Book Review: Riders on the Storm, by Alastair McIntosh

If Ian Bradley’s ‘God is Green’ is a primer for green theology, Professor Alastair McIntosh’s ‘Riders on the Storm’ is a handbook for well-informed and authoritative activism. Two hundred pages  bursting with quotable and meme-able sayings to reflect- and act – on.

As activists and pastors, actors and prophets in this spiritual, environmental, ecumenical  movement, [EcoCongregation Scotland ] we  seldom have time or space to read every book that’s going. 

To be practitioners, in an age  of urgency, we seldom have the luxury only to be students. Reading matter on which we can hitch a ride, without being taken for one – not even the pleasure cruise we think we’ve paid for – turns out particularly rewarding.

With startlingly frequent permissions to ‘skim over’ this or that chapter, and an apology in the acknowledgments that this, actually quite short, book is twice its intended length, Alastair is clearly mindful of that. However, even if you think you know what you ought to know about the climate emergency ( the more pedestrian ‘climate change’ is used throughout) this small library of interwoven books will repay attention, and perhaps non-sequential  reading. “Be warned that I love few things better than moving from hard science to spiritual reflections by a Hebridean loch”.

And it’s seriously up to date in late 2020. Great preparation for COP in Glasgow next year.

As a public speaker,  Alastair has the charming knack of speaking with authority: irritating, independent-minded, but the twenty-three pages of meticulous notes at the back of this volume should leave you in no doubt of his rigour; why he’s hard to dismiss, and why he pulls off what others might see as the scandalous trick of combining the insightful power of science, academia, poetry and eclectic spirituality.  

 We discover why the notoriously cautious  IPCC ( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is “an incredible organisation”,  and also how to interpret its jargon of “highly likely” “unlikely” , and so on.  We unpack the  crucial difference between emissions and concentration.  We are forced to reflect on why “Climate change denial is a waste of time, but climate change alarmism is a theft of time”.

“My view is that if a case can’t be made without it being over-egged, either the case is not valid or those to whom it is being pitched are being spun. “The unembellished science is quite bad enough to be good enough”.  For the reader, anxious for the tide to come in of radical actions and commitment, have patience: the ninth wave is on the way! (“‘Sustainable economic growth’ . There’s an oxymoron if ever there was one”.)

This writer has the courage to be discerningly, compassionately critical of friends and movements like Extinction Rebellion, without falling prey to the idolatry of false equivalence: 

““There is no substitute for balance. That said, the balance says that only by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and thereby stabilising and preferably heavily reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, can very serious future risks be averted.”

“What if nations were to dig into their treasuries of poetry, song, literature, mythology and spirituality, and draw out oft-forgotten material..” Precisely for those who approach climate change from a faith perspective, this is excellent advice. “ “If the journey of the head looks like solar panels, heat pumps and green new deals, what of the journey of the heart?”

Alastair  delights in myths, and values their capacity to point to truth, but is ruthlessly hard on any that are wantonly unfounded. Pseudoscience of every kind  has a bloody nose from this radical moderate who, whilst walking the walk in personal commitment, refuses to deny his- and our – complicity in a situation of threat to life and being even beyond that of warfare. “Climate will remain the most pressing  global leadership issue of our time.”  Although facts, figures, and peer-reviewed science provide a playing field, with this book, we gain  courage to assert that spiritual emptiness, the clearances of the soul, constitute  the more determinative malaise to be addressed in building resilience of community and planet. As in Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, justice for the planet is absolutely inseparable from ‘integral human development’.  Justice and ecology are near-identical siblings.

As we each only can,  Alastair brings out of his treasure of a lifetime’s activism and study, treasures of experience which inescapably ground the crisis in our own homelands and coastlands, refuting with humour many of the denialist staples, for instance, about the small amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, comparing it to  mine but dangerous blood alcohol levels: “Our whisky is quite the best, but at 414ppm you’re banned.”

 If we might be tempted  by the ‘devil we know’, Alastair makes a point of introducing us to all the devils we need to know. Though face to face with Pacific islanders – fast becoming the go-to example of a comfortingly distant crisis –  we’re left in no doubt that, with sea-level  rises in our lifetime “ . On the beaches of  Harris and Berneray, “it’s happening before our eyes” 

This should be the end of any Scottish complacency, any delay in pulling out “all the stops of sustainable development”.  Or of reclaiming  the wilder spiritual resources, so often born in times of trouble, that providence and love have made available to humanity.

Hope-lessness is no valid option, nor to take refuge in pernicious narratives of the pointlessness of individual action and commitment, indeed Alastair conveys a heartfelt case for doing whatever you can, without succumbing to burnout and toxic indispensability .

“As with the making of the proverbial stone soup, if we can all add just one ingredient, we can end up with a rich broth round the hearth”.