A man who ceases to believe in God does not believe in nothing; he believes in anything.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
The apocalyptic vision of global warming serves a deep need of the environmentalist credo, the dominant pseudo-religious tendency of our age in the prosperous West.
For good or ill, human beings are constructed to believe, and faith has its demands.. Along with the concrete elements that demand belief (that fire burns and that it's not wise to walk off cliffs, for example) there exists an apparent necessity for a belief in "the rock higher than I" - a belief in a superior entity that can inspire awe and gratitude, that can be turned to in hard times, that can act as witness to injustice and dispenser of mercy.
Despite the claims of our current crop of militant atheists such as Dawkins and Harris, this is not simply brain-dead foolishness. Religious belief is hard-wired into human beings, by what means and for what purposes we don't yet understand. (A much wiser atheist, the biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in On Human Nature that he intended to demonstrate that religious belief played an evolutionary role and could thus be explained by Darwinism. That was thirty years ago - if he ever succeeded, I haven't heard about it.) When religious belief is subverted, it does not, as Chesterton implied, simply vanish. It is almost immediately replaced by another set of beliefs on a similar level of abstraction and serving the same purpose. Sometimes it's an import, such as Buddhism or TM. Sometimes it's a creed deliberately created to serve a political agenda, as we see in Nazism and Communism. Sometimes it's the goofy SoCal syncretism currently expressed in Wicca and Neopaganism. ("If people seriously want to be pagans," the late Joe Myers, a Christian brother of my acquaintance once said. "They'd become Roman Catholics.") And sometimes they're a combination, a weird melange of ideas picked up from various sources that (and usually not coincidentally) also serve a political purpose. Which brings us to environmentalism.
That environmentalism is in fact a pseudo-religion goes without saying. Like all such, it possesses every element of contemporary legitimate belief. It has a deity, in this case the goddess Gaia, the personification of the living Earth, (first envisioned by James Lovelock, whom we can slot in as high priest). It has its holy books, most changing with the seasons, and most, as is true of the Bible with many convinced Christians, utterly unread. It has its saints, its prophets, its commandments, religious rituals (be sure to recycle that bottle), a large gallery of sins, mortal and otherwise, and an even larger horde of devils. (Let me pause here to sharpen a horn.)
Another item that a pseudo-religion must have is an apocalypse - and that's what global warming is all about.
In fact, the apocalyptic is the major fulcrum of environmentalism, the axis around which everything else turns. It's environmentalism's major element of concern, its chief attraction, and the center of discussion and speculation, in much the same way that some Protestant variants of Christianity are obsessed above all with sin. So crucial is the apocalypse to environmentalism that there has been a whole string of them, one after the other, covering every last aspect of the natural world. If one don't git ya, the next one will.
Green emphasis on the apocalyptic appeared early, accompanying the introduction of mass environmental awareness itself. Silent Spring, published in 1962, represents the first environmentalist scripture -- nothing other than a modern book of Revelations. Rachel Carson, a popular nature writer, was dying of cancer while writing the book, and Silent Spring became an outlet for her rage and grief. Carson predicted the imminent coming of a stricken world, a world poisoned by the synthetic products of the chemical industry, in which no birds sang and human children would not be immune. The early 60s were marked by fears of the consequences of atmospheric nuclear tests, and the suggestion that chemicals were just as deadly found a willing audience.
Pollution - a word that itself bears many religious connotations -- became a byword of the era. That fact that the phenomenon encompassed virtually every aspect of technical civilization including car exhausts, household plastics, and power generation, guaranteed it a good long run. Truly grotesque stories, ranging from dioxins eating sneakers from children's feet to hushed-up epidemics of cancer, made the rounds. None were anything more than grist for Snopes.com, and the promised chemical doomsday never arrived. But Carson's work set the pattern for all the environmental apocalypses to come.
The next example was overpopulation, its prophet the notorious Paul Ehrlich. His set of tablets was titled The Population Bomb and if anything, it was even more popular than Silent Spring. Ehrlich's thesis was that relentlessly burgeoning population would overstress the earth's "carrying capacity", use up all available resources, and lead to the collapse of civilization before the 20th century was out. The argument seemed irrefutable to those not familiar with the uncertainties surrounding demography (Thomas Malthus had made similar series of predictions early in the 19th century).
Countless offshoots of Ehrlich's book appeared, and overpopulation became one of the standard ideas of the late 60s, embraced by the counterculture, policymakers, academics, and the media. Even today, an era in which deflating national populations are the problem, it's by no means unusual to come across people still living in Ehrlich's nightmare world, much the same as the Amish or Mennonites have preserved their far more pleasant way of life into modern times. Ehrlich became quite wealthy, and the master of his own foundation devoted to the study of the "overpopulation threat". To this day, he contends that his thesis is correct. The whole episode is begging for a detailed historical study.
A variant combining aspects of both theories had a brief run in the early to mid 70s: the doctrine of universal famine. Pollution would poison croplands and stunt agricultural production, and overpopulation would do the rest. The problem here was the fact that proponents insisted that doom was imminent, with famine appearing as early as 1975 or 1980 at the latest. The experience taught the Greens to be a little more vague with dates.
The early 1980s saw a reprise of earlier fears of nuclear destruction (a workable definition of an "advanced civilization" could well read "one in which there is sufficient leisure time for large numbers of people to worry about doomsday"). The nuclear freeze campaign, largely engineered by the KGB, took up much of the public attention devoted to environmental crises. But even this effort was given an environmental gloss when scientific impresario Carl Sagan put together a road show of "mainstream scientists" to promote the concept of a "nuclear winter".
The firestorms generated by a nuclear strike would generate smoke so thick as to block out the sun across much of the northern hemisphere, causing a collapse of the terrestrial ecology. Nuclear winter never quite caught on outside of certain elite circles, in part due to flaws in the theory. Sagan's specialty was exobiology, the study of possible extraterrestrial life-forms, and it developed that the climate model he'd used was based on the atmosphere of Mars, a planet locked in an ice age for the past billion years. Nuclear winter faded with the nuclear freeze movement. All the same, just before his death Sagan made it known that he'd willingly accept a Nobel for his role in preventing World War III.
Ozone depletion, the next environmentalist flurry, was a little too esoteric to generate the uncritical devotion accorded to pollution and overpopulation. It involved arcane chemical reactions, took place in the stratosphere, and seemed to be confined to Antarctica. (Although the northern hemisphere was home to the bulk of the offending chlorofluorocarbons, the Arctic didn't seem to have the same problem.) But ozone depletion did serve a useful Green purpose in drawing public attention to the atmosphere, and confusing people as to exactly what the problem was all about. (I would guess that something like two-thirds of the people in this country believe that ozone depletion and global warming are part of the same phenomenon.)
But in fact, global warming has actually adapted elements of all previous environmental crazes. It holds that carbon dioxide (a naturally-occurring compound that comprises a large portion of the atmosphere) is a form of pollution, the same as Carson's detested synthetic chemicals. Like that involving overpopulation, the threatened catastrophe is universal, and implicated in everyday practices and institutions. As with the universal famine, the effects are concrete and horrifying, though the dates have been left vague - ‘in the coming century', rather than in a year or two. As with the nuclear freeze, the human villains are easily identified, their actions, which place all human life in jeopardy, beyond redemption. As with ozone depletion, mainstream scientists have a remedy - even if it's unproven and unnecessary.
The lessons of previous environmental panics have been carefully applied to global warming No other environmentalist program has been prepared with such detail, purpose, and conviction. A skilled cadre of scientists, activists, and publicists exist who have devoted entire careers to nothing else. A vast literature has appeared analyzing not climate as a whole, not the interactions of the entire system, but solely and uniquely global warming. In many ways, warming has become both more and less than an ideology: it has become an industry, one that with such financial elements as carbon offsets can easily support itself.
The global warming program has been in play for a quarter of a century. It has been quite successful, convincing a small majority of the population that such warming is in fact occurring and is caused by manmade emissions. It is not a fad of the decade like overpopulation or nuclear winter. Nothing, not scientific evidence, not common sense, not the fact that much of the United States is basking in subfreezing temperatures as I write this, will be allowed to overturn it. The environmentalist movement has staked everything on this program. Not for the sake of science; most of the science is wrong or fabricated. (This week's IPCC report marks no change in this regard.) Not for humanity; they have never cared for humanity. Not to alter the climate itself; no such program has been suggested, and in any case the earth's climate, an unstable planet-wide chaotic system, will go its own way no matter what we do. But for one reason: to make environmentalism a basic element of millennial society.
And that's where the danger arises. The problem with this type of pseudo-religion is that they're essentially heresies, and like most heresies far more bloodyminded than the parent religions that they otherwise mirror. This is obvious when we examine Nazism and communism. The same strain in environmentalism may be hidden, but it's there. This creed has killed massive numbers and forthrightly contemplated death on an even larger scale.
The banning of DDT in 1971 resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people in the developing world, most of them children, from insect-borne diseases such as malaria. (This despite the fact that the use of DDT to fumigate homes could have no serious effect on the environment.) Yet no environmental group has ever made note of the fact, and all oppose the reintroduction of DDT for any purpose. The DDT ban places Rachel Carson in an exclusive circle shared only by Karl Marx as a writer whose work alone caused vast amounts of human misery. (Adolf Hitler was, of course, more man of action than writer. It's doubtful that Mein Kampf in and of itself could have triggered the same upheavals as Hitler's actions.)
Death on a scale beyond even Mao was something openly contemplated in respectable circles of the cult. One byproduct of the universal famine panic was a concept called "triage". Adapted from the emergency medical technique in which the dying are put to one side while the less injured receive priority treatment, triage advocates suggested that certain "failed" nations be completely isolated from the rest of the world to bring about a "die-off" of their "excess" population, a process that would have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions. This was not a crackpot notion; it was presented as a serious policy issue and discussed as such in outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. The particular "failed" nation always suggested by these people was India, one of our epoch's economic powerhouses.
For a third example of bloodymindedness we need only mention the environmentalist and animal rights "direct-action" groups that have utilized terrorism, sabotage, arson, assault, everything short of murder in their campaigns against offending companies and even innocent third parties.
Increasingly strident rhetoric of the kind being heard from public figures such as Heidi Cullen and even Prince Charles may well result in a vicious circle in which public frustration leads to violent action leading to more frustration and on to the inevitable climax. Up to this point, environmentalist violence has been held in check by force of law - and only by force of law. How long this will remain the case depends on how much power the Greens are allowed to accrue.
True believers, a millennial creed, and easy targets - these have always and forever made for an unholy mix. Nothing about environmentalism suggests that it won't follow the same ugly path. J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.