Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Environmentalist religion explained

By Donald Sensing

Freeman Dyson:

There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. [From, "The Question of Global Warming."]
Freeman Dyson is one of the most highly-regarded physicists in the world. Wikipedia introduces its entry on him thus:
Freeman John Dyson FRS (born December 15, 1923) is an English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum mechanics, solid-state physics, and nuclear engineering. He is a lifelong opponent of nationalism and a proponent of nuclear disarmament and international cooperation. Dyson is a member of the Board of Sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
A true intellectual heavyweight, his essay in the New York Review of Books this month is a very important analysis that I urge you to read in full.

Dyson is not the first to point out that environmentalism has morphed into an actual religion in its own right. In Global Cooling Ain't so Hot, Either, I pointed out:
Michael Crichton and J.R. Dunn have written highly insightful essays about how environmentalism is a religion in its own right. See “Environmentalism as Religion” by Crichton and Dunn’s piece, “A Necessary Apocalypse,” in which he shows how gobal-warming environmentalism is not merely a religion, it is an apocalyptic religion. Its deity is Mother Earth (Gaia), for whom human beings are mortal enemies. NBC’s Matt Lauer inadvertantly gave away Gaiaism’s central article of faith thus:
Earth’s intricate web of ecosystems thrived for millions of years as natural paradises, until we came along, paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Our assault on nature is killing off the very things we depend on for our own lives … The stark reality is that there are simply too many of us, and we consume way too much, especially here at home.
My second son was required to take ecology his junior year in high school; he related to me that the curriculum basically said there was nothing wrong with earth that the disappearance of humanity wouldn’t cure.
Jonah Goldberg wrote recently of the "Church of Green."
"At its core, environmentalism is a kind of nature worship. It’s a holistic ideology, shot through with religious sentiment. ...

Environmentalism’s most renewable resources are fear, guilt, and moral bullying. Its worldview casts man as a sinful creature who, through the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, abandoned our Edenic past. John Muir, who laid the philosophical foundations of modern environmentalism, described humans as “selfish, conceited creatures.” Salvation comes from shedding our sins, rejecting our addictions (to oil, consumerism, etc.) and demonstrating an all-encompassing love of Mother Earth. Quoth Al Gore: “The climate crisis is not a political issue; it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.”

I heard Gore on NPR recently. He was asked about evangelical pastor Joseph Hagee’s absurd comment that Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath for New Orleans’s sexual depravity. Naturally, Gore chuckled at such backwardness. But then the Nobel laureate went on to blame Katrina on man’s energy sinfulness. It struck me that the two men are not so different.
As Crichton pointed out, "environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths." Let me elucidate.


There are other religions than Judaism and Christianity, of course, but modern environmentalism was born in the West, whose cultural heritage and common languages are steeped through and through in Christian tradition, which was itself a daughter of Judaism.

The common themes of both scriptural Judaism and Christianity deal with deity, the natural world (existing first in a purity state), a corruption of the purity state (Augustine: "fall from grace,"), redemption and liberation/salvation. Then follows paradise. A prominent, though not universal, strain in both Judaism and Christianity is a looming apocalypse that in potential or in fact destroys enormous swaths of humanity.

Modern environmentalism has all these elements, with an emphasis on apocalypticism. I'll examine these religious elements in turn.

Deity: That would be the earth itself. "Mother Earth" is a term tossed about among the religion's adherents, thus personalizing what is really only a gazillion-ton hunk of rock. Personalization of the planet is necessary to deify it. Adherents often call this new deity, “Gaia,” the name of an ancient Greek earth goddess. The Gaia hypothesis was first proposed by NASA scientist James Lovelock, who introduced it thus:
What is the hypothesis of Gaia ? Stated simply, the idea is that we may have discovered a living being bigger, more ancient, and more complex than anything from our wildest dreams. That being, called Gaia, is the Earth.
The most important tenet of Gaiaism is that the earth is itself alive and is a being in its own right.

Creation: Environmentalism offerns no real theory of how the earth came to be, it focuses on the biosphere. In that manner it does echo the Jewish Scriptures, once removed. The Scriptures do inquire how the earth came to be, but not how God came to be.

As for the appearance of life, environmentalism drops the Bible's creation stories and substitutes evolution. Now, I am not arguing here against the theory of evolution. I am simply pointing out that evolution theory is environmentalism's explanation of life on earth and its diversity. The earth's biodiversity is extremely important for environmentalism, since evolution-driven biodiversity undergirds the apocalypticism of religious environmentalism. The apocalypse of "climate change" is predicted to destroy the evolutionary niches of various species. They won't be able to adapt.

The Purity State: Take your pick:
  • Gaia before the appearance of human beings or,
  • Gaia after we showed up, but before we invented civilization. (The anti-civilization theme is present in the Hebrew Scriptures, too.) This aspect romanticizes pre-civilizational peoples, often portraying them as gentle souls "living in harmony" with nature and imagining that they worshiped the earth, too, which in fact some did. (However, this notion is rebutted by contemporary researchers.)
The Corruption of (or Fall from) Purity: This is easily defined. It was the invention of the internal-combustion engine and the use of fossil fuels that followed. Burning coal also. More broadly, though, the Fall is consumerism and international industry, especially chemical industries.

Redemption: There is no savior per se in environmentalism. We have to save ourselves. Barack Obama sings the same song; one of his stump themes is, "We are the change we have been waiting for." And just as one wonders whether Obama is running for office or creating a cultic following, environmentalism relies on its own cultic leaders to guide the masses and give enlightenment to them. Like the Law of Moses, their commandments are to be obeyed from faith rather than inquiry: recycle, drive less, eat organics, drive hybrids, etc.

Paradise: Sorry, environmentalism offers not. There is no longing for "life more abundant," since abundancy is exactly what environmentalism uses for original sin. Instead of paradise, environmentalism promotes stasis:

Folks my age and maybe a little younger can remember when the Environmental Apocaplypse was not global warming but global cooling. So let us suppose two things: first that global warming really is occurring and human attention to it can reverse it, and second, that we do reverse it. Are we then to agree that a cooler earth really is in our best interests? Why?

I’ve always kind of suspected that underlying much of environmentalism is a desire for the impossible: stasis.
Moreover, environmental stasis can be accomplished only by human austerity. Environmentalism's New Jerusalem is not prosperity, but decline, presented as a return to humanity's purity state: the simple life arranged around a village-type lifestyle where everything is within walking distance of everything else. Who else but George Monbiot to explain?
Everything we thought was good turns out also to be bad. It is an act of kindness to travel to your cousin's wedding. Now it is also an act of cruelty. It is a good thing to light the streets at night. Climate change tells us it kills more people than it saves. We are killing people by the most innocent means: turning on the lights, taking a bath, driving to work, going on holiday. Climate change demands a reversal of our moral compass, for which we are plainly unprepared.
Apocalypticism: Like religious apocalypticism, environmental apocalypticism - in fact, the whole movement - is predicated on the imminent, substantial destruction of the natural world and its inhabitants. This from no less a personage than United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who just five months ago said that "humanity faces oblivion if it fails to confront global warming." Oblivion, he said. Rising seas, expanding droughts, melting sea ice, increased desertification, scorched crops, mass human suffering and death - all inhabit the same enviro-religious space as Revelation's horsemen of the apocalypse.

Important in Jewish and Christian apocalypticism was the concept of "children of light" versus the "children of darkness." The children of darkness were those who rebelled against God, who turned away from righteousness and embodied evil. Children of light were those who apprehended the truth of God and cleaved toward spiritual purity. This notion has been adopted wholesale by environmentalism. Dyson again:
Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future.
Catch that? This is a clear delineation of the realm of light and of darkness, and whom inhabits each. "The worldwide community of environmentalists ... holds the moral high ground," and thus are the children of light. Who are the children of darkness? They are the "evil" ones who conduct or permit the "ruthless destruction of natural habitats." Dyson continues,
Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. ... Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment.
(Italics added.) "Enemy of the environment" = child of darkness. (Dyson does not himself promote such a belief, but certainly it is out there.)

Another tenet of religious apocalypticism is that things will get worse before they get better. And so it is with environmentalist apocalypticism. No matter what we do now, greenhouse gases, and therefore climate change, will intensify until at least mid-century, and only then might be abated.

Still skeptical that environmentalism is a religion in its own right? Then peruse, "Nature is not your friend."
Then Scott Lancaster, 18, was killed and eaten by a mountain lion.
Scott’s friends and family consoled themselves that his death, sad and untimely though it was, had somehow been kind of fitting for him. As James Valdez put it, "He was a real outdoorsy guy."

"It felt natural," said Abby Heller. "It felt like it was part of nature, and part of the way the cycle happens. It seemed kind of pure."
It was "natural," part of the pure cycle of life for a young man to suffer a gruesome, horrifying, massively painful death by means of the "red in tooth and claw" of one of Gaia's creatures. And so the case that environmentalism is a religion in its own right is hereby closed.


But there is more than mere religiousity at work in religious environmentalism. H.L. Mencken observed, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it." And that is the true foundation of environmentalism today: the desire of its gurus to regulate the way others live. Monbiot again:
We can deal with climate change only with the help of governments, restraining the exertions of our natural liberties.
Dyson wrote that, "Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion." I demur. Environmentalism has not replaced socialism at all. Instead, the old-line socialists, faced with decades of the failure of political socialism, have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon to keep socialism alive. Environmentalism has become a much better vehicle to achieve a rigid regulation of people's lives than political socialism ever was. After all, the fate of the entire planet is at stake! Environmentalism has already led some British members of Parliament to propose that the government regulate almost every aspect of buying and selling by private individuals. If this is not socialism, it is a distinction without a difference.

So there you are. At bottom, modern environmentalism has discarded scientific rigor to embrace something not much different than Leninism, the desire to control the major components of the way individuals live. From there it is a short step for environmentalism to Leninism's successor: Stalinism, the desire to control every aspect of the way we live. That's our future, minus the gulags. We hope.

This seems an apt time to quote the old liberals' bumper sticker: "If you're not outraged, you are not paying attention."

7 comments:

David said...

It strikes me that this religion is particularly appealing to those who have learned to define their identities through their consumption patterns.

Cris said...

Lovelock seems to have changed the way he talks about "Gaia" in later years. He admits here that it's just a metaphor.

Anonymous said...

There certainly is a puritanical sense of equating self denial with piety running through the green movement. Thorsten Veblen's comspicuous consumption has been replaced by conspicuous non-consumption. It doesn't matter that you ride in private jets if you drive a prius. It would be fun to explain to the greenies/lefties that their fatuous greenier than thou behavior is the direct ideolocial progeny of those they despise, the Puritans. Then again, it would also be fun to convince them that the dyes used in clothing are extremely bad for the environment and they should all wear nothing but gray clothes because they need less dyes and detergents. This movement needs a uniform, and brown shirts are so 1930's. They fall for the movement to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (H2O) every time, I think they'd go for it.

Hannon said...

A thought-provoking post. Still I am left wondering what views conservatism has of environmentalism as a proper concept rather than as the extremist, leftist movement it has become for many, a sort of decorator crab sporting "no nukes" stickers and visages of Marx and Che. Of all the issues that get traditionalists wound up, nature and environment seem to have a profile that is low to non-existent. How so?

As a qualifier, I am here excluding all modern talk of global warming and its purported human causes, which I regard as anomalous if not superfluous. As a principled perspective rather than a modern liberal ideology, environmentalism to me means promoting the idea that we should have regard for natural systems and for a variety of reasons. Clear-cutting on a wide scale has the effect of reducing local rainfall (as in parts of Amazonia) and trees that might bring short-term profit are better left as forest cover to protect the water supply near towns. Perhaps I am in the minority of conservatives but the conservation of forests for recreation (walking, hunting, etc.) is something I value highly. It seems to be a strong part of American heritage and history as well.

Protecting fisheries from depletion and national parks from ski resorts are other obvious examples. From what I have read over the years, those on the right seem to ignore the middle core of more reasonable and prudent aspects of nature conservation. Could this be based on some fear of impeding the progress of free market enterprise? If so, it is exactly the thing we should be discussing because it is where the rubber meets the road. Is there any reasonable basis for the protection of natural areas or resources as against man's needs? We set limits now-- are they all irrational or excessive? Where is the balance?

Environmentalism is all too easily utilized to polarize liberals and conservatives. Maybe that is just the nature of surface politics in America. But I would really like to know: do traditionalists care about nature, and, if so, how is this expressed politically?

Marty said...

An inciteful qualification of the issue of environmentalism as extremism as religion. Indeed, I see this occurring in the rhetoric of our politicians in Australia, particularly given that our country fared much better than predicted in the "GFC" and we were told "it'll get worse before it gets better" but there has been no sign of this. I suspect the Copenhagen thing this coming month will produce similar over-reactions as our stimulus packages did, and put us in a worse financial (and therefore economic, social and environmental) situation for many years to come.

Anonymous said...

The motif of global warming is a rehash of the various flood mythologies of the past (rising waters destroying civilization due to mankind's sins; salvation is conditional on reparations or getting "on board" with Noah or Al Gore). There's no science here, but science is being hijacked and misrepresented to act as a scriptural authority.

Susan J. said...

thanks for posting the link to this thoughtful blog entry in the Comments to the recent City Journal article "Apocalyptic Daze" by Pascal Bruckner - sorry I can't figure out how to link back to it, here -- but one can find it via Google.

I'm a Bible person, neither liberal nor conservative politically; I've been aware for some years now, of the apocalyptic overtones of much environmental rhetoric - I appreciate the way you have laid it out.

My belief is that God's truth will manifest despite anyone's attempt to deny; humanity IS sinful, and disaster IS around the corner if we fail to repent... I try to use environmentalists sense of imminent doom as a "talking point" for the deep truth of Judeo-Christian narratives...

I also appreciate Hannon's even-handed response... thanks, all!