James Schlesinger had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day called "The Theology of Global Warming" (paid subscription required, but really, don’t bother). It’s full of the usual skeptical blather — if you’re interested in the specifics, and in finding out why Schlesigner in particular is an unreliable source, I refer you to Chris Mooney.

I’m more interested in this general idea that global warming, and environmentalism generally, has become a "secular religion." You hear it a lot. It’s become a favorite talking point on the right. (And let’s be honest: When you hear anti-environmentalist talking points, it’s coming from the right. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.)

What should a green make of this charge?

I think it’s strategically brilliant. It’s a way for the leadership on the right to reach two constituencies simultaneously:

  • On the one hand, they’re talking to the religious right. The message is that environmentalism is a form of paganism left over from the ’60s hippies. Greens, the implication goes, worship nature instead of God and value trees over God’s chosen people, i.e., us. No doubt in some dark recesses of the web, this charge is accompanied by implications of sorcery and demonic possession and who knows what else. "Religion," to these people, is taken literally — environmentalism is an alternative religion.
  • On the other hand, they’re talking to the kind of rightie who fancies himself a tough-minded, rational realist . To this guy they’re saying, look, these greens don’t care about empirical evidence or facts, they just want to control public dialogue and scare everyone and get more funding and pass well-intentioned but utterly impractical big government programs. To this guy, "religion" means "irrational" and "hysterical."

Quite the rhetorical jujitsu, no?

There’s definitely some truth to the second charge — irrationalism — but that doesn’t particularly set environmentalism apart. Take any issue on which there are strong feelings — civil rights, abortion, supply-side economics, the Iraq war — and you’ll find a group of people for whom it has become a "religion" in that sense. They’ve made up their mind, it’s never going to change, and they interpret all evidence through the heavy filter of their own preconceptions. They have a set of saints, a set of dogmas, a set of holy texts, even various identifying raiments. Environmentalism’s been around for a long time, and it’s accrued its fair share of such folks.

I’d say people who say we need to be "tougher" in the war on drugs are in the grip of that kind of religion. Certainly supply-siders are — no group has done more to insulate themselves from obvious, repeated empirical disconfirmation. Old-school socialism certainly qualified. One could go on.

But there’s something more going on with environmentalism, and I think it has to do with the first charge, that environmentalism really does involve a form of spiritualism or worship. The graven idol, in this case, is nature itself. Deep ecology is what people have in mind.

Many folks, consciously or subconsciously, view the notion of valuing ecosystems or animals above people as a kind of fundamental betrayal. Say what you will about what’s best for human beings, what social or political or moral arrangements, but saying human beings just don’t matter as much as the rest of the natural world is in itself unnatural in some way. We are built — literally, genetically — to value our family first, then a series of overlapping, wider tribes, all the way up to abstractions like "nations." To cast that aside and say our natural setting matters more is viewed by many people, even many who would not consciously cop to it, as perverse, possibly evil.

(I’m familiar with the strain of Christian environmentalism that says we should care for God’s creation, but that view puts us safely separate and above nature, akin to admitting that yeah, yeah, we should clean our room. It’s no threat.)

So anyway, that’s what I think is going on when environmentalism is called a religion. It’s a very powerful charge, invoking a whole host of complex and deeply rooted connotations.

How should greens respond? I suppose that’s up to individuals, but here’s what I’d do:

  • Continue to pound on the notion that environmentalism is in our self-interest. Living in accord with nature, reducing our waste, using energy more efficiently, preserving ecosystem services like clean water and air, preventing climate disruption, etc.: These things will will make us happier and more prosperous. They are things people do in service of other people. People who don’t do them are causing harm to other people. I have neither affinity nor any particular antipathy for deep ecology and notions of nature’s "intrinsic value," but I think it’s incredibly harmful that those things continue to be associated, implicitly or explicitly, with environmentalism as a whole.
  • Focus on and talk about results. What we want is the best available science in service of making policy that will benefit the largest number of people. We don’t back policies just because their intentions are good, we back them because we believe, based on argument and empirical evidence, that they will be efficacious. This may mean abandoning many of the policies we hold dear, if it really turns out they aren’t working. On others it will just mean reframing our arguments. For example: opposition to nuclear power has become quasi-religious among many greens. But if you step back and take a cold, hard look at nuclear power — turns out it really doesn’t make sense. So let’s engage nuclear proponents with our (superior) arguments and quit just stomping our feet and pounding the table.

Forgive me father, for I have sinned by making this post way too long. I shall do penance.