Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"the rise of Environmentalism" (1969): Weigel pt. 6

From George Weigel's provocative essay in First Things on "six moments" from the 1960s that continue to have tremendous impact on today's politics and society.

That human beings cannot live without transcendent points of spiritual and moral reference is nicely illustrated by the fact that, as liberal mainline Protestantism was collapsing, those who previously might have been expected to have been among its staunch adherents found a new god: the earth. The transformation of the quite sensible and admirable American conservation movement into an “ism”—environmentalism—is best understood, I suggest, as a matter of displaced religious yearning. Having found the God of liberal Protestantism implausible or boring, American liberal elites discovered a new deity, the worship of which involved a drastic transformation of nearly every sector of American life by the new liberalism’s favorite instrument of salvation, the state.

Inspired in part by bestsellers such as Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, conservation-become-environmentalism evolved in the Sixties into a movement highly critical of technology and its impact on global ecology and deeply skeptical about markets; it also cross-pollinated politically with the antiwar movement....

The new environmentalism was peopled by many of the same activists who had been instrumental in the anti-America’s-war-in-Vietnam movement, and, in subsequent decades, the new environmentalism has displayed characteristics similar to the fundamentalism or fideism of those who cling to the wreckage of the conventional narrative of America-in-Vietnam. Among those characteristics (in addition to a certain apocalypticism) is an imperviousness to contrary data and scientific evidence.

As the Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg has shown in study after study, life expectancy is increasing on a global basis, including in the Third World; water and air in the developed world are cleaner than five hundred years ago; fears of chemicals poisoning the earth are wildly exaggerated; both energy and food are cheaper and more plentiful throughout the world than ever before; “overpopulation” is a myth; and the global picture is, in truth, one of unprecedented human prosperity.

Acknowledging this, however, would call into question the revelation vouchsafed to another of the new environmentalism’s ideological allies, the population-control movement: namely, that people are a pollutant—a pernicious idea, born of the earlier progressivist eugenics movement and brought to a popular boil in the Sixties by evidence-light propagandists like Paul Ehrlich, that continues to affect U.S. foreign-aid policy to this day. Now, as always, the worship of false gods tends toward bad politics.


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