With all the discussion of carbon footprints and the human impact on our planet, has environmentalism become the new paganism of the 21st Century?
Had Toni Vernelli gone ahead with her pregnancy ten years ago, she would know at first hand what it is like to cradle her own baby, to have a pair of innocent eyes gazing up at her with unconditional love, to feel a little hand slipping into hers - and a voice calling her Mummy.
But the very thought makes her shudder with horror.
Because when Toni terminated her pregnancy, she did so in the firm belief she was helping to save the planet. At the age of 27 this young woman at the height of her reproductive years was sterilised to “protect the planet”. Incredibly, instead of mourning the loss of a family that never was, her boyfriend (now husband) presented her with a congratulations card. While some might think it strange to celebrate the reversal of nature and denial of motherhood, Toni relishes her decision with an almost religious zeal.
“Having children is selfish. It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet,” says Toni, 35. “Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.”
While most parents view their children as the ultimate miracle of nature, Toni seems to see them as a sinister threat to the future.
“The only person who understood how I felt was my first husband, who didn’t want children either. We both passionately wanted to save the planet - not produce a new life which would only add to the problem.”
But when she was 25, disaster struck.
“I discovered that despite taking the Pill, I’d accidentally fallen pregnant by my boyfriend. I was horrified. I knew straight away there was no option of having the baby. I went to my doctor about having a termination, and asked if I could be sterilised at the same time. I didn’t like having a termination, but it would have been immoral to give birth to a child that I felt strongly would only be a burden to the world. I’ve never felt a twinge of guilt about what I did, and have honestly never wondered what might have been.”
“I’ve never doubted that I made the right decision. Ed and I married in September 2002, and have a much nicer lifestyle as a result of not having children. We love walking and hiking, and we often go away for weekends. Every year, we also take a nice holiday - we’ve just come back from South Africa. We feel we can have one long-haul flight a year, as we are vegan and childless, thereby greatly reducing our carbon footprint and combating over-population.”
Most young girls dream of marriage and babies. But Sarah dreamed of helping the environment - and as she agonised over the perils of climate change, the loss of animal species and destruction of wilderness, she came to the extraordinary decision never to have a child.
“I realised then that a baby would pollute the planet - and that never having a child was the most environmentally friendly thing I could do.”
Mark adds: “Sarah and I live as green a life a possible. We don’t have a car, cycle everywhere instead, and we never fly. We recycle, use low-energy light bulbs and eat only organic, locally produced food. In short, we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. But all this would be undone if we had a child. That’s why I had a vasectomy. It would be morally wrong for me to add to climate change and the destruction of Earth. Sarah and I don’t need children to feel complete. What makes us happy is knowing that we are doing our bit to save our precious planet.”
It seems for many, the Earth has become the god of the new millennium, and if I judged the nature of the god by the devotional practices of some of its worshippers, I doubt that I would be inclined to convert to the religion of ecology. These people may be fringe, but the fringe is getting longer and longer and the fabric is getting smaller and smaller.
While these kinds of folks would reject religion and dogma, their devotion to the earth is indeed a religious devotion very similar to the ancient pagans: Toni sacrifices her first born child but then eats vegan in order to not kill animals to “save” the Earth-god. They mutilate their bodies so they won’t offend the earth by “adding to its problems”. But in return for these sacrifices of human flesh and blood, the Earth-god rewards them with a “much nicer lifestyle”. And in the end if your meet your quota of abstinence from carbon and balance your greenhouse gasses books, you get to go on a nice vacation. You get to travel in a vehicle that burns thousands of gallons of fossil fuel and God knows what the manufacturing process took out of the earth and put into the atmosphere. Then you get to feast at a fancy hotel built and staffed by parasites and “problems” begotten by irreligious reproducers, that is taking up land formerly occupied by trees and is probably a huge gaudy pimple on the face of the Earth god.
Apparently even the eco-fundamentalists has a version of the prosperity gospel… we “serve the earth god”, name it and don’t claim it, and you get nice stuff and exotic vacations. It seems that all false religions share a common delusion about their gods. It is interesting that in our innate religiousness, human beings use much the same concepts, rituals, and language to define our relationship to whatever gods we are trying to appease.
The fuzzy gods of the modern intellectual’s neo-pagan spirituality are really no different than the gods of superstitious primitives or even the Christian God that they sneer at condescendingly. The pagans burned their virgins to keep the volcano from devouring the village, they are told the Christian God sacrificed His own son to appease his own wrath against the sinner, and this kind of religiosity is primitive, ignorant and offensive. But the irony is that these modern enlightened intellectuals also embrace sacrificing their children for the sake of pleasing the god of trees and icebergs and to keep the earth from a murderous upheaval that will smite the village. For them, if you balance out your carbon sins then your footprint will be in the book of life. The modern person is not like the primitive though. He does not draw pictures of his religion with burnt sticks on cave walls, they blog about in sophisticated tones, with book, chapter and verse from inerrant science. They percieve themselves like all religious zealots do, as beacons of light from a spiritual and moral high ground, and as self sacrificing martyrs for the sake of the good of the incandescently unenlightened.
So, for the people like Toni and Ed the true bottom line is that the earth has become for them a pagan deity appeased by the blood of innocents, and they live in fear that if we add to its problems and don’t please it, it will kill us with weather changes and by withholding its natural resources from human beings. The irony is they, like all other religions, including science, believe the earth itself yielded human beings somehow (unless they believe we were dropped onto it by space aliens). The question is, how is it that humanity now regards itself as a pollution, a parasite, a cancerous growth, a disease to be cured, a wart to be burned off the pristine face of the earth from whence it came? The ground is considered more sacred than the human beings that were formed from it. A clod of dirt and a seed is more holy than a human seedling that is being nourished in a human womb. But the eco-pagans are inconsistent: they are self defined as worth less than the dirt, but in their human hubris they are now the dirt’s savior, they are saving their own god by sacrificing their humanity on its altar. So, who is the true god and who is the true savior here?
I’ve been alive long enough to remember being told the earth would end due to overpopulation, depletion of coal and oil, lack of enough land to farm to feed everyone in the United States much less the world, nuclear winter, an immanent ice age, global warming and now “climate change”. These issues seem to matter more to the secular spiritual person more than it does to most Christians it seems, and to complicate matters the issues also seem to divide along political party lines. The bloated consumer, whether it is a Christian or not, and the eco fundamentalist earth worshippers both hold the same error, they are flip sides of a same coin: They both stand in relation to creation as animals: one mindlessly takes pleasure from the earth being driven by greedy passions, the other regards himself to be utterly indistinguishable from the earth in the end. To both, the measure of a human being is not being material with a soul and spirit, but merely a carbon footprint and litres of greenhouse gasses emitted due to consumption.
But, even if someone believes that human beings are no more important than a rock or a tree, there is still a common concept between the pagan and Christian of the need for the “salvation” of the material world. And, if something needs saving, then it must have a state to which it ought to return before it fell from its original perfection. So, the problem with the religion of ecology is it has no cohesive theology or cosmology of a perfect original state or stage of being, nor of a “fall”, nor of what a perfect earth would look like with or without human beings. Without these things defined it is meaningless to discuss whether the earth can or should either save us or kill us, or how or should we save the earth. For both the Christian and the atheist, two concepts are clear: Eden, or a pristine primal state of the earth did not save humanity in the beginning, and in some way or another only transformed human beings will save it in the end. This part we all have right, but what all that means and how to accomplish it is the issue we have to wrestle with.
One of the problems for the eco-religion is that there is no overarching metaphysical or theological definition that encompasses ALL materiality, including earth, animals and humans. We are stuck viewing ecology through the lens of dialectic, a philosophy of opposition, which boils down to: either the earth or human beings, when in fact ecology properly understood is the science and ultimately the metaphysical vision of the inter relatedness of all things, it is indeed a both/and. Ultimately, the question for the Christian and the environmentalist is the same: what is the proper and balanced relationship of the human being to the earth? Both are really asking the same question, “What is the earth for and how can it be saved from the human race’s sins?”
It is here that Orthodox Christianity lifts the discussion out of the mire of pagan concepts. It raises both the earth and humanity to their proper dignity as the sacramental presence of their Creator. It views creation as the sacred means of the expression of love, thanksgiving and communion between both humans and God. Environmental concerns should matter to the Christian because we are not materialists, but we are material beings in the image of a Spiritual God who became material and subdued and consumed creation along side us. As sacramentalists, we cannot view the world as merely an endlessly self regenerating consumable that exists solely for the sake of our pleasures. Such blessed gifts are to be regarded as sacred and handled as such because God is present in them.
Where the ecologist and the Orthodox Christian agree is that human beings, and even Christians, have ceased to subdue the earth carefully and to be wise stewards instead of selfish consumers of it. We have lost the reverence of the earth as “our mother” to whom we will return as the Hypokoae of Matins in the 8th tone calls it. We have failed to live up to our sacramental nature and are not sharers of creation in love, but we hoard it to ourselves for our own greedy pleasures. God as our creator does not need to be appeased by sacrifice, the human being is given a gift and we offer it back to our Creator and to each other in love, not fear of wrath and an apocalyptic doom. The ecologist and Orthodox Christian agree that the human being is indeed taken from the dirt of the earth and thus shares in the nature of the earth itself. But Christianity says he also is given the breath of God who created the very dirt from whence he came, and so he shares in the nature of the spiritual and is given dominion over the dirt, but not for gluttonous consumption but as a means of expressing love in the image of the one who created all things out of love.
The reality is, the eco religion has not forged any new dogmas about the human being and the earth. For all of the science and technology exoskeleton holding it up, it is as old as the hills dotted with drawings scratched on cave walls with burnt sticks. The core is still the same as the one the prophets of Israel spoke to over 2600 years ago when they called Israel to reclaim the proper relationship of human beings to the earth and our creator:
Habbakuk and Jeremiah say:
Woe to him who says to a piece of wood, ‘Awake!’ To a mute stone, ‘Arise!’ (Habbakuk 2:19).
Who says to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ And to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their back to Me… (Jeremiah 2:27).
Turn back to the God of the dirt from whence you were formed. And then in love, turn to the earth knowing who you truly are. Love your Creator, and receive His creation in humble gratitude, offering it up to all as a gift of communion.
This podcast is found on the Ancient Faith website (new window will open).