Two Views of Environmentalism as Religion
January 20, 2004 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Environmentalism as Religion. An interesting speech by Michael Chrichton, in which he discusses the 'religion' of environmentalism reminded me of an article in Harper's entitled A Gospel According to the Earth by Jack Hitt. Both writers agree that Environmentalism is, or is becoming, a new religion, but their views of what this means are as divergent as possible. Chrichton sees a world where fantasy has replaced reality to the detriment of mankind, while Hitt sees a dramatic and growing movement that imbues environmentalism with a new spirituality and connection with God, as a foil of Creationism and Intelligent design.
posted by cell divide (32 comments total)

The idea isn't new, Paul Feyerabend argued the same thing about science for years. Sadly, Crichton seems to be doing it for more political reasons than intellectual ones.
posted by drezdn at 4:28 PM on January 20, 2004

Why it's deja vu all over again!
posted by y2karl at 4:29 PM on January 20, 2004

last month called. They want their mefi post back.
posted by delmoi at 4:33 PM on January 20, 2004

Summary: Crichton is a paranoid attention seeker. Hitt is a smelly hippy.
posted by Jimbob at 4:53 PM on January 20, 2004

The second reason to abandon environmental religion is more pressing. Religions think they know it all, but the unhappy truth of the environment is that we are dealing with incredibly complex, evolving systems, and we usually are not certain how best to proceed.

Sounds like a good description of economics as well. Certainly, "cutting taxes" is a religion that drives the Republican party at least as much as Christianity does.
posted by Slothrup at 4:55 PM on January 20, 2004

Jimbob nails it :)... the Hitt article is pretty interesting though... anyway apologies for the dp (triple post actually) on the Chrichton article, my MeFi search technique was lame.
posted by cell divide at 5:13 PM on January 20, 2004

Crichton's speech would have made a good simile.
posted by Hildago at 6:26 PM on January 20, 2004

Triple Post, huh? I'm just surprised that people are still reading Michael Crichton.
posted by graventy at 6:43 PM on January 20, 2004

The Objective American has covered a similar theme quite often.
posted by bbrown at 7:10 PM on January 20, 2004

Hmmm. "It's like a speech by Michael Crichton."

No, I don't see how that works at all, Hidalgo.
posted by namespan at 7:31 PM on January 20, 2004

"We know from history that religions tend to kill people, and environmentalism has already killed somewhere between 10-30 million people since the 1970s. It's not a good record." - Environmentalism, it's like HITLER !.

Crichton may have some pernicious, chronic disease eating his brain. "Environmentalism has killed 10-30 million people." Hmmm. I'd like to see peer-reviewed research on that. I think that most self respecting scientists would consign such a propositon, on paper, to the bathroom as toilet paper.

It would be pee-reviewed, then flushed : that's a rather grand claim given that environmentalism can be credited - among other accomplishments - with the elimination of leaded gasoline and CFC's.
posted by troutfishing at 8:08 PM on January 20, 2004

Crichton just keeps resurfacing on Metafilter like some implacable zombie which claws it's way up from the grave to shuffle, arms outstretched, towards the jugular of reason.

I spent an absurd number of words beating back the shuffling Crichton zombie on two separate Metafilter posts - including one essay of nearly 2,000 words (some quoted text though, so that word count is padded).

I did a Google search too : almost to a blogger, people were gaga and wowed by Crichton's sci-fi pedigree and linguistic skills. He's made quite a splash among a certain crowd.

Here is the end of my big essay from the last Crichton infestation :

"As I have noted, the basic process of Global Warming is what makes the earth habitable. Too much warming can be a problem of course, and that is what is at issue. But in casting belief in Global Warming as some sort of crazed cult faith akin to a belief in aliens, Critchton is unwittingly stating that he rejects much of the foundation on which the last century of modern science is based.

That's unfortunate, coming from a science fiction writer."

posted by troutfishing at 8:16 PM on January 20, 2004

moonbiter mentioned one recent Crichton outbreak on Metafilter. Here is the other one, from January 3rd, 2004.

"Did belief in extraterrestrials pave the way for today’s general belief in global warming? Is the blending of public policy with science creating junk science? Michael Crichton drew out an intriguing connection in this lecture at Caltech. Via Arts & Letters Daily."

In this address to Caltech students, the 2003 Caltech "Michelin Lecture", Crichton likened belief in Global Warming to belief in aliens. This was the subject of my blunt statement above, in my last comment on this thread. The address was embarrassing and should also embarrass those ( a little, anyway ) who read it but weren't aware of quite how embarrassing the lecture was, in scientific terms (for more on this, see my linked "big essay", above).

On that thread discussion, donth made a priceless comment : "Michael Crichton is not a scientist. He wrote "The Lost World"

'In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results.' Reproducible results create consensus. (Laymen should look at consensus of experts, experts look at the direct results. It is impossible for a layman to look at the results for every question so expert consensus is used instead.).....

'There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.'

Michael Crichton writes books for a living, and he also wrote this paragraph. [ the above italicized sentence, and the following ]

'I say it is hugely relevant. Once you abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once you start arranging the truth in a press conference, then anything is possible. In one context, maybe you will get some mobilization against nuclear war. But in another context, you get Lysenkoism. In another, you get Nazi euthanasia.'

I stopped reading at this point."

That about sums it up. Crichton has become unhinged.
posted by troutfishing at 8:35 PM on January 20, 2004

This reminds me that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, was a convinced believer of spiritualism and fairies. There's a long-standing tradition of popular writers using their fame for utterly idiotic causes, folks.

Funny how such a staunch defender of scientific truths as Mr Crichton gratuitously misnamed one of his most famous works. Jurassic Park features mostly cretaceous creatures - starting with mr. T Rex himself. Thanks for trying to confuse both young (then) and mature (now) minds, asshat.
posted by magullo at 4:30 AM on January 21, 2004

magullo - But did Conan Doyle work the speaking circuit, in his age, to advocate a British government scientific policy based on the reality of faeries and spiritualist principles?

Crichton's positions on science are about as anachronistic as if he were stumping for a US national scientific policy based on Phlogiston or the Four Humours.

As I pounded into the ground in my "big essay" I cited above (from a previous Metafilter Crichton thread) - Crichton is advocating a US government policy based on what amounts to a repudiation, on Crichton's seemingly unwitting part, of the underpinnings of the last 100 years of scientific progress.

That's why I think the man has become unhinged. I don't think he really understands the logical import of the claims he has been slinging around.
posted by troutfishing at 6:39 AM on January 21, 2004

Meanwhile (yuck yuck) - magullo, did you hear about the new sci-fi coming out? - It concerns a project - to extract the DNA of huge, fossilized pickles and use it to rebuild a population of the huge vegetables (which have not lived on earth for over 20 million years). The project, of course, goes horribly amok during an inaugural visit by a small group who are being given a personal tour by the scientific genius behind the project. In the end, everyone is crushed by the massive, rogue pickled vegetables except for a nubile starlet and Harrison Ford. It's called Vlassic Park !
posted by troutfishing at 6:51 AM on January 21, 2004

But did Conan Doyle work the speaking circuit, in his age, to advocate a British government scientific policy based on the reality of faeries and spiritualist principles?


/Had already seen the Vlassic Park reply =8D
posted by magullo at 7:04 AM on January 21, 2004

This reminds me that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, was a convinced believer of spiritualism and fairies. There's a long-standing tradition of popular writers using their fame for utterly idiotic causes, folks.

In an eerie coincidence, Doyle also wrote The Lost World.

And in another eerie coincidence, Michael Crichton can blow me.
posted by soyjoy at 7:49 AM on January 21, 2004

magullo - Thanks for answering that question of mine. Plus ca change.....

Maybe writers who do a lot of imaginative invention get carried away and decide that reality is ultimately malleable, so they can belive anything they want.

Maybe this amounts to a self-important delusion of petit-grandeur. (hey! My French is getting real good...I'm almost sleeping with the enemy now, I guess)

About reposting the bad joke - It was compulsive, I know. (what is that emoticon of yours, anyway?)


soyjoy - You might not want that. I've heard he's much more expensive but not even half as good as your average call-girl or CIA asset/journalist.
posted by troutfishing at 9:58 AM on January 21, 2004

Enviromentalism as a religion. Yes!

This is one area where I could get fundamentalist on your ass!
Great piece in Harper's too. Pseudoscience sucks. Go away Chrichton.
posted by nofundy at 10:01 AM on January 21, 2004

Earth 'entering uncharted waters'
posted by homunculus at 10:56 AM on January 21, 2004

Wow you guys are all just proving his point aren't you?
posted by Bonzai at 11:04 AM on January 21, 2004

That's right, Bonzai: it doesn't matter if we agree or disagree. He wins either way. Hadn't noticed that before. Brilliant, really.

/troutfishingpointy hair, round glasses, big laugh - that's me when that emoticon started making the rounds.
posted by magullo at 11:50 AM on January 21, 2004

And yet, as you point out in your Rolling Stone article, some of the most passionate ground troops for the anti-environment backlash have come from the Christian right. How do you make sense of that -- that these people are also inspired by religious conviction?

I would say what the fundamentalists call "dominion theology" is a Christian heresy. These are people who read the Bible in a certain way, to justify corporate domination of the planet, the same way people used to read the Bible to justify slavery.

Dominion Christians believe that the Apocalypse is coming soon, the planet was put here for us to exploit, to liquidate for cash, and we have a duty to do that -- even if we destroy nature in the process. Reagan's EPA chief James Watt was a radical dominion fundamentalist -- he believed it was sinful for us to protect the earth for future generations.

The industrialist who first recognized the potential for organzing these right-wing fanatics into a political movement was Joseph Coors, who was Colorado's biggest polluter. Coors engineered a pact between polluting industries and this marginalized, paranoid element that has existed throughout America's political history. This was in the 1980s, around the same time that world communism was falling apart, and so the right wing needed a new bugaboo. If you read Pat Roberts' book "New World Order," the evolution is clearly outlined; he says the new communists are the environmentalists. He calls them "watermelons" -- green on the outside, but red on the inside. And he makes the same association that the John Birch Society did -- that because Earth Day happened to fall on Lenin's birthday, this was evidence that environmentalists were the new secret spies of the new world order, as communism disappeared.

Robertson interprets American politics through the lens of his apocalyptic theology. He calls environmentalists "the minions of Satan," who are trying to turn America -- which is the New Jerusalem -- over to the philistines of the earth who seek to dominate us through internationalism and the U.N.

Does this radical fringe actually have influence within the Bush administration?

Absolutely. Many of Bush's key appointments come out of this far-right fringe and the industries that fund them. [Interior Secretary] Gale Norton was Watts' successor at Mountain States Legal Foundation. Steven Griles, an energy industry lobbyist who is now Norton's deputy, also came right out of Watts' shop, and now he's busy doing all these terrible things -- giving away our parks, punishing scientists who tell the truth. The administration is full of these people, like Andrew Card, Condoleezza Rice, Spencer Abraham -- they come out of the auto or oil industries, the militantly anti-environmental wing of industry.
posted by homunculus at 12:19 PM on January 21, 2004

magullo : All I read is a bunch of Ad Hominum attacks. Is he wrong about the mistakes made by the environmental movement? Refute his points, don't attack the man. Instead of telling me what he said that you didn't like, tell me what he said that wasn't true.
posted by Bonzai at 12:28 PM on January 21, 2004

Bonzai - this thread is kind of a left over. His ideas, and those of his ilk, have been refuted half a dozen times here in the past, so this has just turned into a "Oh, it's Crichton again, Matt hasn't deleted it, lets have a chuckle".

In any case, as a scientist myself, I find it difficult to refute his points in my standard way as they have almost no scientific basis behind them, simply bland, bitter, pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories that give anti-environmentalists warm fuzzies. And I'm rarely good a political arguments, which is what this really is. If Crichton wants to claim environmentalism has killed 10-30 million people, without entertaining the idea that since 1970 just the tighter controls on toxic chemical dumping promoted by the environmental movement have in a rough estimate saved the lives of three times that many, he's not putting up a good enough argument to bother thinking about.

It's amazing how many anti-environmentalists like to compare environmental health indicators from pre-1970s to present day and then say "look, the environment is actually better now!". Funnily enough, 1970 was when the movement started pushing for change - any environmental improvement now is just proof the effectiveness of managing the environment correctly.
posted by Jimbob at 12:48 PM on January 21, 2004

The main thrust of that speech wasn't about the environmental myths, it's the way environmentalists cling to those mistakes despite lack of scientific proof or (sometimes) contradictory scientific proof. Then I read the comments and sure enough they were all ad hominum attacks. It was like reading a selection of comments on a Stephen J. Gould book written by Creationists.

The environmental movement has done great things in the past, but there are major problems with it. Unless environmentalists are willing to act like scientists instead of priests the problems will get worse.

We need to focus our resources where we can get the most return, instead we waste our energies on banning smoking in bars.

The man made some points.
posted by Bonzai at 1:07 PM on January 21, 2004

I've been checking out the religious connections homunculus pointed to. It seems to be of a mixture of those waiting for The Rapture and those that see things as good vs. evil and therefore commit antinomianism as when Pat Robertson said, "The Lord has just blessed [George Bush]. I mean, he could make terrible mistakes and comes out of it. It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad, God picks him up because he's a man of prayer and God's blessing him.".
posted by john at 1:44 PM on January 21, 2004

Bonzai - I was tempted to include an ad hominen clause. Now I know why.

I am merely pointing out the fact that the guy, other than a novelist, is a globally known spinmaster with several past successes to his account.

Now pay attention because here is the trick:

*I am not doing / refuting / even touching science when I say that *

Just like he uses his right to say as he pleases in a field which is not his own, I use my right to call his act what it is. You are, of course, free to talk about my performance. There is no business like ... well you know.

Also - just to be double sure here - let's touch the scientific refutation part. Could you comment on the fact that he stepped all over paleontology to make a quick buck and now dares to challenge the internet knowledge base for ... what exactly? Jurassic is a precise scientific term, not a catchy word to be tossed around. What's licit when, then?
posted by magullo at 2:27 PM on January 21, 2004

Bonzai - Crichton has been discussed on Metafilter before. Not to toot my own horn overmuch, but I ground him into the dirt the last time he troubled this site.

I guess that I need to do it again now.

So be it.

These comment excerpts are from this Metafilter thread, January 3, about a recent Crichton speech


"In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results." (Crichton)

"Reproducible results create consensus. (Laymen should look at consensus of experts, experts look at the direct results. It is impossible for a layman to look at the results for every question so expert consensus is used instead.) His examples are exceptions and not the rule." (donth)

Crichton's use of the tradition of dissent in science to cast doubt on Global Warming is quite cunning. Many of the greatest scientific advances have been advanced first as positions which dissented radically from orthodox scientific doctrine. Fine. But Crichton neglects to mention that the proposition that human activity could have a measurable impact on the Earth's climate was also a dissenting position once......until the scrupulous measurements of Dr, Charles Keeling put the issue to rest ; human activity was increasing atmospheric CO2. Without a doubt. When Keeling's findings had been widely accepted by the scientific community, the next question was - would this CO2 exert a measurable warming effect? This question has produced a vast body of research, the bulk of which - in the US - was initiated during the Presidency of George Bush Sr., whose administration reached a compromise with congress - in the face of widespread public concern following the terrible heat during the summers of '88 and '89 - to federally fund research into the potential problem of Global Warming rather than take any concrete action.

A decade and a half later, this research has gradually convinced many - if not most - scientists that humans are probably having a measurable influence on the Earth's climate. But this was far from a mainstream belief 20 years ago!

Here is an explanation of how the Earth's atmosphere keeps the Earth's surface, at sea level, an average of 60 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it would otherwise be. Here is a google search on the subject. The science of this effect is not in question, nor has it probably been for 100 years. This is "natural" Global Warming.

Now, it is almost beyond belief - but bizarrely true - an address by a science fiction writer, at a famous technical and scientific university, which denies a basic geophysical phenomenon which has been widely accepted by scientists for the better part of a century!

This writer, further, embarrasses the institution by likening belief in this geophysical phenomenon to that of cultish, cranky untestable beliefs such as faith in extraterrestrials, and also assert a conspiracy to invent the alleged problem which involves wholesale persecution of dissenters : "Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefited from permitting these demons to escape free......Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron. Next, the isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program, and the characterization of those scientists as outsiders and "skeptics" in quotation marks-suspect individuals with suspect motives, industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply anti-environmental nutcases."

This is doubly embarrassing, for the likelihood that the writer is not even aware that the phenomenon he disparages in this rather severe fashion - Global Warming - is actually responsible for making the Earth habitable for human life and also for the fact that he seems to be unaware of the distinction between this rather basic geophysical phenomenon and the scientific hypothesis - which has gained widespread currency among climate researchers - that humans are exerting an influence on the Earth's climate, in what would most accurately be called an "Enhanced Greenhouse Effect" (to distinguish it from the natural Greenhouse Effect.)

The author during this lecture, also seems to demonstrate a basic lack of understanding of the distinction between weather and climate, in that long term weather prediction seems to be impossible, but long relatively long term (3 to 6 month) climate predictions are now already routinely made, to a fair degree of precision.

So what is Crichton up to? Is he really this clueless?


Vacapinta - Here's an online publication on Global Warming , from the US National Academy of Science press. I take this to be the mainstream scientific view on the subject.

"That is the question: Are our activities significant against the background of natural global climate change?" - Well, the scientific consensus (and I reject Crichton's condemnation of this word, for the reasons cited by donst) for a discernable human influence on climate has grown stronger year by year. I doubt the trend will reverse itself for the fact that the warming signal seems to be also strengthening year by year.

"The point of Crichton's article, as josh says above, is that the global warming debate follows the template of earlier debates where science subsumes policy.......

I refuse to believe one side of this debate is completely in the right and the other one is engaged in evil disinformation tactics. Call it an instinct about human nature. This is a political war not a scientific war and that, to me, is the point Crichton is trying to make."

I'd say that Crichton is a committed partisan of that political war, and science be damned. How else can I understand his apparent huge gaps in scientific knowledge on display in his Caltech address?

This paragraph of Crichton's is to me the most striking :

"And so, in this elastic anything-goes world where science-or non-science-is the hand maiden of questionable public policy, we arrive at last at global warming. It is not my purpose here to rehash the details of this most magnificent of the demons haunting the world. I would just remind you of the now-familiar pattern by which these things are established. Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron. Next, the isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program, and the characterization of those scientists as outsiders and "skeptics" in quotation marks-suspect individuals with suspect motives, industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply anti-environmental nutcases"

This is the language of unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. Crichton accuses climate scientists of fostering an enormous fraud and of visiting some sort of inquisitorial terror on dissenting colleagues but - despite the seriousness of these accusations - refuses to provide a shred of evidence. So Crichton's use of language is deft, but it is the language of demagoguery, or of propaganda - for neither are inclined to provide evidence for their sweeping assertions but seek, rather, to sway minds through means other than logic and reason.


Bonzai, you'd be best advised to find another champion. Crichton is a sinking ship. I happen to believe in basic physics. Crichton, apparently, no longer does.
posted by troutfishing at 7:55 PM on January 22, 2004

We need to focus our resources where we can get the most return, instead we waste our energies on banning smoking in bars.

You can't be serious. Who is "we" in that sentence? Banning smoking and environmentalism are not exactly, not even nearly, the same crusade. This is one of the silliest fallacies I've seen in a while.
posted by soyjoy at 7:53 AM on January 23, 2004

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