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Environmentalists: the New Pharisees?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 30 October 2002

This article is about a particular kind of malaise that is effecting the present generation in their 20s and 30s. They are, by and large, educated and thoughtful and deeply concerned about the state of the world. Indeed it is their concern and their high moral attitude that marks them out as different from preceding generations who accepted marriage and family and the utility of the world as given.

For this new generation, these things are deeply problematic. The centre of this disaffection with the industrial, economic culture of the West is the ecological crisis, even though that crisis does not impact directly on their lives. Rather, it is for them a road block to the future and a consequent inhibition of action and suspicion of desire.

Because the ecological crisis is sheeted home to Western material success they reject much in their own society. Being serious minded and highly moral this is an agony for them because they must exist in their own society and must make compromises on a daily basis. Indeed, it is their high moral attitude that is most remarkable about them. They feel themselves responsible for the demise of the planet but can only act in token ways to prevent it. They are thus caught in despair, they cannot join their society but they also cannot leave it. They find themselves living on the margins in guilt. It is particularly instructive that the loss of a metaphysical tradition that would have ordered the relationship between them and the world has not led to anarchy but to the reverse, a heightened sense of moral responsibility that rivals that of the Pharisees.


The ecological crisis, combined with radical politics, has produced its own law that is perhaps even more demanding than that of the Torah and which hedges life around with petty choices. For who knows what product has blood on it? Does the clothing come from sweated labour or the food from impoverished farmers and how would we know? Is the paint on our walls poisoning us and does our shit contaminate the wetlands? Life becomes a moral mine field. It is here that the very best intentions and the most refined ethics produces not freedom and the basis for action, but petty morality and paralysis.

While the West may be seen as triumphant in that we can feed and shelter and educate our people as well as extending cultural achievements, the environmentalists see it as failure. All of the good that has come from science and technology is poisoned because of the perceived ecological crisis. This means that the products of science and technology are suspect and there is a search for alternatives in medicine and metaphysics in cultures that are not of the West. Adherents to this belief system, for that is what it has become, insist on a selective interpretation of environmental data to produce the conclusion that the world is coming to an end.

Thus we have a religious apocalypticism directed not towards salvation but towards the end of all things. To the outsider it seems that any hopeful attitude that would look to world governments to manage the environment or the introduction of new technologies to produce clean energy or recover spoilt environments is discounted. The one sidedness of the debate raises the suspicion that adherents are as much committed to despair as I am to hope. The affirmation of hope produces a tirade of scientific facts selected to demonstrate that there is no ground for hope. This is not to say that the ecological crisis is not real and does not produce its own portion of despair, but the way the arguments run produces the suspicion that there is something deeper at work.

Our time is marked by the absence of a coherent and solvent religious tradition. For many, natural science has filled this void and has provided a basis for value and an orientation in the world. This means that the spiritual life, or the life of the soul, is collapsed back into nature. Instead of being informed about life by ancient texts or traditions we are informed by so called scientific facts. This movement is profoundly anti cultural. The move is from history/literature and memory towards the scientific view of life played out according to brain chemistry and the theory of evolution. Such a shift in explanatory level produces trivial results.

This approach produces a romanticism about nature. As any biologist will tell you, evolution, be that of the stars or species, is blind to the future. It is another way of saying that what happens, happens. Any attempt to base an ethical system on nature is fraught with problems as the Roman church has found in its tortuous statements on birth control. Adherents to the new religion of environmentalism therefore have a hard time of it. Whereas the second creation narrative in Genesis places the man in the garden as steward, the environmentalists see him only as a species run amuck.

The environmental movement needs a workable metaphysics if it is to make progress. Seeing human beings as only one species in competition for resources with other species robs us of our role as stewards or managers of the earth. When this is lost we are reduced to the kind of carping against the modern world that has been so damaging to the environmentalist project. We must understand that we have built a worthwhile technological culture that is enabling many to contribute to the great human adventure. This will not be easily surrendered or characterised as mere hedonism but is at the basis of civilization, our emergence from brute nature.


The ecological crisis looks, like death, to be the emptying of all human aspirations. As the pagan world gave death its full due, so in our day the adherents give the ecological crisis the final say. To say that there is a "nevertheless" is seen as a betrayal of the crisis and as taking the option of denial. Just as there is no way to hope from the reality of death, there is no way to hope from the arguments of the environmental crisis. As Paul was fond of saying: "we hope in that which we do not see". Or we may say that our hope resides outside of the arguments about the reality of death or of the ecological crisis. When we lose hope we close off the future and poison the present. The thing is, where may it come from? What will convince us that the end is not nigh?

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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