More than a decade ago, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield noted that “environmentlaism is school prayer for liberals.” The scientist Freeman Dyson would not, I’d wager, agree with Harvey Mansfield about much, but he recognizes Mansfield’s point about the nature of environmentalism: “There is a worldwide secular religion,” Dyson wrote in a recent review about the “global warming” (my scare quotes),
which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.
Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.
Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.
There is a lot to conjure with in those paragraphs from the conclusion of Dyson’s review essay. My own view is that 1) Dyson is right that environmentalism really is a secular religion, more particularly a species of paganism but 2) that the “moral high ground” he identifies is an illusory elevation achieved by a gaseous mixture of self-righteousness and political correctness. Yes, waste is bad; yes, we are stewards not only of the earth, but also of civilization, and it is incumbent upon us to regard both with just solicitude. Attending to both may sometimes pull us in different directions: it is a sign of maturity to ignore neither. But something profoundly damaging occurs when habits of regard harden into ideological animus. We then move for intelligent regard for the environment–three cheers for that–to environmentalism. And as with most isms, this hankering after utopia is as eager to identify and segregate heretics as it is impervious to suasion by facts. Environmentalism is the new opiate of the intellectuals.