December 8, 2003

Environmentalism As Religion

One of the more interesting online essays I have read in months is this transcript of a recent speech by author Michael Crichton. It is about the modern religion of environmentalism, in which faith and politics have taken over for facts and science, respectively. Here he states his premise:

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it's a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

I think Crichton is on the money with this. For the believer, the cause is moral and just and thus its proponents are virtuous. If a program can be even vaguely termed "environmental" it is inherently "good", if not an urgent priority needed to avert a "crisis", lest some predicted disastrous event occur. To oppose any such program, regardless of the rationale, is to be "anti-environment", a politically incorrect condition if there ever was one. More from Crichton on "facts":

With so many past failures, you might think that environmental predictions would become more cautious. But not if it's a religion. Remember, the nut on the sidewalk carrying the placard that predicts the end of the world doesn't quit when the world doesn't end on the day he expects. He just changes his placard, sets a new doomsday date, and goes back to walking the streets. One of the defining features of religion is that your beliefs are not troubled by facts, because they have nothing to do with facts.

And if faith has substituted for facts, so has politics replaced science:

How will we manage to get environmentalism out of the clutches of religion, and back to a scientific discipline? There's a simple answer: we must institute far more stringent requirements for what constitutes knowledge in the environmental realm. I am thoroughly sick of politicized so-called facts that simply aren't true. It isn't that these "facts" are exaggerations of an underlying truth. Nor is it that certain organizations are spinning their case to present it in the strongest way. Not at all---what more and more groups are doing is putting out is lies, pure and simple. Falsehoods that they know to be false.

This trend began with the DDT campaign, and it persists to this day. At this moment, the EPA is hopelessly politicized. In the wake of Carol Browner, it is probably better to shut it down and start over. What we need is a new organization much closer to the FDA. We need an organization that will be ruthless about acquiring verifiable results, that will fund identical research projects to more than one group, and that will make everybody in this field get honest fast.

Because in the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost.

I have blogged before on the DDT ban issue, and it's a great example of how politics and bureaucratic inertia combine to pervert good intentions, and in that case, kill literally millions of people.

I have generally been sympathetic with the arguments of people who have identified environmentalism as the next (last?) great hope of the statists, a pretext for government to control and co-opt private business, socialism having ended on history's ashheap, and the welfare state having reached its practical limits as a club with which to bash free enterprise over the head.

I do believe that parts of the modern environmental movement have been hijacked, in part by the enemies of capitalism, and by others less ideological like France and Germany, who think their interests are served by hurting America economically, the Kyoto agreement being a recent example of that tack.

For the former, capitalism is by definition the enemy of the environment, (despite convincing evidence that the free market democracies are the best at practicing sound environmental law and public policy, and have the best track record of environmental action and improvement in air and water pollution levels, for example.) For the latter, environmental programs seem to be a front for the effort to rein in the U.S. economic juggernaut, as a way to level the playing field so that Western Europe has a prayer of staying in the game.

So there I go talking politics in an area that Crichton says needs to be de-politicized. He's right about the need to rely on solid science for making good public policy, and we can't do that amid the doomsday rhetoric of the "true believers". That's why we need more voices like that of Bjorn Lomborg. Because he's an environmentalist who is moved by facts, not faith. For a wonderful review of his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, click here.

In closing, I'm going to quote from my own blog post of 7/27/03, because this is about as well as I can express it:

Absent the apocalyptic rhetoric, environmentalism can become what it should be. A serious topic for scientific study, a matter for vigorous public policy debate, and concerted government and private sector action. The environmental lobby can become what it should be. One among many "interest groups" in our society, educating citizens, recommending options, and advocating for environmental issues as significant priorities to be addressed by a society and a government with finite resources, and other important priorities.

Crichton has helped to explained why the environmentally "religious" don't want that to happen.

Posted by dan at December 8, 2003 12:17 AM