Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in America
October 7, 2010
Robert H. Nelson, Steven F. Hayward, Max L. Stackhouse
Hello, everybody. Im Alex Tabarrok. I am the director of research for the Independent Institute. The Independent Institute, for those of you who dont us, is a nonpartisan, public-policy research organization. Every year we publish many books. We publish a quarterly journal, The Independent Review, and we host forums like this one, both here and at our offices in Oakland, California. Our goal is to enlighten the public and to better improve public debate and understanding of social and economic issues.
Before we get to our main event, I did just want to make a note. I wanted to congratulate Mario Vargas Llosa on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. [Applause]. Aside from the obvious merits of this pick, The War at the End of the World is certainly one of my favorite novels of all time. Aside from the obvious merits, this is important to us at the Independent Institute for two reasons. First of all, Mario has a deep understanding of the foundations of a free society. He is a classical liberal and a true scholar of what makes a civil society possible. In addition, Mario is the father of Alvaro Vargas Llosa, who works here at the Independent Institute. He is the author of many Independent Institute books, including this one, Liberty for Latin America, and hes generally an all-round great guy. He is busy fielding telephone calls at his home today, but hell be back in the office tomorrow. So were really very excited about this award.
Todays forum is about an unusual topic. A number of people have made the argument that the environmental movement has aspects of a religion to it. Michael Crichton, the novelist, once said that the environmental movement has got a lost Eden, a state of grace when we had unity with nature. It then has a fall from grace into a state of both literal and figurative pollution. And, of course, this pollution was caused by a result of the eating from the Tree of Knowledge. And, of course, the environmental movement has a Judgment Day that is coming for all of us.
Now, often critiques like this are made from the perspective of economics, which is a seemingly rationalistic and secular alternative to environmentalism. But our first speaker today, Robert Nelson, challenges this conventional perspective. Economics, argues Nelson, also has theological presuppositions about the nature of the good. Now, being an economist myself, I dont always agree with Bobs arguments, but they do sometimes make me a little bit uncomfortable. For example, for somebody who thinks of himself, as I do, as a secular thinker, it can be a little disconcerting to find that I am often preaching the power of the invisible hand. So Bob may have me to rights on that. Theres certainly some connection there.
Bob is a professor at the University of Maryland. He is the author of The New Holy Wars: Environmental Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America. This really is a superb book. It challenges both sides of the debate. And Im also very pleased to note that The New Holy Wars was recently awarded the 2010 Eric Hoffer Grand Price Award. Hoffer, for those of you who dont know, was the longshoreman philosopher whose book, The True Believers, remains a classic in the study of religion and of mass movements.
Bob is joined here today with two scholars who have thought deeply and critically about the nature of economics and religion. Steven Hayward is a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes regularly about economics and the environment. He is also an accomplished historian. And I would mention in particular his magnificent two-volume history, The Age of Reagan.
Were also fortunate to have Max Stackhouse with us. Max is Professor Emeritus at the Princeton Theological Seminary. And he is the general editor of the four-volume, God and Globalization series. In particular, hes the author if the fourth volume, which lays out what has been called a moral infrastructure for a worldwide civil society.
So were going to begin tonight with Bob Nelson followed by Steve Hayward and Max Stackhouse. And then therell be an opportunity both for questions and debate among our panel, and also for questions and debate and answers from our audience as well. Bob.
Well, thank you very much, Alex. So far youre fitting my models, which is that when I tell an economist that environmentalism is a religion they all say, Well, yeah. You know, its kind of a no-brainer. They recognize theres sadly some truth, but theyre all very nervous with the idea that economics is a religion. It works the other way. If I tell an environmentalist that economics is a religion, Oh, thats a no-brainer. I mean, any number of environmentalists that Ive dealt with said its obvious. But some of them didnt realize that I was saying the same thing about environmentalism. So they came in for a shock maybe a few months later after they had endorsed my book [laughter] and then discovered all the nasty things that I had saidwell, they werent necessarily nasty. When I talk about religionsome people use it as a pejorative word. Its not a pejorative word for me; its just a factual word, so to speak. In fact, I actually believe that everybody has a religion. I have one, too. Its sometimes hard for me to figure out. Unlike most people and most social scientists, I actually believe we can discuss religion. And we dont have to have a holy war all the time, although it seems like we somehow end up with them, disconcertingly frequently.
The other thing Ill say is that this projectand it is a projectI mean, Ive been engaged in it now for 20 years looking at both economics and environmentalism as religions. It started out with, and it continues to have, a very practical purpose, which is to understand the world. And I find that I cant understand the world and whats happening unless I incorporate a large religious element. And I thought Id just give a little example. I see hundreds of these examples every year. Well, maybe not every year, but dozens every year. Maybe even hundreds. This is from the New York Times just in the last few days. Its an article called Green, But Still Feeling Guilty. And its about a Colorado couple. And so Im going to read from the article briefly. Its about their practices.
The renovated stairway is made from reclaimed barn wood. Their furniture is also made from recycled wood and steel; in fact, the coffee table is wood that was reclaimed twice, having been salvaged from reclaimed wood that was being made into flooring. . . .
[They use only] natural cleaning products and constantly drinking out of their Brita pitcher so theres no need for disposable water bottles. All their personal care products are organic, and Mr. Dorfmans clothes are made from organic cotton and recycled materials.
But then they confess that they like disposable diapers. [Laughter]. And havent been able to get over it. This, though, has provoked a feeling, as Mr. Dorman put it, Not only do I feel guilt; I feel hypocritical.
Now this is not a set of practical measures to protect or preserve the environment in any way that anyone could reasonably understand. This is a set of religion rituals. To me, anyway, it seems transparently obvious. And I think to anyone else. Now it raises the question though, whats the religion? And so you have a lot of articles like this, but you dont have very many people who say whats the religion, and where do these rituals derive? What are the implicit faith beliefs that lead you to feel that doing all this recycling and other things make you a morally better person? And make you feel hypocritical when you violate one of these beliefs?
And so thats kind of what the project is about on the environmental side. I think economists dont have as many rituals like this, but they have other characteristics that cant be explained by normal, conventional, rational analysis. Now I will say it again. This has already been mentioned. Its a somewhat unusual book, or maybe a very unusual book. In fact, it doesnt seem to have any followers, which is a problem that I have. And because theres always somebody whos nervous about this religious sidebecause most people are either economists or environmentalists. And theyre a little bit concerned that if they get in on the take here, the fire might be returned to them. And then how are they going to deal with it?
I was at the Interior Department, so this whole project actually came out of very practical experience. I worked in the Interior Department 18 years from 1975 to 1993, and during that time I observed the policymaking process. I was in the Office of the Secretary. It was a very interesting experience. But one of the things that I noticed is that it didnt fit any of the models that I was used to, or that they had taught me in graduate school, or that I was reading about in books that were derived from social science. It wasnt to maximize the economic benefits. It wasnt even a conflict of interest. Actually it was a value struggle, where what the Interior Department was doing was taking actions that were symbolically defining what American values were. And that had more to do with a lot of the policymaking in the department, especially things like wilderness or rangeland which were lower value than any normal economic or political considerations. And gradually it dawned on me 30 years ago that this was really religion. And so I didnt do anything about it for quite a while. I was a little intimidated to write about it myself, but I eventually I got up my courage and wrote a book, and so here I am.
But anyway, the purpose of the whole thing was really in some sense to understand. And I claim, although Im an expert in the Interior Department, I claim that the more I looked around other areas of American policymaking, the more I felt that in these areas, as well. We were looking at fundamental value conflicts that people werent comfortable with it. They didnt want to seem to be fighting about religion in public. So they essentially masked all their value convictions under a pseudo-scientific, superficial presentation. But if you actually probed a little bit beneath the scientific explanations they offered, you basically found a religion. But they didnt want to call it a religion, so they had to offer all these disguises.
So the book The New Holy Wars is kind of like trying to reveal the Emperors real appearance without all the superficial clothes. And what Ive been doing is saying, what do the peopleif you get rid of thiswhat do they really believe? And so its also, as I was saying, partly a reflection on the fact that I felt that a lot of the models that I was using just werent able to explain the world. So this led to the various books and so forth.
Now getting to economics: what am I saying if I say economics is a religion? Some people say, Well, you just mean this metaphorically or you just like to be provocative and you hope youll sell more books if you call it a religion. I mean, maybe thats in my subconscious. I dont know. But thats not what I think Im doing. I mean it literallythat economics is a religion. And in what sense? Well, basically it derives from the fact that a faith in economic progress, I would say, has been a dominant religion of the 20th century. And believing that economic progress can save the world and make for a vastly better place leads ultimately to heaven on earth if we actually perfect the economic system.
I dont have time to go through all the people who have said these things, but if you read the book you can find a number of examples that show this has been pervasive as a belief throughout at least the last 150 years. And if you believe that economic progress can save the world, what will your priesthood be? Well, itll be the people who know about how to achieve economic progress. That is to say, your priesthood will be economists. And so what will economists do? Their efforts will be dedicated to revealing the true workings of the economy and thus the path of maximal economic growth. And if you believe thisll save the world, then economic knowledge is your new Bible, so to speak, the place where you go to learn how to perfect things. And when I talk about perfection through progress, its moral perfection as well as material perfection.
Now what about environmentalism? Well, its not exactly a social science, but its factually in a lot of ways similar to economics. It has a different set of high priests. Theyre biologists and ecologists. They also claim a scientific status, and beneath that lies all these moral presuppositions. And so environmentalism, like economics, is also a project of social change. Its a project at improving and ideally perfecting the earth. It has its own moral standards, and in many other ways it functions like a secular religion. So theyre both religions.
However, they have very different perceptions of the world. Think about the relationship of humans and nature in very different terms, obviously. And with all kinds of policy implications. For economists, nature is a natural resource. That means something we use to produce more, increase human welfare for the benefit the economy, and its essentially seen in the utilitarian sense. But I need to say that environmentalism is diverse, and some people would say Resources for the Future, which is an organization dominated by economists, is an environmental organization. Theyre pretty much exempt from everything Im saying here. And theyre actually believers in economic religion, but they want economic religion to take better account of environmental amenities. And so there are people like that. Actually maybe quite a few.
But when you get to the distinctive contribution that environmentalism has made to contemporary debate, where theyre introducing really new ideas and new values, or as I would say, a new religion, one of the main areas is this issue of how we relate to nature. And for environmentalists nature has what they call intrinsic value. That is, its outside of human benefit. So we dont have to establish human benefits in order to value or protect or want to do good things for nature. The word Creation is used throughout environmental discussions as a place where we can go to learn. Now environmentalists dont always say God, but what they really mean is to learn about the mind of God as it was manifested in the Creation. God is not in the Creation; that would be Pantheism. But the Creation was a product of divine design.
And so if you think of things this way, its going to be an immensely spiritual experience. You go into the wilderness. What are you doing? Youre actually encountering something created and designed by God and a reflection of the mind of God. Youre learning about God. And this is a very old way of thinking of things in Christianity. It goes back more than a thousand years. And so in fact, throughout the history of Christianity theyve talked about two ways of actually directly learning from God about the world. One is by reading the Bible, which is a direct divine revelation. But the other is by going into nature. And especially until the modern era, people believed that nature was pretty much the original Creation and that it hadnt been changed much. And so it was seen as a revelation of Gods thinking.
Now of course, we know now that we have Darwin and all these other things, but I claim that really, when environmentalists go to the wilderness theyre still perceiving and experiencing the wilderness in this classical Christian way. Although they would be confused, actually. If you asked an environmentalist, why are you so spiritually affected by the wilderness if youre a Darwinian scientist and all the rest of it? they really wouldnt be able to answer the question. In the book I describe something in several chapters that I call Environmental Creationism. This is something thats definitely not going to go over very well with the environmental community, but I argue there that there are rather surprising affinities and connections between the way environmentalists see nature and the way Christian Creationists see nature. And that is they both see it as essentially directly a product of Gods work. And so I would argue that a lot of evolutionary biologists and so forth who also are deeply spiritual environmentalists are suffering from a kind of an internal schizophrenia and that they dont know how to exactly resolve that.
So anyway, this conflict, which manifests itself in lots of other ways, can often become embittered. Its remarkable how much difficulty economists and environmentalists have talking to each other. How much even hatred they feel for each other at times. And its like heretics or sinners in each others presence. Theres even an environmental philosopher who wrote an article in a quite respectable environmental journal subtitled, Why Environmentalists Hate Mainstream Economists. I mean, this is a professor at Georgia Tech in the philosophy department. And so we get, then, a whole host of tensions and conflicts. For example, when it comes to something like what are the cathedrals of the religion? This is something I write about in the book. People in the 20th century, especially in the early or the first half of the 20th century would visit a damI call them economic pilgrimsthey would go to a dam, and how would they perceive it? They would perceive it in quasi-religious or actually, I would say, really religious terms. It was a symbol of progress. The dam was controlling naturea raging riverfor the purpose of generating power, creating water for irrigation, controlling flooding, providing all these benefits which were all symbols of progress.
When I worked at the Interior department they had a lot of murals that had been painted in the thirties as part of the job generation, and the big symbols in the painting were, not always, but often a large dam. In the Soviet Union, they had dams too. And in fact, before we were in a space war, we were in a dam war with the Soviet Union. But none of the dams were that much good, or not none of them, but a lot of them were actually a waste of money. But they fulfilled a spiritual symbolic need on both continents.
So whats happened to the view of a dam? Well, David Brower, who was for many years the head of the Sierra Club and is one of the leading environmentalists of the second half of the 20th century, said, I hate all dams. Why? Well, for him the dam symbolized the same thing, which is human control over nature. But for him that was evil. And for him nature was innocent and we had defiled it. We had erased a part of Gods Creation, if you want to put it maybe in a more theological way, and so it was an evil thing to do. On the other hand, what are the cathedrals of environmentalism? Well, basically theyre wilderness areas. And so what characterizes a wilderness area? Basically its places that have had the least amount of human contact. So your most worshipped sites are defined by the absence of a human presence. Its not just wilderness areas, but lets say the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has obviously become a huge symbol for the environmental movement.
How is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge characterized? Its characterized as one of the last untouched places on the earth. And so its the absence of human impact that allows us to go there and see the Creation in its original form. Or at least you might be able to imagine it that way. Its probably not true, but its easy to get into the mood of thinking of it that way. So thats one of the many differences. Essentially youre seeing, at some fundamental level, kind of a verdict on what you might call the modern project of rationally directed economic progress and the organization of society to maximize production in the economic welfare. But not just because you like economic welfare. It represents a conviction that the real source of evil and sin in the world has been material scarcity. You see this in extreme form in Marxism. And so its economic deprivation or desperation, and thats what drives people to do bad things.
So if you have that diagnosis for the presence of sin in the world, then you have a fairly straightforward route of salvation. Basically you eliminate economic scarcity, which is again, what Marxism was all about. And he thought capitalism was actually necessary because it would lead to the elimination of scarcity and that would be heaven on earth. So you move along an economic path. You reject other explanations. What would other explanations of evil be in the world? One would be the fall in the Garden of Eden. Well, thats just an old myth. So you can reject that one. A more tempting one might be a genetic explanation. People are evil because of their genes. And that one is obviously fraught with danger. And so people are not really going to go for that. And whats left? Basically that people are shaped by their exterior environments. These environmentsthe most important part of it is economics. If you want to perfect the world, you perfect the economic environment.
So what does environmentalism say? It says thats all wrong, that we were much better off before all of this. What did modern efficiency get us? It got us the Holocaust, for example, which was old-fashioned anti-Semitism married to modern economic efficiency. It got us atom bombs, and we might kill ourselves in the end. And so the modern project of progressnow, even economists have more doubts about itbut that basically is the object of environmental criticism. And you can see this with Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, which was the seminal book starting the environmental movement. Until that, in the fifties DDT had been considered a miracle drug of modern chemistry. And Rachel Carson came along and said, No, its not true. All these modern chemicals and so forth are actually doing terrible things. Weve worshipped progress, but its blinded us to all the negative sides and in fact, a lot of the negative sides are terrible. And we have to get off this kick.
And so thats where environmentalism has been coming from. You have these different perspectives, and now a lot of people mix them together in their own practical day-to-day thinking, but if you go to the priests who actually take in the full logic of these things, you get completely clashing views of the world. What we should be doing in public policy in places like the Interior Department? In the Interior Department if its economic religion, we want to maximize progress and natural resources. If its environmental religion, we want to protect nature from all these bad things that human beings have been doing. We know we cant get rid of all civilization, but we could try to minimize it and restore it. Since weve already ruined so much of it, restoration is one of the main parts of the environmental agenda.
Okay. I went over a little bit, but not too bad.
Well, first of all, congratulations, Bob, on an extraordinary book. Im going to spend my time sort of explaining why that congratulations needs to be underscored and given exclamation points and so forth, because the richness and complexity of this book has compelled me to do something that I never like to do, and that is that I am completely in a state of chaos as to how to comment on it. And Ive got this sort of mess of notes here. I hate doing that because theres a huge risk when that happens. But I do remember reading one of Roberts early books on this subject, Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics, almost 20 years ago. And I remember reviewing it at the time and thinking, Im not quite sure hes right about a lot of things in this book, but boy, hes on to something really interesting. And so Im not sure I could make this comparison at the Independent Institute, but you think about early Marx and late Marx. Well, Reaching for Heaven on Earth was early Nelson and this is late Nelson, the sort of full-blown Nelson in full.
Let me see if I can bring some order to my chaos, like God and Creation, in the following way. When I think about the subject of environmentalism as religion, Im reminded of a time I was in London 15 years ago or more and flipping around the telly and catching one of those classic British comedy sketches. It was sort of the runner, as they call it in the comedy business. Its the talk show where the guest was the Lord Jesus Christ whod returned for the Second Coming. And the BBC host saying, Well, tonight our guest is the Lord Jesus Christ. Hes back after 2,000 years away, and welcome, Mr. Christ. And he said to him a few of the little banters, I suppose youll be back to doing your usual miracles, you know, healing the sick and the lame, and turning water into wine and such. And Jesus says, Oh yes, I assume so. Of course, within the limits of sustainable development. [Laughter].
Now theres a bit of an ambiguity in that sketch. What exactly is being made fun of there? Is it religion? Which is what British comedy sketches are usually making fun of. Or is it environmentalism, or is it both? Or is not there at a deeper level in a way that comedy often catches better than philosophy or social criticism? Is there not catching the denigration of religion overall? I think that joke works for both sides of Roberts analysis here. Because Roberts first book sent me back to something that arrested me once, 30 years ago now. It was a special issue of The Public Interest in 1980, where Irving Kristol wrote, and Ill quote him, Theology has practically ceased to be a respectable form of intellectual activity. Now the context for this was this was a special issue of The Public Interest about the crisis in economic theory. Cast your mind back to 1980. Everything wasnt working. The doctrine of economic progress had smashed against the wall. Keynesianism doesnt work. We were stuck with stagflation and all the rest of that.
You might say were in a similar situation today with the whole matter turned inside outdeflation instead of inflation, right? Our economistswe dont have a lot of stock in them right now, do we? Weve sort of lost that confidence. But obviously, the unstated premise of what the comedy sketch, or Irving Kristols remark, is that religious is not quite respectable. Why not? Well, thats not a mysterious subject. One of the things that Roberts explained in several of his works, including this one, is the rise of economics as the technical deliverer of the idea of progress, which arises out of the whole Enlightenment projects faith that material forces would replace natural or divine law. That faith in progress replaces faith in providence. And economists replace the priests. And I think he was right to say that economics takes on a form of religion, at least insofar as reasonreason with a capital Rrequires perhaps as much as a leap of faith as religion does. I mean, this is something the post-modernists are onto. I sort of dislike post-modernism, but I think its not an accident that the post-modern skepticism about the idea of progress really began to gain traction at exactly the moment economics began to run into trouble in the last 1960s. I think thats roughly right.
And Robert repeats a lot of great quotes from, among others, Keynes. Keynes is talking about how economic controversies resemble medieval disputations at their worst. So I think Robert has done something almost nobody ever does. Usually when you say environmentalism is a religion, they take it as an insult. And usually, by the way, a lot of people who say that mean it as an insult or denigration, right? A lot of critics do. And what Roberts done is taken them seriously, or taken the phenomenon seriously. A lot of environmentalists will say no, Im science-based. Im interested in science. And theyll resist what youre saying about that its a religion creed. Although, of course, they will readily admit it. And thereve been a lot of environmentalists who embrace religion and religious analogies.
You might say, by the way, that environmentalism, like Christianity, has a lot of diversity in it. How many kinds of Lutherans do we have? Ive lost count. There are a lot of different kinds of environmentalists. And I think, by the way, its sometimes a mistake to say, the environmental movement, or environmentalists think X, when in fact, there really is a range. There are some commonalities to all of them just as the commonality of Christianity is the divinity of Christ and the basics of the creed. But then along the way you have all kinds of differences in style of worship and emphasis in styles of Baptism and so forth. Well, environmentalists are like that too. And I think we make a mistakeboth critics of environmentalism, which I am a lot of the time, and friends and people in betweenin not paying attention to the distinctions that are to be out there. And one of them is between environmentalists who would make a wholesale rejection of a religious characterization of to environmentalism, because they share the sort of Enlightenment premise that religion is not quite respectable, and those environmentalists who are actually open to it, the ones who do talk, as Robert said, about places like ANWR being a sacred space in the fullness of that meaning.
Well, theres a couple of ways to slice this up, it seems to me, in addition to the way that Robert has done it. Another way I sometimes have analyzed environmentalism, and especially I thought this about Al Gores famous first book, Earth in the Balance, is it reminds me a loton a purely secular levelof Martin Heideggers famous argument that technology has separated mankind from nature. And its alienated us from nature. This is sort of the premise of existentialism. Im never sure its any better in the original German, which I dont read, but in translation its very difficult. But if you read Heideggers essay on technology, written in the early fifties, he talks about how we rip coal out of the ground and burn it and throw pollution up into the air. He doesnt quite use this word, but hes suggesting that its unnatural in a certain way. And you can see a lot of environmental themes there that make their reappearance really quite dramatically, I think, in Gores book. And of course, hes an Atheist. And hes skeptical of reason too. But very late in his life, if you know the story of Heidegger, a year or two before he died he gave an interview where he said weve reached such a desperate position of man being separated from nature that only a God can save us. So even he was open to a religious answer to this problem, if you can understand him at all, which is problematic. But I think this is interesting stuff.
Now, Bob raised the point that I often talk about, about environmentalist hostility to economics. You mentioned David Brower, who was called in that famous biography of him by John McPhee, the archdruid of environmentalism. A pagan term, right? I dont know if you remember this, Bob, but Ive got the slide I should share with you. He took out a full-page ad in The New York Times in 1993. And what a full-age adit sounds like a $50,000 ad in 1993. The headline of the ad was Economics Is a Form of Brain Damage. [Laughter]. QED, right? Anyhow, this thing was going on to say: Please, President Clinton, dont listen to these maniacs who want you to apply cost benefit tests to regulation.
The year before that at the Rio Earth Summit, Hazel Henderson, a fairly famous activist of her time, said, come the eco-revolution were going to round up economists and send them to re-education camps. [Laughter]. I think, by the way, environmentalists have sort of gotten over that to some extent. My observation is, very few mainstream environmentalists, or whatever term you want to use, would say that kind of thing today. They more openly embrace, especially in this climate issue, the importance of economics and thinking through at least policy choices. Although I often find their grasp of economics to be at about the kindergarten level. But thats another story for another day.
I think, at the end of the day, there is a much deeper conflict between conventional environmentalism or religious environmentalism and Christianity. Bob hinted at a couple of the problems here. I just want to deepen them a little bit, and then Ill stop. Bob pointed at some of the similarities. You can make out similarities between the Creation story, man being thrown out of the Garden of Eden for its sin, which can find its rough parable today. I suppose the Industrial Revolution or any number of other ways you can think about it. But just as its possible to make out Marxism as a Christian heresy, it seems to me that environmental religion, in the main features that Bob has pointed out, is also a Christian heresy.
For one thing, Bob mentioned this, but just to re-emphasize this pointthere is a completely different view from Christianity in the place of humankind in the hierarchy of nature. And let me restate that and say environmental religion essentially denies that there is a hierarchy of nature. There is really nothing distinctive about the human species over the other animals. So they will reject the idea thats explicit in Genesis of mans dominion over nature and responsibility of stewardship over nature. It may not be formally egalitarian, but here and there people will point to environmentalists who say things likethese quotes are famous, right? if it was a contest between a bear and a human being, Im not sure who Id root for. Or the government biologist who wrote that article in the Los Angeles Times, in 1989, reviewing Bill McKibbens book, The End of Nature, where he said mankind is a plague on the planet and until we change our fundamental nature as a species we can only hope for the right virus to come along, you know, to thin us out.
That comes to side in the worst expressions of environmental religion. This hostility to humanity. Or if not hostility, at least a rejection of the idea that human beings have an exalted place, below the angels, but above the animals and beasts of the field, that is explicit in Christian theology. That makes the two doctrines or the two religious approaches to thinking about our planet and Creation fundamentally irreconcilable, I would suggest. And it seems to me thats a harder conflict than the one between economics and environmentalism. Because, as I say, I see some progress in environmentalists, baby steps, at least, in understanding economics as a tool they need to use. Because what does economic study? Resources, as you were saying.
Ill just add this observation. Oh, Ive gone too long anyway. You mentioned Resources for the Future, and this is slightly off the topic, but, you know, Resources for the Future was founded by one of the original doomsayers of environmentalism, Fairfield Osborn, in the late 1940s. He wrote a book called Our Plundered Planet, which was one of the first in that whole genre of were all doomed. And so its kind of interesting, as Resources for the Future ended up as a bunch of economists, very much in the center of the political spectrum, resented by the doomsayers. I mean, if you talk to a lot of environmentalists, they dont like Resources for the Future very much because theyre those grubby economists who tell us that things that cost more than the benefits they deliver are not worth doing, and they hate hearing that because that crosses your theological imperative. Thanks very much. [Applause].
Max L. Stackhouse
Well, I concur that this is a magnificent volume, and its very interesting reading, and I hope you all get copies. Ive just done my Christmas shopping, and Ive got gifts for some of my best friends who are economists and ecologists. And its this book. But what I want to do is outline the way I read it. It says a theologian, and the thing I like about it is the multiple levels that it covers. You could begin by saying at one superficial level, that this book challenges the conflict between the producers and the protectors. And the producers, of course, want to transform natural resources and to meet human needs and wants. They want to overcome poverty, and today everyone talks about poverty. Economists historically have talked about scarcity. Its the same problem. And they attribute all sorts of evil to scarcity. And Im reminded of Bernsteins West Side Story where Officer Krupkeyou know the songKrupke says what are you guys doing here? This gang. And whats the matter with you? And he says, Im depraved on account of Im deprived. [Laughter]. And thats the account that many people give to the evils of the world.
But some of the people who are working in the production side actually attempt to provide jobs and fund projects and create wealth for the commonwealth. And its not all egoism and selfishness, though thats obviously present also. But there is constructive intent in that school of thought. And the other side is, of course, as weve heard, to reverse the destruction of nature. To end pollution, stop disruption and the extinction of species. To slow global warming and to save the earth from technomania. I love that word: technomania. Its from the early part of the last century. And get rid of artificial civilization as if no civilization is not artificial.
But we can see this all over the place. You can see it in the battles. You remember the spotted owl and the lumber industry, and you remember more recently about the debates on drilling or nuclear power, or now, genetically modified salmon, and whether that should be done or not, or whether youve got to protect the wild fish from the genetically engineered fish, if were going to have them at all. But theyre not only causes that people havethese two moral sensitivities that people have. It also covers their interests. So youve got causes and interests that are in debate between these two. But its also an ideological problem about their relationship, which was mentioned just a few minutes ago, about the nature of humanity to the biophysical universe through technology. Are we in nature or are we over nature? And we are both. But in what proportion? Do we have some balance that needs to be struck, or can be struck? Or if we give in to one side too much, is it impossible to fulfill the other side?
Now this modern debate on this topic is prompted, I think, by a kind of social factor. The industrial technological capacity to control aspects of nature has been enormously compounded in the last two centuries. And if you can do it, why not do it? And if you can get some beneficial results, why, that seems to confirm the right to do it. Its all doubly compounded now by our recession, where theres much less confidence in both the engineering capacities and the economic calculation of its probabilities. And yet at the same time, because of the joblessness, theres the pressure to grow the economy. Enormous pressure. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Youve heard that, I suppose, in the last few months. And then one way people say you have to grow jobs is to grow them green. Grow green jobs. Its still growth, but thats not what the green advocates want in this case.
Its also compounded by a factor that hasnt yet been mentioned. Thats the growth of the nation state as the arbiter and promoter of this kind of thing. And thats a political development that means that weve gotwhether we want it or notmore centralization of the policies, at least, if not the capitalization possibilities to either grow green or grow against green. And that has enormous political implications. I just thought Id mention that since were in Washington. But Nelsons argument is not only peoples attribution of causes and its not only the interests that they have; its also political ideology. Its holy wars. And theres a religious factor here. And thats what makes this interesting to someone whos a theologian. The people who hold these views, I think theyre just and true. And theyre people of conviction. And what is a religion? Here is something that Bob and I share, among other things: the definition of religion. Its a comprehensive worldview held by faith, in part because you cant prove an ultimate worldview entirely. Which is held to be true and just, by which we ought to interpret reality and to do what needs to be done to change reality.
So its interesting, in the definition of religion you have both a descriptive reality and a normative reality. And youre thinking: whats going on, and what ought to be going on, and how do you give warrant to that ought? And whether it has to have a metaphysical anchor or not, some kind of reference point thats transcendent to the way things are.
Now these two perspectives purport to a legitimacy of their holistic views, which they say are holistic, in both their definition of reality and in their allocation of power, to make the oughts effective. Now, notice that theres no definition of God in either one of these kinds of religions that have been sketched out by Bob and also in Steve. This is the first time Ive met him, though Ive read him. No mention of God. Now, its not necessary to have an idea of God in order to be religious, otherwise youd be disqualifying Confucianism, Taoism and parts of Orthodox Buddhism from this. But youve got to have a sense of transcendence. And thats whats resisted in these particular religions. They are secular religions, and thats a contribution Nelson has made to the vocabulary: secular religion. We thought we had one in Marx, but it turned out not to be religion at all. It was just false doctrine. [Laughter].
The truth of these secular religions is not based in revelation or in ancient wisdom, as the Eastern religions are, but the claim is that they are scientifically based, as Bob sketched out for us, about how things work. Science, you see, is value-free. Mm-hm. Value-free. Well, they make normative judgments that are not value-free. And thats part of the complexity of the two positions that they talk about out. That part of his work, by the way, is already evident in two earlier books that are major writings of his, Reaching for Heaven on Earth, 1991, and a decade later, Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond, 2001. And now we have this book about to come out in 2010, a decade later. These two previous books trace a development of these worldviews in the economics profession that has presumptions about what policy is and what policy ought to be followed that are not scientific, but are religiously held. These are identified as the dominant, the secular religion in Bobs earlier books.
In this one he focuses more on the environmental religion. And he adds this other kind of point. Namely, that the nation state has become the adjudicator of what religion shall dominate and that were tempted to try to develop an established religion, an established secular religion in these modes.
At another level, which has already been hinted at by the previous speakers, secular religions are in fact dependent on major motifs of the Judeo-Christian traditions. They all involve the notion of Creation, the fall into sinfulness, a prospect for redemption or salvation. And they all view their own movement as a company of those who are going to be the agents of redemption. So as the socialists had the idea of the proletariat, and the capitalists had the idea of industrialists or the bourgeois classes, the environmentalists have the idea of naturalists as this redeeming people. And they are all opposing each other and the economics model in trying to persuade public policy to bend against them. The heretical views. Otherwise were going to have hell on earth.
So they try to establish a theocratic regime without God. Thats a good trick. A theocratic regime without God. But it would be bureaucratized, hierarchical, a new Holy Roman Empire. And Bob points out in one place that we had a Reformation. Maybe we need a new one. While devotees of the environmental religion oppose the economic faith and criticize the false claims and rationality, progress and so forth.
Another major theme. The Roman Church model did not produce this. This is Protestantism. Think of Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He has some hints in something that he wrote a long time ago, that we have to protect the natural laws.
Now this is engendered by Protestant roots, but these two forms of secular religion borrow from that tradition. But they do not have characteristic teachings. That in a sovereign God, providence in spite of sin, and a calling to do Gods will in the world. Well, they have that. But its not Gods will, its natural will, I guess. An agency. But Protestantisms influence is in several stages. Its not only the Protestant ethic of capitalism or in technology. Robert Merton, by the way, you know, technology and the Puritans and the study of the origins of that. But it also gets traced through the intellectual history and this is one of the contributions of the volume: the intellectual history from John Calvin through Jonathan Edwards, John Locke to John Muir. And thats a terribly intriguing chapter, and I think a contribution in itself to understand our American historical legacy.
This cluster of ideas now begins to string together, you can begin to see the interaction of the different levels. The book gets especially interesting for a theologian. One of the questions has been mentioned before, but it has to do with Creation and the definitions of Creation. By the way, the dispute between the Fundamentalists, Creationists, and the New Atheistsanti-theology, anti-theiststhats a boring discussion. I cant understand why it gets so much press. If I had to write a book on physics or chemistry at the level of understanding that these authors have of theology, I would be laughed out of the court. It really is not a serious challenge to any serious view. But the idea of Creation does have some resonances which are not picked up by either of these secular religions. If you use the word Creation, you imply that theres a Creator. And thats something rather remarkable, because that means there is a source and a norm for Creation for the biophysical world that is not part of the natural world itself but is somehow supranatural. Its transcendent to the natural.
And then you begin to look and see both the possibilities for economic behavior and progress, and the possibilities of reducing the destruction of the environment, because nature is a gift. And then you get the idea that its not only a gift, but its a gift to be treasured, and its an incomplete gift. A faulty gift. Because humanity is charged with the duties of having dominion. By the way, dominions a very tricky word in theology. It comes from Dominus, which means Lord. And the way its used in now you shall have dominion is to treat it the way the Lord God would treat it, with loving care. Its not domination in that ordinary sense of it, an imperialist attitude toward it.
But we are charged to develop the culture by tilling the fields and naming the beasts. Naming the beasts means that you have a personal relationship to those creatures and that you have a capacity also to command them when theyre disobedient the way God commands us. But youve got to command the beasts and so forth under the watchful eye of the Divine Commander. That means youre under norms which you dont make up and dont construct yourself. Thats the theological overtone. Were using the word Creator. And humanity is created too, with certain gifts, reason and will and affection. The capacities for these. And of course, all of them can be misplaced and therefore, we have sin and manifest in all sorts of ways. You can have not only rationality, but you can have rationalization. You not only have will, you have willfulness. You not only have caring and love and affection, but you can put your loves in the wrong, undesirable objects. And those can be mixed and compounded in various ways.
But they give us the capacity to follow something of what some Calvinist theologians call the cultural mandate to create cultures that are caring in the way that the Lord cares for humans. Well, the producers of the world see without God, nature as a resource for economic religion as we have heard. And they see technology as made possible essentially by an opposable thumb and a brain that is expanded by additional proteins. And they see progress and efficiency as providential. A substitute for providence. Its like the hidden hand of the economists and its reward for obedience and failure as punishment. A fall into poverty. They foresee the innovation that will cure disease, find new sources of energy, bioengineer the whole civilization. Geoengineer the globe so theyll stop global warming. And that becomes then a manifestation, from a theological standpoint, of arrogance and pride, not only giftedness.
Well, the preservers see nature as good, Creation with sinful humanity, violating, raping its beauty with ecological imperialism bringing apocalyptic possibilities and the end of the world. And weve heard about that a little more from Bob. But this is not all that Bob has argued. This is a glimpse of it. And what hes done is connect the dots between the levels so that one can see that you are dealing with a holistic problem even if the parties dont have holistic solutions yet.
What shall we make of this contribution? Well, Im not sure sometimes in the second reading, third reading whether to rejoice or lament. I rejoice because hes done this exposé of the deep roots of the conflicts. And that is a contribution to our moral and intellectual history. But I lament that therere some unanswered questions, Bob, and Im going to ask you about this. When you come to your punch line, that youre in favor of libertarian environmentalism, well, what does that mean? What is the role of government in libertarian environmentalism? I presume it means maximum freedom is possible and wise with grassroots care for the habitat. Im all in favor of that. Is that all you mean? That could be just a social adjustment that would try to deepen that. But you may have more in mind. And is it possible that youre wrong about the fact that the Judeo-Christian traditions are growing increasingly defunct? They may just be covered up. And it may be possible to exhume them and reconstitute them. State them in contemporary terms in a way that is compelling. Do you think they can ever become compelling to a contemporary audience, or is the game up on that point?
And is it possible to have economic progress that is environmentally sensitive? Is there some combination? It seems to be that it would require a larger religious vision than either one of these two secular religions have. That would be the theological task, and Im not sure that the current present crop of theologians from whom Ive just retired are really up to that task. But theology works over the generations, and it may be possible to nurture another generation.
Well, finally this is a global issue. And many of your examples and many of your treatments are in fact, national. Of course, youre working on national policy all the time and have a good excuse for that. But can your answers begin to address the global issues? Because the economic and the ecological dont respect national boundaries anymore, and yet we think still in national boundaries and the power of the nation state. The power of the nation state itself is compromised by the global developments. So where can we go?
Now Im willing to wait another decade for your answer. [Laughter]. God willing. But I want to say again, congratulations. This is a magnificent contribution to all of our thinking. [Applause].
As a result of all this analysis can I say anything about how we ought to organize society? Mine wasnt necessarily the greatest solution, but it was the best I could do. And essentially I guess one way to think about it was to think that maybe libertarian environmentalism is like freedom of religion. And its like Protestantism. I come from a Protestant background, although you might not know it at times. But so you could have a lot of different churches and they could compete with each other and each church can do its own thing and it has to be protected from state interference. Im not ready to tell people what they should believe. Ill probably never be ready to tell them. And so I see that in these matters of belief as so fundamental, and people fight about them, but that doesnt work very well. So we ought to give them a lot of freedom to believe, but only within their own community.
Im willing to say that a communitya physical community with even its own governmentcan have very wide latitude to have its own religion, if you want to call it that, as long as you dont try to coerce other people. That would be something where we need to hire an authority to make sure that doesnt happen.
And the other thing is to say that everybody has to be guaranteed the right of exit. So if you have a community, you cant force people to stay. And some outside power will come in and interfere if you try to do that. But beyond that, its a fairly minimal role. But you could have a lot of theocracies. So Im not against theocracy. But just small theocracy. I dont want big theocracy. And so thats kind of the vision. But its probably a little bit rough around the edges [laughs], but its a start. It bares some resemblance to Robert Nozick and his idea of utopia. And he says well, the idea of utopia from the pastthere really is no utopia because we dont know what it is. But we can have multiple utopias. And so if you went back and read Anarchy, State and Utopia, it has some resemblance to that, but Im sort of getting there from a lot of other analysis which is actually the heart of the book.
Okay. Theres a question at the back, and just wait for the microphone and then pleasehere it comes.
Lately theres been a lot of buzz in the media about two commercials against global warming. One is a British video of people being executed, school children even, for not reducing their carbon emissions. Its on YouTube. Its called No Pressure. The other one is a photograph of a girl with a noose around her neck standing on an iceberg thats melting. Both are grievously offensive. So Id like to know what your comments are on the perspective that this is growing out of religion or a twisted version of a religion.
Well, maybe Ill get up in environmental religion. If you actually pursue some of the logic, you recognize that in environmentalism whats basically good is natural, and bad or evil is unnatural. But in environmentalism people are unnatural. And so that means that people are evil. And so if you pursue this logic it actually leads fairly directly. And Im not by any means even close to the first person to point this out. William Cronon, who might even consider himself an environmentalist, had made the point 15 years ago, that theres a certain perversity to thinking that human beings are unnatural but then defining good as natural. But you also find in environmentalism, like David Brower, hes one of my favorite people to quote, but also Dave Foreman, they both have said human beings are the cancer of the earth. And Tom Watson, who is a founder of Greenpeace, modified it slightly and said human beings are the AIDS of the earth.
And so you might say this is extreme. And of course, it is. And of course, any sensible environmentalist would know, even if these people were sensible, and theyve already retracted it, as I understand it, but there is a logic to it that actually you can get to the conclusion that the new utopia, if its not a people utopia, is actually a world without people. And therere books now, popular booksits the new utopian literature. The World Without Usthats the title of one book.
Well, theres an organization out of Oregon, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. I thought their bumper sticker should be, You First! [Laughter].
The moderates in this movement say that it will be done by just voluntary abstinence from having children. And so in a hundred years well reach our goal. But the thing about it is that the assumptions that get you there are embedded in mainstream environmental thinking. Now, of course, they never pursue them to that level and they wouldnt believe it. Theyd be actually somewhat distressed, Im sure, if they actually came to accept my analysis, which is that their implicit assumptions lead to that conclusion. If you actually are a philosopher, you rigorously follow the line of where those assumptions go. But I think most environmentalists I know are actually pretty nice people, to tell you the truth.
Ive often said that the problem with environmentalists and the left generally is they dont have a sense of humor. The No Pressure ad proved that the problem is worse than we thought.
Thank you very much. Ive found all the comments very interesting. I have not read the book. But this morning I read an article in the Wall Street Journalit was quite interestingon these 24 new dams theyre going to put in the Amazon tributaries in Brazil. Ive lived five years in Brazil. In the sixties and seventies, they built huge dams with a lot of ecological damage, which at the same time produced a lot of power. Well, its a very poor country. They need power. The environmentalists dont like the other forms of power. I dont know, I mean, except for, I suppose wind and things like that that dont make too much economic sense. And in this case the builders made dams that are smaller. Now they have a different type of turbine to get more power out of it. The environmentalists have sort of opposed it, but have been almost defeated by the fact that these are not such egregious violations of the environment.
So my question to you is, does that represent a compromise between the economic religion and the environmental religion? What they are trying to do with these new dams.
Ill take this opportunity also to respond to something that Steve said, which is that environmentalism is changing. And I think my critique is really most appropriately directed at the environmental movement from, lets say, about 1970 to 1995 or 2000. And partly its because of climate change. You just cant play in the climate-change debate without becoming somewhat pragmatic and looking at energy systems and all these other things. And I actually noticed this with my students. I teach environmental policy at the University of Maryland, and the students that Im getting right now, theyre all basically coming out of the environmental cause, but theyre more pragmatic. Theyre moral, as you were just suggesting. And theyre getting into questions of, okay, how do we organize society in terms of the energy systems and everything else?
But the problem the environmental movement faces is that to the extent they get into these, they dont really have anything much to offer. Theyre not particularly good at analyzing these questions. And the contribution that they made in the past was this sort of unique moral vision. And it was easy for environmentalists to have their vision and have their policy advocacy when what they were advocating was more wilderness areas. I mean, that was a direct reflection of what they believed. It didnt fit at all with economic religion. But if youre talking about energy, both of them actually start getting closer together on more common ground.
I actually do think that the environmental movement itself is in a transitional stage. But I do think that criticisms such as the ones that I make in this book have played at least a modest role. I think more environmentalists now are awarethe honest ones are aware of some of these difficulties and the fact that some of their thinking leads to these theological dead ends and so forth. And so theyre trying to work something out. And I dont know how its going to play out.
Im a big fan of Stewart Brands book called Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Thats a new book, its very good.
We have a question back here.
Yes. John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and an author of Eco-Freaks. Its good to see you, Bob. All of your lectures are enlightening as always. I was wondering if you and others on the panel could speak on the racism expressed historically by prominent environmental leaders. For instance, Paul Ehrlich advocating, and never taking back, that all Indian males be sterilized after their third child is born. Charles Wurster, the co-founder of Environmental Defense, allegedly saying that we dont have to worry about the side effects of the ban on DDT because it will only affect harmfully, his quote, Mexicans and Negroes. And going back to John Muir when he was calling American Indians, Native Americans, ugly and a blight on the land. So with all the focus on the racism supposedly in the Tea Party, Im wondering if theyre looking for racism in the wrong movement. And it seems to me this could have some real policy effect. Because if you dont want a new housing development near you that has blacks and Latinos, you cant express it openly, but you join an environmental movement that says we cant have this because this is urban sprawl and we need smart growth. It has the same effect of blocking housing for the poor blacks and Latinos. So if anyone could speak on this.
Well, I will say one thing about it. Its a very small number of environmentalists who are overtly racist with respect to blacks. But yeah, some of their solutions, you know, Ehrlich in Population Control, I think Garrett Hardin and other people, I mean, basically they thought that we had to impose coercive measures. But not just on races, on the whole world. But there is an element of racism that Ive actually written about in the book and in multiple times. And that has to do with the idea of wilderness, and the idea that when we go into wilderness were going into an area which is untouched by human hand. And it turns out that most areas in the world have actually been touched by human hand. Native Americans burned and hunted and they did a lot of things. And they may have even wiped out the mega-fauna. And so this whole vision that environmentalism offers of nature untouched by human hand, actually it dismisses the whole presence of native people who massively altered many of their environments.
And so as a fantasy, you could say well, what are they doing? I mean, they either dont know anything about the reality of what happened out there, which might be true in some cases, or theyre implicitly dismissing the humanity of these native people and saying well, even if they did change it, they dont count. Theyre different. Or theyre not corrupt. Or something. But anyway, its putting them in a whole different category from European people. So its really only European people who can actually go out and alter the landscape and thereby erase Gods creation. And there is a strong, implicit racist element in that way of looking at things. But I wouldnt say its racist against black people; its racist in the treatment of any native population basically.
Ill offer a comment. You know, John, I think it is mostlynot wholly, but mostlya mistake to traffic in those dreadful and embarrassing quotes of those guys. Mostly because theyre a bunch of has-beens. I know theyre all still alive, but I think its better to talk about the distributional aspects of environmental policy as they play out in the real world, which is race-neutral on the surface, but Ill give you one example. Ten years ago when I was still living in California and the state was still growing then, but California has some of the worst regulatory structures making new housing more expensive which meant it disproportionately affected the Latino minority in the state. And so I said one day at a forum to some environmentalists that smart growth could be made out to stand for Send Mexicans Across the River Tomorrow. And they went berserk. You absolutely could not say that. How dare you say something like that? I said, well then tell me why Im wrong about the distributional effects of your policy. And then they get incoherent, of course.
Ive debated Ehrlich. Hes a has-been, I think. I think its much better when youre talking to him rather than say what about this stupid thing you said 40 years ago, which by the way, Ive gotten him to acknowledge a couple of times Ill bring them up that he was wrong about. But Ill say what about your Malthusian methodology? How can you defend that today, and why do you still think you are right today and just wrong in your timing? I think that works a whole lot better. Once in a while those guys may deserve it, but just as I cry foul when people bring up something stupid Trent Lott said 20 or 30 years ago, I think we ought to be a little restrained in how we retail some of that stuff. Just my opinion.
But I think the guys had his comeuppance. You say hes a has-been. I think hes a bit of a laughing stock even among many environmentalists. By the way, how sort of the wheel turns, did you know the Matthew Connelly book, Fatal Misconception? Its a history of the population control movement from Harvard University Press by a liberal historian at Columbia and its absolutely scathing. Planned Parenthood International. Thats by mainstream academia. It came out about two years ago. Theres nothing left of these people at the end of that book. And thats why I say that at the end of the day, usually, thats why I have some confidence in science, the truth wins out on these things. And so I didnt say youre wholly wrong. I just say you want to be careful about that, I think, and judicious about it. Thats all.
Okay, go ahead.
I think your question reveals something that we need to mention. If youre going to talk about religion or especially a theological approach to religious secular or sacred religious traditions, and that is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is deeply interested in justice. And that the ecological and some of the economists are also interested in justice. But its not constitutional in their presuppositions. Whereas the Judeo-Christian tradition may have disputes about the nature and character of justice and what is fair, what is righteous and whos included and so forth, but its not generally a part of the discussion as Ive read it in the ecologists and in the mainline economists who adhere to their religions that Bob has outlined.
And with that, if youll join with me in thanking all of our speakers today. [Applause]. Thank you all for coming.