Sunday, August 17, 2008

Environmentalism and post-Christian piety

This has nothing to do with the science surrounding the whole issue of climate change; having no knowledge of this myself, I defer to the majority who ascribe to the "we're all fucked" theory of global warming - to varying degrees.

Instead, this is limited to asking the question of whether and to what extent is environmentalism, as practiced and espoused in modern liberal capitalist societies such as ours, a repository for the sort of piety that used to belong to the church-goer?

I've often thought there's one or two traits that committed environmentalist often display that would suggest it is, although to what extent I wouldn't know. But a couple of similarities spring to mind:

1) It's been a well-documented phenomenon (most recently Nick Cohen makes reference to it here) that the leadership of the green movement, particularly in Britain, tends to be dominated by very posh people. It's an idea that this gentleman has taken great exception to:
"Yes, many prominent greens are posh gits like me. The same can be said of journalists, politicians, artists, academics, business leaders: in fact of just about anyone in public life. But it is always the greens who are singled out."
It may be just my limited experience but I'd argue the opposite if anything. I'd have thought more people are aware - and more people publicly make the point - that business and journalism are dominated by toffs than they are, or do, about environmentalists. But this misses the point anyway. Just because it's someone posh saying something, it doesn't mean it isn't true. But this, in turn, doesn't mean it isn't worth asking the question of whether the predominance of the posh amongst the green movement tells us anything about it's character. I think it does for the following reason:

Environmentalism, like bourgeois Christianity, can be seen as a post-materialist want. If you're poor, you worry about getting food on the table; when you're rich, you have time to worry about where it came from. You see the wider picture - but only because you're not hungry. Some Christians might be offended at the parallel but others seem to have got this point, which is maybe why historically they've attracted a larger following than the green movement does today. John Wesley, for example, once said that, "You can't preach the gospel to a man with toothache". An impressive concession to the material for such a spiritually-minded person, I've always thought.

2) They are tapping into a deep tradition in the Western psyche, which is that of the impending apocalypse. The response is now as it has always been for the eschatalogically-minded - to keep one's garment unspotted by the stuff and filth of this age. This is not to say that re-cycling one's copies of the Guardian and the empty bottles of Shiraz aren't worthwhile activities - it's just that no sober assessment of what's going on in this world of ours would allow you to feel that clean where it not for this religious impulse. Because surely the extent to which the most pessimistic predictions are true, the more trivial and futile actions like this become? Which brings me to this from the post by the defensive environmentalist linked above:
"Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations - they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn’t moral purity (no one manages that) but cynicism."
No, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue and the idea that the only alternative to this is moral perfectionism is absurd. Surely better to follow a form of virtue that has at its core a more sober estimate of oneself in the world? Then maybe the environmentalist message would find a more receptive audience.

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