A Feature Review of
A Political Theology of Climate Change
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2013
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Reviewed by Spencer Cummins
The bombardment of media coverage regarding issues regarding global warming, climate change, and environmental politics assault the modern viewer at every angle. From progressive to conservative viewpoints, we are facing a crisis as to which voice is most trustworthy and worth our attention. At the same time, believers of every Christian tradition recognize the need for judicious analysis of the climate change quandary. Into the mass of connective tissue that holds together climate change politics steps Michael S. Northcott, Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh. His new book, A Political Theology of Climate Change, is a riveting in-depth analysis of both anthropogenic climate change and theological reflection on creation. Rather than run the risk of bringing out the outmoded conflict of political polarizing views on the climate change issue, Northcott provides the reader with both the climate change science that is behind the issues and counters the philosophical underpinnings of the view that nature and culture, science and ethics are at odds with each other at their foundations. Engaging with writers as broad as J.R.R. Tolkien, Carl Schmitt, Bruno Latour, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Northcott digs deeply into climate change science and deeply reflects on the world that God has made.
The first chapter targets the ‘second Copernican revolution’ caused by the repositioning of man as the shaper of planetary history (22). Labeling this turn of events as Anthropocene, Northcott characterizes this movement in history as being held by man as controller, in a state of god-like power over the destiny of the earth. Therefore, the problem arises very quickly here when climate change scientists seek to report their findings (physics of the earth), and are rebuffed by politicians for supposedly lobbying for political ends. If man is the arbiter of not only reason and rights, but also climate change, then the science of climate change is only redeemable as its suits the desires of the most vociferous. The description of an Anthropocene narrative is drawn out in contrast to a Christocene narrative in which Christ stands at the helm of his creation. The trajectory that comes out of this view with respect to a climate apocalyptic view takes into consideration the narrative beginning in Genesis journeying through to Revelation is one of restoration, not domination. Northcott beautifully weaves together a synthesis of concepts that the early Christians used concerning the restoration of the created order, namely the social body of Christians and the Eucharist (38). These early practices of fellowship and table are political to the extent that they resist the secular liturgy that divorces nature from culture, bodies from souls, and subjective from objective realms (45). Renewal, restoration, and proper cultivation are all part of both Israel’s Scriptures as well as the practices of the early Christian community regarding nature.
Much of Northcott’s book is a deliberate wading in the waters of the philosophy behind climate change politics. Part of this investigation behind climate change is the recognition of certain figures that sharpen the underpinnings of the arguments behind climate change. Concerning Francis Bacon, Northcott writes, “For Bacon, human beings truly know only what they make…..By contrast (from Descartes), Bacon found a way back from the mind to the real world after Copernicus through a revised and more empirical approach to sense perception: the correspondence between human sense perceptions and physical reality could be reconstructed through the empirical method.” (103) The great vision of empirical science verifying new discoveries in nature is a double edged sword however. The greater knowledge about the earth and the anthropogenic effects on the earth should necessitate a measure of ‘seminal responsibility,’ however, the goal Bacon finally resorted to was the ultimate happiness of man and his progress over the cosmos at the expense of nature. Political theology for Bacon was a means of reinstituting the notion that progress was humanity’s aim alongside a broader utopian ideal that held science in salvific proportions.