Environmentalism, Nature and Religion

I thought I might discuss religion and environmentalism, and in particular the quasi-religious nature of some environmentalism. It is not a new idea that the environmental movement can be compared with a religious movement, and I have read such comparisons discussed elsewhere (sorry, I have forgotten the sources, and will therefore not necessarily give credit where due for some of the discussion).

So how might environmentalism be similar to religious belief. The first and most obvious point is that environmentalism puts ‘nature’ as something separate from humans and something that is in need of protection.  This is a belief that is implicit in most environmental discourse; that humans and nature stand in opposition to one another. This is, of course, plain silly. Humans are as much a part of nature as any other living thing. We are, in every respect, natural. Everything we do is natural.

For example, the complex behaviours of great apes are an interaction between the evolutionary inheritance of the species, alongside individual differences between individual apes, and the environment. Humans are no different, and just as ape behaviour is natural, so is human behaviour natural. Our cities and other technologies are just an expression of human nature. As an obvious example, a beaver not only alters the environment for itself, but also for other species. The scale and scope of impact upon the natural environment makes human impacts no less and no more natural. In summary, we are a part of nature, and therefore cannot be opposed to nature. Just as animals impact upon their surrounding environment, so do humans.

One of the most interesting aspects of the environmental movement is the assumption that nature, or what is natural, is a good thing (from here on, I must use the view of nature as separate, as this is the implicit or explicit belief of many in the environmental movement). Only the other day, I heard some people discussing an eco-cleaning product as being ‘good’ and ‘safe’ because it used extracts from plants. Ergo, it used ingredients that were ‘good’. However, as anyone who has picked wild mushrooms will know, not all of nature’s ingredients are ‘good’, and some are downright poisonous, dangerous and harmful. Nevertheless, natural things are ‘good’. In another example, there has been considerable upset about oil exploration in New Zealand, with fears of oil spills given as a cause for concern. However, the neat discourse of the environmental movement is problematic, as can be seen in the quote below:

Recent global estimates of crude-oil seepage
rates suggest that about 47% of crude oil currently
entering the marine environment is from natural seeps, whereas 53% results from leaks and spills during the extraction, transportation, refining, storage, and utilization of petroleum. The amount of natural crude-oil seepage is currently estimated to be 600,000 metric tons per year, with a range of uncertainty of 200,000 to 2,000,000 metric tons per year. Thus, natural oil seeps may be the single most important source of oil that enters the ocean, exceeding each of the various sources of crude oil that enters the ocean through its exploitation by humankind. (Kvenvolden & Cooper, 2003)

Were you even aware that a large proportion of oil in the marine environment is from natural seepage, including in New Zealand waters (e.g. see Czochanska, Sheppard, Weston, Woolhouse, & Cook, 1986)? Probably not, because it is ‘natural’ and therefore it cannot be bad.The interesting point here is that, whilst humans have been putting oil in the marine environment for about a century, nature has been responsible for the same activity for millions of years. As such, nature has ‘form’ as a polluter of the environment. However, we do not see protesters railing against nature for pollution. This is odd, as the net effect on the environment is the same, whether the origin is from humans or nature. Oil is oil and if humans are polluting, so is nature. In other words, we are not looking at this in a balanced way. The marine environment has been subject to significant oil pollution over millions of years, but it has not caused an environmental catastrophe. Life has gone on, and humans have managed to evolve and have lived in a world of oil polluted marine environments.

When we look at oil seepage, and the hysteria that surrounds oil spills, we have moved away from science, and moved into a belief system that delineates identical substances according to their source in determining whether they are pollution. Human oil in marine environment; pollution. Oil seepage; it’s natural, so that’s ok. The latter explanation is why you have never heard about oil seepage. And, ‘No’, I am not in favour of oil spills. I use this example to contrast the hysteria about oil exploration off the coast of New Zealand with the steady pollution by seepage. The latter is already taking place, and the former is nothing more than a possibility.

Moving to another issue, when I was looking for material for this post I also stumbled across this article from the National Geographic magazine, titled ‘Nature Fighting Back Against Gulf Oil Spill’:

“Everybody’s worried,” he said Wednesday at the Port Sulphur harbor, which was filled to capacity with fishers rendered idle by the spill. “Nobody knows what will happen.”

Unpleasant though it may be for those on the shore, that smell could be a sign of Mother Nature doing her own dirty work: It’s the pungent scent of evaporating surface oil, which rises into the atmosphere and gets broken down by sunlight.


Yet experts caution that nature’s contributions to the recovery effort might be hampered by long-term environmental abuse.

“The resilience of nature is a key issue,” said Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

The most astute reader may have noticed something in the discourse above, but I am guessing many will not notice. When describing nature, it is described as an agentive entity, as ‘Mother Nature’, as contributing to the clean-up, as being resilient (in the face of adversity in this case). Nature is doing things and it is a force and it has will. It is, in effect, anthropomorphised. It is not difficult to find other examples of such discourse, with the most obvious example being the Gaia thesis. The thesis has, quite rightly been critiqued as teleological and been compared to religious belief (see this Wikipedia pagefor a summary of differing perspectives). The key point and point of interest is that humans have a profound proclivity for personification of nature. For example, many of our metaphors see nature personified (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff & Turner, 1989), and so-called animistic religions likewise see nature as personified (Harvey, 2005). These animistic and anthropomorphic perspectives are widely seen as the origin of religious thought, and are seen as an evolutionary adaptation (or at least a spandrel).

Stephen Mithen (1996) argues that modern human evolution included the blending of the conceptual domains of social intelligence and natural intelligence, and this provided modern humans with an evolutionary advantage, for example in our ability to predict animal behaviour when hunting. However, the corollary of this was that we also saw the natural world in terms of human relationships – as animistic and anthropomorphic. Stewart Guthrie (1993)  proposes the theory that religious thought is founded in human proclivity for anthropomorphism and animism, also suggesting that it was an evolutionary advantage. He argues that we evolved to over-detect agency, and the view is summarised neatly in an example; it is better to mistake a rock for a bear than a bear for a rock. The proclivity to over-detect agency in the world around us then naturally leads to the belief in agentic entities such as deities.

As further explanation, Pascal Boyer (2001) suggests as an example that, when a crop fails, people seek out an explanation and default to an agentive explanation. These explanations are what he describes as minimally counterintuitive, by which he means the agents are in almost every respect congruent with our intuitive understanding of the world, but also counterintuitive in some respect. Thus the agent that destroyed the crops is in most respects human (e.g. he is angry at lack of devotion), but is invisible and thus can be classified as a religious agent.

As we review some of the origins of religious thought (and much more could be said on this subject), we can see how the views of ‘nature’ as agentive and as inherently good are belief systems that have parallels with religious thought. Nature is portrayed as a personified force with agency; it does things in the world. It is both a material and non-material entity. If we examine the National Geographic article, it conforms to our scientific understanding of the world in all respects, excepting that there is an immaterial force called nature acting in the world through material entities. This mirrors the work of Justin Barrett, who has examined how deities are actually perceived as acting in the world in contrast to how religious doctrine says they should be perceived (e.g. see Barrett, 1999; Barrett & Keil, 1996).

Of course, those who give agentive descriptions of nature in National Geographic might argue that it is just metaphor. However, there are some fine lines between metaphor and belief and acting as if the metaphor were real. For example, inflation is described as an adversary (we ‘fight’ inflation), but the metaphor does not stop policy makers from seeking to fight it. Similarly, whatever the original intention, the Gaia thesis has evolved into a quasi-religious belief system, at least for some people. It is not a theory or metaphor, but an actuality.

Finally, there is a problem in the idea of nature; it does not exist. If humans are natural, and everything we do is natural, and we are surrounded by nature and the natural world, then nature is everything. The very concept of nature is predicated on a belief that humans are not nature, and that nature is something external to us. However, if we are a part of nature, then nature disappears in a puff of abstract smoke. How can anything be everything? It renders a concept as meaningless. The only justification that can be given for human delineation from nature is religious belief and the rejection of the idea that, as with all living things,  we are just another product of evolution. As such, the very concept of nature can only be founded in, and be supported by, religious belief.

So what does this all mean? Firstly, when environmentalism is founded in quasi-religious beliefs and a quasi-religious view of nature, we can see why AGW is such a highly charged debate. It also means that, in some cases, there really is no possibility of real debate and this may be why we see the term ‘denier’ bandied about. None of this is to say that all of the supporters of the AGW thesis hold quasi-religous beliefs, but rather that there are some individuals who will brook no argument.

More importantly, the delineation of humans and nature has no foundation and yet allows for the idea of nature as ‘good’ and humans as ‘bad’. The idea of nature is an ingrained habit that is supported by our evolved cognition. We need to stop imagining that there is this immaterial force ‘out there’ in the world. There is no ‘good’ force out there that we might contrast with the ‘bad’ force of humans. Instead, there is an environment in which humans live, and our aim should not be devote ourselves to a non-existent abstraction, but rather to the good of our fellow humans. This does involve ensuring the environment in which we live is conducive to human well-being, but abandoning the concept of nature allows us to be pragmatic and removes us from the emotion that clouds so much debate.

Note 1: I have referenced Harvey as providing examples of animism, and do not endorse his views in any way.

Note 2: I would like to have said a lot more here, but I was again struggling with time to devote to this. Again, I must apologise for a slightly clunky presentation. I just wish I had more time to devote to the blog, and hope that I do not strain your tolerance.

Update at 14:30:

I just found this on Wattsupwiththat:

A new book on the history of New Zealand has inadvertently stirred the climate change debate by revealing a near zero sea level increase over the past century.

The book, The Great Divide, includes a 100 year old map of Cloudy Bay lagoons in New Zealand, drafted back in 1912 to show the location of 20 kilometres of canals dug with wooden spades by ancient Maori.

Interesting stuff!

Barrett, J. L. (1999). Theological correctness: Cognitive constraint and the study of religion. Method &# 38; Theory in the Study of Religion, 11, 325–339.

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. Basic Books New York.

Czochanska, Z., Sheppard, C. M., Weston, R. J., Woolhouse, A. D., & Cook, R. A. (1986). Organic geochemistry of sediments in New Zealand. Part I. A biomarker study of the petroleum seepage at the geothermal region of Waiotapu. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 50(4), 507–515. doi:10.1016/0016-7037(86)90100-6

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kvenvolden, K. A., & Cooper, C. K. (2003). Natural seepage of crude oil into the marine environment. Geo-Marine Letters, 23(3), 140–146. doi:10.1007/s00367-003-0135-0

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor. University of Chicago Press Chicago.

Mithen, S. (1996). The prehistory of the mind: The cognitive origins of art, religion, and science. London: Thames and Hudson.

Nature Fighting Back Against Gulf Oil Spill. (n.d.).National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100507-science-environment-gulf-mexico-oil-spill-cleanup-bacteria/

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2 responses to “Environmentalism, Nature and Religion

  1. Climate alarmism is a faith, it is demonstrated every time some contradictory news hits the airwaves. No matter what evidence appears which contradicts the alarmist faith, the faithful completely ignore it and carry on undaunted. This is exactly the same behavior you see from members of any faith.

    Climate alarmism is still fledgling, it does not have a structure with churches and does not have a martyr as yet, but it has almost everything else :

    It has its own god (mother earth)
    its own organization (UN IPCC)
    own bible (IPCC AR4 Report)
    preachers (climate scientists, Gore, etc.)
    sinful behavior (carbon emissions)
    sinners (humanity)
    fear of retribution for the sinful behavior (climate apocalypse)

    But what I’m seeing more and more are Christian organizations beginning to include climate activism in their operations, sort of muscling in on the environmentalist turf if you will. This is an interesting development.

  2. Maurice@TheMount

    Atmospheric CO2 is a trace gas in our atmosphere, measured in parts per million by volume, and is currently less than 400 ppmv, that is less than 0.04%. And never forget MAN MADE or NATURAL it is the same molecule, one atom CARBON two atoms OXYGEN……PLANT FOOD.

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