Earth Ethics

Book cover
A Moral Climateby By Michael S. NorthcottOrbis Books. 224p $20 (paperback)
Why did terrorists attack the United States? The Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry believes they were responding to U.S. corporate economic institutions that harm the poor and accept deadly pollution and global climate change as mere costs of doing business.

Michael S. Northcott, a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church and a divinity school professor at the University of Edinburgh, echoes many of Berrys prophetic warnings. He calls Christians to confess the climate change they are forcing on the poor and to assume political responsibility for it.

The first three chapters of A Moral Climate provide an overview of climate science, argue that climate change is immoral and show the empire of oil as one cause. Chapters 4 through 7 promote solutions: following the gift economy of Alaskas Inupiat people; developing a sense of progress that is not based on economic development; pursuing energy conservation; and reducing auto use. In Chapter 8 the author attacks agricultural sources of greenhouse gases and recommends abandoning industrially produced food. And in Chapter 9 he asks Christians to reform global capitalism through means such as the fair-trade movement.


Crafting his story so that it reveals the spiritual, economic and technocratic roots of climate change, Northcott shows how over-consumption, colonialism, greed, pollution and deregulated trade have created this crisis. A timely study, A Moral Climate includes findings from the 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Northcott especially deserves praise for asking Christians to exercise prophetic witness, the paradigmatic form of resistance to the abuses that cause climate change. He asks us to become contemporary Jeremiahs, to tell the rich and powerful that they have the blood of the poor on their clothes, the blood of climate-change victims. He also shows how fuel-intensive, corporate agriculture thwarts the eucharistic nature of food and contributes to climate change.

The book is rich in insights. Northcott shows, for instance, why a common claimthat the United States is responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse gasesis a gross underestimate. This claim counts only carbon-equivalent gases from power plants but fails to include effects of animal husbandrywhich supplies the massive U.S. beef market and contributes up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gases. It also fails to include fossil fuels used because, as the author explains, the average American food item is chemical- and energy-intensive and travels 1,500 miles to grocery stores.

Despite such strengths, Northcotts book has weaknesses, including falling into what M.I.T. professor Kenneth Kenniston called the fallacy of romantic regression. Praising the lifestyles of peoples like the Inupiat of Alaska, Northcott offers no full, realistic, contemporary lifestyles for addressing climate change. His romantic regression runs two risks: tying religion to primitive lifestyles, and discouraging Christians who cannot meet unrealistic ethical standards.

Northcotts romanticism also extends to his science. He sometimes embraces discredited views, like the Gaia hypothesis: that Earth is a living organism, able to correct harms and to return to a state of equilibrium. Also, he sometimes gets his facts wrong, in part because he relies on false generalizations. He rejects cost-benefit analysis, for example, on the grounds that it requires exchange values to override any other goods. Cost-benefit analysis, however, requires no such overrides. This is a decision of its users.

Similar errors occur in Northcotts treatment of philosophy. He claims, for example, that the prominent deontological ethicist, John Rawls, is a utilitarian, and that Kant, Mill and Hume reject any deep moral structure in the biophysical ordering of life on earth.

Mark Twain once warned that for those whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Since Northcotts only tool is theology, he seems to think everything, including science and philosophy, should look like theology. As a result he criticizes science for not including theology and criticizes philosophy for relying on reason instead of the Bible.

In trying to reduce philosophy (which relies only on reason) to theology (which relies on faith and revealed truths), Northcott forgets there are many methods of ethical inquiry besides theology. By accepting only theological methods of ethics, he also excludes nonbelievers from being ethical and leads to extremism. Without God-given reasonto act as a check on faith-based fanaticism, terrorism, fundamentalism, inconsistency or other aberrationstheology could be used to justify many horrors.

In criticizing scientists, Northcott claims that todays moral climate is flawed partly because of [Isaac] Newtons failure to describe correctly the relational character of space and time in its original dependence on the being of God as Creator. Yet if scientists did theology within science, they would violate scientific method, produce less reliable empirical conclusions and encourage the politicization of science.

Unfortunately, Northcotts wide hammer attempts to smash philosophy and science, two disciplines that he needs to make his case for climate action. He cannot consistently reject science yet accept it to combat climate change. Likewise, he cannot reject all non-theological ethics, yet expect both believers and nonbelievers to accept his climate-change arguments.

Despite its many insights, Northcotts book is less readable and less organized than the best ethical analyses of climate change (by philosophers like Peter Singer and Stephen Gardner). He sometimes falls into arcane academic prose, and he provides an overview neither for the book nor for each chapter. Also addressing the science-ethics interface, Brown Universitys Kenneth R. Miller, a Catholic and a biologist, wrote a brilliant book about why believers should support evolution. Northcotts book is good, but it does not reach Millers level of excellence.

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