What is the point of art? What is the point of writing? In particular, what is the point of those things in a world that is changing as rapidly as ours is today, and in which the challenges, from dealing with climate change to fighting off the impacts of global consumer economy, seem so huge?
I am a writer, so I come to this question with an agenda. Still, my answer is a forceful one: these things are vital. We live in a culture in which art, poetry, music, and all such expressions of myth and story are sidelined. Our culture is scientific, economic, materialist, rational. We regard art as little more than entertainment. No past culture has taken this dismissive view of creativity and imagination. I believe it is one of the reasons we are in such cultural trouble.
When I look around me, I don't see much writing, visual art or music in the so-called 'mainstream' engaging with the realities of the world we currently live in: a world of climate change, peak oil, population overshoot, mass extinction and economic disintegration. What I see instead is art merrily trundling along the rails of a consumer entertainment culture, heading nowhere important, saying nothing much to anyone. I see the sidelining of the imagination at a time when it should be more important than ever.
In 2009, I co-founded what was intended to be a fairly modest little group of writers who wanted to use their talents to challenge this situation. I wanted to bring together people who believed that telling stories was going to be as important as tilling fields, as we stumble into a post-consumer age. Out of this determination came a slim pamphlet called Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto. It was crowdfunded on the internet and launched at a small riverside gathering in Oxford, and it called for a new kind of writing and art which would interrogate the founding myths of our culture.
The call we put out with our manifesto was answered much quicker and much more widely than we had expected. Around the world, thousands of people came together to support what we were doing. We had raised a flag that many people were more than ready to gather around. It turned out there were many talented writers and artists who agreed with our assessment of the state of the world and the state of art. Together, we built up the Dark Mountain Project.
What is this curiously named beast? Put simply, it is an attempt to help engineer some radical and much-needed cultural shifts. The ethos is simple. We believe that all cultures are built on stories, and that when the stories fail the cultures fail. Or it could be the other way around. Either way, the tales you tell yourself and the myths you buy into about who you are and what you believe, are at the root of where you will end up going.
The myths of our modern post-Enlightenment culture are stark enough: we believe in inevitable technological progress, we believe in the centrality of human beings, we believe in objective science, we believe in achieving utopia through economic growth and we believe in the triumph of reason. All of these myths are questionable, and some of them on busily collapsing before our eyes. But they are what we were all taught at school. They are the stories we have internalised, and that we grew up with.
What should we do about that? The Dark Mountain suggestion is that if our stories are failing we should find different ones, either by excavating them from the past and adapting them for the present, or by creating new ones. We are clearly at a time in history when our stories are not working. What will the new ones look like? This is what we aim to find out. And this is the job of artists and creative people.
The vehicle through which we have done this so far is our annual anthologies of what our manifesto called 'uncivilised writing'. Every year, we produce a 300-page hardback book crammed with poems, stories, essays, drama, photographs, visual art and other things which are not so easily pinned down by such categories. Contributors come from across the world. Our latest book, which was published last week, has contributions from the United States, Ireland, India, the UK, Australia and Sweden. It includes essays about the changing face of Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, interviews with primitivist philosophers and Mexican intellectuals, poetry by the dead and the living, travel writing about Hawaiian volcanoes and the Bornean forests, and ruminations on everything from butterflies to the fall of the Roman Empire.
What always fascinates me most about the process of editing these books is how such a diversity of contributions ends up, almost accidentally, to coalesce around a few clear themes. I'm not sure this is our doing: it seems to me that there are writers and artists all over the world who have known for years what the true state of the world is and have been producing work which honestly looks it straight in the eye without any self-deception. What Dark Mountain has done is simply provide them with a home and a place to be heard.
What started off as an idea from a modest project has spiralled for me, into something that has taken over much of my life for the last four years. It's not always been easy, but I have probably learned more in this time than at any other period of my life. One of the things I have learned is that writing alone is not quite enough. For somebody who grew up with his head in the book, this has been a painful lesson; but it looks to me as if, without a physical space for people to come together and discuss the ideas around our books, our work would lack some kind of centre; some kind of heart.
For this reason, we have ended up, almost accidentally, running a summer festival at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. After three days of talks, discussions, music, art and ritual in the middle of 50 acres of woodland, many of us go away with enough stimulation to last us for the next year. This year's festival, which takes place next month, features storyteller Martin Shaw exploring the value of myth, barefoot running and wild herb walks in the woods, 'moneyless man' Mark Boyle on the Wild Economy, the construction of a Life Cairn for extinct species, lessons in lacto-fermenting and wild papermaking, discussions about Ivan Illich, fireside stories and music under the stars. As with our books, the diversity of voices can sometimes be almost overwhelming – but it somehow coalesces to form a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.
The Dark Mountain project has only succeeded because of what people have brought to it, and that will always be the case. If any of what I have written here resonates with you, I'd invite you to come to our festival next month, to get hold of a copy of our new book, or simply to get in touch with us and say hello.
I would say this, I know, but I think we are on to something important. Sometimes I sit by a fire at one of our gatherings and I imagine I can almost see the new stories beginning to form tentatively in the air around me. I think – I hope – that we have only just got going.