The Religion of Environmentalism

Mythic longings for a non-existent paradise.

Originally published by Defining Ideas

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. 

This summer President Obama visited Alaska, where he stood in front of a shrinking glacier and said, “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.” At a conference in Anchorage, he made the apocalyptic prediction that “submerged countries, abandoned cities . . . entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods, desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own, and political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe” would be the wages of failing to act now to stop global warming.

Most environmentalists cheered the President’s statements, while some have been critical of him for betraying the cause by allowing Shell Oil to drill off Alaska’s Arctic coast. But all assume that their opinions are based on hard science. While science does play a huge role in modern environmentalism, old cultural myths influence much of what many people believe about humanity’s relationship to nature. For some, their belief system approaches a nature worship that has little value for solving the environmental problems troubling the world today.

Ancient myths about nature and our relationship to it are deeply embedded in our culture. Particularly influential has been the myth of the Golden Age, a time before civilization when humans lived in harmony with nature, “free from toil and grief,” as the Greek poet Hesiod wrote, and enjoying “all good things, for the fruitful earth unforced bore them fruit abundantly and without stint. [People] dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands and with many good things.” Hesiod establishes the key elements of the myth that have persisted until today: an imagined time without crime, sickness, war, and misery; and a maternal nature that provides sustenance without human labor.

This natural paradise, however, degenerates into the Iron Age, the world we now live in, a time of wickedness, depravity, hard work, and disease, when according to Hesiod “men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from dying by night, and the gods lay sore trouble upon them.” Later versions of this myth, most famously in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, explicitly link this dystopia to the institutions of civilization like cities, law, government, private property, seafaring, trade, mining, metallurgy, and agriculture. Moral corruption runs rampant, especially greed, the “wicked lust for possessing,” as Ovid calls it, which incites violence, crime, and war. Civilization, particularly the unnatural technologies that exploit nature, ruptures humanity’s harmonious bond with the natural world, and creates the evils that afflict us. Eventually the crimes of the human race will lead to apocalyptic destruction at the hands of the gods disgusted by our depravity.

The Golden Age myth has been one of the most long-lived and popular in Western history, for obvious reasons. It imagines a lost paradise that offers psychic refuge from the complexities and trade-offs of civilization, especially the impact of the technologies that mediate our existence. It speaks to our anxieties about the power of science and the dangers of its meddling with nature. All these attractive consolations help explain why certain strains of modern environmentalism, despite their patina of science, have echoed the motifs of this ancient myth.

Consider the case of “deep ecology,” a term popularized by environmental activists Bill Devall and George Sessions in their environmental classic Deep Ecology, which was published in 1985. Deep ecology goes beyond mere resource management, the common sense imperative to conserve resources both for the present and future, which most people assume is the core of environmentalism. Rather, deep ecology is concerned with the psychological trauma inflicted on humanity by modern technology and by a fast-paced, anxiety-ridden urban existence. It shares with the old Golden Age myth the idea of a harmony with nature, or as Devall and Sessions write in Deep Ecology, an “identification which goes beyond humanity to include the nonhuman world.”

And just as in the mythic Iron Age, the disruption of that harmony is caused by technology. “Technological society,” Devall and Sessions write, “not only alienates humans from the rest of Nature but also alienates humans from themselves and from each other. It necessarily promotes destructive values and goals which often destroy the basis for stable viable human communities interacting with the natural world.”

Once a fringe belief, the ideas of deep ecology were taken up in one of the most influential books on the environment, former Vice President Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, published in 1992 at the moment climate change was taking off as an international crisis. Gore went on to become the most visible proponent of the need to battle climate change, and a passionate spokesman for the larger view that modernity as a whole is destroying nature and making itself miserable in the process. His book was a bestseller, and his 2006 documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award.

Gore’s primary assumption is that Western culture is “dysfunctional,” because our civilization’s “rules” require “suppressing the emotions that might allow us to feel the absence of our connection to the earth”–– the “sense of awe and reverence that used to be present in our relationship to nature,” and the “natural harmony that entails the music of life.” The cause of the loss of the old Golden Age harmony with nature is the modern Iron Age’s “technological hubris” and “technological alchemy,” which have driven an “increasingly aggressive encroachment into the natural world” and created the “froth and frenzy of industrial civilization.”

For Gore modern science is the culprit, particularly its intellectual forefathers Francis Bacon and René Descartes, whom Gore misrepresent as ensuring “the gradual abandonment of the philosophy that humankind was one vibrant strand in an elaborate web of life, matter, and meaning.” And he singles out Bacon for initiating the idea that “new power derived from scientific knowledge could be used to dominate nature with moral impunity.” In fact, Bacon’s concern was to understand nature more thoroughly in order to fulfill the Christian moral imperative to improve human life and alleviate suffering.

Like deep ecology, Gore’s version of the old Golden Age myth characterizes much of modern environmentalism, which demonizes science and capitalism for rupturing a harmony between humans and nature that never existed. In reality, everything we know about hunter-gatherer bands, the mode of existence often touted as the lost, pre-agricultural paradise of human harmony with nature, tells us that such existence was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, marked by “continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

That’s why humans across the globe independently invented agriculture: so that they could control their food supply and provide the adequate nutrition that a fickle and cruel nature frequently stinted. Indeed, the myth of a lost natural paradise is the luxury of civilization, one indulged by people who no longer have to fear nature’s brutal indifference to human existence and who take for granted an adequate food supply provided by modern technology.

The psychic solaces of myth, when limited to consoling those who need it, are not a problem. But they can be pernicious when applied to public policy. The solutions to the alleged apocalyptic consequences of global warming––such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which recently proposed draconian regulations for coal-fired electrical plants––comprise a war on carbon that will damage our economy and compromise our well-being, especially that of the poor on whom the higher costs for gasoline and electricity fall most heavily. And in the case of the Clean Power Plan, this economic cost would buy a negligible 0.019˚C reduction of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2100.

Worse yet, the policies based on attacking the most efficient energy available to humans, carbon-based fuels, if put into practice in the developing world, would be disastrous not only for those countries’ economies and people, but for the natural world as well. That’s because the degradation of the environment in the Third World is a consequence of poverty, underdevelopment, and autocratic governments, not the economic globalization many critics of technology and capitalism blame for global warming. As Jack Hollander, professor emeritus of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, has written, “Affluence and freedom are friends to the environment [and] the road to affluence and freedom provides the only practical pathway to achieving a sustainable future environment.”

Concern for the environment is a luxury for those who no longer have to worry about sheer survival, and who have the political freedom to put their desires for a cleaner, more pleasing environment into government policy, as we Americans did by passing the Clean Air Act in 1963 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. A peasant struggling to feed his family doesn’t have the luxury of worrying about whether his farming techniques damage the environment or not. He just wants to survive one more day.

As Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg points out, the World Health Organization estimates 250,000 people will die from climate change by 2050; this year, 4.3 million will die from indoor air pollution, mostly due to poor people using dung and wood for cooking. Economic development that makes electricity affordable for these people could save millions of lives.

Policies that impact human well-being should be based on reliable science, not consolatory myths. Even if global warming is true, the attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by attacking carbon-based energy will not in the long run do much for slowing global emissions, even as they damage the world’s economies and retard the economic development that can improve the material well-being of billions of people. Those people should not suffer because comfortable, well-fed Westerners indulge their mythic longings for a lost paradise that never existed.

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