Environmentalism as a Conspiracy Theory

Santorum recently made some remarks about climate change that have garnered some media attention. I mention this here because reading Santorum’s comments was like stepping back into my childhood and adolescence. I was raised on exactly this thinking.

We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit. [Climate change is] an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life.

When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate — this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government.

There are two different things going on in this quote. First is this idea that the earth is being elevated above man; second is the assertion that climate change was invented as a phony crisis to grant the government more power.

Earth v. Man

Christians believe that the entire purpose of the universe, the center of everything and the most important element, is humankind. The earth’s entire purpose is to serve and sustain human life, and human life is set apart from the earth because humans, unlike the plants or animals, have souls and the potential for a relationship with God.

Many Christians emphasize God’s command that humans be “good stewards” of the earth and care for it, and use this passage as a call to environmental activism. I salute them. Other Christians, though, emphasize the other aspect, that the earth’s whole purpose is to benefit and serve us. In fact some go so far as to assert that coal and oil were put on earth solely so that humankind could burn them as fossil fuels.

If you read my series on the end times, you’ll know that many Christians believe that the earth isn’t going to be around for much longer. In fact, a full 40% of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. This takes away any impetus to care for the earth or protect it or make sure that it remains healthy and habitable. Furthermore, these Christians assert that God would never allow us to destroy the earth, because only God can destroy the earth.

Conservative Christians argue that “radical” environmentalists have elevated the earth above humans, and even that they “worship” the earth. Some even argue that environmentalism is a religion or that it has a theology of its own.

It is true that many environmentalists see humans as simply a part of the natural world, and do not elevate man in value above nature. But it’s not about valuing the earth over humans so much as leveling the two to see humans as part of nature. Of course, this in and of itself is a problem for conservative Christians. Humankind isn’t a part of nature. Humankind is above nature.

But what Santorum and those like him also ignore is that environmentalists argue that if we don’t protect and value the earth and its ecosystems humans will suffer. In other words, protecting the earth and valuing nature is beneficial to humans. It’s not about seeing the nature’s needs as above those of humans so much as seeing them as interrelated and interconnected.

A Phony Crisis

I was taught that global warming was a scheme created to centralize power into the hands of a one world government. This one world government was the same that would eventually be ruled by the Antichrist during the Tribulation.

The argument goes as following: By the 1990s other threats such as communism had largely disappeared, so the global elite decided to invent an environmental crisis in order to invoke fear in the people and justify the multiplication of environmental regulations that would eventually result in a centralized government with complete control over people’s lives.

Global warming, then, was a hoax, a hoax invented to fill people with fear and render them easy to control. You can see from Santorum’s quotes above that he shares this view. Somehow, I’m not surprised.

There is, of course, a problem with this view. Or rather, many problems. First, though, it requires a very conspiratorial view of the world, on the level of holocaust denial. Second, it requires rejecting the evidence that has been mounting that climate change is real. Third, it requires seeing environmental regulations as all about controlling people rather than about trying to protect the earth for people’s own good.

Conclusion

The biggest thing that struck me when reading Santorum’s recent remarks is that these sort of arguments forestall all actual communication and cooperation. Take care of the earth? Ha! God gave it to us to use it, not pamper it! Climate change is a problem? Ha! It’s a hoax, totally made up, a conspiracy!

Instead of discussing the very real problems our planet faces and how to come together as humans to mitigate them, the sort of thinking Santorum displays leads only to a dead end.

What’s more, anti-environmentalism has become a sort of required litmus test for evangelicals Christians. Fred Clarke of The Slactivist quotes Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words as follows:

I learned a few things growing up as an evangelical Christian: that abortion is murder; homosexuality, sin; evolution, nonsense; and environmentalism, a farce. I learned to accept these ideas — the “big four” — as part of the package deal of Christianity.

To belong to the evangelical “in-group,” or the in-group of conservative Christianity in general, you have to believe essentially what Santorum stated at the beginning of this article. And that, unfortunately, is where the conversation stops.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • leftwingfox

    To my mind this is one of the more directly dangerous beliefs, largely because most environmental policy happens through political appointments rather than through the legislature. The perfect example of this is James Watt, secretary of the Interior under Reagan. Here in Canada, The minister of the Environment is a cabinet position from the ruling party. The Republican nexus between conservative evangelical christianity and big business means it’s easy to find appointees who will reliably side with business over environmental concerns.

  • Robert B.

    ⟨nitpick⟩I think you meant to “salute” the environmentalist Christians, not to “solute” them, which I think would mean throwing salt at them.⟨/nitpick⟩

    Anyway, there’s really a conspiracy theory that enviornmentalism is a tool of the Antichrist? That’s… wow. And that stuff Santorum was frothing about in that quote really does seem like a toned down version of such a theory. I am sad for humanity now.

  • kevinalexander

    No, Mr Santorum, we’re not elevating the earth above man we’re elevating our grandchildren’s health and well being above your service to your sponsors greed.

  • rork

    Nicely done. Sadly, nuanced thinking flies over the heads of many.

  • w00dview

    I always wondered why conservatives seemed to have a disdain for preserving the natural world but if 40% of Americans really believe in the rapture then environmental concerns seem pointless. Just another example that religion poisons everything.

    • brianpansky

      Indeed.
      In grade 8 I was in a nature study course. When a paper asked about climate change I wrote something to the effect that “either you believe everything that exists is a pointless chemical reaction, or you believe that jesus will return and save us before anything bad happens…either way there is no reason to do anything or look into it/concern ourselves” (the mormon teacher gave me decent marks)

      My 14 year old self would have made a great GOP candidate. My family was all Pro-Bush and everything.

  • scotlyn

    I agree with leftwingfox, this is a dangerous belief, and reveals the extent to which foreign
    citizens of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ are prepared to betray the concerns of their fellows whose loyalty is to this world. And, dare I say it, any entitlement of ‘unborn’ generations to a world to be born into.

  • ScottInOH

    Yes, there are plenty of people who think this way. US Representative Shimkus (in 2009) said he didn’t think climate change was a problem, since God had promised never again to destroy the world in a flood. (Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_7h08RDYA5E)

    Part of the problem is this deep commitment to untestable argument–that is, to faith over science.

    But another part, as we discussed in the End Time thread, is that conservatives have managed to brand themselves (and they have marketers to do it) as godly and liberals as the allies of Satan. Because of this, people who consider themselves deeply religious just “happen” to interpret religious teachings as supporting unfettered capitalism, American nationalism, and institutionalized misogyny. It’s part of conservatives’ successful framing of virtually every debate we have in this country.

  • Kate

    This sort of reaction is exactly why I subscribe to the George Carlin brand of environmentalism. By being environmentally conscious, by taking part in preventing global warming and the radical change of our current environment, we are not saving the Earth. Whether our actions raise the planet’s temperature, flood huge land masses, create a nuclear winter or any other of the inumerable ways we have of messing things up, the Earth will still be here. It’s seen worse and will no doubt see worse in the billions of years to come. As powerful as humans are, we have yet to discover technology that can vaporize a planet. We couldn’t even shatter it a little bit if we wanted to.

    What we can do, and are on our way to doing is destroying ourselves. The planet will survive anything we can put it through. The Earth will be fine. In all likelihood, so will life on Earth, it might not be something we recognize, but mammals, reptiles fish, plants, something will survive whatever we dish out, and they’ll keep on going about their business without us.

    This idea that somehow we have to “save the Earth” is simply us being our typical narcissistic selves, that somehow we have the power of life and death over our whole planet. It might seem somewhat pessimistic or cynical, but I think human beings are selfish, and luckily this often wins out over our narcissism (which leads us to do the good things we do). What environmentalism should be focusing on is how the things we do harm our planet, which in the long run KILLS US. We have to stand up and recognize that we aren’t some white knight, we aren’t even trying to redeem ourselves for harming our poor planet. The human race collectively is a drug addict, an anorexic, an alcoholic, we love and can’t stop the very thing that in the end will kill us.

    And we don’t need any of that AA crap about higher powers – we need some good old fashioned Bob Newhart http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow0lr63y4Mw&feature=related

    • ibelieveindog

      Spot on!

  • mudpuddles

    It amazes me how anyone in any position of authority can be so utterly and persistently ignorant of the most basic details of climate science and policy.

    Here’s a little insight from my own personal experience working at the United Nations:

    At a UN summit on biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan in November 2010, a side event was held on the topic of the impacts of climate change on ecosystem functions, and the already observed effects on human communities resulting from those impacts.

    Attendees numbered 121. The side event presented a summary of over 300 peer-reviewed papers published since 2008, plus the IPCC’s AR4 report. Attendees were provided in advance with a number of summary Information Documents which outlined the central scientific issues (3 pages), policy issues (4 pages), public health issues (4 pages), poverty issues (3 pages), water issues (3 pages) and broad security issues (3 pages). I co-wrote some of those documents with 20 other people in 20 different countries. It took 3 months of pro-bono work – research, writing, translation, review, co-ordination, revision.

    The attendees debated the issues and the content of those 20 pages, in the context of a wider summit which for most of us involved perhaps 200 hours of work over 12 days, not to mention digesting several hundred pages of information on other issues, and a few hundred other side events in addition to negotiations, briefings, plenary sessions etc.

    No-one at that meeting earned any money from their attendance, or for their contribution to the event. The outputs of that meeting created more pro-bono work for dozens of people, across perhaps 50 countries, which I am still working on today. And that UN summit was just one of dozens of these meetings held each year.

    My point is this: Does Dick Santorum really, honestly believe that my colleagues and I and over 250,000 other people around the world put in all this effort on a daily basis simply to stand in rooms and tell each other lies and bullshit stories, and to listen to lies and bullshit stories, that we know to be lies and bullshit stories, as part of some massive global conspiracy? Do each of the hundreds of thousands of scientists working in these areas intentionally engage in some Walter Mitty existence, inventing crazy hypotheses, conducting bogus research, then inventing bogus results, and writing bogus reports, so we can knowingly tell lies to each other through conferences, journals and emails, for practically no financial reward, just to somehow influence some un-known cabal of Machiavellian politicians who can (somehow) take over the world?

    Are there really so many intelligent academics all over the world actively and avidly pursuing a bizarre fantasy in the face of massive corporate resistance and mudslinging, rather than actually doing something they might genuinely believe in and enjoy? When two climate scientists debate fiercely about the most appropriate means of assessing the impact of a reduced albedo effect on the weather patterns of northern Europe, are they just arguing over whose bullshit is better? When two biologists debate the role of climate change in the extinction of an amphibian, is it really all down to who is the better liar?

    Or, is the case simply that Santorum is one of the most unbelievably, impossibly stupid f*ckwits that the USA has ever seen?

  • mudpuddles

    @ Kate #8:

    The Earth will be fine. In all likelihood, so will life on Earth, it might not be something we recognize, but mammals, reptiles fish, plants, something will survive whatever we dish out…

    You need to learn some more environmental biology before making that kind of sweeping statement. For starters, I’d look at the summaries for the 3rd Global Biodiversity Outlook, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, or the IPCC 4th AR’s WG2 report (all free to view online). You’re also assuming that we have absolutely no moral or ethical obligation to avoid causing species to become extinct. Not to mention how it might be affecting future evolution.

    …and they’ll keep on going about their business without us.

    Yeah, that bit’s true.

  • Nicole

    Each day you open my eyes to new things that I had NO IDEA even existed as thoughts in these peoples’ minds! Thank you so much. I become more and more of a fan with every post!

  • Happiestsadist

    What most stood out to me is the idea that environmentalism is an elaborate conspiracy of lies and supernatural fiction, designed to terrify the population into doing what those in power want… said the fundamentalist who used talk of a conspiracy featuring demons to scare people into doing what he wants. That’s some IMAX-level projection.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com tommykey

    I think part of it stems from the fact that these people have been demonizing liberals and environmentalists for so long that they can’t allow themselves to acknowledge global warming because “we can’t admit them libruls were right about sumthin’!”

    A lot of people also don’t understand the difference between weather and climate. When a big snow storm hits, they tend to think “How can there be global warming when we’ve had the worse snow storm in 50 years?”

    What they fail to grasp is that there is nothing about global warming that says that snow storms are never supposed to happen. Temperature rise gradually, but it doesn’t always mean that there aren’t periods where temperatures will dip. It’s the long term trend that matters.

    • calicocat

      *shovels snow*

      “Hey, I could really use some of that global warming right about now!”

      In seriousness though, I thought for a while the right was starting to acknowledge that (maybe!) there was climate change (not human made!) but we can’t do anything about it (so don’t try!).

      Now it really has come down to “Everything the liberals say, we have to say the opposite.”

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      The thing is, environmentalism has not always been such a strictly liberal idea. The EPA, after all, was begun under Nixon! Hard to imagine now. It wasn’t always only liberals speaking up about global warming. The fact that it has BECOME as strictly liberal idea is what’s insane.

  • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

    Of course. And the seed catalogues are in on it! After all, they show a distinct change in the growing zones in the last 15 years. You can’t manage gooseberries and rhubarb in Memphis anymore, just too warm.

    Some people will happily ignore facts in the place of their own ideas. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Because they tend to be elected and ignore facts for us

  • http://amandajustice.blogspot.com Amanda

    Santorum is a scary, scary individual. My hope is that his time in the spotlight will likewise shine a light on just how pervasive some of these ridiculous beliefs are, and get the more sane among us activated.

  • Ace of Sevens

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/chevyvolt.asp

    Here’s another example from Snopes. Despite the transparently ridiculous nature of some of the claims, you can be sure you’ll hear about this one for decades.

  • Alan(UK)

    “…government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life.”

    I keep on reading statements like this from your Republican presidential candidates.

    Yet the one thing that they lust after, above all other, is to raise themselves to the highest position of power where they intend to greatly control the lives of their ‘subjects’.

    It is all about removing power from the people. The poor are to lose the financial ability to take charge of their lives, the sick are to lose the prospect of returning to health, the women are to lose the right – well just about any right to independent action. There will be religious freedom for all – to accept the officially sanctioned State religion. Muslims – well they will be lucky to have any rights at all.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    What I don’t understand is, as a Catholic, why would Santorum be into all this fundamentalist end-times craziness? The Catholic Church is wacky in plenty of ways but I thought this stuff wasn’t there thing.

    Also, I’m confused by why Santorum is finding so much support from Christian Right voters when so many of them are evangelicals and fundamentalists. My understanding has always been that these people are usually quite anti-Catholic. Are they just willing to get over anything in the end, as long as a candidate speaks up for “the big 4?” Do you know what your parents think of him? I guess this is a little OT but I’m curious.

    Also, I can’t help noticing that, even with all these theological reasons for opposing environmentalism, it’s also very expedient for the republican politicans that are in the pocket of the oil companies, lobbies etc. I have to wonder if this a case of people using theology to rationalize a politically expedient position–and it’s run so wild that they now believe their own lies (and have convinced other people of them.)

    • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com tommykey

      Also, I’m confused by why Santorum is finding so much support from Christian Right voters when so many of them are evangelicals and fundamentalists.

      Petticoat, the simple answer is “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

    • ScottInOH

      Charles Pierce recently gave his take on how conservative Catholics and Protestants have come together in the last decade or so: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/rick-santorum-church-talk-6789284. I think he’s at least in the ballpark.

  • stuartvo

    IIRC, in the Permian extinction event 95% of all species died out. Massive loss of biodiversity.

    And yet the dinosaurs had a very long and successful run after that. And now the mammals are doing ok, too.

    It seems that whenever most of life on the planet dies out, whatever remains just shouts “Weeee! Look at all that unclaimed real-estate!” and moves in. In no time at all (geologically speaking) Earth is teeming with life again.

    I don’t see how we have an ethical obligation towards species, only towards individuals. True, killing off species involves killing off individuals, but them we’re in to the whole “meat is murder” debate, which is a conversation for another time.

    In short, I’m firmly in the camp that believes that environmentalism is really about protecting humanity, and if we don’t get it right, then the planet won’t even miss us when we’re gone, any more than a man might miss the child he caught last month.

    • stuartvo

      Child? I meant “cold”.

      Curse the combination of Swype and my fat fingers.

    • mudpuddles

      Hi stuartvo, yes its true to say that life bounces back, and some of your points I would agree with. Literally speaking, environmentalism is about the environment, i.e. the space we inhabit, and therefore about people. But scientifically, politically and socially it means much, much more.

      To take a purely utilitartian viewpoint and suggest that we have no ethical obligation to conserve biodiversity except for those elements that benefit us is religious hokum. It assumes that other species do not have any intrinsic value and do not have any inherent right to existence unless they are of value to humans – which is precisely the thinking which Santorum and his followers promote. I once listened to a pastor in California say “We have dominion over all life, we should take any thing for our own use without recourse to wider impacts, because we are the only life forms which we should value, because we are the only ones that God does; after all, Jesus do not die on the cross for the hippo”.

      This is nothing to do with meat is murder (I love me some wild game!) and I’m not claiming that every amoeba has inalienable rights to life, liberty and justice. But, to suggest as you do that humans, who possess consciousness and intelligence and can reason by sheer accident of evolution, are the only organisms on the planet with intrinsic worth has no basis in science.

      Here are some questions to ponder: Maybe you assume that as long as no humans come to harm, any action that negatively affects biodiversity is OK. Would it be OK to pollute a lake and kill all of its biota if no human being would ever be impacted as a result? What about killing every last grey wolf – if science determined that humans would not suffer any negative impact, would it therefore be A-OK to wipe them out? Would it be OK to pee in someone’s Wheaties without telling them, if it could be proven that they would receive absolutely no harm from it whatsoever? Or inject someone’s dog with a dose of cyanide too small to harm it but not tell the owner? Where do you decide a cut-off point?

      Let’s say that you’re right, and environmentalism is just about people. So who’s values do we use to determine that a specific species has worth? Yours? Santorum’s? Mrs. Bridie Smith’s in Liverpool? And what values, exactly, do you use to make that judgement? – economic? social? emotional? cultural? And who’s cultural perspective are you going to use? What makes that perspective more valid than anyone elses? Maybe you think it only comes down to tangible benefits to people from nature, like money and health. What about the intangible values that many people attribute to the experience of a life spent in a biologically diverse world? In rural Poland, many farmers value the corncrake as a harbinger of summer and an attractive part of the rural environment. Its part of their heritage and links to deep-rooted traditions. In Ireland, most people couldn’t give a toss if that bird disappeared tomorrow and we could get a few euro as a result. Who’s perspective do you advocate? Both can’t be accommodated.

      And then if we are willing to dismiss every value system expect one that fits into our own limited view point, how do we claim that this is different to any other situation where different groups have different values? Why stop at humans vs. other organisms? If we assume that there is only one value system that is valid in these considerations, then your argument could be easily extended as “Western democracy vs. Indigenous cultures” – just what the wingnuts love. The heck with Polish farmers, give them money and technology and they’ll get over that extinct bird in a few generations. Screw the Yanomamo, get them a parliament or leave to disappear. To hell with the Baka pygmies, if they don’t vote, they don’t deserve western tears. I’m almost 100% sure you wouldn’t agree with those sentiments… but ask yourself what the difference is in terms of making value judgements, and whether a purely utilitarian perspective of nature has any moral consistency.

      • stuartvo

        Thanks for that reply, it’s given me lots to think about.

        I’m still not entirely convinced that utilitarianism is morally wrong in this case, but you’re shown me how the situation is a lot more complex than I had naively assumed.

  • chrisj

    By the 1990s other threats such as communism had largely disappeared, so the global elite decided to invent an environmental crisis…

    Another problem with this view is that (contrary to what most denialists will tell you) climate scientists have actually been warning about the potential for runaway anthropogenic global warming since long before the 1990s. For example, Ethan Siegel wrote a post over at Scienceblogs mentions a memo from one of Nixon’s aides which talks about the substantial evidence, and the fact that “the environmental pollution panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee reported at length on the subject in 1965.”

    Yet somehow they keep telling us that it’s a new idea….

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