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FEBRUARY 2011: Environmentalism has values, practices and a holiday. It also has a foundation in science. Isn't religion something more—and less?

Is Environmentalism a Religion?
An environmentalist's view

I recently saw a clip from an anti-environmentalism DVD series called Resisting the Green Dragon put out by the Cornwall Alliance, a religious right group. Its attack on the environmental movement is so over the top that it is hardly worth mention, but its claim that environmentalism is a kind of religion interests me.

The argument is not a new one and typically takes one of two forms. Either it demonizes environmentalism as a false religion—and a menace to the speaker's own true religion—or it ridicules environmentalism as "just" a religion, unfounded in science or fact. All nastiness aside, could the central assertion be true? Is environmentalism the new religion of our times?

After all, like religion, environmentalism is driven by values, and it has prescriptions for how to maintain those values in the world. For instance, environmentalism prizes biodiversity and prescribes habitat protection, among other things, to maintain it.

Like religion, environmentalism has a culture that includes practices (for example, bringing reusable bags to the store), a literature (including books such as Silent Spring), poets and prophets (John Muir), mantras ("reduce, reuse, recycle") and dietary rules (local, seasonal, organic greens, anyone?). It even has its own holiday—Earth Day.

And like religion, environmentalism has followers. Most are pretty lax, perhaps writing the occasional email to a legislator, buying organic products, using energy-efficient lights or recycling. But a few—the monks of the movement—transform their lives and themselves in accordance with their environmental principles.

Yet there are also profound differences. For one thing, environmentalism is occupied with nature, not the supernatural. And no, it doesn't worship nature. It simply recognizes and respects the fact that if the condition of nature changes too radically, earth may become inhospitable to life. The moon is nature, too, but we can't live on it.

True, some environmentalists feel a sense of the sacred in nature's presence. I know I do. But then, so do some fundamentalists. The majesty, variety and intricacy of the natural world are awe-inspiring, whether you believe they arose over eons through natural processes or in seven days by the hand of God.

Another difference is environmentalism's narrow scope. It has foundational ideas—for example, that the planet consists of a set of intricate and interdependent systems that are themselves interdependent—but its worldview is not comprehensive. The reason and meaning for our existence, creation and other ultimate questions are outside its purview.

The same can be said of environmental ethics; they only address a small slice of our behavior, that which affects the health and survival of living things. Even that is putting it a bit too broadly. Environmentalism is mostly concerned with protecting humans and other living things as populations and species, not as individuals.

Interestingly, there is an aesthetic strain to environmentalism, which descends from the conservation movement that preceded it. In addition to living things and the habitats they rely on, many environmentalists want to preserve landscapes—especially wild ones—for their beauty. (I'm one of them.) They love those landscapes the way some people love art. When a masterpiece of nature is ruined, as when the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was flooded to provide for San Francisco's water supply, they feel it as a tragic loss, the same as some people feel when a great work of art is damaged—Michelangelo's Pieta, for instance.

But mainstream environmentalism is primarily utilitarian, and in this, it differs completely from religion. The only kind of "good" that environmentalism is concerned with is sustaining life. It leaves other kinds of "good" for religion or other belief systems to define and provide for.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, environmentalism is rooted in science and a spirit of inquiry. It says that if you want to know about the way things work in the natural world, you must investigate—and not just any which way, either. A special method—the scientific method—is required to guard against bias, that all-too human tendency to find the results one is looking for in spite of the evidence.

So no, environmentalism is not a religion—neither a true religion, a false religion nor "just" a religion. It is a rational, science-based response to dramatic and deleterious changes to the environment (our home) observed in recent decades—from mass extinction to desertification to climate change. The goal is to identify and document these changes, understand their causes, predict future changes if things continue on the same course, and lessen or avoid future harm (to us) through a variety of practical means.

When it comes to belief, we environmentalists believe that a clean, safe, healthy future is worth working for, fighting for and, if necessary, making some compromises for.

We believe this is in humanity's interest—and, not coincidentally, in the interest of other living things.

Does anyone out there seriously believe something different?

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic


Ice core sampling
ENVIRONMENTAL TRUTHS are based in science not revelation. The evidence for global warming, for instance, comes from research showing global sea level rise, global surface temperature rise, declining Arctic sea ice and glacial retreat, among other things. One interesting piece of evidence comes from a comparison of atmospheric samples in ice cores and recent direct measurements, which shows a dramatic and unparalleled rise in atmospheric CO2 since the Industrial Revolution.

A scientist collects an ice core in the Arctic Ocean, Canada Basin in 2005 in the above photo by Jeremy Potter NOAA/OAR/OER. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce



Roger Bacon
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD is an approach to obtaining reliable knowledge about the world, which was developed over centuries by philosophers and scientists including al-Biruni, Roger Bacon (pictured above), Sir Francis Bacon, Descartes, Sir Isaac Newton and others. The method is not set in stone, but the gist is as follows:

1st, an interesting observation is made that leads to a question.

2nd, an explanation is hypothesized. Generally, the hypothesis is a prediction of sorts. It says, if this explanation is true, then such and such will happen under a specific set of circumstances.

3rd, an experiment to test the hypothesis in a controlled manner is designed and conducted.

Finally, the results are analyzed and the hypothesis is accepted or rejected.

A well-designed experiment can be repeated by other scientists so that the hypothesis can be checked and rechecked.



WHAT IS RELIGION ANYWAY? The first thing I did when I began working on this column was to look online for a good definition of religion that I could compare environmentalism to. What I wanted wasn't a dictionary definition, but a substantive one that would explain what religions as diverse as animism, Christianity and Buddhism have in common. What I found were definitions as varied as the religions themselves and, therefore, useless for my purpose.

Oddly enough, one of my favorites came from About.com's Atheism/Agnosticism section. It lists several traits typical of religions and says the more traits a belief system has, the more like a religion it is. For what it's worth, environmentalism doesn't have many.


Resources


Right Wing Watch
Beware The Green Dragon!

The New Atlantis
Environmentalism as Religion

Grist
Environmentalism as a Religion: How should greens respond?

Religious Tolerance
What Is Religion?

The Washington Post
Modern Environmentalism

How Stuff Works
How the Scientific Method Works



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.