I am no climatologist, and have neither the time nor the inclination to determine whether global warming is real or not. I think there is sufficient evidence that the earth is warming up; whether that is cyclical, or natural, or based upon human interaction, I do not know. So for the sake of this essay, let’s take it for granted that global warming is real, is man-made, is fixable if we all get on the same page, and the results are devastating if we don’t. In short, let’s stipulate all the facts to those activists in favor of global warming; they may well be right.
While I have little interest in climatology, I do have an interest in human nature. And I find two things extremely interesting about the global warming activism.
First is the overt religiousness of the whole thing. The global warming advocates have set up a very intriguing mythology (I use the word in its proper sense; not implying untruth), and have surrounded the discussion with a very religious overtone. Before the Industrial Revolution (according to the global warming activism mythology/interpretation story) was an Edenic, unspoiled Earth. Man got greedy and a Fall ensued (the release of carbon into the atmosphere), and our environment became broken as a result. We have sinned against the laws of ecology, and now we must atone for that sin. Such is the call to repentance as preached by prophet Al Gore and his followers (and, like Christianity’s own televangelists, Gore is himself a bit of a hypocrite with regard to the sins he discusses). Thankfully there is a way out of our sin – a method of atonement offered to us by the laws of environmentalism. We must all make lifestyle sacrifices, and turn from our wicked ways. We must embrace new sources of energy, localize food supplies, reduce/reuse/recycle, have fewer children, etc., etc. And just as the Pharisees did with the Law, the environmentalists helpfully expand the list of sins down to the jot and tittle. (I confess that—despite being a regular reader who enjoys much of their other content—I cannot help but chuckle whenever I read Slate’s running articles on global warming: which is better for the environment--cash or credit cards? Which is better--buying organic or mass-production?)
Global warming activism has taken on overt religiosity in its approach – and successfully, as it is winning converts. Most of the unconverted view global warmingism in the same way that the agnostics view Christianity: it doesn’t really do any harm, and maybe it does a lot of good. I don’t disagree.
But the more intriguing thing, in my mind, is the second point. What will be the end result of this approach? Will we actually make a difference? I say that we will not. If there is one thing I am thoroughly convinced of, it is that the harder we try to adhere to legalistic religions, the more we shall sin against them (call it the Romans 7 Principle).
Environmentalists, let me tell you what will happen if you continue this approach – and believe me, we Christians know. (We’ve been guilting people to try and change their behavior since long before you were around!) People simply do not change their behavior based upon guilt or altruistic thoughts. People are, at their core, selfish. They will do the things that they believe will benefit them. They may put it in other terms, but there it is.
And it's not just we Christians who know this--even secular economists will tell you the same. Steven Levitt’s books have several fascinating examples of the principle, if you don’t wish to listen to the overwhelming Christian evidence on the subject. Levitt points out that—time after time—when economists study altruism, people’s generosity goes down when they no longer receive some benefit (moral, psychological, or measureable). As he points out, people will give money to panhandlers but rarely indeed will one cross the street and seek a panhandler out. Why? Why would we help a person if they happen to be within reaching distance but not a few feet further? We help generally when we think that there is some incentive for it—it makes us feel better, or makes us not feel worse, or makes us look good before others. (If the government ever removes the tax benefit of charitable giving, you will see the overwhelming charitableness of Americans plummet.)
So you can listen to Christians or you can listen to economists, but the result is the same: legalistic approaches never work in the long run. People are too selfish, too “me”-centric, too incentive-based in their decision-making, to change long-term behaviors simply out of a desire to do the ‘right’ thing.
Trust me, environmentalists, in the end you will not change the behaviors of most people in a very real way—at least unless you make the personal incentive for doing so overwhelming in their favor.
Want to scare or guilt them? We Christians have tried it. You might scare a few people out of hell—or, in your case, away from melted ice caps. But on the whole, the potential rise of sea levels is much less of an incentive than the need to drive to work to make money, or almost any other basic desire.
Want to educate them? Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won mass acclaim, and more people believe in global warming than ever. But guess what? It hasn’t shown up in reduced fossil fuel usage, has it?
Want to inspire them? The concert-type ‘rah-rah’ approach has been shown time and again to result in net increases in carbon—it has been shown that Gore alone accounts for more carbon output than twenty average Americans.
Want to give them small, identifiable “easy wins”? That is actually one of the worst ways of all—giving small incentives can result in an easy way to relieve them of their guilt. Take me, for instance. I was raised by an environmentalist mother and I work in the green industry. I also love the outdoors and believe that Genesis teaches that we should be good stewards of our environment. Needless to say, I want to make the environment better. So I am proud of the fact that I pour my passion into a job that measurably reduces our use of fossil fuels. I can point to those and say, “See…I do my part.” And my guilt is gone. But I use electricity like a glutton, I make no effort to car pool with the several colleagues I know, I drive even on short trips to the store, I own an SUV, and my company sends me all over the world in planes when conference calls might do. But guess what…I feel like I do more than most. This is what “easy wins” or “simple life changes” usually result in—the guilt of sinning goes away, allowing what is usually a net increase in sin. (“I do my Bible study every day; so what if maybe I’m a little short-tempered?” “I eat organic; so what if I want to get that unnecessary motorcycle I’ve always wanted?”) Small incentives generally result in an overall increase in the behavior you wish you had changed, because it gives you an easy way to ‘buy off’ your guilt.
Environmentalists…we Christians have tried every way under the sun to legalize people into being better. Many (most?) of us Christians still do so. But a few of us realize that the Bible is actually right. (It has an annoying tendency to do that.) People are fallen sinners, incapable of achieving righteousness in any area by simple willpower. No matter the situation, we will ultimately do what is self-serving.
The good news for us Christians is, well, the Good News: God loves us regardless of our failures, and offers to accept us not based on our own actions, but based simply upon the willingness to receive His graceful gift of mercy. The overwhelming incentive—the Spirit entering us, absolution for all sins, freedom and acceptance for who we are—is so great that we often find our behavior actually does change, thanks be to God’s help.
Environmentalism will always fail as long as it is dependent upon mankind relying upon his willpower to change his evil ways. Such change does not naturally come from within; it must come from the Great One who is without.
“As hard as engineering or physics may be, getting human beings to change their behavior is probably harder.” – Steven Levitt, Superfreakonomics