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.
- “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.