Last week’s release of the World Wildlife Fund’s latest contribution to the well-worn genre of environmental apocalypticism, the “Living Planet Report 2002,” met with instant and often preemptive derision. Responding to material that was leaked to the press, the Statistical Assessment Service’s Howard Fienberg called the report’s gloomy contentions “tired and unproven.”
The skeptics are probably correct, in some weird, twisted, strictly factual sense, to object to the report’s conclusion that we will all run out of resources, water, oxygen, and cute bunnies — and die — by 2050, but they’re missing the point. People from various religious traditions have long recognized that the actual accuracy of an apocalyptic pronunciation is completely beside the point.
To wit, generations have argued over how to interpret the book of Revelation without actually thinking that a giant cube is going to come smashing into earth, as detailed in the penultimate chapter. The message to be extracted from the text must be gotten at by looking at the historical context of intense religious persecution. The apocalyptic encourages believers to keep the faith, await eventual divine vindication, and not go killing any Roman soldiers in the meantime.
Another oft-misunderstood part of the apocalyptic is the tendency to make dire predictions and then issue new dates at such time as the clock has run down but the world is still standing. Thus Hal Lindsey and company can still say that the world is going to end — really! — by 1975 or 1984 or 2000 or, let us say, 2005, and keep a straight face and a large audience. Greens are likewise nonplused when species don’t go extinct at the rates predicted, or when air pollution levels haven’t yet choked us all to death. The point of such predictions isn’t strict factual accuracy, but to inject a tone of urgency into the message.
This moralistic feature goes back all the way to the beginning of the environmental branch of apocalypticism. Rev. Thomas Malthus was reacting against what he saw as the heresy of perfectionism when he wrote his famous pamphlet. The reverend reasoned that gross immorality and animal attraction would lead poor hot bodied youths to continue to produce children at an irresponsible rate that would outstrip available resources. Unrestrained sexual appetites — today that would be “unsafe sex” — would bring society to ruin.
Indeed, beneath the fulmination of modern apocalyptic movements lies a truly touching message about virtue and perseverance. The Guardian story that broke the WWF’s study nicely parroted the green line by admonishing us that “the only option is to cut consumption now.” We must forsake our “extravagant lifestyles” and embrace simpler, less materialistic lives — or else!
Some have bristled at such orders and opposed their promulgation into law — and they have a point. After all, the establishment clause of the First Amendment has long set the benchmark for our government’s mostly hands-off approach to things religious. It’s hard to see why public school teachers, for instance, are not able to tell Johnny that he’s steeped in sin and headed for hell unless he sees the error of his ways, but are encouraged to lecture about parallel metaphysical beliefs about luxuriant living and phantom environmental destruction. And it has been even more problematic that the U.S. government subsidizes various environmental groups.
But every generation, as Al Gore has so eloquently reminded us, breathes new meaning into the Constitution. Now that the government is trying to work out the details to funnel money to faith-based charities of every sect and persuasion, it seems churlish to object that one type of faith has long received like funding.
Indeed, at a time when we’ve learned to be tolerant of the faiths of others, conservative skeptics have been less than charitable in their relations with environmentalists. They have practically rubbed their noses in the fact that resources have not significantly ebbed, or that pollution is not the dire crisis that many once feared, or that recycling can be counterproductive, or that nearly every predicted catastrophe of the last 50 years has not come to pass. The way things are going, it’s a miracle that someone has not yet displayed a baby seal in a jar of urine.
This dismissal amounts to soft-bigotry, at best. And it’s unfortunate because, if we have learned anything in this country in the last couple hundred years, it’s that the religious expressions of others, no matter how much they defy common sense or annoy the daylights out of us, should be tolerated. To so publicly take issue with the empirical basis on which environmentalism claims to rest is akin to challenging the revelation at Sinai or the Immaculate Conception.
In order to reset the delicate religious social balance that conservative skeptics have disrupted, it may even be necessary for the Bush administration to embark on a faith-based initiative of its own. One modest proposal would be to make Earth Day into a paid federal holiday on par with Christmas and the Fourth of July. Of course, then environmentalists might complain about the extra fuel expended visiting loved ones. But one doubts they’d refuse the time off, and I’m sure that they would unselfishly put the money toward only the very best of causes.