Friday, December 12, 2003

is environmentalism a religion?

With thanks to Kirk, Protector of Things Ovine, for his post pointing out Michael Crichton's essay on environmentalism-as-religion. Kirk's snippet of Crichton:

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.


Increasingly it seems facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them.

Am I exaggerating to make a point? I am afraid not. Because we know a lot more about the world than we did forty or fifty years ago. And what we know now is not so supportive of certain core environmental myths, yet the myths do not die. Let's examine some of those beliefs.

There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago? When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke? Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?

The direct link to Crichton's essay is here.

I tend to think of Eden and pre-fall myths as archetypes, a reflection of the evolution of our own personal consciousness as we grow from infancy to childhood to adulthood to dotage. In infancy, the world is undifferentiated, with little or no separation between ego and environment. As the result of a lot of teaching (laced with a long series of "NO! NO! NO!" and some strategic "YES"es along the way), we discover during childhood that the world's a place of differentiation, difference, separation-- not everything behaves according to our will; this is the frustration most of us begin to encounter as we enter our Terrible Twos: the world has boundaries and distinctions, there's reality out there. As adults, we recognize (I hope) that reality's nature isn't merely one of differentiation and variety; we can also discern a subtle oneness about it all. But how we handle our perception of the Many and the One, of Form and Emptiness, in large part determines major aspects of our adult thought and behavior-- religious convictions, political stance, etc. As we move into our dotage, we often return to the simple and perceive so many overarching principles that it becomes possible to describe the universe (or our corner of it) in those terms. The old are great for bumper-sticker perles de sagesse, compact wisdom that needs unpacking and chewing over.

As our consciousness moves, so our myths move. We don't all move at the same pace, nor do we all encounter the phases I've described in the same way (some of us refuse to move at all: attachment). Eden is an archetype burbling out of our brains, a reflection of our occasional yearning for (or perception of?) undifferentiated wholeness. The problem is what happens when mythos bleeds into logos-- as it inevitably does-- and the letter of the word becomes more important than the spirit of the word. This is Crichton's critique, at bottom: a myth crystallizes, calcifies, freezes into something that can no longer reflect changing reality (including the changing reality of scientific discovery).

George Carlin still strikes me as having the best summation of the environmentalist problem: "The planet's not going anywhere, folks. WE ARE!" If environmentalists are to be truthful, it's not about "saving the environment" or "saving the planet." It's about halting nature in its tracks so it remains human-friendly for many more centuries. The earth wasn't always human-friendly, and it won't always remain this way, with or without our help and harm. So really, environmentalism's about saving our own asses. Since I'm a human being, I tend to agree this is a good thing. I'm not saddled by the illusion that Mother Earth is an angry, sensitive, high-maintenance bitch. If we figure out a way to staple geological fault lines together, for example, I don't think we're angering the cthonian deities when we prevent earthquakes. We've been managing natural processes from the beginning: look at fire and blades and hammers; hand, brain, and will.

To the extent that someone like Bush needs to hear the loud voices of environmentalists, though, I'm willing to put up with a little secular animism/pantheism. In the meantime, it is possible to be environmentalist without subscribing to the Eden myth: we just need to recognize, and move past, the fact that our motives are selfish. Nothing to be ashamed of. No need to dress this up as something nobler. In the meantime, I'm relying on science, not myth-based ideology, to be the actual force that keeps the environment human-friendly for as long as possible.

Then, when our time on this world is up, we'll get attacked by Cylons and flee the solar system.

As it is written.

By your command.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When it comes to the environment, I have two basic ideas: 1. It's our planet too, "our" meaning humans, and 2. Don't dump your trash in your neighbor's yard.

This second one requires a lot of unpacking, obviously, because what constititutes trash, neighbor and yard are really at the heart of all the discussion and furor.

But underlying it is a third rule that nobody wants to explicitly discuss, Don't spend more on the environment than it is worth. This is the difficult one. This is where ideology is blind. DDT was banned and human deaths from malaria went through the roof. Supposedly we now have more raptor birds as a result. Was it worth it? Shhhhh.... don't ask that question. Technological progress, which has saved millions of lives is being brought to a crawl by fears of [name your particular villian, CO2 is the current one, or Genetically Modified crops}. So we let people die in third world countries because we want a squeaky clean planet?

You get the point, I'm now doing another version of Carlin, and not nearly as well.