For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.
In my college days, I was introduced to a book, written in 1841 by Charles Mackay. Titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it remains a worthwhile chronicle — at least through the mid-nineteenth century — of some of the consequences of mankind’s periodic collapses into mass-mindedness. If Mackay was around today, he would be able to devote a chapter to the emergence of the latest secular religion: environmentalism.
It is a common mistake for people to assume that religious faith and fervor are qualities to be found only within institutionally-structured churches with formal doctrines and rituals. They are to be found, in varying degrees, within all belief systems, be they secular or theistic in nature. The polar opposite philosophies of Marxism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism — both of which openly condemned traditional religion — are, themselves, grounded in a faith in various central propositions. True-believers of these doctrines who voiced doubt as to any of the underlying premises, have been subjected to purges as enthusiastically conducted as medieval trials for heresy.
I am a strong defender of the processes of scientific inquiry. And yet, I am aware that most scientists cling to a faith in conclusions that have been widely accepted within their respective communities, and angrily react against any heresies — however well-documented and reasoned — that arise from skeptical minds. When British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s book, A New Science of Life, was published, the science journal, Nature, editorially described it as u201Ca book for burning?u201D Nor did most members of the scientific world openly embrace the views of the brilliant science philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, who challenged the idea that there was u201Cau201D scientific method. He was of the view that a variety of strategies — including luck, accidents, dream interpretation, fraud, mistakes, and intuition — had played major roles in scientific discoveries. He advocated a theoretical anarchism in the search for truth, believing that such an approach was more consistent with human nature than was adherence to rigid rules of inquiry.
I am equally a defender of speculative thinking, wherein emotions, intuitive insights, and an awareness of the need for inner, spiritual expression, inform our empirically-based searches for u201Ctruthu201D about ourselves and the world in which we live. We spend far too little time examining the epistemological basis for our thinking. The question u201Chow do we know what we knowu201D is rarely taken up even by the more intelligent among us. Most of us prefer the leisurely approach to understanding; relying upon self-styled u201Cexperts,u201D or the outcome of public opinion polls, to advise us of the opinions we are to embrace.
Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in the current secular faith in the causes of, and cures for, global warming. Many who eagerly attack the theistically-based religious views of others, have erected their own temporal icons and composed an alternative set of catechisms in furtherance of their creed. The rest of us are expected to accept, without any heretical doubts, that the prophesies of some scientists reflect a core of certainty within the scientific community as firmly grounded as the heliocentric cosmology. Those scientists who doubt the revealed faith, we are told, are but a handful of ignoramuses at such places as Backwater College or Boll Weevil State.
Perhaps it is the lawyer-side of me that insists upon people presenting evidence for their allegedly empirical statements. Using such a standard has led me to conclude that the Earth is, indeed, currently undergoing global warming; and that it has undergone fluctuations between periods of u201Ccoolingu201D and u201Cwarmingu201D since long before humans appeared on the planet. Indeed, astronomers report that other planets — particularly Mars — are experiencing similar climate changes as those of Earth. Unless the apostles of the global warming orthodoxy are prepared to lay the blame for Mars’ increased temperatures and melting ice caps on a transmigration of human-generated entropic wastes, factual evidence would suggest looking beyond Earth, itself, for explanations.
My interest in the study of u201Cchaosu201D and complexity also reminds me that complex systems are influenced by far too many variables of unknown and incalculable factors to permit reliable predictions. Nowhere is this more evident than in efforts to predict local weather. Indeed, the study of chaos was precipitated when MIT professor, Edward Lorenz, used computers to experiment with weather forecasting in the early 1960s. Lorenz discovered what all of us who have tried to make long-term plans for picnics have learned: predicting the weather is quite unreliable beyond two to three days time. There are simply too many unknown and unknowable factors influencing the weather.
This fact, alone, renders ludicrous a statement offered by Dr. Heidi Cullen, the climate expert at The Weather Channel. Directing her attention to the differences of opinion over the causes of global warming, Dr. Cullen has reportedly proposed that meteorologists who deviate from the established orthodoxy of human-caused global warming should be defrocked of their American Meteorological Association indicia of expertise. The global-warming faith is grounded in the illusion that a system of such immeasurable complexity — hence, variability — as climate, can nonetheless be rendered predictable over centuries of time. What a remarkable presumption, coming from one whose profession cannot accurately predict next week’s weather, but who insists upon a sufficient omniscience regarding the causal factors that reach across the millennia to warrant purging those who disagree with her opinions.
Not to be overlooked in his efforts to ferret out heresies, the governor of Oregon, Ted Kulongoski, wants to remove George Taylor from his present position as u201CState Climatologist.u201D Taylor — a prolific writer on weather and climate — uttered the blasphemy that u201Cmost of the climate changes we have seen up until now have been a result of natural variations.u201D Those who believe that there is a separation of u201Creligionu201D and u201Cstateu201D in America confuse form over substance.
Our culture has been so dominated by scientism that there is a tendency to equate scientific conclusions with objective reality. In his u201Cuncertainty principle,u201D Werner Heisenberg advised us of the fact that the observer is an integral part of what is being observed. The myth of the u201Cimpartialu201D and u201Cobjectiveu201D observer is no longer taken seriously by thoughtful people. I may be most sincere in my efforts to cut through appearances and get to the core of an important u201Ctruth,u201D but it remains my choice as to what to study, and it is my thinking that sets up the inquiry and evaluates my observations. We are unavoidably a part of what we are studying.
One way in which confusion arises from this interplay is found in the oft-used tool of u201Cmodeling.u201D Using prior learning — which the study of complexity reminds us is inherently limited — scientists will create models that seek to extrapolate present conditions into the future. One of the better-known examples of this practice was found in Thomas Malthus’ theory that because food supplies can only increase arithmetically, while population increases geometrically, massive starvation was the ultimate fate of mankind unless other population-restricting forces intervened. That such a view failed to account for the unpredicted capacity of technology to expand food production, has not diminished faith in the capacity of scientists to create models that presage the future.
But models do not equate with empirical evidence. As Heisenberg’s principle warns us, models can do no more than project a present limited understanding into the future. Even apart from a consideration as to the causes of global warming — about which there is a decided debate amongst reputable scientists, no matter how much foot-stomping to the contrary — model-building provides no more than a possible theory to be tested against reality. Those who wish to explore this topic in more detail are invited to read the recent book of two geologists — Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis — titled Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future. The authors illustrate the absurd reaches of this faith in modeling in referring to a federal court decision that required assurances of safety for the disposal of radioactive wastes that extended from 300,000 to 1 million years into the future! The idea that modern-day models can predict outcomes 1 million years hence — a capacity that would have to anticipate earthquakes, plate tectonics, climate changes, the Earth being hit by asteroids, and/or solar eruptions — is a power that would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of people who fashioned themselves capable of such a task.
Ah, but such omniscient capacities are precisely what the global-warming faithful imagine themselves to possess. Unlike most traditional religions that have historically been content to function without the strong arm of the state behind them, the global warmingists want to turn theirs into a state religion. In the very nature of human beings as producers of carbon dioxide, they have found an u201Coriginal sinu201D to be eradicated. (Forget that plants — the foundation upon which all of life depends — are as dependent upon our carbon dioxide as we are upon the oxygen they provide.) I suspect that their version of the u201CTen Commandmentsu201D greatly exceeds that number.
Nor can we overlook the aura of sainthood in which its spiritual leader, Al Gore, has been enshrouded. There is little questioning, among the faithful, of his reportedly raking in anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per lecture — and reportedly receiving a $250,000 speaking fee in Saudi Arabia — nor of the enormous energy costs of maintaining his mansion in Tennessee. It is enough that he is the anointed one, a role he played to perfection when, at the Academy Awards, people were eager to touch the man. I was surprised that young mothers didn’t bring their babies to the stage to be blessed by him.
When I voice my own doubts — grounded in the dissenting opinions offered by many hundreds of scientists as to the human causes of global warming — I receive the standard response: u201Chave you seen Al Gore’s film?u201D Donald Miller had an excellent article a few weeks ago surveying the literature of opposition to the established dogma. I e-mailed his article to a global warmingist colleague of mine, who responded that Prof. Miller only taught in a medical school. u201CAnd a political hack like Al Gore is credible?,u201D I asked.
The religious nature of the global warming cult also finds expression in the purchase of u201Ccarbon offsets,u201D with which to compensate for excessive CO2 production. This practice has been likened, by some, to the medieval church practice of selling u201Cindulgences.u201D And like many other religions, this emerging sect has its own version of an apocalypse, with mankind facing a cosmic cataclysm unless we humans end our sinful ways and embrace the secular theology.
To understand the roots of this new religion, one need only go back to the earlier gospel from whence these true believers migrated. It is no coincidence, I believe, that the environmental cult arose at about the same time that the earlier faith in state economic planning was unable to withstand the pragmatic power of the marketplace as the generator of material well-being. Environmentalism provided an alternative vehicle for those whose principal ambition lay in controlling the lives and property of their fellow humans. There was some initial uncertainty expressed over whether we faced an incipient global u201Ccoolingu201D or u201Cwarming,u201D but there was no absence of faith in their underlying cause: to extend coercive control over all of humanity. If you doubt this assessment, consider the common interventionist mindset that has driven both socialist and environmental planners.
As regular readers of my articles may recall, I am a confirmed agnostic when it comes to other people’s cosmologies and earthly utopias, treating all with an energized skepticism. I believe that each of us has a deep need for spiritual experiences, and as long as men and women are content to search their souls and the world about them for their vision without brandishing weapons to compel my adherence to their views, I eagerly support their liberty to pursue such inquiries. I regard it as my contribution to the atmosphere of mutual tolerance upon which free and peaceful societies depend.
I begin to get uneasy, however, when the drum-beating and flag-waving herald a new crusade in which my family and the rest of mankind are to be conscripted. The same fear-mongering that caused most Americans to believe that unseen, sinister forces sought to destroy America with imaginary u201Cweapons of mass destruction,u201D is now being employed to convince all of humanity of an even deadlier specter: mankind itself. It is time for childish minds to give up their fears of bogeymen, and to stop worshipping those who have nothing more to offer us than a pack of new and improved scarecrows!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.