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The Eco-Worrier Reviews "Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being”

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

“Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being.” Alastair McIntosh. Birlinn, Edinburgh 2020. Paperback £9.99.

There is a tendency for some books on the climate crisis to over-compensate for science-denial by going too far in the opposite direction, by scaring readers into thinking that, in the immortal words of Private Frazer; “We’re all dooooomed.”

In his new book Scottish environmentalist Alastair McIntosh carefully steers a middle course which echoes a more recent popular phrase in that he insists on being “guided by the science.” He is resolute in sticking to the peer-reviewed research and findings of the IPCC, the International Panel on Climate Change.

McIntosh begins with a description of the wonderfully incongruous arrival of a group of visitors from an area of Papua New Guinea where he had worked in his younger days as a VSO volunteer in his original home village on the Isle of Lewis. The different cultures find that they share a great deal, whether from environmental degradation, the decline of local culture and the impact of big business. The Papuans had come to Lewis primarily to investigate social issues such as land reform and the empowerment of local communities.

The effects of local climate change on everything from rising sea levels to the increase in the number of ticks and the arrival of the bluetongue virus - deadly to sheep and carried by midges - were relatable by the Papuans to their own problems at home.

In his early chapters McIntosh concentrates on explaining the IPCC findings and forecasts for the world’s various ecosystems, with chapters on "Impacts on the World of Ice and Oceans,” “Climate Change on Land and Human Life” and “Containing Global Warming to Within 1.5C.”

It is startling to discover that among the IPCC’s requirements to attain this target new technologies must be developed to extract existing CO2 from the atmosphere at the astonishing rate of 30billion tons per year throughout the next century. Bearing in mind that CO2 comprises just 0.04% of the atmosphere, the remaining 99.96% of predominantly nitrogen and oxygen would also need to pass through whatever vast devices are built to carry out this extraction. The separated CO2 would then need to be compressed into a liquid form and pumped into secure underground storage where it could safely be kept for thousands of years. Such figures emphasise the folly of continuing to extract oil, coal and gas from much more secure underground security than we could hope to achieve. Furthermore, the energy required - obviously only renewables - to run this process, which McIntosh describes as ‘trying to suck needles out of a haystack’ would exceed half of the planet’s current total energy consumption at the same time as we are already facing the massive challenge of replacing fossil fuels with renewables. Such daunting figures can make the reader lean more towards Frazer’s viewpoint than that of the the ever-optimistic McIntosh.

The book deals very effectively with the lunacy of climate-denial and its support by extreme political groups and their elderly $billionaire financiers, before moving on to discuss the best approach for the young (both in body and in spirit!) to oppose this madness and whether an evolutionary or revolutionary approach offers the best chance of success. The way forward for groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Citizens’ Assemblies are discussed at length and the critical challenge of raising the alarm to public opinion without being Frazer-style alarmist.

One difficult issue on which McIntosh is unusual in raising in a public arena, and which he shares with David Attenborough, is global population, a number which has almost tripled in the lifetime of the former and for the latter, quadrupled. The scarcity of its mention in the vast literature of the IPCC highlights the sensitivity of the topic for such an international body. McIntosh tackles it head-on, emphasising that the immediate problems lie “in the hotel car-parks, in the luxury marinas and the mansions on the hills” and longer-term in the emancipation, equality and education of women around the world.

After going through all of the scientific and political issues the book turns more to the personal and spiritual with a chapter on the subject of its sub-heading; “The Survival of Being.” It focuses around fundamental questions of values by returning to the visit of the Papuans to Lewis. The first three shared negative ‘Cs’ are Clearance, Collapse and Consumption.

Just as Lewis had first suffered the Clearances of the 17th and 18th centuries, and its young men were later press-ganged to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, the forebears of the Papuans had been kidnapped first to work as slaves in the plantations of The Dutch East India Company and then by the Japanese to serve as porters in the Second World War.

The next stage, Collapse, looks at colonisation and the way in which it separates individuals from their own history. It chooses an intriguing example from Lewis, one Mary Anne Macleod. Following successive disasters, including the loss of 1000 islanders in the Flanders trenches and the shipwreck of the Iolaire in 1919 as she sailed into Stornoway harbour with the further loss of 200 young sailors returning home from the war, the island suffered successive epidemics of Spanish Flu and Tuberculosis. When young Mary Anne was 11 in 1923 a thousand left Lewis. Of the 300 emigrants aboard one ship, Metagama, all but twenty were young men, with an average age of twenty-two. A few years after young Mary-Anne herself arrived in New York, she married. Her fourth son was named Donald J Trump.

McIntosh makes the interesting point that the self-centred, immature short-termism personified by Trump is reflected in the experience of millions of the Scottish-Irish diaspora. After struggling as day-labourers in the rural Southern slave-economy, vast numbers of families moved in the 1950s and 60s to the well-paid manufacturing jobs in what, tragically, is now called the ‘rust-belt.’ Their offspring now find that their uprooting has resulted in the traditional strengths of a community replaced by a manufactured, fragmented identity. Their insecurity is reflected in guns and fundamentalist churches, which both appear to increase their attraction to Trump’s angry, populist politics.

A natural extension of this mindset is McIntosh’s third ‘C’ - Consumption - a term he defines as ‘consumption in excess of what is needed for dignified sufficiency of living’ where money - and debt - hollow out the soul by becoming substitutes for real-life relationships. He is not advocating living in poverty, but suggests that gratitude for what we have, both material and non-material, is a humane, thoughtful and sustainable character-trait. In contrast, the inhumane, blind, relentless and unsustainable obsession with consumerism, driven remorselessly by $multi-trillion advertising and marketing industries, is doomed to end in frustration, disappointment and even anger.

This section ends with McIntosh’s fourth ‘C - Community’ which is a positive concept to re-embed meaning into lives or, as he puts it - Pulling Back Life. He discusses the land reform groups of Scotland, with the quotation from one leading-light; “Are we really to be fobbed off with the suggestion that lifestyles based on industrial intoxication, nuclear umbrellas, soil degradation, land expropriation from the powerless and unjust trade relations with the Third World are somehow ‘viable’?”

This book contains a lot of accurate, well-researched facts and figures while taking the reader on a fascinating environmental and philosophical journey with a distinctly Scottish twist.

The Eco-Worrier.

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