Book review - Hell and high water: Climate change, hope and the human condition by Alastair McIntosh

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Birlinn, £8.99, 289pp Review by ROGER COX

IN THE AFTERWORD TO THIS book, Alastair McIntosh explains how he came to write it. Hugh Andrew of Birlinn publishers contacted him in summer 2006, asking for "something on climate change that would ginger up debate for the Scottish parliamentary elections due in May 2007".

Andrew wanted, says McIntosh, "something like a local version of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth – short, snappy and telling the politicians where we're at, where we need to get to and how they can take us there". And Birlinn would no doubt have got the book they'd asked for, had events not intervened.

In early 2007, McIntosh and his wife Vrne were expecting a baby, but Ossian Nicolas died while still in the womb. The loss didn't just have a profound effect on McIntosh, it had a profound effect on his book. "In the weeks that followed," he writes, "the whole configuration of the book started to shift."

McIntosh told Birlinn he would stick to the agreed deadline, but naturally they told him to take his time. It's as well he did, because Hell and High Water isn't merely some hurriedly tartanised version of An Inconvenient Truth or George Monbiot's Heat (not that it would have been anyway, I'm sure). Instead, it's a genuinely original contribution to the climate change debate – no small compliment at a time when the nation's bookshops are overflowing with newly released tomes offering near-identical advice on "how to save the planet".

Whereas most authors writing on the subject take a scientific, nuts and bolts approach ("here's what's causing climate change, here are the things we all must do to stop it getting any worse"), McIntosh takes a step back from the problem and, rather than simply looking at immediate causes, looks at the causes behind the causes. Yes, too many people drive unnecessarily large SUVs, but why? Yes, too many people take several long-haul flights a year, but why? The answers, he argues, are rooted deep within our collective psyche, and only by curing this societal psychosis can we avert the ecological apocalypse that is speeding our way.

That's not to say McIntosh avoids talking about the specifics of the argument – far from it. In a couple of early chapters he gives an excellent summary of the environmental problems currently facing us, and of the possible solutions, from energy taxation and carbon emission quotas to alternative energy sources and lifestyles. But this is only supposed to be a quick recap and he stresses that the book is not intended as a "technical manual of mitigation options".

Introductions out of the way, McIntosh begins his analysis proper with a chapter entitled "Spirit of the Blitz". This may be a brutally reductive way of putting it, but when it comes to effecting social change, McIntosh is more of a carrot than stick man. Imposing recycling schemes and energy-saving measures from above is all very well, he argues, but even during the Second World War, when the consequences of not conserving precious resources were made terrifyingly immediate by Luftwaffe air raids, disciplined compliance was still difficult to achieve.

He quotes a 1942 article from the Stornoway Gazette headed "Keep Your Waste Paper Separate" which reported that "housewives and office workers are still not keeping their waste paper separate from other salvage, and this is causing serious stoppages in paper mills engaged in work of national importance". If people couldn't be persuaded to recycle responsibly when faced with the threat of imminent Nazi invasion, he asks, what chance is there of scaring them into submission with a much more distant threat like global warming?

But if the stick method won't work, what carrots can the Green movement offer? After all, as Monbiot has pointed out, people in this country and elsewhere are highly unlikely to vote for austerity.

The carrot McIntosh eventually comes up with is never really given a label as such, but it is perhaps best characterised as "ecological enlightenment". The drive to consume, he argues, is an addiction, and one that does us no favours either as individuals or as a society. It merely acts as a second-rate substitute for the things that our urban, post-industrial existence deprives us of: most crucially, our sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves, in both human and environmental terms. We have lost our psychic connection to the people and the land around us, McIntosh argues, and only by reconnecting with these things will we be able to find the true happiness that seems to elude even the super-rich. And, of course, it follows that once we have achieved this enlightened state, the desire to work together to preserve the overarching biological systems on which we all rely for life will come naturally – we won't need some nanny state forcing us to conserve resources against our will.

McIntosh peppers his book with wonderfully alluring glimpses of what an ecologically and socially responsible society might be like, and he uses the Isle of Eigg as an example of a place where a strong sense of community and belonging (following the residents' much-publicised buy-out of the island) have resulted in high levels of ecological awareness – an awareness which has manifested itself in an almost complete switch from wasteful diesel generators to renewable energy sources.

What's really significant about this book, politically, is that McIntosh has made green living sound attractive – something so many of his contemporaries have conspicuously failed to do – and that he's done so by making a fundamental link between society and ecology ("Ecological justice … cannot be separated from social justice").

One reason the Green movement has struggled in the past is because it frequently seems so coldly scientific and unpleasantly utilitarian: "stop bringing so many children into the world – they produce too much carbon dioxide!" What McIntosh does brilliantly here is offer an alternative, deeply humanist version of Green politics – one that should, in theory at least, be easy to sell to an electorate. Any electorate. This book then, although it refers primarily to Scotland, is of genuine international importance.

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