The Carbon Cult

Glenn Reynolds points out two very interesting articles – the first of which deals with the reality of primitive life compared to our own idealized version of it, and the second on the public’s insatiable appetite for doomsday scenarios.

Both of these factors speak to something about the nature of today’s modern society. Throughout history, religion has been one of the most important factors in the development of society. There’s evidence that the human brain is wired to desire some kind of religious experience – that religion isn’t just an anthropological matter, but there’s a biological element as well. Despite all the emphasis on rationality and science in the 21st Century, our primitive minds continually seek &nadash; and even demand – religious experience.

Author and enviro-skeptic Michael Crichton put it this way:

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can’t be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people—the best people, the most enlightened people—do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.

Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday—these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs. They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don’t want to talk anybody out of them, as I don’t want to talk anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the reason I don’t want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know that I can’t talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be argued. These are issues of faith.

And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly it seems facts aren’t necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It’s about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them.

I think Crichton is right on the money. Our society may have the façade of being increasingly secular, but the old instinct for religious experiences has never really gone away – instead of embracing Christian narratives, many in the developed West has replaces them with a kind of secular orthodoxy based around notions of “carbon footprints” and “sustainability”. Indeed, as Crichton points out, there’s an eerie similarity between religious notions of Paradise, Fall, and Original Sin and environmentalist orthodoxy.

The ancient Egyptians demanded sacrifice to restore ma’at – the order of the universe. The ancient Mayans believed that regular sacrifices would ensure the continuance of bountiful harvests. Christian theology teaches that all humans are stained with Original Sin and must atone in some way to achieve salvation. All of these doctrines assume humanity is inherently flawed and that we must make some kind of sacrifice in order to restore order to a chaotic universe.

Environmentalism really is no different. In fact, the rhetoric of the environmentalist movement is full of allusions to Heaven and Hell, calls to repent, and even insinuations that the End Times are upon us. An Inconvenient Truth and the Left Behind series of books has a lot more in common than one would think. In environmentalism, the Earth has replaced God as the instrument of worship, priests are replaced with scientists, and climatological studies with Gospels, but the effect remains the same.

Of course, environmentalists will argue that their beliefs are perfectly rational – while religion is relegated to mere “superstition”. It is true that environmentalism is wrapped quite tightly with a veneer of objectivity – but if one were to ask a Pontifex Maximus of Rome whether the practice of augury was rational and objective, they’d certainly defend their position. After all, when Publius Cladius Pulcher threw his sacred chickens into the sea, didn’t the Roman admiral lose his battle? Roman history is replete with such examples – examples which had been tested and reproduced for centuries.

The difference between science and superstition is obviously the elements of the scientific method – but environmentalism is no less scientific than augury was two millennia ago. When the recent NAS global warming study was released, the press breathlessly exclaimed that it stated that the 20th Century was the “warmest in 2000 years” – despite the fact that the scientific evidence for such a claim was weak at best. Scientific skepticism barely exists at all among the popular proponents of global warming. Like the augurs pointing to Publius Claudius Pulcher’s sacred chickens, proponents of the global warming hypothesis selectively point to evidence which buttresses their claims while ignore that which does not.

Not only are environmentalists letting a scientific sense of skepticism lapse, but they’ve replaced it with a sense of rigid dogma. Environmentalist logic tells us that anyone with even the most tangental connection to oil or power interests is a corporate shill who cannot be trusted – but those who work for environmentalist groups whose very existence is predicated on identifying environmental “crises” are models of objectivity. Is it not logical to argue that someone who has a vested interest in finding environmental catastrophe would do exactly that? So why is it that environmentalist groups are treated as objective and others are not?

Science requires a rigid series of tests, reproducible results, and a deep skepticism that prevents ideological, dogmatic thinking from overwhelming reason. So far the majority of the environmentalist movement is basing their views not on hard scientific fact, but from an a priori assumption that human activity is responsible for rising global temperatures.

So why does this all matter? As author Frank Furedi observes:

How we view humanity really matters. If we insist on seeing humans as morally degraded parasites, then every significant technical problem from the millennium bug to the avian flu will be feared as a potential catastrophe beyond our control. Today’s intellectual pessimism and cultural disorientation distracts the human imagination from confronting challenges that lie ahead. All the talk about human survival expresses a crisis of belief in humanity – and that is why the real question today is not whether humanity will survive the twenty-first century, but whether our belief in humanity can survive it.

The fact is that humanity has never had it better than they do now. Despite all the poverty, war, and destruction we see on the evening news, the standard of living we have in the 21st Century is unprecedented in human history. Never have we been so wealthy, never have we had as many cures for once-deadly diseases, and never have we had such real peace. The greatest danger we ultimately face is our own pessimism: our technology and our ingenuity can deal with bird flus, rogue asteroids, and even global warming. A century ago, flight was in its infancy, millions of people died of preventable diseases, and much of the world was mired in abject and unbelievable poverty. Today, we routinely travel into space, we can cure once-deadly diseases, and the sort of poverty that was once dirt-common in even the industrialized world is largely extinct.

Furedi continues:

Misanthropy threatens to envelop us in a new Dark Age of prejudice where we become scared of ourselves. In such conditions, we have two choices: we can renounce the human qualities that have helped to transform the world and resign ourselves to the culture of fatalism that prevails; or we can do the opposite. Instead of abandoning faith in humanity we can turn our creative energies towards taking control of our futures. Instead of being preoccupied with ‘what will happen to us’ we should search for answers to the question: ‘What needs to be done to humanise the future?’

The fact is that while humanity isn’t perfect – there’s nothing misanthropic about nothing that human nature is only divorced from the law of the jungle by our own moral force of will – it is equally true that humanity’s progress will continue onwards and upwards. We can never reach “utopia” (a Greek word which literally means “no place”), but we can continue to survive, to prosper, and to learn.

What environmentalism threatens to do is to thrust us back into a Dark Age. While Al Gore is hardly a Luddite, the environmentalist movement most certainly does contain Luddite elements. We’re told that the only way to salvation is to repent, as the End Times are near. We must act now to preserve the future, even if our actions are rash, ill-considered, and destructive – prophets of doom have been saying the same thing over and over again throughout the centuries, and rarely is their council wise.

The rhetoric of the environmentalist movement abandons rationality in place of a simplistic Manichean story of good versus evil – the shades of gray demanded by science replaced with the black and white of those who “care for our planet” versus those on the side of “Big Oil”. The parallels between the environmentalist movement and the doomsday movements of times past are shockingly clear.

Even if one accepts that global warming is a problem, and not all advocates of global warming are irrational, it must be balanced with a rational look at the other pressing problems this world faces. What is more important to us, the life of a child who can’t get access to potable water or our fears of global warming? We know beyond any doubt that the lives of the millions who don’t have access to potable water are in grave jeopardy. It is a testament to our own arrogance that we are seeking to solve problems that make us feel bad about ourselves rather than problems which impact millions of people across the world. The appeal of doomsday movements is that they present us with a cycle of redemption – by joining with the movement one can transcend one’s original sin and become one of the enlightened ones. People don’t drive hybrid cars because they make economic sense, they drive hybrid cars because they make one feel good about oneself.

Whereas driving a hybrid car is a personal choice, and essentially harmless, when people start using environmentalist dogma to push public policy, a line has been crossed. Efforts like the Kyoto Protocols would waste millions of dollars that can be best spent on dealing with truly pressing issues. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reducing greenhouse emissions – there is something wrong about using massive amounts of resources that could go towards fighting AIDS or providing potable water to those who need it to make a token effort at it.

We have to look at the risks of global warming through a lens of objectivity and in balance with other pressing global priorities. Is a .002% reduction in overall CO2 emissions worth the lives of 10 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa? Doomsday prophies may be appealing, but we cannot let them become drivers for policy. Environmentalism has become a substitute for religious belief in many places throughout the industrialized world, and just because it has the veneer of science doesn’t mean that it should be taken as fact without appropriate skeptical inquiry. Our willingness to idealize the past and fill the future with fear may be rooted in human nature, but it is not the way forward.

3 thoughts on “The Carbon Cult

  1. As both a staunch environmentalist (but also a staunch anti-luddite), I’m pained to say this- you’re right.

    What pains me the most, however, is that multiple environmental problems are being folded into a single category, dominated by the global warming threat. If global warming proves to be less of a problem than is suggested by the hype, other problems- habitat and biome destruction, soil erosion, oil reserve depletion, particulate pollution, carcinogens in our air and water, water pollution- all lumped into the broad category of environmental problems- could easily be ignored, when they all strike me as much more pressing than global warming. What is also unfortunate is that students of ecology seem to pay insufficient attention to the “ecology” of their goals- as Bjorn Lomborg points out with his Copenhagen Consensus, we can’t have it all. We need to systematically investigate problems of both economic development AND ecology, and attend to those that are most important in the short run. By doing this, we’ll have greater leverage to solve problems in the long run, due to a more solid ecological footing, a more productive workforce, and more advanced technology.

    Also, too few environmentalists are willing to look at the capacity for human engineering to solve problems. (I don’t think that, in general, Al Gore falls into this category-he strikes me as more of a modernist in his approach- but all too many environmentalists do). Perhaps the key to fighting global warming is to promote a massive bloom of genetically-engineered algae in the vast, empty swaths of equatorial deep ocean? Or perhaps orbital mirrors? A mitigation program would likely be cheaper than approaching the problem as a matter of morality and energy asceticism. Solar and wind are great, but as we’ve both said on this blog, we’re going to need a nuclear backbone to meet our energy needs in the 21st century, and no amount of shivering in the dark can change that.

    And, lastly, while there is a “religious” element to environmentalism, and you make a point about accusations made against “shills for industry”, the question that I must ask is- what researchers in this field are truly neutral- and how does one take a position of neutrality in such a significant matter?

  2. And, lastly, while there is a “religious” element to environmentalism, and you make a point about accusations made against “shills for industry”, the question that I must ask is- what researchers in this field are truly neutral- and how does one take a position of neutrality in such a significant matter?

    I think Crichton’s solution is the best – every environmental study should be a double-blind study. The people who commission the study, the people who conduct the study, and the people who review the data should all be entirely separate – and the data should be completely transparent and the methodologies completely documented.

    Surprisingly (or not), I agree. We have a lot more pressing environmental concerns than global warming. I really wish Gore would push for nuclear technology – eventually that’s going to be the only reliable energy source for our needs going into the latter half of the 21st Century. Sadly,I think it will be the Chiinese who lead the way on that one…

  3. [rant]
    “The people who commission the study, the people who conduct the study, and the people who review the data should all be entirely separate”

    That’s not a double blind study. That’s standard peer review, at least the latter two steps.

    As I recall you have had a very difficult time in the past understanding how peer review works. That’s basically it, unless you consider those conducting the study and evaluating it afterwards being scientists not separate enough. I think we’re just screwed in that case.

    A double blind study is where the evaluators nor the subjects (in this case the global environment) have no idea as to whether or not they’re evaluating the control or experimental group.

    These groups need to be independant samples of some population.

    The population in this case would be the global enviroment.

    I’d like to hear a proposal from either you or Crichton for establishing a set of independant samples of the global environment upon which we can test some other set of experimental hypothesises relating to global climate change.

    Since we can no longer trust scientists to do science anymore, I guess it’ll have to be up to a neo-con and a fiction author to figure this one out. I’m sure you two are up to the challenge.

    We’re counting on you to save the world!

    Meh, this probably won’t even be seen, with your fine display of patriotic compensation pushing this off the front page already. 😉

    Anyway, here’s some more useful info on the kind of study you’re proposing… I hope you can see why such a method would be just a little problematic in this situation:

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