Environmentalism as a religion

green-jesus

Whether or not we all carry some sort of a “God gene” or are otherwise hardwired by the evolution for religious beliefs, it seems that spirituality of some sort has been a part of the human experience and existence as far back in time as we can ascertain through archaeological evidence, like ritualised burials. It’s probably not a coincidence, therefore, that a decline in traditional Christian beliefs and observance at the start of the twentieth century coincided with the rising popularity of “secular religions” like communism and fascism, which replaced supernatural with supposed science and modernity, and the longing for the hereafter with the concern for the here now. In the English-speaking countries, where organised Christianity arguably held the sway for longer, we had to wait until the 1960s and after for the the corresponding decline at the expense of alternative spiritualities, including New Age and a melange of “Eastern” beliefs. As G K Chesterton once wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” And there has indeed been a lot of anythings since then.

Keen observers of social developments throughout the developed world have for some time noted that environmentalism is increasingly acquiring characteristics of a religious or at least a spiritual belief among significant sections of its followers. The centrality of “green” beliefs to many people’s lives as well as the sheer passion with which they are held and expressed arguably make environmentalism the most significant quasi-religious belief system sometimes competing with, sometimes supplementing the traditional religiosity of Christianity in the Western world today. Environmentalism is of course many different things, including science, ethics and practical behaviour, but whether consciously or not, for an increasing number of well-meaning people it seems to fill the spiritual lacuna vacated by the God of the Bible, replacing both the whole gamut of beliefs as well as of ritual we associate with mainstream religion. In all its varied aspects it’s proving to be an eerily alike simulacra of the familiar monotheism.

Consider:

The belief in a supernatural power –  while religious systems generally include gods or a god, a belief in a supernatural entity is not necessary – see, for example, Buddhism. The Green religion does not have its god, but it has the core belief that nature is somehow sacred, even if only in a mundane sense that the totality of life on Earth (often also including the inanimate world) is much greater (in an ethical sense) and more important than the humanity. A more specific belief in Earth as a giant organism – Gaia – can of course easily lead into ascribing spiritual characteristics to the whole. In some ways, the Green religion can be considered a form of animism, where plants and animals, landscapes and natural phenomena are endowed with meaning, spirit and life of their own.

Eschatology –  the Green religion very much believes in and fears the end of the world and life as we know it, not as a pre-ordained act of god (such as in Christianity and Islam) but as a result of human actions. Millennials, the most religiously Green generation in history, are particularly susceptible: almost three in four say their emotional well-being is affected by the inevitability of climate change; for one in two it’s the biggest fear in their lives, and one in five believes that climate change will bring about the end of the world in their lifetime. The range of responses, from mental conditions like depression and anxiety to a disinclination to have children (or even apparently the meth use), would be familiar to anyone who has studied (no relation) millennarian attitudes and behaviours throughout the ages, from the first decades of Christianity to apocalyptic beliefs of the more modern times.

Afterlife – as with the previous secular religions, like Marxism, in the Green religion there is no afterlife per se; there is only the here and now. Our actual material world has been, and can again be a paradise (literally “heaven on Earth”) if only the humanity can mend its exploitative and destructive ways and re-learn to live in harmony with nature. Just like our Biblical parents, Adam and Eve, the Green religion believes that our early ancestors (as well as the more contemporary tribal hunting and gathering societies) used to live in paradise – in itself an aspect of the “noble savage” belief. The humanity’s Fall came first with agriculture and then the industrialisation – or, generally, our quest for progress and advancement. Today, we live not just exiled east of Eden, but also a few thousand percent of economic growth above the original paradise.

Sin –  the humanity can be sinful; as mentioned above, through their activities that exploit and destroy nature. The contemporary Green religion recognises many specific sins: carbon dioxide emissions, industrial pollution, plastic use, genetic modification of plants and animals, meat-rich diet, energy over-use, flying, waste, mining and other natural resource extraction, deforestation, air-conditioning and so on. The list is very long and ever-expanding. And unless we stop sinning and mend our ways, our sinful actions will lead to the end of the world. An increase in global temperatures of up to 2 degrees Celsius will quite literally create a burning hell on Earth.

Repentance, atonement, salvation –  we have to change our behaviour if nature is to survive and ideally return to its former unspoiled (or less spoiled) glory. Just like in the medieval Christianity, those who can afford to can buy “indulgences” or the official cancellation of their sin and their guilt. Today, these take form of “carbon credits”, “carbon offsets” or certificates that so many trees have been panted to compensate for your sinful emissions. But of course it is nobler still to altogether eliminate the sinful behaviour: hence, we need to go 100 per cent renewable and stop exploiting fossil fuels. Until universal alternative, green energy is achieved we need to take other corrective actions: drive and fly less, go vegan or vegetarian, switch off the lights, ditch plastic bags and plastic straws, consume less, eat organic and local, stop breeding to reduce the population pressure on “scare resources”, forget about the quest for endless economic growth and de-industrialise, recycle and reuse, and so on and so on. Like the pious Christian life of the old, it’s all about self-denial and sacrifice; yours and everyone else’s, whether they want it or not.

Sacraments – if “communion with nature” sounds to you like too much of a analogical stretch, the Green religion offers other sacraments. Like confession (““Even those who care deeply about the planet’s future can slip up now and then. Tell us: Where do you fall short in preventing climate change?” reads the introduction to NBC’s “Climate Confessions” project.”) with penance attached (see above).

Prophets, holy people and holy books – the Green religion has got its fair share of priests and priestesses, and other highly spiritually attuned individuals who act as our ethical guides. Think Al Gore, or David Suzuki, or our modern day Joan of Arc, Greta Thunberg. There are religious orders and associations like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Sea Shepherds and many many others. And, of course, sacred texts (and, because this is the 21st century, visual media) abound, from classics like “The Silent Spring”, “The Limits of Growth” and the collected works of Paul Ehrlich, to more contemporary gospels like “An Inconvenient Truth”, the IPCC reports or the “Green New Deal” manifesto. They are literally considered “gospel truth” because they’re science (in contrast to mainstream religions, which are based on revealed truths).

Rituals and holy days – religion is not just a matter of abstract creeds and beliefs but, as importantly, of expressing such beliefs through actions and observance, which bind the believers and create a sense of community and a shared destiny. Hence the collective expressions of common values and convictions like the Earth Day or the Earth Hour, and most recently the school strikes and walkouts started by Thunberg and now spreading across the world. In the absence of public rallies, marches, protests and blockades, there are many individual options to signal one’s commitment – recycling, turning off the lights, cycling, growing own food, etc.

Symbols and iconography – we are all deeply familiar with religious symbolism, which has been such a central part of our culture and history: cross, crescent, the star of David, images of deities and holy people, temples. They propagate the holy messages at the same time as they help to identify the believers and loudly proclaim to the world their faith and commitment. So it is now with the T-shirts sporting the Greenpeace, WWF or Sea Shepherd logos. Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” temperature graph. Extinction Rebellion’s hourglass. Popular slogans. Polar bear on an ice floe. Climate model projections.

Sacred things – these are all the things endowed with holiness, virtue and goodness – the nature as a whole, all plants and animals (except those genetically modified by humans – instantly in the laboratory, not through thousands of years or laborious cross-breeding) but also some specific quasi-totemic species like polar bears and whales (unlike Hinduism, there are no holy cows – quite the opposite, since cow farts contribute to climate change), young people (because it’s their future that’s at stake), unspoiled wilderness, anything “organic” or “natural”, activists (because they are those who care the most passionately and are prepared for any sacrifice in order to spread their message and achieve change), science (but only to the extent it supports the Green religion, as otherwise it has been historically quite problematic, being so closely entwined with technological and economic progress), vegan diet and so on.

Infidels and heretics –  every religion has got its devils, demons and their human agents – witches, heretics, evil-doers. For the Green religion there are many baddies: capitalists and businesspeople, fossil fuel companies, agribusinesses, miners and others who are despoiling the once pristine nature, exhausting the resources, polluting the environment and generally leading humanity astray through consumerism and greed. “Climate change deniers” are the worst, since they openly doubt the central tenet of the Green religion, namely the catastrophic anthropogenic climate change (formerly known as “global warming”). As spreaders of malicious and dangerous misinformation, they deserve and should be silenced, imprisoned and denied livelihood.

Others will no doubt find many additional similarities and analogies between the old polytheistic and monotheistic religions and the Green religion in its theology, ethics, rituals and trappings. Not least the hypocrisy, our very human inability or unwillingness to live up to the highest standards demanded of us under the accepted moral and ethical framework. See the private jet-flying climate change preachers, for example. In fact, the celebrity activists with the carbon footprint of a small suburb remind me very much of the sinning televangelists, except their transgressions against the planet need not be shamefully hidden as they are routinely disregarded or excused. I guess some priesthoods are easier than others and the Green preachers certainly don’t have to take the vows of silence, chastity, poverty – quite the opposite in fact – though obedience to the dogma and the collective authority of the movement has to be maintained.

Repent for the end is nigh. Thanks to computer models, however, we are told we do know the time and the hour. Like the religious apocalypse, the Green catastrophe remains constantly expected but elusively always 10, 15, 20 years in the future.

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