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Terms of dismissal

I don’t think I’ve ever met a collapsitarian. At least if I have, they’ve never admitted it to me. It’s possible that some of my best friends may be collapsitarians in the privacy of their own homes, just as they may also be, in their own time and strictly in confidence, devotees of bestial porn or the novels of Jeffrey Archer. But it’s never come out in public. The same is true of doomers. I keep hearing about these people. Apparently they’re all around us. From what I can tell they’re a sort of political goth. They’re terribly difficult and probably socially inadequate. In a world free of austerity they would be entitled to psychiatric help, but these are straitened times.

But then I probably just don’t get out enough. These days I spend most of my time closeted on my hill farm reading Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and oiling my shotgun. For this reason I have never run into a nimby or a nihilist either. Self-declared reactionaries are also thin on the ground. Fascists are certainly in evidence here and there – I have one as my MEP – but they do seem to be considerably fewer in number than some would have me believe.

This is odd, because in the last year I have been called all of these things and more. I never knew it was possible to be, for example, a utopian nihilist. I would have thought that the varying political demands of being a fascist, a Romantic, a conservative and an anarchist all at the same time would be simply exhausting, not to mention contradictory. Apparently not.

When we wrote the Dark Mountain manifesto we knew that, if anyone read it at all, some people would hate it. Quite a lot of people, in all likelihood, given the challenges it laid down. ‘If you want to be popular’ we wrote, ‘it is probably best not to get involved, for the world, for a time, will resoultely refuse to listen.’ If we’re right about nothing else, we were right about that. Extreme reactions, from all over the spectrum, have been a feature of the response to Dark Mountain. For every email we get from someone telling us they’ve been waiting for us all their life, there’s a blog post by someone else calling us names. I find the name-calling very interesting, and have been musing on it a lot.

What we are dealing with here is what we might calls Terms Of Dismissal – let’s call them ‘TODs’ for short. TODs are a crucial feature of all political and cultural debate. Humans are social creatures and tribal animals. We exhibit a need, apparent in every human culture, both to band together with others and to mark ourselves out from other, opposing tribes. This behaviour spills over into politics daily, where it is disguised, often very thinly, as rational disagreement about policies or positions.

The function of TODs is to delineate tribes, so that other tribes may be easily dismisssed without the need to respond seriously to any arguments they might be making. TODs are, in effect, the grown-up equivalent of the kind of names you called each other in the playground. Remember when being called a horrible name at school would stop you in your tracks? Remember the inadequacy of that old saying about sticks and stones? Being called names is nasty. Calling people names, conversely, is very effective. We’ve all done it. It’s easier, and far more common, than engaging seriously and decently with people whose worldview you don’t share.

Take, for example, the increasingly polarised world of US politics: it’s almost the perfect example. The USA seems to me at present – as an admittedly outside observer who gets most of his information from various imperfect media sources – to be a land in which even pretences of rational disagreement are being abandoned in favour of angry tribal entrenchment. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the end of the American republic in any meaningful sense in my lifetime, and I wouldn’t be surprised either to see its slide to the hard right continue until it becomes something very nasty indeed. After all, this the most powerful and heavily-armed empire in world history, and it’s in increasingly precipitate decline.

But anyway: the point is that this country is currently so angrily polarised that TODs almost count as political debate. If you support Obama’s healthcare package, for example, you will be dismissed as a ‘socialist’ by millions of people. There is nothing objectively socialist about anything Obama does, but objectivity is not the point. This is a term of dimissal, remember. It’s dog-whistle politics: calling someone a socialist signals to millions of other people that they are not to be listened to. They are on the Dark Side. They are not One Of Us.

The same function is served on the left by the word ‘fascist’ (or, over here, the words ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘neoliberal’, which seem to be interchangeable.) Call someone a fascist and it’s pretty much debate over: after all, who wants to be seen having polite discussions with someone who wears jackboots and glorifies the master race? If you don’t like environmentalists, you call them ‘sandal-wearers’ or ‘Romantics’ or ‘hippies,’ or maybe just ‘communists.’ If environmentalists don’t like you they might call you a ‘corporate stooge’ or even a ‘nimby’ (ironically, since this is a term dreamt up by a corporate PR machine with the express purpose of discrediting environmentalists.) And so on.

Dark Mountain has had plenty of TODs thrown at it over the last year. We can’t really complain, and we shouldn’t blow our own trumpet too much either. Anyone who writes or speaks about the likelihood of a depleted future, and the false hope peddled by those whose various schemes for avoiding it are looking more ragged by the day, will be showered in TODs. TODs come into play when things are being said that are a threat to the inherent psychological assumptions of the listener. If you talk about the likely crumbling of our way of life, and ongoing crumbling ecosystems of the Earth on which we depend, you will have TODs thrown at you like rocks. Some of them will be from the business-as-usual crowd, but others will be from people who consider themselves campaigners for change, mainstream (albeit corporate) greens, and even radicals. Sometimes their tone will be mocking and sometimes it will be pious: they will huff and puff and call you ‘irresponsible’ for daring to publicly discuss what you believe to be the facts. You will find that your very desire to discuss these things, precisely because they are difficult, is not only called into question but is violently attacked.

There are all sorts of undercurrents at play here. One of them is that many people who consider themselves to be radical opponents of the status quo are nothing of the sort. George Orwell famously wrote, with typical over-statement, that ‘every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a 
secret conviction that nothing can be changed’ and there’s certainly some of this going on today. It’s easy to rail against ‘the system’ if you think the system will always be there to rail against. If you start to believe that it might actually crumble, exposing you and yours to something much more uncertain and horrible, you may, in a very short time, find yourself converted into a reluctant but stout defender of the strength and vitality of the status quo. I’ve seen this happening to a few prominent green voices in the last couple of years, and there’ll be more of it to come.

But the main point, I think, is this: that when you are called a ‘doomer’ or a ‘collapsitarian’ or a ‘miserabalist’ or any of the other playground names that are currently doing the rounds, it is not you that is being attacked: it is the facts which are piling up to illustrate what is happening around us. I am currently reading Bill McKibben’s new book Eaarth, which I strongly recommend: it’s an important book, not least because it’s the first time that a prominent mainstream green writer has broken ranks. I’ll write more about it here when I’ve finished it, but McKibben’s essential point is that decline is already with us and that our task now is not to try and prevent the decline of industrial civilisation but to do our best to manage the descent.

The first third of McKibben’s book wraps up all the evidence you could possibly need to make this case, with hundreds of references. He explains the over-complexity of industrial systems, makes a strong case for peak oil and the inability of alternatives to fossil fuels to sustain anything like current levels of western comfort, looks at the likely retrenchment of economic globalisation and, most of all, scares the shit out of you with the ongoing realities of climate change which, in almost every single studied case, is moving much faster and more alarmingly than scientists had imagined. Climate change, says McKibben is not, as so much empty rhetoric would have it, a scary legacy that will face ‘our grandchildren’ if we don’t ‘act now.’ It was a problem for our parents: they didn’t tackle it, neither will we and the result is to all intents and purposes a new planet: one which will not act the way the Earth has acted for the 10,000 years in which we built our various civilisations. All bets on the future are off. It’s too late to go back.

I read and talk a lot about this stuff, but Eaarth still scares me. Part of me would like to be able to insult McKibben: throw some TODs at him and hope he goes away. But he’s too canny a writer and too good a researcher for that. That won’t stop some people trying. The ironic thing, for me, is that both ‘doomers’ and anti-doomers seem to want certainty. Doomers apparently long for the apocalypse. They want revenge on the world, or they want poor people to die, or they want to lead a revolution to erase the memory of their teenage acne (the tenor of the cod psychology at this point will depend upon the imagination and personal background of the name-caller.) Their critics, conversely, long to be told that everything will work out fine: that the life they know will keep on keeping on, that the tech will save us as it always has, that those who think it won’t are motivated by sour motives, or are just idiots.

The third possibility – that of a decline, painful and in many ways horrible, but far from unprecedented and also presenting opportunities – is the hardest notion of all to consider. It requires hard thinking, and action to negotiate challenges, and it doesn’t offer up any easy answers. It means that there’s no ‘cleansing catastrophe’ and no voyages to the stars. It might not work, and we don’t know how it will pan out. Neither pieties nor rude words can help negotiate it.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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