Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Holy War Over the Environment
“I believe the purpose of life is to glorify God, and we can’t do that if we’re heaping contempt on the creation.” So said Al Gore in his testimony last week before Congress.
On NPR this past Sunday, Richard Cizik, the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had this to say: “Supposing we allow coal burning utility plants to emit mercury into our air that’s then absorbed by fishes, and taken in by women, pregnant, who then transmit that, let’s call it that toxin, to their unborn babies. Isn’t that a sanctity of human life issue? Absolutely. Evangelicals know this. And thus we have to be speaking out about the impacts of our environmental degradation, as much as we need to be speaking out about the degradation of the taking of human unborn life.”
Is the ‘global warming: yes or no?’ debate, played out for decades in a debate over science, giving way to a holy war over the environment?
For many years, environmental debates in this country have been framed predominantly in scientific terms. Are humans responsible for ozone depletion? How much of a threat does mercury from coal-fired power plants pose? Is global warming happening and are we to blame? That’s not to say that other concerns, such as morality, fairness, and intergenerational equity, have not played a role. But science has dominated the terms of the debate. Now we may be witnessing the beginnings of shift toward values-based debate on these issues at the expense of science-based debate.
To the extent that environmentalists succumb to feelings of rapture over this turn of events — and their new-found evangelical allies in particular — they may be doing so at their peril. A values debate, particularly one focused on religious values, is likely to be much more caustic than a scientific one. So don't be lulled by the nice nice now being made between environmentalists and evangelicals.
Witness the well-reported split over global warming between the National Association of Evangelicals, and conservative evangelicals such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family. On the surface, it has centered on the usual question: ‘global warming: yes or no?’ But it has really been a more fundamental argument over religious values. This argument has in turn brought to the surface ideas that environmentalists — and environmental journalists in their coverage — could find much more difficult to deal with.
For Dobson and his contingent, global warming is just one battle in a larger holy war they are fighting against both the materialist philosophy of science (the idea that everything we observe is the result of material interactions), and New Age environmental spiritualism that worships nature itself. In both cases, they see themselves as waging a battle against the idea that humans are nothing special and responsible for the degradation of creation.
"I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these 'earthism' worshippers," Jerry Falwell told his congregants in a sermon on Feb. 25 at his Lynchburg, Va., church.
Environmentalists who claim that humans are responsible for environmental degradation are advancing a “one-sided and unbiblical view of human nature,” states a joint paper of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. “Humans are seen merely as consumers and polluters of the Earth. The Bible describes human
beings as fallen along with the rest of creation, yes; but it still describes us as image-bearers of God, who can exercise dominion, produce wealth, and cultivate creation. The Bible claims that the Earth was shaped by a benevolent Creator to be the habitat that sustains and enriches human life even as humans sustain and enrich the Earth through our creativity and industry.”
The position paper acknowledges that humans cannot be fruitful and multiply forever, because the surface of the Earth is finite. But it says that we’ve not come even close to reaching those limits, and that God, through the bible, commands us to expand our numbers, and in this way improve his creation. This is what stewardship is really about — resisting abortion and expanding our population so as to exert our dominion over the Earth.
In the end, these folks believe that evangelicals like Richard Cizik have thrown in with the enemy. They are unwittingly helping to advance a Godless, materialist philosophy that demotes human beings to a status no greater than bacteria, and as a result sees no problem with killing the unborn in the name of population control. And all this, they believe, to preserve the environmentalists’ Gaian god.
Actually, there is something to the idea that environmentalism often takes on qualities of religion. As much as I hate to admit it, Michael Crichton made a convincing case for this in a speech he gave in 2003. “Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism . . . There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.”
That judgment day has been dramatically articulated by folks like James Howard Kunstler, author of the ”The Long Emergency”. No religionist is he. But in his scathing, puritanical language (see his bloglike diary: ”The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle”) he demonstrates that he is as convinced of the coming Apocalypse as Jerry Falwell.
On the other side of the holy war, those who see the quasi-religion of environmentalism as a direct threat to their own spiritual beliefs are girded for battle. Go to Environmentalism.com and you will find this: “Environmentalism is not about a desire to have cleaner water and air. It is now a full-fledged religion, and its main tenet is ‘raw nature’ as god-like, and Mankind as a plague infecting it. If you support environmentalism, the fact is that you're supporting an idealogy [sic] that promotes the destruction of Mankind - and concretely, that includes yourself and everyone you care about.”
Sometimes, the rage positively boils over. Last year, University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka received death threats after he delivered a speech to the Texas Academy of Sciences, where he received the TAS 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist award. In his speech, Pianka made his long-standing case that humans have overpopulated the earth, and that sooner or later our population is going to crash, reducing our numbers by 90 percent, possibly because of a virulent contagion such as airborne Ebola. Forrest M. Mims III, a well-known anti-evolutionist, wrote an account of the speech in which he said that Pianka had actually issued a “call for mass death” — that, in fact, the ecologist actually advocates deliberate genocide through biological warfare.
Pianka says he did no such thing — that he simply was describing what he believes will happen if we do not control our population.
I would like to hope that thoughtful secularists and creation-care evangelicals will continue to find common cause and prevent extremists from recasting the issue as a holy war over the environment. But I don’t have my hopes up. And if you have enjoyed the debate over evolution versus creationism and intelligent design, you’re going to love this new holy war over the environment.