Dark ecology and a narcissistic society

Facing catastrophe

Dark ecology: searching for truth in a post-green world, in the current issue of Orion, reads like a dark mirror. I glimpse my own pessimism enhanced by deep reflections of Paul Kingsnorth. The essayist says technological civilization is bound for an inevitable catastrophe.

If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.

Society cannot avert disaster because it is addicted to technology. He discusses progress traps, a term coined by author Ronald Wright to describe social or technological advances that seem to offer short-term improvements but ultimately make matters worse. For example, Kingsnorth refers to genetically-modified foods, which promise an illusory solution to hunger and poverty. He points to growing ranks of neo-environmentalists who embrace technological change as the path to a better world. Throughout the essay, the scythe appears as an example of appropriate technology, and symbol of independent, thoughtful action.

What is inappropriate technology? It is any tool that forces us to depend on the industrial network of increasingly specialized, disengaged, unsympathetic and nonhuman workers. It is anything we cannot master and cannot imagine surviving without.

As a writer, I might be helpless without my laptop. I would be at a loss to reach any audience without it, but I can never master it. Without Microsoft, Google and the Total Protection Plan from Future Shop, the computer would be useless. Fortunately Kingsnorth does not ask us to give up our computers, though he advocates spending more time away from them.

What can prevent the catastrophe of environmental degradation and societal collapse? Nothing: Kingsnorth recommends several points of action that will prevent us from wasting our time, such as, “Preserving nonhuman life.” But above all, the only way to address the social disaster already upon us, is to stop engaging with those trying to use technology to prevent it. His call to action is to withdraw.

If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray.

A recent personal experience gave me insight to this approach. I realized someone close to me possessed extreme narcissism. You cannot win an argument with such a person because they lack sympathy for others and are utterly bent on pursuing unrealistic, selfish goals. In fact, they need the conflict to prove their own superiority. Sadly, they cannot accept responsibility for their own unhappiness.

As the situation became more grim, I began disengaging, letting go. It was hard to do. In silence I received unrelenting blame for ruining the relationship. However, in time I began to experience more stability and self-confidence, along with less absorption in myself. All the energy I had spent on trying to manage that difficult relationship became free for me to play a more active role in my own existence.

I had believed assertiveness was a key to healthier relationships, and assertiveness meant telling people what I needed or expected. This experience taught me that standing up to people, even in our so-called civilized society, does not always reap benefits. Sometimes we must stand back to seek a deeper competency and engagement within ourselves.

Reading Kingsnorth’s diagnosis of society’s technological addiction, I started to see a familiar theme. The traditional green movement cannot win any political discourse with an adversary convinced of its superiority. Like a narcissistic person who wants all the best for himself, technological society refuses to accept anything but progress. The monster will not stop until it destroys itself.

Letting go is hard, but the best we can do for ourselves is refuse to participate in the disaster. From personal experience, I recognize the need for time and space to reflect. We must dig deep and find our moral roots.


Dark ecology and a narcissistic society — 4 Comments

  1. This is a thoughtful post. I hope you’ll entertain some random thoughts in response:

    I’ve contemplated things of this nature since September 11, 2001. As with the tarot trump card The Tower, my illusions were shattered that day and I could see things in the day’s events and in the aftermath that no one else seemed to see or wanted to see. I took the red pill in those dark days, and ever since, have walked a lonely road, with attendant despair at the willful blindness all about me. I don’t often talk about it but it’s very much present.

    Disengagement from the matrix, from the machine, from the heart of the beast, seems the sanest course. I remember the admonition “Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” This I do, in my small way each day, but I wonder how much of my own disengagement arises from sheer numbness. I just can’t take any more mass shootings, any more trash media “stories” about trite celebrities and their manufactured problems. I wonder who has an interest in promoting such garbage. I suspect it’s the same ones who push this inappropriate technology.

    I used to believe that blaming evil on Satan or the like was a cop-out, but lately I’ve wondered if there isn’t some force afoot in the world that thrives on misery and mischief and seeks to extinguish creation. The writer Madeleine L’Engle referred to this nihilistic force in several of her books using a Greek term, Echthroi, “enemies.”

    • Thanks for sharing this, Joe. One significant force at work is people craving more and better opportunities without having the pay the cost, but there is certainly more to it.

  2. I’m just now struggling through Tim Morton’s “Dark Ecology’ and find it an interesting interpretation of “what went wrong.” It’s not evil, he says, unless evil is coded into matter itself. It’s agrilogistics, a logic that he conveys by the meaningless sentence “This is not (just) a pattern.”
    If you can understand this, he seems to say, you can achieve “ecognosis” and live in the “arche-lithic.” His treatment of narcissism is similarly opaque. According to Morton, “demonizing” narcissism is another aspect of agrilogistics– though I can’t tell why. In fact, everything is narcissistic. This is something to ponder, and if I can understand it at all, it’s to think that every being has it’s own best interests in mind–which is not what we think of as narcissism, but that’s the best I can do. Another way of saying it is “every entity is the center of the universe.” If you see the universe as a great net of interconnection (Morton calls it “the mesh”), then everything contains the universe as well as being it’s own unique self.

    I’d be interested in hearing other interpretations of Morton’s peculiar use of the word.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jeff. I haven’t revisited the concept of dark ecology much since I wrote this post because it’s so depressing! I probably have more to say about it now, but that will take some thought.

      I was fascinated to read on your website the definition of performance ecology, which is a new concept to me: http://playonmke.com/performanceecology/ . It immediately reminded me of when I take photographs of small things on the ground in the woods using a macro lens and squatted-down tripod for the camera. It’s a strenuous exercise I’ve named macro yoga! I hadn’t thought of it as a performance until I read this.

      New mindfulness skills recently helped me recover from a long episode of depression, maybe not the deepest but the most persistent of my life. Nature has always been a source for me: of nourishment, inspiration and sanctuary. I’m eager to deepen the relationship now that I have new tools for experiencing my self and my environment. Performance ecology seems highly relevant.

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