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The Ecological Gospel

David Brower is, by wide agreement, the most influential environmentalist of the past 50 years. In the 1950s and 1960s he pioneered many of the tactics later used by environmentalists to stop the construction of dams, roads, shopping centers, and all manner of projects all over the United States. He was the executive director of the Sierra Club for seventeen years, and later founded another environmental organization, Friends of the Earth.

Brower was also a leading figure in a book by one of the most observant chroniclers of our time, John McPhee. In Encounters with the Archdruid, McPhee wrote in 1971 that “Brower, who talks to groups all over the country about conservation, refers to what he says as The Sermon.” McPhee found that, “to put it mildly, there is something evangelical about Brower. His approach is in some ways analogous to the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham's exhortations to sinners to come forward and be saved now.” Viewing the spread of the environmental movement across the United States, McPhee offered the judgment that Brower's crusade may have been “even more effective” than Graham's.

It was not just the obvious religious enthusiasm of many environmentalists; it was also the substantive content of the environmental message that was a reminder of Billy Graham. Indeed, McPhee observed that “sooner or later in every talk, Brower describes the creation of the world.” But the innocence and harmony of the original creation have given way to our current separation from the natural world--our loss, although Brower did not put it quite this way, of the Garden of Eden. Having fallen from the Garden, we are living in a condition of deep sinfulness. As Brower preached to audiences across the United States, the so-called “progress” of the modern age has not meant the advance of mankind, but has instead plunged human beings into evil ways: “We're hooked” on material things, leading to “grand larceny against our children.” Indeed, for Brower the state of human depravity is so great that human beings are truly a “cancer” on the earth. Brower warns all the sinners of the world that their “addiction” to growth “will destroy us”; there will be a final “last scramble for the last breath of air”--the environmental apocalypse.

A Distinct Calvinist Flavor

In all this there is an obvious biblical quality. It is the story, although now offered in a new secular dress, of human beings created in harmony with the world; tempted into evil; spreading corruption and depravity; and now facing disaster and perhaps the end of the world. There is here a distinctly Calvinist flavor. The sins of mankind are overwhelmingly large; as a founder of Greenpeace, Tom Watson has said, human beings are the “AIDs of the earth.” The roles of reason and natural law are limited; in fact, for many environmentalists it is precisely our attempt to understand nature through rational scientific inquiry that is a prime cause of our current plight. The end of the world is near at hand; the only hope to be saved is a great moral awakening across the land. Given such qualities, it should perhaps not be surprising that in Europe environmentalism has been strongest in Germany, Scandinavia, and England. The environmental gospel is for many the secular substitute for their lost Protestant faith of old.

In the United States, a nation with a strong Calvinist heritage dating back to the Puritan settlement of New England, environmentalism has also been enthusiastically received. Many members of the U.S. environmental movement are candid about its religious inspiration. Writing in The Voice of the Earth, environmentalist Theodore Roszak says that “the emerging world view of our day will have to address questions of a frankly religious character.” The environmental message must include answers to “ethical conduct, moral purpose and the meaning of life,” thereby “seeking to heal the soul of its wounds and guide it to salvation.” Writing on “the ecophilosophers” in the journal of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Peter Borrelli explains that “most bioregionalists believe the trend toward ecological destruction will not be reversed until there is a spiritual awakening.”

One bioregionalist argues that what is needed “is a 'treaty' or spiritual bond between ourselves and the natural world similar to God's covenant with creation after the flood.” It is in the natural world that we find “the ultimate psychic as well as the physical context out of which we emerge into being and by which we are nourished, guided, healed, and fulfilled.” The theme of “protecting the Creation” is found frequently in environmental writings. It is a secular version of the biblical message that God made the world; intended that it should be as it is; and that to alter the world through human action is to try to play the role of God--to commit a great sin for which punishment must eventually be forthcoming.

The End Is Nigh

Indeed, the wide fears of recent years about global warming seem to have more to do with religion than science. The heating of the earth, global warming alarmists tell us, will melt the polar ice caps, raise the seas, and thereby cause widespread flooding. Higher temperatures will parch the land, creating famine. Global warming will alter the normal weather patterns of the earth, bringing on drought. Perhaps it will encourage insects and bacteria, spreading disease. Flooding, famine, drought, pestilence, all are the traditional instruments of a wrathful God imposing a just punishment on a world of many sinners.

Robert M. White, a former chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), observed in an article in Scientific American that “in this final decade of the 20th century, a different kind of apocalypse causes widespread concern.” It is no longer the “hand of God” but “more visible agents: belching smokestacks, gasoline-powered automobiles, power-generating stations, and the voracious destruction of forests.” All this is “turning up the heat on an overburdened environment” and, as our environmental preachers warn, threatening “the very habitability of the planet.” Yet, the truth is, as White writes, that the science of global warming involves great uncertainties; while close attention to future developments is warranted, there is little in climate science to justify the current apocalyptic fears of so many people.

Environmental theology is having a great influence on other aspects of environmental policy. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is a modern version of God's command to Noah to save two of every species. Indeed, the Act provides for a special committee that can convene to issue exemptions from its requirements; this group is commonly referred to in Washington policy circles as the “God committee.”

The more than 90 million acres of wilderness, created by the Congress since 1964, amount to a national set of environmental “cathedrals.” The early American advocate of wilderness, John Muir, wrote that primitive areas were his “temples” and the trees of the forests were “psalm-singing.” He said of the wilderness that “everything in it seems equally divine--one smooth, pure, wild glow of heaven's love.” The Wilderness Society today explains that we must preserve wilderness areas because “destroy them and we destroy our spirit ... destroy them and we destroy our sense of values.”

Natural is Good, UnNatural is Evil

In environmental theology, the traditional Judeo-Christian categories of good and evil have been replaced by “natural” and “unnatural,” a moral standard that is today driving government policies in many areas. The government is requiring industry to spend many billions of dollars in the regulation of pesticides and other “artificial” chemicals that are thought to cause cancer. Yet, as Bruce Ames has explained in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and other publications, human beings are exposed to many more carcinogens that are natural to the chemistry of ordinary foods we eat. In terms of the presence of carcinogens, peanut butter is more dangerous than many chemicals tightly regulated by the government. Environmental organizations have demanded that the government go to heroic lengths to exclude unnatural chemicals from the environment, even while showing relative unconcern about other larger dangers, as long as they are “natural.” The risks created by naturally occurring radon may be greater than the risks of nuclear power, but have never been much of a priority on the environmental agenda.

This theological logic is illustrated by a policy followed by the National Park Service for many years in Yellowstone National Park. Under guidelines adopted in the 1960s to promote “natural” conditions in parks throughout the United States, mountain goats entering Yellowstone from the west side have been protected by Park authorities. However, goats entering from the northeast or the south side have been slated for destruction.

In either case, it would be the same goat species whose members would have the same biological impact on Yellowstone. The difference was that the west side goats were deemed a “natural” population, while the northeastern and southern goats had been introduced outside the Park some years ago by hunters. Hence, one group of goats was “natural” and thus desirable; the other group was “unnatural” and an unwanted presence.

Paying a High Price

Most Americans favor strong environmental policies to clean the air, improve drinking water, reduce cancer, and achieve other important goals. However, they do not find it useful to distinguish between cancer that is caused by a “natural” substance and cancer attributable to an “unnatural” agent. They do not think that Yellowstone Park should be severely damaged by excess numbers of elk, as is now happening, because elk are deemed “natural,” but at the same time some mountain goats can be removed because they are deemed “unnatural.” They do not think that government policies towards global warming should be driven by the apocalyptic fears of many people that divine punishment for the sinfulness of the current age must be forthcoming.

I do not mean to suggest that there is not a wide range of views--theological and otherwise--within the environmental movement. Some environmentalists are motivated largely by traditional scientific considerations. There are probably several basic varieties of environmental religion. Some environmental faiths are more pagan and pantheistic than they are secularizations of biblical themes.

Yet, the policy examples above are only a few of many that could be developed of how our current environmental policies often are not shaped by pragmatic concerns of how to improve human welfare. Instead, these policies follow a logic grounded in an environmental theology.

For the majority of Americans who simply want a clean and attractive environment, they are paying a high price--many tens of billions of dollars--for their current willingness to leave much of environmental policy making to those people who see it as a religious crusade.