Michael S. NORTHCOTT. A Moral Climate. The Ethics of Global Warming. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007, pp. 336. $20.00. ISBN 978-1-57075-711-2.
Reviewed by Mary ELSBERND, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL, 60611

Michael S. NORTHCOTT’s recent work, A Moral Climate. The Ethics of Global Warming, presents a thorough assessment of multiple dimensions of global warming in dialogue with the scriptural, ethical, economic, and geochemical traditions in order to develop his case for new practices, new politics and new economics so that the earth system may survive.

This method of experience/reality in conversation with the traditions in order to bring about action is consistently employed throughout the book. Each chapter is introduced with a socially located dimension of global warming which is then analyzed to mine the political and economic policies and systems which contribute to this specific instance of global warming. Dialogue with the traditions includes a substantial reliance on the First and Second Testaments, especially Jeremiah and the prophets as those who addressed the “geopolitical impact of empire on one minority people, the Hebrews.” In addition his work draws on classical ethical thought (e.g., Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine) , contemporary ethical thinking (e.g., Arendt, W. Berry, Kant, Rawls, Hauerwas, Yoder) as well as political and economic thinkers (e.g., Hobbes, Locke, and A. Smith). From this dialogue, Northcott identifies values, such as community, justice, collaboration, friendship, peace, witness, truth-telling and the sacred. These values provide a foundation for action. Recurring new practices include building up local eco-systems, nurturing sustainability, and developing collaborative networks. His ability to draw out ethical principles for action from concrete instances of global warming provides a significant and refreshing ethical lens.

Chapter One, “Message from the Planet,” looks at extreme climate events (Hurricane Katrina) that result from global consumption and neo-liberalist policy. Ethical principles include witness and agency of persons most impacted to speak the truth to power. Chapter Two, “When Prophecy Fails,” explores the impact of carbon emissions in the Mount Kilimanjaro region of East Africa. His social analysis points to a presupposition behind globalization that understands air and oceans as great cosmic machines to be controled through reason and science. Northcott’s biblical approach highlights an alternative vision, namely the relationality of the whole cosmos as interconnected creations of a God who loves all and everything.

Chapter Three, “Energy and Empire,” turns its attention to the carbon cycle and energy sources of water and oil (Southeast Africa and Asia). His analysis challenges the inbuilt waste of energy in the massive power grids managed by a distant empire as well as the assumption that progress is equated with human well-being. Northcott’s emerging ethical mandate calls for the empowerment of people as agents to recover control, to conserve and to sustain power at the local and household level in the name of efficiency and well-being. Chapter Four, “Climate Economics,” contrasts the economic approach of the Inupiat people with the current global market approach. The current global market is based on anonymous exchange and commodification of water and air. This approach stands in sharp distinction to an economy based on resources as gift and on relationship with water, air and cosmos. Chapter Five, “Ethical Emissions,” questions the possibility of survival for persons who are poor (Ethiopia). This life and death dimension of global warming challenges the myth of progress, the choice of economic development (not human development) and individual pursuit of happiness. Northcott points to justice as universal equity, human dignity, common good and geophysical interconnection as values and themes emerging from this life and death dimension of global warming.

The next three chapters describe new moral and spiritual practices that lead to the recovery of a politics and economics which would treats the physical cosmos with reverence. Chapter Six, “Dwelling in the Light,” suggests sustainable communities, architectural design, excellence in craftsmanship and public space, as practices that characterize an approach to dwelling space and built on sustainability and interconnection. Chapter Seven, “Mobility and Pilgrimage,” advocates the re-appropriation of life as pilgrimage to replace wasteful transportation infrastructure, including its preoccupation with speed. Pilgrimage provides a spiritual, physical framework within which to slow down enough to experience the holiness of place, solidarity with fellow travelers, and relationship with land, days and seasons. Chapter Eight, “Faithful Feasting,” explores Eucharist meals in contrast to food and agribusiness, albeit with the caveat that Eucharistic meals reflect the social practices of their local context. Northcott proposes that Eucharist meals blur the distinction between nature and culture through body solidarity, while it challenges the injustices in food production and distribution.

The Moral Climate provides an excellent introduction to interlocking systems that promote global warming as well as concrete ethical values, principles, and practices which support reduction in global warming. The book contains a wealth of data on global warming, solid systemic social analysis, good use of the traditions and the recovery of principles and practices for transformation into a sustainable eco-system. The book is readable for interested adult groups and appropriate for upper level undergraduate and graduate classrooms.


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