Blogs > Liberty and Power > Environmentalism as Religion, Religion as Environmentalism

Feb 6, 2008 9:52 pm


Environmentalism as Religion, Religion as Environmentalism



I give you the subject header of an email that just came across our faculty/staff listserv, courtesy of the Chaplain's Office:

"Christian Ash Wednesday: Why not give up carbon for Lent?"

Now the idea was not literally to "give up carbon" altogether, although that would make Rand's characterization of environmentalism as "death worship" much less hyperbolic than I've always believed it to be. Rather, it was an exhortation to reduce energy usage on the margin.

Still, it does serve as a reminder of what many have seen as the disturbing parallels between much of organized religion and popular forms of environmentalism. Seeing them explicitly combined in such a "logical" way makes these points even more telling:

Both are highly moralistic and use the language and strategies of "sinfulness." This also involves an implied and often explicit claim to have monopolized the moral high ground.

Both involve the idea that one must sacrifice now for some undetermined future reward. This makes the Lent connection very logical.

Both have historically been very quick to label and condemn as "heretics" those who disagree with them.

Both have a tendency toward irrationalism and mysticism, e.g. the Gaia strand of environmentalism.

I really do believe that for many young people and for older folks on the left, environmentalism is a way of creating meaning in their very secular lives that in an earlier era would have been fulfilled by religious practice. It brings the notion of living for something larger than oneself, of sacrificing in the name of a better future, and of having a set of certain moral categories by which one can orient one's own behavior and criticize that of others. In these ways it is also a response to the relativism with which many are inculcated growing up and being educated. It also explains, I think, the increasing attractiveness to young people of neo-paganism and other forms of spirituality that are linked to nature. Seeing Lent as a time to reduce carbon usage could be seen as a very clever way of speaking to young lapsed or non-practicing Catholics in the same sort of language.

And to head off a certain line of criticism, my point is not to condemn every form of concern about the environment, nor to suggest that such concerns are incompatible with reason or libertarianism. I think there are interesting and important parallels and interactions between the spontaneous order of nature and that of society that need to be taken seriously by libertarians. However, that perspective is not the one taken in the general public's environmentalism.

It is a challenge for those of us who are skeptical of both organized religion's and environmentalism's claims to being universal moralities that should inform public policy (as opposed to something one practices as a private morality) to find a way to offer people a set of meaningful and universalizable values that are more consistently congenial to classical liberalism. If we cannot offer our own way of filling that gap, it will continue to be filled for us by movements that are not so friendly to liberty and progress.


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Craig J Bolton - 2/7/2008

I think that, perhaps, you should be more worried about why some people are fundamentalists, and what they are willing to do as a result - be they religious fundamentalists or ideological fundamentalists. That is, you will excuse the pun, a much more fundamental question than whether environmentalism is a religion or some religious people are environmentalists.


Aeon J. Skoble - 2/7/2008

Fantastic post, Steve, your analysis seems exactly right.

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