Can religion help us solve climate change?

After the interesting the debate with @DarkOptimism on doomerism a couple of posts ago, I was intrigued to see him tweeting a link to the latest BigIssue which carries an article by Adam Forrest called Climate Change: A Matter of Faith and asks the question, Can Science and religion work together to save us from ourselves? (pdf download here.)

Many climate skeptics and environmental critics have long felt that these movements are best seen as religious ideologies rather than being based on objective science; but while these charges are normally dismissed as absurd conspiracy theories, here we have an example of activists who not only freely admit to a religious dimension to their cause, but actually advocate the deliberate creation or invention of religious ideas in order to motivate the kind of change they want to see. (Simon Fairlie provides another example of this approach here.)

All the peer-reviewed studies and strategies of persuasion known to Green PR have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live… the green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task

So why has the green movement failed in its stated task of fundamentally changing the way we live? The article, which references Transition Towns and the Dark Mountain Project as guides to a Post-Collapse Society, goes on to quote Stefan Skrimshire, who specializes in Theology and Climate change at Leeds University, who asks:

How do you get people to believe in the end of civilisation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to help forestall disaster?

Hmm difficult question that one. What is odd- or perhaps predictable- about the whole article is that it is based on an absolute presumption, total conviction, that we are facing the collapse of civilisation, and the fact that most people and society at large is snoring is a result of some kind of denial, or the usual human frailties of greed and selfishness. Alistair McIntosh, author of Hell and High Water, points to traditional narratives of doom going back to biblical times, but draws completely the wrong conclusion:

The metaphysical matters, for without it we miss the whole picture…I would like to see the use of [science] tempered with some of the wisdom the pre-modern world possessed.

There are so many garbled ideas and messages contained here that it is hard to find one’s way through. Science is not about telling stories, but about considering the evidence. The Grand Narrative of Environmental Doom being proposed here is laden with the Guilt of Original Sin and Revenge Fantasies. The problem is, environmentalists of this ilk do not value the gains of the modern world, and imagine a romantic past that never existed. There was wisdom of a sort in traditional cultures, but it was not a sort of wisdom that will do us any good now- and the last thing we need is to be dragged back into a superstitious Dark Age.

The reality is, humans have used their innovations and technologies to drag themselves out of the extreme hardships that Nature bequeathed them, and that this has certainly exacted a cost to the environment- but by and large it has been worth it because the past was in fact so terrible. Those who yearn for some kind of idyllic simple life in the stone-age should remember that life expectancy was pitifully short and infant mortality was generally very high.

The way to address environmental problems is to embrace technology and innovation. Simply developing cars with higher mileage, for example, will have a far, far bigger beneficial impact than any amount of “lifestyle change” simply because the kind of lifestyle changes Greens like to proselytize about, were they to actually mean anything in reducing environmental impact, equate to poverty. And poverty in the here and now is far, far worse than some vague and abstract notion about climate change sometime in our grandchildren’s time.

“It is, inevitably a spiritual change and we will be more and more pushed to think about these things.” muses McIntosh. “It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before and we are going to have to strengthen our personal resilience.”

How can climate change sometime in the future, the effects of which are highly uncertain, our ability to adapt largely dependent on wealth and technology (not to dismiss community and “resilience”- those things are important as well) possibly be bigger than anything “we” (humanity? White Western Males with University tenures?) have ever faced before?

When, as an angst-riven teenager just becoming influenced by such post-modern ideas complained to my parents about how awful things were getting in the world some 30 years ago, I was reminded that they had grown up during a World War. I had no concept of what that must have been like. But if WW1 and 2 do not suffice, how about the Black Death? That must have been pretty bad, when some 30-60% of the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of a few years.

There have been hundreds of other plagues, famines, natural disasters and wars throughout history, but science, progress, development and technology have allowed us to mitigate many of the worst effects for much of the world. Not, of course enough- there is still 2billion too many in poverty; we are not going to help them by hand-wringing about how awfully materialistic we have become. Materialism is the result of our incredible success, and with it we have developed liberal values of the Enlightenment, democracy and, hey, we may even be becoming less violent.

Instead of celebrating these astonishing gains, and the fact that we are here to witness them, these noble Green Theologians believe that if they only tell Joe Public the right Story that we will all See the Light and mend our evil ways. Unfortunately, as another ancient myth, that of Pandora’s Box, tells us, there is no going back, we can only continue on our path of progress, and for that we should be surely thankful.

EcoFascism Revisited

Book Review
Ecofascism Revisited
Lessons from the German experience

Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier
Pbck; 188pp
New Compass 2011
First published 1995

The historical connections between fascism and environmental movements remain relatively unknown in the contemporary world where “Green” issues are more generally associated with the Left and liberal values.
In Britain, early environmentalism was strongly influenced by eugenics and concerns about the burgeoning human population. A good overview of this can be read in Fred Pearce’s PeopleQuake. This in turn had been influenced by Malthus and his dire warnings of population outstripping the food supply- perhaps the original single issue defining the course of the environmental movement.

First published in 1995, this updated work by Peter Staudenmaier provides a powerful historical analysis of the how environmental thinking was adopted by some quarters in the Nazi party in 1930s and 40s Germany, and how this alliance between romantic environmental thinking and far-right politics may still be significant today.

The book consists of three essays, the first two reproduced unchanged from the original, and a new essay by Peter Staudenmaier reflecting developments since the mid-1990s.

Staudenmaier is an Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a Professor of modern European history at Marquette University, Milwaukee, and has been active in anarchist and green movements in the US. In 2010 he completed his dissertation Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945 at Cornell University.

As a social ecologist he takes a pragmatic and rationalist approach approach to environmental problems, but keeps them rooted firmly in left-wing politics and issues of social justice: for the social ecologist, environmentalism is as much a struggle against structures of oppression of people as of the environment, and this is in stark contrast to the romantic and Malthussian, anti-human wing of environmentalism, which sees the enemy to be not capitalism and the profit motive, which exploits people and nature equally, but the human race itself- or more accurately perhaps, certain racial groups.

In the Introduction, Staudenmaier explains:

In Europe as in the United States, most ecological activists think of themselves as socially progressive…For many such people, it may come as a surprise to learn that the history of ecological politics has not always been inherently and necessarily progressive and benign. In fact, ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and laced in the service of highly regressive ends- even of fascism itself….

important tendencies in German “ecologism”, which has long roots in nineteenth-century nature mysticism, fed into the rise of Nazism in the 20th Century. During the “Third Reich”…Nazi “ecologists” even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes into key elements not only of their ideology but in their governmental policies.

Moreover, Nazi “ecological” ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today.

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Does the Spiritual have a place in Permaculture?

Interesting and welcome post by Craig Mackintosh of the Australian Permaculture research Institute discussing the role of metaphysics and “spirituality” in the Permaculture movement.

I personally often feel frustrated that too many permaculturists are mixing subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements into their courses, and are thereby helping to ensure permaculture is relegated to the periphery rather than — as desperately needs to happen — being taken up broad scale by all people everywhere, regardless of their culture and preferred belief system.

As permaculture teacher myself, this is an issue I have been wrestling with myself for the past several years, in the PC (permaculture) movement as well as the wider environmental movement.

The concern is that Permaculture Design Courses- which are typically run over 10 days or two weeks as residential courses- are being diluted and compromised by some teachers who include time or even give classes on spiritual beliefs and practices, including Shamanism, yoga, and other aspects of New Age or Earth religion.

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