For some critics of the environmental movement, too many environmentalists behave as though they were adherents of a religious belief system. For the critics too many supporters of the environmental cause are intolerant of those who do not share their own views (Stop oil) and who do not agree with their prescriptions of how people should change their behaviour (there is no alternative). We see the same behaviour among religious fundamentalists who similarly believe that there is only one truth and only one way to live. Self-righteousness accompanies this fundamentalism and intolerance. Those who deny the religious truth are condemned to a fiery hell in the next world; those who deny the environmentalist call to change their behaviour will find themselves in hell on earth.
This perception of the critics of the environmentalist movement is, of course, a great exaggeration. Religious fundamentalists represent only a proportion of those who hold religious beliefs. Similarly, environmental fundamentalists represent only a proportion of those concerned about the health of the environment and of those who support measures to adapt to and mitigate adverse trends. Nevertheless, there are other cross connections between environmentalist beliefs and religious beliefs.
One cross connection lies in the mythology of belief. In the Abrahamic mythology humans inhabited a paradise on earth, a ‘garden of Eden’. Humans lived in harmony and balance with their surroundings. Human behaviour destroyed this paradise. Environmentalists also point to an earlier time before human activities provoked a rise in carbon emissions as a time when human activity and nature was in balance. The balance has also been destroyed by human behaviour, by both greed and negligence.
There is of course a difference in these two accounts - between myth and the evidence of the historical record. What they share however is possibly more important: the perception of the inherent flaws in human nature. In the one case the remedy lies in following the commandments of the divine; in the other case, in following the commandments of environmentally minded governments.
The female god
The Abrahamic belief systems are patriarchal. The mother/virgin figure of Mary in the Christian tradition is the main reference to earlier beliefs that equated the divine with the feminine. Patriarchy as an image of the divine and, in particular, as a model of social organisation on earth, is losing its resonance in much of the modern world. A belief in environmentalism can be seen as a way of reinstating the feminine. Gaia theory where the planet is seen as unifying a complex interaction and feedback of different biological, chemical and physical systems can be viewed as appealing to this resurgence of the feminine and the image of Mother Earth.
The image of Mother Earth is not just as a source of fecundity and plenty but is also an image of power if transgressed. Gaia theory comes in many forms and has its roots in science. However, versions that hold that the planet is self-regulating and will remedy abuse, ties in with the role of Greek goddesses. Gaia takes revenge on Uranus; Hera takes revenge on Zeus. The moral is clear. If humans abuse the environment there will be a terrible and unavoidable cost to pay including possibly the extinction of humankind.
The image of the saviour is integral to Judeo-Christian belief. It is an attractive image for environmentalists too. Their actions to save the environment combat the attitudes of those who ignore climate change and the human contribution to it; they combat also those who recognise the problem but cannot change their behaviour. It is an image of compassion. Actions taken by environmentalists that people may not support are really for their own good.
There is of course a fundamental difference between environmentalism and religious belief. It centres on claims to know. In today’s world when we claim to ‘know’ something we either appeal to knowledge based on practical experience or to knowledge based on the observations and findings of the natural and social sciences. The claims need to be supported by testing and by a record of reasonable predictive success. Environmentalists appeal to scientific knowledge when they claim that human causation propels climate change and they appeal to the predictions of science when they claim that we need to take steps to reduce carbon emissions in order to address global warming before it is too late. Religious knowledge is of a different sort. Traditionally it appeals to revelation and to the interpretations of those revelations by priestly experts. It may also simply involve an acceptance that not all forms of knowledge are accessible to us. In early medieval Europe, scientific knowledge was inaccessible.
The claim of environmentalists to know according to scientific norms have to be treated with a degree of caution. Scientists are not free of their own biases, their motivation is not necessarily one of disinterested inquiry, and they are subject to intellectual capture by theories that seem compelling at the time but are later superseded by a newer theory. Predictions are notoriously subject to error. There has to be room left for reasonable doubt and for the arrival of new and more complete explanations.
Allowing for reasonable doubt does not mean that no action is required. Action can be justified to prevent large or irreversible losses, particularly where the costs of remedial action are manageable. But where the possibility of reasonable doubt is not admitted in weighing the costs of action then we move back onto the grounds of belief.
For some environmentalists the connection between religious belief and environmentalism is openly acknowledged. A concern for the environment and the need to address the negative human impact can be justified according to religious and ethical norms. They motivated environmental concerns before the claims of scientific support. But the different bases for concern are not always made clear and transparent. The relationship between knowledge and belief among environmentalists is probably closer than we care to admit. It is important to be clear because, otherwise, belief can close down the scientific need for reasonable doubt and the need for continuing independent testing of predictive models.