Friday, January 08, 2010

Is Environmentalism a Religion?

The late Michael Crichton was genius. Our society desperately needs his voice today. He gave this message on the danger of "green dogma" to students in 2005 (based on a speech he originally wrote in 2003):

Imagine what he would have to say in 2010? He gives words to something I have merely sensed and have grappled to define the last two years living and attending university in Portland.

His concise and perceptive observations of environmentalism almost seems prophetic.

In Portland you have people standing on every street corner selling penance for your sins of consumptions and excess. "Sustainability is salvation in the church of environmentalism. Just as organic food is it's communion."

In portland condemnation and guilt is heaped (directly or indirectly) on to the shoulders of those who don't buy the right products, eat the right foods, live in the right neighborhood, wear the right clothes, use the right bag, drive the right cars, shop at the right store, and talk the right way.

For many this religion gives purpose and meaning to their daily lives. It's a religious framework that gives satisfaction and a sense of superiority to the "true believers".

This is not to say there is not truth in environment concerns. Most certainly their are environmental concerns, even crises. I say none of this as a "get out of jail free card" for selfless and irresponsible consumption. But religious dogma will not do. I do call for the breaking of the chains of religion by seeing the current environmental movement for what it is, allowing us to better address the issues.
  • Has anyone heard of environmentalism spoken of in these terms (His original BRILLIANT speech from 2003 can be read on his official site)?
  • Does Michael Crichton have a successor in this regard (I'm not speaking of the billion bitter environmental reactionaries that a simple google search will reveal)?
  • Is all of this a load of BS?
  • Have you been burned by environmentalism as a religion?
  • Do you find ways that you have submitted to this form of religious fundamentalism?
This couldn't be more timely with the release of Avatar. I might be doing a followup to this post, disseminating the content of Avatar as it relates. In the meantime, feel free to jump back to my last post on Avatar, as there is already a good discussion rolling about the themes of environmentalism there.


Anna said...

I have heard John C. Wright talk on his blog about environmentalism as a religion before, but I suspect his fame is not nearly up to the level of Michael Crichton yet. I think I may have seen that theme on other conservative blogs; I can't remember specifically, though. No one particularly famous strikes me as being a replacement for Crichton, but then, I didn't know Crichton had views on environmentalism before reading this post of yours, so who knows. :)

There is definitely some truth to the comparison between environmentalism and religion. It's not all BS. In particular, as Crichton points out, environmentalism goes wrong when it becomes a fundamentalist attitude instead of based on good science and rational thinking.
But I think it is dangerous, too, to equate environmentalism with its extreme. Crichton managed to convey the need to take environmental concerns seriously while also pointing out philosophical dangers that sometimes crop up; others are not always so careful. Those who condemn environmentalism as a religion will have the effect of making it ok in people's minds to disregard environmentalism completely, unless the speakers clearly and loudly encourage a more correct concern.

While I would say I have seen how environmentalism can go wrong, I don't think I've ever been *burned* by it. Maybe I haven't lived in Portland long enough; maybe I just live in the wrong neighborhood. :P Instead, as I find myself growing in God in other ways, I have also found Him helping me take a couple small steps towards a better environment. (Like, this morning, He reminded me not to fill the sink too full of water, since I didn't have many dishes to wash.)

Anonymous said...

As someone who tried earnestly to go vegan and spent a year doing habitat restoration field work for less than minimum wage, and as a member of Greenpeace, I think of myself as someone who cares for the environment.

But I confess I don't really have a definition of environmental-ISM. I guess I think of myself as an environmentalist, in that I'm pro-theplaceIlive, but I couldn't rattle off to you any unquestionable premises... and I'm not sure that anyone I know could either. I think we are just united by a sense of awe for nature and disdain for non-biodegradable pollutants and human-caused species extinctions. And I'm sure we all watched Fern Gully as children.

I don't support fundamentalism in any form. We have rational minds for a reason. But then, maybe a little extremism in favor of the environment is good - it may just be enough to balance out centuries of human heedlessness. Time will tell.

But suppose fundamentalist environmentalists did gain political power... what's the worst that could happen? What are the fundamentals of environmentalism? Treat nature with respect. Don't use poisonous chemicals if you can avoid it. Don't leave things where they shouldn't be left. Nourish your body. Avoid extravagance. Enjoy simple things.... Frankly I think the world would be a better place.

One last thing. It seems too diminutive to me to merely call the environment an "issue," as many people do (maybe I have a little fundamentalism in me after all ;). The question of whether we harmonize sustainably with nature's outputs and inputs isn't like the other issues that concern many in our society, such as abortion, gay rights,etc. In the grand scheme of things, no matter what humanity opines about these things, civilization will be fine.

The matter of the environment is different. If we don't harmonize quick, we'll run out of fresh water in many places in the world, oceans will flood coasts, desertification will destroy cropland, tropical diseases will spread to temperate zones, etc. It's hard to imagine that populist tyrants wouldn't take advantage of the situation.

With these things in mind, it's easy for me to feel a sense of urgency, or even righteous fervor about the set of arguments that are, collectively, "environmentalism." To wrap it up, I think Chrichton's concern is misplaced, and that even the most extreme fundamentalist environmentalist is, by his/her severity, only barely beginning to right the scales of human thought and activity.

DK said...

Anna, Thanks for the link to John C. Wright. Looks like some good reading material!

Jesse, Love your input. I whole-heartedly agree to the urgency of our environmental context.

Anna said...

I just want to emphatically disagree that civilization will be just fine regardless of what we opine about abortion, etc.

Probably my single biggest objection to anything that gets classified as an environmental issue is when people advocate population control or any other form of devaluing human life. One human baby is worth the life of every seal that ever was.

Another recent post by the same John C. Wright might give a glimpse of an idea of the problems I have with the one-child policy in China (the ultimate expression of population control) and how bad I think things could get if fundamentalist environmentalists were in charge.

That's not to say that there isn't some urgency to environmental issues, though... I wouldn't actually put it as my *most* urgent political/social issue, but it definitely has an urgency to it.

Anonymous said...

After reading Wright's post on adopting his daughter, I emphatically agree that certain measures of controlling population growth factors (procreation, in this case) should not be taken. What a nightmare.

However, I must emphatically disagree with your assertion in P2 that the life of one human is more valuable than the existence of an entire species. It seems hyperbolic.

Hypothetical situation: a child is dying of a disease. As it turns out, scientists have recently discovered a compound in elephants' brains that could cure the disease. But,

a) the compound cannot be obtained without killing the elephant, and, b) the compound occurs in such low concentrations [and cannot be synthesized with existing technology] that to make one dose of the cure, you would have to kill every last elephant on the planet.

Under your reasoning, the 'right' thing to do would be to kill all elephants for the cure?

I think your statement takes the sparrow proverb too far, and in the wrong direction.

To be frank, I can only assume that your *relative* disregard for other forms of life stems from the belief that non-human animals do not possess immortal souls, and I would guess your reasoning goes something like this:

Humans, possessive of immortal souls, have a value of 1.
Animals, without immortal souls, have a value of 0.
1 is infinitely more than 0.
Therefore, 1 human baby is infinitely more valuable than all non-souled life forms.

I make this assumption seeing that you are Catholic, and because I went to a Catholic high school and university. If I am wrong in my assumption, just disregard this point.

I respectfully provide an alternative understanding of what a soul is. If you look at the etymology of the word "animal," you can't help but notice "anima". Our current understandings having built, for better or worse, on preceding ones (maybe they were accurate as they were, and further development only meant distortion of the original, correct, appraisal - or maybe not), "anima" is about as far as the western conception of the soul/life force goes back.

Here's the background of the word/concept:

animal (n.)
late 14c. (but rare before end of 16c., and not in K.J.V.), from L. animale "living being, being which breathes," neut. of animalis "living, of air," from anima "breath, soul" (see animus).

from L. animus "soul, mind, courage, desire," related to anima "living being, soul, mind, disposition, passion, courage, anger, spirit, feeling," from PIE (proto indo european) base *ane- "to blow, to breathe" (cf. Gk. anemos "wind," Skt. aniti "breathes").

So, in the original thought, that which has breath has life (think Hebrew word 'ruah'), and that which has life is 'animated,' or possesses the animating principle, a.k.a. a spirit a.k.a. a soul. With this understanding, you couldn't have a living thing without a soul - that would be nonsense.

Differences in beings were accounted for by the classical philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) as originating in different creatures having different kinds of souls:

Plants have souls that are vegetative (base life processes) in nature.
Animals have souls that are vegetative AND affectative (emotion, awareness) in nature.
Humans have souls that are tri-fold in nature: vegetative, affectative and rational.

I don't know about this multiplicity of souls in nature, but do I ascribe to the notion that that which has life has a soul, or spirit. So, while I am not of the opinion that the life of the gnat or mosquito or guppy is worth my own, I must disagree with you when you say that one human life is worth that of a species.



Anna said...

"Under your reasoning, the 'right' thing to do would be to kill all elephants for the cure?"

Yes. (Now, granted, since the relevant compound was in the elephants' brains, I'd encourage removing the elephants' sperm and eggs and trying to use an IVF-type process to create more elephants, but if that wasn't possible, I think the moral analysis would still be the same).

I appreciate how extreme that sounds. I struggled with some of those kind of thought problems and questions about the relative value of animals to humans, some years back. But I did come to believe that a human is worth more than any number of animals.

I'm familiar with the 'souls = life, therefore animals have souls' thinking. (If I recall right, Aquinas said that, too.) But that difference between an animal's soul (affective, if you will) and a human's soul is still there. An animal's soul is not an eternal one; a human's is.

Also, this goes, for me, beyond just the notion of a soul. A human being is a person, in the theological sense. A person is someone who exists for his own sake. We are made in the image of God. Our rationality, our ability to create art, our ability to appreciate things like beauty and justice, and above all, our ability to freely choose to love - these are all things that put us on a whole different plane than the animals. Our existence is as much higher than the animals as their existence is higher than rocks and sand. (And the angels' existence is higher again than ours.)

Your numerical analysis captured the basics of my logic down, but I hate the thought of assigning anything in creation a value of 0. Let me offer a slightly modified version. (This works particularly well if you think of animals as having a relatively-short-lived soul, and humans an eternal one.)

Are you familiar with Cantor set theory and infinite sets?

I would assign animals various finite values: (for example)
Bacteria = 2
Mosquitos = 100
Dolphins = 12,000
Elephants = 43,000

I would assign each human the value of aleph-null (an infinite set containing, say, all the counting numbers, or all the integers).

The animals have value... but no matter how many animals you have, their summed value is always finite, and therefore always less than a single human, whose value is infinite.

I hope I have been as respectful in replying to you as you were to me. :)


DK said...

Wow you guys. I am loving this dialogue. I appreciate both of you guys so much for being so respectful and thoughtful.

DK said...

I don't think the Avatar storyline can be used to make judgment of reality because of how many purely fictional values exist in the equation.

I lean on the side of Anna's world view of the value of human beings. I'll try to keep this short and concise.

In short, this is my worldview that informs my understanding of the value of human life.

I believe all of creation was created for humanity to lord over. This responsibility given to us by a good and just creator has certain implications to how we define "lord over". It necessitates wisdom, compassion, understanding, and justice. However my world view also includes an understanding of rebellion to the created order, tainting our relationship with our creator, our own humanity, and the rest of creation.

This leads to a need for repentance, humbleness, and ultimately reconciliation and redemption through the historical event of God breaking in to human history and offering hope. In the same way that rebellion shattered the created order of relationships with God, humanity, and all of creation, this introduces opportunity for reconciliation in all three areas. But this is extremely messy because of the darkness that we all live in, apart from the light of the created order.

Seeking Light should be one of our highest priorities. I understand this in terms of allowing God's Kingdom (God's created system of values for creation) to break into creation through our lives, but this can only be done through a redeeming relationship with the Creator.


Anna said...

I'm not sure if humanity was given authority over ALL creation; our dominion might extend only to the earth, for example. (And I would normally consider human beings and angels as part of 'creation', since we are created beings, and we don't have the same kind of dominion over ourselves or angels that we do over the earth.)

But yes, the Fall broke our relationship with all of creation, as well as with our Creator, and righting our relationship to the environment is best done through righting our relationship to our God.

I would say that people can sense that something is wrong about our relationship to the environment, without realizing the even deeper problem with our relationship with God (much as people can sense that adultery is wrong without believing in God). But without the full guidance of our King, such concerns often get twisted in various ways.

I don't really think of God's kingdom as a system of values, so much as it is an obedience to the King. That often involves following the King's values, but principles are not enough by themselves to (fully) guide us; only the Person himself is.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to reply! My initial reply was some 3 type-written pages long, but I decided to scale back. Also, I am very glad about the direction this conversation took, towards our most central religious notions - the really juicy stuff :)

I think the key difference between my views and both of yours, is that you are Christians, and have accepted as correct some premises that I now reject, namely that:

Humans have immortal souls:
I don't believe in personal immortality, and I view our consciousness as an emergent property of our physiology. We are spiritual matter, not en-mattered spirits. To elaborate, some verses from the Gita:
"The Blessed Lord said: Yes, I will tell you of My splendorous manifestations, but only of those which are prominent, O Arjuna, for My majesty is limitless.
"Of priests, O Arjuna, know Me to be the chief, Brhaspati, the lord of devotion. Of generals I am Skanda, the lord of war; and of bodies of water I am the ocean.
Of all creations I am the beginning and the end and also the middle, O Arjuna. Of all sciences I am the spiritual science of the self, and among logicians I am the conclusive truth.
I am all-devouring death, and I am the generator of all things yet to be."

Humans are not divine (as Jesus was):
On this point the Gospel of Thomas was very influential for me (as were the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads):
77 Jesus said: I am the light that is above them all. I am the all; the all came forth from me, and the all attained to me. Cleave a piece of wood; I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me.
108 Jesus said, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him."
113 His disciples said to him, "When will the (Father's) kingdom come?"
"It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' 'Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it."
So, to me, we are It, we've got It, this is It, but most people don't know it.

Nature was created for man:
I don't think nature was created for man. I like how Chrichton puts it:
"The television generation expects nature to act the way they want it to be. They think all life experiences can be tivo-ed. The notion that the natural world obeys its own rules and doesn't give a damn about your expectations comes as a massive shock."
Nature isn't about humanity. Humans weren't plopped down into nature. Our existence has arisen from nature, and is not and never will be distinct from nature. We have the capacity of reason, to a degree that is unique in nature as far as we know. But this doesn't make us separate from it; it makes us special within it. But how special? I don't know, but I'm certainly not willing to say that I'm more important and wonderful than the whole rest of the universe [], of which the whole Earth is the most minute speck.

God is distinct from Nature, and Man is distinct from them both:
I often think of this short account by Joseph Campbell:
"I remember hearing a marvelous talk by Daisetz Suzuki in Ascona, Switzerland. It was, I think, his first talk there at the Eranos Foundation, and here was this group of Europeans in the audience and there was a Japanese man (he was about ninety-one years old at the time), a Zen philosopher. He stood with his hands on his side, and he looked at the audience and said, "Nature against God. God against nature. Nature against man. Man against nature. Man against God. God against man. Very funny religion."
In short, I don't recognize a distinction between the three.

Well, that's probably enough for now, I'm pretty long-winded when it comes to these things :) Have a wonderful Valentine's Day!

Anna said...

We may not be on quite as different pages as you think, but here goes.

Let me quote from Chesterton's book, The Everlasting Man. He's talking about the history of man, starting with the cave drawings like those of Lascaux.

"That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the coloured pictures; .... It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man. ...
It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. ... All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone. ... This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature."

Another quote, this one from a book called Radical Optimism by Beatrice Bruteau:

"That is why the image of Shiva Nataraja is so compelling. It's very different from the potter and the pot. The potter makes the pot, then gets up and goes about his business while the pot still sits there totally divorced from its maker (though bearing, of course, the mark of its maker's hand). But where the dance is concerned, you have the dance only as long as the dancer is dancing; the dance is the dancer in the act of dancing. The dancer transcends any particular dance or gesture, but all that the gesture is, is the dancer dancing. The dancer is thoroughly present in the gesture and the gesture cannot be separated from the dancer's act. The image of Shiva as King of the Dance says that God dances and the dancing is the world."

So I think I might say that while we are, indeed, danced into existence by God along with the rest of nature, that God allows us, to some extent, to dance the world ourselves, and that this is a distinction between us and the animals. God, man, nature - intertwined inextricably with each other, and yet separate and distinct at the same time, as the dance is inseparable from the dancer, yet it is not the dancer. Not antagonist - not *against* each other, but each with their distinct glory.

I would also probably say that we join the dance more as we become more united with God. As Athanasius said... "God became man so that man might become God." It's a process that happens in the here and now, but, like the oak tree that grows from the seed, the process only completes itself at the end of the ages, when Jesus returns.

I'm not sure how well you will feel my comments address what you said. I could go on in more detail, but I think I'll leave it at that for now. :)