Sunday, March 25, 2007

What Would Jesus Drive?

As an environmentalist living in a state where "liberal" is a dirty word, I think I've come to recognize -- and maybe even understand -- the patterns of thought that hinder our progress.

  1. The world is very big, while humanity and its needs are tiny by comparison.
  2. Environmental restrictions are an onerous restriction on personal freedom.
  3. Technological progress and human ingenuity will save us from any environmental excesses.

I believe that -- at least to a first approximation -- the first idea has its origins in a very specific conception of God. According to this conception, God had a plan to establish humanity as the dominant species on the planet, and [preferred deity gender pronoun] created the Earth to fulfill the needs of the species. Environmentalism is therefore seen as a repudiation of the commandment to use the Earth as we see fit, and the sustainability movement seems to imply that God screwed up by not anticipating our current needs.

Maybe this is a shamefully misleading caricature of my opponents. But my reason for suspecting that is that it's so easy to refute this depiction, that it hurts my brain to think that anyone could actually believe it. The words of actual anti-environmentalists only lend support to the idea. Here's Rush Limbaugh's take:

In fact, that passage [by Michael Crichton] is one of the things that helped form my whole thinking on the concept of the complexity of all of this that is our planet and the impotence that we really have to do anything about it. The idea that by improving our standards of living, that those characteristics of our existence will destroy us, is, frankly, just absurd. I contend you cannot believe in God and believe what the global warming crowd believes. You can't. The two do not go hand in hand. You have to actively not believe in God and believe in something else as a replacement, in order to hold this catastrophic climate crisis view that they all have. [source]
Of course, I do believe in global warming, and I don't believe in God. But it's not necessary to be an atheist; you simply have to not believe in the same conception of God that Rush does.

Well, I promised that this viewpoint was pretty easy to take apart, and I guess it would be rather anticlimatic if I didn't demonstrate the fact. It seems to me that their conception of God is a right-wing, consumerist convenience not derived from any scriptural source. This god could not have merely provided us an inheritance that could bring us happiness if used responsibly. No, sir. The only logical course of action was for the Creator to provide a canvas big enough to support all the desires and cravings of as many descendants as humanity could ever want to bear.

Why should we believe that, though? Understand that this is the same God who promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey, then stuck them in the one spot in the parched, sandy Middle East that doesn't have significant oil reserves[1]. Okay, cheap shot. But I can't recall any scriptural support for the idea that God will protect us from the consequences of our own stupid actions. A quick glance through the annals of history would similarly reveal a God who often steps aside and lets humanity reap what it has sown. So why this loophole that protects our environment from the consequences of the pursuit of material gain? Why don't the anti-environmentalists say what they really think: God loves us and wants us to have SUVs?

There is some evidence, of course, that any Creator would want and even expect some level of economic development for our own benefit. How else to explain the digestive tract? We need "stuff" to survive, and that stuff invariably comes from nature. But one solitary verse about "replenishing" and "subduing" [2] can hardly be bootstrapped into a comprehensive environmental and economic policy. If the Lord Almighty didn't specify One True Global Carrying Capacity, we should assume that we're supposed to figure out the limits of creation for ourselves, rather than assume that no such limits exist.

This conception of God also ignores ample evidence that our happiness in this life isn't supposed to come from ever-expanding material consumption. It's supposed to come from things like loving your neighbor, doing good works, and smiting the enemies of the Most High.[3] I disagree with quite a few religious ideas about how to live happily, but there are some valuable ideas to be mined, ideas which some self-proclaimed religious people seem to have rejected in favor of "The Cult of More".

The Cult of More is the fundamental idea, lodged deep in the American psyche, that the solution to all our problems, from the environment to poverty to that deep, abiding sense of purposelessness that infects the lives of so many. It also considers American-style, cutthroat capitalism to be the ideal means of achieving economic growth. Environmentalism, anti-corporatism, and anti-consumerism all threaten the tenets of The Cult of More, and therefore constitute a grave threat to the happiness of every American.

The Cult of More offers false promises of salvation, and provides the first line of defense for the greediest and most socially damaging practices of modern corporations. The truth is, there simply isn't enough planet to raise everyone's standard of living to that of the average American. That standard of living is even less attainable when we start trying to figure out how to achieve it for future generations, and it falls pathetically short of the lavish lifestyle that our society promotes as ideal.

If you're like most religious people, you must have been taught somewhere along the lines that values like service, sacrifice, kindness, and compassion would bring more happiness than material wealth. As we live our lives in a world that risks being drowned in the sea of our wants, we need to settle on a new set of priorities that will let us achieve greater happiness at less ecological cost.

I'll be covering the other two articles of faith (Regulation as Anti-Freedom and Technology as Savior) in separate posts.


[1] According to Wikipedia, Israel produces about 2700 barrels of oil a day, or enough fuel to power three Hummers. They also note that the population of African elephants has tripled in the last six months.

[2] Genesis 1:28

[3] We seem to have the smiting bit down pat. In fact, our government spends $400B a year on smiting-related expenditures. Can we please work on the other two for a while?


Crunchy Hippie Mom said...

Awesome, I couldn't agree more.

Crunchy Hippie Mom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bryce said...


I'm still learning how to use the Blogger software. I only removed the above comment because it was a double-posting of the previous comment. Since a "comment deleted" notice seems to insinuate that the post was out of order (or that I'm one of those nazi bloggers) I figured I should explain.