Alastair McIntosh. HELL AND HIGH WATER: CLIMATE CHANGE, HOPE AND THE HUMAN CONDITION. Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2008. ISBN 978-1841586229
reviewed by Simon Butler
Climate change is undoubtedly the greatest challenge the world has ever faced. For many, just coming to terms with the scale and scope of the problem, let alone acting upon it, can be a deeply confronting experience.
Outright denial that climate change is happening, however, is increasingly being swept to the political fringe. Public knowledge about the science and the impacts of climate change has become too widespread for the denialists to be taken seriously any longer.
Instead, around the world a shift, or rather, an adaptation, has taken place. Almost everyone, it seems, is an environmentalist now. Even when they’re not.
Leaders of the mainstream political parties who’s past policies have greatly contributed to the crisis now assure us they are converts. They stand for action to stop climate change – as long we all keep on consuming and allow the market economy to dictate the pace of the transition.
The oil, car and coal companies have long proclaimed that they too have been won over and even shamelessly advertise themselves as dedicated environmental activists. At same time they push for business as usual policies behind the scenes.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made countless urbane avowals stressing the need to tackle climate change – but in practice government action has been glacial. The Australian government’s weak targets for greenhouse gas reduction make the inadequate cuts foreshadowed by the European Union look underservingly good.
If the ecological crisis itself can be horrible to contemplate, then it is even more traumatic to frankly accept that our political and business elites only acknowledge the crisis as a cynical strategy to dispel community alarm and reduce pressure on them to make the radical changes necessary.
Dig a little deeper, and the task we face appears truly momentous. It is not just the political system that needs to change. The inherently unstable market economy itself, based on the profit motive, creating immense waste and reliant on constant expansion, also needs to be transformed if future generations are to have a chance of a safe climate. And it needs to happen fast.
US ecosocialist Joel Kovel has likened this realisation for some as similar “to learning that a trusted and admired guardian … is in actuality a cold-blooded killer”.
So given this menacing environmental and political context how do we avoid falling victim to pessimism and despair? How can we maintain hope that the solutions can be implemented in time? Alongside campaigning for a sustainable planet should environmentalists advocate counseling and therapy?
Alastair McIntosh, writer and honorary professor of human ecology at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, explores some of the cultural and psychological aspects of the climate change dilemma in Hell and High Water.
McIntosh’s starting point is a challenge posed, but not explored, by journalist George Mombiot in his 2006 book on the environmental crisis, Heat. Mombiot argued that “the campaign against climate change is an odd one,” when compared to all previous social movements. “Strangest of all”, he said, “it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.”
McIntosh writes that “the central thesis of [his] book is that climate change cannot be tackled by technical, economic and political measures alone”. What is also required is a coming to “grips with the roots of life and what gives it meaning”.
Importantly, McIntosh does not intend to dismiss the importance of political action or the urgent necessity of making the technological changes to renewable energy use. Nor does he crudely argue that individuals can simply ‘think’ or ‘imagine’ their way out of this crisis. He stresses collective, political action is necessary for sustainable change to be successful. And he is scathing of the idea that acts of individual abstinence, let alone green consumerism, will be anywhere near enough.
Rather, he attempts to account for the psychological factors that either help or hinder people accepting that the future of the planet rests in their (collective) hands, and then deciding to act on that basis.
The first part of the book summarises some of the most recent evidence of the threat human-induced global warming poses. He makes no claim to be an expert in the science but his account is thorough and convincing. There is little question that the world requires a dramatic shift away from using fossil fuels for energy and agriculture. Failure to act will result in runaway climate change and an uninhabitable planet.
In the second part of the book McIntosh’s makes a (sometimes disjointed) survey of philosophy, religion, culture and literature. His task: to draw out both the positives and negatives of past human experience and gain insight into the ways in which humanity might be able to refashion itself to meet the challenge of the climate emergency.
His discussion includes such seemingly disconnected topics as Plato’s writings on the mythical sunken city of Atlantis, the psychology of Freud and Jung, the sad death of his newborn child, the perils of western consumerism and the moral of the ancient tale The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Although the sheer scope of the topics covered means it’s not always easy to keep track of his argument, the overall impression is optimistic about the capabilities of humanity and is, therefore, hopeful.
There are times, however, where McIntosh’s focus on psychology means he confuses cause and effect.
In a passage scornful of consumer culture he argues “our economic system is so … infantile … and its like that because its psychologically how most of us are. Its hard to grow up because most of us, most of the time are sleepwalkers.”
But if our economic system is destructive and “infantile” this is because it largely suits those who wield political and economic power, not because of the ideas held by working people – whatever their merits. In normal times the dominant ideas promoted reflect the needs of this system rather than the needs of people and the planet.
Care should be taken to not blame people for the failings of the system. It is through the very process of fighting for a sustainable planet that our shared culture and psychology will take new, more fully human, forms.
To his credit McIntosh concludes with an activist, rather than a contemplative, understanding of hope which makes it relevant for climate campaigners today: “Hope is not about sitting back on tenderhooks and waiting for a miracle to happen. Hope is being receptive to a new mind and a new heart. Hope is about setting in place the preconditions that might reconstitute life, and then getting on with it.”
That more and more ordinary people around the world are becoming active in the climate justice movement, and are “getting on with it”, is itself a further case for hope.