Path Less Travelled By

In seeking to prevent environmental breakdown, what counts above all is not the new things we do, but the old things we stop doing —George Monbiot

Thumbnail Rightly or wrongly, the following excerpt from At Work in the Ruins, by Dougald Hine, seems to me easily the most lucid, eloquent, sophisticated, penetrating, no-hold-barred analysis of the shape of our times on offer. Hine’s basic tenet is that humankind has come to a fork in the road – a situation disturbingly reminiscent to the one Woody Allen imagines in his famous quip:

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Still, it’s well to remember that despair is justified only when all ends are known; which in the present case they are not. One way or another, we all need either to choose a path or resign ourselves to the path that goes nowhere. And who can say? The kinds of things we learn by following the path less travelled by may just come in handy once we finally get to the Stranglehold of Grace.

Excerpt form At Work In The Ruins, By Dougald Hine


hen we start to talk about climate change, we enter into a conversation that is framed by science. How could it be otherwise? Climate change is a scientific term. It refers to a set of processes that are described by the natural sciences.

Bugaboo Creek clearcut by Watt?

Yet climate change also asks questions that science cannot answer. Some lie downstream of the work of science. When it comes to what to do about climate change, responsibility passes from the scientists to the engineers and the economists, while psychologists and marketing experts are brought in to figure out how to ‘deliver the message’ and ‘drive behaviour change’. In the rooms where I was brought together with religious leaders and artists and Indigenous elders, it mostly felt as though we were being enlisted in this downstream effort. The hope was that we had some wisdom or experience or practice that might help the news from the climate scientists to reach the wider public imagination.

But the point that I would make in those rooms – and that often seemed to land and lead to fruitful conversations with the scientists present – is that there are also questions that lie upstream of the work of science and take us beyond the frame it draws. These are not about what needs doing and how, but about how we got here in the first place, the nature and the implications of the trouble we are in. Such questions might sound abstract compared to the practical concerns of those who want to find solutions, but how we answer them has consequences. It shapes our understanding of the situation, what kind of problem we think we’re dealing with and, therefore, what kind of solutions we go looking for.

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.

Two things have happened 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.

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 politicized 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 stabilize 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 skeptics – including some whose skepticism 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.

May the wisdom to choose correctly be with you —Trevor

Next up: Shadow People