These days it is not uncommon for environmentalism to be described as a religion. Even without analysing such a statement, it rings true to many people. Why?
Some might assume that because the environmental arena is fraught with emotion and extremes of commitment (tying ones self to a tree, for example), that religion must be at play. This reduction is inadequate, as extremes of emotion and action accompany politics, for example, and politics is rarely equated with religion. There must be another explanation.
In his fascinating 1957 book The Sacred and the Profane, Mercea Eliade observed that many religious world views divided reality into sacred and non-sacred domains. Certain physical locations were designated as holy places where the divine could safely exist in proximity to the temporal, profane world of decay and imperfection. Temples and shrines of all kinds are obvious examples of people creating sacred spaces free of defilement. This was a way for human worshipers to reunite with their creator.
Eliade observed that in many creation stories the divine being(s) would exit the world following its creation. Supernatural beings retreated to other realms often with the expectation of eventual return to the cosmos. Echoing the theme of creation as chaos being subdued by order, Eliade saw that pre-modern religious man also observed sacred time. Recurring festivals linked to the cycle of life draw humanity to the sacred, divine order. Eventually, in a future sacred time, the present, chaotic order of life, susceptible as it is to unpredictable change and entropy, will be replaced by the eternal, divine order.
Much western thought, heavily influenced by Judeo Christian thinking, sees the created world as a profane and untamed domain infected by the fall and therefore hostile to order. Survival is hard fought and not guaranteed. The environment is no Eden.
Curiously, our modern scientific approach to the planet also suggests a cruel and harsh world, where only the fit survive. Science itself seeks to find order and understanding in an often complex and mysterious world. The theory of evolution is itself an extremely elegant means of subduing the chaos of nature, providing an orderly progression along a predictable timescale. Modern cultures take comfort in this notion of order and in great hope often project a future time when yet more order and nobility will be imposed on our cosmos.
Herein lays the central paradox of an emerging environmentally based religious world view I have dubbed Environtology. In Environtology, sacred and profane time and space are reversed. Heavily influenced by eastern religions, Environtologists believe that the environment is pervaded by and demonstrative of the divine. New Age spiritual thought is grounded in the idea that a transcendent life force is inherent in all living things. The idea of a divine and benevolent force exuding from nature is a precursor to Environtology.
Al Gores documentary An Inconvenient Truth is as much a paean to the souls quest for meaning as it is an exposition of scientific enquiry. Caring for the environment is a way to become one with the divine. The creation is entirely sacred, a divine Mother Earth violated by the profane. But what is profane in Environtology?
Whereas Elides religious man sought to create separate holy places for the divine to commune with worshipers, in Environtology, humanity itself represents the profane. The environment represents the imagio dei, and mankind must become one with it to reach God. Our propensity to dominate over the environment is sin. Vancouvers respected weekly newspaper The Georgia Straight recently reared up like a biblical prophet decrying in its cover story The Sin of Air Travel. The underlying philosophy of such a posture is that the invention of flight, an example of humanitys triumph over the limitations of nature, is an example of man profaning the sacred.
Environtology puts forward a utopian eschatology and calls for an acetic lifestyle. Through self denial, mankind can redeem itself and achieve a sustainable future. Failure to deny our cravings will result in an apocalypse. Under Eliades sacred/profane dichotomy, sacrifice and ritual cleansing are viewed as a means to create a purified space for the divine to enter the cosmos. By contrast, Environtology seeks to remove that which is unclean (human infestation) from an already clean space. Cleaning up is a way to unveil sacred spaces profaned by human inhabitation.
Since Environtology is a religion it is therefore susceptible to the problems faced by religions. In theory, all religions seek to find and promote truth and reduce suffering. Unfortunately, it their zeal to promote truth and guard the sacred, religious communities can become intertwined with political power structures and this usually leads to corruption. Corruption in this context is meant to suggest that the original quest for truth is supplanted by a quest for power and resources, increasing suffering.
Environtology is becoming increasingly intertwined with political power and can therefore no longer be viewed as a benign worldview. In traditional cultures, populations saw no distinction between religious and political authority. Since Environtology is not widely viewed as a religion, there is a real danger that the hard fought separation of church and state will be increasingly compromised in the near future. Evidence of this is schools worldwide mandating that Al Gores film be viewed in the classroom, amounting to a form of indoctrination. However, much like praying in school, children are as likely to be helped as harmed by Gores sermon, and detractors will be ridiculed.
Environtology is not inherently bad as an idea, but look for it to start controlling your behaviour through guilt and force of law soon. Also, as Environtology becomes more entrenched, look for hypocrisy to spread. Well-off sinners even now can buy indulgences in the form of carbon credits. As with any system of rules and regulations, you will never measure up, ever. Eventually you will find that you will be saved only by grace.
Now its off to the Sky Train for me so I can head home and cut the grass with my push mower. See, Im better than you.