Society has “invented a new religion.” Thus spoke former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard recently. He described that as the belief that man is wrecking the planet and that the world should return to a more natural state.
Mr. Bouchard was speaking with some frustration of widespread and almost knee-jerk opposition to developing natural resources. Bingo! He’s on to something. The Church of Green?
Religions have certain characteristics. They consist of a body of belief based on faith (as, for example, in God). This faith is not to be challenged, distinguishing religions from other belief sets. Scientific theories, for a counterexample, must always be questioned. Not so with religion. Unwavering faith is the hallmark.
Religions of the sort decried by Mr. Bouchard have high priests who can speak ex cathedra and gain immediate belief. David Suzuki, Al Gore and Amory Lovins, among others, have this otherworldly gravitas. They have their religious orders. Just as there are Jesuits and Benedictines, there are Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
Religion has an enormous usefulness to many individuals. But there’s more. Religion is, by its nature, absolutist. Because it embodies the Truth, one should not deviate. Of course we all sin, but deliberate tradeoffs are not permissible. It’s not allowed to do a little bit of evil to become a little bit rich, and especially not great evil for great wealth.
Such absolute rules can work fine for individuals. They can do as they wish and take the consequences. It’s where religion is imported to govern the doings of the collective – of a society – that the trouble begins.
For the longest time, Christianity ruled the public affairs of the Western world, just as Islam does in many parts today. In the West, however, conventional religion has long been banned from the affairs of government. This is inevitable once you have a functioning democracy that respects the individual, because individuals vary so greatly in their beliefs and wants. There’s no single dogma, and the thoroughly secular state was the result. We still have the essential rule of law, but the law is now made by humans and by way of due process and general assent.
The good of all this? Diversity, freedom, an emphasis on rights and tolerance. On the other side, we have the “me” generation, the individual as the only thing that counts. Hence the decline of general knowledge of, and respect for, the institutions, conventions and traditions that guarantee our prosperity and freedoms. We have lost something of a balance. People still seek a higher calling.
And so there remains a longing for quasi-religious organizing principles. A current religion, a vision of a greater good, is the one described by Mr. Bouchard. Where the focus of a couple of generations ago was unambiguously on the prosperity of the human race, it has shifted with remarkable speed, at least in rich-world public posturing, to the health of the planet.
Now, no one could argue against the need for great weight to the natural environment. The difficulty comes in agreeing – or not – to tradeoffs. If we take an absolutist position, we humans are rather bad for the planet, so we should all do the decent thing and stop having children.
This was Mr. Bouchard’s point. His issue in Quebec was “fracking” to produce natural gas. The current “religion” in Quebec is that fracking is bad, just as in B.C. pipelines are bad. Among true believers in both cases, absolutism reigns. The badness is self-evident; the projects must not proceed. You can’t trade a little evil for a little wealth – there must be zero chance of harm.
Importing this kind of religion into the assessment of resource projects is a recipe for a much lower Canadian standard of living. Our competitive edge in this world is no longer skilled labour and capital. The world is awash in both. We either responsibly exploit our natural resources or settle for less health care, education and lower pensions.
A choice of automatic opposition to resource development is one option, if that’s what we collectively want. But that choice should be understood as a public policy question with consequences, not as a religious one of no cost.