or Exxon Valdez oil spills in gross tonnage and also geographic scope. (I was in Prince William Sound during the during the Exxon Valdez oil spill and so have a sense of comparison).

Tens of thousands of miles of coastline from California to the Aleutian Islands are going to be hit with billions of pounds of toxic debris. NOAA’s latest estimate is that 1.5 million tons of largely plastic debris will hit the western United States coast. That is 30 billion pounds. We expect Alaska to get the largest percentage of that with much of it lodging on northern Gulf of Alaska beaches. Most of this will be plastic which is full of inherent toxic chemicals that will leach into the environment for generations.

Possibly worse are the millions of containers full of anything from household chemicals to toxic industrial chemicals that are floating our way. They will eventually burst upon our shores…in sensitive inter-tidal spawning and rearing habitat, endangering shorebirds, marine mammals, fish and everything in between. We are already finding empty and partially full containers of tsunami related chemicals and fuel drums along the northern Gulf of Alaska shoreline. The heavier fuller containers will come later because the wind doesn’t push them as fast toward the Gulf of Alaska as they are more current driven. The light-weight, high-windage debris such as Styrofoam, buoys, bottles, empty containers and drums have already arrived in staggering quantities.

Everyone is careful to say the debris is only “suspected” of having come from Japan’s March 2011 tsunami; there is plenty of marine debris on the ocean in general. Here is Pallister on the scope of the everyday marine debris problem.

But the newer condition and quantity of the debris that has been seen–”chunks of pink and blue insulation, which appear to be from buildings [and] white and black floats the size of oil barrels”–argue for the use of Occam’s Razor. This isn’t the first debris with Japanese printing to show up off our coasts: a soccer ball was returned to its owner, and a derelict fishing ship was sunk before it interfered with shipping lanes.

Image above: Extent of early debris on Alaskan coast is troubling indicator of future. From original article.

The problem is that it’s early. The estimated time of arrival for the debris, in whatever shape, radioactive or not (KTUU says not), was supposed to be 2014. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has been spearheading, with Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), a multi-pronged effort to prepare for the debris and protect the West Coast from being submerged beneath it. Cantwell has asked President Obama to give the National Science Foundation emergency funds for research to help better track tsunami debris and develop response plans, and has been pressuring the administration to rethink a 25-percent budget cut for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

On hearing of the extent of the recent debris washing ashore, Begich released a statement that said: “The time for talk is over. The prospect of debris coming to our shorelines is not just a theory, it is here. I urge the Obama Administration to respond to our request from several weeks ago to free up funding and resources so we can effectively deal with this debris and not be scrambling when it arrives.”

That seems like common sense, but as Pallister explains: “Unlike an oil spill or industrial environmental accident, there are no easily identifiable culprits with deep pockets that can be pursued to help pay for the clean up. This will all be on the American taxpayer, so you can understand the glacial pace of the response preparation.”

NOAA has since released this somewhat ominous updated graphic illustrating their understanding of how much tsunami debris is still headed this way. You’ll want to refer to this pdf on “What to do if you see debris,” in preparation.

Video above: From (


Too hot not to notice!

SUBHEAD: We beginning to realize we are becoming a planet connected by wild weather. By Bill McKibbon on 3 May 2012 for Tom Dispatch - ( Image above: Wreckage of the 141 year old Bartonsville Covered Bridge over the Williams River in Rockingham, Vermont. From ( The Williams River, in Vermont, was so languid and lovely last Saturday morning that it was almost impossible to imagine the violence with which it must have been running on August 28, 2011. And yet the evidence was all around: sand piled high on its banks, trees still scattered as if by a giant’s fist, and most obvious of all, a utilitarian temporary bridge where for 140 years a graceful covered bridge had spanned the water.

The YouTube video of that bridge crashing into the raging river was Vermont’s iconic image from its worst disaster in memory, the record flooding that followed Hurricane Irene’s rampage through the state in August 2011. It claimed dozens of lives, as it cut more than a billion-dollar swath of destruction across the eastern United States.

I watched it on TV in Washington just after emerging from jail, having been arrested at the White House during mass protests of the Keystone XL pipeline. Since Vermont’s my home, it took the theoretical -- the ever more turbulent, erratic, and dangerous weather that the tar sands pipeline from Canada would help ensure -- and made it all too concrete. It shook me bad.

And I’m not the only one.

New data released last month by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities show that a lot of Americans are growing far more concerned about climate change, precisely because they’re drawing the links between freaky weather, a climate kicked off-kilter by a fossil-fuel guzzling civilization, and their own lives. After a year with a record number of multi-billion dollar weather disasters, seven in ten Americans now believe that “global warming is affecting the weather.” No less striking, 35% of the respondents reported that extreme weather had affected them personally in 2011. As Yale’s Anthony Laiserowitz told the New York Times, “People are starting to connect the dots.”

Which is what we must do. As long as this remains one abstract problem in the long list of problems, we’ll never get to it. There will always be something going on each day that’s more important, including, if you’re facing flood or drought, the immediate danger.

But in reality, climate change is actually the biggest thing that’s going on every single day. If we could only see that pattern we’d have a fighting chance. It’s like one of those trompe l’oeil puzzles where you can only catch sight of the real picture by holding it a certain way. So this weekend we’ll be doing our best to hold our planet a certain way so that the most essential pattern is evident. At, we’re organizing a global day of action that’s all about dot-connecting; in fact, you can follow the action at

The day will begin in the Marshall Islands of the far Pacific, where the sun first rises on our planet, and where locals will hold a daybreak underwater demonstration on their coral reef already threatened by rising seas. They’ll hold, in essence, a giant dot -- and so will our friends in Bujumbura, Burundi, where March flooding destroyed 500 homes. In Dakar, Senegal, they’ll mark the tidal margins of recent storm surges. In Adelaide, Australia, activists will host a “dry creek regatta” to highlight the spreading drought down under.

Pakistani farmers -- some of the millions driven from their homes by unprecedented flooding over the last two years -- will mark the day on the banks of the Indus; in Ayuthaya, Thailand, Buddhist monks will protest next to a temple destroyed by December’s epic deluges that also left the capital, Bangkok, awash.

Activists in Ulanbataar will focus on the ongoing effects of drought in Mongolia. In Daegu, South Korea, students will gather with bags of rice and umbrellas to connect the dots between climate change, heavy rains, and the damage caused to South Korea’s rice crop in recent years. In Amman, Jordan, Friends of the Earth Middle East will be forming a climate dot on the shores of the Dead Sea to draw attention to how climate-change-induced drought has been shrinking that sea.

In Herzliya, Israel, people will form a dot on the beach to stand in solidarity with island nations and coastal communities around the world that are feeling the impact of climate change. In newly freed Libya, students will hold a teach-in. In Oman, elders will explain how the weather along the Persian Gulf has shifted in their lifetimes. There will be actions in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, and in the highlands of Peru where drought has wrecked the lives of local farmers. In Monterrey, Mexico, they’ll recall last year’s floods that did nearly $2 billion in damage. In Chamonix, France, climbers will put a giant red dot on the melting glaciers of the Alps.

And across North America, as the sun moves westward, activists in Halifax, Canada, will “swim for survival” across its bay to highlight rising sea levels, while high-school students in Nashville, Tennessee, will gather on a football field inundated by 2011’s historic killer floods.

In Portland, Oregon, city dwellers will hold an umbrella-decorating party to commemorate March’s record rains. In Bandelier, New Mexico, firefighters in full uniform will remember last year’s record forest fires and unveil the new solar panels on their fire station. In Miami, Manhattan, and Maui, citizens will line streets that scientists say will eventually be underwater. In the high Sierra, on one of the glaciers steadily melting away, protesters will unveil a giant banner with just two words, a quote from that classic of western children’s literature, The Wizard of Oz. “I’m Melting” it will say, in letters three-stories high.

This is a full-on fight between information and disinformation, between the urge to witness and the urge to cover-up. The fossil-fuel industry has funded endless efforts to confuse people, to leave an impression that nothing much is going on. But -- as with the tobacco industry before them -- the evidence has simply gotten too strong.

Once you saw enough people die of lung cancer, you made the connection. The situation is the same today. Now, it’s not just the scientists and the insurance industry; it’s your neighbors. Even pleasant weather starts to seem weird. Fifteen thousand U.S. temperature records were broken, mainly in the East and Midwest, in the month of March alone, as a completely unprecedented heat wave moved across the continent. Most people I met enjoyed the rare experience of wearing shorts in winter, but they were still shaking their heads. Something was clearly wrong and they knew it.

The one institution in our society that isn’t likely to be much help in spreading the news is... the news. Studies show our papers and TV channels paying ever less attention to our shifting climate. In fact, in 2011 ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox spent twice as much time discussing Donald Trump as global warming. Don’t expect representatives from Saturday’s Connect the Dots day to show up on Sunday’s talk shows. Over the last three years, those inside-the-Beltway extravaganzas have devoted 98 minutes total to the planet’s biggest challenge. Last year, in fact, all the Sunday talk shows spent exactly nine minutes of Sunday talking time on climate change -- and here’s a shock: all of it was given over to Republican politicians in the great denial sweepstakes.

So here’s a prediction: next Sunday, no matter how big and beautiful the demonstrations may be that we’re mounting across the world, “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press” won’t be connecting the dots. They’ll be gassing along about Newt Gingrich’s retirement from the presidential race or Mitt Romney’s coming nomination, and many of the commercials will come from oil companies lying about their environmental efforts. If we’re going to tell this story -- and it’s the most important story of our time -- we’re going to have to tell it ourselves.

Bill McKibben, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is the founder of, which is coordinating Saturday’s Connect the Dots day. You can find the event nearest you by checking


Democracy's Arc

SUBHEAD: There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate.  

By John Michael Greer on 3 May 2012 for Archdruid Report - 

Image above: Detail of packaging for the computer game "Junta". From (
The troubling news about methane releases from the Arctic ocean that was the focus of last week’s post on The Archdruid Report belongs, as I mentioned then, to the wider trajectory of industrial society’s decline and fall, not to the more specific theme I’ve been developing here in recent months.

The end of America’s global empire takes place against the background of that wider trajectory, to be sure, and core elements of the predicament of industrial civilization bid fair to play a crucial role as the United States backs itself into a corner defined by its own history. Still, important as the limits to growth are just now, there’s much more at work in the endgame of American empire.
Thus this week’s post will plunge without further ado from the austere heights of atmospheric chemistry to the steaming, swampy, snake-infested realities of American politics. It’s a jarring shift in more ways than one, since everybody basically agrees on what methane is, what the atmosphere is, and so on; the terms that frame debates about the greenhouse effect and anthropogenic global warming are clearly defined and bear some relationship to observable fact. We don’t have that advantage in politics. In particular, the possibility of an intelligent conversation about American politics is hamstrung by the spectacular distortions imposed on basic terms by nearly everybody involved.
The worst example, and the one I propose to explore this week, is democracy. It’s hard to think of a word that’s bandied about more freely, but I keep on waiting for Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride to stand up and say his classic line: “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
On both ends of American politics, for example, democracy is for all practical purposes defined as a political system in which a majority of voters will support whatever group happens to be using the word at that moment. That definition can be seen at work most clearly in the shrill insistence, common these days over much of the political spectrum, that the United States isn’t a democracy; after all, the argument runs, if the United States was a democracy, the people would vote in favor of their own best interests, which of course just happen to be identical with the platform of whoever’s talking. The fact that this claim can be heard from groups whose ideas of the people’s best interests differ in every conceivable way—for example, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—simply adds to the irony.
Behind the rhetoric is a conception of democracy that has nothing in common with the real world, and everything in common with the Utopian fantasies that have come to infest contemporary political discourse. When Americans talk about democracy or, with even richer irony, “real democracy,” they usually mean a system that does not exist, has never existed, and can never exist—a system less real than Neverland, in which the free choices of millions of individual voters somehow always add up to an optimal response to the challenges of a complex age, without ever running afoul of the troubles that inevitably beset democratic systems in the real world.
Here’s an example. Nearly all those who insist that the United States is not a democracy cite, as evidence for that claim, the fact that our elections are usually corrupt and sometimes fraudulent. Now of course this is quite true; the winner in an American election is generally, though not always, the candidate that has the most money to spend; the broader influence of wealth over America’s media and political parties is pervasive; and election fraud is as much a part of American culture as baseball and apple pie. the Democrats who waxed indignant about the rigged election returns from Florida in 2000, for example, by and large seem to have gone out of their way to forget about the voting machines at the bottom of Lake Michigan that put John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1960.
Does this prove that the United States isn’t a “real democracy”? Not at all. This is how democracies actually function in the real world. Under a system of representative democracy, the people who have wealth and the people who have power are by no means always the same; some of those who have wealth want power, some of those who have power want wealth, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. That extends all the way down to the individual voter, by the way.

 Give citizens the right to dispose of their votes freely, and a significant number of them will use that freedom to put their votes up for sale—directly, as in old-fashioned machine politics, or indirectly, by voting for candidates who provide them with goodies at the public expense. There’s no way to prevent that without depriving citizens of the right to vote as they choose, and you can’t eliminate that and still have a democracy.
By this point I suspect some of my readers may be wondering if I’m opposed to democracy. Quite the contrary, I’m very much in favor of it; despite its problems, it beats the stuffing out of most systems of government. It has three benefits in particular that you don’t usually get in other forms of government.
First, democracies tolerate much broader freedom of speech and conscience than countries ruled by other systems. I can critique the personalities, policies, and (as here) fundamental concepts of American government without having to worry that this will bring jackbooted thugs crashing through my door at three in the morning; in nondemocratic countries, critics of the government in power rarely have that security.

 Equally, I can practice the religion I choose, read the books I prefer, carry on conversations with people in other democratic countries around the world, and exercise a great many other freedoms that people in nondemocratic countries simply don’t have. These things matter; people have fought and died for them, and a system that makes room for them is far and away preferable to one that doesn’t.
Second, democracies don’t kill anything like as many of their own citizens as most other forms of government do. The history of the twentieth century, if nothing else, should have been enough of a reminder that authoritarian governments come with a very high domestic body count.

All governments everywhere kill plenty of people whenever they go to war, and all governments everywhere go to war when they think they can get away with it; imperial democracies also tend to build up very large prison populations—the United States has more people in prison than any other nation on Earth, just as Britain in its age of empire shipped so many convicts to Australia that they played a sizable role in the settling of that continent. Still, all other things being equal, it’s better to live in a nation where the government doesn’t dump large numbers of its own citizens into mass graves, and democracies do that far less often, and to far fewer people, than nondemocratic governments generally do.
Finally, democracies undergo systemic change with less disruption and violence than nondemocratic countries do. Whether we’re talking about removing a failed head of state, coping with an economic depression, dealing with military defeat, or winning or losing an empire, democracies routinely manage to surf the wave of change without the sort of collapse such changes very often bring to nondemocratic countries. The rotation of leadership hardwired into the constitutions of most successful democracies builds a certain amount of change into the system, if only because different politicians have different pet agendas, and pressure from outside the political class—if it’s strong, sustained, and intelligently directed—very often does have an impact: not quickly, not easily, and not without a great deal of bellowing and handwaving, but the thing does happen eventually.
All three of these benefits, and a number of others of the same kind, can be summed up in a single sentence: democracy is resilient. Authoritarian societies, by contrast, are brittle; that’s why they can’t tolerate freedom of speech and conscience, why they so often murder their citizens in large numbers, and why they tend to shatter when they are driven to change by the pressure of events. Democratic societies can also be brittle, especially if they’re newly established, or if a substantial fraction of their citizens rejects the values of democracy; still, all other things being equal, a democratic society normally weathers systemic change with less trauma than an authoritarian one.
One measure of this greater resilience, ironically enough, may be seen in the lack of success radical groups generally have when they try to delegitimize and overturn an established democratic society. Rhetoric that would bring a brutal response from authoritarian governments get little more than a yawn from democratic ones. A few years back, the phrase “repressive tolerance” was the term for this on the American far left. I doubt those who denounced it under this label would have preferred to be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, shot through the head, and tumbled into an unmarked grave; the rest of us, certainly, have good reason to be thankful that that’s not the way America generally deals with its dissidents.
That aside, there’s equally good reason to want a system in place just now that can handle systemic change with the smallest possible amount of trauma and violence, because we’re headed for a great deal of systemic change in the years and decades ahead. Part of that is due to the wider trajectory of industrial society I referenced toward the beginning of this essay, part of it is due to the ongoing decline of America’s global empire, but a good deal of it comes from a different source.

The Greeks, who had a penchant for giving names to things, had a convenient label for that source: anacyclosis. That was the moniker coined by the Greek historian Polybius, who chronicled the conquest of Greece by the Romans in the second century BCE. He noted that the squabbling city-states of the Greek world tended to cycle through a distinctive sequence of governments—monarchy, followed by aristocracy, followed by democracy, and then back around again to monarchy. It’s a cogent model, especially if you replace “monarchy” with “dictatorship” and “aristocracy” with “junta” to bring the terminology up to current standards.
A short and modernized form of the explanation—those of my readers who are interested in the original form should consult the Histories of Polybius—is that in every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges. This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. '

In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta. In every democracy, finally, competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows, and finally the head of the strongest faction seizes power and imposes a dictatorship, and the cycle begins all over again.

It can be educational to measure this sequence against recent history and see how well it fits. Russia, for example, has been through a classic round of anacyclosis since the 1917 revolution: dictatorship under Lenin and Stalin, a junta from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, and a democracy—a real democracy, please remember, complete with corruption, rigged elections, and the other features of real democracy—since that time. China, similarly, had a period of democracy from 1911 to 1949, a dictatorship under Mao, and a junta since then, with movements toward democracy evident over the last few decades. Still, the example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.

A case could be made that this is the great achievement of modern representative democracy—the development of a system so resilient that it can weather anacyclosis without cracking. The three rounds of anacyclosis we’ve had in the United States so far have each followed the classic pattern; they’ve begun under the dominance of a single leader whose overwhelming support from the political class and the population as a whole allowed him to shatter the factional stalemate of the previous phase and impose a radically new order on the nation. After his death, power passes to what amounts to an elected junta, and gradually defuses outwards in the usual way, until a popular movement to expand civil rights and political participation overturns the authority of the junta.

Out of the expansion of political participation, factions rise to power, and eventually bring the mechanism of government to a standstill; crisis follows, and is resolved by the election of another almost-dictator.
Glance back over American history and it’s hard to miss the pattern, repeating over a period that runs roughly seventy to eighty years. The dictator-figures were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom overturned existing structures in order to consolidate their power, and did so with scant regard for existing law.

The juntas were the old Whigs, the Republicans, and the New Deal Democrats, each of them representatives of a single social class; they were overthrown in turn by Jacksonian populism, the Progressive movement, and the complex social convulsions of the Sixties, each of which diffused power across a broader section of the citizenry. The first cycle ended in stalemate over the issue of slavery; the second ended in a comparable stalemate over finding an effective response to the Great Depression; the third—well, that’s where we are right now.
There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate, and no shortage of people in the political class who show every sign of being willing to give it that final push. The great difficulty just now, it seems to me, is precisely that fashionable contempt for democracy as it actually exists that I addressed earlier in this essay.

In 1860, that habit was so far from finding a place in the political dialogue that the constitution of the Confederate States of America was in most respects a copy of the one signed at Philadelphia a long lifetime before. In 1932, though a minority of Americans supported Marxism, fascism, or one of the other popular authoritarianisms of the day, the vast majority who put Roosevelt into the White House four times in a row expected him to maintain at least a rough approximation of constitutional government.
That’s much less true this time around. Granted, there’s less public support for overtly authoritarian ideologies—I expect to see Marxism make a large-scale comeback on the American left in the next few years, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post—but as Oswald Spengler pointed out almost a century ago, in the endgame of democratic societies, it’s not the cult of ideology but the cult of personality that’s the real danger.

As the Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; in our time, as a growing number of Americans insist that America isn’t a democracy because it doesn’t live up to their fantasies of political entitlement, it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way. How many of the benefits of democracy I listed above would survive the victory of such a movement is not a question I would like to contemplate.
See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Seascapes with Methane Plumes 4/25/12


Hope in the Age of Collapse

SUBHEAD: An exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project.  

By Wen Stephenson on 3 April 2012 for Thoreau Farm - 

Image above: A Black Mountain. From (
Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale. - “State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012

That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London. As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)

Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):

It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.

Not Paul Kingsnorth. An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there.

Not everyone is quite ready to hear, or accept, what Paul Kingsnorth has to say. In 2009 he co-founded, together with collaborator Dougald Hine, something called the Dark Mountain Project, a literary and cultural response to our global environmental, economic, and political crises. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” appeared that summer, and got some attention in the UK. He and Hine have summed up the Dark Mountain message this way:
These are precarious and unprecedented times. Our economies crumble, while beyond the chaos of markets, the ecological foundations of our way of living near collapse. Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.
We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction.
Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.
Some would call Kingsnorth — indeed have called him, in The New Statesman and The Guardian — a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a deathwish for civilization. Others would call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.

Not well known here in the U.S., Kingsnorth tossed a bomb in the January/February issue of Orion magazine, in the form of an essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” (The magazine’s current issue features “America the the Possible: A Manifesto,” by James Gustave Speth — the first of two parts! But the editors must know that Kingsnorth’s piece is the real manifesto. I have a thing about manifestos.)

In that essay, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of the matter:
We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.
Provocative stuff, indeed. Down with sustainability! But then Kingsnorth goes on to say this:
If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.
Safe to say that stopped me cold. Carbon and climate may not be the only things in the world worth talking about — I can think of one or two others — but this much is certain : if we don’t keep talking about them, and start acting in a serious way to address them, the consequences will be a whole lot more “unthinkable” than darning socks and growing carrots, and for a whole lot more people (especially those who have done nothing to cause the problem) than Kingsnorth acknowledges here.
But it was Kingsnorth’s conclusion that really threw me. His answer to the whole situation comes down to one word: withdrawal.
It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. 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.
Withdraw? Are you kidding? That Kingsnorth’s piece appeared in the same issue as Terry Tempest Williams’ long, morally bracing interview with Tim DeChristopher, “What Love Looks Like,” only made it harder to take. This, I felt, is what giving up looks like.

But this story doesn’t end in bitterness. After I read the essay, Kingsnorth and I engaged in a spirited exchange (on Twitter, where else?), and it has led to some sort of mutual understanding. It also led me to the Dark Mountain Project and its publications. So when I launched this blog, I invited Kingsnorth to engage in an email exchange, an invitation he graciously (even enthusiastically) accepted. Below is my opening missive to him. I’ll include his response in a post to follow.

It may be that what Paul and I have in common is more important than our differences. I see us each striving to define what hope looks like.

Below is our exchange.
. . .
From Wen Stephenson to Paul Kingsnorth

Dear Paul,

Thanks so much for engaging in this exchange.

I confess that I’ve only recently come to know your work. You caught my attention with the essay in Orion. It’s a beautiful piece — I honestly think so, despite my reaction to it. The thing that initially hooked me is the way your trajectory is almost precisely the inverse of my own. Whereas you’ve grown deeply disillusioned with modern environmentalism, and what’s universally known as “sustainability” — including urgent and necessary efforts to cut carbon emissions — I’ve never been an “environmentalist” in the first place (if anything, I’m a recovering journalist!). And yet here I’ve gone and become an advocate for climate action. Strange times we live in.

But while there are many things about the essay that I genuinely admire — especially the way it nails the state of anxiety in which environmentalism seems to find itself today, the internal tensions and contradictions — I found your dismissiveness toward the climate movement, and especially your conclusion, profoundly frustrating and discouraging. That conclusion appears, essentially, to be a resigned withdrawal: “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching…. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

Look, I’m all for walking — especially if it means clearing one’s head and reconnecting with the reality outside our windows. But not as withdrawal, not as running away. The idea that in the face of climate change — humanity’s greatest crisis (and I mean all of humanity, especially those who have done little or nothing to cause it, including future generations) — someone with your experience, and your conscience, could simply choose to “withdraw” … well, it was incomprehensible to me. And it was especially ironic given that the same issue contained the interview with Tim DeChristopher.

That interview’s title is drawn from DeChristopher’s now-famous words to the judge: “This is what love looks like.”

And so, of course, I turned to Twitter and responded to you and your essay: “This is what giving up looks like.”

Whereupon you accused me of naivete for joining in a worldwide rally for climate action (and organizing a walk to Walden Pond) last September. Touché!

So, yes, you might say our correspondence got off to a rocky start.

But we’ve patched things up! And your essay and our Twitter exchange has led me, I’m glad to report, to the Dark Mountain Project. I think I now have a much better understanding of where you’re coming from, and where you’re trying to go, and I have to say, once again, that we’re largely in agreement — up to a point. I think it’s quite likely that you’re right about the situation in which civilization now finds itself, given what science is telling us and the state of our political and economic systems. As you encapsulate it in Dark Mountain Issue 1:
“[The manifesto's] message — that it’s time to stop pretending our current way of living can be made ‘sustainable’; that ‘saving the planet’ has become a bad joke; that we are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we can…”
Indeed. But it’s the “live through it as best we can” part, and how we’re going to do that, where our viewpoints begin to diverge — because you seem to reject the possibility that any combination of mass political engagement and human technological (and yes, industrial-economic) ingenuity might help us do just that: live through it as best we can. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.

So I’d like to pose a series of questions for you, in reaction to specific passages in the manifesto.
You write in part one that the “the myth of progress” is “the engine driving our civilisation.” Then, in part two, you suggest that our response to climate change and environmental crisis has yet to give up this myth:
We hear daily about the impacts of our activities on ‘the environment’ (like ‘nature’, this is an expression which distances us from the reality of our situation). Daily we hear, too, of the many ’solutions’ to these problems: solutions which usually involve the necessity of urgent political agreement and a judicious application of human technological genius. Things may be changing, runs the narrative, but there is nothing we cannot deal with here, folks…. There will still be growth, there will still be progress… There is nothing to see here. Everything will be fine.
We do not believe that everything will be fine.
Nor do I. But to dismiss the search for “solutions” — which I assume must include efforts to stabilize the climate in the coming century — seems a bit too cynical, or fatalistic. As if to say that nothing can be done. The task, we agree, is no longer to “prevent” or “avoid” the “perfect storm,” but to live through it, and still maintain our humanity. At the very least, we can still work urgently to minimize the human (and non-human) suffering that is coming. Unless you believe that compassion is also a myth.
You write that “time has not been kind to the greens.” And then,
Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ’sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naive as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.
This is followed shortly after by one of the manifesto’s central (and most memorable) passages:
And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down….
Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?
We believe it is time to look down.
This is a striking passage. But wait — “Would it be as bad as we imagine?… Could it even be good for us?” Do you mean that the future could in fact be better than the present? That it might be (gasp) sustainable? Does that imply your own myth of progress? Before you answer that, here’s another question.
Your project is fundamentally a literary and cultural one. It’s based on the idea that our stories — the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — are what make us who we are. And so you want to change the story, the myth, of civilization. You write:
Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? … What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?

These are excellent questions. But art and storytelling won’t stabilize the climate. The only way to do that is to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transfomation of our energy systems. Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?

You say that Uncivilised writing “is not environmental writing… It is not nature writing… And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.” You then conclude that the project of Uncivilisation “will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty — like truth — not only exists, but still matters.”

There’s something almost hopeful about that last page of the manifesto, and the last lines: “Climbing Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise…. Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.”

But it occurs to me that “beauty” and “truth” (like politics) are human “confections” — anthropocentric categories. And this seems to imply a belief that something like civilization, which gave birth to art and philosophy, will not only survive, but is worth fighting to preserve. And yet, how does one propose to preserve beauty and truth, these human constructs, unless the climate is stabilized? And how does one propose to do that without engaging in politics? Are you suggesting that a new art and philosophy will give rise to a new politics? Maybe it will. But do we really have time to wait for that?

All the new storytelling in the world will change nothing without politics. In fact, it seems to me that the ultimate cynicism is to give up on politics — because it means giving up on the possibility of change. Not necessarily “progress” (i.e., material progress). I mean the preservation of what makes us human.

You write: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”

But unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.

All best,

. . .
From Paul Kingsnorth to Wen Stephenson

Dear Wen,

Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.

But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.

This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.

I’d like to start this response with your very last line. Here it is:

‘Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.’

This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this — really get it, at a deep level — there will be no change worth having for anyone.

I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner. My feeling, my philosophy, if you like, across that whole period has been rather different to yours, and rather different also to that of Tim DeChristopher, who you mention in your e-mail, remarkable though his current stand is.

My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.

You might find that an odd position, or even a dangerous one, but I see it as quite cogent and rational. The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Perhaps it’s the Holocene: the period of the planet’s history in which homo sapiens sapiens (cough) was able to build a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites.

‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat. I have two problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced it is a good idea! To put it mildly. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Its ravaging of all non-human life is not incidental; it seems to be a requirement of the program. Economic growth of the kind worshipped by our leaders could be described as a process of turning life into death for money. With nine billion humans demanding access to the spoils, there is not going to be much life left to go around. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.

But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. 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. The journey I am on is intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual too. I’m not sure I will find any answers. Certainly I won’t come up with any better ways to ‘save the world.’ But what world are you saving, Wen, and why? Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours.

I sense in your response a lot of the confusion, and the passion, that drove me for many years (I am still both passionate and confused, of course, though perhaps for different reasons.) There is a plaintive quality to your questions. ‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?’ The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.

But as for the ‘transformation of our energy systems’: the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are ‘our energy systems’ for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the ‘developed’ world, and ‘our energy systems’ are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?

Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect. I notice that a US-government backed plan to cover much of the Mojave desert in solar panels is currently running up against resistance from both conservationists and Native Americans; and let’s not even get started on the battles over carpeting vast areas of mountain, rangeland and countryside with giant wind power stations. This new world of yours is beginning to look a lot like the old one: business-as-usual without the carbon. The beast must be fed; the only question is what it will eat.

As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well … I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them. There is no ‘climate movement’. Sure, there are a few thousand people who may take to the streets in the wealthy West, or on the odd threatened atoll, and there are many more people who, when asked in opinion polls, will say they want to stop climate change.

But how many of these people will be taking to the streets to demand personal carbon budgets? How many of them will be taking to the streets to demand much higher gas prices, limits on their holiday aeroplane flights and their daily electricity use, and radical reductions in their ability and right to consume at will? And how many of the two thirds of the planet not living in the rich world will be taking to their streets to demand that they do not have access to the consumer cornucopia that we have, and which we are using so effectively to destroy non-human life without even really noticing?

I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. Here I am writing to you on a laptop computer made of aluminium and plastic and rare earth metals, about to send you this e-mail via undersea cables using as electricity created by the burning of long-dead deposits of fossilised carbon. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25% of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.

I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it.

I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either. I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it.

How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.

Sometimes people say to me: ‘But you have children! How can you say all this? Don’t you want a better world for them?’ Other people say other things to me, things like: ‘We know this might not work, we know it’s a long shot — but it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than giving up!’ I find this kind of thing very telling, because what is actually being said is: ‘doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the something being done is ineffective and powered by wishful thinking!’ I don’t agree. Sometimes, I think stepping back to evaluate is a lot more useful than keeping on for the sake of keeping on.

I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine, for example. Some of the best projects I know of creating islands and corridors of wild nature and trying to keep them free from our exploitation. Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is a worthy cause if ever there was one: probably the most vital cause right now, I’d say. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. You asked me about hope for the future: the thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are — animals — and not what we believe we are — gods — gives me a kind of hope.

There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.

All the best,

. . .
From Wen Stephenson to Paul Kingsnorth

Hi Paul,

So, just as I sat down to write this reply, I reached for the remote to turn off the TV, and realized I was looking at a concert video of Arcade Fire. They were playing (I kid you not) their anthem “Wake Up” to an enormous outdoor crowd of beautiful bright-faced young people in Galicia, Spain, in 2010. As the camera panned over the audience, you could see that these kids were — what’s the word? — rapt? ecstatic? (Was religion in Europe ever this good? The band certainly seemed to relish a revivalist role.) But where will those young people be in twenty years? Thirty years? 50? And are they to blame for what’s in store? Those 20-year-olds? (I won’t even ask what responsibility the culture industry bears…. whoops, I just did.)

“Children … wake up.”

So, yeah, for whatever that’s worth.

I want to pause for a moment and emphasize what we have in common, before venturing another question or two about where we differ. I’ll try to keep this brief.

We agree that humanity is headed for a cliff, that climate change cannot be “solved,” if that means “stopped” or “prevented.” It’s too late for that. We have to live through it now, as best we can. I don’t claim to know with any certainty how close we are to the cliff, or how much time we have to prepare. I also, to be clear, still hold out the possibility (the hope?) that we’ll avoid going off it entirely. So, we’re heading for a cliff — whether we actually go into free fall, and how soon, remains to be seen.

We agree that human beings are, as Thoreau once wrote, “part and parcel of Nature.” You (and others) call this perspective ecocentric, but I dislike that term — it’s weighted toward the “eco-,” as something distinct from the human, the “anthro-,” and so still clings to a dualistic man-vs.-nature mindset. Personally, I value the human every bit as much as the non-human. I believe there are aspects of human civilization — “beauty,” “truth” — worth preserving and fighting for. I think you do as well. It may only be language that’s dividing us on this point.

We agree that the environmental movement, per se, for all its hard work and best intentions, has failed. (Never had a prayer, is more like it.) What I mean is, it has failed in the fight against climate change. Of course, it has won countless other battles, especially local ones, all around the world in the past 40 years and more, and I have great respect for those achievements. But climate is simply too great a challenge for the environmental movement, by itself, to tackle. I think this is largely because of its historic ecocentrism, which failed to inspire the sort of broad-based political movement necessary. This may explain why so many mainstream environmentalists (and climate campaigners, not always the same folks) have moved away from an ecocentric message.

Where I think we differ — and please correct me if I’m wrong — is that you are driven primarily by a desire to restore what you’d say is a proper relationship between humanity and non-human nature. (This is why, as I remarked at one point in an earlier exchange, your Dark Mountain Manifesto reminds me of the American jeremiad form, if you substitute nature for God: it suggests that the green movement betrayed its sacred covenant with nature, and must now return to the truth faith: ecocentrism.) And it’s as though you welcome an inevitable collapse in so far as it aids or hastens this correction. Am I wrong? But why should we think that collapse would do anything to improve humanity’s relationship to the non-human world?

While I believe correcting our relationship to the non-human is a noble ideal, I’m primarily driven — and I know plenty of others who are as well — by a desire to prevent as much suffering as possible in the decades to come. I guess I’m with Tim DeChristopher on this. As he tells Terry Tempest Williams, “I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people.” It’s a humanitarian imperative. As Bill McKibben and I recently discussed, the climate justice movement (and of course it exists, whether or not it’s “in the streets” at any given moment) has more in common with the 19th-century abolitionist movement than with modern environmentalism. It transcends environmentalism and environmental politics.

(And speaking of 19th-century abolitionism, Thoreau didn’t retreat from activism, as you say. He remained engaged even while living at Walden, and became even more so thereafter. He sheltered runaway slaves. He spoke forcefully in public. He championed John Brown and put his own body on the line. His awakening in nature led him back to society and to political activism. People think he was the first environmentalist — but he was at least as much a human-rights activist. His legacy is as much Gandhi and Martin Luther King as Greenpeace or EarthFirst!)

So it’s simply wrong to suggest that someone like Tim DeChristopher went to prison to save our consumer civilization — to save shopping malls. He went to prison to save lives. You might argue that his tactics are hopeless, that his radicalism is self-defeating — that could be a useful debate — but it doesn’t change his motivation, which is plenty clear. I take him at his word. And I hope you’ll take me at mine. (Not that I possess half DeChristopher’s courage.)

But the most important way in which we differ, I think, is on the question of what is to be done, right now, in the present moment, given the pressing reality that we face. We’re not going to stop global warming at this point. But we may still be able to preserve a livable planet. There’s every reason to think that a last-ditch effort to cut carbon emissions — together with serious adaptation efforts at all levels, and local grassroots movements to create resilient local communities — will help prevent or alleviate the suffering of countless numbers of people in the latter half of this century. People who will have done nothing to cause the situation they inherit. It’s not about sustaining our current lifestyles, or getting ourselves off the hook. For Christ’s sake, no. It’s about giving future generations a fighting chance. It’s about giving my own children — and everyone else’s — a fighting chance. It’s not their debt, but they’re the ones who will have to pay it. Don’t we owe them something?

So my question is, what would you have us do? If not something like what I’m suggesting (unoriginal as it may be) — rapid carbon mitigation at national and regional levels combined with serious adaptation and resilience-building at local levels — then what?

It’s not enough, if you ask me, to merely “look down.” We need to look up and out, too, and find the horizon. We owe it to those who come after us.

Peace to you,

. . .
From Paul Kingsnorth to Wen Stephenson

Hi Wen,

There is a lot I could say to you, but I’m having a strange sense of déjà vu. Three years ago, when we launched the Dark Mountain Project, I engaged in a debate very similar to this one in the Guardian newspaper here in Britain with its resident environmental writer George Monbiot. You might have heard of him. George took a very similar position to yours, though he took it much more aggressively, and we ended up arguing each other to a standstill. It was frustrating, which was my fault as much as his, and perhaps the fault of the format most of all. I have lost count of the number of ‘debates’ like this I have come across. I try not to get involved in them these days, because I think they generate much more heat than light.

So what am I doing here? Well, I think I’m talking to you because you are an open-minded writer. You don’t seem to be taking a position which you then feel obliged to defend. This seems less a debate than a conversation. You seem to be genuinely exploring this stuff, which is what I try to do these days. A question that interests me when I do explore it, especially with other people is: what’s going on behind the politics?

What I mean by that is that it seems to me that political arguments are mostly a cover for much deeper, psychological battles. When we argue about whether we like nuclear power or not, or whether we are liberal or conservative, or whether we believe in climate change or taxation or invading the Middle East, we are really arguing about our inherent worldview, our temperament, our psychology, our prejudices. Are we hopeful people, or are we cynical ones? What are our values, how do we see others, how do we balance community versus individual, freedom versus authority: all that stuff. All the stuff that makes us who we are and what we want the world to be. The facts, and the politics, are the decorations we use to make these deeper currents seem ‘rational’ in the eyes of others.

In that context, I wonder what it is that makes me so ‘ecocentric’, and you such a humanist? I wonder what fuels my sense of resignation, and my occasional sneaking desire for it all to come crashing down, and what fuels your powerful need for this thing called hope. I am struck by the title that you have given to this exchange: ‘Hope in the age of collapse’. Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whisky bottle. It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?

This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission give up hope. What I mean by that is that we help people get beyond the desperate desire to do something as impossibly as ‘save the Earth’, or themselves, and start talking about where we actually are, what is actually possible and where we are actually coming from. We have created a space, possibly accidentally, in which people gather who are disillusioned with our current cultural narratives. Not just the ‘business as usual’ narrative but the ‘sustainability’ narrative too. I find that a lot of campaigners are trapped in hope. I used to be. They believe - they feel pressured to believe, from within or without - that they must continue working to achieve goals which are plainly impossible, because not to do so would be to ‘give up hope’. What they are hoping for is never quite defined, but it’s clear that giving it up would lead to a very personal kind of collapse.

I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. Keep the lights on, keep the emails flowing, keep the nice bits of civilisation and lose the nasty ones; keep control of their narrative, the world they understand. Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult.

None of us knows what will happen, and I’m certainly not making any predictions. But whether or how this civilisation falls apart — and it looks to me like it is already happening — is, to me, less important than whether it takes the rest of nature with it. This seems to be the main place where you and I differ. The Tim DeChristopher quote which you use approvingly is something which divides us. I admire anyone who can go to prison for their beliefs (well, not anyone, it rather depends what those beliefs are) but I’m of the opinion that the last thing the world needs right now is more ‘humanitarians’. What the world needs right now is human beings who are able to see outside the human bubble, and understand that all this talk about collapse, decline and crisis is not just a human concern. The main victims of the disaster we have created in the name of development are not humans, they are the other lifeforms we are pushing into extinction by the day and the year. When I look to the future, the thing that frightens me most is not climate change, or the possibility of the lights going out in the lit-up parts of the world, it’s that we may keep this ecocidal civilisation going long enough to take everything down with it. And what really keeps me awake at night is the possibility that this civilisation could survive having destroyed 90% of the rest of life on Earth. I guess it would be possible, theoretically, in that situation to create a perfectly fair society of the kind of which you and TimDeChristopher would approve, but I wouldn’t want to live in it. I don’t suppose you would, either. You take my point.

I suspect I’m rambling. Perhaps Thoreau would approve. I wonder if he would approve of what either of us are saying? I find it interesting how Thoreau is interpreted by so many people. I don’t really see him as an ‘environmentalist’ at all, I see him as a spiritual explorer. After all, his Transcendentalism seems to have been what defined him most – that and his refusal to be slotted into anyone else’s boxes. What I think I like most about Henry David was his refusal to be bound by what other people constantly told him he ought to be doing.

This is how I feel when I am exhorted to get involved in politics again to try and save the world. Again, we should distinguish between the personal and the political. One reason I have ‘walked away’ from activism is because I want to concentrate more on my creative work. It’s what fulfils me most and it’s what I think I am best at. So that’s purely selfish. The other two reasons, as I’ve explained already, are straightforward enough. Firstly, I don’t think what you’re calling for will work (as an aside, I’m struck by the declaration you open this exchange with; it could have come from any report from any global eco-conference over the last 40 years. There have been so many. ‘Rio +20′ indeed! Another UN beanfest at which nothing will be agreed and nothing will be done. They’d all be better staying at home and saving on the carbon emissions). Secondly, I just don’t feel part of the ‘movement’ that is calling for it. I don’t feel part of it because its main concern is keeping humans happy. Everything else comes second. I don’t think we can afford this kind of mediaeval thinking any more.

At last, then, let me get to your question (thanks for bearing with me.) You ask me: ‘what would you have us do?’ My answer, which sounds a little like the kind of thing Thoreau would have written, is simple: do what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right. I’m not an evangelist; that’s one of the things I have walked away from. I can’t give myself to this supposed movement because it is not sustaining anything that I think is worth keeping. And I don’t think we will stop burning fossil fuels until there are none left. So: I don’t think it will work, and I suspect its motives. But I don’t expect anyone to follow me. I don’t want anyone to follow me. Who wants to be followed when they go out walking?

I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. I could make any number of soapboxey pronouncements or ‘demands’ here, but would it matter anyway? There is no shortage of hot air in the world. No shortage of demands, plans, insistent calls for more ‘action’ from people with no power to do anything at all to make it happen. Where has it got us? It’s twenty years since the Earth Summit. In that time, everything has got worse for the Earth. I wonder where ‘Rio +40′ will be held? Somewhere hot, I’m sure, with nice hotels and easy airport access.

You spoke in your last letter about a ‘covenant with nature’. You suggested I saw it as having been broken by humanity. I think it’s a lovely phrase, and I think it’s precisely what has happened. If you are uncomfortable with any religious or spiritual overtones which that idea might carry, you could just as easily see it through the lens of science. We had a very practical obligation, as a species, to maintain the ecosystems we found ourselves part of in some semblance of health and balance. We have spectacularly failed to do that. Now climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and, possibly, economic collapse are going to be the result. I don’t welcome any of this as a way to ‘restore balance.’ I’m not that naive. Collapses bring many things, but balance is rarely one of them, at least initially. Still, I think that’s where we are. Covenant broken; consequences upon us. It’s too late to start worrying about the approaching army when it’s already encircled the city.

I feel I have to respond to all of this by giving up hope, so that I can instead find some measure of reality. So I’ve let hope fall away from me, and wishful thinking too, and I feel much lighter. I feel now as if I am able to look more honestly at the way the world is, and what I can do with what I have to give, in the time I have left. I don’t think you can plan for the future until you have really let go of the past.

Here’s to more exploration,

. . .

From Wen Stephenson to Paul Kingsnorth


Thanks so much for this. It’s lovely. It’s heartfelt. I appreciate the tone and tenor of it so much more than your first response. I feel you’re no longer giving me the Dark Mountain “platform,” no longer “debating,” but are really speaking to me as yourself, as one human being to another. If nothing else, I find hope in honest human connection, even technologically mediated!

I’m not sure we can bridge the serious differences you’ve rightly identified, but I’d simply offer that my “humanitarian” impulse doesn’t preclude caring deeply about what happens to the non-human world. I don’t see it as an either/or proposition.

And we finally agree about HDT! I think you’re absolutely right in what you say. And trust me, it’s his spiritual search that I’ve always thought is the key to understanding him — and to coming to grips with our crisis. Thats what my personal essay, “Walking Home From Walden” (which led to my blogging here at Thoreau Farm in the first place), is all about.

Hope. I can understand the need to let go of “hope,” conventionally defined. But I think what you’re doing here is redefining it — for yourself, at least, and maybe for others gathering with you for your dark mountain trek. If you want to jettison the word altogether, as a piece of that past we must let go of, very well. But you’ve clearly found something — or at least started the search for something! — which keeps you going. And who am I to take that away from you or anyone?



p.s. I’m heading up to Concord and the Farm this morning, along with my Transition Wayland colleague Kaat Vander Straeten, to meet with one of the farmers at Gaining Ground — the community food project that shares the Thoreau Farm property and donates all of its produce to hunger-relief in this area (yes, shamefully, hunger in America). I plan to volunteer there this season, and bring my son and daughter along. As I wrote in my very first post on this blog, I can’t imagine a better neighbor to Henry’s birthplace: a small, organic farm with a social conscience. And as you like to say, it’s good to write with some dirt under our fingernails. I have no doubt Henry would agree.

[Author's note: I offered Paul the final word here, but he felt this was a good place to conclude the conversation. I hope others have found it useful. Please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.]

 See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Confessions of an Environmentalist 1/8/12
 Ea O Ka Aina: Industiral Apocalypse - Kingsnorth vs Monbiot 8/17/09