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Roberts sensibly calls for a number of policy steps, including a focus on carbon capture and disposal technologies, energy efficiency, carbon taxation and similar market incentives, and vastly expanded international energy cooperation. Readers will learn about the implications of these policy options -- carbon taxation, for instance, would create demand for carbon-free energy technologies -- as well as the challenges of implementing them. No single technology offers a panacea, and Roberts is right to say that we should avoid "the tendency to back a single technological horse." Vaclav Smil would certainly agree.

By the same token, we need to avoid what Roberts calls "the impulse to ostracize technologies out of hand." "Hair shirt" economics -- cutting back on living standards in order to stretch our oil supply -- is both politically and scientifically naive, not to mention technologically unnecessary. The global population is expected to reach nine billion by midcentury, and consumption patterns from food to housing to transportation will be significantly more energy-intensive than those of the twentieth century. There is no turning back the clock. Meeting these new needs and expectations will require sophisticated energy innovations.

So where do we go from here? An overhaul of the global energy system must be a multilateral undertaking; we will need global cooperation in curbing greenhouse gases and in developing alternatives to petroleum. Unilateral measures by the United States or other major energy consumers will not suffice. For example, the Bush administration's hostility to the Kyoto Protocol (flawed though it is) is highly destructive to the multilateral approaches that will be needed.

Any real solution is going to require long-term thinking, planning, and financing. In addition, the nongovernmental sector -- including scientists, corporations, and environmental groups -- will have to play a sustained leadership role if we expect governments to reach lasting international agreements. Waiting for Washington to take the lead will be like waiting for Godot.

In the flood of new books about the remaking of the global energy system, we still await a new grand synthesis akin to Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 masterpiece, The Prize, which provided an epic history of oil up to the beginning of the 1990s. In the meantime, Vaclav Smil's scholarly insights and Paul Roberts's lively and accessible narrative both help illuminate the complex and critical set of challenges that lie before us.

Environmentalism as Religious Quest
by Thomas R. Dunlap
University of Washington Press, 206 pp., $24.95

Faith in Nature

NAs a political and social reform movement, environmentalism has stalled. Since the 1970s, environmental regulations, policies, and ideas have addressed some sources of ecological degradation and loss, but, argues Thomas R. Dunlap, environmentalism has yet to transform American society. To foster deeper change, says Dunlap, a distinguished historian of science, the movement needs to rethink its premises. American environmentalists are so committed to science as "the only acceptable source of understanding" that they have lost sight of the movement's roots in emotional, spiritual, and moral connections to nature.

Dunlap, a devout Catholic, suggests that environmentalists jettison their discomfort with religious belief and religious questioning and acknowledge their environmentalism for what it truly is -- a faith, a passion, a religious perspective, a way to ask big questions about the human relationship to the universe. Environmentalists love and worship nature, and seek meanings within it beyond those that science can provide. If they would only acknowledge this, the movement might harness its true power through a fusion of science and spirit, reason and reverence.

Dunlap points out that environmentalism has deep roots in American Protestantism, replete with ideas of a fallen paradise, sin, conversion, self-abnegation, and salvation. Its long tradition of jeremiads predicts doom and calls sinners to repent and reform. It exalts solitary pilgrimage to sacred space, the wilderness. Environmentalism has, as well, a pantheon of prophets and saints: Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, Carson, Snyder, Berry, and above all Aldo Leopold. It has a core set of beliefs, articulated most powerfully in Leopold's land ethic. It demands humility and the discipline of daily practice through recycling, gardening, energy conservation, green consumption, and proper wilderness travel. And it has a righteous passion, evident in the writings of its prophets and the fervent activism of committed believers.

This environmentalism grew from two distinct traditions that often stand opposed to each other: a Romantic embrace of nature, and an Enlightenment-based belief in rational, objective knowledge of natural systems. American nature writers and environmental thinkers have negotiated the tension between the two traditions for more than a century, and much of this book is a concise review of those writers' attempts to synthesize reason and faith, science and feeling. Their works are a major source of the environmental movement's strength. However, Dunlap argues that this fruitful and ongoing struggle for synthesis is weakened by modern environmentalism's overreliance on objective knowledge of nature. Statistics and case studies are all well and good, but environmentalists must cast off "the armor of 'reason' and 'data' " and engage their opponents, and Americans in general, on a more fundamental level.

Dunlap thus asserts that environmentalism as religious quest might stand a better chance in the broader battle against that other secular religion: the American faith in individualism, free markets, the conquest of nature, and the endless material progress of a chosen people. A debate between two sets of true believers -- environmentalists versus free-market nature-conquerors -- would at least be a fair fight, both sides stripped of any claim to a single objective, scientific truth. It would push environmentalists to confront the historical roots of their own beliefs, to create new alliances with conventional religions, and to learn from the long history of debate between science and religion. Perhaps then, Dunlap suggests, environmentalism could settle in for the long haul.
-- Kathryn Morse

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Kathryn Morse teaches environmental history at Middlebury College and is the author of The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush.

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council