The Environmentalism “Religion”

Over at the Atlantic, Kenneth Brower has written a superb article on the brilliant iconoclast and physicist Freeman Dyson.  He undoubtedly qualifies as a genius and one of the world’s leading scientists, which makes his anti-position on global warming either puzzling or quixotic.

One explanation for Dyson’s contrarian stance is that he sees environmentalists as religionists and their beliefs as faith:

In the June 12, 2008, New York Review of Books, in an essay called “The Question of Global Warming,” Dyson reviews books on that subject by William Nordhaus and Ernesto Zedillo. He writes: “All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth.”

After halfheartedly endorsing this idea of stewardship, Dyson goes on to lament that “the worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists”—have “adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet.”

After noting that Dyson does not profess this faith as his own, Brower confirms that he was raised in it:

Environmentalism does indeed make a very satisfactory kind of religion. It is the faith in which I myself was brought up. In my family, we had no other. My father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Friends of the Earth, could confer no higher praise than “He has the religion.” By this, my father meant that the person in question understood, felt the cause and the imperative of environmentalism in his or her bones.

The tenets go something like this: this living planet is the greatest of miracles. We Homo sapiens, for all the exceptionalism of our species, are part of a terrestrial web of life and are utterly dependent upon it. Nature runs the biosphere much better than we do, as we demonstrate with our ham-handedness each time we try.

This is all quite interesting and speaks to the issue of what constitutes “religion.”  If one added to Brower’s description the idea that the biosphere is somehow sentient, aware, active, and responsive (something along the lines of the Gaia Hypothesis with a supernatural twist), then I would tend more to the religion classification.  This, of course, is why the Vatican declared Avatar to be a dangerous and heretical movie.  I loved it.

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2 thoughts on “The Environmentalism “Religion”

  1. Paul

    I’d agree with Dyson that environmentalism is a religion, albeit one that is arguably good for the viability of the species. But like all religions, it does have its radicals, and – more frighteningly – has a mass following by people who do not understand the scientific foundation upon which it rests. Thus we are left with blind faith, and one that I am beginning to think is no less dangerous than belief in a deity.

    Dyson’s dismissal of the validity of the current global warming models is appropriate, although he makes no attempt to justify his thinking. Why any scientist would assemble a massive set of highly non-linear partial differential equations, supply a set of initial conditions that are speculative (if not bounded with some certainty), extrapolate anthropic variables (population, deforestation, greenhouse gas emission rate, etc..) well into the future with little or no certainty or justification, and expect that the numerical results profess certitude is absurd.

    These champions of “The Truth” should revisit Poincare’s 3-body problem, as just one simple example of a chaotic system and its sensitivity to initial conditions. The biosphere is unimaginably more complex with resources in its defense – and yes, weaknesses, too – that are not contained within global warming models.

    The argument by environmentalists needs to be recast, if not the entire rules of debate. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, should be replaced by “Perturbation of a complex system requires evidence as to its safety”. Given the impossibility of performing a controlled experiment regarding the entire biosphere, our best bet is to limit our disturbance.

    One thing we will see as the years go by as that the models will never be “right”. The right-wing groups will seize upon this uncertainty to delay action in the name of the economy, free-will, what-have-you. Most people understand the need to require double-blind controlled drug studies before disturbing a complex system (the human body), so maybe they could grasp the concept.

    This brand of argument has been championed by Nassim Taleb, who despite his inherent smarminess, actually makes some really good points.

    One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about your blog is your ability to see through the narrative and be skeptical regarding claims that can’t be justified by the evidence. I’ve happily spent a good part of my Saturday reading through the archives. Thanks for posting.

    Please forgive my tangent.

  2. Cris Post author

    I quite appreciate your tangent (and blog compliment). The whole global warming debate has left me in limbo, primarily because I have no inclination to do the heavy reading and thinking necessary to arrive at some conclusion, which of course would be tentative at best. With this in mind, there is much to commend your re-framing of the issues and rules for debate.

    My sense of the situation is based largely on my knowledge of paleoclimates which are so important to all reconstructions of hominin environments. I know for a fact that climate change occurs often, quickly, and is sometimes radical. Against this background of constant and surprising change, I have been a bit skeptical that all the change we allegedly are seeing is human caused. The earth seems quite capable of radical and rapid change on its own, though it appears humans are throwing a wrench or two into what clearly is a non-equilibrium system, with results that we can’t foresee. I am mindful, however, that we probably could not predict climate change even in the absence of human perturbation.

    What a mess. I try not to think about it.

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