The roots of At Work in the Ruins go back to my early conversations with Paul Kingsnorth, 15 years ago now, as we began to dream the Dark Mountain Project into being. But the moment at which it became a book – a book which I had no choice but to write – came one September day in the second year of the Covid time. I was walking in a field, on the edge of the small Swedish town where I live, talking with my friend Felix. In case the setting sounds bucolic, I should add that this was the field that borders the sewage treatment plant. Appropriate enough, since the work that the book is about includes – as the Mexican activist and thinker Gustavo Esteva once put it to me – ‘dealing with our own shit’.
I was trying to articulate a misgiving that had been growing in me, when I heard myself say, ‘Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate change?’ And even as the words came out, I knew that I would have to explain myself. To make sense of how this could possibly be true and why – after 15 years of talking about climate change, on stages and on Zoom calls, in articles and essays and conversations – I had come to question the wisdom of this work.
In the book that I began to write a few days later, I went looking for the conversations that had mattered most during those years, the times when our talk felt truest, the clues I had not allowed myself to notice. And I found that I was carrying stories: some that were woven into the wider events of our time, others entrusted to me by people I’d learned from. Certain encounters came back to me with a new force – with Gustavo Esteva on a Mexican hillside; with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Gail Bradbrook in a Cotswolds pub; with Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, the author of Hospicing Modernity, on the streets of Paris, as crowds of yellow vest protesters streamed past us. There were stories from closer to home, as well – fragments of the everyday through which to focus larger questions. In the patterns they made, I saw a way to trace the paths that are still open, the work that seems worth doing and the kind of hope worth having, even in these strange and shadowed days.
The extract that follows comes from an early chapter. This is the point in the book where I set out my doubts about climate talk. To be clear, nothing that I have seen or learned has caused me to question the parts of the story that science can tell us, and I remain convinced that we are deep in trouble. Deeper than we know how to talk about.
And since this book is the fruit of many conversations, and a fruit should carry seeds, I am taking it out into the world by seeding new conversations across Europe and around the UK in the coming weeks, some on quiet walks, some in front of microphones, and some with rooms full of people. So join me, if you can, along the way.
At Work in the Ruins
Not only can the upstream questions not be answered by science alone, they cannot even be asked in a clear way as long as we allow what we are talking about to go on being framed in terms of science. Yet, in a sense, these questions cannot not be answered: it’s just that, unless we can get beyond the frame of science to ask them clearly, our answers will tend to be unconscious. They will be default answers, the result of assumptions we don’t even know we’re making.
To follow these questions consciously may well lead us beyond climate change to a broader account of the trouble we are in and the ways that it shows up. We may no longer see climate change as the problem, but as an especially alarming symptom of an underlying condition. This is, at least, the kind of answer I arrived at. In the pages ahead, I will retrace the paths that led me there, but I do so with growing doubts as to how far these paths remain open and for how much longer.
I used to think that talking about climate change could be a gateway, the entry point to a larger, deeper conversation. Perhaps that used to be the case. Certainly, in the years before the pandemic, I witnessed a growing number of people having an encounter with climate change not as a problem that could be solved or managed, made to go away or reconciled with some existing arc of progress, but as a dark knowledge that calls our path into question, that starts to burn away the stories we were told and the trajectories our lives were meant to follow, the entitlements we were brought up to believe we had, and our assumptions about the shape of history, the kind of world we were born into and our place within it. For those most sheltered from the shadow side of modernity, the facts of climate change can be the place where its shiny promises first crack; we recognise our vulnerability and it starts to dawn on us that the ship might just be going down.
The calls to action were increasingly framed in the name of something called ‘the science’ … this way of talking also had the effect of invoking a singular authority whose implications remained to be seen.
You could hear this vulnerability in the voices of those at the heart of the climate movements that erupted in 2018 and in the quieter conversations going on within the local groups that formed during that moment. Yet all this talk was still taking place within the vessel of science, and this produced strange contortions and contradictions. The language of science is understated by design. It is hardly suited to speaking in prophetic tones, but this was the signature of these movements. The strangeness of the shift in register applied as much to Greta Thunberg, who was fiercely careful to keep her statements within the bounds of the scientific consensus, as it did to Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam or to Jem Bendell, the Cumbria University professor whose self-published paper ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ – based on his alternative interpretation of the scientific data – went viral that autumn. Whether in alliance with or antagonism to the actual climate scientists, the calls to action were increasingly framed in the name of something called ‘the science’. An understandable shorthand for the consensus over the key processes of climate change built up over decades of research by thousands of teams around the world, this way of talking also had the effect of invoking a singular authority whose implications remained to be seen. ‘Unite Behind the Science’ read the placards and the hashtags, and the more this message was repeated, the stronger the frame of science around our climate conversations became and the less room there would be for looking beyond that frame.
Two things happened next to change the context of anything that any of us might have to say about climate change. First, in the time of Covid, the political invocation of science took on a new colour. Faced with a novel threat about which there was far less scientific understanding or consensus than climate change, politicians nonetheless discovered the effectiveness of introducing radical policies in the name of ‘following the science’. Meanwhile, the implications of the demand to ‘Unite Behind the Science’ became clearer. I saw the people who had taught me to think carefully about science and the questions that it cannot answer on its own, when they attempted to address the questions raised by the pandemic, being told by angry, frightened readers to ‘Just shut up and take the fucking vaccine!’ Or being scolded by their peers for drifting towards ‘conspiracy theory’. In the name of ‘the science’, it is possible to decree what should be done and to close off the possibility of further public conversation.
This development coincided with a new phase in the relationship of existing social, political and economic institutions to the issue of climate change, the emblem of which was the election of Joe Biden and the return of the United States to the Paris Climate Accord. In their rhetoric, at least, most of the dominant institutions of our societies are now taking climate change seriously. Yet, as we shall see, they remain invested in certain answers to the larger questions which climate change asks, and since these are largely the default answers that will govern the response to climate change so long as the conversation remains within the frame of science, the newly absolute authority of ‘the science’ will suit them very well.
The political contours emerging from the pandemic foreshadow a fork in the road for the politics of climate change. We would always have come to this fork, one way or another.
Here is what I’m seeing, then: the political contours emerging from the pandemic foreshadow a fork in the road for the politics of climate change. We would always have come to this fork, one way or another. As long as the goal was to have climate change taken seriously, this could unite us, however different our understandings of what taking climate change seriously might mean. As we near that goal, though, the differences in understanding come more sharply into focus. But we have reached that point, or something like it, under conditions in which the authority of ‘the science’ has been supercharged.
Two paths lead from here: one big, one small. The big path is a brightly lit highway on which many lanes converge. It unites elements of left and right, from Silicon Valley visionaries and Wall Street investors, through a broad swathe of liberal opinion, to the wilder fringes of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, and in some form it will constitute the political orthodoxy of the 2020s. It sets out to limit the damage of climate change through large-scale efforts of management, control, surveillance and innovation, oriented to sustaining a version of existing trajectories of technological progress, economic growth and development. The small path is a trail that branches off into many paths. It is made by those who seek to build resilience closer to the ground, nurturing capacities and relationships, oriented to a future in which existing trajectories of technological progress, economic growth and development will not be sustained, but where the possibility of a ‘world worth living for’ nonetheless remains. Humble as it looks, as your eyes adjust, you may recognise just how many feet have walked this way and how many continue to do so, even now.
Which of these paths I would have us take is clear enough. The big path is a fast track to nowhere. We will not arrive at the world of fossil-free jumbo jets promised by the airport adverts. The entitlements of late modernity are not compatible with the realities of life on a finite planet and they do not even make us happy. But we may well follow that path for a while longer, as it leads us deeper into dystopia and leaves us more dependent on fragile technological systems that few of us understand or can imagine living without. And what I think I can see now is that the very language of climate change will be owned, from here on out, by the engineers and marketeers of the big path. Any conversation about the trouble we are in, so long as it starts within the newly politicised frame of science, will lead inexorably to their solutions.
If I’m anywhere close to right in this reading of the signs of the times, if the new politics of science emerging from the pandemic does stabilise in something like its current shape, then those of us who are partisans of the small path will find ourselves in a strange position. However far it may be from our political roots, we find that we have more in common with assorted conservatives, dissidents and sceptics – including some whose scepticism extends to climate science – than with the mainstream progressive currents that have so far had a claim to be on the right side of history when it comes to climate change. Under the authority of ‘the science’, talk of climate change will belong to the advocates of the big path, and those of us who do not wish to contribute to that future will need to find another place to start from when we want to talk about the depth of the trouble the world is undoubtedly in.
At Work in the Ruins is the kind of book that is the fruit of many conversations, and a fruit should carry seeds, so I am taking it out into the world by seeding new conversations, in collaboration with activists, artists and thinkers whose work has helped me find my bearings. Join us somewhere along the way, if you can, or sign up to my newsletter for recordings of these and other conversations.
Conversations at the End of the World will be hosted by Dark Mountain co-directors Charlotte Du Cann and Nick Hunt in conversation with Dougald Hine and Andrew Boyd on 29th March 2023 at 7pm BST. All welcome!
At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics & All the Other Emergencies is out this month in print and as an audiobook. Full details of all live events here.