Come Hell or High Water

Abstract from a talk by Alistair McIntosh at the Gaia Foundation, March 2009. Written by Stephen Frank.

Alistair McIntosh is a writer, broadcaster and campaigning academic best known for his work on land reform on Eigg, in helping to stop the Harris super quarry; also for pioneering human ecology as an applied academic discipline in Scotland. He is a Fellow of Scotland's Centre for Human Ecology, a Visiting Fellow of the Academy of Irish Cultural Heritages at the University of Ulster, and in 2006 was appointed to an honorary position in Strathclyde University as Scotland's first Visiting Professor of Human Ecology. He is the author of many books, including the critically acclaimed "Soil and Soul: People versus corporate power". His recent book, "Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition" has been described on Radio 4's Open Book programme as one of the best on climate change. Alastair lives with his wife, Vérène Nicolas, in the Greater Govan area of Glasgow, where he is a founding director of the GalGael Trust working with local people in hard-pressed circumstances.

Unlike James Lovelock and James Hansen, Alistair McIntosh believes that Climate Change is happening so slowly that most of us will probably get through our lives without the climate per se causing catastrophe. He cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's figures in his discussion of this. However, increasing pressure from the secondary effects of Climate Change - like waves of refugees from the Southern hemisphere - might affect us more than we realise and he does wonder whether we have the cultural, psychological and spiritual resilience, at this point, to cope with what could come.

When McIntosh was a boy there was a seaman strike on the island where he lived that lasted about five weeks. Very few boats came to the island. But everyone was fine because they had sheep in the back and fish in the sea and hoppers full of potatoes. They had resilience because of their connection with the land. Today, if the boat does not sail for just one day, there is panic buying in the supermarkets because that resilience has gone. If the banks had gone under last October, and for a few days suppliers had been unable to get credit and so had not sent out goods because they would not be paid, there could have been mass civil unrest.

Analysing the nature of consumerism and the current state of humankind, McIntosh first looks at ancient texts describing climate disasters. In the bible, we are told twice in Genesis that God sent Noah's flood because of the violence of humankind. In the epic of Gilgamesh, a flood (the same flood in all probability) is perceived as being caused by the hubris and greed of humankind. Plato gives several examples of pre-historic civilisations being destroyed by flooding and once again, mankind's hubris is said to be the cause. What the ancients tell us is that there is a link between hubris, violence and ecocide. Excessive pride - the need to own more than your share of the earth's resources - that hubris is sustained by violence and eventually leads to ecocide.

In the course of history, countless events have normalised violence into our social structures and mindsets. During the late 16th and early 17th centuries there was intense violence, particularly against women named as witches. In 1921, writing on the metaphysical poets, T.S. Elliot talked about the dissociation of sensibility - the breaking down of our ability to feel. He said that in the 17th century a dissociation of sensibility set in from which we have never recovered. The Hebridean poet, Ian Chrichton Smith, laments the decline of 'the feeling intelligence'. We will not allow our intelligence to be anything other than relentlessly logical and have reached a point where we are expected to explain everything as if it were a set of definable questions and answers. Because we are afraid of our feelings, we have lost them and have substituted a dead intelligence in their place. Smith says that our culture has lost touch with the feminine and become 'bereft of tenderness.'

Our ability to feel has become cauterised. As a result, we have become capable of applying industrial warfare - as we did in the colonial era and arguably are still doing in parts of the world today. We have become disconnected from what it is to be human. This then is how hubris leading to violence destroys the inner life. It strips sensibility, not just from those practising violence, but also from those who suffer violence. McIntosh sees tackling the roots of violence as being even more important than dealing with the immediate and overt symptoms expressed as climate change, although of course, the two are deeply related and must be dealt with in tandem.

After the devastation of the two world wars, some government leaders deduced that the only way we could stop fighting was by generating trade between countries: if the psychological dynamic that generates fighting could be turned to generating trade - substituting trade for war - the violence between nations would be reduced. Governments began using marketing techniques and spin to divert peoples' energies into trading and into consuming while at the same time promoting the work practices that dealt with consumerism. It seemed logical: Better to make economy than to make war!

Today, with global warming creeping up on us, there are individuals who ask whether we can turn the tools of marketing against the marketing culture by, for instance, creating a sense of shame around big cars or around unnecessary flying. The problem is that this would not work for businesses which rely on profit for their survival - and that applies to most of us. But by going a step beyond and asking whether 'reverse marketing engineering' is possible, Alistair is asking a bigger question: How can we reconnect our sensibility?

Through the normalisation of violence we have not only become emotionally cauterised, but, it appears, we have also become cut off from the spiritual realities of life. We may be able to see reason and argument with great clarity, but our spiritual eye has been put out by the ongoing violent patterns of history. McIntosh feels that we are only going to be able to deal with the deeply convoluted and interconnected problems of the world -climate change, species extinction, credit crunch, war, poverty - by taking a hard look at ourselves and starting to reconnect with our spirituality again, rather than simply treating the symptoms of these problems.

One of the difficulties of recovering our spirituality is that so many of us have lost faith in our religious leaders through uncovering the abuses of power in our religious past and present. And yet, we need to open the spiritual dimension again. To do so, we must look even deeper and acknowledge the violence and the horrors of our religious past. Until we strip away all illusions we will not see the real picture. Similarly, if we want to tackle climate change at the deepest level, it is no good fooling people that changing our light bulbs is going to save the world; they will only feel disillusioned by us once they discover the real scale of the problem.

There is no way out except to deepen the human condition. There is no way out except to say we must build resilience amongst ourselves - starting right here and now - by facing suffering and looking at death. It is because our society is not very good at facing these that it has such difficulty getting real about deep issues. Those of us whose hearts are open recognise that the crisis is already here on the poor in this world, the crunch is already here for the vulnerable. By facing truths honestly and by peering into the unthinkable abyss, we deepen our humanity and start to build resilience.

Climate change is taking us out of our normal constructs of reality and pushing us to consider options for creating a very different kind of world. McIntosh suspects that perhaps there is an inevitability in the changes that are happening - something is perhaps calling beyond the comprehension of conventional intellect and morality and maybe the changes are all part of our evolutionary journey of life on Earth. Love deepens forever and, come hell or high water, this could be the real meaning of the journey. As such, modern climate change will not only be marked as a phase in geological evolution, but also as a turning point in human consciousness.