Firstly, I should make clear that I am and always have been what was once known as a “conservationist.” I love and stand in awe of nature and the natural world, in both a aesthetic and scientific sense. I am a firm and unwavering proponent in uncoerced free market contractual economic relations within an environment governed by the rule of law, but also believe strongly in cleaning up the pollution and or environmental degradation that may be created by human industrial activities, and that “capitalism” provides the only means of wealth creation and technological innovation adequate to that task. I do not believe in mindless or unconcerned pollution beyond what in any given era will be the natural and unavoidable (for awhile) externalities imposed on the environment at a given level of technological development by the requirements of economic growth and spread of general affluence and rising living standards (including longer and healthier lives and far greater scope for human and individual development and potential across many dimensions of the mortal experience).
I am perfectly at home with rational, scientifically justifiable, economically feasible, and civilizationally sustainable mitigation of real, definable, empirically discernible environmental problems with proper cost/benefit analysis, an understanding of where real improvement ends and diminishing returns for ever vaster outlays of money for ever tinier gains in environmental quality begin, and the point at which environmental concerns displace concern for human health and well-being and corrode or even deeply threaten the standards of living and wealth creation – the only actual ultimate answer to poverty in the mortal sphere – necessary to both human flourishing and environmental quality, and remove to a fearful degree the last shimmering limitations on the size, scope, powers, and prerogatives of the state necessary to the preservation of our constitutional liberties and inalienable rights.
I stand and have often stood in unspeakable awe of the wonders and beauty of God’s creation as well as in contemplation of our stewardship over it, including the command to subdue – to control, channel, tame, domesticate, modify, and manipulate – nature for our benefit, well-being, health, and temporal progress and security as mortal beings. I stand in awe and, like the tiny human figures in ancient Chinese landscape paintings, in humble awareness of the incomprehensible size, extent, powers and numbing complexity of the works of God’s hands.
I look on in awe, yes, but I do not romanticize nature, nor do I see nature and the natural world as sacred (though “good” in a scriptural and surely cosmic and eternal sense), and in this we come to the crux of this essay. Nature can often seem like an Edenic garden (including in our own backyards) and yet, it is equally a “howling wilderness” that is “red in tooth and claw” and which, in a moment, can kill as well as provide sustenance and life, and contains, all around us, at all times, the most hideous cruelties and horrors, and lurks in the depths of the earth or ocean with forces that may suddenly burst forth in a spasm of cataclysmic destruction.
The gospel of Jesus Christ requires us to look at the natural world through a gospel prism, which means, while finding joy, inspiration, and intellectual fascination in nature, approaching it in a philosophically and scientifically balanced and realistic way, as well as a way that avoids one of the fundamental human tendencies of God’s children from time immemorial, most prevalent when a people lose or reject the gospel but still retain the impetus and desire to worship and find meaning beyond the pervasively mundane and trivial, and that is to spiritualize nature and seek an identification with it that is unhealthy and potentially disastrous in a spiritual, intellectual, and psychological sense.
Modern environmentalism emerged from the incandescent foment and upheaval of the late 1960s and transitioned to its mature developmental phase with the first Earth Day in 1970, a milestone of America’s and the West’s roiling cultural revolution for multiple reasons, not the least of which was that environmentalism provided both an extension of and, perhaps unforeseen at the time, a rolling away of the stone from the tomb of Marxism and utopian collectivism that was exposed for what it was (as many had long known) as the Berlin Wall was dismantled by its prisoners but the salient ideas of which continued to hold sway to an astonishing extent within American and Western academia, within the major American foundations, and to an equally astonishing degree, within the mainstream print and electronic news media.
Modern environmentalism (or the “green” movement) provides, less the quasi-religious mythopoeic narrative and grand historical and epistemic sweep of Marxism in its various forms, an alternative religious vision and commitment that provides an all-encompassing narrative of the human condition, a cultus of worship, and a god – the earth and nature itself – that can be worshiped and venerated but which can also, unlike traditional gods, be destroyed by its worshipers; the religion of the natural world in which humankind plays the serpent offering the apple representing the taming and subduing of the earth – the human “footprint” – and all that that flows from it: affluence, prosperity, technological control of nature to increase human felicity and standards of living, and economic inequality (the natural concomitant of agency combined with liberty in the economic realm, as in all other realms), a node at which environmentalism absorbs and recasts Marxism and neo-Marxism as eco-socialism or socialism as an ecological imperative.
In another sense, however, environmentalism, understood as a kind of militant gnostic neo-pantheism grafted to radical politics, is an integral part of the cultural shifts of the late sixties and early seventies in that a critical aspect of that shift was a severe and dogmatic hostility to traditional religion from within the broad Judeo-Christian tradition and an explosion of interest in forms of “alternative spirituality” including fascination with Eastern religion and philosophy, often in eclectic form, as well as ancient pagan nature religions of various kinds (again mostly in eclectic form) and a growing romantic fascination with the primitive. Baby boomers, seeking “spirituality” without the traditional disciplines and refining sacrifices associated with the cultivation of the spiritual for thousands of years and/or grasping for passive, effortless spirituality (through LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs) equally without what could with any seriousness be termed discipleship, or a process of the cultivation and training of the will, desires, and mind, landed upon environmentalism as both the “consuming fire” of Paul’s characterization of complete conversion to the gospel and as a religious commitment that demands little from its devotees save, as is so often the case on the Left, symbolic expressions of values, ideology, and solidarity with others of similar perspectives as found in rallies, marches, concerts, and candle light vigils.
There are no Abrahamic challenges here, and except for the periodic fund raising letter and donations to the cause, no ascetic practices, sacrifices of the baser passions, or “remaining unspotted from the world” to disturb one’s “lifestyle.” What there is is a messianic, all-encompassing world-historical cause (in concert with glittering celebrities and eminent academics who tell us it is) within which to lose oneself and experience absorption in a movement and universe of meaning larger than the self-contained, transcendently autonomous island ego that was the subject of so much theoretical excrescence in that era and which has continued, in ever more amplified and strident forms, to the present. One can become, within environmental religion, as much or more so then within the cult of utopian egalitarianism, a messiah, and savior, and an anointed moral Atlas holding the fate of the planet within one’s hands and carrying the moral weight of humanity upon one’s shoulders.
When God is abandoned, and serious religion (religion, in other words, that asks much from the individual in the way of refinement and cultivation, but does not seek such vicariously in the externalization of religious disciplines in the coercive manipulation of others not of one’s faith through political pressure and legal mailed fists) is ignored in the perennial quest for self – not in relation to God but in relation only to that self as a subject of solipsistic reverie – it follows from this that self, and self in relation only to the narrow bandwidth of reality we term “mortality” that impinges on us between birth and death, becomes the fundamental focus of the innate need and desire to worship and immerse ourselves in something greater than self, which, ironically then, becomes that very something.
Modern progressivism, in forging the self as that very focus of worship and immersion in a transcendent cause or purpose, has given modernity its particular cast as a time of radical self-absorption imbued, at the same time, with an overwhelming desire to mold, shape, restructure, reconstruct, and reimagine all of human society and human relationships in harmony with this vision of the self at the root of progressive or leftist philosophy.
These movements, of which modern environmentalism is a critical one, are messianic because the radically autonomous self has become, to use again that much overused ancient maxim, “the measure of all things.” Being the measure of all things, the modern progressive self can be a messiah because messiahship is self-constructed and self-referential, as are all values, morality, and ethical concepts. The modern messiah-self finds itself in a world of strict limitations, contingencies, injustices, suffering, and imperfections, and determines to right them that this messiah-self may both perceive itself as a messiah-self, but also that it may, as an integral aspect of its self-anointed messiahship, dispense justice, judgment, and righteous indignation upon those who are at the seat of the limitations, injustices, and suffering that it sees about it.
If there is no God, in the traditional and, specifically, Judeo-Christian sense, then humans themselves must take up the torch and the scepter from Nietzsche’s dead god and Marx’ opiate; they must become what they have rejected to avoid the abyss of pure nihilism (also a going concern among those who have accepted the progressive vision, but who have not found, like the postmodernists, any new metanarrative to replace the old, and would prefer not to).
Modern environmentalism is one of two central catechistic structures of the modern great and abominable “church” of the Adversary in the latter or last days, a “church” because, although for us, it comprises a plethora of movements, organizations, philosophies, and beliefs about the world, all centered in, to one degree or another, moving human beings away from Christ and the truths of his gospel (wherever they may be found), when in concentrated form, they are religious in the sense that they form to core or nucleus of an individual’s fundamental worldview, and when organized and systematized, they become religious doctrines and commitments that form the central organizing principles of the lives of their adherents.
Environmentalism is two things, among other peripheral aspects of this general movement: (1) a kind of militant fundamentalist neo-pantheism and (2) the pouring of the old wine of the grand revolutionary socialist dream of a “better world” into new, green bottles.
The central religious vision of this “church;” a “pristine” natural world in which “pure” air, water, soil, and other elements exist in “harmony” and “balance” with the biosphere and with the cosmos, but which is then “disrupted,” distorted, corrupted, and progressively destroyed by the presence of humans and their central original sin: technological progress and the search for higher living standards above bare subsistence (i.e., in modern parlance, capitalism and all its antecedents) is the vision now accepted and promoted by the Left across the entire spectrum of its various sects and sub-sects, and forms the basis for all its calls (primarily through the medium of its primary call to repentance and penance, anthropogenic global warming, second only perhaps to its perennial preoccupation with population control and abortion) for a thorough transformation of all human systems, political, cultural, educational, and religious in the name of “saving the planet” the modern secular gnostic equivalent of the biblical injunction to save oneself through acceptance of God, and then to convert others through persuasion and example. Human messiahs facing the end of the world in a world without God, however, are on their own in a vast, cold, meaningless cosmos and therefore have little patience – and no faith – in the benevolence and condescension of an all-loving and merciful (and omniscient) being who will not let everything simply end in an all-enveloping and generalized disaster, and hence, have little patience with alternative or contrary views – or with freedom, liberty, or inalienable rights. The stakes, after all, are too high.
“The planet” has now become, for many, a surrogate god and object of worship, and nature itself a sacred and transcendent state, process, and idea, in which “pristine” and “fragile” things exist “connected to everything else” in a “web of life” that is pure, sacral, and eternally static, stable, and unchanging. Human “interference” in this state of things represents an intolerable “rape” of the natural world, in which the most egregious sins are committed if, due to human influence, one blade of grass now grows where two were before, forest floors are cleaned up of dry tinder and underbrush to help prevent devastating forest fires, or if a town exists where once there was a malarial swamp.
The earth itself may be conceived of as in some sense a living being (and no, the church does not teach this as a matter of established doctrine) that is under constant assault and violation by human beings (often conceived of as a virus, bacterium, or disease pathology) who do not live “lightly” enough on “her” (this being is always conceived of in feminine, earth goddess-like terms, with the ancient Greek goddess Gaia being common as a metaphor or symbolic reference) and who’s very ability and desire to improve their temporal conditions and live in material comfort (with all that implies) is the very definition of “sin” to a people who have otherwise abandoned that idea entirely.
Utopian egalitarian collectivism in various forms (socialism, communism, commuitarianism etc., or whatever else one wishes to term it) is deeply integrated with environmentalism either as a core feature of a “sustainable” world or as a hidden agenda buried under the rhetorical and philosophical frosting of planetary catastrophe brought about by man’s original sin, free-market economic relations and the desire to create wealth from bare scarcity, and the other sins closely related to it: individualism, unalienable individual rights and liberties; the family, traditional religion (which seeks to tame, domesticate and subdue – alter, manage, and control nature and natural principle of the earth for human benefit (and survival) the earth – and limited government, perhaps the core complaint of the entire Left regarding the nature of classical liberalism.
The reinforcing desires to create a world government of some sort capable of the governance of all the world’s people and of planning the economies and social systems of billions of human beings, including the temporal standards they will be allowed to achieve, down to the smallest details of human life and choice) and to deindustrialize (primarily though the decarbonization – the effective dismantling of virtually the entire modern industrial economy of the Western world while, through various mechanisms, preventing the Global South from phasing into that realm) America and the West in the name of “sustainable growth” or of a static, socialized, non-growth oriented economy (combined with vigorous family planning and “population stabilization” goals), is at the very heart of the “green” vision of humanity and humanity’s future.
Of all the sects and cults within the great church, this one, the green church – the green and spacious building – the gnosis of the earth and that it is not (to paraphrase an old and well-worn environmentalist bromide) the earth that belongs to us, but we who belong to the earth, poses, in my view, the gravest threat to humanity and human felicity we perhaps have ever seen, and which too will pass, but not without the dire consequences of its passing.
We live, indeed, in perilous times.