The Religion of the Environmentalists

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The crazed environmentalism of the official class has recently been the subject of two articles in Liberty, which is highly appropriate: if those people won’t leave the subject alone, why should we? Here’s my own, smaller contribution.

I’m interested in the status of environmentalism as a religion. I agree with the libertarian and conservative consensus that it is. What makes me curious is the psychological component. What do the true believers in environmentalism get out of it, as a psychological reward?

The traditional religions offer many psychological rewards and motivations: a personal relationship with the God of the universe; the prospect of eternal life; the glory of religious art, music, and literature; pride in an ancient heritage; the calm assurance of truths understood by contemplation. These are rewards that environmentalism does not offer.

If you believe what they said, they were ready to shoot themselves over the possibility that George Bush would permit oil drilling in a tiny part of Alaska.

Environmentalism offers no hope of an eternal life; its concern is entirely with this world. It replaces God with material objects and forces that cannot speak and cannot help. While some adepts claim that nature puts them in a contemplative state in which they make actual discoveries of truth, the truths they learn are hard to identify. Their experience, as described, is indistinguishable from the one you get from eating a big dinner. As for art, music, and literature, the best that environmentalism seems to offer is the photography of pretty objects, and one can find that in any fashion magazine. There is no environmental music, and as for literature, if you think John Muir was a good writer, you might do well with any other old-fashioned sermonizer. The great literature of “nature” was the literature of the Romantic period, which was pre-environmentalist; it was a literature specifically concerned, not with the preservation of certain rocks and trees, but with the mind’s superiority over the natural world:

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
       And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
           Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
               Enveloping the Earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
        A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Dejection ode

When I try to find some grand tradition of environmentalist “literature,” I think of Samuel Butler’s parody in The Way of All Flesh (1903):

The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy. “My feelings I cannot express. I gasped, yet hardly dared to breathe, as I viewed for the first time the monarch of the mountains. I seemed to fancy the genius seated on his stupendous throne far above his aspiring brethren and in his solitary might defying the universe. I was so overcome by my feelings that I was almost bereft of my faculties, and would not for worlds have spoken after my first exclamation till I found some relief in a gush of tears. With pain I tore myself from contemplating for the first time ‘at distance dimly seen’ (though I felt as if I had sent my soul and eyes after it), this sublime spectacle.”

Not only are many traditional rewards completely absent from the environmentalist’s psychological balance sheet, but many new debits have been added. One of them is panic fear. If you can believe the sources, environmentalists are convinced that the civilized world is about to be ended by “climate change,” that “unless all of us work together now,” a new dark age will descend upon humanity. On the local level, they are constantly being scared to death by some new “environmental threat.” What a way to live! If you believe what they said, they were ready to shoot themselves over the possibility that George Bush would permit oil drilling in a tiny part of Alaska that not one in ten thousand of them could have found on a map, that none of them would ever have visited, and that could not have affected any of their lives, even if a meteor had wiped it out. And now they’re looking, with fear and trembling, at a convocation of blowhards in Paris as the last, best chance to Save the World.

So what are the psychological rewards of the environmental religion? There must be some. I’ve thought of four.

1. An easily sustained self-righteousness. Members of traditional religions are famous for this quality. Jesus denounced the self-righteous religious teachers of his time, finding many of these “hypocrites” among people who were close to agreeing with him on doctrinal issues. But traditional religions usually make you jump through some hoops before you blossom forth as a scribe or Pharisee. To be a self-righteous Christian, you have to be baptized, make a financial pledge, show up at the charity bazaar . . . something. But an environmentalist can feel self-righteous about nothing more than voting Democrat, or intending to. The kindergarten teacher who scares the kids into thinking that if they don’t recycle all their garbage they’ll be killing the whales no doubt experiences one of the cheapest rushes of self-righteousness available on this planet.

There is no environmental music, and as for literature, if you think John Muir was a good writer, you might do well with any other old-fashioned sermonizer.

2. Freedom from moral control. Traditional religions have mechanisms to keep their members in line. That sounds pretty grim, and often it is, but imagine what would happen if they didn’t, if every believer got to express his self-righteousness in any way he wanted. But you don’t have to imagine anything; just look at the environmental movement. Is there anyone in the movement whose job is to say, “Wait a minute. You’re going too far. There’s such a thing as truth. It really isn’t true that ISIS was caused by climate change. And you know, when you remove a lane of heavily traveled road and turn it into a bike lane, you’re not doing any good for the environment. Not only are you hurting other people but you’re increasing emissions from the jammed up cars. So my advice is, stop it.” Have you ever encountered anyone like that — in the movement itself?

3. Membership in an exclusive group. When you notice that last month you depleted your bank account by $1,000, rather than the $2,000 you predicted, you naturally welcome that knowledge. “Whew!” you say. “That’s great! Next time, I’ll pay better attention to my math.” When you meet a nice elderly lady who spends one day a week working for her church’s charity mission, and she notices that the number of homeless people has greatly diminished, you’ll hear her say, “Thank you, Jesus! Something must be working!” But when you suggest to an environmentalist that the dire predictions of climate change, or whatever such people want to call it this month, may not be true, you know what the reaction will be. Your facts will be dismissed, your intelligence will be questioned, and if you persist in conveying the good news, that will be the last time you get a chance to do it.

Now, who would want to hear bad news? Only people for whom knowing the terrible truth provides membership in a group of superior minds, in a club of intrepid thinkers who know things that other people don’t, including things they don’t know because the things aren’t true. Millenarians are commonly of this type. If you try to show them that their prophecies of a dreadful end-time are not being fulfilled, they won’t feel happy and relieved; they will shun you with contempt. Membership in their exclusive group is purchased at the price of unquestioning belief, and for some people, this isn’t too high a price for the satisfaction it gives.

4. Aggression. Put satisfactions 1 through 3 together, and that’s what you get. The environmental religion is a refuge for people who enjoy feeling right in their own eyes, who value their membership in an allegedly superior group far more than the claims of truth, and who want to be free from normal ethical controls. When those conditions are satisfied, the pleasures of aggression can be indulged without limit.

Is there anyone in the environmental movement whose job is to say, “Wait a minute. You’re going too far. There’s such a thing as truth"?

The spirit of aggression is, of course, well manifested in the constant barrage of leaflets, “public service” announcements, museum displays, school curricula, political diatribes, and other means of insulting and degrading any human being who drops a Kleenex in the “non-recycle” bin. It is manifested in the gleeful fantasies of those religious visionaries who delight in imagining a not too distant future when deniers will find their cities sinking under the waves and their children screaming for relief from 130-degree temperatures.

And there are many Americans who, mild-mannered in the book club or the faculty lounge, derive great and sordid pleasure from damaging others’ lives and livelihoods. Do you think people would give their time and money agitating for laws against plastic bags or paper plates if they didn’t get a kick out of closing down some “polluter’s” business? Do you think they would fight, as California’s “environmental activists” have fought, to dump billions of gallons of water into the Pacific Ocean in order to “save” an ugly and useless fish, while demanding harsh penalties for humans who do not “save water”? Do you think the bureaucrats who take out two lanes of a busy street and turn them into bicycle paths feel anything but pleasure as they watch a thousand heathen motorists creeping through a traffic jam, while a solitary saint whizzes past them on a bike? Do you think anyone would do such things, if he weren’t enjoying his aggression against normal people?

Isabel Paterson observed that “there is a secular self-righteousness which borrows all the unbearable features of formalized piety with none of its graces.” When she made that remark, in 1932, she was thinking about some particularly unfortunate aspects of Victorian culture — about which, she noted, there were also many good things to say. But there aren’t any good things to say about environmentalism. And unlike the Victorians, it’s still around. In fact, it’s everywhere.

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