BOOK REVIEW: RIDERS ON THE STORM
“It is with the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it, that the passion of this book is concerned.” Alistair McIntosh is a Scottish ecologist based on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Riders on the Storm (1) interweaves reflections on the scientific, social-ecological and spiritual aspects of the climate crisis. He writes from the standpoint of 2020, where this overarching existential threat enfolds the more limited and specific crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The early chapters consider the current science, “sticking closely to the peer-reviewed publications of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. There are individual chapters on land; oceans and ice; and on 1.5 degrees. They make it clear that scientific truth-telling in this complex domain is a work of establishing levels of confidence on how climate change is unfolding, and “narrowing uncertainty”, rather than establishing facts. McIntosh upholds the IPCC approach, “for all its limitations”, as a peer-reviewed, panel-appraised, consensus-settled science. He sees it as an outstanding model of co-operative working and the most reliable route to take.
The next chapters look at the wider community’s response to the scientific evidence, given the tension between what the science says and how different groups use it. McIntosh discusses the denialism spear-headed by lobby groups disguised as ‘think-tanks’ and their disastrous effects on public discourse, such as the false balance practised by media organisations, including until recently the BBC, in holding futile ‘debates’ between climate scientists and deniers. He also discusses the roles of climate change contrarianism and dismissal in the current moment when outright denial has become harder to maintain. McIntosh goes on to look at the psychology of denial amongst the wider public. He has a section on the intimidation of the scientists themselves, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories accusing their whole community of deliberate deception, and its psychological effects on them.
On the other side of the argument, McIntosh has a chapter on ‘rebellion and leadership in climate movements’. He sees Greta Thunberg as authentically taking on the traditional prophet’s role, which is “to pay heed to their inner calling, to read the outer signs of the times, and to speak to the conditions found upon the land to call the people and their leaders back to what gives life”. McIntosh does have concerns about ‘alarmism’ among some activists. Without giving it a false equivalence with denialism in terms of damage it may do, he sees a tendency to edge out of step with the science, “pushing a point to make a point”. He identifies this as a tendency within Extinction Rebellion (XR) (2), though not extending to XR as a whole. In this context, he also discusses the difference between his understanding of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s grounded way of peace and social transformation, and instrumentalist versions of non-violent direct action applied simply as a tactic.
After an ambivalent consideration of proposed technical solutions to climate change, the later chapters “shift into story-telling mode” in order to “enter further into depth psychology and beyond”. McIntosh asks questions familiar from his other work (3): what does it take to reconnect with the earth, with spirituality, and with one another – with soil, soul and society? McIntosh’s own work is grounded in close-to-the-ground community development informed by the lens of human ecology, with its strong focus on interactions between the social environment and the natural environment in which we live. McIntosh emphasises grass roots led consensus building and decision making, drawing on emancipatory action research methodologies developed largely in the global south. The spiritual dimension of this, for McIntosh, lies essentially in “the interiority of outward things”, the profound interconnection of all things, and “the meanings of life as love made manifest”. Traditional stories and the wisdom they hold have a valuable role to play in such a project. In an earlier post (4) I extracted a Chinese rainmaker story presented in Riders in the Storm. Within the book, the value of traditional wisdoms is explored through a meeting between Hebridean and Melanesian community leaders and activists when the latter visited Lewis as guests of the former.
I found this book a rich and dense exploration of where we now stand with the existential threat posed by climate crisis. It does not read like a novel but is worth the effort and a great resource. McIntosh himself urges readers to use it in whatever way we want. To anyone committed to “the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it”, this book has something to say.
(1) Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, 2020
(2) For a review by an XR insider, see https://earthbound.report/2020/08/24/book-review-riders-on-the-storm-by-alastair-mcintosh/
(3)Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power London, England: Aurum Press, 2001