The Risk-Monger

 

The following is Part 3 of a ten-part blog on governance to be serialised over the holidays. How to Deal with Stupid, essentially a policy pamphlet, will examine how stupid has been able to rise, be used by clever manipulators to achieve legislative success and what can be done to begin to return stupid to its cage. The third step in this process is to see how environmentalism, as a religious dogma, has created the grounds for stupid to thrive through a faith-based naturalogic.

All churches have their categories of believers: from the community participants to the social organisers, from the ethicists and well-grounded believers to the traditionalists and the fundamentalists or dogmatists. Whichever pew we find in this hierarchy, we tend to use religion (any belief system) to fit meaning into our lives. Sophisticates who claim to be beyond the medieval superstitions of organised religions still need to address meaning in their lives, often as humanists or as members of one of the fastest growing religions today: environmentalism.

Six years ago, I gave an interview on the dangers of eco-fundamentalist preachers in Brussels. At several events, I even posed as an eco-theologian giving rousing salvation sermons (thumping on my copy of the IPCC Third Assessment Report). Since then I have watched as this belief system has grown its flock, refined its eschatology and enlarged its coffers. Like all religions, it relies on faith – a powerful emotional tool in managing the irrational and the contradictory – providing meaning in believers’ lives, hope in their hearts and answers to existential concerns. For the dogmatist or fundamentalist faction of this faith, all concepts and practices must cohere and no infidel may challenge the certainty of said truths.

This creates a ripe breeding ground for stupid.

The tenets of environmentalism

Like all religions, environmentalism has articulated a theology to provide answers, a coherent relationship between man and what is beyond while fulfilling meaning in the believers’ lives in the here and now. Many tenets have been established and well communicated as this church’s disciples spread the good word with missionary zeal. And like other emerging religions of past ages, a theology grows more fertile if it can supplant its belief systems on the foundations of the decaying and waning churches. Below are some examples of how environmentalism in Europe is growing abundantly off of Christian ruins, usurping traditional faith structures with green ideals.

  • Armageddon: Catastrophic Climate Change

There is nothing better to motivate the faithful to rise up than an “End of Days” scenario. Armageddon is a curse on humanity well served cold, with a level of guilt on human transgressions that encapsulates how we must change our behaviour. With the coming peril of catastrophic climate change, we find environmental preachers lashing out at the evil of rapacious human consumption, the misuse of resources and the utter defilement of Mother Earth. Man must change his ways, adopt the environmentalists’ rituals and clean, virtuous behaviour (sustainability). Climate change – facing the greatest struggle of humanity to preserve life on the planet – allows man to identify a meaningful place in the cosmos, to come together as a community and find meaning and salvation.

The consequence (immanent we are warned) is just too horrible to imagine, and thus the urgency to act.

When I sometimes correct the eager, newly baptised environmental deacons that climate change will not bring about mass extinction of the human race and may actually allow some regions to thrive, I feel a tinge of disappointment in the room. When the rate of warming has not increased to meet the IPCC’s own doomsday scenarios from two decades ago, there is no “Oops, I guess we were wrong” statements that would undercut the prophecies; rather, there are attacks on the heathen unbelievers (the sceptics or deniers!). And when I argue that the world will not actually implode by a few degrees of warming, but may cause some regional difficulties that will entail innovative adaptation measures, I find myself hunted down like a witch.

Armageddon version 2: The desire for vengeance and divine retribution is restored though in a secondary Armageddon fear – the wiping out of humanity due to sterilisation brought about from chemical contamination having caused massive endocrine disruption. Facts are a bit thin on this one too, but all the better to permit purgatorious pronouncements. Endocrine disruption, interpreted widely, motivates the pilgrims to a call to action: to ban all chemicals (or should I say, only the ones they don’t like).

  • Salvation Theory

As Armageddon may leave me feeling forlorn and guilt-ridden at my selfish pre-conversion consumption levels, or upset at those around me consuming far more than the poor planet can sustain, the environmental church offers the opportunity of redemption: I can find personal salvation through sustainable living, promoting green values to others and fighting the twin evils of corporate exploitation and consumer indifference.

Sustainability gives me purpose in life and a sense of moral rectitude, bringing in virtuous identifications as humility (reducing my footprint) and collective (communal) sustenance (shared economies and networks of activists campaigning against pollution). We drive electric cars, take public transportation, eat only organic food, source our energy from the sun, shun plastic or any non-natural products and make sure to spread the word (in a nudgible manner) that this is why our belief system is good and should be widely embraced and emulated.

One is often asked to donate to the crusaders and missionaries passing through my (viral) communities en route to battle evil and spread the faith. Donating alms to the heroes (not to be confused with corporate sponsorship intended to propagate lies) is part of the identity of a member of the ecological sect. There is a battle for the future and being part of the good fight (against industry, traditional mindsets and corrupted research) instils me with a sense of meaningfulness; I want to believe that I am good, am doing good and am a force for good – being green is my salvation.

  • Enriching Rituals, Enriching Gurus

A ritual is something we do without thinking or rational reflection, often as a shared societal custom that is understood within a faith context (adds meaning). The eco-religious have a series of rituals that find regular expression and reinforce the values of their eco-theology.

Recycling: We recycle everything we use without reflection – a circular economy (which the preachers have imposed on us) means that during any day, I may make ten to twenty decisions on how products I use should be sorted into recycling bins. Recycling is a redemption measure to ease the guilt of our excessive consumption (poor countries do not have the same recycling rituals since they have no culture of waste), and it is, like any good ritual, something that must be accepted without question. It also provides church members with a feeling of virtuous achievement. I often tell my students that the best way to recycle their plastic bottle, if they are not willing to refill it, is to put it in the regular rubbish bin (as Belgium incinerates its waste, energy recovery is the best form of recycling plastic waste). They cannot accept this as it goes against the widely imposed eco-fundamentalist ritual behaviour.

Organic food: Food is personal, communal and provides sustenance. Thus western eco-fundamentalists have co-opted the Judeo-Christian ritual of a meal to represent a celebration of nature. To see an eco-food guru like Vani Hari describe the procedures to produce an organic snack is similar to a high priest preparing communion. Certain methods are lawful or permitted, others not, but one must never ask for reasons or question the purpose. Kosher, halal, organic – food is a ritual that a religion feeds on.

Green energy is another fine ritual that is commonly preached and followed without reflection. This blog-site has regularly questioned the non-reflective, ritualistic practices of promoting solar energy or electric cars, but no eco-theologian has provided data or justification. I have yet to see evidence that solar panels or electric cars save more CO2 than they cost to produce, have even provided data to the contrary, but I am demanding facts from individuals expressing rituals … I suppose I’m the idiot.

Rituals are spread by a wide range of eco-religious preachers, gurus and missionaries who present themselves in positive trust relationships with the concerned, frightened and insecure flock. The vulnerable are looking for meaning and reaffirmation and environmentalism, as a communal action of shared believers builds trust via shared values widely communicated among social networks. The last blog on social media showed how certain gurus like Vani Hari (the Food Babe) or Dr Mercola could assume trust positions as they spread the faith (in this case on how to live and eat sustainably) without any critical assessment of their personal enrichment. The opportunities of an environmental preacher or guru with a book to sell or a campaign to lead is indeed noble (and rarely scrutinised on facts or personal profit).

Does Naomi Klein or Jeremy Rifken need facts when they can preach a thumping sermon? Who would question a guru? Only a non-believer, a cynic and one with evil intentions. Who would support a guru? Those searching for meaning in life and personal salvation, which the benign guru facilitates in a kind, loving personal manner. Stupid is left unbridled in such an atmosphere.

  • Saints and Demons

Like all religions, the moral order is personified in the stories and characters of its saints and demons. Rachel Carson has been deified and her sufferance (from the direct hand of the chemical industry) has been immortalised. Those who have stood up in protest have been sanctified, be it the legendary story-teller Erin Brockovich or the Eastern savant Vandana Shiva. These saints are selfless, courageous and paradigms for the heroic lives we all should lead. The environmental NGOs have become masterful story-tellers, identifying victims or heroes of the planet and exploiting their value via social media.

Counter to this is the demonic greed and evil intentions of industry: Exxon-Mobil, BHP Billiton, Philip Morris, Dow Chemical and the Great Satan, Monsanto. The number of documentaries made by disciples against this one company has been hard to fathom: Monsantoland, Seeds of Death, Food Inc .. The eco-fundamentalists’ obsession with evil is worth serious study and the focus of rage upon Monsanto is fascinating. Every year, during the season of rebirth, pilgrims across the world march against this apparent scourge on nature, reaffirming their commitment to saving the planet. Those scientists daring to promote biotech (or any research that industry benefits from) are hunted down like witches and branded as shills. One need only see the ferocity of the attacks upon plant biologist and science communicator, Kevin Folta, to see how one company can mobilise an entire religion.

In every debate, the good and the evil are clearly marked and marketed. The organic farmer loves the land and our health, sacrificing profit for wellness – he or she is the good shepherd. Counter this with the industrial or factory farmer who pours chemicals down the throat of Mother Nature and takes profits for poisons.

  • Heretics

If you ever want to get a strong reaction from an environmentalist, mention one of the following heretical ideas:

  • Rachel Carson’s erroneous overly precautionary view on DDT has resulted in millions of deaths per annum from malaria since the 1960s
  • The world is not actually warming as much as the IPCC is forecasting, the warming itself may not be a bad thing and in any case, we really can’t do anything about it.
  • Chernobyl and Fukushima, while regrettable accidents, had minimal loss of life and far below widely reported predictions. In fact nuclear energy is far safer today thanks to precautions taken following these two events.
  • Plant biotechnology has benefits that will help humanity address some of the greatest threats we have today: food security, agricultural adaptation to climate issues, diseases like vitamin A deficiency and the need for future nutritional enrichment.

Such claims go against the teachings and dogma of the eco-theologians and are considered heresy. What heresy does is force a religion to exclude an idea from consideration, branding it as foreign to one’s thinking and not worthy of discussion (in part out of fear of consequences of having such thoughts). Ideas can be good or bad according to the logic and evidence used, but heretical ideas are excluded from evaluation on emotional grounds.

Scientific or evidence-based arguments that challenge the theology are branded as heresy in order to avoid long discussions on emotional issues. This can be effected via storytelling techniques (better to involve emotional or victim-based tales), via ad hominem attacks (criticise the scientist, not the science) or via viral communication techniques to show that we all agree (what I will refer to in a later blog as commonality). Science used to be about challenging the assumed paradigms (Kuhn) or attempting to falsify findings and theories (Popper) – today, such reckless scepticism is branded as heretical and merits excommunication.

If one can demonise opponents or brand them as heretics, while building up the emotional stories to support the eco-religious tenets, stupid has a chance to thrive.

The problem with dogmatists

An environmental dogmatist preacher is convinced that his or her arguments or ideas are truths. A scientific method aims at challenging what are perceived as truths and as is the case with all religions, becomes a threat. Fundamentalism is just that – a belief in fundamental truths that cannot be denied. So the dogmatic eco-fundamentalists cannot admit that certain ideas within their belief system are weak or questionable. There is a fear that if one idea fails, the entire system will come crashing down. Like Biblical fundamentalists who swear on the veracity of the Bible as the word of God and find themselves twisting logic to make its stories fit the realities today, so too the eco-theologians find themselves having to defend incredibly stupid or immoral arguments in order to keep a purity of dogma. For example:

Golden Rice: It takes enormous dogmatic muscle to categorically write off the benefits of genetically modified rice for the sake of religious purity, as Greenpeace has so tragically done. Accepting an annual death rate of around 500,000 people (mostly children in poor countries) from vitamin A deficiency because of the risk of losing an argument on GMOs, leading the eco-fundamentalists to propose ridiculous alternatives like vitamin supplements or a more balanced organic diet (in the poorest regions of the world) is simply stupid incarnate.

Fertiliser: Organic proponents demand the use of only natural-based fertilisers to enrich the soil. This includes the widespread use of cow manure with large amounts of nitrates going into the soil and groundwater as well as an elevated risk of deadly pathogen outbreaks like E. coli entering the food chain.

Depopulation: In order to keep to the neo-Malthusian doctrine of restoring the reputation of Malthus (a precursing Armageddonist and hero to eco-fundamentalists) while correcting the faults caused by agricultural technologies, the solution (given the limits of organic farming output) is a radical depopulation of the planet. A smart solution if you are stuck in a totally stupid mind-set as seen in groups like Population Matters or anyone who still believes the more than five decades of erroneous Population Bomb predictions from Paul Ehrlich.

Paleo-diet: Naturalogy takes eco-Romanticism to a new extreme when practitioners eschew all modernity and try to go back to the assumed diets of the Palaeolithic age. I am at a loss for words on the stupidity of such an approach except to marvel at its puritan popularity. Other diets like the raw-food diet that includes drinking unpasteurised milk or cheeses are, simply put, life-threatening (and thus abundantly stupid).

Anti-vaxxers: The naturalogicians claim that as any vaccine that enters the body is not natural, it thus must be avoided. Anti-vaxxers range from the holistic (a healthy, organic diet can resist disease) to the out-and-out dangerous stupid (vaccines are a conspiracy from the pharmaceutical industry to make us sick). They used to be shy about their dogma but social media has given them the courage to embrace stupid full out.

For the uninitiated, these logical mind-games border on the absurd, but for the dogmatist, it is part of the effort to keep a purity of belief (faith does not proliferate on ‘maybe’). A contradiction can be preferable to a systemic failure, and we can become comfortable with contradictions after a while, perhaps playing down the threat of illogical conclusions, or finding stories that can allow a certain tolerance. Anti-vaxxers will say that the risk of measles is better than autism; Greenpeace will find a chef from a fine restaurant in Manila who can show how poor people can prepare nutritious meals enriched with vitamin A.

So how do you debate a dogmatist? Generally, they prefer not to engage with non-believers. In Brussels, environmental groups tend to hold events that are closed to other stakeholders. When they do find themselves in a debate, they will fight on an issue until the opponent suffers “rhetoric fatigue” and finds something better to do (agrees to disagree). Stalemate is as good as a win since the dogmatist can go further in building these belief silos without feeling challenged by the otherwise excluded views of the corrupted heretic. Sections 9 and 10 of this “How to deal with Stupid” serial will address this question of debating stupid in more detail.

Breeding Stupid in Belief Silos: Naturalogic

How does stupid grow within an eco-fundamentalist belief silo? Systems built on faith have interlocking principles delicately intertwined within its own logic. If one article of faith fails, the entire system may crash. Thus protecting each element in the belief silo is paramount, leading to occasions where very stupid arguments are made for very good reasons (to defend the faith). For a believer, these arguments are not stupid, but necessary irrationalities awaiting someone who can provide the proper infusion of coherence.

For Christian fundamentalists who have to defend every word of the Bible, this rhetoric has a rich history and creationists have come up with some very clever answers to some obvious contradictions or irrationalities. So too with environmental fundamentalists. Core to their logic is the blind belief that everything natural is good and must be promoted and everything man-made (even by combining two natural properties), is to be feared or mistrusted. This naturalogic entails some very stupid conclusions that perhaps a more mature theology may someday render more credible. For example:

  • Those who break organic bread insist that pesticides coming from natural sources are safe but not synthetic pesticides. They cannot conceive of a situation where man-made crop protection materials could be more efficient that organic-based toxins. They refuse to test these natural toxins for health risks or environmental damage even when independent studies show how dangerous they are to human health, bees and the environment.
  • Naturalogs will fight against any synthetic chemical which may have endocrine disrupting properties, and provide arguments of possible low-dose exposure in potential unknown chemical cocktails that, to say the least, are ridiculously creative. But then these vegans will munch away on a diet rich in soy beans and chickpeas, washed down with coffee, all foods known to be endocrine disrupters. They’ll even feed their infants only soy milk, something researchers have equated to the toxic equivalent of five birth control pills a day. Tragically stupid behaviour.
  • GMOs are not natural, thus no matter how beneficial they may be, the eco-fundamentalists have declared their continued existence to be the fruit of infidels. They question whether man, the source of all evil, can be trusted to play with the sacred food chain, and doubt that the science on GMOs is sound. And to make sure that those with evil intent do not succeed, the eco-theologians send mercenaries in to destroy GMO test fields. Anyone who speaks positively on the benefits of biotech is branded a Monsanto shill and is excommunicated (banned on social media).

Politicians have learnt that the eco-fundamentalist flock is growing and have become opportune. They have become politicised and are demanding that their faith be imposed on all. Despite this being a faith of the very wealthy (who can afford sacred food, purified energy and benign forms of transport), this religion is being imposed upon all members of society, who must bear the burdens of this special religion: needlessly higher prices on fruit and vegetables, higher energy costs to subsidise those with solar panels and larger obstacles to our economies and international trade. That these richest members of society can continue to have such an impact on the poorest (and on those in developing countries) is the biggest stupid of all.

The next part of this series will look at how Stupid has been so successful in influencing policy by examining the Activist Playbook.

Table of contents

 

  • Defining Stupid
  • Social Media: Where stupid learns to fly
  • The New Religion: Eco-fundamentalists and the natural bias
  • The Activist Playbook: Understanding how clever stupid can be
  • Commonality: Shutting down dialogue and engagement
  • The Denormalisation of Industry: The challenge of eco-topian idealism
  • Post-normal Science: Inviting stupid to the policy table
  • Nudging: The dangers of a sanctimonious choice architecture
  • Passivists: Waking up the non-involved majority
  • How to Deal with Stupid

 

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