Riders on the Storm

Alastair McIntosh

Birlinn, £9.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Ecologist Alastair McIntosh’s latest work could not be more timely. The author of Soil and Soul, about the community buy-out of Eigg, has turned his attention to global warming. This original response to the problem is published only months after it was announced that the last decade has been the hottest on record.

Subtitled The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being, Riders on the Storm is a multifaceted, occasionally dizzying analysis of the present situation and the arguments that rage over the planet’s urgent plight. Originally a geographer, McIntosh was raised on Lewis. This work is book-ended by his native heath, but the Hebridean influence on his awareness of the fragility of the natural world permeates every page.

Setting out the basic science in the opening chapters, McIntosh embarks on an ambitious, hard-hitting summation of the why, when, where and whither of environmental danger. He looks at those who question the evidence, such as the “climate sceptic” lobby group Global Warming Policy Foundation, headed by Baron (Nigel) Lawson. Of climate change deniers, he writes, “invariably, in my experience, they have been white, male and middle class, and I usually get the impression, unwilling to consider any restraint upon their lifestyles”.

At the other end of the spectrum are the scaremongers – not a term he uses – whose predictions are apocalyptic. Among this tendency, which includes Extinction Rebellion and eco-prophet Greta Thunberg, are figures such as Jim Bendell, who believes we’ll all be wiped out in 10 years. His manifesto, Deep Adaptation, includes passages such as: “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life ... You will become malnourished. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death ...”

As one climate physicist tells McIntosh, who is of a similar mindset, doomism and despair that exceeds the science is “extremely destructive and extremely influential ... Good scientists aren’t alarmist. Our message may be – and in fact is – alarming”.

Riders on the Storm offers a succinct scientific snapshot of the predicament, followed by lengthy and sometimes long-winded reflections on the spiritual dimension of coping with the consequences of our despoliation of the planet. It is this that makes it stand out from most other titles on the subject. McIntosh’s interest lies in looking beyond the facts, to the philosophical and religious dimension in which he frames the crisis. It was Carl Jung who said: “People who know nothing about nature are of course neurotic, for they are not adapted to reality.” In Jung’s day, nobody could have predicted the scale of our alienation from the natural world, yet he understood the defence mechanisms people put up to ward off threat and uncertainty.

There are echoes of Richard Holloway in McIntosh’s breadth of literary, spiritual and linguistic references, from song lyrics and poetry to the texts of the great world religions. Where he is most persuasive, however, is when he narrows the global picture to the socially and environmentally calamitous stories of Lewis, and of Papua New Guinea, where he worked for several years. When he brings leaders from the South Seas to Lewis, he witnesses the ways in which far flung parts of the planet, which might seem a world apart, are closely interconnected.

More spiritual guide than scientific manual, Riders on the Storm offers a profusion of ideas, written with insight, honesty and wit. Although McIntosh is a Quaker, his book is not restful or quiet, but it is prayerful. Of all its invocations to a deeper contemplation of where we stand and how we might react, TS Eliot’s lines from the Four Quartets, with which he opens the book, stand out: “Not fare well,/ But fare forward, voyagers.” What’s the alternative?