Book Review: Riders on the Storm

Molly Scott Cato reviews Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being by Alastair McIntosh.

Smoke billowing from a wildfire
Smoke billowing from a wildfire
Molly Scott Cato

With Extinction Rebellion (XR) challenging the boundaries of state power, parliament’s Climate Assembly proposing some surprisingly radical policies to tackle the climate emergency, and the government preparing to host next year’s international climate conference COP26, it's a good moment to pause and consider the power and politics of climate change.

Alastair McIntosh’s book Riders on the Storm does just that. As you would expect, it’s beautifully written and provides the essential introduction to the historical and scientific background, grounded in a deep understanding of climate change in place, in the context of the author’s home place of the Western Isles.

For me, the guts of the book comes in chapters 5 and 6, where McIntosh explores the psychology and politics of the climate movement.

McIntosh is concerned about what he calls ‘climate millenarianism’ – the use of fear as a tool of mobilization – and questions the activities of the Deep Adaptation movement. Aside from its sometimes arbitrary use of science potentially undermining our strongest tool, he draws attention to the evidence that fear can be counter-productive in motivating action, as well as creating ‘climate anxiety’, especially amongst the young. Of course, we have all heard many young people on marches claiming that their protest and action can soothe that anxiety, but we do not know how many are suffering in silence elsewhere.

He also challenges the naïve political strategy of XR that he characterizes as ‘people would embrace a whatever-it-takes enthusiasm, rise up and overthrow the existing corrupt political and capitalist economic system that feeds denial and blocks radical action.’ He argues that this paints us as powerless victims and also makes no proposal for what should replace this system. This unease about this scorched earth approach to democracy was recently reinforced by XR’s recent rejection of the recommendations of the Climate Assembly, in spite of their suggestion that such bodies should be central to deciding climate action.

Like McIntosh, I am a Quaker, so I very much value his suggestion that effective non-violent direct action is always spiritually grounded, as it was for its most renowned proponents, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. ‘Spiritually grounded’ does not need to mean any particular creed or belief system; it could just as easily mean inspiration from a deep awe and respect for the earth. But what this principle outlaws is action directed by ego. A spiritual grounding can help us act wisely while standing in the eye of the storm, not swept away by emotion or fear.

Riders on the Storm cover

Politics is difficult and complex. Enthusiasm and commitment, no matter how admirable, are not enough for making the change we need in the timeframe available. We don’t have time for irrationality or to reinvent politics. McIntosh argues: ‘Climate denial is a waste of time. But climate change alarmism is a theft of time. We have no mandate to collapse the possibilities of the future, to contract and restrict our latitude for agency and action.’ 

But we must also have the humility to accept that, in spite of making the case for climate action for three decades and having a detailed platform of policies to protect our planet, the Green Party has failed to make change on the necessary scale.

As Green politicians and activists we are at a pivotal moment. Doomsterism aside, the wildfires and polar melting tell us that we are running out of time. How best to use that time to effect real change? Riders on the Storm is an invaluable invitation to reflect on that question deeply, with commitment and an open mind.

Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being by Alastair McIntosh is published by Birlinn and is available for £9.99.