Alright, it’s time – I want to tell you about this book I’ve written.
I also just redesigned my website which means there’s now a single link you can share with anyone you think might want to know about the book. So head over there to see what Bayo Akomolafe, Amitav Ghosh, Vandana Shiva and others have to say about it – or read on for some of the backstory.
‘Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate change…’
Even as I heard the words come out of my mouth, I wondered how this could possibly be true – for me, at least – and in order to answer that question, I wrote a book.
For a while, I threatened to call it Why I Am No Longer Talking To People About Climate Change, but thankfully everyone talked me out of this. Because, apart from anything else, that’s not really what the book is about.
Then I wanted to call it The Kind of Hope Worth Having. It’s something I say near the end: ‘The kind of hope worth having now is the kind that lies on the far side of expectations, on the far side of despair.’ Yet as much as I stand by those words, it seems that – particularly in North America, so let’s call it the Obama effect – the language of ‘hope’ is exhausted. It tastes of ashes. We need to start from somewhere else.
After that, I suggested What Do You Talk About When the World Is Ending? And my publisher said, we’re not sure you realise how much more you’ve done in this book than these titles you’re coming up with seem to imply. They had a point, because while this is a book that’s woven out of many conversations and encounters, a book that cares about language and insists that our ways of speaking have consequences, it’s not all talk.
And so, when every word of the book itself had been written, we arrived at the actual title, which caught me by surprise and has come to feel completely right: At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics & All the Other Emergencies.
For years, my work has involved talking to people about climate change: on stages and on Zoom calls, on air and off the record, in essays and articles and conversations. This brought me into dialogue with scientists and policymakers, artists, activists, Indigenous thinkers and religious leaders. At Work in the Ruins is the fruit of all those encounters – but also of that moment, in the second year of the pandemic, when I found myself wondering if this work still made sense.
Climate change asks us questions that climate science cannot answer. Questions like, how did we end up in this mess? Is it just a piece of bad luck with the atmospheric chemistry – or is it the result of a way of approaching the world that would always have brought us to such a pass, even if the climate system were less sensitive to our industrial emissions?
How we answer such questions has consequences. It shapes our understanding of the situation, what kind of problem we think we’re dealing with and, therefore, what kind of responses we go looking for. But when science is turned into an object of belief and a source of overriding authority, it becomes hard even to talk about the questions that it cannot answer.
Something changed in the way we talk about science during the Covid time. In hindsight, you could trace it back a little further: there’s a line that runs from the politicians’ rhetoric of ‘following the science’ to the placards of the climate movements of 2018-19 that read ‘Unite Behind the Science’. In each case, the authority of ‘the science’ has become such that all we need to do is listen to it and act accordingly. The possibility that there are questions science cannot answer disappears from view.
So this book becomes a reckoning with the strange years we have been living through, the long history of asking too much of science, and the different things we can be talking about when we talk about ‘taking climate change seriously’. It’s also about how we find our bearings and what kind of tasks are worth giving our lives to, given all we know or have good grounds to fear about the trouble the world is in.
I remain convinced that the world is deep in trouble, deeper than we know how to talk about. I also see a danger that, when we talk about ‘taking climate change seriously’, this increasingly comes to justify the project of making our living planet and its inhabitants into an object of technological management and control. Those of us who want no part in such a project will need to find other ways of talking and other paths worth taking. I hope that At Work in the Ruins will be some help along the way.
At Work in the Ruins will be published on both sides of the Atlantic by Chelsea Green on 9 February 2023, but it is already available for preorder.
As you may know, the simplest and most effective way you can help a book on its journey into the world is to preorder it – this is what tells the bookshops and the algorithms of the online sellers that there are readers out there, which encourages them to order further copies and put them on show.
So let me invite you to take a moment to place a preorder, using one of the links below:
I’ll be taking the book on tour to the UK in February – and on some kind of rolling online tour throughout the first half of 2023 – so I’ll be putting out a shout for help to make that happen shortly.
Meanwhile, many of you reading this have followed my work and been a source of encouragement over the years, so thank you for all the various forms of support you have provided and the ways in which they made this book possible.
Congratulations, Dougald! Happy to see this.
Hi Dougald, I’ve just finished your book. I bought it as an audible book and I honestly think that was a good choice, because I heard you read it instead of me! Your melancholy but still positive voice, which after all was the one which wrote the book, was perfect. Only thing is, I would love a list a references for the many quotes in the book. Maybe there is one in the printed version? If there is, do you have it anywhere else? I can’t see one on good old Apple Books!