Sustainability, religion, and the global warming apocalypse, by J. Fred Giertz

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Thankfully, we live in a country with religious freedom where “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are all supposed to worship at the First Church of Sustainability.

Sustainability is becoming a secular faith that is taking on many of the trappings of an organized, established religion.

Recently, Gov. Pat Quinn appeared on the University of Illinois campus, where university leaders and the governor signed a “sustainability compact” committing the university to “embrace a sustainable way of life.” Mixing religious and martial metaphors, the governor stated: “You are the front line. You are the troops that are going to take us to the promised land. You’re landing on the beach at Normandy and we’re going to win this green revolution.” Quinn might better have focused on the near term goal of economic sustainability for the university, which was waiting to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the state in delayed promised support.

The University of Illinois now has an Office of Sustainability to promote the cause. A monument to sustainability is being planned in the form of a single $2 million-plus wind turbine to be built on the south campus. Note that even with substantial government subsidies, a single wind turbine is not economically viable. That is why there are wind farms.

There are also enforced sacrifices and rewards to promote sustainability.

We have the ritual of recycling even in situations where recycling does not make economic sense. A number of parking places at university lots are now designated for hybrid vehicles, much to the consternation of those facing a full lot with no other available spaces. On one occasion last spring, Campus Recreation participated “in the global sustainability movement” by imposing an Earth Hour ritual by closing its facilities for an hour to diminish its carbon footprint. Note the ritual sacrificial nature of these actions in that they are symbolic with little or no real impact on the environment or sustainability.

More broadly, sustainability has other religious elements. The Catholic church once sold indulgences that mitigated the punishment for confessed sins. True believers in sustainability, such as Al Gore, can buy carbon offsets where others are paid to sacrifice to compensate for their less-than-sustainable behavior.

Sustainability also depends on the prospect of a religious-like apocalyptic environmental disaster.

Throughout the years, the form of environmental apocalypse has evolved. The first threat was pollution that would eventually engulf humanity. Fortunately, this threat has receded. By virtually every measure, pollution is less serious today than it was on the first Earth Day 40 years ago and certainly compared to a century ago.
The next two disasters were over population and resource exhaustion. The earth would not be able to support a growing population, and resources would eventually be used up. These two assertions were effectively countered by the underappreciated University of Illinois economist Julian Simon, who died in 1998.

In a lonely campaign, Simon demonstrated that population growth in a modern society coincided with rising living standards and innovation. Note that today’s declining populations are the real threat in Europe and Japan. To highlight the religious nature of the issue, Simon sometimes wore clip-on red devil horns in debates.
Simon also prevailed on the resource exhaustion question, where he argued that market forces would be an effective means of conserving resources. This was highlighted in his famous wager in 1980 with noted environmentalist Paul Ehrlich (who wrote the book “Population Bomb”) about whether commodity prices would rise or fall. Simon and Ehrlich agreed on five commodities, with Simon winning a convincing victory in 1990 when the prices of copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten fell from their 1980 levels.

The current apocalyptic threat is global warming.

There appears to be a considerable degree of consensus among scientists that global warming is occurring and is being exacerbated by human activity. Note that critics of global warming are labeled heretics or deniers. However, it has proven difficult to predict the course of global warming (or cooling) because the earth experiences natural cycles of warming and cooling independent of human activity.

Even for proponents of global warming, the apocalyptic view has changed recently. Careful studies, such as the British government’s Stern Report, suggested that substantial sacrifices are needed now to avoid considerable damage decades or ever centuries in the future. The report concluded that paying a price of 5 percent of world output today would be needed to avoid a 10 to 20 percent decrease 100 years from now. Critics, however, pointed out that the incomes of people in 100 years will likely be several times that of those today. This means that relatively poor people today would be sacrificing to increase incomes of the richer unborn 100 years in the future. This hardly qualifies as an apocalypse.

The next and current version of the global warming apocalypse is the small probability of rapid global warming with much harsher consequences. Low probability events with high potential costs (such as a large asteroid striking earth) are notoriously difficult to evaluate. However, the suggested policy responses now being considered to address global warming are totally inadequate to deal with this catastrophic scenario. These half-measures have to be considered symbolic, not effective sacrifices.

The religious nature of the sustainability movement should not lessen genuine commitments to the environment and conservation. Environmental goals can best be achieved by the market process where all resources, including environmental ones, are properly priced. This requires the intervention of government to set and enforce appropriate prices in certain cases. Such measures would force people to take into account the full costs, including the environmental consequences of their actions. Sacrifices in this setting would have real and meaningful environmental and economic payoffs, not just symbolic ones.

It is often overlooked that the goal of sustainability is a weak and passive objective. Sustainability is defined as the “capacity to endure” or “maintain.” If sustainability had been the goal of the United States when it formed more than 200 years ago, we would have a tiny fraction of our current population, living half as long as people today with per capita income less than 5 percent current levels. Just as we should be careful of what we wish for, we should also be careful of what we want to sustain.

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Source: J. Fred Giertz

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