Alastair McIntosh, Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition

IssueDecember 2009 - January 2010
Review by Virginia Moffatt

Within this book, there’s a thoughtful treatise against climate change struggling to get out. It never quite makes it, which is a shame, as Alastair McIntosh has some important things to say. One of the main problems is structure. Part one deals with the science of climate change and political dilemmas; part two, with a spiritual response.

The trouble with this approach is that the book becomes neither one thing nor the other, particularly when the style veers between dense analysis and chatty thoughts.

I think McIntosh would have been better to concentrate on the material in the second half, which, as he admits in his afterword is where the real writing begins.

The scientific analysis in part one is thorough, but over-familiar and somewhat grim. At times I felt I was being shouted at with a fog-horn and the net effect was pretty depressing. The third chapter in this section, “The Devil’s Dilemmas”, is the most interesting. Here, I felt the author was on to something. If we are going to change our future, we will have to make some unpalatable decisions.

Whilst I appreciated the range of discussion from “gee whizz” technology to taxation, I was disappointed to see McIntosh consider nuclear power as a possible choice. I think that’s pretty short-sighted, and such attitudes among well known climate-change campaigners have clearly assisted the government’s decision to drive through the development of new nuclear power stations.

Matters improve in the second half when the author explores the psychological states that have got us into this mess – hubris; a dissociation of the inner and outer self; greed. These chapters, with snappy titles like “Pride and Ecocide”, are much more engaging, though they could have done with more fleshing out.

It would have been good, for example, to see more time spent on the personal dilemmas - how far are any of us prepared to limit our carbon excesses to save the planet?

And the final chapter “Towards Cultural Psychotherapy” is rushed. I applaud the intent to try and develop strategies for hope, but I felt the 12 step programme espoused needs more work to take it beyond the platitudinous.

McIntosh is right to be enraged about climate change, and in particular to be angry that people in the developing world who are least at fault, will suffer most. But I wish he had taken another year on this book, ruthlessly cut the sections that aren’t necessary, and developed the areas that are richer and more challenging in thought.

Then, we might just have had the theological arguments we need, to inspire us in the creation of alternative futures.

Topics: Climate Change
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