Reviewed by Jacob Shatzer
Northcott is not new to questions of theology and the environment, having published other works, including The Environment and Christian Ethics and A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming. In this most recent book, Northcott does not disappoint, weaving together the worlds of climate science, international politics, domestic politics, philosophy, theology, and biblical studies, to name a few. In what follows I want to relay Northcott’s strengths and his main points before noting a few remaining questions.
I’m not going to illustrate his strengths; instead, I’ll mention them to entice you to read the book. He has an excellent grasp of the relevant climate science, and he explains that knowledge in a clear way. He also understands international politics and climate treaties in sufficient depth to highlight not only where they have failed in practice (particularly, in many cases, because major countries have prioritized economic development over changes) but where they are inevitably going to fail in theory. Northcott’s message is not simply “Let’s all get on board with the Kyoto Protocol.” It’s much more nuanced than that, and helpfully so. Northcott makes a compelling case for the fact that we face climate problems not simply because of scientific problems or political problems but because of theological developments that found and fund a certain way of relating to the world.
Northcott weaves together relevant historical, philosophical, theological, and literary arguments as well. He makes a compelling case for the causative role of climate change in the tumultuous European sixteenth century, he demonstrates how Bacon, Hobbes, Kant, and others have reshaped the way humans understand the relationship between culture and nature, and he utilizes MacIntrye’s virtue ethics in a constructive manner. Northcott also builds on the concept of the “Anthropocene,” a cultural period in which humanity sees itself as controlling and mastering the world. The book is at the very least interesting as Northcott continually brings figures and perspectives into his narrative in surprising ways, including an exploration of the poetry of William Blake in the final chapter.
I’ll provisionally say that Northcott’s use of Scripture is another strength. He draws constructively on both the Old and New Testaments in nearly every chapter, but not in a cite-the-chapter-and-the-verse type of quotation. Instead, he draws on Hebrew notions of the relationship between covenant-keeping and the weather and the early Christian understanding of the new covenant and freedom, to name but two examples. While I’ll save a more critical engagement with his use of Scripture for later, I do want to point out that Northcott seems to operate with an imagination that has been saturated in Scripture, as his connections to it throughout the book show.
My presentation of strengths before main points was a calculated maneuver in well-meaning misdirection. I feared that highlighting his main points before his strengths might lead some readers to disagree with his points and simply “quit” this review, thus missing out on Northcott’s strengths. So, on to his main points, which (spoiler alert) do not line up with typical conservative political culture (which often significantly overlaps with conservative evangelical culture):
1. Climate change returns human culture to familiar territory: prior to the Enlightenment human beings believed their actions actually influenced the natural world (2). In other words, Northcott is critical of a modern split between nature and culture that has led humans to conceive of their actions as separate from “nature” understood as the non-human world. Climate change shows that human actions do indeed influence the wind and the rain, as pre-Enlightenment peoples (and the Hebrews) believed.
2. Climate science represents a politics (20). The idea that “hard science” can be separated from “politics” is an unsustainable notion: “It is precisely because of the political claims implicit in climate science – that individuals are not autonomous, that there are limits to the capacity of the climate to absorb their pollution, that this pollution harms distant others in time and space – that political conservatives resist climate science” (20).
3. Governments around the world are not doing enough to curtail the extraction of fossil fuels from the earth. Supposed curbs on pollution do not really deal with the problem; consumption itself must be limited and the extraction of fossil fuels should be halted. The main reason for this is that science has shown that the burning of these fuels would warm the earth to a degree that would set off a chain of unstoppable global warming. (For example, higher temperatures would lead to the loss of tropical rainforest, which would turn to desserts, further exacerbating the problems with carbon.) If we know that burning these fuels will cause these problems, we shouldn’t even dig them up. If we continue to extract the fuels, then even if a lot of people start using renewable energy, the fossil fuels will just be sold cheaper and burned somewhere, resulting in the same climate effects.
4. The path forward for dealing with climate change is reduced, virtuous consumption (246ff). The salvific narrative of modern science undergirds both capitalism and Marxism (149). Answers to climate change that focus on geoengineering (Solar Radiation Management, Carbon Reduction) pursue a myth of control dependent upon Baconian science. For Northcott, the answer for climate change lies not in pursuing scientific salvation more urgently (“We’ll invent something that will fix this”), but instead through reduced, virtuous consumption. He points to “Transition Towns” as an example of this (308ff).
5. This path of reduced, virtuous consumption serves as a witness to the nations. Christianity provides a messianic alternative that “may yet draw the nations from the Babylon of fossil fuelled economic growth and heedless consumerism to a new covenantal community between creatures, humans, and the heavenly realms” (267).
One question I have is whether Northcott’s proposal matters. Part of his constructive proposal is a MacIntyrean, virtue-fuelled habitus that pursues clean energy and less consumption, which can then form moral agents that are willing and able to make the choices necessary to bring the world back from the brink of environmental collapse (it is not an understatement to say that we are faced with a crisis). Let’s grant Northcott this idea; but do we have the luxury of this solution? Developing and sustaining such communities that would so profoundly alter the theopolitical imagination of nations is no mean feat: even if we could right now begin forming all children this way, when does it start to put the brakes on carbon emissions? With many of the statistics Northcott provides toward the beginning of the book, not likely soon enough. (For instance, he notes that summer ice may disappear from the Arctic by 2035 , and nearly two third of the world’s population will live in areas of water stress by around the same time .) Northcott – and the rest of us – are caught in a situation where the situation is so severe that any adequate response requires a great deal of time, time that we may not have. Northcott’s book would be stronger if he dealt with this more explicitly in his constructive recommendations.
Another question that I’m left wondering is what role Scripture really plays for Northcott: what work does it do at the end of the day? Don’t get me wrong; the Bible is there, both the Old and the New Testaments. Northcott reads them in refreshing ways, relating them to the heart of various debates that he covers. However, his use does not seem to grow out of an earnest wrestling with the biblical text but instead with a desire to find biblical analogies or metaphors for themes that he develops elsewhere. Northcott’s explanation of his choice of Bible translation in his acknowledgements might help us in this regard:
Scripture quotations are from the King James Version, minimally adapted by the author to modern English style. I make no apologies for relying on this old English version; despite the ‘scientific’ inaccuracies of the underlying texts, the cadences, metaphors, and timbre of this version, like Shakespeare’s plays, have passed down into the English language, definitively shaping contemporary spoken and written English, and my use of it here is a reminder that the past is a chain of memory without which we cannot really know the present or imagine the future (x; emphasis mine).
In this quote we see Northcott prioritizing cadences and metaphors over textual accuracy for the sake of strengthening a notion of the past as a “chain of memory.” This seems to capture the work the Bible does throughout the book; Northcott is an engaging writer who draws in biblical texts in a way that does help us know the present and imagine the future through analogies. However, I am afraid that such a strategy, while helpful in some respects, can be insulating and circular, delivering the theologian metaphors for already-arrived-at positions. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have the sort of readings that Northcott utilizes, but that they must be rooted in careful exegesis as well. Northcott’s book would be stronger if he laid out his exegetical decisions more explicitly.
In the end, this book will probably excite one crowd while alienating another. However, with close, sympathetic reading, theologians from various perspectives can find wisdom here, as well as relevant challenges that any Christian thinking about climate change must confront. As Northcott concludes,
The fossil fuels that remain in the depths of the earth are in the hands of God. The climate crisis indicates that, to honour the God who rules over earth and heaven, local and national communities should find ways to conserve their own fossil fuels in the depths of the earth, while at the same time creating and commissioning a new energy economy dependent on sunlight, wind, and biomass, and so re-create the historic and customary connections between nature and culture, land and life, love for neighbour and nature which are central to the Jewish and Christian messianism of empire-challenging love. (316)
Dr. Jacob Shatzer is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Sterling College. He is also Book Review Editor for Ethics here at Books At a Glance.