Environmentalism offers an alternative account of the natural world to the religious and an alternative anti-capitalist account of the political world to the Marxist. The rise of environmentalism parallels in time and place the decline of religion and of socialism.
Anthropologists have established how different cultures independently evolve similar myths – familiar stories, such as the myth of the Fall and the myth of the Apocalypse, which meet deep-seated human needs. The Christian tradition describes the temptation of Adam and Eve and warns of the Last Judgment.
In Europe, these stories no longer have the impact they did. Environmentalism now fulfils for many people the widespread longing for simple, all-encompassing narratives. Environmentalism offers an alternative account of the natural world to the religious and an alternative anti-capitalist account of the political world to the Marxist. The rise of environmentalism parallels in time and place the decline of religion and of socialism.
Environmentalism embraces a myth of the Fall: the loss of harmony between man and nature caused by our materialistic society. Al Gore recounted the words of Chief Seattle, as his tribe relinquished their ancient lands: “Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother?”
This lost Eden never existed. Humans have burned and eaten the environment since time immemorial. The first Americans crossed the Bering Strait and killed every tame animal they saw. Chief Seattle sold his heritage for a life of luxury and his eloquent speech may have been penned by a television scriptwriter. But myths are literature, not history or science: classical epics and the great religious books are cultural treasures and their educational value does not depend on their literal truth.
The Apocalypse myth is equally familiar. Our wickedness has damaged our inheritance and, although it is almost too late, immediate reform can transform our future. Christians look to the Second Coming, Marxists to the collapse of capitalism, with the same mixture of fear and longing.
Environmentalism at first lacked a persuasive Apocalypse myth. The litany of environmental degradation had to confront the manifest fact that many aspects of the environment were steadily improving, with cleaner air, rivers and seashores. The discovery of global warming filled a gap in the canon. That is why environmentalists attach so much importance to the assertion not just that the world is warming up, which is plainly true, but that this warming is our fault, which is less plainly true. The connection between rising carbon concentrations and the growth of modern industrial society provides justification for the link between the sins of our past and the catastrophe of our future.
Environmental evangelists are therefore not interested in pragmatic solutions to climate change or technological fixes for it. They are even less interested in evidence that if we were really serious about reducing carbon emissions we could do so by large amounts without significantly affecting our economies or our lives. Windmills on roofs and cycling to work are insignificant in practical consequence, but that is to miss their point. Every ideology needs rituals of observance which demonstrate the commitment of adherents.
Business should treat the environmental movement as it treats other forms of religious belief. Business leaders do not themselves have to believe its doctrines. Indeed we should be wary if they do: business linked to faiths and ideologies is a sinister and unaccountable power. But companies must respect the belief systems of the countries in which they operate, and acknowledge both the constraints these structures impose and the commercial opportunities that arise. Most environmental initiatives that have been implemented – phasing out fluorocarbons, renewable energy and emissions trading – have significant commercial lobbies behind them.
Still, myths play a valuable social role and the intentions of their proponents are generally benign. The social impact of religions and ideologies, for good and ill, does not depend much on the factual accuracy of their stories. The injunction to be careful of the impact of our actions on the air, the earth and the water is well taken. The danger of environmental evangelism is that ritual, gesture and rhetoric take the place of substance.