• April 18, 2014

Green Guilt

Green Guilt 1

Adam Niklewicz for The Chronicle

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Adam Niklewicz for The Chronicle

Recently while I was brushing my teeth, my 6-year-old son scolded me for running the water too long. He severely reprimanded me, and at the end of his censure asked me, with real outrage, "Don't you love the earth?" And lately he has taken up the energy cause, scampering virtuously around the house turning off lights, even while I'm using them. He seems as stressed and anxious about the sins of environmentalism as I was about masturbation in the days of my Roman Catholic childhood.

Not too long ago, at a party, a friend confessed in a group conversation that he didn't really recycle. It was as if his casual comment had sucked the air out of the room—I think the CD player even skipped. He suddenly became a pariah. A heretic had been detected among the orthodox flock. During the indignant tongue-lashing that followed, people's faces twisted with moral outrage.

Many people who feel passionate about saving the planet justify their intense feelings by pointing to the seriousness of the problem and the high stakes involved. No doubt they are right about the seriousness. There are indeed environmental challenges, and steps must be taken to ameliorate them. But there is another way to understand the unique passion surrounding our need to go green.

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to notice that religious emotions, like guilt and indignation, are still with us, even if we're not religious. He claimed that we were living in a post-Christian world—the church no longer dominates political and economic life—but we, as a culture, are still dominated by Judeo-Christian values. And those values are not obvious—they are not the Ten Commandments or any particular doctrine, but a general moral outlook.

You can see our veiled value system better if you contrast it with the one that preceded Christianity. For the pagans, honor and pride were valued, but for the Christians it is meekness and humility; for the pagans it was public shame, for Christians, private guilt; for pagans there was a celebration of hierarchy, with superior and inferior people, but for Christians there is egalitarianism; and for pagans there was more emphasis on justice, while for Christians there is emphasis on mercy (turning the other cheek). Underneath all these values, according to Nietzsche, is a kind of psychology—one dominated by resentment and guilt.

Every culture feels the call of conscience—the voice of internal self-criticism. But Western Christian culture, according to Nietzsche and then Freud, has conscience on steroids, so to speak. Our sense of guilt is comparatively extreme, and, with our culture of original sin and fallen status, we feel guilty about our very existence. In the belly of Western culture is the feeling that we're not worthy. Why is this feeling there?

All this internalized self-loathing is the cost we pay for being civilized. In a very well-organized society that protects the interests of many, we have to refrain daily from our natural instincts. We have to repress our own selfish, aggressive urges all the time, and we are so accustomed to it as adults that we don't always notice it. But if I was in the habit of acting on my impulses, I would regularly kill people in front of me at coffee shops who order elaborate whipped-cream mocha concoctions. In fact, I wouldn't bother to line up in a queue, but would just storm the counter (as I regularly witnessed people doing when I lived in China) and muscle people out of my way. But there is a small wrestling match that happens inside my psyche that keeps me from such natural aggression. And that's just morning coffee—think about how many times you'd like to strangle somebody on public transportation.

When aggression can't go out, then it has to go inward. So we engage in a kind of self-denial, or self-cruelty. Ultimately this self-cruelty is necessary and good for society—I cannot unleash my murderous tendencies on the whipped-cream-mocha-half-decaf latte drinkers. But my aggression doesn't disappear, it just gets beat down by my own discipline. Subsequently, I feel bad about myself, and I'm supposed to. Magnify all those internal daily struggles by a hundred and you begin to see why Nietzsche thought we were always feeling a little guilty. But historically speaking we didn't really understand this complex psychology—it was, and still is, invisible to us. We just felt bad about ourselves, and slowly developed a theology that made sense out of it. God is perfect and pristine and pure, and we are sinful, unworthy maggots who defile the creation by our very presence. According to Nietzsche, we have historically needed an ideal God because we've needed to be cruel to ourselves, we've needed to feel guilty. And we've needed to feel guilty because we have instincts that cannot be discharged externally—we have to bottle them up.

Feeling unworthy is still a large part of Western religious culture, but many people, especially in multicultural urban centers, are less religious. There are still those who believe that God is watching them and judging them, so their feelings of guilt and moral indignation are couched in the traditional theological furniture. But increasing numbers, in the middle and upper classes, identify themselves as being secular or perhaps "spiritual" rather than religious.

Now the secular world still has to make sense out of its own invisible, psychological drama—in particular, its feelings of guilt and indignation. Environmentalism, as a substitute for religion, has come to the rescue. Nietzsche's argument about an ideal God and guilt can be replicated in a new form: We need a belief in a pristine environment because we need to be cruel to ourselves as inferior beings, and we need that because we have these aggressive instincts that cannot be let out.

Instead of religious sins plaguing our conscience, we now have the transgressions of leaving the water running, leaving the lights on, failing to recycle, and using plastic grocery bags instead of paper. In addition, the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox than your neighbor (in this case being more green) can still be had—the new heresies include failure to compost, or refusal to go organic. Vitriol that used to be reserved for Satan can now be discharged against evil corporate chief executives and drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles. Apocalyptic fear-mongering previously took the shape of repent or burn in hell, but now it is recycle or burn in the ozone hole. In fact, it is interesting the way environmentalism takes on the apocalyptic aspects of the traditional religious narrative. The idea that the end is nigh is quite central to traditional Christianity—it is a jolting wake-up call to get on the righteous path. And we find many environmentalists in a similarly earnest panic about climate change and global warming. There are also high priests of the new religion, with Al Gore ("the Goracle") playing an especially prophetic role.

We even find parallels in environmentalism of the most extreme, self-flagellating forms of religious guilt. Nietzsche claims that religion has fostered guilt to such neurotic levels that some people feel culpable and apologetic about their very existence. Compare this with extreme conservationists who want to sacrifice themselves for trees and whales. And teachers, like myself, will attest to significant numbers of their students who feel that their cats or whatever are equal to human beings. And not only are members of the next generation egalitarian about all life, but they often feel positively awful about the way that their species has corrupted and defiled the whole beautiful symphony of nature. The planet, they feel, would be better off without us. We are not worthy. In this extreme form, one does not seek to reduce one's carbon footprint so much as eliminate one's very being.

Pointing out these parallels is not meant to diminish the environmental cause. We should indeed do the things in our power, and within reason, to sustain the planet. But we have a tendency to become neurotic and overly anxious, especially when we are regularly told, via green marketing ploys, that each one of us is responsible for the survival of the planet. That's a heavy guilt trip.

The same demographic group for whom religion has little or no hold (namely white liberals) turns out to be the most virulent champions of all things green. Is it possible that these folks must vent their moral spleen on environmentalism because they don't have all the theological campaigns (e.g., opposing gay marriage, opposing abortion, etc.) on which social conservatives exercise their indignation?

If environmentalism is a substitute for religion—a way of validating certain emotions—then we might expect to find other secular surrogates for guilt and indignation. Our tendencies to sin, repent, and generally indulge in self-cruelty can be seen cropping up in our obsessions about health and fitness, for example. Struggling with our weight (diet and relapse) has risen above the other deadly sins to take a dominant position in our secular self-persecution. And our resentful aggression still manages to find some occasional pathways to the external world. We may not be able to punch the people we want to punch in real life, but we can turn some of our aggression outward at the reprobates of TV land. What a joyful hatred we all felt at the Octomom or Britney. It was a thoroughly cleansing bit of moral outrage. Or consider the inflamed moral drama for viewers of the Jon & Kate Plus Eight debacle. And more of this kind of indignation, previously reserved for religious condemnation, can be seen and heard everywhere on the screens and airwaves of the 24-hour "news" cycle. Large segments of the news seem calculated to facilitate the catharsis of our built-up resentment. Daytime talk shows and reality shows seem similarly designed to elicit our righteous anger. They form the other side of the religious coin—in addition to the self-cruelty of guilt, we can vent our aggression outwardly (like a crowd at a witch drowning) as long as it's justified by piety and the defense of virtue and orthodoxy.

Environmentalism is a much better hang-up than worrying about the spiritual pitfalls of too much masturbation. Even if it's neurotic, it's still doing some good. But environmentalism, like every other ism, has the potential for dogmatic zeal and obsession. Do we really need one more humorless religion? Let us save the planet, by all means. But let's also admit to ourselves that we have a natural propensity toward guilt and indignation, and let that fact temper our fervor to more reasonable levels.

Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. His books include On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Why I Am a Buddhist (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2010).


1. amnirov - January 10, 2010 at 10:15 pm

This is hardly true in every case. I despise the environment, and hate the planet. Have been this way for years. I would never recycle, even willfully throw away items with deposits. I never pay any attention to green products... and yet I am a committed anti-theist.

2. jontv - January 11, 2010 at 10:09 am

It's hard to see exactly what is being proposed here. Environmental fervor is helpful, but in moderation? What we really need is to act in more boorish, id-driven ways?

I would agree that there are people who get holier-than-thou about "green" matters, and they can certainly be annoying. That shrill tone may be environmentalism's Achilles heel: I think it ofetn drives away people who may be otherwise willing to consider new ways of thinking.

And it's certainly true that people need to keep a sense of perspective, even with regard to environmentalism. Recycling makes sense, but it's not going to save the world by itself, nor will a few more bottle in the landfill destroy us.

I would say much of the fervor Asma zeroes in on is consciously fostered by those who benefit most from the status quo and therefore favor placing the burden on the individual: i.e. the problem is not our insane system -- geared toward ever-increasing consumption in a world of limited resources -- rather, it's the fact that some people still don't recycle. The commerical powers-that-be are happy to see us wallowing in personal guilt, if it keeps us from embracing the kind of large-scale change that environmentalism really means and needs to effect (but might be bad for corporate profits).

3. skdavison - January 11, 2010 at 11:04 am

Love this! I happen to be one of those "white liberals" for whom religion is difficult....and a guilty proponent of environmentalism in its many forms. Thanks for articulating the "green" phenomenon exactly as it occurs.

4. ridicula - January 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

When I took the train to Toronto from Montreal, I saw a recycling depot. It had piles and piles of bundled garbage. It looked awful. I have been faithfully rinsing and separating for nearly 20 years, but the sight of that depot made me wonder if it's been making any difference at all.
There was some pro-recycling news footage used a long time ago that impressed me, of cliffside landfills in Ireland overflowing into the sea. Better a depot in Ontario than the waters of the North Atlantic, I dearly hope.

5. dandelventhal - January 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

The earth in its natural state with wilderness and thriving creatures is quite beautiful. It feels good. One might believe that we are all related in this system and that it all has the "spirit of creation" in it. With that, one might deduce that it is wrong to waste anything, lest you desecrate creation. To willfully waste a life is a sad thing. Its all about respect. To know that our actions continuously damage the quality of the air we breath, the water we drink, poison the soil that grows our food - should trigger a survival instinct. An intelligent call to live within the system rather than destroy it slowly with our western fool-hardiness, addicted to "progress". I think you are rationalizing your own bad behaviour and offering resistance to the pleas of innocent victims of your waste.

6. almelle - January 11, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for the interesting article, as it resonates with the increasingly strong beliefs in environmentalism that I've seen in my social circle.

I must comment, though, that I do know both environmentalists and Christians/other religious who are moderate, sensitive, and not so inclined to knee-jerk guilt and horror... there are always moderates!

7. kubaba - January 11, 2010 at 01:33 pm

Interesting analysis of the human psyche... I do hope that most of Mr. Asma's aggressive urges as he describes them (as in the coffee line) are tongue-in-cheek; otherwise, from where I sit as a Florida retiree, I think he is due for some time away from the city.

My passion for recycling has nothing to do with current trends, but rather stems from a life-long antipathy toward wastefulness. And I think that "jontv" is quite correct in pointing out that much of the problem stems from (the relentless encouragement of) rabid consumerism. Though it pains me to use the catch phrase "paradigm shift", I believe that's what's necessary to preserve the planet.

8. mbelvadi - January 11, 2010 at 01:44 pm

I'd like to know specifically which value system are you describing as "the one that preceded Christianity"? There were many human religious/spiritual systems in place around the world in the decades before Christianity appeared, and at least a couple I can think of do not match your litany of values. In fact, the only system which can be historically/geographically accurate to be described as "preceding Christianity" would have to be Judaism (e.g. Christ and his immediate followers were Jews etc.) and I suspect most religious Jews would object to being called "pagans". I found it really hard to pay attention to the rest of your article when it virtually began with this utterly offensive Christian-centric view of world history.
Nevertheless I will say that I think it's idiotic to draw even psychological comparisons between feeling guilt over things that aren't even "real" (e.g. original sin, Adam and Eve eating an apple etc.) and feeling collective guilt for being part of something here and now and very real. To do so is to discount the significance of "reason" in people's motivations for feelings of guilt. Should the people who did nothing while Kitty Genovese was stabbed do death in front of them feel some kind of guilt? Yes. Collective guilt is a rational response. If you accept that, then you can frame discussions of feelings of guilt regarding environmentalism in rational terms rather than resorting to accusing intelligent rational people of practicing "religion". Or did it not occur to you that some people would find this as offensive as scientists do when Christian fundamentalists try to claim that "Darwinism" is just a religion of its own?

9. jontv - January 11, 2010 at 05:31 pm

Yes, Kubaba -- I've also grown to hate that term -- "paradigm shift" -- as it's been worn threadbare by the misuse of too many MBAs and PR people. But that is what we need: a totally new way of looking at society's relationship to the ecosystem.

10. pamelatodoroff - January 11, 2010 at 08:22 pm

I love the essay! But I think I'd send that six year old to a different school.

11. odaraia2planetart - January 12, 2010 at 12:00 am

I don't agree with many of the premises about religion. I think of the environmentalist appeal less in personal terms, more in social and psychosocial contexts. "We need a belief in a pristine environment because" of the Western traditions's overriding need for control. I believe the religions of the Roman empire, including Christianity, reflected and continue to resonate for people through persuasion, assumption of power and control. I agree that many aspects of environmentalism demonstrate cult value, but as in the photographs of Ansel Adams, a major iconographer, they succeed in separating humans and society from the environment, certainly a control operation.
I am interested in ecology and evolution, especially the interactions of these systems, refer to them in my artwork, and assume that I and my society are part of them.

12. johnshaplin - January 12, 2010 at 06:12 am

There is an interesting "local" component to this phenomena, a popular fascination with all things local whether it be in regards to what we eat, economic development, environmental stewardship or social development. It betrays a certain amount of inordinant pride as well as unrealistic expectations about what measures might be necessary to actually overcome some of the polluting and wasteful practices that have brought the green issue to the forefront of our consciousness. It might be considered as distracting us from the difficult job of developing the sorts of national policies that would make really make a difference and underlines the highly personal, inward looking character of the fervor. Thus is might be characterized more as a protestant and funfamendalist phenomena than catholic or particularly liberal.

13. miguelguanipa - January 12, 2010 at 07:13 am

I concur, perhaps with some variations

14. strefanash - January 12, 2010 at 09:41 am

The form of religion that the author compares green fanaticism to is in fact not christian, but, if he rejects christ because of it, is a straw man. Guilt, misery and despair have no place in the christian gospel, which is about setting man free from such things.

But that said, the religion of the greens has no grace in it, just as the author's catholicism had no grace in it.

This is to be expected in the false religions made up by men. How ironical that the earth, as the god of the greens, needs to be saved by us, yet God is the one who would save us

15. raghuvansh1 - January 12, 2010 at 11:01 am

Recent research in neuroscience tell us that what we teach to child in first three years that imposed in child`s brain very very deep.If we teach to child in that period importance of eco friendly behaviour it may possible child learn to use water economically,understand the importance of keep earth green.Instead of religious teaching we now start to teach eco friendly teaching than it may possible we can save the earth.

16. apothegms - January 12, 2010 at 11:25 am

As several have already commented, this is an interesting article, BUT . . . If environmentalism is a quasi-religion, it is nonetheless founded upon fact rather than a purely fictive and rhetorical world, and the person who does not recycle really is acting badly, unlike the "witches" who were burned at the stake. These aren't mere differences in degree--they are differences in kind. As for the analysis of our religiously inflected psychologies, there is a little too much Freud here in the picture of our aggressive ids and the discontents undergone by the repression necessary to have civilization. Let's attribute a lot of this to more mundane behavioral tendencies. Guilt, as a therapist casually mentioned to me one day, is just my brain registering the wrongness of an act so I won't do it again. Even children brought up in parental regimes of unconditional love and maximum permissiveness know that they are doing some things better than others, and many things worse than other children are doing them, and our innate drive to master our environment bends us toward perfectionism. Add a dollop of narcissism and you get the real payoff in most religious thinking: contempt for all other persons not yourself or a member of your choir. But unless you are floridly narcissistic, you will have to be, at least to all appearances, hard on yourself in order to have the supreme pleasure of being hard on others.

As my remarks indicate, I agree with the author this far: religious thinking is immature and morally rancid in both its sacred and secular manifestations; and it comes naturally to us. But while Calvinism, at bottom, is truly toxic--an evil construct contrived almost for no other reason than to allow the puritanical few to tyrannize over the normal many--environmentalism is based on science; and ignoring that science will produce, not the colorful and hilarious apocalypse of the diseased imagination of the author of the book of Revelation, but the real global disaster that will cause terrible suffering that could so easily be avoided.

17. beaugard - January 12, 2010 at 11:54 am

Hmmm...what a strange article that says precisely what? I agree with the author, but so many words to say such a simple thing.
For people interested in stronger criticism of environmentalism, Frank Furedi and www.spiked-online.com are very good.

18. jmonroe6400 - January 12, 2010 at 01:42 pm

Nice, but you forgot that in modern society every member of the parish of conscience cna be both layperson and priest. There's another way to get that aggressive instinct out!

Not sure about this "feeling of unworthiness" idea. Seems to me like it isn't themselves that the priests of Green feel are unworthy. Sure there are some who go to great lengths to purge themselves of sin, and still feel sinful, but as secular religion it seems that for many greenness operates more as an Indulgence than as a hair shirt, and for some it operates as a moral credential, and for others it is a way of actively doing good. In some circles, there's even something aristocratic about it: it becomes the key to a gated community.

All ideas that seek to become part of the moral fabric of a community must rely on some mixture of demonstration and faith. Even ideas that have their origins in observation cannot hope to becomes objects of general belief unless they are presented in such a way as to secure their credibility with people who have neither the training nor the time to become acquainted with (and understand) all the facts. It says very little, then, about a movement that it takes on a partly religious character: it could hardly do otherwise and still have any hope of moving. And, of course, it also partakes in the more repellant characteristics of a 'community of faith'/religion: priests, hypocrisy, ill-placed moral indignation and outrage, smugness, etc... So what? As one comment has already pointed out, at least there is an underlying scientific ethic which can pull back at the reins (for some) when the Gaia talk starts to sound a little too biblical.

19. dkhan - January 12, 2010 at 03:20 pm

After reading the first few paragraphs of this article, I was already certain what I would find in the comments. The Worshipful Church Of Environmentalist Frenzy is the fastest-growing religious order in the Western world, and the dogma must be recited at every opportunity; the heretics must be chastised, castigated and (in extreme cases) silenced; and the one true credo must be passed on to the young, beginning at birth (if not before).

There are two problems with Mr. Asma's article. One, it rambles into rather wobbly areas of psychobabble, which adds nothing to the subject. But more importantly, it is far too meek and apologetic in tone, and therefore fails to really make the crucial point, which is that the Green movement has long since made the jump from common sense into vastly over-hyped hysteria and frenzy, and the frothing zealots, having crossed from merely neurotic hatred of humanity into truly psychotic fanaticism, are gaining increased power over larger segments of our society. (Note that the ritual brainwashing of innocent children through an endless bombardment of slogans and propaganda, instead of causing indignation and revulsion as it would in a sane society, is being viewed by many as some sort of virtue to be applauded. Anything that advances The Cause is tolerated, no matter how vile the method.)

Mr. Asma is not the first to note that the Green movement is, in plain fact, a religion, but he's so timid in his observations that he utterly fails to shed any light on just how far out of control the problem has become, or to suggest a way to begin combating the madness. If he'd had a little more backbone, words such as "dogma", "demagoguery" and "fanaticism" would not be so conspicuously absent from his essay.

The responses were, as I said, entirely predictable: true believers in a religious dogma invariably insist that THEIR religion is based on revealed truth, i.e. "fact", and that the Word must be spread, beginning with the youngest and most impressionable. That their religious fanaticism is no different from any other religious fanaticism would be anathema; they would lose their identity with the One True Belief. What is long overdue is for the rest of us to say, plainly and firmly, that this is OUR planet just as much as it is theirs, and if they want to practice their religion, that's their business, but they can kindly leave the rest of us out of it. When their proselytizing takes over our businesses, our government, our social organizations and our schools (above all our schools, and the minds of our children!), it is time for someone to put a stop to it. The schools may have long ago abdicated any responsibility for teaching children to think rationally, but if they are ever to recover and become places of thought and learning, the mindless chanting of slogans like "Save The Planet" and "Carbon Footprint" has to stop. It's a pity Mr. Asma was unwilling to go far enough to begin the true battle for the future of the planet: the battle for rational thought, sanity and reason, against mindless fear, superstition and dogma.

20. ledzep - January 12, 2010 at 03:55 pm

"When aggression can't go out, then it has to go inward."

Ah yes, a simple matter of hydraulics, is it not?

21. navydad - January 12, 2010 at 06:02 pm

This article reminded me of why I detested philosophy in college: lots of pretty sounding sentences that mean very little. First off, the psychological model Asma proposes is simplistic, wrong, and about 80 years out of date. Of course, anyone who thinks that Nietzsche and Freud have much relevance to our current understanding of human psychology doesn't merit much credibility. Secondly, the conflation of environmental extremism with religion demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of both. Are some environmentalists (or Christians, conservatives, liberals, feminists, anti-abortionists, etc.) extremist? Of course. Are some religious people extremist? Of course. Does this mean environmentalism is a religion? Of course not. No matter how ridiculous the extremists are, environmentalism is based on science and reality, which are inherently self-correcting. No matter how moderate and thoughtful religious folks are, their religious beliefs are fantasies that have no basis in reality and tend to be impervious to evidence and reason.

22. trollificus - January 12, 2010 at 09:27 pm

I'm not so sure the smug contention that "Religious beliefs are based on fantasy and our beliefs are based on SCIENCE!" is as self-evident as some seem to believe.

a) Is it scientific to base our assessment of climate impact on a 10-100-1000 year time line?? This is human scale, and arguably inapplicable to meteorological and geological systems. If we assess the impact of industrial civilization on the earth in terms of 100s of thousands or millions of years, do those impacts seem less alarming?? Why, yes, they do.

b) Is it scientific to use the terms "disaster" and "catastrophe" to describe climate change? The earth is in no danger of being "destroyed", and it WILL have an environment, yet we are to believe that any deviation from a mild and comfortable (for humans) climate norm is unacceptable?

c) Is it scientific when eco-advocates put forth an unnaturally static and unnaturally edenic climate as the only goal for our future, and dismiss adaptation and amelioration as unrealistic??

It is not whether beliefs are fact-based, nor whether they are passionately held, that make them "religious, it is the degree to which they are held on fath and not subjected to rigorous testing (though certainly not all irrational, held-in-faith ideas are religious. One might argue that racism, nationalism and any number of other 'isms' are equally irrational.)

By that measure, the so-called "scientific" beliefs of the environmentalists certainly qualify. Irrational, dogmatic, extreme and based on faith

23. valery_publius - January 13, 2010 at 03:04 am

See my response to Asma here:


24. rjkothari - January 13, 2010 at 04:03 am

Well said.

Possibly we need to bring balance in to our life by getting rid of our emotional baggage - whether acquired from surrounding influences, idealogies, education, culture, regligion or otherwise. And we need to become simple and in tune with nature, without possibly any effort (seen or unseen).

It's an act of un-becoming and going back to our original state. How to do this? There are teachers and teachings who are working at an individual level, to bring back the lost balance. Once this teaching are followed and practised, balance would be restored at an individual level and there will not be any dichotomy. Such a person will be nature personified.

I've been following a system of spiritual training for last 30 years or so. It has practical, real solutions to issues that trouble us at every level; and helps bring back balance, harmony and love among all elements of the universe.

Rajesh Kothari

25. laoshi - January 13, 2010 at 10:31 am

Whether we recycle or not is our prerogative. If we've bought the bottles, we should be able to dispose of them how we wish. Even if that means crushing them noisily outside of our liberal colleagues' windows.

The author makes some valid points, mostly agreeable, and definitely shows the fundamentalist nature of secular environmentalists. But he's a little off on the reason for lack of queues in China. Noone is muscling in here. All you have to do is hold your money up and talk loudly to get what you want.

26. zaotar - January 13, 2010 at 01:12 pm

I think the people drawing distinctions between religious myths and environmental facts are missing much of the point. Religion is about the present, and creating different conduct within it, just as much as environmentalism is. By becoming religious you are supposed to act differently and better, just like becoming environmental. For example, in the author's case he was supposed to masturbate less, pursuant to his Catholic guilt. Both social practices invoke guilt based upon some state of affairs that is asserted to be true pursuant to unassailable authority. In the case of religion, that authority is very often related to past myths, but it is equally often present-day religious figures or communities which provide the authority that justifies or determines religious conduct.

It's true that environmentalism, being more modern than most religions, typically invokes science much more than religion does, but it's a mistake to forget that environmentalists constantly invoke religious ideas and principles (Gaia, anyone?) as well, sacrificing themselves for elaborate metaphysical views of the world. And similarly, more modern religious groups (scientology, new-age, etcetera) commonly derive their views from scientific facts, or at least what they purport to claim are scientific facts. Even relatively secular environmentalists often have an extraordinarily dogmatic view of what they maintain are the ultimate facts about the world -- largely because the certainty of their moral passion is hard to reconcile with the fact that many areas of environmental science are extremely vague and uncertain.

To sum it up, the author of this article is very much correct about the common psychology operating in these areas of social life.

27. mjklin - January 13, 2010 at 02:25 pm

The author's argument reminds me of James Twitchell's book "For Shame--The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture". Twitchell argued that the _amount_ of shame in a culture never changes, while the _behavior_ that is being shamed changes often--for example, from "shame on teenage pregnancy" in the 1950's to "shame on non-recyclers", as here. Hard to tell if he's right, but he was definitely on the same track.

Shame is tied to belief systems as well. Witness the rise of Falun Gong-style religions in China that aim to fill the same spiritual space that communism once occupied there. Twitchell's concept may apply here too.

28. jmonroe6400 - January 13, 2010 at 03:37 pm

Once in a while it is good to be reminded that "scientific" does not describe the truth of things or even the degree of certainty with which something is believed: it is a method of acquiring knowledge (there is no such thing as a "scientific fact" there are only facts acquired via a scientific procedure which reserves the right to refute them). Attempts to draw lines of equivalence between religious belief and science fail because the religious instinct intrudes into the very criteria used to categorize science: it is taken for granted that dogmatic claims made in the name of science remain scientific claims. But they are not: they are claims made by dogmatic people who borrow the results of science to satisfy their love of certainty. But that says nothing about the equivalency of science and religion. It only reminds us that human nature remains present in everything we do. Nothing is more human than creating "sides" and then defending the one whose jurisdiction over truth will most benefit oneself (note how the religious and the secular-subjectivist points of view are both equally offended by the rhetorical power of science... now here is a place where some equivalences could be drawn).

Environmentalists sometimes are dogmatic. There really isn't much of anything surprising in that statement once you think about it.

29. pancho_angry - January 14, 2010 at 12:12 am

What's your point again? Religionists think they'll go to hell if they don't behave per the sacred codes. Environmentalists think we'll destroy the ecology that sustains our species if we don't respect all its little inscrutable cogs and wheels. One of these is living in a dream world and the other is not.

30. laoshi - January 14, 2010 at 03:40 am

Sounds like you really ARE angry, Pancho!

Fundamentalists of any ilk are living in a dream world. Those can be religionist fundies, or environmentalist fundies (for example Charles Manson's air-trees-water-air cult or the Earth First bombers). However, not all religionists and environmentalists are fundies, and I think that's part of Asma's message.

No need to be angry, Pancho. Peace out.

31. rlpeterson - January 14, 2010 at 10:55 am

Great article! However, I think the phenomenon was explained best by the American philosopher and Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson:

"...[E]verybody's got to have somebody to look down on.
Who they can feel better than at anytime they please.
Someone doing something dirty, decent folks can frown on.
If you can't find nobody else, then help yourself to me."

32. rroscoe - January 14, 2010 at 02:12 pm

quote: "Fundamentalists of any ilk are living in a dream world."

Indeed. This of course goes for secular fundamentalists such as the so-called "new atheist" as well. As several comments on this thread have illustrated, secular fundies are characterized by anger, arrogance and ignorance of religion which ironically strongly resembles the Christian fundamentalists they so loathe. It also appears that secular fundies haven't gotten the memo that logical Positivism or "scientism" is illogical as it is epistemologically self-defeating. "Living in a dream world" and "detached from reality" perfectly describes secular fundies. Perhaps extreme environmentalists are one version of secular fundamentalism.

33. naturalist - January 14, 2010 at 07:56 pm

It does have to be about guilt, fundamentalism or extremism.

It is simply a matter of taking responsibility for our actions by being aware of how our lives affect each other and the rest of life on this planet. In a world of 6.5 billion and growing it is near impossible to not have some affect on someone or something else.

It may sound cliche or new age, but is true that everything in life is interconnected, it's an inescapable fact that humans are now becoming more aware of because of our growing numbers and the accelerated demands we are making upon a planet of limited resources. There is no place we can escape to or live and function in self-absorbed,complacent insularity.

When you have learned and are aware of how your lifestyle and choices impact the environment and other peoples lives, it's a matter of learning to make wiser choices to promote sustainable development, conserve, protect and improve life or make less of a harsh impact upon life. We have the capablity of developing more sustainable technologies... It's now a matter of willingness to change.

Granted it will not be easy, but in my opinion being sensitive to the workings of the natural world and to be ecologically aware is a part of human growth in achieving social maturity. Part of the analogy is like the familiar axiom of having to cleaning up your own messes, something most of our mothers rightly expected from us.

34. naturalist - January 14, 2010 at 07:57 pm

Sorry, My first sentence should read "It does NOT have to be about guilt...

35. darklogos - January 14, 2010 at 09:27 pm

As a theologian I got to say that there is a lot of poor theology done in the article. The first to make Christianity guilt/piety focused isn't true. The ends of christianity isn't to make one a better person or to make society better but to reconcile God with man. That is the purpose of the cross. These elements may not have been taught to the author during his catecumin stages but its a core principle of the faith. Pietism if you do your research comes out of people wanting to appear religious then what they are and holding onto religious morales and outlooks without being religious our less religious. Note piety and pietism are two different thing. When it comes to the article he is refering to pietism not piety.

The thing that amazes me in the midst of those who would bow to the liberal line on tolerence, acceptence, and respect when it comes to race, sexual orentatation, and sex when it comes to religion the same graces are not given and completely ignored. Very few people even pointed out that the authors view on religion is very onesided and he fails to comment on his own budhist philosphies and how they play a role in this. It seems higher education wants to put theist of all kinds in the closet and pat us on the head like we are unrational children. Tolerence is expected from the theist and not expected from the non-theist when it comes to religion being discused.

Next thing that has emerged not just in the article but in the comments is that guilt is bad. This comes out of the presupasition that pain is bade. Pain indicates to the self that something is wrong with us and that further attempts down this route lead to harm. Guilt reaffirms a sense of something is wrong on a social level. I could put it in non-theist perspective like this. If you emotions are a herd response then guilt is there for the preservation of the herd. Guilt reinforces right and wrong. Name calling, pandering, strawman arguments, patronizing etc, many of the tools used in the article and in the comments, are used as means of maintaining the unity of the herd for servival. Without this instict the herd falls apart or the norm is pressed in deeper when resisted. If the herd falls apart then their chance of survival is dim and they are easy prey for their predators. Thing is that humanities predators are not so much natural but ideological at this stage. If we say that pain or anyform of pain is bad we are removing a natural teacher of detecting harm. If we allievate either of these things excessively or make them moot we set oursleves up to destroy ourseleves. Our natural barriers and fail safes are underminded by scientist that know better and a society that is pleasure focused.

36. bigpurpleguy - January 15, 2010 at 12:50 am

Dkhan has it exactly right. The adherents of any belief system can and will claim theirs is fact-based.

To say that "the person who does not recycle really is acting badly" because that person chooses to put his waste into a temporarily undifferentiated pile instead of a differentiated one is a statement of faith, not fact.

37. naturalist - January 15, 2010 at 05:55 am

The science of ecology is not based on ideological or religious faith.

The observations and empirical knowledge of what is happening to the biological systems of earth which function to keep all life viable are under enormous stress. Much of this stress is human caused by bad politics,ignorance,greed,apathy or unwise resource use and development. Some of it is caused by impoverished people who feel they have no choice but to overuse their limited resources.

These are objective,empirical and measurable facts.

One can choose to feel guilt or apathy about this.

Or you can realize that you can be part of the solution in changing things, of making life better, more sustaining, more equitable, more compassionate as many socially minded individuals have been trying to do for thousands of years. Our present adavnced civilization is the result of those who saw a higher potential for human life. That same visionary thinking can encompass more than just the human potential. Now through our growing scientific knowledege,it can take in all of the biological life that we depend on, but have for so long taken for granted.

We are all "environmentalists" because our dominant status as made us a vital part of the maintaining earth's ecological health. Our frenetic, impatient technological world has falsely and unwisely given us a sense that we are seperate from nature; it is just something "out there" that is just entertaining, cosmetic or ancillary.

The biological health of this planet is the absolute foundation of our existence. We evolved to who we are today because our species adapted to an environment that was conducive to fostering life in a multitude of ways. Knowing how the ecology of this planet works and what we must do to help maintain it's health is a matter of common sense not ideology or faith.

Yes, we can choose not to recycle or other things that would help to maintain sustainability,but is this attitude of "it's all just about me" the best we can expect of ourselves? Is that all that our lives are about?

If that is your outlook, then I would say you are only seeing a very dim view of the potential of fully cognizant,compassionate and responsible human beings.

38. rebel40 - January 15, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Trollificus: epitome of Denialism.
Jmonroe6400: agreed that several responders have an unrealistic need for certainty. Science is not necessarily dogmatic (i.e., is not and can not be that certain). Instead, its findings include data and information which support discussions and conclusions. The interpretation of these findings by journalists, the popular press (and bloggers, etc.) in terms of certainty (or not) confound the issue.

39. cwubarge - January 15, 2010 at 01:22 pm

Gosh, I've been recycling since the '70s. My attempts to stay 'green' may not have done much for the environment but living minimally has given me great peace of mind. It's food cops that drive me nuts! I do eat 'good' food but I hate the assumption that food is 'good' or worse, 'clean' as opposed to 'bad'. Let's leave all the guilt and value judgements behind, folks. It's not helping people change. I eat for good health, have neither debt nor excessive possessions and I don't watch TV. I do this not out of guilt but because it is, for me, a better way of life. But I always remember there was a time when I considered Mac in a box with sliced up hot dogs and a side of frozen peas to be a perfectly adequate - even delicous - meal that I consumed while watching "The Love Boat". We all change at our own pace.

40. mbelvadi - January 16, 2010 at 06:59 pm

Darklogos: your complaint is disingenuous: "Tolerence is expected from the theist and not expected from the non-theist when it comes to religion being discused." Tolerance may be "expected" in the moral sense, but is VERY rarely actually offered by theists in society, excepting the 0.001% of the theistic population who are professors of theology and play absolutely no significant role in shaping religion-influenced public policy. Non-theist "intolerance of religion" is code for the resentment that non-theists have for those who use religion as weapon against them in the public sphere. I will darn well be "intolerant" against those who seek to deprive me of my secular civil rights.

Bigpurple guy, you played a strawman game with your statement: "To say that "the person who does not recycle really is acting badly" because that person chooses to put his waste into a temporarily undifferentiated pile instead of a differentiated one is a statement of faith, not fact."
I don't anyone claims that a judgment of "acting badly" is a statement of fact. The statement of fact is that such actions contribute to measurable damage to the environment. You reached the conclusion, as most intelligent people do, that such damage deserves a negative moral judgment, "bad". To those who think environmentalism is all about twisted faith-based science, I ask, did God put the enormous floating plastic waste pile in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch
Is its existence a matter of faith or fact?

41. optimysticynic - January 17, 2010 at 12:30 pm

The important difference between those opposed to fundamentalist religion and those opposed to fundamentalist environmentalism: the former do not run the risk of damaging the physical lives and rights of others. You can say whatever you want about anyone's beliefs, but your right to pollute the air and water of other people (etc.) should limited. The consequences of the two positions are vastly different in impact.

42. gypsyboots - January 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

I bet Mr. Asma's 6-year-old son picked up a lot of his environmentalism in school. Schools are pushing the Gaia-worshipping green religion with the kind of dumbed-down lockstep that always characterizes the school versions of popular ideologies. The result: a 6-year-old believes he has been given a license to chastise aznd control other people's behavior, even that of his own parents.

Perhaps not all environmentalists are motivated by guilt and resentment, but there are plenty of environmental pundits who regularly write about the need for the rest of us unenlightened helots to eat less, be poorer, and have fewer options in order to save the planet. See the Kris Kristofferson lyric above.

43. mgcardin - January 19, 2010 at 07:24 pm

Loved the article, both for its ideas and its entertainment value (very entertainingly and lucidly written).

I'm shocked to find that among 42 previous comments of all tonal an ideological varieties, nobody has yet commented on the interesting conjunction of 1) Mr. Asma's criticism of ecoguilt and 2) the fact that he's a Buddhist, albeit of the red meat and whiskey variety, as the subtitle to his forthcoming book indicates. Methinks I'll be obliged to acquire that one.

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