Finding hope in the dark: shifting attitudes towards the future, ecology and identity
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Tragedies are multiplying: permacrisis, global pandemics, recessions, systemic risks, nuclear war threats, end-of-history illusion, apocalypse-ready fashion… ALL DARK. This is the close-to-doomsday narrative we’ve been living for in the past few years, but also the dystopia-feels-more-real-than-ever forecasted outlooks we are being sold. A generalised state of darkness, characterised by pessimism, we are collectively and globally facing, to a point of questioning humankind’s survival.
“What really reflects the permacrisis is the feeling that there is no way out and that we are close to the collapse of our civilization.” (Online encyclopaedia Gizapedia)
“Considering all the crises we are currently experiencing, it would make total sense to wonder if the end of the world, as we know it, has not already begun…” (Vlanpodcast, January 2023)
Our only source of light? An enlightenment promise driven by a rising state of spirituality that allows us to cope with darkness? Since spirituality has turned into a “new enticing commodity”, the life-saving promise is falling. Then, this is what our dark future seems to be about: the “Apokalupsis” scenario, leaving our societies in the dark and clouting our path to safeguard our future.
Interest in nihilism (a philosophy that rejects values, and instead states that everything is meaningless) grew in popularity on social media by 24% between 2021 and 2022. (Nextatlas, 2022)
The global emergency kit market is projected to reach $21 billion by 2030 (up from $14bn in 2017). (Dataintello, 2021)
Defined as extreme worry about current and future harm to the environment by human activity and climate change, global citizens are increasingly suffering from eco-anxiety at alarming rates: 75% of US Gen Z are reporting a mental health issue due to climate change, while two-third (68%) of Brits are struggling with climate anxiety. (“Gen Z and the Climate Crisis: From Eco-Anxiety to Eco-Action” research by WILDAID, January 2023; YouGov, 2023)
Globally, young people are anxious, yet still hopeful: an average of 57% of global young people agree that “the world is becoming a better place with each new generation.” (UNICEF and Gallup, 2021)
And yet, darkness not only implies negative perspectives. For instance, “nyctophilia” is defined as “the condition of being very happy and comfortable in the dark [...] a condition that makes you want to sit in the dark all by yourself late at night, wide awake.” (Cambridge Dictionary).
Circling back to the very essence of darkness, the term “dark” actually comes from the Proto-Germanic word “derkaz”, which literally means “to hide or conceal” according to vocabulary.com. This is exactly what it is about: hiding brighter futures, futures’ potentials and doom-induced feelings by staying in the dark. What if darkness was instead revealed to foster more realistic, protopian, euphoria-like paths forward? A nyctophilia-inspired approach through Dark Optimism, Dark Ecology and Dark Euphoria, allowing us to “be comfortable in the dark”, yet not blind.
HARNESSING DARKNESS TO REVEAL FUTURES’ POTENTIALS
Already in 2004, writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit published “Hope in the Dark”, a book exploring “optimism in an era of seeming defeat and cultural pessimism” and re-assessing hope as a way “to embrace the unknown”:
“The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave [...] Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.” (Rebecca Solnit, author of the book “Hope in the Dark”, 2004)
Navigating through the 2020s, as we already signal to some of our clients, we’re entering a stage of “tragic optimism”, where consumers are showing a deep sense of hope while acknowledging the state of the world and its diverse tragedies. Coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, tragic optimism is:
“The search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence, something far more practical and realistic during these trying times.” (Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist in The Atlantic, August 2021)
In front of uncomfortable current and future realities, denial appears as the comfortable go-to ostrich-like approach as proven by the 38% of the world's population actively avoiding reading the news as it has the potential to trigger their anxiety and negatively impact their day (Reuters, 2022).
But, instead of opting for denial — a counter-mechanism increasingly perceived as a privilege or a disadvantage leading to a dissociation of reality and diminishing our power of existence as a human being — the tragic optimism state of mind is being increasingly adopted by an emerging community of Dark Optimists. Members of this tribe are growing in favour of acknowledging where we are right now, the reality of today’s tragedies, while also nurturing faith in futures’ potentials. Otherwise, there is no future.
“We are unashamedly positive about what kind of a world humanity could create, and unashamedly realistic about how far we are from creating it today.”
“[Dark Optimism] is not that sort of bright shiny optimism, which I can find quite frustrating. It’s more like, ‘Well everything isn’t fine actually, you know?’ It’s an ability to look at the more difficult aspects of where we are and what we’re doing, whilst also retaining a sort of deep faith in human potential.” (Interview of author and self-described Dark Optimist Shaun Chamberlin in Kosmos Journal, 2014)
Dark Optimism rejects utopia-focused ideals and instead opts for envisioning more achievable outcomes by not denying the underlying darkness. In 2014, Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine caught this revised -topia approach under the term “Protopia”: “a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better.” — a pro-gradual-improvement approach that resonates with the 75% of US Gen Z expecting to leave the world a better place than they found it (Adolescent Content, 2022). Offering a more concrete, yet not less inspiring, outlook than utopia, “protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.” (P2P Foundation).
Beyond questioning, protopia, tragic and dark optimism require calls-to-action. In October 2022, the Dutch Design Week 2022 (DDW22) revolved around the theme "Get Set", signalling this "shift from preparation to action". As Miriam van der Lubbe, co-founder of the DDW explained: "We must get set for the challenges we're facing, but we must also get our setting right". In “tragic optimism”, “dark optimism” and “protopia”, darkness no longer aims to conceal — as per its etymological origin — but strikes to reveal what’s at stake, then what’s possible.
REVEALING DARKNESS TO INSPIRE BRIGHTER FUTURES
With the idea of a non-longer safeguarded tomorrow comes ecology: originally coined to describe the study and “economies” of living forms, the term, its related concepts and challenges became a condition to our survival. Our contemporary imaginaries associated ecology to all-things-luminous: utopian futures and Solarpunk fictions, bright promises and humankind-saving technologies, green cities inhibited by serum-transformed fluorescent plants, and the list goes on.
Such analysis is shared by “the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene” Timothy Morton in his 2016 book titled “Dark Ecology”: since ecology has no limits in what it designates (biosphere, cultural, human, solar system), it tends to live in our collective unconscious as an odd loop, involving both action and appearance, with the later stealing the main character role. In this dynamic, what appears to be ecological (cleaner, greener and conscious) matters more than the actual ecology-driven actions. Speaking about appearing, Burberry has been recently praised for its “Burberry Landscape” artworks: planted larger-than-life versions of its iconic check in natural landscapes, in a bid to communicate the brand’s commitment to nature regeneration.
In this luminous approach to ecology, no room is left for darkness. And yet, darkness is a necessity. Published in November 2022, “The Darkness Manifesto” by Swedish scientist and writer Johan Eklöf “urges us to cherish natural darkness for the sake of the environment, our own wellbeing, and all life on earth”.
Circling back to previously mentioned Timothy Morton, his theorised Dark Ecology movement offers a new framework for ecology, through the rehabilitation of darkness.
"Lighten up: dark ecology does not mean heavy or bleak; it is strangely light." (Timothy Morton in “Living Earth – Field Notes from Dark Ecology Project 2014 – 2016”)
In his concept, Morton fights against our objectified-utilitarian-beautified approach to ecological awareness by reassessing the old concept of “Nature’s beauty” through the rehabilitation of the ugliness and the weird, yet natural — for instance: viruses, radiations, rains, iron, concrete, pollution, and more. In short, in the Dark Ecology, ecology: 1) does not privilege the human, 2) is not something beautiful, and 3) has no real use for the old concept of Nature.
“What is dark ecology? It is ecological awareness, dark-depressing. Yet ecological awareness is also dark-uncanny. And strangely it is dark-sweet. Nihilism is always number one in the charts these days. We usually don’t get past the first darkness, and that’s if we even care.” (Timothy Morton in “Living Earth – Field Notes from Dark Ecology Project 2014 – 2016”)
"In defiance of the paternalism of certain environmental movements, ‘dark ecology’ defends irony and ugliness as means to raise awareness.” (Roc Jiménez de Cisneros, artist)
Dark Ecology enables us to break free from eco-anxieties, Solastalgia distress and usual guilt-inducing ecological philosophies by offering a broader approach to our environment and its inhabitants, including non-living things. Suddenly, what once was qualified as “natural” embraces relativity, providing space for greater considerations of our environment, with all its mysteries and awe experiences, without a moralistic frame set against sustainability criterias.
Moving further into this idea of losing purpose when approaching ecology through all-things-luminous, in his book “L'Obscurantisme vert - La véritable histoire de la condition humaine” (meaning “The green obscurantism - human condition’s true story), French philosopher Yves Roucaute highlights: “We lose battles, especially within the youth, because [...] we are unable to inspire hope.” Roucaute debunks popular opinions and rather praises a non-punitive approach to ecology:
“CO2? Not evil. Wind power? Lots of wind for nothing. Nuclear? An alternative. Organic products? All chemicals. The ‘ecological transition’? A chimaera. Consumption society? A hope. Ecology? Yves Roucaute is in favour of a non-punitive ecology, fueled by knowledge, turned towards the future [...] Here is an ode to creativity, to freedom, to a fit-for approach to life, finally, of re-enchanting the world.” (Yves Roucaute’s interview in The Atlantico, November 2022)
At a time when greenwashing went mainstream and when green-hushing — when companies choose not to publicise details of their climate targets in an attempt to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing — is an emerging new practice, acknowledging ecological journey’s darkness becomes a necessity. It’s not about injecting light into the dark, but rather revealing darkness to inspire brighter futures: moving from utopian promises to reachable, inspiring hope; from 2040-something CSR promises to acknowledging CSR’s today’s unknowns and question marks.
EXPOSING BRIGHTNESS FROM THE DARKNESS
While 2022 was the year of the mainstreamization of the dystopian and apocalypse-ready aesthetics, giving birth to the Avant Apocalypse trend praised by celebrities including Julia Fox and brands such as Paolina Russo and Elena Velez, it was also the year of the recognition of opportunistic brand-led outtakes.
Interest in the topic “Dystopian” in the “Fashion & Accessories” category increased by 66% in Q2 2022 over Q2 2021. (Nextatlas, 2022).
#avantapocalypse videos of TikTok users sharing their goth-inspired outfits have reached more than 3,8m views. (TikTok, January 2023)
For brands, emerging aesthetics often lead the path when it comes to developing a supposedly aesthetically-compassionate way of connecting with audiences. But in 2022, the current mood led some brands to capitalise on this apocalyptic aspiration for darkness only, with the aim of clouting, which actually resulted in consumer backlash.
This is when “doom washing” happens: identified by MØRNING consultancy, the term describes a situation in which brands capitalise on apocalyptic and dystopian aesthetics, solely to gain empathy from consumers during difficult times when they might struggle with recession, anxiety or living conditions — in short, when consumers experience doom — without taking any tangible situation to help.
Doom washing marks this turnover point for a creativity inspiring a more reachable form of escapism informed by the reality of the present days, neither dystopian or utopian, but rather protopian and dark optimist. Aesthetics coming from feelings of the bleak and doom, a more euphoric and realistic aesthetic that acknowledges and leverages darkness of our times is elevating, fuelled by dark optimists and dark ecologists.
While conventional symbolism and belief associate light with good and dark with evil, current trends are showing a more nuanced approach, assessing the acknowledgment of darkness as a virtue.
Whereas SS23 Balenciaga catwalk was showcasing an apocalyptic landscape, artistic director Demna Gvasalia stated that “the set of this show is a metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth” indicating that even if the eerie and weird aesthetics might pursue their own trend journey on social media and shopping carts, 2023 may be the beginning of an approach to the aesthetics of darkness that aims to inspire optimism, truth and hope.
From digging deeper into ourselves, to celebrating our inner villain and exploring the aestheticization of our hideous self, creative territories for brands to invest in are pullulating as individuals seek to reconcile with the shadows within themselves. From a makeup range that “makes ‘crying’ a good look”, editorials aestheticizing “what it means to watch ourselves cry” in the era of de-influence, to ritual ragings and fashion designers exploring the “right to fail” as a design process, an underlying trend that seeks to glorify inner darkness is revealing itself to counterbalance incertain times and contextual doom sentiment.
“Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like. Things are just falling apart; you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much.” (Ada Sokół Art Lab)
By offering a creative framework for expressing their sentiment and experiences, communities free themselves from the dread of the dark and by doing so, regain a sense of control over their future.
FINDING HOPE IN THE DARK:
The attempt to cope with a generalised state of gloom led us to pursue luminous promises of change. But, as we get caught into the multiplying tragedies, the collective unconscious is shifting from resilience to the acknowledgment of the actual darkness as a means to regain hope.
Dark Optimists, as a growing culture, recognise how far we might be from solving the issues at stake, but still nurture their mindset with an enlightened yet grounded optimism.
From green to dark, Dark Ecology, as an emerging philosophy, is offering us a non-punitive and less moralistic approach towards our environment where sustainability isn’t a solely box to check, and where a broader definition of nature reveals itself: from clean, green and utilitarian to all-encompassing and non-linear.
Finally, the contextual darkness of our times becomes a creative material to cope with a collective bleak sentiment through the celebration of our own dark parts as individuals through Dark Euphoria.
In 2023, a glowing and bright darkness becomes a mirror for the collective unconscious to reflect into and confront with a sometimes uncanny reality to establish more reachable desirable narratives from.