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23.5.08

Religion And Hurricanes

Via the Evangelical Ecologist, I see Jonah Goldberg making the entirely unoriginal argument that environmentalism amounts to a religion. I think there's actually a grain of truth to this -- environmentalism, like any other philosophy, including a pose of clear-headed pragmatism, is too often turned into a practice of personal purity rather than a goal-oriented project. Unfortunately, when conservatives like Goldberg try to make this argument, they get twisted around and start labeling anything that would advance us toward the environmentalist project's goals as mere personal purity. Telling anyone they ought to do something differently becomes inappropriate sanctimonious moralizing.

What makes this iteration of the argument interesting is the parallel Goldberg draws between (allegedly) religious blame for Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Nargis:

I heard Gore on NPR the other day. He was asked what he made of evangelical pastor Joseph [sic] Hagee's absurd comment that Hurricane Katrina was God's wrath for New Orleans' sexual depravity. Naturally, Gore chuckled at such backwardness. But then the Nobel laureate went on to blame Katrina on man's energy sinfulness. It struck me that the two men were not so different. If only canoodling residents of the Big Easy had adhered to "The Greenpeace Guide to Environmentally Friendly Sex."


I think if we deconstruct the two claims, we can see how environmentalism can avoid both being a religion in the bad sense, and being the kind of ineffectual lip servce Golberg advocates (under the term "conservationism").

Take Hagee's claim about Katrina first. Here's the alleged causal chain leading from sexual license to deadly weather: New Orleaneans had un-Biblical sex, God saw the sex, God decided the sex was bad and should be punished, God directed Katrina to strike New Orleans.

Then do the same for Gore's claim*. People (mostly outside of Myanmar) burned fossil fuels, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. CO2 trapped the sun's energy on the Earth, causing a rise in temperature. The rising temperature increased the number and strength of cyclones, and one such enhanced cyclone was Nargis.

Notice a key difference here: Hagee's claim requires a conscious power to intervene -- there's no other remotely plausible way for un-Biblical sex to cause a hurricane than for an intelligent God to see the sex and make a moral judgment that it deserves punishment. Gore's claim, however, can be stated in purely secular, physical terms. It's not that fossil fuels are bad, and therefore the people of Myanmar got flooded, but rather that fossil fuels cause the people of Myanmar to be flooded, and therefore fossil fuels are bad. Burning fossil fuels is not an act of personal sin for which we are punished, it's an act of (indirect) violence against other people.

It's possible to re-frame Gore's claim in a religious way, as some sort of revenge of Gaia against a sinful humanity. But that is, at root, a misstatement of the claim, because it improperly imputes a moral judgment as part of the description of events, rather than as a conclusion drawn from them. It's a misstatement whether it's made by a wooly-headed greenie who thinks it's a good argument, or whether it's made by a conservative who thinks that's the only way to interpret environmentalist claims. And therefore, Goldberg's attempt to draw a moral equivalence between Hagee and Gore, and thereby to paint all environmentalism as moralizing, fails.

(I obviously don't believe that Hagee's claim is based on anything more than hate. As for Gore's, his hypothesis is still very much up for debate among scientists -- but challenging its empirical foundations as a matter of atmospheric physics is entirely different from, and indeed antithetical to, challenging its rhetorical form as inappropriate religious moralizing.)

* Gore actually, and quite rightly, hedged his comments on Nargis much more than most conservatives have admitted. But "climate change caused Nargis" is still a respectable hypothesis, and it can stand in for the general class of environmentalists' claims of harms due to poor environmental management.

3 Comments:

Blogger Joel Monka said...

Gore's claim would be secular if there were any evidence to suport it. NOAA, however, says that both the number of total storms, and their intensity, were 50% higher in the period 1900-1950 than in the period 1950-2000: number of major storms, 1900-1950: 42; number of major storms 1950-2000: 28. see http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/gifs/table6.gif and http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/Deadliest_Costliest.shtml#Figures

You'll notice in the "Inconvenient Truth" that Gore said hurricanes have increased in number and intensity since 1970- is it a coincidence that the mildest decade since NOAA started keeping records in 1851 was 1970-1980, and that merely reverting to norm would look like a huge increase? That kind of finagling the evidence is used all the time by "End Times" authors like Von Daniken.

4:42 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

It's still a secular claim even if it's an incorrect secular claim, just like Hagee's claim is still an inherently religious claim even though it's an incorrect religious claim.

Also, how is Von Daniken an "end times" author -- or is there another Von Daniken besides the "ancient gods were space aliens" guy?

10:48 AM  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

That was just his first couple books- he's written tons since then, and been both guest and host of many TV shows about such things.

11:09 AM  

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