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.