If you want to seriously annoy environmentalists like me, there are two assertions that will rarely fail:
- Environmentalism is a new religion.
- Environmentalism is just a fad.
The first view generally arises from fundamental confusion on the part of the person making the assertion. Since they are used to seeing arguments about the morality of individual action presented in religious terms, they assume that anything that involves such arguments must be religious. The faulty syllogism is roughly: religion tries to tell me how to live, environmentalism tries to tell me how to live, therefore environmentalism is religion. This isn’t the case â€“ both because the syllogism is fundamentally invalid, and because there are key differences in the basis for religion and environmentalism, respectively. The second argument does have some evidence to support it, but there is an overwhelming case for hoping it proves untrue in the long term.
Starting with the religion argument, the first step is to establish the nature of religion. The key element of ‘faith’ is a willingness to accept something without empirical evidence: whether it is the existence of a god, the existing of karma, or whatever. Religious beliefs of this kind cannot be empirically disproved. By contrast, virtually all claims made by environmentalists are dependent on their empirical correctness for strength. If mercury didn’t actually poison people, we would be wrong for avoiding it on that basis. The only non-empirical claims behind environmentalism are about what has value. If we didn’t value human life or the natural world, we would have no reason to be concerned about pollution or climate change, and we would have no reason to take action to prevent them.
Every environmental position and argument is open to as much empirical and logical scrutiny anyone cares to apply to it. Everyone is free to perform whatever experiments they like and, if those experiments produce interesting or unexpected results that can be reproduced by others, they can expect them to eventually become part of the body of scientific knowledge. Likewise, people are free to argue about the moral and logical premises of the ‘what should we value’ debate.
Moving on to the ‘fad’ argument, it is certainly the case that public interest in the environment waxes and wanes. Sometimes, catastrophic events draw special attention to the issue. At other times, people find their attention drawn to other happenings. That being said, I think Denis Hayes is right to argue that: “If environment is a fad, it’s going to be our last fad.” Right now, humanity is living with the following assumptions at least implicitly made: (a) the planet can support six billion of us, with more being added daily (b) at least for most of those people, material consumption can continue to rise at several percent per year. Even if we came up with some miracle machine to solve climate change tomorrow, some new issue would arise as the ratio between the total available mass and energy on the planet and the fraction used by human beings continued to fall.
We live in a finite world and, in at least some cases, we are starting to brush against the physical limitations that exist. For that simple reason, environmentalism is important and likely to be enduring. Thankfully, unlike religions which tend to get tangled up in their own history (witness all those trying to prove that the Bible is somehow historically accurate), environmentalism is generally scientifically grounded. As such, its content and prescriptions have the potential to improve as our understanding of the world deepens. For that, we should all be thankful.