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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 09:06 GMT
In thrall to the green god
Martin Livermore
By Martin Livermore

Environmentalism has become a religion, writes Martin Livermore in this week's Green Room; humans should take off their hair shirts, and enjoy the lifestyles which progress has created.

Hippies on peace bed.  Image: BBC
With the decline of Christianity and Marxism, environmentalism has taken the place of religion for many
We humans have an uneasy relationship with the natural world.

It seems to me that one of the main reasons for this is that we regard ourselves as apart from Nature; as unnatural by definition.

In reality, Homo sapiens is just one more species.

Admittedly, a few key evolutionary advantages make us remarkably adaptable and, currently, the ultimate generalist; but it still makes us part of Nature, and our use of human ingenuity is every bit as natural as a spider's web or a swallow's migratory pattern.

Nevertheless, our very intelligence sometimes makes us realise how little of the natural world we truly understand, and puts us in awe of the forces of Nature.

In past times, this awe would have been ever-present. In modern cities we may be less aware, but it only takes a hurricane or tsunami to remind us.

This feeling of powerlessness before the forces of Nature led to early forms of religion.

Although they were replaced in time by the current great world religions, in a strange way we are returning to our earlier beliefs.

Deifying Nature

In the West, with the decline of organised Christianity and the discrediting of Marxism, environmentalism has taken the place of religion for many.

In the words of Frank Lloyd Wright "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature". Googling "environmentalism as religion" returns 854,000 hits.

Malaysian child wearing smog mask.  Image: BBC
Rich societies cure environmental problems like urban smog
The new orthodoxy teaches that Mankind is guilty of Original Sin by despoiling Eden (the pre-Industrial world).

This guilt must be assuaged by repairing the damage and protecting all other forms of life.

For the deepest Greens, the only real solution is the disappearance of our species from the Earth - the ultimate sacrifice - and for many others a much smaller "optimum" population of humans is a desirable goal.

I have to admit that, in this case, the word "natural" doesn't seem appropriate; what other species would want to become less rather than more successful?

Progress made

In fact, all species affect their environment to a greater or lesser degree.

Termites build complex homes, beavers construct dams to alter the flow of streams and grazing animals profoundly alter the balance of plant species.

People do the same. The difference is that we have a uniquely greater capacity to do so.

But, as this capacity has grown, so has our awareness of the consequences, and our ability to make rational choices between options.

So, in the last half-century, environmental quality in the developed world has improved greatly by almost any measure.

Britons may regret the death of the whale which swam up the Thames recently, but a generation ago it would probably have died in the polluted water well before it got within sight of London.

The dead Thames whale.  Image: ZSL/PA
A generation ago, the Thames whale would probably have died in polluted water well before it got within sight of London

Clean air and clean water are things we would all reckon to be good things.

But in most other respects, it is really impossible to say that an effect on the environment is either "good" or "bad".

At the risk of sounding post-modernist, these terms just represent value judgements; why is a dormouse better than a rat?

And when we try to manage the environment actively - to do what is "right" - the result isn't always what we expect.

Well-meant but misguided efforts to conserve bison in Yellowstone Park by culling wolves led to an unsupportable population increase followed by collapse.

Today, wolves are being encouraged once again.

Actively preventing forest fires (because they are "bad") causes a build up in brushwood. When this inevitably does catch fire, the results are far more destructive than if periodic blazes had been allowed.

We may think that hill farming or low-input arable farming are good because they create ecological niches for wildlife and landscapes which are visually pleasing; but they represent profound changes to the "natural" environment.

Organic farming creates as much dislocation to the ecology of a field as does more conventional management.

So, let us get our perspective right.

We are as much a part of Nature as any other species, and we need to stop feeling guilty about our impact on the environment.

Not many of us, given the choice, would encourage the wanton destruction of habitats or species, but surely our first priority must be the needs of poorer members of our own species.

That is the law of Nature.

Martin Livermore is an independent consultant, with a background in industry, covering a range of science communication and policy issues.

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website.

Do you agree with Mr Livermore? Is environmentalism just a religion? Should people forget about 'saving the world' and concentrate on human problems?

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