Disestablishing Environmentalism

Article excerpt

     A. Defining Establishment and Religion
     B. Is Environmentalism a Religion?
        1. What is Environmentalism?
        2. Environmentalism's Religious Language
        3. Environmentalist Writing on Religion
        4. Critiques of Environmentalism as a Religion
        5. Thinking about Environmentalism as a Religion
     C. The Establishment of Environmentalism
        1. Commanding Private Action
        2. Government Symbolic Action
        3. Direct Government Action
     A. Disestablishment as a Means of Promoting Religion
        1. The Impact of Disestablishment on Religion
        2. The Impact of Disestablishment on Environmentalism
           a. Diversity Among Environmental Groups
           b. Entanglement with the State's Impact on Environmental
     B. The Problem of Environmental Orthodoxy
     A. What Disestablishment Does Not Mean
     B. Imagining a Disestablished Environmentalism


Debate over environmental policy is increasingly conducted in language with strong religious overtones. Both proponents and opponents of various environmental policies appeal to religious doctrine to support their positions: (1) Those who question human-caused global warming are labeled "heretics," (2) ignoring environmental limits is "ecologically wicked" and sinful," (3) while appeals for environmental "stewardship" echo Biblical texts. (4) Religious groups play an important role in defining environmental policy issues. For example, the United Church of Christ helped introduce the term "environmental racism" into debates over environmental policy. (5) Both supporters and critics of specific environmental policy views have labeled particular sets of beliefs about the environment a "religion." (6) And empirical studies have found that membership in churches and environmental groups are sometimes substitutes. (7)

In this Article we engage in a thought experiment, arguing that there are valuable lessons to be learned from treating Environmentalism as if it were a religion, and therefore subject to the First Amendment's prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion." (8) (We will use a capitalized "Environmentalism" to refer to the potentially religious set of beliefs about the environment and an uncapitalized "environmentalism" to refer to secular beliefs about the environment. We discuss the basis for the distinction below in Part II.B.) In particular, the consideration of the economics of the Establishment Clause--perhaps better termed the economics of disestablishment--offers important insights into how to structure environmental policies in a way that can improve environmental quality.

The relative successes of established and disestablished religions make a compelling case that establishment of religion leads to less, rather than more, religious belief and behavior in the long run and that a free market in religion ultimately produces more religious belief and observance than does an established church, albeit of a potentially different character than that produced by an established faith. Our conclusion is that applying these lessons to environmental policy can help increase environmental quality, while ignoring them risks creating the environmental equivalent of the empty churches of established denominations in Europe. (9) Disestablishment of religion yielded a diverse and active collection of religious faiths that made the United States rank consistently among the most religious nations in the world; (10) we contend that disestablishment of Environmentalism can also produce a more diverse, active collection of environmental policy ideas with the potential to change individual behavior in ways that will benefit the environment more than continuation of an official environmental catechism can accomplish. …