McKibben Misreads Environmental Zeitgeist
Acton Institute Powerblog

McKibben Misreads Environmental Zeitgeist

One of the United States’ most-recognized climate-change missionaries, Bill McKibben has made it a habit of late to hide behind the clerical garb of Christian religious to spread his message against free-market capitalism (see here, here, here, here, here and here). The past few months, McKibben has been putting Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si to work in a crusade against the fossil fuels that have generated wealth and lifted billions from poverty. This week, he writes on the New York Review of Books blog that Islam may also be useful in this regard:

On August 19, a convocation of some sixty leading Muslim clerics and religious scholars from around the planet, spurred by the growing siege of climate disasters affecting the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, issued an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. It was far shorter than Pope Francis’s much discussed encyclical issued early in the summer, but it arrived in much the same spirit:

Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward [khalifah] on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger of ending life as we know it on our planet. This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium [mīzān] may soon be lost.

The signers of the statement include the grand muftis of Uganda and Lebanon, scholars from leading universities, and several leaders of the main Islamic disaster relief charities. It cites Koranic chapter and verse, as well as hadith, or sayings, of the Prophet. And from them it constructs a series of postulates at least as provocative as Francis’s. Like the pope, these scholars are dubious about “the relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption,” and believe that “an urgent and radical reappraisal is called for.”

The policy recommendations of these Muslim clerics include ending oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic, a global effort to ensure the rise in global temperatures remains below 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees Celsius, and divestment from fossil fuels. Of course, McKibben agrees (although warning 2 degrees C is a recipe for imminent disaster pace NASA Cassandra Jim Hansen), of course, but, once again, comes up short in replacing all that lost energy from fossil fuels. Yes, McKibben, solar power prices are “plummeting,” but we as a world are still a long way off from relying on solar (or wind) for “100 percent renewable energy” despite your baseless proclamations to the contrary.

McKibben’s blog continues:

By itself this declaration will not lead to much. Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope. And even the pope’s words are only words—happily he has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican. But what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even “radical,” action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new. Ten or twenty years ago there was no significant religious environmental movement. Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored.

Where to begin? At the very least, it’s refreshing that McKibben implicitly acknowledges I was spot-on when charging him with cherry-picking Laudato Si for portions agreeing with his climate-change agenda while ignoring everything else specifically and Roman Catholic doctrine in general. “Happily [Pope Francis] has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican,” he observes. Doncha know?

Ahhh, but Laudato Si is admirable insofar it taps into the zeitgeist on environmentalism. Zeitgeist in this context is just another way of saying consensus in eco-warrior lingo without the scientific baggage. The generalized intellectual spirit of contemporary times, according to McKibben, accepts that human activity – the works of “our species” if you prefer — is responsible for imminent climate catastrophe unless whole economies are brought to a standstill by eliminating the use of fossil-fuel derived energy. One wouldn’t want to defy the zeitgeist any more than one wouldn’t want to acknowledge publicly the emperor might be strutting past the palace in his birthday suit for fear of intellectual reprisal. That’s one way of bringing climate-change skeptics to heel, but hardly intellectually honest.

McKibben is either ignorant or downright deceitful in declaring there was no significant religious-based environmental movement 20 or even 10 years ago. Ignoring the cult of Gaia that evolved outside the Church, we Catholics have been doing our part for the environment for quite some time. One could cite St. Francis as one example, a Catholic in pretty good standing from what I’m told. In the wake of the 1971 encyclical by Pope John VI, Octogesima Adveniens, the Catholic high school I attended adopted an environmental science unit that reflected Pope John’s instruction:

While the horizon of man is thus being modified according to the images that are chosen for him, another transformation is making itself felt, one which is the dramatic and unexpected consequence of human activity. Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family.

The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all.

McKibben hyperbolically misrepresents the 44 years since Octogesima Adveniens: “Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored.” He couldn’t be more wrong. Conservative and liberal religious leaders both recognized at one time that placing an anthropomorphic “Mother Earth” above or even equal to human needs is paganistic. That may not be the case for progressive Christians today, but it still holds true for those of us in the conservative camp – however much that challenges McKibben’s interpretation of the zeitgeist.

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.