Broken Covenant

Michael Northcott has written a superb analysis of climate change and how it relates to technology, economics, and public-policy issues. More important, he has done it at a critical time and from a distinctively Christian perspective.

Northcott’s practical concern is how to maintain an acceptable level of carbon emissions in both the developed and the developing worlds. His ethical focus is on how to create a just and equitable approach to the physical environment itself. He makes clear that while most of the scientific arguments over global warming and climate change are now settled, the moral discussion lags in its infancy stage.

Northcott, a professor of ethics at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity, writes convincingly of the urgent need to deal with climate change and its effects. In so doing, he offers an alternative to both despairing “doomsters” (who believe we are beyond the point of no return) and practitioners of denial (who choose either to look the other way or to assume naively that human ingenuity will come up with a technological fix for whatever threatens us). He takes both extremes seriously but directs his main discussion at the vast majority of people who sense there is a problem but aren’t sure how serious it is or how to address it. His approach is to frame the larger issues in terms of particular ecological challenges—for example, those facing a eucalyptus rain forest in Tasmania or the difficulty of farming cereal crops in Kentucky. In his hands, these make serious, gripping reading.

Northcott argues from a decisively Christian standpoint. He marshals evidence from Scripture to convey a powerful sense of God as creator, humanity as called to stewardship, and creation as suffering at the hands of sinful human beings. He notes that in the Hebrew Bible the climate of the earth “responds to human idolatry and immorality,” and that “the great biblical story of salvation is vitally tied up with the liberation of nature.” But A Moral Climate’s attention to the structures of nature will make it resonate for other religious communities as well, particularly those from monotheistic traditions.

A Moral Climate argues that the only way we can understand our predicament is by attending to the intrinsic connection between “global warming, modern imperialism, and neoliberal global capitalism.” Furthermore, the only way for the global community to alter its current trajectory toward ecological destruction is to commit itself to sustainable patterns of life in democratically ordered local communities.

Informed by Stanley Hauerwas’s use of narrative theology, Northcott writes that the stories and practices of various communities shape their habits and self-understanding. His own vision for both church and civil society centers on recovering our capacity for rich human relationships in vital local communities. This sense of human sociality is complemented by an account of creation as an ordered whole, wherein human beings dwell. Christians must become more conscious of how the modern story of scientific “progress” and technical rationality has led to their alienation from nature, particularly when the latter is understood as something to be manipulated for economic benefit. The Christian tradition offers important correctives to this attitude in its embrace of the virtue of humility, its openness to the beauty of creation, and its sense of the radical dependence of all on the creator. Such dependence leads to one of Northcott’s recurrent themes: the need to recognize our limits and to trust in the “authority of creation.” This sense of dependence puts us in a better position to appreciate the beauty of creation and to cultivate an appropriate attitude toward it.

Northcott rejects forthrightly the assumption that the common good is best promoted through endless economic growth. He proposes a “radical ecological reform of the culture of making,” and cautions that, on its own, a new global carbon market will not achieve sufficient emission reductions but merely give rise to a type of “carbon colonialism” that commodifies the earth’s atmosphere and forests. Instead, Northcott proposes an individual tax on greenhouse-gas production (with fuel credits for the poorest citizens, to avoid the tax’s regressive aspects).

A Moral Climate is impossible to summarize or critique in a brief review. It deals with critically important moral and political issues, and does this in the larger context of Christian social ethics. It connects ecological responsibility with important religious motifs like pilgrimage, stewardship, and atonement. The author proposes a way of life that flows from biblical values and a recovery of the rhythms of life, including leisure and a contemplative love of creation and community. There are tough questions about our consumerist behavior, eating habits, and devotion to money-making.

Northcott writes in a clear, logical, informed, and passionate manner. He calls for strong medicine as the only remedy for a potentially lethal disease, one that most of the human race is only vaguely aware of. Already a major figure in environmental theological ethics, he has written a “must read” book for anyone concerned about the fate of humanity and the planet.

Published in the 2008-11-07 issue: 

Stephen J. Pope is a professor of theological ethics at Boston College. He is the author of A Step Along the Way: Models of Christian Service (Orbis, 2015).

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