Acton Commentary

Gaia's Vengeance: The Caustic Cliché of Environmentalism


Most of the religious right has correctly distanced itself from groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church. Christianity is not about hate and the group's actions at prominent memorials and other events only advance America's secularization. Spreading the falsehood that a mass shooting or the lives claimed by a natural disaster was the price to pay for a sin of society is as vile as it is blasphemous.

However, there is a similar argument made by members of the left that is not rejected nearly as forcefully. In many works of fiction, it is common for humanity to be punished by some personification of nature for humanity's pollution, overpopulation, or other various “sins” against the earth. As the Westboro Baptist Church celebrates the punishment of society for its sins, environmentalists sometimes celebrate the idea that a pagan personification of nature will one day punish humanity for polluting.

This only makes sense, unfortunately, given the worldview that undergirds much environmentalism. As Robert H. Nelson of the University of Maryland has pointed out many times, environmentalism has, from its inception, many characteristics of a religion – only it is allowed to be taught in public schools. “Even without realizing it, environmentalism is recasting ancient biblical messages to a new secular vocabulary,” Nelson writes. Any negative impact on the environment, even if it has long run overall benefits for human beings, is a sin against nature. In Nelson's words in a 1998 Forbes article, environmentalism is “Calvinism Minus God.” To square this with the human desire for cosmic justice, perhaps it is no wonder that secular environmentalists fantasize about punishing polluters and other environmental sinners with a pagan deity.

TV Tropes, a Wikipedia-style website, catalogs many clichés of fiction, including this, which the site calls “Gaia's Vengeance.” Some variation on this theme can be found in major Hollywood movies like The Happening, The Day After Tomorrow, and Avatar. To take a specific example, Kid Icarus: Uprising, a 2012 Nintendo 3DS video game that has sold over a million copies worldwide, features a genocidal maniac of a nature goddess whom the player-protagonist must protect humanity from even while quipping, “I have to admit, she has a valid point.”

It's this type of attitude that makes it appear that many activists, rather than recoiling from the global warming that they see as inevitable, instead welcome its onset as a day of reckoning for the prideful men who dare emit carbon into the atmosphere. If global warming ends up never causing serious problems for human beings, it would be as if a murderer was acquitted, not the release of a collective burden.

Is that a straw man? You tell me. James Wolcott of Vanity Fair once wrote, “I root for hurricanes. When courtesy of the Weather Channel, I see one forming in the ocean off the coast of Africa, I find myself longing for it to become big and strong – Mother Nature's fist of fury, Gaia's stern rebuke. Considering the havoc mankind has wreaked upon nature with deforesting, strip-mining, and the destruction of animal habitat, it only seems fair that nature get some of its own back and teach us that there are forces greater than our own.”

Neither is this attitude always cheap talk. John Linley Frazier in 1970 made Gaia's Vengeance his explicit rationale when murdering five. He who fails to worship nature shall die, was his credo.

Not nearly enough is made of this. Denouncing the Westboro Baptist Church for its hateful celebrations of death supposedly caused by a greater power is standard practice for Facebook feeds and water coolers. Why don't we bat an eye when extremist environmentalists express their hope that a pagan god will smite SUV owners?

Of course, most – thought not all – environmentalists do not believe in the literal Gaia. But why is the trope of a vindictive Gaia so prevalent in modern culture? Is it to be accepted simply because it is thought of as a fantasy instead of the belief in an actual divine judgment? Would the Westboro Baptist Church be justified if it claimed they only fantasize about disasters befalling modern society instead of actually believing them to be God's will? It shouldn't be too much for the modern “liberal” society to be consistent about whom it denounces for celebrating atrocities.