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In my last post, I talked about the first part of my conversation with environmentalist Bill Hartnett, in which we talked about the definition of religion.  The broader discussion was about how religious belief and environmentally friendly lifestyles interact.

earthBill thought I was saying that the reason people make poor choices about the environment is because they are religious devotees.  He told me that I should stop using religion as a “scapegoat.” But really what we are trying to propose here is that religion is a very positive institution in many ways.  It has the power to change minds and motivate behavior.  We would like to duplicate those effects, but redirect that motivation towards more positive goals.

There are quite a few religious people who are environmentalists.  The Bible in fact exhorts followers to care for the land and the animals.

"You shall not pollute the land in which you live.... You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the Israelites." (Numbers 35:33-34)

But there are also religionists who have personally told me things like “We don’t need to worry about pollution because the rapture is coming.”   These people may or may not be in the minority, but the fact is that some sects and adherents believe that caretakership of the Earth is essential to being a good Christian (or Muslim or Jew, etc.)  Some believe that it really doesn’t matter because God will provide in the end.

So deistic religion is not our scapegoat.  It’s a just a lame duck – it’s ineffectual at motivating followers because there is another alternative, namely salvation by faith, and/or God’s magical cleanup power.  The religious need not worry too much because no matter how much we pollute here on Terra Firma, heaven will always be clean.  If you believe you can get into the Big Club in the Sky without cleaning up Earth-side, why bother?

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I ran into Bill Hartnett recently, an author and policy advisor in privatization and sustainable development.

I asked him about his thoughts on the most effective ways to ensure sustainable development, and he cited the motto “reduce, reuse & recycle,” but also stressed the importance of education and getting the message out.

“It’s hard sometimes to convince people to abandon a view that they are firmly committed to,” I said. “What we need is a highly contagious mind-virus.”

“A meme,” said Bill.

“Right. I believe that what we need is a secular alternative to religion.”Before I could go on, he interrupted:

“Well, when you say that, what do you mean by ‘religion’?”

“Well,” I said, “Religion means many things. One aspect includes a commitment to a deity or some supernaturalism.”

Quickly, he fired back:

“What do you mean by supernatural?”

“It means a commitment to a belief not grounded in a naturalistic method like the scientific method. Such a method requires us to be open to any data that might contradict our deeply held beliefs.”

I was right where he wanted me.

"But the Dalai Lama has said that we should question and reexamine even our most deeply held beliefs in light of scientific evidence.”

Bill was right, of course.

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The global scientific community agrees that average global temperature is on the rise, despite local anomalies. 2008 was one of the 10 warmest years since records have been kept. But critics of global warming science have not given up. Global temperatures fluctuate, and skeptics point to periods of cooling as evidence against the dangers of emissions. And scientific consensus may change: the climate heretics might turn out to be right. But there is strong evidence that the current connsensus represents reality.

One Antarctic ice shelf has quickly vanished, another is disappearing and glaciers are melting faster than anyone thought due to climate change, U.S. and British government researchers reported on Friday. Climate change is to blame, according to the report from the U.S. Geological Survey and the British Antarctic Survey, available at pubs.usgs.gov/imap/2600/B.

But the question is not whether climate change is an important issue, but whether the timescales reflected by most current models are accurate. No one doubts that humans have the potential to alter their environment, now or in the future. Local environments, like Los Angeles are clearly affected.

The question is whether or not carbon emitted by current methods of energy production will create climate outcomes that are unacceptable for the next few generations, and whether there is anything humans can do to avert these potential pitfalls. The current consensus is that the answer to both questions is yes.

Critics may or may not be right. Every generation has predicted that the end is nigh, and none has experienced the manifestation of their predictions. But even if we are again proved wrong, our priorities, if we value environmental protection, will prove right.

The decision about which policy to favor in the short term will impact life's survival prospects, whatever our scientific understanding of climate turns out to be.


Are we losing touch with nature? How could we, when we and everything we create, are part of nature?

With so much of life based on electronic representations of reality, humans risk losing touch with nature, says University of Washington psychologist Peter Kahn.

From web cams that offer views of wildlife to virtual tours of the Grand Canyon to robotic pets, modern technology increasingly is encroaching into human connections with the natural world. Kahn and his colleagues believe this intrusion may emerge as one of the central psychological problems of our times.

It's true that the environment that we live in now, the “manmade” environment, is different than the environment we used to live in, the “natural” environment. But if we are part of nature, then it seems to be a mistake to chalk these differences up to human meddling. If nature meddles with nature, it's all natural. As a scientific naturalist who believes that humans are part of an evolutionary chain, it's hard to define the difference between natural and artificial. If beaver dams are natural why isn't the Hoover Dam?

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Critics of extreme environmentalists have long made the argument that the free market will solve the “end of oil” problem, and the recent boom in solar and other alternative energy producing companies has lent credence to that claim. This summer, skyrocketing fuel prices gave a boost to alternative energy and made “greening” popular, but in the aftermath of the global economic slump, energy prices came back to normal. The New York Times has reported that the poor economic climate and falling oil prices may hinder the development of new green businesses .

And it may turn out that the “end of oil” will never come. Biofuels may give us the ability to continue burning things in order to get our energy. Some environmentalists champion biofuels, but burning ethanol or sunflower oil is less clean than burning gasoline, and so fails to address the problem of global warming.

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