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September 01st 2008 print

Ian McFadyen

Our New Established Religion

Many reasons have been put forward for John Howard’s failure to win the 2007 election—negative reaction to WorkChoices, his refusal to abdicate in favour of Peter Costello, even a sense that he had just been in power too long—but there was another issue which suffused the Opposition campaign and which played a major part in persuading voters: climate change, in particular the recent drought. John Howard may be the first leader in the modern world to be voted out of office partly because he failed to make it rain.

Howard, however, may not be the last leader to be deposed over this issue, for the last few years have seen the surprise reappearance of a belief which was thought to have been extinct for centuries: the belief that human beings can control the weather.

To our hunter-gatherer and planter-herder ancestors the notion that humans could influence the elements seemed reasonable. To them it was clear that the wind, the rain, the phases of the moon, the movement of herds and the rebirth of the world in spring were controlled by otherworldly spirits. Placating these entities was the job of the tribal witch doctor or shaman, who knew how to appease them with prayer, dance, song and sacrifice. As humans became more dependent on agriculture, dependence on water increased correspondingly: failure of the spring rains to fall or the sacred river to flood was attributed to the displeasure of the governing deity, and appeasements had to be offered, sometimes in the form of human sacrifice. If the shaman failed to mollify the recalcitrant god, that sacrifice might well be him.

As magic evolved into religion and shamans into priests, natural catastrophes were linked less to the capriciousness of the gods and more to the observance, or lack thereof, of divine commandments. Droughts, hurricanes and floods were characterised as punishments for human immorality. According to the central narrative of Judaic faith, the Old Testament, the history of the human race was a series of reprisals for transgressions against God’s law. Central to that narrative is the story of Creation, in which God brings forth the world as a perfect work: complete, unified and unchanging. As custodians of this untainted paradise he introduces two humans who forfeit their state of bliss by eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree (variously interpreted as a symbol of knowledge, sex or self-determination) and are cast out of Eden to toil by the sweat of their brows. Despite this, humans continue to sin and are punished again with a great flood and occasional surgical strikes of fire and brimstone.

The notion that natural calamities were punishment for collective human sin was to last for the next 2000 years. The Black Death, which killed around a third of Europe, was blamed on a range of causes including the machinations of Jews and witches, but was principally seen as a punishment for the general sinfulness of the times. The idea of an irredeemably corrupted world was even borne out by non-biblical sources. To medieval scholars, the ancient Greeks seemed to have dwelt in a golden age which decayed into a silver age and then an iron age: contemporary humans were but a degenerate vestige of the physical and intellectual giants who once strode the earth. The inevitable conclusion of this decline would be the Apocalypse—Judgment Day, when history would end and God would make his final disposition of all people who had ever lived.

Then, almost overnight, the belief that natural phenomena were the result of sorcery or divine punishment crumbled with the advent of the scientific revolution. In little more than 400 years—an extraordinarily brief time in the total span of civilisation—the old beliefs in spirits, possessions, spells, curses, hexes, charms and God’s wrath, were replaced by medicine, chemistry, mathematics, biology, geology and physics. Finally, the notion of decline itself was reversed by Darwin, whose Origin of Species recast humans, not as degraded leftovers, but the heroic species that had dragged itself out of the primeval sludge, up through the stages of fish, reptile and mammal to become Nature’s masterpiece.

But the old narratives were only biding their time, waiting for their moment to re-emerge, patiently weaving the new threads of science into their tapestry.

Even in the midst of the Enlightenment, the discovery of seemingly idyllic societies in the South Pacific rekindled the idea, among philosophers such as Rousseau, that the original human state had been one of innocence and peace and that that blissful state had been corrupted by civilisation, industry and organised religion. Anthropology seemed almost to have provided scientific proof for the Eden story.

Later, in the 1950s, just as science was celebrating some of its greatest victories—over polio, the atomic nucleus and space—Rachel Carson alerted the world to the lethal consequences of DDT and other chemicals in the food chainin Silent Spring. This book was to be the first of many revelations about the damage being wrought by humans on natural systems. At first this damage was seen as a set of individual problems needing to be dealt with urgently but separately. In the 1960s, however, there was an attempt to link all these instances into a single global syndrome.

Permeating most of the alternative philosophies which characterised the New Age culture of the 1960s and 1970s was a love of all things “natural”. The hippie movement embodied the sacredness of the Earth in the person of Gaia, the earth goddess, whose “feminine” nature was a seen as a countermeasure to the destructive “masculine” worlds of science, business and organised religion. This characterisation of the Earth as pagan goddess was too mythical and mystical to appeal to most of the community but its underlying concept, the idea of the world as a single entity, one gigantic global, interdependent ecosystem, eventually began to take hold. Whereas problems such as disappearing fish stocks, soil salinity, animal extinctions and industrial emissions had been regarded as economic, agricultural, conservation or pollution issues, suddenly these were being grouped and linked under the umbrella term “environmental” problems.

Even though the word environment simply means “neighbourhood” or your immediate surroundings, and could refer to the street you live in or the people you live among, the term now became synonymous with “the natural world” and soon came to replace the word nature, with its old-fashioned connotations of botany and bird-watching. It was further enhanced by the use of the singular. What had previously been a series of separate environments—grassland, jungle, forest and desert—were suddenly all part of a single global system: the Environment—a step up, not unlike the transition from “gods” to the monotheistic “God” in the ancient world.

One of the main effects of the change in terminology was to create a sense of global, as opposed to local, responsibility—which is to say guilt. Prior to mono-environmental unification it was easy to regard environmental problems as someone else’s. Salinity and loss of topsoil were happening in the country and were the fault of farmers. The loss of the Amazon rainforest and the tigers was due to Brazilians and Indians pursuing modern agricultural methods. To the average commuter, these problems, while regrettable, were not seen as in any way their fault. Now, under the new doctrine of the Environment, with its concept of a global ecology, people living in Sydney are not only in some small way individually responsible for the extinction of frogs in Peru, they are also in some small way adversely affected by it. We are now all responsible for the fate of the Brazilian rainforest and the Greenland icecap even if we live ten thousand kilometres away because, according to Environmental catechism, “we all share the Earth”, and because of “globalisation”, Western “consumerism” is inextricably linked, economically and morally, to degradation of the Environment in the developing nations and the wilderness areas of the Earth.

There was still, however, a certain lingering remoteness about environmental problems, and with material prosperity continuing to increase in the Western world and in the developing nations, it must have seemed an almost insurmountable challenge to convince the general public that the world was really facing any real threat.

The turning point came in the 1990s, when an obscure and tentative theory from the earlier part of the century was suddenly claimed to be turning into a reality. The theory was that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases could lead to a rise in atmospheric temperature—the Greenhouse Effect. Burning wood for cooking and coal for power generation was known to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so scientists began looking at meteorological records and, lo and behold! they found a slight increase in average temperatures worldwide—between 0.4 and 0.8 of a degree—over the twentieth century. This half-a-degree increase was scarcely statistically significant—it was smaller than the errors inherent in sampling the data, in addition to which the methods of collecting the data changed over the period—but it was enough to get the ball rolling.

The next stage was to look for physical evidence: and again they found it. Many of the glaciers (though not all) in Europe, Greenland and Canada appeared to be melting. Of course, the glaciers had been melting steadily for the last 10,000 years since the last ice age when they entirely covered Canada and Northern Europe; however, it appeared that the rate of melting was increasing. It was also noted that the Arctic sea ice was retreating from the winter extents it had maintained for the last few centuries.

Most geologists and climatologists are aware that atmospheric temperatures, glaciation and precipitation are complicated phenomena, influenced by a large range of factors including the distance of the earth from the sun, solar radiation, the extent and type of vegetation on the earth’s surface, ocean currents, clouds and atmospheric particles, even the reflectance of certain “blooms” of oceanic micro-organisms. For some scientists, however, the rough correlation between carbon dioxide production and temperature—and it was only rough—was conclusive: anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide was warming the planet.

This then led to speculation as to what might happen as a result. The first prediction was that the polar caps could melt, covering the whole globe with water. (A puzzling prediction, given that there have been times when the Earth’s polar caps have been almost nonexistent and yet the continents have mostly remained above water.) Other predictions were that the increased heat energy would lead to destructive weather patterns, including droughts, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and tidal waves. It was even, paradoxically, predicted that warming could cause another ice age. These scenarios were, of course, speculation, as predictions always are, but they made great copy for the popular science magazines and frightened governments enough to start putting more money—a lot more money—into research.

What is interesting about the debate—what sets is apart from almost every other scientific investigation in the last two centuries—is that within no more than a few years, several people announced that the issue was no longer a debate at all. Despite the fact that climate scientists were still analysing data, revising models and indeed revising modelling methods, it was proclaimed publicly that there was no longer any doubt; the issue was resolved; it had been proved beyond a doubt that the world was getting warmer, humans were to blame, and the world was facing a major catastrophe as a result.

Whatever the complexities of climate and climate science, one thing is clear: there was a specific point where the theory of global warming ceased to be a scientific hypothesis to be tested over time and became an incontrovertible article of dogma. Indeed it became the critical article of faith that would finally lock all the various environmental issues together in one overarching doctrine and bestow incalculable gravitas on the religion of Environmentalism, finally establishing it as the official religion of Western society.

Just in case this seems to be a wildly rhetorical characterisation, consider the follow features that Environmentalism shares with religions in general.

Symbolism and Ritual. Religion relies heavily on ceremonies which have no measurable result but provide emotional gratification, unify the religious community and reinforce belief. In ancient societies one of the most important symbolic actions was sacrifice: the killing and burning of animals, sometimes people, on the altar to appease a supernatural entity.

Australia is currently preparing to cut its carbon emissions, even though this will have no effect on global carbon dioxide levels. Australia produces only about 1 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted worldwide, less than the amount by which China’s emissions increase annually. In other words Australia is preparing to make a purely symbolic sacrifice which will have no practical effect but will reinforce in the population the sense that they are doing “something to help”—even though it is in fact doing nothing.

Of course, religious believers do not regard rituals as merely symbolic: observances such as prayer, communion, confession and the last rites are believed to have real world results. Similarly, when bushfires burnt out several Canberra suburbs in 2003, New South Wales Premier Bob Carr said that the reason for the disaster was that John Howard had refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The implication was that simply the act of signing the Protocol would have changed Australia’s climate even before the policies set out in it had been implemented.

Martyrdom. The other justification for Australia’s imposition of emissions reduction policies is that it will inspire other countries to do the same—an idea that is without any foundation whatsoever. This is a relic of religious martyrdom myths—stories in which devout believers are cruelly tortured and slain but never recant their faith. In these stories not only are the martyrs rewarded with special privileges in heaven, but witnesses to the persecution are so impressed by the bravery and piety of the martyrs that they are inspired to join the faith. Despite the church’s special regard for martyrs, there is no evidence that their deaths ever increased recruitment, and it is far more probable that seeing Christians eaten by lions acted precisely as it was meant to—as a deterrent. In the same vein, if Australia adopts emissions reductions and suffers economic damage as result, it may well act as a disincentive to other countries.

Damnation and Redemption. Environmentalists preach that people can only prevent global catastrophe by changing their behaviour. Given that there is at least some likelihood that the industrial nations will not reduce emissions in any substantial way, there is presumably some likelihood that a warmer earth is inevitable, regardless of all efforts to prevent it. This would suggest that we should have a back-up strategy to deal with a warmer world if attempts to reverse warming fail—for example being prepared to move some cities, build sea walls and water pipelines, develop new crops. Strangely however (or perhaps not strangely at all) environmentalists are reluctant to discuss adaptive rather than preventive strategies. The rhetoric is that we have no alternative, we must reduce fossil fuel consumption or else we face disaster.

This is an odd position since, given the immensity of the challenge to reduce energy consumption, it is not inconceivable that it might be ultimately cheaper for the world to adapt to warmer climates rather than to try and obviate them—especially when even the best efforts might fail. Environmentalists, however, refuse to even countenance the idea of adaptation.

The reason is simple: Environmentalists fear that if people start discussing ways to adapt to climate change, especially if they start to think that it might be easier to adapt than reduce, the sense of urgency will abate and people will start to wonder if they might be able to get through the crisis without changing their behaviour at all.

The most nightmarish prospect for Environment-alists would be for economists to start arguing that we will need to dig more coal and pump more oil in order to source the energy needed to adapt to climate change—move cities, bring water to cities, build dykes, relocate industry and agriculture and so on. It is therefore a vital part of the Environmentalist campaign to insist that there is not, and can never be, any way to cope with or survive climate change. Like the medieval concept of Hell, climate change is portrayed as involving supernatural levels of suffering with no possibility of escape or parole. Its consequences are exaggerated without limit, despite having no empirical evidence, to include worldwide devastation, killer storms, global famine, floods, epidemics of disease and other disasters of—dare I say it—biblical proportions.

At the same time, while fiercely maintaining that adaptation can never be an option, Environmentalists are equally eager to reinforce that, no matter how hopeless the situation might seem, the problem can be solved if we all get together and reduce emissions. This is because the whole purpose of the climate change campaign is not to find ways to deal with the change, but to frighten people into changing their behaviours. Like the church, they know it is important for people not to reach the point where they give up hope and say, “I’m damned anyway, so I might as well enjoy being a sinner.” Just as the church preached the horrors of Hell while at the same time maintaining that it was never too late to be saved, Environmentalism teaches that, no matter how hopeless the situation might seem, we can still be saved if we repent and follow the path of righteousness.

The Persecution of Heretics. There are of course a large number of scientists—senior scientists at professorial levels—who insist that the climate change panic is irrational and unscientific. These scientists’ dissenting opinions are rarely published and, when they are, go unheeded by governments and the press. One reason for this is, of course, that calls to “Let’s just keep quietly analysing the data” have nowhere near the dramatic appeal as “Climate threat worse than first imagined!” stories. The other, more worrying, reason is that on the topic of climate change, many Environmentalists have moved from being concerned to being militant, and expressing outright rage at anyone who questions the “reality” of climate change. Scientific sceptics are now being labelled as “climate change deniers” by zealots and are rapidly being accorded the same status as Holocaust deniers with similar threats of ostracism and career curtailment. There have even been calls to prosecute and jail people who deny the “reality” of climate change.

The Creation of Demons. Christianity has Satan and his minions; Environmentalism has the oil companies and the coal miners. These are the devils that bring woe into the world, who tempt weak humans into sin by offering them cars, trucks, planes and central heating in snowbound winters. The power of the fossil fuel demons is vast and they are always working to undermine the saintly work of the Environmentalists. Scientists who question the climate change hypothesis are “spokespersons for the energy companies” or “in the pocket of Big Oil”: in other words they are the tools of Satan.

Creationism. In order to illustrate a decline or decay in the world it is first necessary to explain how the world “ought” to be. In the Judeo-Christian mythology the perfect uncorrupted world was the Garden of Eden. For Environmentalists it was the world prior to European exploration. As with Creationism, Environmentalist mythology posits a world which was created with all the animals, plants and people assigned to various places on the globe. Each species was settled in its own rightful niche where it lived in symbiotic harmony with other creatures in that ecological system. Ecology in fact becomes a form of “intelligent design” where perfect biological systems are formed with intricately balanced relationships between biota and terrain. In the Environmentalist narrative, those perfect worlds were disrupted when people—that is, Europeans—invaded other countries bringing their dogs, cats, rabbits, foxes, sparrows and weeds with them.

(Interestingly, indigenous peoples are not regarded as invaders, even though they arrived in their various habitats long after the ecological systems had formed and subsequently had some impact on those systems, because they have been granted the role of “custodians” of the land. They are the Adam and Eve in this modern-day Eden myth.)

In Australia “imported” species are detested because they compete with and overtake “native species” (even though, technically, any animal born in Australia is “native”). Drastic zoning laws in some areas prohibit the ownership of cats and dogs, and the plagues of rabbits and cane toads have been treated as national emergencies. This concern for the loss of “native” habitats to species that “don’t belong”—a description sometimes extended to Europeans themselves—is based on the Enviro-Creationist notion that the ecological systems of the world are static systems that must be preserved. The reality is that all ecological systems are in a state of constant flux, and always have been, as new species are introduced, or become extinct through geological change, climatic change, airborne seeds, migration of animals and the transmission of diseases.

Much is made of the loss of species, and yet millions of species have disappeared since life began on Earth, and millions more will evolve in the millennia to come. At times, not only entire genera, but whole orders of living things have been lost, and yet life goes on. As long as ecological niches—which is to say opportunities for life—exist, phenotypes will evolve to fill those niches. Speciation, which is nothing more than genetic differentiation caused by selection factors, is an ongoing process and yet Environmentalists speak as if evolution and speciation are something that only happened in the past.

The Creation of a Priesthood. Scientists, so long under a cloud because of their association with bombs, herbicides and insecticides, have redeemed themselves by alerting us to the damage that we (strangely not they) have inflicted on the globe. In the climate change crisis they have emerged, for once, as the good guys in the eyes of the new Green middle class. After decades of being seen as the pawns of big business and the military-industrial complex, scientists are now seen as the revealers of truth, the interpreters of opaque data and trusted authorities on the interpretation of complex systems. They are even accorded the power of prophesy as they confidently predict the climate fifty, even a hundred years in the future.

As with the medieval priests and sacred scriptures, scientists deliver sermons based on data the congregation rarely gets to see. Medieval bibles were written in Latin and chained to the pulpits and were thus inaccessible to the lay person. Peasants had no idea what scripture actually said and had to trust their priests to read it and interpret it correctly. Opportunities for priests to expound their own religious and political prejudices were obviously abundant. Similarly today, the lay person has no way of telling whether researchers are interpreting the data correctly or honestly and must take the word of the scientists on faith. This is a dangerous situation.

How many people, for example, realise that the predictions of climate change are based on “models”, that is to say simulations—of weather systems and ocean currents running on computers? These models are based on algorithms (AlGore-ithms?)—mathematical formulae—that attempt to emulate real natural processes.

The great meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who died a few months ago, showed that, because climate is a chaotic system, no mathematical model can ever predict long-term outcomes because even the most microscopic variations in input data can produce wildly different outcomes in the computation results. And yet some people accept that climate modellers with computers can predict temperatures forty years from now.

Messiahs and Saints. At the top of any hierarchy are those with a direct line to God. In this case it is the celebrity scientists and economists such as Tim Flannery, Nicholas Stern and now Ross Garnaut, who write books and bring down massive reports (the Gospels) predicting the fate of the earth. Is there a Messiah of climate change? Of course: Al Gore, who has toured the planet exhorting sinners to repent before it is too late and follow the teachings of Gaia. Gore, of course, brilliantly used the favourite medium of the modern world to spread his message—a movie—even though movies, while emotionally powerful, are quite inadequate at dealing with large amounts of complex information. Gore of course was not concerned with scientific complexity but with making an emotional impact.

Integration into Education. Christianity reproduced itself for centuries by setting up schools and integrating itself into the daily instruction of students. Today school teachers relentlessly hammer home the importance of caring for the environment and organise activities to teach kids to think and act “Green”. Global warming is taught as a scientific fact and the destruction of the planet as an article of faith. At the recent 2020 Summit in Canberra, a group of school students were seen holding placards demanding that politicians give them a “guarantee” that they will have a “stable” climate during their lifetimes. Given that climates have never been stable systems, it’s a tall order.

Integration into Everyday Life. In a devout Christian or Islamic society, daily life is punctuated by religious observances and iconography. Religious symbols are ever-present on walls, on buildings, in jewellery, or on printed material and prayers, incantations and imprecations uttered during the day. Today “Green” awareness is omnipresent, and there is a national campaign to make everyone aware of (and guilty about) their “carbon footprint”. Gas and electricity bills tell us obligingly how much pollution we have been responsible for today, and product labels and commercials advertise cars, detergents and even insurance as “environmentally friendly”. There is even a shampoo commercial that claims, because the shampoo is made from vegetables instead of crude oil, it will help save the environment. How is never explained.

Crusades. As noted above, magical practices and religious organisations came about primarily through anxiety: anxiety that the rain might not fall, the river might not flood, the cows might not calve or the corn not ripen. Anxiety has been harnessed by shamans and priests for thousands of years to manipulate people into performing rituals, making sacrifices and, most importantly, supporting a priesthood to protect them against impending disasters. It can also be used as a cause to wage war.

In Australia climate change has been adopted as a cause by politicians anxious to find something to rally voters to their party. Formerly, threats such as communist infiltration, invasion from China and skyrocketing crime statistics have been used to fuel political campaigns. Today, aspiring leaders, having few other social issues to exploit in this luckiest of lucky countries, have turned to the threat of climate change, a threat just as imaginary as the aforementioned ones. Climate change, however, is the best ever issue to exploit for political purposes because of the inherently chaotic nature of weather. Rarely has a month ever gone by without a flood, tornado, drought, heat wave, blizzard, hurricane or hailstorm occurring somewhere in the world, so there is always some event that seems to confirm that the world’s weather is changing for the worse. And the beauty of meteorological data is that, as with cricket scores, almost every event can be characterised in some way as “unprecedented” or “record breaking” by just selecting the right parameters.

It is easy to tell when an issue is being used for political purposes because it will not be treated as matter for policy but as justification for a Crusade. The Rudd government, for example, could have addressed the climate change issue by calmly setting out a ten-year plan to reduce emissions. It could have been a plan that balanced disincentives with incentives. It could have been based on the premises that Australia would neither advance faster than the rest of the world nor more slowly; that there would be regular reviews and check points; that old technologies would not be abandoned before new technologies were available and proved viable; that households would be rewarded for saving energy rather than punished for using it; that preparations would be made to deal with the results of climate change in case it occurred anyway; that Australia would assist the rest of the world not by setting an example but by developing technologies that would not only generate cleaner power but also revenue.

The government, however, chose not to lay out a long-term, balanced plan. Rather it chose to mount a Crusade—a Crusade as valiant and quixotic as any medieval holy war with the Hero-King, banners waving and armour gleaming, leading his cavalry forth, warning that martyrdom and sacrifice will be required but it will be for a good cause and will be rewarded in Heaven, and exhorting the ever-beleaguered peasantry to empty the meagre contents of their purses for the holy cause.

Environmentalism has, in a mere fifty years, attained the hegemony, political influence and moral authority formerly accorded to the church. We have come the full circle to a pre-Enlightenment society, ruled by an officially sanctioned religion that is as dogmatic, inquisitorial and eschatological as medieval Christianity, where environmental scientists are the clergy, Green is the colour of purity and the central icon is not Jesus suffering on a cross but the image of a tortured planet dying for our sins.

Ian McFadyen is a film and television writer, actor, producer and director. He has also written a book on cognitive psychology, Mind Wars.