A Moral Climate - the ethics of global warming

By Jo Rathbone
October 17, 2007

Michael S. Northcott: A Moral Climate - the ethics of global warming (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007)

Michael S. Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. His book digs deep. It is not a race through proof texts to convince Christians to live more sustainably, but an excavation of the foundations of the modern global economy. How did we get to where we are? What are the foundational values to which we need to return in order for a better world to emerge from this crisis?

A Moral Climate charts the philosophical and economic thinking which gave rise to free market neo-liberalism, and our thoroughgoing dependence on fossil fuels. Analysing a line from Hobbes and Locke through Adam Smith and Marx, to Hayek and Rawls, Northcott describes the loss of an understanding of the common good; the increasing sense of alienation from the soil, the natural rhythms of the earth, and a sense of place; and the demeaning of manual work. We end up with fossil fuels powering Western society into an economics which takes no account of the limited nature of the planet’s resources or the fragility of its ecosystems, and no account of our intrinsic need as humans to engage in community both locally and globally.

What is fascinating is the telling of our modern story with the parallel story of imperial rape of natural resources by Israelite monarchy in the Old Testament. Northcott brings together the ancient valuing of cedars and their role in proclaiming wealth, with the accounts of Solomon’s profligate use of cedar and his enslavement of his people to build expressions of wealth such as his palaces and the Temple. The links across the millennia are shockingly relevant, as we watch the rainforests felled in order to facilitate our conspicuous consumption in the rich countries of the world.

In this way all through the book, Northcott weaves examples from the Bible with the global and local structures we face today, allowing us to note the similarities. Dominating empire usually results in ecological destruction to maintain itself, whether in Solomon’s day or ours.

More hopefully, Northcott digs to the deepest foundations and unearths the Godly values to which the ancient Hebrews aspired: rhythms of life which acknowledged earthly limits and an economics of justice and relationship where we as human beings will find our deepest satisfactions. Northcott finds such values similarly embedded in the life of Jesus. Some may find his findings surprising. I found it thrilling to discover that Eucharist in the early church was a political statement against imperial control, and that we might emulate that today by having more communal meals, ensuring that the food that we eat expresses our freedom from the tyranny of global corporate imperialism.

Towards the end of the book is a celebration of ancient wisdom in slowness, in allowing ourselves to become rooted in community, and in a sense of place. The implications of these wisdoms for the earth and for real local democracy are great.

A Moral Climate - the ethics of global warming helps those of us who know in our guts that global warming is a moral issue; it provides the thorough examination of its origins and how to get out of this crisis, allowing us along the way to reclaim true Christian values of respect for the earth and all its inhabitants.

Buy this book through Ekklesia.


(c) Jo Rathbone is the Eco-congregation project coordinator for England and Wales - http://www.ecocongregation.org . She lives in Coventry and also participates in the life of the Anabaptist network.

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