Michael Northcott: A Political Theology of Climate Change

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2013
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Reviewed by Spencer Cummins

The bombardment of media coverage regarding issues regarding global warming, climate change, and environmental politics assault the modern viewer at every angle.  From progressive to conservative viewpoints, we are facing a crisis as to which voice is most trustworthy and worth our attention.  At the same time, believers of every Christian tradition recognize the need for judicious analysis of the climate change quandary.  Into the mass of connective tissue that holds together climate change politics steps Michael S. Northcott, Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh.  His new book, A Political Theology of Climate Change, is a riveting in-depth analysis of both anthropogenic climate change and theological reflection on creation.  Rather than run the risk of bringing out the outmoded conflict of political polarizing views on the climate change issue, Northcott provides the reader with both the climate change science that is behind the issues and counters the philosophical underpinnings of the view that nature and culture, science and ethics are at odds with each other at their foundations.  Engaging with writers as broad as J.R.R. Tolkien, Carl Schmitt, Bruno Latour, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Northcott digs deeply into climate change science and deeply reflects on the world that God has made.

The first chapter targets the ‘second Copernican revolution’ caused by the repositioning of man as the shaper of planetary history (22).  Labeling this turn of events as Anthropocene, Northcott characterizes this movement in history as being held by man as controller, in a state of god-like power over the destiny of the earth.  Therefore, the problem arises very quickly here when climate change scientists seek to report their findings (physics of the earth), and are rebuffed by politicians for supposedly lobbying for political ends.  If man is the arbiter of not only reason and rights, but also climate change, then the science of climate change is only redeemable as its suits the desires of the most vociferous.  The description of an Anthropocene narrative is drawn out in contrast to a Christocene narrative in which Christ stands at the helm of his creation.   The trajectory that comes out of this view with respect to a climate apocalyptic view takes into consideration the narrative beginning in Genesis journeying through to Revelation is one of restoration, not domination.  Northcott beautifully weaves together a synthesis of concepts that the early Christians used concerning the restoration of the created order, namely the social body of Christians and the Eucharist (38).  These early practices of fellowship and table are political to the extent that they resist the secular liturgy that divorces nature from culture, bodies from souls, and subjective from objective realms (45).  Renewal, restoration, and proper cultivation are all part of both Israel’s Scriptures as well as the practices of the early Christian community regarding nature.
Much of Northcott’s book is a deliberate wading in the waters of the philosophy behind climate change politics.  Part of this investigation behind climate change is the recognition of certain figures that sharpen the underpinnings of the arguments behind climate change.  Concerning Francis Bacon, Northcott writes, “For Bacon, human beings truly know only what they make…..By contrast (from Descartes), Bacon found a way back from the mind to the real world after Copernicus through a revised and more empirical approach to sense perception: the correspondence between human sense perceptions and physical reality could be reconstructed through the empirical method.” (103)  The great vision of empirical science verifying new discoveries in nature is a double edged sword however.  The greater knowledge about the earth and the anthropogenic effects on the earth should necessitate a measure of ‘seminal responsibility,’ however, the goal Bacon finally resorted to was the ultimate happiness of man and his progress over the cosmos at the expense of nature.  Political theology for Bacon was a means of reinstituting the notion that progress was humanity’s aim alongside a broader utopian ideal that held science in salvific proportions.

The preponderance of sources in this book is amazing.  One such reference point that helps us anchor the discussion of climate change is found in the comments relating to the work of Sergei Bulgakov.  Northcott writes, “Hedonism for Bulgakov is the characteristic sin of modern political economy, just as asceticism – particularly ascesis for the poor – was the besetting sin of the pre-capitalist era.” (156-7)  Bulgakov repeatedly drew connection points between the ‘spiritual state of a nation’ and its economic life.  Luxury tears apart the wisdom that to repair what is broken is better than to just discard the broken.  Secondly, the lure of luxury does not produce a moral and social posture toward others and nature, but a rather brutish individualism.  Bringing the discussion of climate change into proper perspective while relating to the writings of Giambattista Vico, Northcott writes, “The climate crisis is not a threat apart from culture.  It is a threat to human culture as it is situated in nature.” (109)  Vico was transparent in bringing back the human side of the sciences, which speaks to the moral obligations of human discovery and militates against a power over nature trajectory.
The emotivist/preferential dictates of individuals are indicative of the modern problems with climate change science/discussion.  Drawing on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Northcott writes, “..the attempt to ground morality in emotions, rationality, or utility neglects the transcendent roots of moralityin human and natural history and, ultimately, in the divine origination and destiny of human life on earth.” (248)  What climate change scientists point to as facts about fossil fuel consumption are both facts about the way things are on the earth and a moral judgment.  But, many see these ‘facts’ as politically motivated tools of oppression or in many ways feelings about the way humans view the earth.  Feeling based assertions tend to squash historical and moral arguments from the past and instead deaden the discussion regarding climate change politics.
Far from providing a blanket answer to the growing problem caused by fossil fuel pollution, Northcott sees a way forward in the burgeoning commitment of people with a shared vision.  By chronicling the Transition movement in England and looking away from the nation-state to provide sufficient answers, the way forward is the combination of local collective efforts and sustained moral commitment on behalf of the members of many associations and communities.  The rich tradition of Christian fellowship and the ethic of loving one’s neighbor points to a wealth of wisdom in moving the climate change discussion along.  No, there is no magic spell that can cast aside the fossil fuel challenges that we face, but the combination of a rigorous rejection of the nature/culture divide and a community based vision will help climate change initiatives to hold sway over an individualist culture.
With wisdom and clarity, Michael Northcott pushes the reader the know the truth about climate change and see the Christian vision of the restoration of all things as leading the way to a better political theology of climate change.