Three Seasons With CEMUS

This essay was my contribution to the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University.

It’s early spring. I’m taking a language course for immigrants with a higher education. Eight years is the average time it takes before an immigrant to Sweden gets to work in a job that matches their professional qualifications: this course was created to shorten that time. I am not the person the course is aimed at, but I graduated from the basic Swedish for Immigrants programme two months ago and my classmate Sepi told me about this, so here we are.

Here we are in Uppsala – because, as part of the course, we’re on a half-day outing by bus from Västerås to sit in one of the lecture theatres in Blåsenhus and be taught about Swedish history and culture. At the break, the lecturer is having an animated discussion with some of the other students. It seems they are arguing about climate change. I don’t know how it started, but as I wander over, I hear him explaining insistently that climate change is not a catastrophic threat and anyone who tells you it is – whether they are a scientist or anything else – is saying this because they are making money out of it. 

Even if I wasn’t angry, I’d have struggled to hold my end of an argument in Swedish, and I am angry. This guy isn’t actually Uppsala faculty, he’s a freelancer with a PhD who’s been drafted in for the occasion, but to hear someone stand up in the role of lecturer in a place like this and tell students that climate science is driven by ulterior motives strikes at some deep faith I have in the university as an institution. (Not to mention that half my classmates are here having made unimaginable journeys to flee the civil war in Syria, a war which was preceded by five years of drought; like any single event, that drought can’t just be pinned on climate change, but it is the kind of event which climate change makes more likely and it is a catastrophe.)

So I try to argue with him – and he says, ‘Ah, I guess you’re planning to make money out of this stuff’ – and I say, ‘I’m a writer and if you think I’m motivated by making money, you should tell my bank manager, because he could use the laugh.’ I don’t say this, obviously, because I’m trying to make myself understood in broken Swedish while angry and upset. But whatever I actually say, his comeback is, ‘Well, there are other kinds of currency than money.’

Half an hour later, I’m in a cafe on a side street in the centre of the city, meeting Isak Stoddard and Ingrid Momrisr from CEMUS for the first time. We’ve been in touch by email for a few weeks, though when we arranged to meet, I couldn’t have guessed how raw I would be feeling. My writing has been tangled up with climate change for years, going back to before Paul Kingsnorth and I wrote the Dark Mountain manifesto. It was that manifesto which put me on the radar at CEMUS, Isak tells me. After writing about this stuff for years, you get inured to the various flavours of denial – until one day you’re caught off-guard by an encounter like the one I just had, and suddenly you’re peeled right open.

And if you have luck, at that moment, you walk into a cafe where you’re welcomed by people you’ve never met before, but who listen while you tell them what just happened, and you know they understand.

*   *   *

It’s summer now. The sun is hanging over the lake behind me, a group of young people sit on the grassy slope running down to the shore and I am perched on a rock by the water’s edge. It’s one of those endless hot June evenings and if there is anything closer to paradise than a Swedish lakeside on an evening like that, then I’ve yet to meet it. To sit here talking about darkness seems a little absurd – but still, everyone is listening.

The group are all staff from CEMUS who have come away together for a night before the summer. I’ve been invited to give a talk, so I’m telling the story of how Paul and I came to start Dark Mountain. How it grew out of a loss of faith in the stories we had been telling within the environmental movement. You’d hear leading figures in this movement give the same speech they had given five years earlier – the same calls to action, the same insistence that we can do this – and then if you talked with that person quietly over a drink later in the evening, you’d find they were in fact pessimistic to the point of despair. That gap disturbed us.

Now, as I write this, it strikes me – how different was the claim we were making about the environmental movement from what that lecturer who so incensed me in Uppsala had been saying? Aren’t we both doing something rather similar: calling into question the honesty of those who stand up and speak about climate change? ‘The environmental movement needs to stop pretending’ ran the headline on an early article that Paul and I wrote for The Guardian. It reminds me that, in our first attempts to articulate these thoughts and get them heard, we seemed to position ourselves as the lone truth-tellers, which is a dangerous way of behaving.

But that headline started with a slightly different phrase, a question which I used to frame the first Dark Mountain festival: ‘What do we do, after we stop pretending?’ This is not an allegation about some other group on whom one is passing judgement, it is a confession – and anyone who recognises their own experience here can step within the circle of that undefined ‘we’. In the days when we started Dark Mountain, I wasn’t used to standing on stages in front of rooms full of people – that came later – but in the gap between the uplifting speech and the quiet conversation at the end of the night, I recognised something I had struggled with myself.

A common reaction to Dark Mountain in those early days was to say, ‘You guys have burned out, it happens to us all – but you shouldn’t be making such a noise about it, you’ll put other people off.’ That reaction was sincere, but it didn’t feel adequate. The idea that a movement uses people as fuel – that the experience of uncertainty, fear and despair should be swept away like the ashes from last night’s fire, while we stack up a new row of fresh green optimists in the hearth – is widespread, but not wise. Dark Mountain was born out of the desire to create a space where we could talk to each other about uncertainty, fear and despair, without a rush to action or to answers. It was born out of our own need for such a space.

And we had a feeling that art had an important role to play in this. Not as a communications tool to deliver a message or raise awareness, but as a way of holding such a space, making it possible to face the darkness without shutting down or running away. A large part of my work in the years since we started the project has been learning more about these roles that art can play.

So yes, in a sense, we started by questioning the honesty of the way climate change is presented – but not the motives of the people doing the presenting, nor the integrity of the scientific work that produces knowledge about a thing like climate change. Rather, it was a question about the struggle to tell true stories about what these facts mean, about the way they collide with our idea of how the world ought to be, the shape of history and our place within it. The gap towards which we were pointing has to do with the question of despair. If despair is a thing to be avoided at all costs, then it is right to hold onto whatever straws of optimism one can find, so you end up emphasising these, however feeble they feel to you. But something I’ve learned through this work is how much energy can get tied up in avoiding despair at all costs, so that letting go of our attempts to cling to optimism can release a surprising sense of relief and even hope. Something else I’ve learned is that despair does not have to be an end in itself. For a lot of people, Dark Mountain has been a journey to the far side of despair, though none of us emerges from such a journey unchanged.

So these are the things we are talking about, in the endless sunshine of a June evening, by a lake, at a time of year when it is hard to take the idea of winter seriously. And later, we grill corn cobs over a barbecue in the woods and share cans of beer, and I start to understand a little more about the community that gathers around CEMUS, the atmosphere which brings the centre to life.

*   *   *

The next time I arrive in Uppsala, the sun is shining, but there’s an edge to the air. It’s the first of September. Autumn is coming.

We are in the same lecture theatre where I’d had that argument, six months earlier. A cavern of a room with no windows, it could be any season, any time of day or night. But this time I am standing at the front. I’ve been asked to give the opening lecture of the year.

‘What can we say about the future?’ I ask. ‘This talk won’t involve any charts or projections. I don’t have one of those scenario planning models with four different ways the world might look in 2035. I’m not going to wrap things up with a list of ten things we can do that will make everything turn out OK. I only have one prediction for you, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it, and it’s this…’

Click to the next slide, huge letters filling the screen behind me:


A ripple of laughter passes around the room – and I go on to talk about the need to come to terms with the undramatic reality of personal extinction that waits for all of us, somewhere down the road, if we’re going to see clearly when we try to talk about the larger kinds of loss which frame the time in which we’re living. This seems like a good place to start, for a room full of people who will spend the year ahead thinking hard and learning from many different disciplines about the mess the world is in.

And for me, these three seasons mark the starting point of a relationship with CEMUS and the people who make up the centre which has been unique in my experience. I have been a guest lecturer at many institutions across Europe, but nowhere has come to feel more like home. Through formal and informal collaborations with CEMUS, I have been able to bring people I admire greatly to Sweden – Keri Facer, professor of social and educational futures at the University of Bristol, or the mythographer Martin Shaw who created the Oral Tradition course at Stanford. Over a day or two in Uppsala, they will lecture to students, take part in a research seminar and a public event, and they go away speaking warmly of this particular corner of Swedish academia. Under the auspices of CEMUS, I’ve sat on stage at Sigtuna Stiftelsen, holding a conversation with the philosopher and animist David Abram and the Archbishop of Uppsala, Antje Jackelén – and I’ve met within the same walls, when Kevin Anderson brought together twenty of us for three days to go deep into the role of arts, humanities and social sciences in the quest for rapid decarbonisation. And every time I’ve walked into the offices on Villavägen, I’ve been received with the same warmth that Isak and Ingrid showed me that first day we met, and caught a sniff of that atmosphere which Ivan Illich once wrote of:

‘Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.’

Thank you, my friends, for inviting me to be a part of CEMUS in the past few years – and may you continue to thrive in the next twenty-five.

First published in The CEMUS Diaries, a series to mark the 25th anniversary of the Centre for Environment & Development Studies at Uppsala University.