Disestablish the Green Cathedrals

Published March 28, 1995

Could the recent Republican landslide lead to major reform of environmental policy? Will we see a dismantling of bureaucratically controlled ecological central planning in favor of local initiative and private environmental stewardship? The answer will depend in part on how well reform- minded legislators understand the source of environmentalism’s power: its capacity to stir emotions, capture imaginations, and motivate action.

Critics sometimes describe environmentalism as a religion–with some justification. The movement has no shortage of zealots, crusaders, and gurus. More than a few of these prophesy the apocalyptic destruction of life on earth, preach redemption through abstinence, honor wilderness as sacred ground, and scorn to submit their beliefs to empirical validation.

Most Americans do not make a creed or cult of environmentalism, but millions do respond favorably to eco-evangelist preaching. Environmentalism appeals to primordial yearnings to consecrate, to venerate, to purify–religious impulses that are sown in human nature.

But every creed offers an outlet for such devotional feelings. What is it specifically that draws people to environmentalism?

Environmentalism speaks to a widely shared intuition that nature (the cosmos, creation) is more than just a storehouse of raw materials and energy. Nature is also an object of beauty and wonder. Nature has a dignity or worth apart from any economic purpose it may serve.

This intuition is widely shared because it is well-nigh unavoidable. Anyone who has gazed at the stars on a clear night, stood in a redwood forest, or owned a dog has experienced nature as something majestic, venerable, or loveable.

What policy judgments does this entail? Since nature’s intrinsic value eludes monetary calculation, eco-evangelists reason, we cannot look to market forces to protect nature. Humanity will profane nature, they contend, unless government massively restricts economic liberty. These conclusions are precisely wrong.

However inept government may be at producing wealth, it is even more incompetent at advancing non-material ends. We value education for its own sake as well as for the economic advantages it brings. Yet where is quality education more likely to be provided, in private academies or politically managed (“public”) schools? Does anyone believe art and artists would flourish under the care of a Cultural Protection Agency?

For centuries, governments sought to provide for the spiritual welfare of their subjects. Political authorities intervened in theological disputes, punished heretics, and levied taxes to support ecclesiastical establishments. The result was not to produce true believers but, as Jefferson said, “To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

Jefferson correctly predicted that separation of church and state–religious privatization–not only would end sectarian warfare but encourage religious devotion by making affiliation and belief matters of personal choice and by keeping preachers out of political controversy and scandal.

There’s a lesson here for the environmental movement, now confronting a backlash ignited by unfunded mandates, bureaucratic land grabs, and overregulation. Any religion that seeks special status from government is bound to make enemies. Worse, it links its fortunes to transient administrations and ephemeral legislative majorities.

In America, the cathedrals of God are built on private land with private funds. There is no reason why the cathedrals of Nature–the wilderness preserves, ecological trusts, wetlands sanctuaries– could not be supported in this manner as well. The hundreds of millions of dollars environmental groups spend each year pursuing their political agendas could finance a vast amount of private conservation.

This would improve environmental protection. After all, as a general rule, private homes are better managed and cared for than government housing projects, private yards and gardens than public parks. Private stewards risking their own capital would do a better job than bureaucrats risking other peoples’ tax dollars.

By privatizing religion, America became a haven for the faithful of all creeds and denominations. By privatizing common property resources, would we not create vast new opportunities for good stewardship? In the long run, disestablishing the green cathedrals would strengthen both liberty and environmentalism.

Marlo Lewis, Jr. is executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.