Magazine article USA TODAY

Environmentalism as Religion Run Amok

Magazine article USA TODAY

Environmentalism as Religion Run Amok

Article excerpt

THE GREATEST CHALLENGE facing mankind is to distinguish reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth always has been a dilemma, but in the Information Age--or, as I think of it, the Disinformation Age--it takes on a special urgency and importance. We must decide daily whether the threats we face are real or not, and whether the solutions we are offered will do any good. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part supplied by the people around us and the society we live in; in part generated by our own emotional state, which we project outward; and in part results from actual perceptions of the world. In short, our straggle to determine what is valid is the need to decide which of our perceptions are genuine and which are false.

As an example of this challenge to mankind, I want to talk about environmentalism. In order not to be misunderstood, I need to be perfectly clear that I believe it is incumbent on us to live our lives in a way that takes into account all the consequences of our actions, including those to other people and the environment. I believe it is important to act in ways that am sympathetic to the biosphere. I feel the world has genuine difficulties and that they can and should be improved. Yet, I also think that deciding what constitutes responsible action is immensely complicated, and the results of our deeds very often are hard to know in advance. I suppose our past record of environmental action is discouraging, to put it mildly, because even our best intended efforts often have gone awry. Moreover, we do not recognize our previous failures or face them squarely--and I think I know why.

While studying anthropology in college, one of the things we learned was that certain human social structures always resurface. They cannot be eliminated. One of those is religion. It is said we live in a secular society in which many people--the best and most enlightened--do not believe in any creed. However, you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely reemerges in another. You may not believe in God, but yon still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. It seems to be the faith of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it is a religion? Well, just look carefully at the beliefs. What you see is a perfect 21st-century mapping of traditional Judeo-Christian dogma and myths. For example, there is an initial Eden, a Paradise, a state of innocence and unity in nature; there is 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. We all are energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek deliverance, which now is called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment, just as organic food is its Communion.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday--these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative concepts. They even may be hardwired in the brain. I certainly do not wish to talk anyone out of them, just as I have no desire to dissuade anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who rose from the dead. The reason that I have no wish to debate these convictions is that I know that I cannot. These are not facts that can be argued; these are issues of faith.

So it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly, it seems, facts are not necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It is about whether you are going to be a sinner or saved, one of the people on the side of salvation or on the side of doom, one of us or one of them. Am I exaggerating to make a point? I am afraid not. Because we understand a lot more about the world than we did 40 or 50 years ago, our new knowledge base is not really supportive of certain core environmental myths, yet they refuse to die. …

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