<back to Save Our Ecosystems

March 14, 2004

Global Warming is a Religious Crisis

In recent months there has been a debate within the American environmental movement about its relevance and future . Two essays and one speech, preferably read together, are at the core of this conversation:

1. The Death of Environmentalism, by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus ("S& N").
2. Is Environmentalism Dead?, by Adam Werbach.
3. And Now for Something Completely Different, by Carl Pope. The above-referenced articles can be found online at: http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint/

Here in the United States, we are the Earth's chief contributor to carbon emissions; our political leadership and society are doing very little to confront the problem. Most of us understand there is sound scientific evidence that human activity is a significant if not primary cause of global warming, although some still are in denial.

How did we get to this potentially catastrophic stage o f human development and how do we as human beings change direction to protect and restore our planet?

The S & N essay and the Werbach speech blame an outmoded environmental advocacy model that once accomplished significant legislative victories, but now can muster little political power to confront the huge global warming challenge that threatens our planet. S & N speak of a “core set of values”, “letting go of old identities, categories and assumptions”, yet they don’t tell us what those values might be, they don’t seem to know. There has been widespread criticism that the S & N statement, as well as the Werbach piece, are overly negative, as most recently commented on by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times, March 12, 2005, “I Have A Nightmare”.

Carl Pope’s essay counters that global warming is in a different category all together, something so enveloping yet diffuse that our failure to come to terms with the challenge should not be an indictment of the environme ntal movement or a reason to throw overboard generations of accomplishment or thinking about how to protect our planet.

All three articles refer to the Apollo project, of which all the authors are involved: it is designed to build a coalition of environmental, labor, business and community allies to create a clean energy infrastructure, creating millions of new jobs, ending our dependence on foreign oil, unhooking us from a carbon based economy.

There is something critical missing from all three writings, even surprisingly, Carl Pope's. Pastorlists, naturalists, conservationists, and early environmentalists all referred to it in their writings, as a clear spring for their thoughts and beliefs. In a single word it is Creation, an Earth that is considered by some as a living being, with life-support systems that allow ourselves and the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life to survive. The S & N essay is as cold and distant as Plut o in this respect; only at the very end of the essay is it suggested, "Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be." S & N don't appear to be sincere, it is as an afterthought; their paper is about investment in technology, quoting with approval, "The first wave of environmentalism was framed around conservation and the second regulation....and the third wave will be around investment.", and perhaps as Mr. Pope hinted, the grants that go along with it. You won't find anything in the S & N article about the preservation or restoration of Creation, nothing about their new “core set of values” or, having let go of our “old identities”, what new identity will take its place.

Mr. Werbach's essay is not much of an improvement, which is ironic given his first name. Adam does acknowledge his grandfather at the very end of his writing, "a deeply religious man", who placed upon him a special responsibility, "the repair of the world". But that is the end of it, as Adam concludes his paper with suggested steps to be taken to accomplish such repair, all of them very, very political.

Carl Pope's essay at the outset acknowledges his respect for deep ecology, rights based environmentalism and the frankly spiritual writings of the Sierra Club founder, John Muir, among others. Yet even Mr. Pope, perhaps in focusing so intently on refuting S & N, passes over Creation.

Did Mr. Pope forget his earlier essay in Sierra magazine (November/December 1998), "Reaching Beyond Ourselves”, (http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/199811/ways.asp)? In that piece Carl writes that the environmentalist "commitment to the preservation of Creation is gaining ground"; he looks ba ck at the beginning of his environmental career and rediscovers what is widely considered a seminal work of his generation, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis", by Lynn White, Jr. a medieval scholar. In reassessing Lynn White's work thirty years later, Mr. Pope came to surprising revelations that he later failed to share with us in his argument with S & N.

The premise of Mr. Pope's earlier essay was that environmentalists should reach out to the religious community, having ignored the "power that organized religion can bring to our mission". Mr. Pope refers to the National Council of Churchs’ perception that global warming is a "moral issue". Yet, in Mr. Pope's response to S & N, his previous insights are absent: it has all become quite political again. Mr. Pope reverts to the paradigm which he earlier criticized, and for which he had apologized on behalf of the environmental movement for acting "as if we could save life on

Earth without the same institutions through which we save ourselves." In the earlier essay, Mr. Pope rightly did not suggest that those who are intent on repairing the earth need belong to "any given denomination, or even to any religious organization at all", and he was not making any statement on a personal God. Rather, he was advising the environmental movement as the title of his 1998 essay suggests, that the spiritual impulse, as refined in the world's religions, cannot be ignored, even if the world's religions have largely failed to understand and teach that the environmental crises facing our world are in the end a deeply moral issue.

It is a paradox: environmentalists particularly S & N, do not acknowledge that the solution to our quandry ultimately will not come from "investment", but rather must arise from the spritual/religious impulse, yet our religions have largely failed to teach the moral necessity of protecting Creation. Not all religions, even with in Christianity, are so anthropocentric; Mr. Pope's 1998 statement refers to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew's condemnation of environmental destruction: "For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation, to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the earth of its natural forests, or destroying wetlands...to contaminate the earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances-these are sins."

In fairness to Carl Pope, he writes in the latest issue of Sierra magazine (March/April 2005), "Voting Our Values" (http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200503/ways.asp): "Americans overwhelmingly consider themselves to be what people of faith call 'stewards of Creation.' They recognize that we have the power of life and death over Earth's other creatures, and with it an awesome responsibility...In Genesis, God announces his covenant, 'which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh,' not to destroy the world. How dare we then destroy it ourselves, or grant the secretary of the Interior the power to decide which of Earth's creatures survive and which should perish forever?" Carl comes full circle, at least on paper, from his 1998 article in Sierra magazine, to his essay challenging S&N, to his very latest statement in the 2005 Sierra magazine.

Mr. Pope's 1998 essay is constructed on the writings of Lynn White, Jr., in particular, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis", 1967, Science Magazine,155:1203-1207, (which can be found at various sites including): http://www.bemidjistate.edu/peoplenv/lynnwhite.htm

As a medieval historian, Professor White urged the reader to think about fundamentals, "rethink our axioms", and to clarify our thinking "by looking, in some historical depth at the presuppositions that underlie modern technology and science." Unlike S & N, Prof. White provided a positivistic answer:

By1000 A.D. the West began to apply water power to industrial processes other than milling grain, followed in the late 12th century by the harnessing of wind power. "From these simple beginnings, but with remarkable consistency of style, the West rapidly expanded its skills in the development of power machinery, labor-saving devices, and automation. Paralleling these developments, the "distinctive Western tradition of science, in fact, began in the late 11th century with a massive movement of translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin." Professor White observed: "Since both our technological and our scientific movements got their start, acquired their character, and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages, it would seem that we cannot understand their nature or their present impact upon ecology without examining fundamental medieval assumptions and developments."

The medieval view of humans and nature began to change in the 7th century with the introduction of a new more powerful plow that replaced the simple scratch plow. "Man's relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature, now he was the exploiter of nature."

"Another important contributor to our exploitative attitude toward nature, was the victory of Christianity over paganism which was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.” What distinguished paganism from Christianity in the human relationship with nature? Greco-Roman mythology had no creation myth, there was no beginning in their cyclical notion of time. "Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and linear but also the story of creation... an all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, and earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and Eve. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man' s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image."

Professor White elaborated: "Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religion's (except, perhaps Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends." In antiquity the trees and glens, streams, and hills had their own "genius loci", a guardian spirit. "Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects...The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled."

Our present day science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward the human race's relation to nature. "Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not in our hearts, part of the natural process." Western science was "cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus."

Science and technology fused in the 19th century, a functional unity of brain and hand: "Western Europe and North America arranged a marriage between science and technology, a union of the theoretical and empirical approaches to our natural environment. The emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before 1850, save the chemical industries, where it is anticipated in the 18th century. It's acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well. Almost at once the new situation forced the crystallization of the novel concept of ecology: indeed, the word ecology first appeared in the English language in 1873." Yet, "Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny--that is, by religion."

Prof. White concluded: "What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship...Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man...Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we like it or not."

Returning to the two essays of Messrs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus and of Mr. Werbach, they propose a technologic/scientific solution to the global warming crisis, in the form of the ironically pagan-named Apollo project. Will that be adequate? Prof. White would have his doubts: "More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion or rethink the old one." This advice might help bridge the apparent generational gap between S & N and Werbach on the one hand, and Mr. Pope on the other.

Religions have as much work to do in understanding our environmental problems as environmentalists do in understanding the religious impulse. The next stage of religion must be environmental as the next stage of environmentalism must be religious. If Lynn White were alive today he would understand that global warming is a religious crisis.

Anthony F. Gantner
Save Our Ecosystems