Riders On The Storm: The Climate Crisis And The Survival Of Being

By Alastair McIntosh,

Birlinn: Edinburgh, 2020.

ALASTAIR McIntosh is one of the world’s leading environmental campaigners, an author, scholar, broadcaster, activist, shell-fish forager, Quaker, whisky connoisseur and Hon Professorial Fellow at the University of Glasgow.

Riders On The Storm was commissioned by the publishers, Birlinn as a prelude to COP26. Within its pages is the story of how the book adapted and changed through the maelstrom that is the present global pandemic, COP26 in Glasgow, Brexit, the Australian bush fires, Greta Thunberg’s Skolstrejk för Klimatet and Extinction Rebellion.

In the midst of this, and without the privilege of salaried, scholarly means, McIntosh found the concentration and the tenacity to draw together both science and the arts.

In addition, he has insisted on what some might say are the dark arts of starlit alchemy, gathering in old stories of faeries, West Papuan and Hebridean, and drawing out a wider and a deeper view of our common world and its torn mantle.

In so doing he offers a steady, gentle voice, counterbalancing the ones which shout denial and alarm in street protests or down our timelines.

Riders comprises nine chapters. The first – A Walk Along The Shore – takes Kenneth White’s poem and melds the West Papuan provincial climate dilemma with the western seaboard of McIntosh’s native Lewis.

Through stories of ruined blackhouses, the traumatised offspring of one Mary Anne MacLeod, Donald John and a common pot of beautiful green-lipped mussels, he explores the enduring and mutually binding experiences of the traumatic effects of colonisation and land theft.

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The last two chapters are equally poetic – chapter 8, The Survival Of Being and chapter 9, The Rainmaker, where, without giving too much away, we discover the limits of our kith, kin and ken, and find ourselves riding on the storm by means of a call to humility and hospitable fostership to the stranger, and their strange, rain-making ways.

In between these chapters are three solidly scientific chapters and three depth psychological chapters considering the causes, in trauma and ego, of both denialism and alarmism.

The scientific chapters, which take on the statistics and data, consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s work and offer what is hailed as a comprehensive overview of the best that peer-reviewed science on climate has to offer.

Denialists and alarmists are given kind, but short shrift. McIntosh sees science as evolving, as certainly conservative by nature and imperfect in accuracy, but as providing a range within which there is a possible “centre” that can hold enough alarming certainty for action to be acutely necessary.

The chapter on climate change denialism, not least of the eye-wateringly well-endowed nature of its powerful proponents, also offers compassion for expert scientists and the scientific advisers to McIntosh’s own work, who find themselves and their families subjects of sustained attack.

The chapter on alarmism is a cautionary tale about leadership and the dangers of ecofascism.

He considers the contributions of Greta Thunberg and the tragic internal splittering that is occurring within Extinction Rebellion at present. Here it is that McIntosh moves into his stride as a liberation theologian, peace-maker, community activist and poet.

Some might see McIntosh’s faith as obscuring, or transcendentalising what is at stake, holding out hope for a saviour.

I must confess here, to being what might be termed a person who prays, uneasy with the Church these days, but formed in faith. What I see is not a transcendental argument but an incarnational one, a view of the world as shared and embodied and messy. Like birth. Like death. Like life on Earth.

McIntosh is strikingly optimistic about the power and possibility instantiated by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and he may not go so far as saying that local community, mutual aid and world-linking webs of entanglement and wisdom can ‘‘save us’’, but he sees in these answers to the old question: “How, then, given this, shall we live?”

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COP26 comes to Glasgow in 2021 now, pandemic and all other things being equal. It could and probably will be a corporate, conferencing circus and competition for hot air – and at the same it probably will all be a community fringe festival of assorted artists and activists with a heart for change and a hope for co-operation. Just to meet will be a meal in itself.

How to arrive well at such a gathering, as the inhabitants of Leurbost on Lewis, and from the West Papua province in Riders do, needs, as McIntosh suggests, an acknowledgement that: “... in Scotland, there are traditionally two sacred duties to the guest: hospitality for the short term, and fostership for permanence. As a proverb has it: ‘The bonds of milk are stronger than the bonds of blood.’”

This book is published by Birlinn, one of the many small publishers struggling for their own survival in the world of pandemic collapse. If you want pathways for sustaining goodness, community, small, beautiful things, then buy direct. Read. Mark. And inwardly digest. It is milk. Fostership. Not ‘‘Doom but dharma’’.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow