Environmentalism as Religion

A year or so ago I wrote a long essay on the rise of environmentalism and its effect on politics and society. It was published in Judith Curry’s website ‘Climate etc’, and drew several hundred comments. I was trying to answer the question: ‘Why do so many people accept the doctrine of AGW or ‘climate change’ as though it is some kind of revealed truth?’ My answer is not a complete one (whose is?) but it is a beginning. I’m not suggesting that it is wrong for anyone to behave this way — all of us go round with views of the way things are that work for us, and we rarely examine them. But this one interests me, and it is at least some kind of relief from bizarre social science explanations that people who don’t believe in AGW are suffering from some kind of cognitive disorder.

Let me clear the ground first. I do not think that AGW is a hoax, a conspiracy, a device whereby some people seek to rule the world, or an example of deep corruption. I do think that it is a hypothesis that so far has failed to be shown to have substance, and is being defended vigorously because governments have adopted it, in part or whole.

In my opinion what has produced the belief in AGW is a slow and essentially unplanned process over two generations that involves a substantial increase in the wealth of our societies, technological changes that have helped us communicate on a global level in an unprecedented way, a strong rise in the educational levels of the population, the rapid rise in the importance of science and research generally, a decline in the importance of organised religion (though not in the USA), an associated decline in the belief that materialism will suffice, the growth of an environmental movement that has some of the characteristics of a belief system, and the rise of lobbying organizations and especially of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that purport to speak for, or act for, what they claim to be unrepresented groups of people or poorly understood issues. All of these factors are connected.

Since I have lived through this process I can recall particular changes in my own life that are connected. For example, I set out to become a high-school teacher, like my parents. Instead, I became an academic, and one with a career built largely on research, something virtually impossible earlier. More than 120,000 people (based on person-years of effort) are now involved in R&D activities, and they include 55,000 people in universities. The ABS calls research an ‘industry’ because it is so big — gross expenditure on R&D exceeds $21 billion.

In all Western countries governments supply a great deal of research funding, and this is especially the case in the field of climate science, which is virtually a government monopoly. Governments need supporting organizations that can discriminate between good/bad, useful/not useful research, and the learned academies have been co-opted into being supporters of government science programs, just as (in Australia, at least) well-established charities have been co-opted as supporting agencies in social welfare programs.

The church I attended as a boy is still there (a heritage building) but its congregation has gone completely, and the building is used for other purposes. Australia is much more secular in every way than it was in the 1950s, and the proportion who now go to Christian churches on a regular basis is much less than ten per cent. I think there is a spiritual side to most if not all human beings, and it needs feeding and release. On the whole music is my source, but I  have a strong feeling that for many what I will call ‘environmentalism’ has come to have an important role. Being richer and spending more money ultimately doesn’t work.

From the 1970s on, the view that human beings had some kind of ethical duty to care for their environment has taken steady hold in the rich countries. Some of it has been simple common sense, and is an extrapolation of making one’s immediate environment attractive. The rapid growth in the number and size of rubbish tips, and the concern that much of what was dumped could have been re-used (a reaction of anyone who had grown up during depression or war) caused a slow movement towards re-cycling, not because (the older view) materials were scarce but (the newer view) because they might in the future become scarce: what we dug out of the ground was in some sense finite. And we have had environmental problems and associated scares of one kind or another for the last fifty years.

Green political movements developed in most Western countries, the earliest in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s, then in Germany. Their success, though minor at first, steadily increased until they had become a third political force in many countries, though rarely with majority or even plurality support. They were linked to, were often supported by, and sometimes even helped to form, lobbying groups of a local and/or global kind. The ‘Gaian’ strand has some of the characteristics of a religion, and the language that environmentalists often use has echoes of much older beliefs in wood and river spirits: the environment is seen an entity that observes and reacts to us: it needs respect, if not worship. Professor Flannery provides a case in point.

And to support environmentalism has come a plethora of non-government organizations, of which there are now millions. Those operating at the international or global level are estimated to exceed 40,000, and all developed countries possess scads of them. They have been particularly notable in the environmental domain, partly because the environment knows no human boundaries, partly because the United Nations has welcomed them, and partly because national governments (and regional or local governments) find environmental concerns difficult to deal with satisfactorily.

The growth of the research industry, and the elevated status possessed by researchers and scientists, mean that narratives, ‘breakthroughs’ and scary stories that are about some aspect of science are now part of our daily news fare. But something else has happened: we are not as confident or as optimistic as we once were (for me, that time was the 1960s and early 1970s, when my own young career flourished, and everything seemed possible). Once the stories would have been about success. Now they are characteristically about doom, anxiety, and bad things to come. The glass is much more often half empty than it is half full.

It seems to me that environmentalism has moved in to take some of the spiritual role that organised Christianity once played, and it also offers a new political path for those who find things wrong, bad and unacceptable. Something is bad, and we must fix it. Now!  Democratically elected governments are sensitive to the fears and anxieties of the electorate, and a significant part of the electorate is worried about the ‘future of the planet’. So governments have asked the new priests, the scientists, to help. Since many countries seem to have these woes, the outcome has been a common one, helped by international organizations and the ease of global communication. No matter that climate affects us all locally, the outcome has been to find the villainy in our universal use of fossil fuels, leading to increases in temperature, leading to disaster scenarios. The villain is ourselves, and we require government action, more regulation and new taxes.

Not everyone believes all this, but it seems to fit the present mood. So much money has been funnelled to the climate priests that they have to support the orthodoxy, whatever the evidence, and in consequence the respect in which science and research were once held is slowly diminishing. Governments are reluctant to admit that they are ever wrong, so they rarely examine their own policies to see if they are actually doing any good. Budgetary problems may end government programs, but otherwise they tend to continue. The mainstream media do not generally possess independent science reporters, and of those known to me almost all support the orthodoxy. In any case, scary stories make news, and benign stories do not.

And finally, there is our general  mood, which in Australia’s case is much less confident than it once was, as I have said.  And that lack of confidence in our capacity to deal with our problems means that doomster stories have much more power to take hold than they once did. The story that I have set out here requires book-length treatment, but you can at least see what its argument would be!

Leave a Reply