Considering Michael Northcott’s “A Political Theology of Climate Change”

Michael Northcott does not shy away from calling the climate crisis an apocalypse. However, he sees it as an apocalypse in the biblical sense of the word, which is to say, climate change makes “visible the relationship which was formerly hidden between the foundation and structure of the earth and human history” (p. 16). In the popular mind the term ‘apocalypse’ is associated with destruction, but in the biblical world it also carries the connotation of revealing something that was hidden. As the line from Northcott’s book quoted above suggests, both senses of the word are appropriate here. The burden of A Political Theology of Climate Change (Eerdmans, 2013) is to show how climate change exposes, as a thoroughgoing failure, the Enlightenment’s disconnection of human society from its environmental moorings.

Northcott’s work is challenging, both in its readability and in his intent to cut to the political core of the current climate crisis. Northcott’s immersion in various works of philosophy and cultural criticism is so deep that his book reads like a chain of book reports, with the prose reduced to “so-and-so says this, but so-and-so says that and someone else has redefined some other category.” Sadly, this kind writing is not uncommon in the academy. Common as it may be, however, it makes discerning Northcott’s own contribution to the discussion difficult. It may also be true that the ‘difficulty’ created by this book-report-style writing contributes to the perceived profundity of Northcott’s work: “If someone’s hard to understand they must be smart, right?”  

While it is important to name these willful shortcomings of A Political Theology of Climate Change, it is still true that Northcott contributes powerfully to a little-charted corner of the scholarly landscape. Though Northcott hides his own thinking behind a string of summaries, the heart of his book is more than a subtle academic exchange. One of the valuable contributions the book makes is in helping us locate the climate crisis in the political philosophy of the Enlightenment. This includes both climate change itself and the inability of the international community to do much about it. Northcott describes the latter as a “crises of cosmopolitan reason” (p. 195). Where this exercise in political philosophy becomes theological is in Northcott’s claim that the contemporary political constellation cannot be understood without reference to its roots in Christianity. Northcott writes: “The Christian belief in progress toward Paradise [took] a radical turn in the Baconian project of progress in the control and domination of life and natural forces of which climate change is the denouement” (p. 199). In sketching the source of the problem in this way, it’s not entirely surprising that Northcott wants to chart the way forward through a retrieval of certain aspects of the Christian tradition. This is, I think, quite right.

The crises of climate change has been brought on by governments enacting the ideals of the Enlightenment. However, climate change ignores borders and cannot be curtailed with the notion of property rights because it occurs in the commons (the atmosphere and oceans). The attempt by governments to double-down on the Enlightenment through market-based solutions—creating morally-blind, self-interested, global carbon markets—has been relatively popular, but still, to this point, a failure. At the same time that governments are making overtures at progress, Northcott tells us, multi-national companies have more fossil fuel reserves on their balance sheets than the earth’s carbon cycle could possible sequester. Cosmopolitan reason would suggest that we can disagree about values and ethics, but still agree on the facts of science and natural laws. However, climate change does not adhere to this divide (p. 168). Thus Northcott concludes: “The contemporary political quest for a shared response to climate change is mired in public disagreement. . . .” And this disagreement is entrenched by Enlightenment ideals, namely the fact that “liberal capitalist democracies are mired in disagreement about the ends and goals of human life” (p. 245). 

Northcott spends hundreds of pages looking to Enlightenment-critics for solutions: Karl Marx, Carl Schmidt, Bruno Latour, Alfred North Whitehead, John Milbank, Alasdair MacIntyre and so on. He borrows key concepts from several. For instance, he finds helpful Whitehead’s claim that modern science creates a “misplaced concreteness” in treating markets, which include human desire and mental states, as though they were natural laws or facts (p. 75). Northcott also appreciates the way Latour restructures the discourse around science with his concept of “actor-networks.” An actor-network is a way of speaking about the entire constellation of subjects/objects producing science, including the natural systems themselves, various organisms, as well researchers and their tools (p. 193). The point is to move beyond the simplistic subject-object distinction. Northcott even describes how writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien try to re-mythologize the relationship between humans and nature. He sees both writers as granting nature a subjectivity that modern science has stripped away (pp. 107-8). We should note that the list of Enlightenment-critics Northcott trots out are almost entirely white men.

However, Northcott’s ferreting out of the philosophical and theological roots of the climate crises is useful. It’s the same sort of service Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche have provided in other domains. These genealogies of the present show us that the way things are is not the way they have to be. Our situation is not inevitable. This alone is powerful. However, in the case of climate change, a shift in perspective does not solve the problem. It is only half the battle, and Northcott knows this.

In the various iterations of his (borrowed) Enlightenment-criticism Northcott advocates for a traditioned, communitarian alternative to contemporary political realities. We should note, given the use of the term ‘communitarian’, that Northcott is critical of Marx, especially his ignorance of the environmental setting of the economy. Northcott’s focus throughout the book on Western Europe and North America, however, ignores the communist experiments in Russia and China (along with their terrible environmental legacies). At various points this allows him to create a straw man out of capitalism. Northcott advocates a tradition-based, virtue-cultivating, transcendent-aware politics. He speaks highly of solar energy creation and ways of life that are less energy intensive by virtue of their local scale. He is particularly enamoured with the Transition Towns movement (pp. 304-307). True to the theological character of his book, Northcott also sees hope in the church and covenant-based justice modeled on the Torah.

Revising the concept of Latour noted above, Northcott says “The actor-networks with the longest history in human communities of place are those associated with religious communities, and in Europe with the Christian Church” (p. 195). Early Christian churches were built on burial sites and thereby included in their actor-networks both the living and the dead. The dead had become a part of the soil (thus “humanizing” it), and their continued presence made it impossible for these communities not to be shaped by tradition. In Christ, the dead remained a part of the community. The worship of churches occurred under the authority and watchful care of Christ, the one who rules not only over human culture, but also over all of creation. The prized virtue in these communities was anti-hierarchical love. This resulted in their practical work of visiting the sick, sharing with the unemployed, and engaging in the work of restoring the paradise that God’s creation was intended to be (p. 197-199). These ancient Christian communities were extensions of the covenantal politics of ancient Israel, built on covenants that included people, God, and the land (p. 208). This tradition-based polity was oriented, not to consolidate power or increase control over nature, but to maintain justice and limit the overreach of the wealthy. Northcott sees this all as a powerful critique of Enlightenment politics and the ecological legacy it wrought. What we need, Northcott thinks, is a dose of the Apostle Paul’s revolutionary Messianism. Paul’s emphasis on the universal covenant and the primacy of the call to love the neighbour initiates a politics of both the scale and character required by the climate crisis (pp. 282-287).

One comes away from Northcott’s book seeing the crux of the challenge as a public and collective problem that simply cannot be addressed through the Enlightenment ideals of individualism, freedom, property rights, and hedonistic pursuit. Northcott is right to see the climate crises as a collision of these ideals with simple planetary boundaries. And he is right to say that this crises cannot be addressed without deep change. Northcott makes a powerful intellectual case. And he is masterfully combining disciplines in a potent and rare way. Sadly, the needlessly clumsy communication in A Political Theology of Climate Change means that fewer people will benefit from his work than otherwise might. 

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