When is a problem not a problem?

News of the Dark Mountain Project has started to reach civilisation. Few institutions could be more civilised, more wedded to the myth of progress, than the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce – yet its Arts and Ecology editor, William Shaw, is not immune to ‘Uncivilisation’, describing the manifesto as “erudite, lyrical and, most of all, apocalyptic in an almost William Blake-ish kind of way.” Meanwhile, in the pages of the Morning Star, Chris T-T (who also performed at last week’s launch) calls it “a fascinating, beautifully constructed work.”

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Caspar Henderson offers a series of provisos which deserve some thought. For now, though, the response I want to pick up on is from Kathleen at City Pollen, because it points to an idea in the manifesto which may need further fleshing out. She writes that she is in agreement with most of our ‘Principles of Uncivilisation’, but has a problem with point two:

We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

“Climate change really is a problem we should try to solve,” she comments, “especially if we wish to respond to non-human views, otherwise we can look forward to our rewritten lives on an almost sterile planet.”

John Michael Greer – whose blog, The Archdruid Report, I strongly recommend – writes about the distinction between a problem and a predicament. A problem can be fixed, while a predicament must be lived with. Greer argues that modern Western culture has a strong tendency to treat every adversity as a problem to be solved. For example, our medical culture treats death as a failure, rather than as something which can be natural and timely – with the result that our quality of death, as it were, is poorer.

There is a strong connection between the tendency to see everything as a problem and the tendency to define ourselves by our ability to control reality. Part of my quarrel with George Monbiot and others is the implication, never far from the surface in their arguments, that either we take control of our reeling ecosystems or we must despair.

None of this is to deny that there are problems which we can solve, or that climate change poses such problems. What is dangerous, however, is an approach which reduces the crises we face to nothing more than a set of problems in need of technological, political or economic solutions. Our assertion is that we face predicaments as well as problems, and that to relearn the distinction between these – to recover the art of living with what we cannot change or control – is among the great cultural challenges of our time.