Climate Change as Sin

December 13, 2007

 I remember a college course on Mythology in which the professor stressed that calling a story a myth isn’t fundamentally a claim about the truth or falsity of the story, so much as a claim about the meaning of that story, and its implications for the society in which it is spread.

One example of what the professor called a myth is the claim that women in indigenous societies don’t experience pain during childbirth (I hadn’t ever actually heard this, but I take his word that someone has said it). The problem that this myth addresses isn’t really the pain of childbirth per se; the basis of the claim doesn’t come from a study of “Primitive tribe membership as a means for alleviating pain”. Instead, the myth has a message: if only modern women were more “natural”, if only they didn’t succumb to the temptations of our artificial, consumerist society, childbirth would not be painful for them. The problem is not pain, it is that modernizing and disconnecting from nature is wrong in itself. Pain at childbirth is merely a symptom of this sin.

A “revolt of the machines”, a common element in science fiction stories, is another example of this myth. The Matrix, the Terminator films, and Battlestar Galactica, among others, are all set in a post-apocalyptic world in which man-made machines have destroyed or are at war with humanity. Given that it shows up in so many different places, the idea must have some inherent plausibility or attraction. As in the myth of women and childbirth, we are presented with a situation that is our own fault. By living as we do, inventing machines to do our work and make life easier for us, we are living unnaturally and sinfully, and we will eventually pay the price.

Genesis tells us the same thing. We were all supposed to live in paradise, without pain, sickness, or death. But because Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, we have all the various evils of the world. The bad things that happen aren’t just our misfortune; they are the continued workings of divine justice.

 Now we live in an era where perhaps the biggest problem (certainly the most hysterically-discussed problem) is climate change. And for the biggest proponents of action against climate change, global warming is not just another problem. Climate change, says Al Gore, “is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.” (Thanks to Reason’s Ron Bailey for the quote in this article). Climate change is not just a big problem that could affect billions of people. It is “a moral and spiritual challenge”. The implication is that it’s worse than other problems because climate change isn’t something that just happens. Climate change is our fault. The significance of our having caused it is that it must reflect that there is something wrong with the way we are living; the effects of climate change are just a symptom. The goal, then, is not to stop climate change, but rather to change the sinful way that we live. Cost-benefit analysis is irrelevant to this problem because it’s not a utilitarian issue, it’s a deontological one.

That’s the difference between climate skeptics and environmentalists. As infuriating as it is to me when people don’t acknowledge that preventing climate change will have huge costs, it must be just as infuriating for others when I say that we don’t really need to stop climate change completely because it costs too much. Many people who are opposed to the use of atomic weapons think the question of whether the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima saved lives is irrelevant. Atomic weapons involve the intentional killing of innocent people, and that’s wrong. Burning fossil fuels may allow us to grow more food and get people out of poverty, but that doesn’t change the fact that living in the way we do, out of harmony with nature, is wrong.

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5 Responses to “Climate Change as Sin”

  1. tripinchina Says:

    An interesting point. Myth is a powerful kind of narrative that always has a moral or ideological message. Just as Christian types further their wacky agenda by mythologizing and talking rhetorically about the benefits of worshipping God and pitfalls of not doing so, environmentalists and hippie types tend to mythologize about harmony with nature and whatnot.

    Yes, even Al Gore brings the moral and mythological realm into his reasoning about global warming. In the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” he equates the moral necessity of overcoming climate change with that of overcoming slavery or Soviet Communism. But this proclamation has nothing to do with the real ways in which the specters of slavery and Communism fell by the wayside, i.e. political, social and economic change. It’s not as if people all of a sudden came to the moral conclusion (or the cost/benefit outcome) that these things were no good and subsequently changed their minds and that was that; rather, people underwent struggle. Wars were fought, money exchanged, policies shifted, empires ruined, history written.

    It’s clear that we could all afford to be more cynical about these things. But neither utilitarian nor deontological theoretical analysis is enough to change the fact that we’re all screwed. When the effects of climate change escalate, they will be sudden and unpleasant.

    Just for the sake of argument though, surely a utilitarian cost benefit analysis of the climate change problem will yield that in the long run the benefits of switching away from fossil fuels and preventing (further) climate change will outweigh the costs? Or is climate change not really cataclysmic enough of a threat?

  2. William Says:

    “Or is climate change not really cataclysmic enough of a threat?”

    In a word: No.

    In more than one word: Here is another article by Ron Bailey citing a study by Nordhaus on optimal policy against climate change (The paragraph starting with “The Optimal Policy?”).

    Like any economic problem, one could hardly expect that the best solution is to stop doing something entirely. The fact that power plants and factories cause pollution does not mean that we should shut them down.

    What we should be trying to achieve as public policy on climate change should be the same as on any public policy. The program we implement should be trying to maximize the difference between costs and benefits.

    This is my point about the difference between environmentalists and utilitarians. Nordhaus’s “optimal policy” leaves us with $15 trillion in climate change damage. Your reaction to that is either “so be it, it would cost more than that to fix” or “That’s too much. We must stop climate change in its tracks”.

  3. hayley Says:

    ah, you’re two favorite pastimes: pondering sin and adopting misguided standpoints on environmental issues.

  4. Thomas Says:

    Alright well, I don’t understand what you’re talking about when you say that the solution can’t possibly be to stop doing something altogether. Clarify!

    Continuing to play the cost/benefit game: It occurs to me that the costs of climate change will continue to multiply as the problem gets worse and worse…whereas the cost of implementing significant or sufficient change will necessarily be a finite number. Right?

    Also, remember how we (echoing Thomas Friedman) said that although a gas tax would be a good policy, no politician in our system can back it and still be supported? The benefits of a gas tax would clearly outweigh the costs. Yet it won’t ever become a part of American public policy. Why would a carbon tax be any different?

    Your economic solution to climate change probably has merit. But I think that our political system is too slow to react to rapidly emerging ecological crises, mostly because the people in power don’t yet feel the effects of them.

  5. lichanos Says:

    Bill McKibben’s End of Nature and Al Gore’s book/Powerpoint are excellent examples of the environmentalist’s idea that industrialization is a recapitulation of The Fall. We lived in Eden, and were cast out for our sins. The theme runs right through much environmentalist writing, although it is usually given a more modern, Romantic spin.


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