May 5, 2005

The Religion of Environmentalism

Marc Comtois

Jennifer Marohasy's "Environmental Fundamentalism" in the Australian journal Policy described an environmental movement in her nation (Australia) that can be just as easily used to describe the same movement in the U.S. and, for that matter, the world.

Australians generally perceive themselves to be affable and rational, and part of a secular nation that determines its public policies—including policies on environmental issues—largely on the basis of evidence. Most of us feel comfortable in the belief that our fellow citizens, and especially our policy leaders, are unlikely to ever be swept along by quasi-religious ideas. The reality, however, is somewhat different. There is ample evidence that environmental fundamentalism drives public policy decision making on a range of issues, with significant social and economic impact but little if any environmental benefit.

I consider myself an environmentalist. I want to ensure a beautiful, healthy, biologically diverse planet for future generations. But this will be best achieved if we are honest to the data and proceed with our minds open to the evidence. A problem with fundamentalist creeds is that they are driven by adherence to predetermined agendas and teachings. The fundamentalist’s position is rarely tolerant of new information and is generally dismissive of evidence. Environmental fundamentalism is subversive in that it draws on science to give legitimacy to its beliefs—the same beliefs that, in many instances, have no basis in observation or tested theory. Environmental Fundamentalism

Now, I really don't mean to sound like a one note piano here by continuing to equate liberal-tending "movements" with religion, it's merely a coincidence. Anyway, Marohasy provided more detail in her following article, which she summarized thusly (emphasis mine):

Recently, I gave a lecture to university environmental science students on the ‘Burden of Proof in the Environment Sphere’. My key message was that proof or evidence appears to be becoming less necessary as scientists increasingly operate on the basis of belief. The point was made back to me by the students that, ‘Belief is important. It is what makes the world go around.’ One of their main concerns was that if people believed that everything was OK, the environment would be destroyed. While environmental campaigners express great concern over a problem, they often also seem deeply committed to the continued existence of the same problem.

Evidence is information establishing fact. Belief is trust and acceptance of a received theology. It is the latter, acceptance of the belief system that underpins environmental fundamentalism, which is increasingly underpinning public policy decision making in Australia.

Forest is replacing once open native grassland across approximately 50 million hectares of rangeland in Queensland, but tree clearing is being banned. Why? Because trees have become sacred in Australia—like cows in India. The act of pulling or cutting down trees offends environmental fundamentalists. Their beliefs now take precedence, with the management of our rangelands complicated, and development opportunities forgone.

Environmental advocates masquerading as scientists have been misleading us on the health of the Murray River system for years. They have been screaming imminent catastrophe based on the hypothetical. The successful environmental initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s that reversed the then trends of increasing river salinity and rising water tables have gone largely unreported.

State governments banning GM [Genetically Modified] food crops was my third example of environmental fundamentalism dictating public policy. . . . I respect the rights of those who do not want to eat GM food—in the same way I respect the rights of Muslims to not eat pork. But the anti-GM campaigners do not appear to accept my right to choose GM. I might choose GM because of the real environmental benefits from reduced pesticide use, and its potential to feed a world population with an increasing appetite for meat and dairy products. More land will need to be brought under cultivation unless we can produce more animal food from currently cultivated areas.

In material, standard of living terms, Australia has progressed and benefited enormously from the secularisation of society and the power and independence of science. It is time we returned to this solid foundation. It is time we started demanding a rational evidence-based approach to public policy on environmental issues.

I would argue with Marohasy whether it is proper to equate secularism with rationalism, but her larger point, that environmentalism is becoming more fundamental and less scientific, is still well taken. As she hinted, environmentalist organizations, just like other advocacy groups, survive and thrive when they seek to wrong an ill, either real or perceived. Thus, we must ask: What would happen to them, to their jobs, money and power, if the "problems" they sought to end. . . actually did? If science shows that the some of the very real environmental problems, or those not so convincingly real, are not so bad, then environmentalists have nothing to fall back on but their own dogmatic rhetoric, may Gaia help them.