Church, state and nature's cathedrals


Being pro-environment, kind of like being pro-family, is a good way to score political points. Who can possibly be against environmental protection? Everyone wants to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and few of us would like to see every acre of wilderness paved over to make way for shopping malls and condominiums. The Republicans are perpetually vulnerable to charges of being anti-environment when they propose, for instance, to open a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling.

But is some environmentalism a radical ideology or even a form of religious fundamentalism in moderate clothing? This is a charge made by writer and journalist Robert Bidinotto on his new website with the provocative title ecoNOT.com and the equally provocative slogan "Individualism—not environmentalism." Explains Bidinotto, "Most people think of themselves as 'environmentalists.' But by that term, they mean something far different—and far more innocent—than do the most prominent philosophers, founders, and leaders of the modern environmentalist movement."

What those environmentalists want, he asserts, is not just an environment beneficial to humans but an environment untouched by humans, whose activity is seen as destructive to "wildness." He quotes an eyebrow-raising comment from John Muir, co-founder of the Sierra Club: "I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears." Some modern environmentalists have gone even further, calling humanity a "cancer" on the earth.

Bidinotto argues that much environmentalism is based on a fantasy of an idyllic and unspoiled Garden of Eden, and in that he certainly has a point. Take two recent pieces by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (which Bidinotto dissects on his site) addressing the issue of exploratory oil drilling in Alaska and recounting his trip to the refuge. Kristof writes that, in his view, the danger drilling would pose to wildlife has been exaggerated by environmentalists; he also points out that it would benefit the local Eskimo population. Yet ultimately, he comes down on the anti-drilling side, arguing that development would damage "the land itself and the sense of wilderness"—the sense of "a rare place where humans feel not like landlords or even tenants, but simply guests."

The refuge, in other words, is something like a living temple, which is not to be desecrated.

Some environmental writings have explicit religious overtones. A popular idea among environmentalists is writer James Lovelock's "Gaia hypothesis"—the idea that the Earth is a living entity with a super-consciousness of its own, of which we are all a part. (Gaia was, of course, the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth.) Native American religions with their nature worship are popular as well. Some people who turn away from traditional religion and then embark on a spiritual quest in a need to fill the void say that they find that spirituality in environmental activism.

Environmentalist philosophy has a religious dimension other than the fantasy of the Garden of Eden. Its anti-consumerist animus reflects, to some extent, the puritanical notion that material pleasures and comforts are wicked and corrupting, and self-denial is ennobling for the soul.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with religiously or spiritually based beliefs. But perhaps some forms of environmental philosophy and activism should raise questions about introducing religion into public policy—or public schools, where environmental education programs often have elements of Earth worship and moralist condemnation of consumerist sins.

In his individualist manifesto, Bidinotto unabashedly asserts that nature should be seen as having no intrinsic value other than its benefit to humans, because "value" is itself a human concept rooted in rational and moral principles. This idea is not quite as radical or as anti-environment as it seems: His concept of "value" certainly includes a clean and healthy habitat, as well as human enjoyment of wilderness. Indeed, in that sense, he and Kristof may not be as far apart as he thinks: Kristof wants to preserve the coastal plain of Alaska as an American heritage. (He also admits, however, that the part of the land where the drilling is proposed is not particularly scenic and is valuable mainly for its untouched state.)

The preservation of our natural heritage is undoubtedly a worthy goal. But when seen from the perspective of human benefit, it is one of many competing values that must be balanced—including the need to alleviate our dependence of foreign oil. To treat wilderness as something mystical and sacramental short-circuits the debate as surely as an appeal to biblical principles.