Monday, May 12, 2008

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

Some people accuse environmentalism of being a religion. There are lots of similarities: There is always a list of “Biblical” catastrophes that are predicted to rain down from on high because of our transgressions; People in general are castigated for having too much and not giving more to those who have not; Society as a whole is criticized for heading down the wrong path, etc., etc....

As an environmentalist, I've succumbed to those temptations many times. I admit to preaching fire and brimstone and loving every minute of it. Of course, that was a long time ago, when I was only 50. I'm a lot more mature now.

But at a certain point I realized that the world does not need another religion. We've got plenty of them already. Pushing religion, whatever the type, is divisive. Just look at our neighbours to the south and their Christian President. And look at the religious fault lines that opened up in Iraq after the American invasion.

The American Economist Robert Nelson, who often compares economics to religion draws a convincing parallel between some strands of environmentalism and Calvinism. Calvin was the 16th century Swiss Protestant theologian who inspired the Puritan movement which in turn inspired the first settlements of the New England colonies. Puritanism is the percursor to Christian Fundamentalism which has been so influencial in modern American politics.

According to Calvin, humankind is utterly depraved and corrupt. And even if we do change our ways, God plans to obliterate the vast majority of us anyways. How's that for a cheerful theological message?

It's interesting that, as Nelson points out, there are some environmentalists who sound just like this. Case in point: Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepard Society states: “We, the human species have become a viral epidemic to the Earth.” When three maritime sealers died while out sealing Watson said that their deaths didn't matter as much as the thousands of seals that were being slaughtered.

The idea of valuing life on earth more than human life gives me pause. I know it's good to be able to put ourselves in some other critters place but ultimately it's our future that we are interested in. This is my problem with Animal Rights activists. Because if we aren't more important to ourselves than the rest of life, then anything we can do to destroy ourselves faster would be a good thing. We should pollute and consume as much as possible and fight nuclear wars to hasten the end of our species so that life on Earth can get on without us. But, humanity matters. Our future matters. And nature matters because we ultimately depend on her to survive.

Scientifically we know much more about life on earth today than we did centuries ago in Calvin's time. We know that life is an interdependent web. Life supports life. Plants are food and animals are food. Certain elements essential to life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are recycled over vast spans of time so that life can continue on over eons. If these elements were just used up and not recycled, Earth would eventually become barren, like the planet Mars.

Ecosystems continually provide us with food, fresh air, fresh water, climate control, top soil for growing crops, erosion control, and flood control. We cannot put earth's ecosystems in jeopardy without putting ourselves into jeopardy – our ability to feed ourselves, our ability to provide shelter, our ability to breathe, and our ability to pass on our genes and our culture. We don't understand enough about how ecosystems work. To damage them is to risk damaging them beyond repair.

Religious preaching always assumes the presence of faith in listeners. So warnings about God's judgement on sinners and how they're going to hell if they don't do X, all presuppose belief in the Judeo-Christian God. But a warning can be just that – a warning. “Get off the road before you get hit by that car!” is a warning but it doesn't require belief in God. You can believe in God, you can be an Athiest. In any case, you'll still want to avoid getting hit by the car.

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