Cover image for The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America By Robert H. Nelson

The New Holy Wars

Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America

Robert H. Nelson


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The New Holy Wars

Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America

Robert H. Nelson

“Nelson makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that in our times the leading secular religion was once economics and is now environmentalism. . . . Out of that utterly original idea for scholarly crossovers—good Lord, an economist reading environmentalism and even economics itself as theology!—come scores of true and striking conclusions. . . . It’s a brilliant book, which anyone who cares about the economy or the environment or religion needs to read. That’s most of us.”


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Winner of the 2010 Eric Hoffer Award and the 2010 silver medal in the category of Finance, Investment, and Economics of the Independent Publisher Book Awards

The present debate raging over global warming exemplifies the clash between two competing public theologies. On one side, environmentalists warn of certain catastrophe if we do not take steps now to reduce the release of greenhouse gases; on the other side, economists are concerned with whether the benefits of actions to prevent higher temperatures will be worth the high costs. Questions of the true and proper relationship of human beings and nature are as old as religion. Today, environmentalists regard human actions to warm the climate as an immoral challenge to the natural order, while economists seek to put all of nature to maximum use for economic growth and other human benefits.

Robert Nelson interprets such contemporary struggles as battles between the competing secularized religions of economics and environmentalism. The outcome will have momentous consequences for us all. This book probes beneath the surface of the two movements’ rhetoric to uncover their fundamental theological commitments and visions.

“Nelson makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that in our times the leading secular religion was once economics and is now environmentalism. . . . Out of that utterly original idea for scholarly crossovers—good Lord, an economist reading environmentalism and even economics itself as theology!—come scores of true and striking conclusions. . . . It’s a brilliant book, which anyone who cares about the economy or the environment or religion needs to read. That’s most of us.”
“Robert Nelson argues that environmentalism is a religion. . . . This provocative thesis raises hard and embarrassing questions about the bases of environmentalism that every serious student of the subject must confront.”
“Nelson compellingly argues that religion is a powerful force in economic and social life, . . . even if that fact is seldom recognized by most academics and policy makers. The dominant religious influences are secularized versions of Catholicism and Protestantism, not because the leading scholars are piously trying to advance their faith by other means, but because their intellectual horizons have been shaped by worldviews that have framed their consciousness. He convinces me that unless these presuppositions are acknowledged, examined, broadened, and revised, the economic and ecological crises that the world now faces will not be understood or met at their deeper levels.”
“Anyone who wants to understand twenty-first-century politics should begin with The New Holy Wars, which makes clear the fundamental conflict between how economists and environmentalists see the world.”
“Though one might quibble with details here and there, the central contentions of The New Holy Wars are largely convincing. Its central thesis is incontrovertible. It should be required reading for orthodox religious believers so that they may know where the real challenges to their faiths lie.”
“This ambitious book was awarded the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize and a Silver Medal from the Annual Independent Publisher Book Awards. It is ripe for consideration and study, both for its rich treatment of the development of these so-called secular religions as well as for the implications the holy wars of economic religion and environmental religion have for contemporary policy debates. In tracing the development of the secular religions of economics and environmentalism, Nelson invites their adherents, as well as adherents of non-secular religions, to explore the theological roots of these seemingly secular frameworks and to identify common ground between them.

In a time of deep disagreement about environmental issues, such as climate change and regulation of the oil industry, and a time of religious divisiveness, Nelsons work is a timely invitation both to understand the roots of the struggle between environmentalists and economists, and to think more deeply about the relationship between society and nature that we envision.”
“This book is a good read for economists of all backgrounds and persuasions, including Christian economists, for several reasons. . . . the overall theme and theses of the book provide stimulating food for thought and insights into the possible ethical and philosophical drivers underlying the economic growth and environmental protection advocacy positions, movements, and policies in contemporary America.”
“This book should be of interest to a wide variety of audiences, not only to scholars of religion, but also to economists, environmentalists, and the general public interested in religion. It is highly readable and touches on many relevant and controversial issues in contemporary society, and concludes (most likely to the chagrin of economists and environmentalists) that these are religions like any other. For scholars of religion, it reminds us to reconsider the social movements of our time . . . many of which are not ’secular’ at all, but are saturated with adapted versions of traditional religious beliefs and practices.”
“Nelson convincingly argues that economics and environmentalism are two new secular religions that require theological understanding. . . . To engage the issues Nelson raises, theologians and pastors will need to devote more time to reading sociology, economics, and theology and less to studying psychology and spirituality. That might be thought of as the opportunity cost of doing God’s business in the early 21st century.”
“[Nelson’s] book is an excellent contribution that will help us better understand the intersections between economics, ethics, and theology. . . . The theological approach Nelson adopts is illuminating, and he does a great service by pointing out how much of the materialist and environmentalist gospels [is] . . . derived from religion.”
“Nelson has offered an exciting argument and revealed an important pattern. . . . Both modern American economists and environmentalists have been engaged for over a century in creating new secular versions of American Christianity by replacing God with science.”
“[Nelson] presents . . . insightful and incisive critiques of the shortcomings of both secular economism and environmentalism. . . . An excellent explication of the contradictions and inconsistencies of the utopian or eschatological visions presented by these competing religions.”
[The New] Holy Wars is an essential read for anyone interested in contemporary religion and the relationship between Christianity, economics and environmentalism. Many of the arguments are compelling and often controversial, making this work a primer for rewarding debates. Throughout the work it is emphasised that secular religion presents more than just an intellectual puzzle. Secular versions of religion are arguably more influential in everyday life than ‘traditional’ Christianity, and they have vast political implications too. Nelson’s final conclusion is therefore one that all scholars in the field of religion must surely heed: ‘It is time to take secular religion seriously.’”
“As a book about religion, economics, politics, and philosophy, The New Holy Wars should be of interest to all readers of [the Review of Social Economy]. The provocative arguments in this book are sure to cause at least some degree of unease among economists and environmentalists alike, as [it] challenges the claim of scientific legitimacy by both fields. Nevertheless, I suggest that this book is worthwhile for all who are interested in better understanding and transcending the conflict between economics and environmentalism.”
“The text is beautifully written and clear so that the reader can easily judge whether they are compelled by Nelson's conslusions. . . .

The New Holy Wars succeeds in giving voice to the tangible tension in environmental policy. It challenges readers to re-examine the triple bottom line measuring all environmental action.”
“At a time in which Harper One produces a “Green” bible “in conjunction with the Sierra Club” (and presumably Harper One does not produce a “Free Markets” bible “in conjunction with the CATO Institute”), it is time for a discussion of these important economic, scientific, and theological issues. Nelson’s book, although imperfect, is a good place to start.”
“Robert Nelson’s The New Holy Wars takes a measured, philosophical approach to the environment and the economy. . . . The New Holy Wars offers a broad, non-polemical critique of the environmental movement, uncovering the shaky intellectual foundations of its ideology and science.”

Robert H. Nelson is Professor at the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow of The Independent Institute. Among his previous books is Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (Penn State, 2001).


Economic and Environmental Religions

Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions. This observation is not as controversial as it might seem. Although few economists see a religious purpose to their professional activities, a number of outsiders have characterized their efforts in such terms. John Cobb, a leading Protestant theologian, writes that in the twentieth century “neoclassical economics became the theology of those who saw economic growth as the savior of humankind.” Although economic religion “does not dominate the spirituality of all peoples, it is the ‘religion’ that governs planetary affairs,” based on a righteous “devotion” to the “increase of economic production.” The environmental historian J. R. McNeill writes similarly that “communism aspired to become the universal creed of the twentieth century, but a more flexible and seductive religion succeeded where communism failed: the quest for economic growth. Capitalists, nationalists—indeed almost everyone . . . —worshipped at this same altar.” Economic growth promised not only to deliver materials comforts but also to solve all “social, moral, and ecological ills.” The economists “who promised to deliver the holy grail became [the] high priests” of the United States and other societies around the world.

Like the members of the economics profession, most leaders of American environmental organizations have sought to distance themselves from religion. Explicitly acknowledging the religious character of environmentalism would have posed a host of complicated, and potentially politically damaging, issues concerning the role of these organizations in the public arena (how to explain, for example, their strong support for the active proselytizing of an environmental “religion” in the public schools). Many individual environmental advocates, however, have been more forthcoming. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, preached that visitors should come to “holy Yosemite” to “worship with Nature.” In the 1990s, Steven Rockefeller and John Elder stated that “the global environmental crisis, which threatens not only the future of human civilization but all life on earth, is fundamentally a moral and religious problem.”

In assessing the character of contemporary environmentalism, the leading U.S. environmental historian, William Cronon, finds that it shares “certain common characteristics with the human belief systems and institutions that we typically label with the word religion.” Indeed, the parallels were so striking, extending to so many features traditionally associated with religion, that Cronon in the end found literally the presence of a new gospel, following in the Jewish and Christian religious heritage of Western civilization:

[Environmentalism] offers a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action, and judges human conduct accordingly. The source of these imperatives may not appear quite so metaphysical as in other religious traditions, but it in fact derives from the whole of creation as the font not just of ethical direction but of spiritual insight. The revelation of seeing human life and the universe whole, in their full interconnected complexity, can evoke powerful passions and convictions ranging from the mystical to the missionary. Certain landscapes—usually the wildest and most natural ones—are celebrated as sacred, and the emotions they inspire are akin to those we associate with the godhead in other faith traditions. Much environmental writing is openly prophetic, offering predictions of future disaster as a platform for critiquing the moral failings of our lives in the present. Leave out the element of divine inspiration, and the rhetorical parallels to biblical prophecy in the Hebrew and Christian traditions are often quite striking. Maybe most important, environmentalism is unusual among political movements in offering practical moral guidance about virtually every aspect of daily life, so that followers are often drawn into a realm of mindfulness and meditative attentiveness that at least potentially touches every personal choice and action. Environmentalism, in short, grapples with ultimate questions at every scale of human existence, from the cosmic to the quotidian, from the apocalyptic to the mundane. More than most other human endeavors, this is precisely what religions aspire to do.

To be sure, the environmental movement is large and diverse with many varieties of environmental religion—just as there are multiple understandings of Christianity (and of economic religion). A few environmental groups have core beliefs that are in fact closer to economic religion than to the prevailing tenets of environmental religion. Often labeled as a “moderate” environmental organization, Resources for the Future (RFF) in Washington, D.C., for example, is largely staffed by economists, who are frequently at odds with environmental true believers. Indeed, many of the RFF staff are economic true believers—followers in a religion of economic progress, now reworked to include much greater attention to environmental amenities in the overall economic calculus. As such, members of RFF, and some other environmentalists, might say that economic religion should not be abandoned, but rather revised and reworked to reflect new environmental concerns and ecological understandings.

There are also branches of environmentalism that may not involve any significant religious elements at all. A desire simply to reduce levels of air and water pollution, to curtail exposure to toxic substances, and in these and other ways to reduce cancer rates and otherwise improve the health of the American people is not a religious belief in and of itself. The distinctive feature of the contemporary environmental movement, however, is not its goal of improving public health but rather its rethinking of the basic relationship between human beings and nature—a central topic of religion for thousands of years.

Economic Versus Environmental Religion

Although there are thus some exceptions, the mainstream of American environmentalism is significantly defined by its opposition to economic religion, and is thus part of a wider reaction against what many now see as the excesses of modern optimism. One hundred years ago in the Progressive Era, the most powerful new religious force in American life was the economic “gospel of efficiency.” An American historian, Samuel Haber, wrote that the Progressive Era was characterized by an “efficiency craze” that represented “a secular Great Awakening.” A leading political scientist, Dwight Waldo, commented that “it is yet amazing what a position of dominance ‘efficiency’ assumed, how it waxed until it had assimilated or over-shadowed other values, how men and events came to be degraded or exalted according to what was assumed to be its dictate.”

In the American Progressive Era, “efficient” and “inefficient” came to replace for many modern men and women the older Christian categories of “good” and “evil.” Efficiency was so important because it was the operative measure of economic progress, and, as J. B. Bury would write in 1932, the idea of progress “belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality.” Actions that were efficient or inefficient served to advance or impede the arrival of a new heaven on earth, much as good or evil actions in an earlier time had been said to move Christians closer to or further from God.

Economic religion preaches that sin in the world has material causes—the severe poverty and deprivation in which the great majority of people lived for most of human history. In the theology of economic religion, if it came down to a choice between lying and stealing, or letting your children starve, most people throughout history would have chosen to lie and steal. Nations have gone to war with one another for economic reasons, fighting for control of scarce resources. In short, the economic faith assumes that the true causes of sinful behavior in the world are ultimately material. By contrast, the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the fall of man in the Garden of Eden is just another ancient myth that preceded the modern era of scientific enlightenment.

If the economic assumption is valid—if past evils in the world arose from a human condition of dire poverty and material desperation—it creates a whole new prospect for humankind. Human beings by their own efforts may now be able to save themselves and the world. In the modern age, as economic religion preaches, scientific and economic progress have advanced to the point that they create the possibility of abolishing material scarcity. If scarcity can be eliminated, the true cause of sin in the world will be eliminated as well, thereby opening the way to a whole new earthly circumstance.

In the Marxist branch of this economic religion, for example, the arrival of total abundance and the end of material struggle would yield a “new man.” Human beings would no longer be fundamentally “alienated” from themselves and their surroundings—the Marxist way of saying that they would no longer be fundamentally corrupted by original sin. A distinguished theologian wrote in 1956 that “Marxism was in a real sense a Judeo-Christian heresy” whose appeal lay in “its affirmation of certain prophetic emphases of the biblical tradition.” In an age when scientific knowledge was undermining traditional Christian religion for many people, large numbers turned to the “scientific laws of history” as a barely disguised substitute for the traditional Christian God. The contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre declares that “Marxism shares in good measure both the content and the functions of Christianity as an interpretation of human existence, and it does so because it is the historical successor of Christianity”—or at least so it appeared for much of the twentieth century. Although the specific theologies are very different, Marxism and environmentalism have at least one important element in common: they both owe a large debt to Christian sources.

In the United States, rather than Marx it was John Maynard Keynes who held out the greatest hope of heaven on earth, once declaring that continuing rapid economic growth—based in part on the application of Keynesian economic methods—would soon “lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” In the new world of the future, perhaps not even one hundred years away, Keynes prophesied in 1930 that we shall finally be “free, at last, to discard” the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, the obsessive accumulation of capital, and other “distasteful and unjust” features of our present-day economic system. Because the path of salvation would be economic, the followers of Keynes in the American economics profession soon become the leading priesthood, the moral guides and guardians, of American society. Economists would possess the technical expertise to guide society along a path of economic progress, and thus of earthly perfection.

Even when specific details of the Keynesian economic prescriptions would later be challenged in the 1970s, new economists with new theories stepped forward to fill the priestly role. Indeed, progressive beliefs that saw economic growth and development as the path to earthly salvation were widely shared across much of the world in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. Economists were the leading theologians of the times.

The Dam and the Wilderness

As I have said, the American progressive movement sought to advance the goals of a powerful secular religion of economic progress. It was based on the new power of human beings to control nature, as this power had been created by modern science and economics. Progressive religion also had its artwork and cathedrals that served to provide religious inspiration. Many Americans made pilgrimages to places such as Hoover Dam on the Colorado River or Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. Such modern pilgrims experienced a sense of awe and reverence in seeing the dramatic evidence before them of the newfound power of human beings to bring wild nature under control for human benefit. With this power, as it appeared, humanity was no longer dependent on God to save the world, but rather could achieve this wondrous result through its own efforts.

It is easy to forget that the current era of human control over nature commenced only two hundred or so years ago with the rise of organized technological advance based on the systematic development and application of physics, chemistry, and other theoretical sciences. It was in the Progressive Era—typically dated from 1890 to 1920—that American intellectuals first sought to come to terms with the full implications of these developments. If the initial response was a burst of optimism, today the reaction often is more pessimistic. Former executive director of the Sierra Club David Brower once declared that “I hate all dams, large and small.” Brower was not concerned that many dams were pork barrel projects that served narrow interest groups and could not pass a simple benefit-cost test. Rather, he hated dams for the very fact that they powerfully symbolized the new human power to control nature—the very opposite of the old progressive feeling of reverence in the presence of a dam. Involving the most threatening form of human mastery of nature, for many people the development of nuclear power now provokes even stronger negative symbolic associations.

Although their language is less certain and less righteous, economists today are by and large still true believers in progressive religion. This goes far to explain the tensions often seen when economists and environmentalists come together: they are waging a new version of religious warfare (fortunately without bloodshed). The Roman Catholic theologian Robert Royal writes that “in the modern environmental debate, those who would permit use and those who advocate wilderness preservation have become virtual warring denominations.” For many environmentalists such as Brower, a symbol of human control over nature filled them with disgust and regret. In recent years, moreover, the environmental antagonism toward dams has been winning. Congress is still fully as addicted to pork barrel in other areas of government spending, but it has largely stopped funding new dams. Indeed, a recent trend is to tear some of them down—as evidenced by the planned removal (as I write) of the Elwa River Dam in Olympic National Park in Washington State, for one.

Instead, “antiprogressive” symbols have become the leading religious objects in American life. In the theology of environmentalism, wilderness areas are the new “cathedrals.” Like a dam, a wilderness area makes a symbolic statement about the goal in human interaction with nature. In this case, however, rather than showing an aspiration to greater mastery of nature, the creation of a wilderness area renounces such human powers. As defined by Congress in the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness area is a place “untrammeled by man” where any signs of a past human presence should be at a minimum. The protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska has been so vital to the environmental movement because it is said to be one of the last remaining places on earth still “untouched by man.”

Economic religion for much of the twentieth century exalted human control over nature; environmental religion today offers a precisely opposite view. The Washington Post editorialized in 2008 that the management goal for the surrounding state governments should be to “turn the dream of a pristine Chesapeake Bay into a reality.” Innumerable similar illustrations could be offered from recent popular and professional literature—expressing a great hope that a true “natural” condition, reflecting a minimum of human influence, can be established and maintained across the world (or at least as much of the world as might be practically feasible).

A Double-Edged Sword

Why has this large shift in religious thinking taken place? One reason is that the products of science have proved less unambiguously beneficial than the true believers in economic progress once advertised. The development of modern chemicals, for example, was regarded initially as a wonderful scientific blessing; the use of DDT helped eradicate malaria in many parts of the world. In 1962’s Silent Spring, however, Rachel Carson portrayed these chemicals in new environmental light; the use of DDT and other toxic chemicals was poisoning some of the nation’s most important bird wildlife. More broadly, as the new environmental prophets began to preach in the 1960s, the modern spread of industry and commerce over the entire globe was wiping out vast areas of plant and animal habitat, posing for many species a threat even to their very existence on earth.

The powers of modern science and economics were proving to be a mixed blessing in many other areas as well. For progressive optimists, the Holocaust was perhaps the most troubling event of the twentieth century. There had been terrible bursts of anti-Semitism in Europe before, but they had never been married to modern economic efficiency. Contrary to the core tenets of economic theology, all this had occurred in Germany, one of the more economically advanced nations of the world. The atomic bomb and the control over nuclear energy raised a possibility—unimaginable until the mid-twentieth century—of the extinction of human beings from the earth by their own actions. As the twenty-first century opens, an exploding capacity for bioengineering and other genetic manipulations may soon challenge traditional understandings of what it means to be a human being. Rather than a new heaven on earth, in the worst case modern science and economics could even bring a new hell on earth.

Even small groups of people—perhaps even lone individuals in the future—would hold the power to do great harm to a whole society. Both environmentalism and the war on terror involve an attempt to protect the world from potentially harmful products of modern technological “progress.” The war on drugs has similar origins, and its supporters appeal to related public fears and anxieties. If environmentalism is concerned with chemicals in the external environment, the war on drugs is concerned with the internal environment of the human brain and body. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, amphetamines, and other mind-altering substances are all products of modern scientific discovery. They are also capable of changing nature, in this case human nature, creating an altered biological working of the brain.

Together, environmentalism, the war on terror, and the war on drugs are having a great cumulative impact on American life. Although they are sustained by much different coalitions, and their advocates are often critical of and politically opposed to one another, these outward differences mask a fundamental underlying similarity. Environmental threats, terrorist attacks, and mind-altering drugs are all products of modern technologies that are now seen to pose grave dangers. In the face of both the deep public fears that have been aroused in these areas and the extraordinary pace of technological change, these three leading moral crusades of our time seek to offer the hope of restoring—however improbably—the past certainties of a true “natural” order in the world.

Environmentalism and Libertarianism

The likely consequences of the new human powers over nature cannot be separated from the political institutions that will oversee the use of these powers. Here again, the history of the twentieth century was discouraging for progressive true believers. In economic, environmental, and other areas of concern, there was a sharp loss of confidence in the capacity of governments to act “in the public interest”—or even to identify any set of generally accepted public goals within a large nation-state. Modern science and economics were increasingly making it possible for governments to put nature to use for human purposes, and yet these governments seemed unable to exercise such new, large powers over nature with appropriate care and responsibility.

This was all the more reason for environmentalists to doubt the gains from “the modern project.” Interestingly enough, another group, seldom associated with environmentalism, reacted in a similar manner: libertarians were more concerned about the impact on human freedom of the newly powerful governments of the twentieth century than they were about impacts on the natural world. Here again, the history of the twentieth century offered deep cause for concern. In the worst cases, heads of government such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin killed millions of their own citizens—their ability to do so magnified by modern scientific and economic “advance.”

Economic religion might speak of marrying modern technology with modern industry for the salvation of all mankind. The reality was that control over the new instruments of scientific and economic power rested with ordinary politicians. Scientific and economic developments had greatly escalated the stakes with respect to the decision-making capabilities of governments. There seemingly had been little corresponding improvement, however, in governing skills. Environmentalists feared for the future of the natural world, and even for the future of human existence on earth. Libertarians feared for the future of individual rights and human freedom.

Environmental Calvinism

The roots of modern libertarianism trace to the writings of John Locke and the struggles of the Puritans—the English branch of Calvinism—to maintain their religious freedoms. It is less widely recognized, but contemporary environmentalism also has Calvinist roots. The environmental movement is more than simply a reaction against the progressive gospel of efficiency. Its beliefs derive from Western religion well preceding the rise of the secular gospels in the modern age. The founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century were also Puritans. Throughout American history, the Puritan influence in American life has been—and still is—extraordinarily great. As the environmental historian Mark Stoll now observes, “The moral urgency that animates the environmental movement is also a direct legacy of Calvinism and Puritanism. . . . The activist wing of environmentalism traces its roots through the Puritans directly to God’s holy self-appointed instruments, the committed Calvinists.”

In contemporary environmentalism, one learns again of human corruption by greed, of an excess of human pride, of a desire of humans to possess forms of knowledge that must be reserved to God alone, and of punishments that God will inflict on those sinners who have violated His commands. The source of temptation, to be sure, is no longer a snake in the Garden of Eden; it is modern science and economics, which have led human beings—encouraged by the various forms of economic religion—to believe that they can assume God-like powers on their own. Indeed, many modern men and women have ceased to believe in God at all, in effect substituting their own thoughts and actions for His commands.

In the beginning, as Christianity has long taught, God created the world according to a divine plan. Modern human beings, however, are now acting to remake the natural order according to their own designs. Yet in the Christian tradition there can be no greater sin than to challenge the place of God. As the Oxford theologian Alister McGrath comments, “The fundamental element of original sin . . . is a desire to ‘be like God’ and to be set free from all the constraints of creatureliness”—to exhibit a “human self-centeredness, which causes people to develop a skewed relationship with each other, with God, and with the environment.” As foretold in the Bible, there will be a certain outcome when God is confronted with direct challenges to His authority—those usurpers will soon be punished severely. Indeed, the punishments in the Old Testament generally take the form of environmental calamities very much like those that our contemporary environmental prophets foresee.

In Deuteronomy, for example, we learn in chapters 28 and 29 of the wrath of God that will be inflicted on those who have defied His commands. As Moses tells his fellow Jews:

If you won’t listen to the Lord your God and won’t obey these laws I am giving you today, then all these curses shall come upon you. He will send disease among you until you are destroyed from the face of the land you are about the enter and possess. He will send tuberculosis, fever, inflections, plague, and war. He will blight your crops, covering them with mildew. All these devastations shall pursue you until you perish. The heavens above you will be as unyielding as bronze, and the earth beneath will be as iron. The land will become as dry as dust for lack of rain, and dust storms shall destroy you. You will sow much but reap little, for the locusts will eat your crops. You will plant vineyards and care for them, but you won’t eat the grapes or drink the wine, for worms will destroy the vines. Olive trees will be growing everywhere, but there won’t be enough olive oil to anoint yourselves. For the trees will drop their fruit before it is matured. All these curses shall pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. “Why has the Lord done this to his land?” the nations will ask. “Why was he so angry?” And they will be told, “Because the people of the land broke the contract made with them by Jehovah, the God of their ancestors. . . . For they worshipped other gods, violating his express command.”

In our own time, environmentalism is in effect telling us, humankind has once again turned to worship other gods—above all, in the twentieth century, the god of economic progress. And, as environmentalists now warn, terrible punishments on a biblical scale surely lie in store. With the rise of modern industry, for example, and the resulting great increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere, human actions have been literally changing the climate of the earth. But this domain must be reserved to God, and therefore global catastrophes on a worldwide scale loom. Following the rise of the earth’s temperatures, the oceans will rise and flood the land; new famines will threaten the world; severe hurricanes and other terrible weather events will increase in frequency; and malaria and other pestilences will spread and worsen. As one might say, climate change is the new book of Deuteronomy, the biblical passage above now rewritten with the vocabulary of greenhouse gases and global warming.

Robert Mendelson is a well-regarded American economist and professor at Yale University. According to his analysis, as presented in a host of books and articles, higher average temperatures in Canada and Siberia might actually open up large new areas for both human settlement and more productive agriculture. In the United States, since air conditioning became available a half century ago, many people have been moving to the South in search of warmer weather. If the climate of the earth warmed somewhat, they might be able to enjoy milder winters without having to move as far, or perhaps at all. Indeed, taking the full range of impacts of global warming into account, and the many opportunities for human adaptation and substitution, Mendelson has estimated that the residents of the United States, northern Europe, Russia, China, and Japan—essentially the entire temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere—might well see their welfare little affected by a moderate degree of warming of the climate of the earth, and for many there might in fact be a benefit.

Mendelson is speaking in the voice of economic religion, for which events in the world are measured by their direct impacts on human welfare. Such arguments, however, have had almost no influence on the thinking of contemporary environmentalism. Mendelson’s writings have been ignored, if not spurned outright, by the environmental movement. In environmental religion, global warming is a sin against God, not an issue to be resolved by economic calculations of possible future benefits and costs to human beings. The Endangered Species Act—a modern Noah’s Ark, as some have called it—directs the federal government to spare no costs in seeking to ensure the survival of every plant and animal species. It is a new and secular way of saying that, in obeying a command of God, ordinary, crass political and economic calculations can have no place—any more than Noah could have decided to exclude some species from his ark because he perhaps found himself short on space.

Surface mining of coal alters the shape of tall mountains, dams divert the course of great rivers, greenhouse gases change the chemical composition of the earth’s atmosphere, and toxic chemicals contaminate the soil. Such God-like acts would have been impossible until very recently in human history. For the past two hundred years, however, human beings have increasingly been able to remake the natural world by their own actions. From the perspective of environmental religion, they are overstepping their proper bounds, and God will surely be offended. Indeed, the wrath of God will soon be upon us, and, as the Bible says, it will frequently take the form of an environmental disaster.

In the modern age, science displaced religion as an ultimate source of authority for many people. Yet religious yearnings seemingly diminished little if at all. The result has been the translation of biblical messages into “scientific” messages. The language of mathematics replaced Hebrew and Latin. Old-fashioned religion today masquerades as science—the modern rise of secular religions can be regarded as only in a limited respect a truly “secular” phenomenon.

Environmental Creationism

According to the Puritans and other Calvinists, there were two “books” that provided a correct knowledge of God and his ways. The most important was the Bible, but there was also the “Book of Nature.” Puritans encouraged the study of the natural world as a religious exercise. When Henry David Thoreau in 1845 moved to Walden Pond, he was following a path already well blazed by his Puritan predecessors in New England.

Until the nineteenth century, it was generally believed that the earth was still found as it had originally been created—an event of only about six thousand years ago. There was no thought that the earth might be four billion years old, or that it had been transformed by vast geological upheavals and the biological evolution of dinosaurs and many thousands of other plant and animal species, most of which had long ago become extinct. A good Christian thus believed that in visiting nature he or she was encountering “the creation” in its original character. God was not actually in nature—that would be the heresy of pantheism—but God had created the natural world as an expression of his true thinking and essence. God was like the painter of a picture that, amazingly enough, could now still be seen here on earth. One could thus discover in nature literally a product of God’s own handiwork in the first six days. For the Christian faithful it would be hard to imagine a more inspirational thought.

John Muir was in his early twenties when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 yet seemingly was little influenced by the Darwinist ways of thinking that were spreading with a revolutionary force in the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus for Muir, the present rocks, plants, and other features of the natural world were “the terrestrial manifestations of God.” In visiting wild nature, it was possible to find a “window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.” Of the Sierra wilderness, Muir declared that “everything in it seems equally divine—one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s love.” The trees in nature were “psalm-singing”; the primeval forests were “temples”—and for an age increasingly skeptical of biblical revelations, these phenomena were perhaps the leading means by which God still communicated with the faithful. As historian Roderick Nash comments, it therefore “followed that wild nature provided the best ‘conductor of divinity’ because it was least associated with man’s artificial constructs.” Going to a wild area for Muir revealed the “fundamental truths of existence” in God’s given universe.

In environmental religion today, although the explicit references to “God” are many fewer, nature is still seen much in this way. The contemporary environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston—a winner of the Templeton Prize in religion—declares that “with [its wild] forests, America is even more of a promised land than is Palestine. . . . Such forests are a church.” Environmental writings are filled with statements of the urgent need to protect “the creation.” While he was secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbitt explained in 1996 to his fellow Americans that “all the plants and animals in the natural world are together a direct reflector of divinity, that creation is a plan of God.” Then, since “God put them there,” there was a moral imperative for human beings that “we ought not to recklessly destroy the patterns of creation.”

In such thinking, wilderness and other “untouched” areas are among the last remaining places where God’s original artwork still remains visible. If we were to destroy all the remaining wild areas of the earth, we would in effect be defacing the places where God has revealed Himself most visibly to the world. It would be almost like a giant fire in which all the Bibles of the world were being burned; only the devil could hope for such a result. In seeking the economic development of the wilderness, often following the tenets of economic religion, modern men and women are thus—from the perspective of environmental religion—committing a terrible sin against God. In the pursuit of economic growth and development, they would even go so far as to erase some of the main remaining evidences of God’s own plans for the world.

Two Understandings of Nature

Environmental creationism has great religious appeal, yet this correspondence subjects the environmental movement to the charge of exhibiting a basic theological confusion. Perhaps the greatest source of difficulty for environmental theology—which carries over to environmental policy making as well—involves the idea of “nature.” Environmentalists often speak of the “nature” of God’s original creation, as depicted in the Bible. But environmentalists also often speak of another nature, in which there is a constant struggle among plant and animal species for survival. In this Darwinian world, there is unremitting conflict, with different species often killing one another; on the whole, it is a cruel and heartless place.

Environmental religion generally offers the more romantic vision of nature, the wonderful happy harmony of “the creation” at the beginning, as an appropriate benchmark for the setting of public policy. Environmental policy making now often seeks to accomplish the virtual restoration of the Garden of Eden on earth. Yet modern biological science tells us that the Darwinian vision of an unremitting, harsh struggle for survival is a more valid depiction of the natural world. In this outlook, the recent human development of modern scientific and economic powers to control nature represents the ultimate Darwinian triumph of the human species. Why is it not an extraordinarily happy event to be celebrated that human beings have emerged as the greatest victors ever in the evolutionary struggle (exceeding even the dinosaurs in their dominance of the earth’s landscapes)? Why should this great Darwinian triumph of our own species be lamented, as environmentalism is wont to do?

This raises a related question: which nature is environmentalism speaking about? Environmental religion and the corresponding environmental ethics are drawn from one understanding of nature: the world of a happy harmony that represents the artwork of God at the creation. The biological and ecological sciences, however, describe a much different natural world. Although many environmentalists simply seek to have it both ways, compartmentalizing their scientific and religious lives, this is not an intellectually—or theologically—workable solution. Other environmentalists seek to escape the dilemma by arguing that protecting “the creation” is also an evolutionary requirement for future human survival. But this is too clever by far. It is most unlikely that the number of wilderness areas set aside for protection from human impacts since the 1960s will have much—if any—effect on the Darwinian prospects for survival of the human species. Environmentalists may argue that maintaining the gene pool of wild plant and animal species will have a high future practical value to society. But the rapidly growing human ability to play God in genetic domains makes this ever less likely. Those species of greatest value to human beings have already been domesticated; there is no danger of their extinction. Indeed, even if a benefit-cost test came out decisively against the protection of an individual species, few environmentalists would be prepared to accept this economic verdict.

Implicitly, environmentalism thus rejects Darwin and embraces a morality outside the strictly scientific realm. But most environmentalists—wanting to maintain their scientific credentials—are unwilling to say so. As this book will argue, if they did, it would come close to professing a belief in God’s commands as the basis for current environmental policies. Because that is not acceptable to many current environmentalists, many of whom question or deny outright the existence of God, the actual ethical grounds for environmental policies must remain hidden. Theological confusion for many people is preferable to a loss of faith altogether.

The “Lurking Inconsistency”

In an article in the journal Conservation Biology, University of Maryland economist Herman Daly, a founder of the field of ecological economics, described such tensions within environmental religion. He noted that many working conservation biologists and other leaders in the field of ecology believe, on the one hand, that virtually everything important in the world is the product of a Darwinist outcome of “random mutation and natural selection.” On the other hand, they also put great energies into fighting in the public arena for government “policies to save this or that species.” But why? In a strictly Darwinist world, as Daly says, any ethical goal (including saving a species) is itself no more than an “‘epiphenomenon—an illusion which itself was selected for because of the reproductive advantage that it chanced to confer on those under its influence.” Logically enough in Darwinist terms, “most leading biologists claim not to believe in purpose (in the sense of either cosmic telos or mere individual preferences that are causative in the physical world).”

Yet, if there is no “purpose,” Daly asks, what is the need to make valiant efforts to preserve species—and to take all the other heroic measures to protect nature sought by the environmental movement, often at large costs to society. Without purpose, these environmental goals would make little if any sense at all. Yet environmentalists who claim that the lens of Darwin and biology informs their understanding of the world are also fierce partisans for such causes. This is the “lurking inconsistency” that, Daly writes, renders the thinking of much of contemporary environmental religion theologically incoherent.

Of course, as noted above, environmentalism has a great deal of company. It has been characteristic of the entire modern age—from nineteenth-century Marxism to deep ecology today—that powerful religious beliefs, in most cases derived from Jewish and Christian sources, have been translated into a new positivist language of science. As Daly notes in his article, the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was critical of this modern “radical inconsistency” as long ago as 1925. As Whitehead put it, “A scientific realism, based on mechanism, is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and of the higher animals as being composed of self-determining organisms” and whose actions are actually directed to the realization of “final causes.” But the scientific materialism that underlies modern thinking offers no justification for such “final causes”—or for the actions of noble men and women who sometimes have even been willing to die for their causes. The result, Whitehead concluded, and Daly finds matters little changed today, was an “absolute contradiction” that underlay much of modern thinking.

When Daly says that there must be a “purpose” in the world to justify saving plant and animal species, he does not mean that a saved species must be useful for finding new pharmaceutical drugs or some other such practical goal. It is not a utilitarian matter of determining that species preservation is dictated by the maximization of some economic or other “objective function” (reflecting some given social “purpose”), subject to a set of constraints. Indeed, it is not that environmental actions must serve any practical purpose of advancing the interests of the human species itself. When Daly says a “purpose” is required, he really means a source of religious authority and legitimacy that transcends the daily experiences of human beings. In Western civilization that has generally meant a Christian (or Jewish) God. Thus, Daly’s required “purpose” is really God’s purpose; like so many others involved in economic and environmental debates, however, he does not say so explicitly. Perhaps this is because it would have put him beyond the pale with many of the fellow biologists and ecologists he hopes to influence (and Conservation Biology might not have published his article with too much explicit “God talk” in it).


As this book will argue, contemporary environmental religion can be seen not only as a secular extension of Jewish and Christian religion but also, more specifically, as an offshoot of Protestantism and especially Calvinism. The Calvinist elements go far to explain the attraction of environmentalism for so many Americans. Based on an ostensibly “scientific” body of thought, environmentalism has reasserted the powerful U.S. Puritan heritage in a form free of the historical baggage of institutional Christianity. As historical Puritanism waned, its main religious convictions proved more resilient in American life. But the new Calvinists were determined to distance themselves from the old wars among competing denominations, the petty squabbles, and the many other historical failings of institutional Christian religion; they found a means to do so in the new secular religion of environmentalism.

© 2009 Penn State University

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