Thursday, July 1, 2010

Conservatives are Nature-Worshippers

This essay is a follow-up to the one on June 17.

Environmentalists are sometimes accused of being Earth-worshippers. I have heard this excuse more times than I can remember from the religious right. And it doesn’t help when scientists like James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (and myself, in my forthcoming book Life of Earth) refer to the Earth as Gaia.

But these scientists are using Gaia as just a metaphor for the living systems of the Earth. They do not believe the Earth is really a goddess or even an organism (I got this straight from Margulis). In fact, these and all other scientists are only too aware that the Earth is not godlike in its invincibility. The Earth is quite resilient—it has many processes that allow its habitats to recover from damage and disturbance, to maintain a balance of temperatures and atmospheric carbon. But it has its limits. It was in fact Lovelock himself who wrote a book about The Revenge of Gaia. The Earth can be pushed past the tipping point into disaster. Or what at least we consider disaster. Maybe bacteria, which were the only life forms on Earth for over two billion years, would not consider it a disaster. The Earth has its limits because it is not a goddess.

It is the political right that worships the Earth. They think that the Earth can recuperate from any abuse that we lay upon it. The right-wing website says that we can pour as much carbon as we like into the air and plants will clean it up. Fred Singer, a famous anti-environmentalist, says that global warming will cause lots of new biodiversity. Conservative economists like the late Julian Simon think that the economy will create new resources whenever they are needed. They are worshipping a godlike, indestructible Earth goddess who leads our economy with what Adam Smith called (figuratively; but to some today, literally) the Invisible Hand.

This essay also appeared on my website in 2008.

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