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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Environmentalism Is the New Secular Religion


April 22nd is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which will be celebrated this year, according to the Earth Day Network, by more than a billion people in 190 countries.

When Earth Day started in 1970 few people would have expected it to become a globally observed religious holiday with its own ten commandments, including “use less water,” “save electricity,” “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and “spread the word.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants people everywhere to “commit to action” in defense of the Earth.

America’s leading environmental historian, William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin, calls environmentalism a new religion because it offers “a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action, and judges human conduct accordingly.”

In other words, issues such as climate change are now much more than about “science.”

Environmentalists see humans engaged in acts of vast hubris, remaking the future ecosystems of the Earth. By playing “God” with the Earth, humans seek to become as God themselves.

The Bible’s book of Deuteronomy reveals dire consequences for those who try to “play God.” We learn that God will strike down sinners who “worship other gods,” causing them to suffer “infections, plague and war. He will blight your crops, covering them with mildew. All these devastations shall pursue you until you perish.”

It is no mere coincidence that contemporary environmentalism prophesies virtually the same set of calamities resulting from the warming of the Earth—rising seas, famine, drought, pestilence, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Even without realizing it, environmentalism is recasting ancient biblical messages to a new secular vocabulary. One radical environmental organization even declared that the most important commandment for human beings was to put “Earth First!”—renouncing the modern worship of science and economics that once provided a secular substitute for God.

Thus the Endangered Species Act is the new Noah’s Ark; genuinely wild places are the new cathedrals to find spiritual inspiration; Earth Day is the new Easter.

Much of the attraction of environmental religion is the disguised form in which it is presented. By appearing distinct from formal theologies and official churches of institutional Christianity, it can attract people who would normally not be involved, including residents of many nominally Christian nations and those who think of themselves as “spiritual,” while vigorously rejecting any suggestion that they should ever belong to “a religion.”

This comes as no surprise. A leading student of environmentalism, Thomas Dunlop, finds that “ever since Emerson, Americans who failed to find God in church took terms and perspectives from Christian theology into their search for ecstatic experiences in nature.”

While the language is now different, environmentalists today, no less than the Calvinists of old, see “excessive” consumption—the constant demand for bigger and better, more and more—as a threat to the Earth’s future.

But all this is much less novel than many people think. John Calvin wrote in the 16th century in “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” that God has “revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.” By visiting places where nature remains little affected by human actions, human beings will be “instructed by this bare and simple testimony which the creatures render splendidly to God.”

In the celebrations of Earth Day, however, there is admittedly one critical difference. The message is presented as an actual history of the world with concrete policy recommendations for today.

This places a greater burden on environmental theology than it is often able to handle. Success in stirring powerful religious feelings about the environment does not automatically lead to wise and effective policies.

The task for the future will be to draw on the core truths of the environmental message while adapting them to the full scientific and economic complexities of the 21st century. When environmental religion seeks a return to an earlier primitive and natural existence, it is embracing utopian dreams that easily can pose a danger to man and Earth alike.


Robert H. Nelson is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the latest book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America. He is also of Environmental Policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University, and he has been Staff Economist for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs; Visiting Senior Fellow, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Member of Economics Staff, Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior; Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Chairman of Interior Department Task Force on Indian Economic Development; and Staff Economist, Twentieth Century Fund.

The New Holy WarsNew from Robert H. Nelson!
THE NEW HOLY WARS: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religionin Contemporary America
“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So says this analysis of the roots of economics and environmentalism and their mutually antagonistic relations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Questions about the proper relationship between human beings and nature have led to the growth of these public theologies, or secular religions, even while both avoid mentioning their derivation from Western Judeo-Christian sources. So while environmentalists regard human actions to warm the climate, expand human populations, and increase economic growth as immoral challenges to the natural order, economists seek to put all of nature to maximum use for the production of more goods and services and other human benefits. Learn More »»