The Theological Climate

A Political Theology of Climate Change by Michael S. NorthcottA Political Theology of Climate Change – by Michael S. Northcott

Reviewed by John Reader


Michael Northcott has published on the environmental crisis before, this is possibly his most important book. It is based on research carried out between 2008 and 2011 – and one always has to note these dates as external events in this area shift so swiftly – but is brought up to date with reference to Bruno Latour’s Gifford Lectures from early 2013. It is notable not simply because of the depth of scholarship, but also because Northcott does employ some of the important philosophical resources, Latour, Stengers and Whitehead, that many others in the theological world have yet to register. As we shall see however, his conclusions in the final section of the book are perhaps less convincing, but do serve to raise the central questions.

Chapter 1 begins to lay out the contours of the debate and presents many of the disturbing details of the consequences of climate change. These include not only the physical impact of the predicted rise in temperatures and subsequent rise in sea levels, and therefore threat to major centres such as London, New York and Tokyo, but also the potential for conflict created by carbon wars and the struggles to access vital resources. As many national security agencies now acknowledge in their planning, climate change presents as big a threat to global stability as international terrorism. Hence the CIA is quoted as saying that climate change “will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage”. Northcott also correctly tackles the vexed subject of the climate deniers and recent attempts to discredit the scientists who point towards the dangers now facing the planet, and argues that this is a politics, and indeed a political theology, not simply a natural scientific theory:  “because, like the Apocalyptic of the New Testament, it indicates the imminence of a moment of judgement on the present form of civilization, and the end of an era in which humans expanded their influence over the earth without regards to planetary limits and without apparent consequences”.

As Latour has noted, climate scientists are surprised to be called lobbyists by climate deniers, but they should not be so as they need to recognize the political dimension of their findings and reports. The rest of the chapter enters into discussion of the categorization of the different eras of human activity, the Anthropocene; Agrarianism; the Christocene, and then moves into Latour’s examination of “the modern” which is premised upon a division between culture and nature; between subject and object, and between matter and bodies. “Nature is made new by being turned into scientific facts, and so brought under the power of knowledge through the mediation of experimental physics, chemistry and biology. Culture is made new as the sphere of moral and political fabrication… to be modern is to affirm this new separation of powers”. It is this separation that needs to be challenged, as to be modern is to deny that the weather is political, or that politics influences the climate. Otherwise the claims of the climate scientists will appear an “incomprehensible hybrid”. Climate science requires a politics which is cosmic and not merely rational. I would agree with Northcott that the work of writers such as Latour and Whitehead is now essential as we come to terms with needing to portray a different relationship between nature and culture and between the human and the non-human.

Chapter Two pursues these themes by looking in particular at the pivotal and damaging role that coal plays in climate change, working with the arguments of James Hansen that “coal-fired power stations are the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”. Coal is still the largest remaining fossil fuel reserve of carbon dioxide, and could power the planet for another 200 years at the present rate of energy use. New coal-fired electric power plants are being built in Brazil, China, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa and Turkey. The impact of this is likely to be disastrous, if Hansen is correct. Worldwide, more than 1200 new coal-fired power stations are planned in the next 20 years. We are reminded of the effects of coal and smog in the recent past in London and indeed the social impact of mining itself on various communities. Northcott then links this to developments in modern physics and our understandings of space and time, moving into an important discussion of Whitehead’s critique of the culture-nature divide, using especially his concept of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” to analyse how the idea of the market has taken on an inappropriate significance. We need to understand ourselves as “composite beings in the universe… in the process of becoming and not as a collation of fixed or stable entities”.

Chapter Three takes us into perhaps the more familiar territory of our dependence upon oil and the arguments about peak oil, before turning this time to Vico as another source of criticism of the nature-culture divide.

Chapter Four follows this up with discussion of the “cult of carbon” and some of the proposed means of trying to alleviate this – most of which are seen as simply a way of shifting the problems rather than addressing them directly. Markets in carbon indulgences are not to be promoted as a real solution. Political approaches such as Marxism are examined, but, again, this is viewed as being promethean, and based on the assumption that humans can solve all the problems through their own powers of control. The climate crisis reveals the limitations of both capitalism and Marxism.

So, as we then see in Chapter Five, can our hopes be pinned on international negotiations and the influence of human reason as various agreements are hammered out (and then invariably not fully implemented even when compromise decisions are reached)? Northcott is not optimistic: “If climate change is not only a scientific datum but a shaper of social and political experience, then liberal democratic capitalism is itself built upon an illusion: the illusion that the corporately sustained engine of economic growth can spread freedom and material prosperity to all seven billion humans on the planet… provided they acknowledge the supremacy of Enlightenment reason, and, in particular, economic rationality, as the means to progress the human condition”. In many ways this summarizes Northcott’s argument throughout the book.

What is Northcott’s solution though? Chapters Six and Seven move into more explicitly theological territory, and here I find him less convincing. There is quite a surprising, to my mind anyway, discussion of the work of Carl Schmitt on the long crisis of global capitalism and use of his critiques of both liberalism and romanticism: “Schmitt locates the political in the interstices between air, earth, and sea, and in the agential role of earthly forces in the formation of the borders and laws of nations, and hence of the political”. One of the dilemmas in all responses to climate change is how much weight is to be placed on influencing international politics and how much to try to change individual behaviour, or should we simply promote concepts such as resilience as the only way to adapt to what now seems inevitable? Where do we go from here and to what extent can traditional Christianity contribute to proposed solutions? Northcott talks about “virtues for living in the Anthropocene” with a discussion of MacIntyre and the need for moral communities. The examples given are those of Transition Towns (now Transition Initiatives in fact) and Eco-Congregations, although he does acknowledge that these, in themselves, are never going to be enough to tackle the global scale of the problems.

The final chapter addresses the questions of revolutionary messianism and the end of empire, and concludes with a long section on William Blake: “consciousness is embodied and mediated through the sensory and imaginative apprehension of the material world, and this includes consciousness of divinity as well as nature and humanity”. Even Hardt and Negri and their concept of “the multitude” become part of the debate, all of which is fine, but does feel rather like clutching at straws.

Having said that, I would recommend this book as a crucial contribution to a debate that political and public theology has yet to take seriously enough, and especially commend Northcott’s use of Latour and Whitehead as central philosophical sources as we struggle to work towards a new understanding of the relation between nature and culture, the human and the non-human. He is surely right that this is now a vital subject for Political Theology.

John Reader is Associate Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation, University of Chester and Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Oxford Diocese. Publications include Heterotopia co-written with Caroline Baillie and Jens Kabo: A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good co-written with Chris Baker and Tom James.

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