Riders on the Storm: The climate crisis and the survival of being by Alastair McIntosh

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Review by Peter Reason

Alastair McIntosh is a Scottish Quaker, peace, community and environmental writer and campaigner, maybe best described as a spiritual activist. He is a fellow and former director of the Centre for Human Ecology and has been active in the movement for land reform in Scotland, involved in initiatives such as the purchase of the Isle of Eigg by a community trust.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Alastair and I know each other professionally, having worked in parallel fields for more years than either of us might wish to count. He wrote an appreciative comment on my book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage, drawing on his own understanding of pilgrimage and his earlier book Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An island journey.

With this background, I was keen to read his reflections in response to the climate crisis. McIntosh lays out  his stall on the first page of his introduction: ‘My zest in writing has been to go beyond the outward science, policy and politics of climate change… to use them as a springboard into the deeper question of being itself… that quickens to the nature and survival of our deepest humanity’.

The first four chapters review, in plain language, the current science and proposed remedies surrounding global warming. The middle chapters get to grips with two extremes: climate change denial on the one hand; and alarmism on the other (specifically associating this with Extinction Rebellion or XR). Acknowledging that denialism has done far more harm that alarmism, McIntosh argues the need for ‘critical friends’ toward our own movements.

From there, the book moves on to what can be done in public and private sectors to create the necessarily rapid move to a zero-carbon world. In the final chapters, McIntosh’s concern is with the survival and thriving of being in both human and other forms of life on Earth. Here he turns to depth psychology and ‘what it takes to reconnect with earth, with spiritual life and with one another’.

A book of such extended scope will have something for everyone concerned about climate change and the wider ecological catastrophe—as surely, we all must be. It is also a book that I found myself arguing with at several points. McIntosh takes positions that, love them or hate them, help the reader clarify their own perspective. Since there is no way of being ‘right’ about any of the issues explored here, the stimulus to debate is helpful. In the rest of this review I will pick out some of the places I found myself strongly agreeing or arguing with the book.

What counts as the science of climate change? McIntosh explains the basis of science as hypothesis forming, testing through evidence, and revision. Science is never ‘settled’. He takes as his ‘gold standard’ of consensus science the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), acknowledging these will always be out of date as new evidence emerges, but arguing that unless we are experts in the field concerned we should be very careful how we use other publications that may produce contradictory evidence. There is much to be said for this point of view: it is easy to grasp at half-truths that fit our prejudices. However, there are also strong arguments to the contrary which are not taken fully into account.

Science is more than a logical process of hypothesis creating and testing: it is an intensely human activity, deeply influenced by human motivations and frailties. Above all it is a political process: in the positive sense of being based on open debate within both the scientific and the informed lay community; and in the more restrictive formal sense—the IPCC is, after all, an intergovernmental panel. While it is right to accept the IPPC position as strong, its position is not only unavoidably out of date as McIntosh accepts, it is widely seen to be systematically conservative.

The best argument against relying solely on IPCC is what is known as the precautionary principle, enshrined in the Rio UN Declaration,  ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation’. A doctor confronted with a patient bleeding copiously or running an extreme temperature will not wait to establish a firm diagnosis but will take cautious but immediate necessary measures to sustain life. McIntosh provides a thorough and careful review of the IPCC position, but I do wonder if, in his careful attention to the levels of confidence in different IPCC findings, we lose track of the evident fact that the patient is bleeding to death.

I have no such concerns about McIntosh’s language when he turns to consider climate change deniers: he sees them as people, often white, male and middle class with a ‘narcissistic presumption of entitlement’ who are unwilling to consider any constraint on their lifestyles. But denial is also about power, power entrenched in a ‘dark web’ of heavyweight political figures and institutions with commercial and other vested interests. The Guardian newspaper reports on the articulate challenge to the power wielded by institutionalised climate deniers made by writer and artist activists associated with Extinction Rebellion in September of this year.

Chapter six turns to a critique of environmental movements and specifically Extinction Rebellion. He reflects on Greta Thunberg’s ‘prophetic activism’, while insisting that ‘no one has come up with a politically credible plan to achieve the 1.5o target’—an assertion that seems rather blunt considering the huge diversity of proposals in the public sphere. He reviews the XR demands—Tell the Truth, Act Now, and go Beyond Politics with a Citizen’s Assembly—and its actions of rebellion.

His first critique of these demands derives from his earlier insistence on consensus science: he sees some of the arguments by advocates of XR—and he singles out Rupert Read, XR spokesperson and strong advocate of the precautional principle; Roger Hallam who forged some of the originating theory of XR; and Jem Bendell, who argues that we are close to ‘probably catastrophe and possible extinction’. He argues these positions are unnecessarily and irresponsibly alarmist (rather than appropriately alarming) and quotes climate scientists and educators who agree with him on this (my guess is it would not be difficult to line up an equal number who would support a more urgent interpretation.)

His second critique concerns the nature of democracy. For all the strengths of Citizens’ Assemblies, he believes that such bodies must be nested within a representative democracy. He is critical of Roger Hallam for advocating bringing down the government and arguing for a ‘sovereign role’ for the Citizens’ Assembly. He doesn’t fully address the claim from XR that the government has failed to address the existential threat of climate change, it is no longer time to play by the rules, and rebellion is a legitimate course of action.

These critiques lead to what I see as the strongest argument in the whole book: how do we understand non-violent protest. McIntosh insists the non-violence must have a spiritual basis: it must recognise the ‘inner connection of all things, the meanings of life as love made manifest’. He sees the XR leadership, and Roger Hallam in particular, as espousing non-violence as a means-to-an-end pragmatism, drawing tactically on the lives and examples of Ghandi and Martin Luther King while neglecting the ‘inner sources of spiritual legitimacy, visioning and resourcing from a place beyond ego’ on which their work was based. He insists that ‘if we are to escape the hubris of power, our relationship to truth must hinge on something close in ethos to what Gandhi understood’. In a wonderful riff on the Sermon on the Mount, he suggests a more accurate translation of the Greek praus would lead us to revising ‘Blessed are the meek’ to ‘Blessed are the gentle strong’.

These are powerful arguments, and here McIntosh is arguing from his strength: a deep appreciation and practice of spiritual leadership. It is an appropriate challenge which one would hope the leaders of XR would consider.

However, I end the chapter with a serious concern: the focus is on leaders and on men, on Read, Hallam, and Bendell. What has happened to all the women? I find no mention of Gail Bradbrook, a strong initiating influence in XR. And where are the perspectives of the many thousands of people committed to and taking risks to support XR rebellions? To the young people who have marched on Fridays for Future? Many have searched their consciences, in many cases consulted spiritual and religious teachings and practices; they have taken to the streets urged by inner motivations that are fully authentic.

I am with McIntosh in his conclusions that a ‘very deep wisdom—‘partly ancient and partly emergent—is required to see us through the explosive effects of… climate change… our work needs to come not just from the materialistic and rational perspectives of good science, but to be a spiritual activism’. We have to study and discern what distinguishes the authentic from the inauthentic; it is for these reasons he sees climate change denial as a ‘waste of time’, and also climate change alarmist as a ‘theft of time’, collapsing opportunities for the future. But while of course there is ego and self-importance in XR, I suspect there is more deep wisdom in its wider community than he is seeing.

A key chapter in the book explores ‘the survival of being’. Here, McIntosh traces four themes: clearance—what we have lost; collapse—what is happening as a result; consumption—our addictive response; and community—as a means of restoration. Here he draws on his experience of land reform in Scotland and traces the impact of the Highland clearances through the generations (similar processes took place in the enclosures in England and the Irish famine and the colonisation process at the heart of empire): ‘Colonisation is not just the clearance of people’s lands. To sustain unequal power relations, it is an ongoing clearance of their minds’. He shows, as a vivid example, how Donald Trump, through his Scottish mother, is one product of a process of violence within a family background experiencing seven levels of trauma. It is this history of violence, McIntosh claims, that links Trump to his core constituency. But it not just about Trump: ‘This is a wound that weeps and festers unhealed across the world. This is how violence, whether suffered or inflicted in his spiral interplay, hollows to the core’. As I trace McIntosh’s argument for this review, I draw parallels with another book I am currently reading: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race,[i] which traces the systemic violence experienced day-to-day by people of colour in white societies, unseen and usually denied by the white majority.

This chapter argues that clearance leads to collapse leads to addictive consumption; and that it is by restoring a sense of community, community which enables a rich inner life that feeds the outer, that we can seek a way through. This leads to the final chapter and a reassertion of the qualities of presence and inner grounding and the centrality of compassion.

There is so much of critical importance in the themes that McIntosh raises from his orientation as a peace activist: ‘The outer work will never be strong, if the inner work is weak’, as Matthew Fox riffs on Meister Eckhart.[ii] But I think a shorter and more focused book would make the core arguments that come from his expertise and perspective much more accessible—indeed in his acknowledgements he says he had hoped to offer something half the length. In my view, McIntosh’s understanding of the nature of science is oversimplified, and the long review of IPCC findings in the early chapters muddies the waters, as does the later chapter on mainstream climate policy and action. His strengths are in the understanding and advocacy of spiritual leadership; the impact of systemic violence on modern society; the community as response. The critique of XR raises some important issues; I suggest it would be more powerful if more fully grounded in the actual practices of the movement.

However, the book has made me think quite deeply about these critically important issues. What more could one want? And as McIntosh asks in his introduction, ‘A crisis is too good a chance to waste… How can we be riders on the storm?’

[i] Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

[ii] Fox, Matthew. Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fé: Bear and Co, 1983.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Alastair McIntosh, Riders on the Storm: The climate crisis and the survival of being (Birlinn 2020). 978-1780276397, 256pp., paperback.

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