The rising of the waters

February 21, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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I grew up in the south of England. It is where my family comes from and has lived for centuries. It is my heritage, and wherever I go, it will be in me. This is what your culture does to you: there is no escape from the sediment it leaves within. It is best to get to the point where you don’t need to escape.

The south of England of my childhood, and young adulthood, was overcrowded, mostly suburban, crawling with motorways and spreading chain stores; its old human culture was shrinking away. But still, it had frosty downs, green hills, white fields, hedges of blackthorn and woodbine, chalk carvings, ancient barrows, bluebell woods and small, old pubs. Our ancestral home, or our childhood place, stirs conflicting feelings in us. I once wrote a book which, in retrospect, seemed to be trying to reconcile those feelings with each other.

The place you grow up seems, if you are lucky, to be a solid one. I wanted to escape those suburbs and motorways for years, and I did, in the end. But they always had an aura of agelessness about them. The south of England seemed an eternal place. It saw off Hitler and Napoleon and revolutions and strikes and wars, and the ‘invincible green suburbs’, as Orwell famously called them, never seemed likely to fall.

But what the dictators couldn’t do, the waters can. For the last few weeks, the south of England has been flooded, to a degree that hasn’t been seen for years – even though ‘the floods’ have become, quietly unacknowledged, an annual event now. Gradually, quietly but entirely inexorably, everything I knew is sinking.

This is Worcester, where I was born:

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This is Oxford, where I lived for fifteen years. Behind that iron fence on the left is my old allotment:

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This is Marlow, where I used to go fishing on the Thames. I never caught anything:

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This is Muchelney on the Somerset levels: I’ve been here every year for the last five years or so, for the annual Scythe Festival, because this is the kind of thing I do in my spare time. I’m not sure there’ll be any grass this year:

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Sometimes I feel like I’m being stalked. But I’m lucky: I don’t live in these places anymore. I live in the North of England now, and I’ve made sure I don’t live near a river. Many people have not been so fortunate.

I’ve been tracking the BBC reports on the flooding, and it was only yesterday, to my knowledge, that the dam finally cracked, and a discussion about climate change actually began. A spokesperson from the Met Office dutifully repeated what climate scientists and meteorologists have been saying for decades: no, it’s not possible to link specific weather events to climate change definitively, but yes, this fits with the pattern of weather changes that were predicted. In fact, it is all happening faster than was expected. Weather patterns around the globe are going haywire, and that’s not going to change now. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is at record levels, and we are continuing to pump the stuff up there at an accelerating pace. From here on in, it is all change; to what degree and at what speed, we have no idea.

We are not in control, and we don’t like it.

What is interesting to me personally is to see this hitting the south of England so hard. For a long time, environmentalists have been telling us that it is the poor who will be hit hardest by climate change. Of course, they are right in many ways. The flooding of Bangladesh is going to be much worse for its people than the flooding of England. Nevertheless, what we can see here is people in one of the richest countries in the world taking the full force of the climate shift that is now beginning. It has been happening elsewhere for a long time; it will keep happening, everywhere. This is just my small, local perspective on a shift that is taking place across the planet. The reality of that shift – of its scale, likely depth and inevitability – is only just beginning to seep into the public consciousness. But like the flood waters, it can’t be held back. In the end, it will cover everything.

How are people responding? Mostly, they are blaming the government and the Environment Agency. This is a tried and tested response throughout human history: when things go wrong, blame the elites. This applies even if you had no complaints about the same elites when the money was flowing in your direction just a few years before. Hence today, few people are blaming climate change, and even fewer people are blaming their own actions. But how many of us who are or who will be flooded in countries like this fly off on regular holidays to the sun, or drive unnecessarily large cars, or own or aspire to big houses full of consuming and polluting gadgets? Most people, probably. We’ve been brought up to believe that this is progress, after all. Well, here is progress turning around to eat us. Nobody is safe now from being consumed.

But there’s something else here as well, which is worth reflecting on. Since we set out on the Dark Mountain expedition five years ago, we have published much writing analysing the twin poles of Progress and Apocalypse which our civilisation is so hooked on. When we talk of the future, which we so often do, it is easy for us to cleave to one of these poles. Depending on our ideological bent, we find it very comfortable, and very easy, to see either a total collapse of society, or a Star Trek-like progress to the stars. It is easy to imagine that what we currently call progress will continue in the same direction, until everyone in the world is a car-driving consumer with a flight to the moon booked for their holiday. It is equally easy, and strangely comforting, to imagine everything falling apart in rapid period of time; a total and immediate collapse, from which there will be no recovery.

What is much harder – what seems almost impossible sometimes – is to imagine a gradual grinding down of our civilisation. What is harder it is to imagine another century of floods, with the waters rising higher every year. No apocalypse and no bases on Mars. No industrial collapse followed by a return to hunter gathering, and no Singularity either. Just a gradual, messy, winding-down of everything we once believed we were entitled to. The American writer John Michael Greer wrote an interesting blog post about this recently, with a similar take on this coming reality:

… imagine that this is your future: that you, personally, will have to meet ever-increasing costs with an income that has less purchasing power each year; that you will spend each year you still have left as an employee hoping that it won’t be your job’s turn to go away forever, until that finally happens; that you will have to figure out how to cope as health care and dozens of other basic goods and services stop being available at a price you can afford, or at any price at all; that you will spend the rest of your life in the conditions I’ve just sketched out, and know as you die that the challenges waiting for your grandchildren will be quite a bit worse than the ones you faced.

This possibility, for the population of the rich world at least, is somehow more terrifying than apocalypse, yet we don’t want to talk about it. What would happen if we did?

What would happen if we took it seriously – as something to write about, think about, imagine, engage with? Make no mistake: to do that is to re-imagine our attitudes to the future. It is to walk away from those twin poles and stand in an uncertain place between them; a real place, where no easy answers are forthcoming. What happens if we make a conscious effort to go beyond the comforting fantasies of both endless progress and inevitable apocalypse, and take this grinding-down seriously? What if this is your future, and that of your children and theirs? How does your worldview change?

This is the question we are putting to you as we open submissions for Dark Mountain book 6. Imagine this future. Write about it. Create art about it. Use it as a jumping-off point for your creative response. If you are tempted by the twin daemons of Progress or Apocalypse, push them away, and watch the waters rising instead.

These are the questions we offer to you as we ask for submissions for our sixth collection of uncivilised writing and art. Take them, do with them what you will, and send us the results.We look forward to seeing your responses to the rising of the waters.

Dark Mountain book 6 will appear in October of this year (book 5 is currently being typeset and will hit the streets in April.) The deadline for submissions is Sunday, 4 May 2014. Please read our submissions guidelines before you send us any work.

Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth is a writer who founded the Dark Mountain Project by accident one day in the pub and is still dealing with the consequences. As well as being the Project’s editorial director, he is also the author of two books of non-fiction and a collection of poetry, and a new novel. There is more about this, and various other things, on his own website. 

Tags: catabolic collapse, climate change, climate change adaptation, flooding