All Commentary
Thursday, April 21, 2011

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America

We all, like sheep, have gone astray. We have sinned. We must humble ourselves. We must repent and turn from our wicked ways. These are the messages of our modern-day secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Throughout The New Holy Wars, Robert H. Nelson uses theological reasoning to explore them. His book is an excellent contribution that will help us better understand the intersections between economics, ethics, and theology.

Economic and environmental religions both deliver old wine in new bottles. According to Nelson, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, a religion can be “understood . . . as a person’s way of framing his or her basic perception of the world and its meaning.” Religions require priesthoods. Some religions believe we need priests to mediate between God and man. Economic religion requires priests to mediate between gold and man. Environmental religion posits the need for mediators between Gaia and man. The 9/11 attacks, for example, were interpreted by some as punishment for our economic sins, while Hurricane Katrina was interpreted by others as punishment for our environmental sins.

Economics as such is value-free, but many economists are not. Twentieth-century neoclassical economics created, Nelson writes, a “gospel of efficiency.” The most prominent economic religions he identifies are varieties of statism: socialism/communism, Keynesianism, and industrial policy. Socialism claimed that centrally planned economies would produce abundance, which would cure social ills. According to interventionist varieties of neoclassical economics, experts could “fine tune” the economy. The push for “scientific” policy-making turned economists into a group of gods-by-committee issuing edicts from Mount Olympus (or from seminar rooms at Harvard and MIT) to be followed by our wise and noble rulers.

Nelson also discusses the rhetoric of economic and environmental religions. Environmentalists’ accounts of the “damage” we’re doing to the natural environment or how this or that arrangement of flora and fauna has “intrinsic value” independent of its ability to satisfy human wants bring to mind Misesian/Hayekian questions: How do we know? How is “intrinsic value” measured? How is it a guide to action? On what basis does the activist substitute his or her judgment for mine? We can argue about who does or does not have superior revelation, but this is properly discussed as theology rather than economics or natural science.

Chapter eleven (“Environmental Colonialism: ‘Saving’ Africa from Africans”) is especially interesting. In it Nelson recounts in detail various endeavors—all under the guise of “conservation”—that are basically a form of secular evangelism. One of the ironies Nelson points out is that the attempts to “restore nature” are actually attempts to subjugate complex natural processes. Africa’s enormous national parks and reserves have more in common with Jurassic Park than with the pre-human African landscape.

Elsewhere, Nelson asks where environmentalists find their moral sentiments. It isn’t clear what “healthy” and “sustainable” mean apart from human action in light of the relevant tradeoffs. There is little recognition of what happens when people disagree. For example, a statement like, “I believe in wilderness for itself alone” (quoting former Sierra Club leader David Brower), runs into unanswered complications: What if I don’t? On what grounds are your values better than mine? Citing and quoting his faculty colleague Herman Daly, an ecological economist, Nelson notes that environmental religion is “theologically incoherent” if there is no purpose to the universe but we should still take great strides to protect nature. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed head-on.

I fear that some readers will not separate “economic religion” as a religious concern with material abundance from the economic way of thinking, which focuses on incentives and opportunity costs. Nelson ought to have sharpened that distinction. Also, the differences between an ideology, a religion, and a philosophy are left unclear. Nonetheless, the theological approach Nelson adopts is illuminating, and he does a great service by pointing out how much of the materialist and environmentalist gospels are explicitly derived from religion.

The Christian faith posits that God is the potter and we are the clay. In economic and environmental religion, our moral and intellectual surrogates are the potters and ordinary citizens are the clay. Both economic religion (a secular gospel of virtuous prosperity) and environmental religion (a secular gospel of virtuous poverty) are pretexts for managing the affairs of others and of directing them in how they should employ their capitals. Given these stakes, I fully agree with Deirdre McCloskey’s back-cover endorsement: “Anyone who cares about the economy or the environment or religion needs to read The New Holy Wars.”