Anthropogenic climate change, political liberalism and the communion of saints

Michael S. Northcott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Political liberals refuse that there are biophysical limits to human wealth accumulation. Coal fuelled the first liberal political economy — England’s — for 800 years before coal smoke was legally regulated in London. The English also have an enduring love for the diverse and scenic quality of their island nation, and a long history of commons governance that predates the acts of land theft which accompanied the emergence of political liberalism. By contrast the United States is a modern liberal polity with little collective memory of commons. American political economists therefore refuse that commons can be collectively governed, or even that atmospheric pollution may be conceived as a problem of commons governance. The historically unsituated character of North American liberals — and liberalism more generally — also explains their inability adequately to describe moral connections between past, present and future generations implicated in anthropogenic climate change. The Christian account of the spiritual communion of saints remains a more powerful intergenerational narrative than political liberalism. As interpreted by Tolstoy, Gandhi and John Howard Yoder, true spiritual communion is characterised by the Christ-shaped refusal to render evil for evil. This refusal is an essential corrective to the realist and violent frame of international relations in which the international implications of climate change is conventionally conceived.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)34-49
JournalStudies in Christian Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2011


  • climate change
  • coal
  • commons
  • communion of saints
  • corporations
  • liberalism
  • London
  • non-violence
  • Yoder

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