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Is Environmentalism a Religion?

Many environmentalists share a zealous belief in shaky core dogmas.

Most people are concerned about the adverse impact of human-induced environmental change and want to behave in ways that mitigate it. Popular prescriptions for change make us feel better—like a religious ritual—but may ignore scientific evidence.

Our collective motivations can be surprisingly fuzzy. For example, we go to war based on false information. Or religious groups share highly improbable beliefs that violate our knowledge about the natural world.

With that in mind, it is refreshing to ask whether the basic principles endorsed by most environmentalists are scientifically informed. One of these is the view that locally obtained food reduces carbon dioxide emission and climate change.

Another is that recycling of garbage is good for the environment. Partly for this reason, municipalities around the country invested heavily in recycling pickup and disposal.

The Recycling Conundrum

The prospective benefits of recycling were debunked decades ago by New York Times journalist John Tierney who recently updated his attack on the practice.

One criticism of recycling is that it is energetically expensive so that more carbon is produced in recycling than would be generated otherwise. Indeed, recycling of some products (such as glass and leather) may accelerate carbon pollution and climate change while recycling paper and metals are beneficial.

Tierney argues that conventional landfills are cheaper than recycling programs. If properly managed, these are not particularly damaging to the local ground water. This means that they must be sealed with a waterproof layer to prevent seepage.

The ground over old landfills can also be reclaimed. In support of this argument, Tierney points to the US Open Tennis tournament that is played over reclaimed landfill. Tierney's articles got a lot of pushback. One concludes that recycling is not “as awful” as the journalists maintained.

The practical viability of recycling took a blow recently when China refused our recycled paper on the grounds that it was adulterated with other kinds of waste.

Most people would agree that there is far too much garbage around and recycling has not solved that problem. One alternative would be to produce ecologically friendly products and packaging that would biodegrade safely, unlike the plastics that become more hazardous to wildlife the more that they break down. Of course, consuming less, and reusing products, are other reasonable solutions.

If recycling is sometimes bad, and landfills are not, why do cities ignore the adverse evidence and develop expensive recycling programs? Tierney provided an ingenious explanation.

The public feel guilty about the damage that excessive consumption does to the environment. Recycling is a sort of sacrificial offering. Even though the merits of recycling are debatable, it serves a psychological function. If it is limited in its capacity to solve the environmental problem, it does relieve the guilt problem.

If so, then environmentalism serves, in part at least, as a religious ideology. It is a type of emotion-focused coping as much as a practical solution.

Another major credo of environmentalism is the view that it is good to support local products as a way of minimizing carbon pollution from long-distance transportation.

Local Producers may not be Carbon Friendly

It is often assumed that getting food from local farmers reduces carbon pollution in transportation. Surprisingly, when this analysis was done, distribution from regional centers was more carbon friendly. The key reason is that delivery in large amounts is more energetically efficient than a family car transporting food, even over much shorter distances.

It is difficult to generalize about the impact of distance without knowing the details of the mode of transportation. So rail transportation is considerably more efficient than road transportation and air freight uses far more energy than any other mode of transportation.

While it might appear obvious that apples would be better coming from within the US than getting sent from New Zealand, say, this is no longer a foregone conclusion without careful measurement. This is because container ships have become so vast, and so incredibly efficient, that apples from New Zealand might require less fuel than those carried across the country by road (2).

Another complication is that the energy required to transport food generally pales in importance compared to the energy used in storage and refrigeration, often over long time periods (Ridley, 2010).

Of course, there are many valid reasons that shoppers might prefer to patronize local farms but reducing carbon pollution is not one of them.

We should probably let businesses make decisions about where is the best place to source products based on minimizing transportation costs. Such calculations would be surprisingly onerous for the individual.

Instead of being obsessed with local sources, as many environmentalists are, it might be better to work for more carbon friendly modes of transportation, such as solar powered vehicles for land, water and air, rudimentary though these technologies are at present.

Such shifts in thinking seem rather unlikely, not only because they are so widely, and firmly, believed, but because environmentalism has emerged as a sort of religion.

Environmentalism as Religion

Recycling is not always beneficial and local sourcing is not a panacea. Every case needs to be assessed on its own merits. Yet, faith in these credos seems bulletproof and is quickly becoming accepted dogma of our society.

Generalizing from religious belief systems in general, these views are unlikely to be reopened, or revised in the light of new evidence.

On the one hand, anyone who thinks of themselves as an environmentalist is committed to recycling (in addition to reducing and reusing). To offer qualifications based on evidence is to risk being excommunicated from this group.

More importantly, perhaps, the beliefs of environmentalism offer a recipe to live our lives in what are perceived as righteous ways. These prescriptions shape our behavior. Habits such as recycling are well established and quite resistant to change, just as religious rituals are.


1 Ridley, M. (2010). The rational optimist. New York: Harper Collins.

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