This post was inspired by a few statements by @ShellenbergerMD on the role of belief in environmentalism.
2. Conservatives often express confusion as to why liberals who claim to be atheist use "nature" like others use God. Isn't that religious?— Mike Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD) February 10, 2016
If environmentalism is a religion, it's a shoddy one. If we're going to solve the many pressing environmental problems that face us today, we're going to have to commit a little heresy and bring environmentalism crashing back to Earth.
What is a religion?
Many will take issue with my assertion that environmentalism is a religion. "Religion," they'll say, "is something only irrational people ascribe to. What could be more rational than believing that the highest good is preserving the very basis for human life?" To that, I would reply that rationality does not define a religion, structure defines religion. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...you get the idea.
The fact that we all know the names of some religions obscures the fact that we don't really know what unites religious activity. There have certainly been attempts to define "religion" as a psychological phenomenon, as a philosophy and so on, but these often proceed from an assumption that we know which patterns of life constitute a religion. Our definition is circular.
Put another way, if aliens visited our planet, would they put Islam, Hinduism and Christianity in the same bucket? If so, why?
I propose the following minimal, structural definition of religion: religion consists of a metaphysical belief and a set of practices that follow from that belief. These practices, in turn, identify practitioners (co-religionaries) as part of the same in-group. I contend that all religions manifest this triple structure: metaphysical ground, individual practice and group identity. To give an example from Christianity, the basic assertion to be believed is that there is a God who is the basis for all existence and that He became man in the form of Jesus. The Christian religions and all of their disagreements stem from the question: What requirements does this place on my life? These different practices, in turn define the identity of the different sects. Catholics fast on Fridays, Mormons have their temples, Lutherans do whatever they do. But what makes it essentially a religion is this triple structure: God exists and became man (meaning that God cares about humanity) AND this demands that I act a certain way in my day to day life AND those acts define my identity.
There are certainly many things that fulfill one aspect of this. Physics makes claims that it doesn't regard as metaphysical (because that's an "unscientific" sounding word), but functionally are. Statements about the nature of things that are impossible to verify or experience are functionally metaphysical, but no claim on the part of string theory dictates any course of human action.
There are also systems of life action that are not based in any metaphysical absolute. People are constantly going on diets, learning things, engaging in causes, joining political parties, joining and leaving social cliques ad infinitum, but this not moored in any particular metaphysical claim. One just does it because it "feels right."
Similarly, there are various in-groups that we belong to that are not based on either metaphysics or personal practice. The most obvious of these are demographic in-groups, such as sex, race, age, but we can think of almost unlimited transient, trend-based in-groups.
Is environmentalism a religion?
If we look at conventional environmentalism, it is easy to discern a religious structure. The metaphysical claim is that nature is static and that it is morally superior to human activity. To this, many an environmentalist will claim that this is not a "belief," but rather a logical outcome stemming from the belief that a healthy planet is a premise for human survival. If the premise is degraded, then survival will be degraded. This is a complex question, but it seems that humanity can biologically survive on a much different, far less green planet. The logic of survival does not necessarily lead to conservation of the natural world. The justification for conservation must be sought either in aesthetics, or in metaphysics. For the modern relativist, these categories conflate nicely, so we'll just say that the "Superiority of Nature" is a metaphysical belief.
The next question is, does environmentalism hold that there are some practices that follow from this metaphysical belief? This is even more plainly true than the metaphysical claim, since the practices are what we actually associate with environmentalism. These practices include--support for recycling, "renewable" energy, emissions regulation, etc. I should point out that these practices are believed to follow from the metaphysical premise of the separateness and superiority of nature, the nature of this relationship between premise and conclusion is also an article of faith.
And finally we ask ourselves: does environmentalism create an in-group? I would argue that this one of the most important functions of environmentalism. I remember moving from California to Texas and finding out that there was no support for recycling in my new hometown. I recall being physically unable to throw a Coke can in the garbage, such was my sense of (inherited) tribal loyalty. It seems obvious that "being an environmentalist" offers a host of social benefits, including a cohesive dating pool.
The natural question is: So what? If a bunch of Californians want to adhere to an environmentalist pseudo-religion, what makes this any worse than the Church of Scientology? In fact, given that the issue is so pressing, isn't it necessary to drum up enthusiasm however necessary?
Well, if all we were talking about was different ways to while away one's life, I would say, "Not much difference." But ostensibly, we're trying to accomplish some pragmatic goal, that being keeping the planet hospitable for humanity. My first problem with the idea of environmental orthodoxy is that the actions that environmentalism dictates are overly constrained. This means that the practical actions advocated for and undertaken by environmentalists cannot adapt to a dynamic situation--and a situation that is so entangled with economics and society cannot help but be dynamic. Imagine that the metaphysical, practical and social aspects of environmentalism form the sides of a triangle. If the metaphysical and social sides of environmentalism remain fixed, the practical side cannot change.
This leads to the intransigence of people that consider themselves environmentalists and leads them to refuse to reassess the actions they support. If an environmentalist embraces industrial agriculture because she realizes that organics cannot scale without more pollution and deforestation, what will happen to her social identity? If a Green advocates for nuclear energy, realizing that it is the highest-density low-carbon energy source, do they sin against Nature? Certainly, a Light Water Reactor can't be--natural?
This intransigence is bad for the very thing that environmentalists claim to hold most dear: the planet. We won't get rid of coal without embracing natural gas from fracking. We won't prevent harmful climate change without nuclear power. We can't feed 9 billion people on organic carrots, no matter how many celebrities tweet about it.
Finally, I find any religion that considers humanity to be an obstacle to be overcome to be suspect. Many environmentalists would guffaw at my suggestion that orthodox environmentalism is misanthropic, but what else can one think when environmentalists claim the right to raise the price of energy, thus restricting its access. One must be willfully blind that this "small price" will mean real human suffering. The 20th century was full of visionary leaders with little patience for the reality of the human condition; I'm loathe to repeat that mistake.
What is the alternative?
My solution is so simple as to appear dumb. I suggest breaking the triangle. Let metaphysics be metaphysics. Nature is neither good nor bad, it merely is. And maybe derive your social identity from something else, like spinning or actual charity work. This will allow us to loosen our constraints. Just as it is harder to juggle while walking a tightrope, it is harder to solve a technical problem (such as carbon emissions) while remaining a devout environmentalist.
Will this mean a certain ennui among environmentalists? Almost certainly. The suggestion that their God is not only dead but probably never existed will hurt. Probably more painful will be the loss of social identity. One can only imagine the look on my fellow yoga practitioners faces when I tell them that that I think the Earth needs more electricity, not less and that solar panels are a bad use of land and resources. I will certainly be thrown out of my charity to end GMO use in the inner city. But isn't a little liberal angst worth a healthy planet and a healthy economy?