Riders on the Storm by Alastair McIntosh
Riders on the Storm is a book about wisdom. We can read a definition of wisdom and still not know what it is. Perhaps only when we hear wisdom expressed and experience the connection that it brings, do we recognise it. Wisdom is a rich, deep, inclusive understanding of a situation. Not an opinion or a viewpoint, but a tender, intuitive insight. Wisdom requires openness, experience, love and knowledge. It is a product of age and experience, it is rare and valuable.
So it came as a great delight to encounter a book as wise, elegant and engaging as Riders on the Storm. I have read a great deal about the climate crisis and the many elements that combine to make it so dangerous. Most writers, quite reasonably, tend to write from their position of strength about what they understand the best. Climate scientists, moral philosophers, technologists and journalists all have their own viewpoints on the crisis. These viewpoints are all valuable and I would encourage the reader to engage with as many of them as possible. But it is a bold person who attempts to bring multiple understandings of the crisis into one place. Alastair McIntosh has done this very successfully.
He starts with history. Whilst humans had been laying waste to their surroundings since they first existed, the roots of the climate crisis can be traced to 1850 when reliable instruments first started to show us how levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were increasing year on year. This is the beginning of the truly global crisis. Kill all the buffalo in one place or pollute a particular river and the effects are localised. Continually raise the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the whole world is affected. McIntosh continually dances back and forth between the global and the local. In particular, he uses the history of the Isle of Lewis where he grew up as the representation of local. He knows this place intimately and draws out the global themes in the turbulent history of the island.
Next, he walks us through climate science. He reminds us that the science in the IPCC reports adheres strictly to the scientific method, the gold standard for achieving knowledge about the world. The IPCC then imposes its own review process on top of the usual method. This makes the conclusions of the IPCC some of the most rigorously tested science there has ever been. We may not like the conclusions, but we should not doubt their accuracy.
Having established that all of humanity is embroiled in a global crisis, what is to be done about it? This brings us to the politics of climate change. Leaders and governments are used to dealing with threats from other countries or groups; the military is put on standby. But a global threat from nature itself is something entirely new. Grand conferences like the Earth Summit have been held, but the emissions continue ever upwards. McIntosh is ruthless in his analysis; most pathways that follow the conventional cycle of evolving technologies are ineffective, unfeasible, or have massive social justice implications. We need something more radical than a new wave of power generation methods.
Radical is a key phrase here. There is a tendency to stick with the known, the safe, the familiar. In other words, business as usual. Radicalism is clearly called for to tackle the impending climate emergency. We will need to name those actors that are doing the damage and persuade or legislate them to change. These actors know who they are and the consequences of what they are doing. Unsurprisingly, these actors are spending large amounts of their money on protecting their business model for the future. Professional climate sceptics and deniers abound and McIntosh recounts his encounters with some of them.
Unfortunately, the deniers entreaties to continue with business-as-normal and not to worry our heads about this nonsense, do find willing listeners. McIntosh starts to address this in chapter 5 and it is at this point, a good, clear, well-researched book starts to become something greater.
Consider. We trust scientists to create and develop the knowledge, technologies and medicines that make modern life what it is. Now the scientists are saying that our civilization is under threat from the mistakes that we have made. Urgent change is needed. Yet fully 50% of the emissions that are doing so much damage have been made since the first Earth Summit in 1992. The world isn’t taking any notice. Why aren’t we listening to the climate scientists, surely they can be trusted? Why aren’t we acting as if our house is on fire? Because as Greta Thunberg so memorably told us, it is.
Why are we ignoring the flames? What is wrong with us?
We fell. There was a time when humans lived by their wits, hunting and gathering. Then we developed settlements, agriculture and societies. Those societies weren’t simply about mutual aid and pooling of resources, they also included systems of division and control. Some people demanded more of the resources than others and defined the deprived others as not fit to have the resources. Conflict over resources developed, both between individuals and groups. Systems of thought appeared which supported these conflicts. Humanity developed complex societies that used convoluted systems of control to ensure that the most powerful retained their position. These included land grabs, slavery, colonisation, empire, monarchs, debt and puppet religions. The most contemporary manifestation of these systems is consumerism. People are persuaded that material goods will bring satisfaction and are then coerced into making the acquisition of these objects of desire the main focus of their lives. Yet these desires can never satisfy because the relentless machine of advertising and persuasion creates more desire and a greater emptiness to fill.
From being creatures at ease with our world and our peers, we fell into a way of life that makes nature and our fellow humans our adversaries.
We no longer live in the Garden of Eden where every need is met. We live in a Concrete Jungle of Delusion where whatever we have is never enough. Because we want more and more, we approve of the consumption of the world’s resources to attempt to satisfy this need. At our present place in history, the resources can no longer keep up and the waste generated by manufacturing and consumption is overwhelming. But faced with the calls to change, we are still driven by the same needs and find ways to avoid the calls of the wise. We are addicted to our way of life and the damage it does. Addiction is about revelling in the high and ignoring the truth of the low. The alcoholic is ruining their body with excess alcohol. Humanity is ruining its planet with excess consumption. And we are doing it willingly.
When climate science is considered objectively, it is terrifying. Our way of life is under threat. All that is familiar is set to be swept away, which is bad enough. But when human beings are plunged into uncertainty, they react unpredictably. So there is every possibility that our very existence is under threat. If not through starvation, heat or drowning, by our own violent and foolish responses.
Terror does strange things to the brain. McIntosh writes about an “irruption”, an experience so intense that normal responses are overwhelmed. But unlike in our hunter-gatherer infancy, there is no fierce animal or human opponent. There is just fear, confusion and a need to be guided.
In indigenous communities, guidance comes from the elders and the shaman, those who are older, more experienced and who have learned more about what it is to be human. Our ancestors had access to these resources. Sadly, in the modern world, we do not. Whilst enormous resources of knowledge are available to us, the kind of knowledge that connects us to a deeper version of ourselves, the wisdom that helps us to evolve, is in very short supply.
McIntosh talks about this in terms of spirituality, rediscovering and deepening the human connection with the authentic and the divine. As a Quaker, it is natural for him to do so. He does this in a thoroughly inclusive way, citing Hindu, Jewish and Islamic sources. He finds truth in secular sources too, drawing extensively on the work of Carl Jung. Finding the truth is vital to McIntosh. By dancing between local and global, Christian and Hindu, modern and ancient, he looks for the truths that stand up in all these contexts. The truth is always true, no matter where it is found.
Truth is at the centre of this book. If we do the work of scholarship, development and spiritual growth, we will be able to see clearly what is going on around us. We will understand the enormity of this global calamity and what caused it. Our hearts will demand the urgency of response that is truly required. Crucially, we will be able to see through the falsehoods of those who claim that our capitalist, industrial, consumerist way of life is not a problem and that we can fix all of this by engaging in green consumerism, or that business as usual must not be disrupted.
The climate emergency is not a natural disaster. It is the collective outcome of countless numbers of human beings inflicting more and more indignities over hundreds of years on the only planet in the vastness of space that we know supports life. Human beings have put the future of existence itself in jeopardy. If we annihilate life on Earth, as far as we know, there is none anywhere else. If we, by our collective folly, extinguish life on Earth, we extinguish it anywhere in the cosmos.
If that thought terrifies you, good, it means there is a glimmer of hope. If enough of us are terrified and seek out the authentic answers to this crisis, maybe we can do enough to save ourselves from it. We will need wise men and women, shamans, guides and teachers. We need to renounce the destructive and reductive parts of ourselves and build better people whose influence will be felt in the world.
I commend this book to you as a genuinely visionary examination of the climate crisis. McIntosh does not give us a list of statistics to memorise but rather helps us to see where the climate crisis has come from. It comes from the fallen nature of human beings themselves. Without addressing who we are as people and by extension what our societies are really like, we will never muster the will and wisdom to turn the crisis around.