In 2003, Michael Crichton aroused some indignation from largely-nonreligious environmentalists with his Environmentalism as Religion speech at the Commonwealth Club of California:
Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it’s a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.
There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.
Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsdaythese are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs.
Fast forward to 2006 and the Anglican church has decided to become eco-friendly. Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, was recently quoted in the Sunday Times as saying “Making selfish choices, such as flying on holiday or buying a large car, are a symptom of sin.”
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had a short but interesting chat (mp3) with the man today, and I thought some of what he had to say was particularly apposite to the environmentalism-as-Faith (capital F) thesis:
Q: … You’re a bishop, and what gives what you say particular force is when you give it a moral dimension, which is why I’m trying to establish whether you’re saying … whether the language of language of sin is appropriate to use in the context of these decisions [flying on holiday, buying a large car].
A: … The language of sin is absolutely right as we look at our responsibility as people living in what we believe to be a creation… the responsibility to their neighbours especially the poor of the world and our responsibility to our wellbeing so I think it is very proper to put these questions in the context of our moral responsibility … and that’s what a Christian understands sin to be … sin is living a life that’s turned in upon itself that’s unaware of responsibility and connections.
Q: So we should think about things like the sort of decision we take about the car we buy in the same context and in the same way as we think about decisions we make about relationships with other people, sex, all those issues which perhaps have been more traditionally the area in which people have used terms like, particularly like, living in sin?
A: Well that’s absolutely right because our energy use is something that has an impact on the creation and on other people. And seeing that it is a really important moral issue is one of the ways in which the church has to respond I think to the conditions of today [...]
(The rather hurried transcript’s mine.) It is fascinating to see the environmental movement’s message of ecological responsibility being co-opted as a religious message, turning the non-compliers into sinners, with all the heavy connotations that word contains (would people who enjoy driving end up with the gluttons in the third circle of Hell?).
I’m sure the intention behind these interviews, and of the bishop’s recent booklet on environmental matters circulated to every diocese, is noble — to appear to be a church that’s up-to-date with the current scientific consensus. And yet in doing so, Bishop Chartres has harkened back to one of the oldest devices of organized religion (and a particularly Puritan device at that) — control and prohibit the things the masses might like under threat of damnation and bring them back to a life less filled with luxuries and presumably closer to God. Me, I’m betting technological innovation (examples 1 2) will before long make such sinning unncecessary: a culture of environmentally inspired privation is no more necessary than a culture kept in privation by vested religious interests or poor state planning.