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Fearful Worship of a Climate Idol

Culture

“Eco-anxiety” may stem not just from prevalent climate scaremongering, but also from the decline of religion.

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In a recent opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, the editorial board’s Allysia Finley argued that the tendency of politicians, editorialists, and activists to treat exceptional weather events as proof of looming environmental collapse is creating serious emotional problems. “Alarmist stories about bad weather…are fueling mental derangements,” she wrote.

Finley’s data suggest that young people are especially vulnerable to this kind of scaremongering, even though many purported “proofs” previously used to enlist their support for net zero policies—such as claims that the polar bears were becoming extinct, that the Great Barrier Reef was dying, and that India would soon be wiped out by famine—have proved false. She cited a 2021 study published by Lancet Public Health, which found that 59 percent of 16- to 25-year-olds in the U.S., England, Australia, and seven other countries are “very or extremely” worried about climate change. And nearly half say they cannot function normally because of weather-related anxieties.

Finley is not the only journalist to warn of what has been variously termed “climate anxiety,” “weather anxiety,” “climate hysteria,” “eco-anxiety,” and “ecological grief.” All that weather alarmists have accomplished is to “alienate and depress” everyone else, cautioned the London Telegraph’s Janet Daley in a column late last month. Daley noted that even England’s Meteorological Office, which generally favors strong action to reduce atmospheric carbon, has come around to believing that dramatizing weather events is counterproductive, producing “despair and resignation in a population that is being urged to become proactive.”

Allie Volpe, a reporter who covers mental health for Vox, is sufficiently convinced of the harm caused by today’s climate coverage that she recommends people scrupulously limit their exposure to the news in general. “Give yourself a set schedule for when you will read the news,” she advised in early July, “perhaps for 10 minutes at a time in the morning, afternoon, and evening.”

Climate anxiety or some similar phrase may not yet appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatry’s official listing of emotional complaints, but it is clearly a widespread problem, and one that is rapidly growing. According to a special 2020 issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, instances of panic attacks, insomnia, obsessive thinking, substance abuse, and depression are increasingly associated with fears of an environmental catastrophe that many people feel powerless to stop.

The problem is clearly real. My only question is whether the blame for this development can be entirely ascribed to politically motivated hyping of weather reports. Or has something more profound happened to our culture which makes such catastrophic prophesying seem more credible than it otherwise would be?

After all, this is not the first time the world has had to cope with a seemingly science-based prediction of planetary catastrophe or with the tendency of activists to exaggerate every conceivable indication of its coming. Before the current concern with climate change, there was fear of overpopulation. Before overpopulation, there was the fear of global thermonuclear war. And before nuclear apocalypse, overpopulation again, that time courtesy of an English scholar named Thomas Malthus.

This is not even the first time that major sectors of the economy have had a vested interest in aggravating the general population’s concerns about what will happen to humanity “if something isn’t done immediately.” Just as today’s car companies, solar panel producers, and windmill manufacturers stand to make billions from President Biden’s misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, so did American defense contractors from bloated Pentagon budgets during the Cold War, as President Dwight Eisenhower famously pointed out in his “military-industrial complex” speech.

How is it possible, then, that school children in the 1950’s, despite being regularly drilled to scramble under their desks in the event of a sudden atomic blast, could go on with seemingly normal lives, while kids today experience clinical symptoms after a mere heat wave in Texas or a cold snap in Florida? Is it really just about too many green ideologues interpreting the weather?

We cannot overlook the fact that what historically has been a powerful antidote for scientific pessimism—the biblical belief that while material knowledge is a useful tool (Genesis 1:28), it should never be accepted as a complete picture of the universe (Corinthians 3:18–19)—has clearly lost its force in the West. With declining religious affiliation, the legalistic purge of even the most ecumenical spiritual sentiments from public institutions, and the banalization of popular culture, is not the hope for a better outcome than green pessimists predict harder to hold fast to than it would have been in times past?

Admittedly, one does not necessarily need religion to believe in a brighter future. The history of science is full of unexpected technological breakthroughs, as Thomas Kuhn observed in his landmark study of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; and many critics of net zero activism have cited this fact to argue for a less monomaniacal response to atmospheric carbon.

But as the German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) famously worried, playing even favorable odds is never an adequate substitute for a sense of deeper reality, when it comes to living with confidence in uncertain times. American Psychological Association president Donald T. Campbell made much the same point when he warned colleagues that their profession’s insistence on a materialistic view of human behavior could prove very harmful to the larger culture. There are “good reasons for modesty and caution in undermining traditional belief systems,” he said in his leadership address to the 1975 annual convention.

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The emotional damage currently wrought by net zero activism is unlikely to prompt a search for meaning that will reverse the present secular trends in Western culture. But one thing that could clearly be done to alleviate climate-related fear is for believers themselves to be more open in the public sphere about their religious convictions, strengthening both themselves and others against undue pessimism.

As the late novelist Saul Bellow argued in his acceptance speech for the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature, most people receive enough glimpses of God’s universe to build some kind of faith on, providing they get sufficient external reinforcement. It is verbal confirmation, or even permission, from others that they increasingly lack.

But as Romans 10:17 reminds us, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

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