Are greens simply apeing religious fundamentalists?


UNDER THE MICROSCOPEThe green movement is like a religion that ignores the results of fact-based science, writes Dr William Reville

I RECENTLY HEARD Minister for the Environment John Gormley advocating the green way to brush your teeth - turn off the tap while you brush to conserve water. There is a green way to do almost everything - eating, travelling, shopping, etc - and you could spend your whole time pondering green choices about the minutiae of your life. The green philosophy is, at core, a secular religion.

First, the green movement believes in God, or more precisely in a Goddess called Gaia. Gaia is the name given by scientist James Lovelock to the Earth and its coating of living organisms. According to Lovelock, Gaia regulates herself through complex mechanisms to maintain conditions comfortable for life. Humans influence the environment out of all proportion to their numbers in the biological community. Gaia theory proposes that some effects of human activities, eg global warming, could provoke Gaia into switching global conditions to settings that would be inimical to human life on earth. In other words, the Green God can and will punish us for doing wrong, and if we persist in doing wrong, apocalypse beckons. If we are good, Gaia offers us survival.

Then there is the green concept of the Garden of Eden from which mankind has fallen. This is the perceived state of perfect harmony in which early humans lived in the environment. Humanity fell from this idyllic state when they tasted the fruit of the tree of scientific knowledge, which led to industrial and agricultural development and consequent pollution of the earth.

And just as religious people have rules and practices for good living, so do the greens. The golden rule is to live "sustainably", that is in a manner that doesn't interfere with the perceived mechanisms through which Gaia maintains herself. This can determine how we behave in almost every aspect of our lives. Thus, we should eat organic food, avoid genetically modified food, use public transport, ride bicycles, drive the smallest cars, severely ration air-travel, insulate our houses, instal solar panels, compost, recycle, conserve water, etc, etc. The minutiae of proper green behaviour closely resembles the Christian notion of offering up all your daily actions to God.

Many green practices are sensible and commonplace - recycling, insulation, various forms of conservation, and so on. Others are either not sensible or cannot be adopted for mass usage. Organic food could never supply more than an expensive niche market. World population numbers are so large they would be impossible to feed except through modern agriculture. Also, the claimed nutritional superiority of organically produced food has no scientific basis.

The green secular religion bears a close structural resemblance to Christianity. As readers know, I think that reasonable religion is a good thing. The problem with the green religion is that it is fundamentalist. Fundamentalist religions believe literally in holy writ and will not modify their beliefs when science indicates otherwise.

The green movement draws attention to important issues that everyone must take seriously and it has played an important role in galvanising action from mainstream politics. But many green interpretations and solutions are largely intuitive and some have little scientific justification. Take the notion of the idyllic state in which simple pre-modern societies lived/live in nature. This is simply a myth, as anthropology confirms. Inter-tribal warfare, intra-tribal murder and violence were and are commonplace. Also, what is idyllic about an 80 per cent infant mortality rate and complete vulnerability to disease?

Green analysis often gets things wrong but mistakes are never admitted. For example, green analysis grossly exaggerated the acid rain "problem". It opposes the low-level use of DDT in tropical countries to combat malaria despite the fact that such use poses no health hazards and could prevent up to a million deaths from malaria annually. We rarely hear anymore of the dangers of ballooning world population now that birth rates are plummeting - instead we are smoothly invited to worry about the ill-effects associated with an ageing global population. Also, politically and economically, many leading greens seem to be Marxists, a philosophy that comprehensively failed in practice.

Your average green supporter is not consciously motivated by this deep-green philosophy and simply wants to do the decent thing to protect the environment. But the big green issues are chosen by leaders who follow a fundamentalist philosophy with a strong apocalyptic strain and who are quite at risk of leading their followers down blind alleys. The green religion basically views technological and industrial development as a burden on Gaia and may never be fully satisfied with less than a return to a simple life where most physical contacts and travel are local.

Now I must rush - the tap is dripping - Oh my Gaia!

William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC -http://