By: Stan Guthrie|Published: October 1, 2009 3:55 PM
Environmentalism as Secular Religion (Priorities)
For as long as I can remember, I have had a recurring vision. It comes in different guises during the night watches, but it is the same dream.
I am surrounded by a place of awesome natural beauty—usually walking alongside an ocean with roaring, crystal clear waves that are impossibly majestic, or climbing a frighteningly high, verdant mountain, breathing in celestial oxygen that sharpens all my senses. Then I awaken in the fallen world that is, left only with my longing to return to an Eden just beyond the edge of my sight, hearing fading echoes of a lost symphony.
Such longings, I surmise, are common to humanity, hints that our purpose lies outside the natural laws and limitations that circumscribe so much of our existence. G.K. Chesterton said that his response, even before his conversion, was an almost religious impulse of gratitude:
I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
I am not the first to see this religious impulse expressed in the modern environmental movement, which is an understandable attempt to preserve the only habitat we have ever known. And while Christians have lately jumped onto the green bandwagon, environmentalism is at heart a secular grasp at transcendence. “Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists,” author Michael Crichton said. “If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.”
Like other religions but without their confining moral codes, environmentalism has its own scriptures, such as Earth in the Balance and An Inconvenient Truth; its own vision of heaven—a wind-powered world in which everything is green; its own version of hell—a planet destroyed by man-caused global warming; its own demands of devotees—driving hybrids, recycling, using compact fluorescent bulbs, etc.; and its own prophets of doom calling for repentance—“Rising sea levels threaten every coastline,” President Obama warned at the recent Climate Change Summit at the United Nations. “More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent. More frequent droughts and crop failures breed hunger and conflict in places where hunger and conflict already thrive.”
The green movement, by and large, seeks an Eden without God.
This would not be the first time, of course, that an “ism” sought to supplant Christianity. Marxism-Leninism presented itself as an all-encompassing explanation of mankind, God, the meaning of life, and the way of salvation. While its answers about the nature and worth of human beings were ultimately wrong, communism at least had the fundamental equality of human beings right—a holdover doctrine from the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
Environmentalism, in its zeal to save us from our naturally rapacious selves, also gets it partly right: The present world is not simply a cluster of resources to be consumed, but a precious inheritance to pass on.
This is a persistent theme in the Scriptures as well. As the National Association of Evangelicals document, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” states: “We affirm that God-given dominion [over the earth] is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to exploit or abuse the creation of which we are a part. We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to watch over and care for it.”
However, like communism, mainstream environmentalism gets its anthropology wrong, as demonstrated by the words of acclaimed naturalist John Muir in the new PBS series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. “Going to the woods is going home,” Muir wrote in The Atlantic a century ago, “for I suppose we came from the woods originally.”
Muir, for all his brilliance, supposed wrong. The Bible says we came from a garden and are headed for a city. Wild nature, whatever our proclivities toward brutishness, is neither our origin nor our destination. Nature (or, more properly, creation) is meant to be both enjoyed and, under God, developed. Adam and Eve were told not to frolic in the woods but to tend the garden. It was a high calling—one that remains.
Part of tending the garden, as opposed to letting nature run wild, is making choices. The current fixation on “saving the earth” attempts to do so at the expense of its human inhabitants. Crichton said that environmentalism has killed 10 to 30 million people since the 1970s. Other lives hang in the balance even now.
According to political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, it would cost $150 billion annually to comply with the Kyoto carbon restrictions for a relatively minor environmental benefit, noting that for only $27 billion “we could prevent 28 million people from getting HIV.” Lomborg told the Wall Street Journal that spending to prevent global warming is a highly inefficient exercise: Every $1 spent to prevent HIV/AIDS would produce around $40 of social benefits, while $1 for “climate change” would result in just 2 to 25 cents worth of good.
So will the environmental activists ever awaken from their secular religion? I can dream, can’t I?
Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or Prison Fellowship. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.