Recently I met a North American businessman. He runs a large industrial business in Europe and his facility is covered by the EU Emission Trading scheme. After a while, as it happens when you are talking about emission trading, the conversation turned to climate change.
“Of course, this is fine if you actually believe in global warming. We don’t, of course. You know, it’s really … a kind of religion over here.”
He captured the difference between Europe and the US. Religion is cool in America: over 90% of people believe in God and over half attend worship regularly. Like, on those statistics, it’s cooler than things like soccer. Whereas in Europe you even have priests who don’t believe in God. So of course, Europe, its Christian bedrock crumbling, needs something else to believe in.
We’ve just moved from one doom-and-gloom story to another. In the one case if you kill people, tell lies, commit adultery and so forth, then you burn up in the after-life. But that didn’t work out, because if you don’t believe in the after-life, the sanction is weak. So in the revised religion, if you drive around in an SUV, fly too much, use spray instead of roll-on, then you burn up in this life. Or your kids do. Now, for those who are skeptical about the spiritual, that’s a much more scary thing.
Actually, as a religion it’s way better. There’s loads more things you can do without burning up: sex is fine, so is smoking, so is drink and drugs – it’s all very short-term carbon cycle stuff. And you can actually feel good about not going to church – those people rolling up at the church in their big cars might be good Christians, but I’m being even gooder by just sitting quietly at home.
Yes, the American businessman was absolutely right: climate change is a religion – a belief, a commitment, a behavioural code, and some tough decisions. And a religion which, humour aside, is very close to the values of Christianity and probably a bunch of other religions: live simply, don’t get greedy, don’t consume too much, temper your worldly, material ambition, be nice to other people – and be a good steward of the planet. It looks like the priests of old knew a hell-of-a-lot about what it takes to survive, sustainably, on this planet without messing it up. So if 90% of Americans really did believe in God, then they’d be doing what they could to care for his Eden, they’d have ratified Kyoto ages ago and be looking busy.
The trouble is it’s a religion without priests. Where are the venerable people with beards who patiently guide us towards ecologically better behaviour? Where are the eco-celebates who give up material nirvana and grow their own vegetables?
They are here, they are called dark-greens, they do have beards, and wear home-knitted jumpers, and eat lots of muesli. But unfortunately, in all honesty, we often laugh at them rather than revere them. Whereas even atheists don’t laugh at priests or monks – they might disagree with them, but they will generally show them appropriate respect.
But we might still want to listen more carefully to those gentle, bearded folk in tents. In the last desperate struggle for human survival on a planet-turned-furnace, the future may bring something far, far darker: a radicalism of machine-gun toting zealots, where High Priests of Greenery, like the extreme theocrats of Iran today, will rule by terror and cruelty, and force us to live, shivering with fear despite the searing heat, in unlit caves and feed on mosses.