Copenhagen, Anti-Scientism, and Quasi-Religious Systems [updated]

Well, the circus is over for now. The much-ballyhooed climate change conference in “Hopenhagen”* has ended and President Obama has claimed victory… well, a “partial” victory at least. For all of the soaring rhetoric, naive utopianism, and run-of-the-mill populist screaming and political violence that inevitably follows every mob of “progressive” activists, Copenhagen accomplished virtually nothing except giving the world’s political class the opportunity to enjoy being carted around in literally thousands of limousines, hundreds of private jets, and gourmet food that was undoubtedly not procured from local farmers. Meanwhile, they all got to feel smug and self-righteous and rub shoulders with such luminaries as Leonardo DiCaprio. They’re saving the world, dontcha know?

But I don’t want to speand this whole post carping about the rank hypocrisies of a political class that quite evidently views climate change as an opportunity to aggrandize themselves and increase the power they hold over the day-to-day lives of billions of people. What a rush. Nor do I really care to spend much time discussing how stupid and gullible anyone who expected Copenhagen to be anything more than a fairly typical summit, albeit somewhat more footprinty than normal.

I’m more concerned about the apparently unscientific beliefs held by these screaming mobs of environmentalists who purport to be “listening to the scientists.” (Consensus!) In particular, it’s constantly to see the environmental movement continue to languish in anti-nuclear hysteria stoked up decades ago, as Ronald Bailey describes:

Among the thousands of rowdy protesters and activists at last week’s Copenhagen climate change conference was the group Don’t Nuke the Climate. Their big moment came when they unfurled a banner inside the Bella Center to mark their displeasure with the idea that nuclear power is a carbon free source of energy.


Seeing the anti-nuke protestors in Copenhagen reminded me that I had recently read James Gustave Speth’s environmentalist manifesto Red Sky at Morning: America and the Global Environmental Crisis Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (1993), environmentalism owes a great ideological debt to the anti-nuke movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and in many respects the two have now melded. (2004) as preparation for an academic symposium on global warming. As I explained in my book,


[H]here’s the really aggravating part of Speth’s preening self-congratulation about stopping the commercialization of breeder reactors: In an alternative universe where 200 fast breeders come online, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be about a third lower than they currently are.


In a 1975 article in Environmental Action, Speth and his co-authors noted that the AEC projected that 50 percent of U.S. electricity in 2020 would be generated by fast breeder reactors and 20 percent by conventional nuclear power plants. This is very nearly the alternative universe posited above. If the AEC’s projections had come true, U.S. carbon emissions could easily be about one-third lower than they are now. Which means that the very reactors that Speth opposed could have been a huge part of the solution to what Speth now claims is humanity’s “biggest threat.”

This is always the problem that I have whenever Greenpeace or OSPIRG kids pester me on the street. It usually takes significantly less than the minute they ask me if I have for the environment for me to ask them if their organization supports the replacement of coal power with cleaner nuclear power, for them to launch into to some absurd memorized speech about how they’re not convinced nuclear is really safe, and for me to subsequently walk away.

One of the common arguments against nuclear power is that it’s expensive and usually requires subsidies. This is true. Bailey also points out that wind and solar (not to mention hydro) also require massive subsidies. Moreover, the sorts of schemes currently being proposed for “capping” carbon emissions will indubitably prove far more expensive in the long run (when crippling economic side effects are factored in) than any subsidies given to nuclear facilities.

Nuclear power, however, isn’t the only “alternative” energy source being killed by the eco-brigades. Attempts to build wind farms at Nantucket have become bywords for NIMBYism. A more recent example is an effort by California Senator Diane Feinstein to block the construction of solar and wind plants in the Mojave Desert.

Climate warriors love to talk about how their ideas are rooted in the scientific method, that their dire predictions of global catastrophe are to be taken seriously because unlike, say, Christian doom-mongering, their doom-mongering is informed by science! Never mind that most of the people doing most of the doom-mongering are completely ignorant of the putative “science” beyond a few slogans and factoids they’ve picked up from a pamphlet somewhere.**

In the end, it comes down to adhering to a certain set of fundamental beliefs. Some, in recent months, have taken to suggesting that the climate change movement amounts to a sort of “cult.” I think that’s taking it a bit far. While most of the people involved in climate change are utterly ignorant about their own beliefs, those beliefs are, however tenuously, based on scientific principles. Now one can quibble about how “scientific” constructing a computer model that uses frequently faulty and incomplete data to derive its output actually is, but “Climategate” revelations aside, it’s been my experience that the people I know working on climate change questions are fundamentally honest and curious people who’re doing the best research they can, and in good faith.

But they’re not the people I’m necessarily interested in. Nor, frankly, are people like Feinstein and those like Ted Kennedy who tried to block the construction of a wind farm offshore from their vacation homes. Such people are essentially classist snobs who’re more than comfortable telling the rest of us we’ll need to get used to higher energy prices and having to pay extra for “carbon credits” whenever we fly — they, after all, are either rich enough that such costs don’t amount to much or simply fly around on the taxpayer dollar. Like every other member of every other political class in the history of mankind, they’re simply taking advantage of contemporary issues to amass more wealth and power for themselves. There’s nothing novel in that.

More interesting to me are the people who march around in the streets screaming at the top of their lungs about concepts they have only the shakiest grasp of and demanding the world be remade to conform to their version of some sort of “scientific” ecotopia (variously informed by neo-Luddism, anti-capitalism, and a host of other post-1960’s radical -isms).

These sorts of people are members of what a geographer of religion named David Sopher calls “quasi-religious systems.”*** While he identifies communism and nationalism as perhaps the two most obvious examples of this phenomenon (the book was published in 1967), I think his theory works equally well for modern-day political environmentalism. Writing about communism, he writes:

Competing with such ethnically oriented quasi religions as [American civic nationalism] is a truly universalizing quasi religion, Communism… There are, in particular, a number of parallels between Christianity and Communism as who vehicles of universalizing world-philosophical ideas, however different the two sets of ideas may be.

Since Communism arose in a society impregnated with the Christian tradition, it has certain religious features derived from that tradition. The myth of the redeeming role of the proletariat, ushering in the Golden Age, is one which “takes over and continues one of the great eschatological myths of the Asiatico-Mediterranean world.” In its great ethos of work and sacrifice, there is an element of Protestant asceticism. It has… the same concept of a dualistic struggle between Good and Evil…

It has its revered teachers and scriptures… For a universalizing system, the absence of a sacred focus and a sacred language can be an asset, provided an adequate communications network exists…

Communism did not confine its original message to a particular ethnic group, but appeared from the beginning as a universalizing system; “Workers of the world, unite!” Adherents of Communism organized cells of belief and proselytization in urban industrial centers… Invested with political power… Communism used force in an attempt to root out heretical belief and practice.

Now, obviously the parallels between Communism and environmentalism are not precise. One can, however, detect a number of similarities: the “sacred texts” (“An Inconvenient Truth”, any scribbling by Paul Ehrlich, etc.), the emphasis on the ethos of sacrifice, the struggle between good (“science!”) and evil (“corporations!”), and, while environmentalists have not yet resorted to force to root out “heretics,” those mercifully ignored demands for the creation of an international body with the authority to force non-compliant states to abide by emissions targets reveal a tacit acceptance of the notion of resorting to police power to enforce “green” codes of conduct.

The reason that I reject the “cult” epithet is that, aside from a few marginal hippies and neo-pagan types who revere Gaia or some such thing, there is no real element of worship or of the supernatural in any of this. Shoddy and incomplete as the understanding of “the science” might be among such people, there is at least some tenuous link between their beliefs and actual science.

That isn’t to say, however, that such people are entirely benign and simply interested in advancing the cause of science and the spirit of inquiry. Like any communist true-believer or rabid nationalist, ideology is their defining trait — driving a Prius and switching to compact fluorescent bulbs isn’t enough — at some point, so the argument goes, government — preferably an international body with enforcement powers — must take a role in forcing people to make the “proper” choices.****

At the most extreme level are people like John Zerzan and other so-called “Green Anarchists“, who are quite open about the fact that, if their ideas were adopted, mass depopulation would ensue (many, like Zerzan, advocate a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles). Most environmentalists are, of course, nowhere near as extreme as John Zerzan. but then, not every nationalist is a Hitler, nor every communist a Stalin. The power, I believe, lies in the idea, not in any individual person. John Zerzan is a deranged lunatic, but many elements of his philosophy are shared by significantly less extreme people who are nevertheless demanding the de-facto end of capitalism and the creation of a green utopia.

People, of course, have every right to buy into such claptrap if they please. But it’s incumbent on everyone to take such peoples’ rhetoric for what it is: not science, but dogma.


* Yeah, I know. It’s so saccharine and twee that it makes a person queasy.

** Full disclosure: I’m certainly not positioning myself as any sort of authority on climate change, though I will say I’ve taken courses on the subject, including the fundamentals of how to interpret ice core, tree ring, and isotope data, among other things, which I feel makes me at least marginally more informed on the subject than most of the people screaming in the streets about CLIMATE. JUSTICE. NOW. or what have you.

*** It’s out of print, but if you’re ever able to get a copy of Sopher’s Geography of Religions, it’s a totally worthwhile read.

**** This, of course, is a long way off. China will almost certainly never allow its sovereignty to be curtailed in such a way and, for all his “internationalist” rhetoric, neither will Barack Obama.



But the main, fundamental problem facing the movement after Copenhagen–which none of the green factions have yet addressed–is its people problem. The movement needs to break with the deep-seated misanthropy that dominates green politics and has brought it to this woeful state. Its leaders have defined our species as everything from a “cancer” to the “AIDs of the earth.” They wail in horror at the thought that by the year 2050 there will likely be another 2 or 3 billion of these inconvenient bipeds. Leading green figures such as Britain’s Jonathan Porritt, Richard Attenborough and Lester Brown even consider baby-making a grievous carbon crime


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