The Dark Enlightenment and the Eco Fringe

Paleo Retiree writes:

Fair warning: the following posting contains a substantial number of old-fart musings. Surf elsewhere now if your tolerance for such behavior is low.

Hard to believe, given its gooey and sanctimonious reputation today, but back in the 1980s the environmental world was throwing off the kind of buzz that today’s online Dark Enlightenment world is. The mainstream movement (Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, etc) hadn’t yet sold out completely to the Democratic Party, and the fringes were downright crackling with excitement and exuberance. Activists, writers and thinkers like Peter Berg, Dave Foreman, Arne Naess, Bill Devall and many, many others were up to a lot of seriously trenchant mischief, attacking shared pieties and undermining polite assumptions at a very deep level. It was a crazy, far-out, head-banging era. Underground publications like the Earth First! Journal and its even-more-radical spinoff Live Wild Or Die were kickass delights that I looked forward to in the way I looked forward to the next Gang of Four release.

(I don’t want to make too much of my own involvement in the eco-fringe, by the way. I was at best on the fringes of the fringe, and I was infinitely more caught up in the reading-and-writing-and-thinking end of things than the activist end. Nonetheless: I did attend meetings, I did disguise myself and romp in protest through Wall Street, I did study up on a lot of biology, and I did get to know some people in the movement.)

These days, I love tracking and exploring the Dark Enlightenment, and it’s great fun to steer a few people to provocative examples of it. There’s a buzz happenin’ there that reminds me of the buzz I felt from the old eco-fringe. I confess, though, that my own appreciation of the DE is partly aesthetic: “Wow,” I marvel, “is this part of the world ever fizzy with energy, insight, contributions and brains!” It’s heartening to see bright people throwing off the shackles of conventional thought and discover a larger world extending beyond what the newspapers, profs and elites want us to be aware of. And, opportunistically speaking, I know perfectly well that one of my strengths as a culture-observin’ blogger is simply being a radar screen: “Hey, come on over and take look at this! There’s something going on here!”

As to the content of the Dark Enlightenment: while I’m very sympathetic to the critique it offers, I’m less thrilled by the positive side of the vision. I respect the vision, I’m just not moved by it. The DE’s proposed replacement for modern liberal society strikes me as, to be blunt, pretty stuffy. Now, I certainly do have my own reactionary sides and tastes. (Part of what’s great about being an anarchist is that you get to be open to what you think is worthwhile in all traditions and schools. It’s the team-that-is-not-a-team.) My own stuffiness comes out most strongly where architecture and urbanism go. If people were to plan and build in traditional ways, our shared physical spaces and lives would be many times more pleasing and soul-nourishing than they currently are. I don’t know how that statement can be disputed; even modernists have admitted that modernism has contributed to making a terrible mess of public space. I often wonder: Where architecture-and-urbanism goes, why is “design innovation” needed at all? (Leon Krier is the genius of the reactionary wing of the architecture and urbanism world. Check him out.) And I’m definitely open to the notion that a truly conservative society — fair warning: I’m not talking “Republican,” I’m talking “paleo conservative” — would be one that would suit most people a lot better than present-day liberal society does.

Me, though … Well, I’m not most people. So far as life-in-civilization goes, my tastes and pleasures are generally pretty darned bohemian. So far as the basics go: I don’t have kids; I have a modest but still hard-to-ignore nature-boy side; my religion, such as it is, isn’t Western; and I delight in science without thinking that it can, or ever will, supply all the answers. In other words: When in civilization, I relish the deracinated quality of life there; and when I want to connect with rooted things, I’m more likely to turn to nature than to history.

As a consequence, I resonate to the positive vision offered up by the extreme eco world — a vision called bioregional anarchism. Short version: let things fall apart, then let them re-grow along patterns based in biology. It’s all about the human scale, baby. Some links to explore for the curious: Leopold Kohr. Kirkpatrick Sale.

Still, there’s a lot of overlap here. Part of what the bioregional-anarchist and the DE movements share is a reaction — horror-struck, amazed, bewildered, disbelieving, amused — to life in modern “liberal” society. Another part of what they share is a desire for some kind of rootedness. The ground of the Dark Enlightenment vision is tradition (and the findings of evo-bio); the basis of the eco vision might be said to be the ground itself — biology, nature. Of course, tradition and nature are both organic things. And both movements express a yearning for a life that’s more of a direct outgrowth of genuine and deeper things than what we currently experience. That’s a yearning that’s been a longtime companion of mine.

By the early 1990s, the fizz had started to go out of the eco-fringe. A few bombs went off where they shouldn’t have. The FBI and the courts scared some people silly. Many early participants decided that the time had come to re-enter the mainstream and have families. The drippy, leftie, “social justice” crowd — politically-driven scholars, animal-rights activists and eco-feminists, mainly — took over the movement. By the mid-late 1990s, earnest, concerned faces had almost completely replaced cranky and mischievous ones; Deep Ecology stopped being an eye-opening provocation and turned into a very wet and draggy laughingstock. For a fan and onetime participant, it has been a sad process — like watching the punk rock world morph into a voter-registration booth at Lillith Fair.

Ah well: The high is great while it lasts but it never does seem to last. Gotta get used to that fact, I guess. A few other stretches of peak cultural exhilaration from my own lifetime: early rock ‘n’ roll, the ’70s movie world, Motown, skateboard style, the early days of blogging and Flickr, ‘zine culture, punk rock, early-digital-era graphic design … All of them took off like rockets; none have sustained their own energy.

Does a similar fate await the Dark Enlightenment? Will it run out of gas and turn into something frozen and laughable? If my antennae are still good, the DE is still on the upswing. It should be fun to track it for a while yet.

Bonus links

  • “If a Tree Falls” (available on Netflix streaming) is a pretty good low-budget documentary that offers a glimpse of the what remained of the eco-fringes by the 1990s.
  • You don’t hear much about Edward Abbey today, but in his time (he died in 1989) he was a giant: a gifted fiction-creator (a novel of his, “The Monkeywrench Gang,” was an inspiration for Earth First!), a brilliant essayist (“Desert Solitaire” is in a class with the best of Thoreau and D.H. Lawrence where nature-poetry-in-prose goes, IMHO), and a spikey, ornery public figure and controversialist. He pissed a lot of people off while thrilling many others. Check out this brilliant essay about immigration for a sample of his polemical style. 
  • Wikipedia’s entry on Deep Ecology is informative and useful where the facts go but fails to evoke the crackle-and-excitement angle that I’m emphasizing in this posting. Its entry on Earth First! is much better.
  • Dave Foreman’s 1991 book “Confessions of an Eco-Warrior” looks back on the all-too-brief halcyon days of the eco-fringe.
  • What kind of anarchist are you? Me: 95% anarcho-primitivist.
  • Here’s Nick Lind’s loonnngggg essay about the Dark Enlightenment.
  • John Derbyshire’s blogposting about the DE is a treasure trove of tips and links.
  • The baffling and fascinating Mencius Moldbug remains a key DE figure. He started out as a genius blog-commenter; one of my proudest moments as a blogger came when I got him to pull some thoughts together and write his very first blogposting.
  • For dependably urbane yet trenchant reaction, it’s hard to beat Foseti and Slumlord.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Personal reflections, Politics and Economics, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Dark Enlightenment and the Eco Fringe

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:
  2. I’m 80% anarcho-capitalist, 50% anarcho-syndicalist. I only know anarcho-syndicalism from the “constitutional peasant” scene from Monty Python’s HOLY GRAIL. Might be time to wikipedia that.

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  3. Judith Sears says:

    I’ve never even heard of Dark Enlightenment, so now I’m going to have to look into it.

    Excepting for really admiring a nice view and enjoying a good hike, don’t have much nature girl in me. More inclined to history.

    Really wrote this comment to add this footnote: through an online internship for a H’wood prodco, I did coverage on a script by William Goldman that was an adaptation of the the Monkeywrench Gang. Don’t remember the details now and seem to have lost most of what I wrote. The bottom line was, clever and professional as Goldman’s writing was, the upshot of the story was – these folks blew something up (the Hoover dam?), so that now they didn’t have to think they were just talkers, they were do-ers, they got away with it and managed a ‘happily ever after’ in the form of a cosy, rural, home-steading life, and nothing actually changed. They went on without the world, the world went on in spite of them. Sentimental and, in the end, perfectly bourgeois, I don’t care if they were hippies smoking dope.

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    • I don’t know about the script, but the novel is basically a wish-fulfillment romp for eco-anarchists. I seem to recall that Carroll Ballard (who made “The Black Stallion”) was once trying to make the movie. Too bad it didn’t get made. I wonder what his take on the material would have been.

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  5. rjnagle says:

    Now the emphasis is less on maintaining a lifestyle but opposing climate change. It has the single agenda of eliminating the fossil fuel industry. Ironically, the defeat of the climate change bill by the Senate in 2010 energized all environmental activists everywhere. We realized that we needed to be effective at politics because WE HAD TO WIN. Losing was simply not an acceptable alternative because of the high stakes. So the movement had tried to become as mainstream as possible. You may find this hard to believe if you don’t pay attention, but climate change activists have been making a very effective nonviolent protest campaign in some of the most Republican states like Texas. They are hardcore, articulate and well-trained; slowly they are making a difference (focusing so far on only the pipeline blockade and fracking).

    As for me, I’m a Johnny-come-lately to environmental activism. I had read a lot of stuff in the 1990s and 2000s, but it was Obama’s re-election and reading a few articles that made it clear how dire the situation was. Ironically, I’m not that much of a nature lover — I’m quite comfortable in the city — though perhaps I wouldn’t mind a return to pre-industrial living.

    By the way, are you aware of the movie “No Impact Man”? It’s on Netflix streaming and about a young couple in Manhattan who decide not to buy any consumer goods for a year. The movie was a great thought experiment, and the accompanying book was profound.

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  6. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    But Lonely Are the Brave with Kirk Douglas was an adaptation of an early novel of his, and it’s not a half bad encapsulation of the overall Abbey vision. Typical Abbey touch is that the cowboy-maverick hero gets run over by a truck hauling toilets in the end.

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    • It wasn’t half-bad, was it? I’m surprised that more of his novels haven’t been turned into movies. As a novel-writer he wasn’t great, but he could certainly cook up some filmable yarns.

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  7. Here’s a song inspired by The Monkeywrench Gang for your enjoyment:

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    • Fun, tks. There used to be a club in downtown NYC called Wetlands that catered to a rollickin’ eco-Greenie crowd. Got a little hippie-dippie for me, but I saw some good shows there.

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  9. totalesturns says:

    Thank goodness! I thought I was the only one.

    I’m a couple generations younger than you are, but as a teenage punk rocker and SWPL undergraduate in the late nineties, I gravitated towards green anarchism and the decentralist fringe of the left — Sale, Wendell Berry, John Zerzan, etc.

    There’s a suppressed element of identity politics in green ideology as practiced by the SWPL caste. The dream of autochtonous regionalism, and the watered-down yuppie versions that libarts grads practice once they get real jobs (farmers’ markets, local food, craft brewing, etc.) are a way for educated whites to articulate a desire for identity, tradition and communal belonging without stepping too far off the left-wing resevation.

    You also touch on an important point — many of the original enviros, guys like Abbey, Gary Snyder and Dave Foreman, weren’t the epicene tofu-scramblers of South Park stereotype, they were blue collar guys or dropout lifers hardened by actual outdoor jobs as loggers, rangers etc. And even a lot of the middle-class college kids I knew during my time in the scene were typically whitewater rafters, rock climbers or serious hikers — fit, intense guys who were alpha by any reasonable definition (and had the willowy, ethereal girlfriends to prove it.)

    There’s a lot of interesting work to be done cross-pollinating green ideas with the Dark Enlightenment — fixing the urban public schools by looking the IQ/behavior gap in the eye would go a long way towards solving the problem of suburban sprawl. How many people would WANT to live in a strip mall desert (as opposed to a human-scaled traditional urban neighborhood or inner ring suburb) if it weren’t for the “good schools”?

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    • That’s a great tale with a lot of great observations, tks for sharing it. That whole alpha/blue-collar/biology-scientist/anti-“liberal” side of the eco-anarchy world seems to have been forgotten, hasn’t it? (Or am I — shudder — just out of touch?)

      Bonus link: Edward Abbey’s shitkicking piece on immigration and liberal taboos.

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  10. The Sweatlands! Being a left coaster I’ve never been but the place, which closed a number of years back, is legendary in the jamband scene. It was founded by a couple of hard-core lefties, I’m not sure which flavor. The guy who co-founded it, Larry Bloch is his name I think, died a few years ago.

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