Environmentalism as Religion: Unpacking the Congregation

- AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMIC RESEARCH - AUG 27, 2021 - Ryan M. Yonk & Jessica Rood -

Dramatic headlines and images showing a deteriorating environment exist to demand swift, decisive, and large-scale action. We saw this approach in the 1960s when the first made-for-TV environmental crises showed oil-drenched seabirds on the California Coast and more recently in depressing videos depicting starving polar bears. Dramatic imagery has become the norm when discussing environmental issues.


We also see trends in editorial writing, discussions among political groups, changing business practices, and increasingly scholarly claims that also use dramatic imagery. At face value, these trends could indicate that the public demands dramatic governmental action on environmental issues. Some scholars, however, see this as more than mere increased public demand for government intervention, and they highlight similarities between environmentalism and religious movements. For example, Laurence Siegal states:

In the decades since modern environmentalism began, the movement has taken on some of the characteristics of a religion: claims not backed by evidence, self-denying behavior to assert goodness, (and a) focus on the supposed end of times.

Scholars have tuned into the general public’s zealous interest in the environment and more importantly, emphasis on government action, to push forward their own ideological goals under the guise of scholarship. Whereas the ultimate goal of scholarship is to mitigate climate change and improve sustainability, the reality is instead corrupted by thinly veiled ideology masquerading as scholarship, which is sure to distort any useful policy recommendations.


This phenomenon is illustrated by a recent study making the rounds in Science Daily and The Climate News Network. The authors, Vogel et al., claim that the world must decrease energy use to 27 gigajoules (GJ) per person in order to keep average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a recommendation included in the Paris Agreement. Our current reality illustrates the outlandish nature of this suggestion. We are a far cry from this goal both in 2012, the year chosen for this study, as well as in 2019, the most recent year for available data. Here is a snapshot of current per person energy consumption (GJ):


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