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Echoes of the Fourth Century

I was talking to a friend this evening who noted that a bank had sent him a letter promoting a loan; confounding the pessimists who think that the days of easy credit are completely dead. He observed that the letter contained the phrase “The mill that produced this paper supports sustainable forestation”.

It is hard to believe that the bank really cared that much about the source of their paper, but banks, being creatures of the market, are sensitive to their customers, and make efforts to please them. The small but noisy minority of ‘environmentally friendly’ customers that would have approved of the bank’s effort to be eco-friendly would be appeased, and the rest of the client base would care not a jot.

But we are seeing more and more of these nods to the environment being enforced with the power of national governments. It is rather like what happened to ancient Rome in the Fourth Century. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, lifted restrictions on Christianity in 312, and Christianity backed by the power of the state made slow but steady gains at the expense of the old pagan faiths before the Vestal Virgins were disbanded by Imperial order in 394.

I am not sure what will really qualify as comparable milestones in the rise of environmentalism as the official faith of the West, but for those of us of a skeptical nature, I think it does rather have a feel of being like a Pagan in 4th Century Rome.

32 comments to Echoes of the Fourth Century

  • ian

    “The mill that produced this paper supports sustainable forestation”.

    Was this written by a politician? It means absolutely bugger all.

  • TomG

    In a switch of your analogy – when I think of the source of a hyperenvironmental mind-set, what comes first to me is the “Love Your Mother Earth” and Earth Day offsprings of the hippie “back to the earth” movements. And many a historian has liked such to druidic and shamanistic devotions to nature. So that it would seem a full tilt, ceteris parabis, from a 4th century anti-pagan sentiment. Interesting topic, thanks!

  • Sunfish

    “The mill that produced this paper supports sustainable forestation”.
    Was this written by a politician? It means absolutely bugger all.

    What do they even mean by “support?”

    As for “sustainable forestation,” that’s usually a misnomer. At least in the US, anyway. It’s a common claim that, when timber is cut, some multiple like five times as many trees are replanted as were cut. Technically true, but the end result is ecologically more like a cornfield than a forest.

    But then, Scott correctly observes the need to properly genuflect before the various unrelated-to-the-business-at-hand prejudices of the customer. The Customer Is Always Right.

  • WalterBoswell

    Three green arrows and the fair trade logo have replaced the crucifix and the fish. Both symbols are kept afloat on the same oceans of illogic and faith. The more things change…etc.

  • countingcats

    More to the point, this is more a matter of paganism reasserting its power after having been finally shoved aside by Justinian.

    The new paganism is not descended from the old, nor are its rituals related, but it is a promotion of elemental nature into a position of devotion, even within the Church. Well, in Anglicanism and the more soft headed protestant bits of it anyway.

    Although, taking the analogy one step further (falsely I suspect, but hey, lets have fun here), Christianity did have its competitor in Mithraism, does neo-paganism have one in Islam?

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    The comparison to “state” religion is not without merit.

    The purhasing of “carbon credits” may be likened to the purchase of indulgences which partly flamed the Reformation.

  • The new paganism is not descended from the old, nor are its rituals related, but it is a promotion of elemental nature into a position of devotion, even within the Church. Well, in Anglicanism and the more soft headed protestant bits of it anyway.

    I would say that “the new paganism” has more in common with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It has an Eden myth, a concept of original sin and fall from grace, kashrut (possibly eucharist for vegans, but I think that’s stretching it a bit), an armaggedon/final judgement myth, etc. Of course, there’s no real concept of “personal salvation” (it’s only collective salvation), which is an important difference.

  • Hadn’t seen Schweitzer’s comment when I posted, but carbon credits as indulgences definitely fits.

  • I like Joshua’s take on it.

  • Laird

    I also like Joshua’s take on it, but Schweitzer’s comparison to carbon credits to indulgences seems particularly apt. Just as indulgences had no real relationship to sin, so carbon credits have no real relationship to the “sin” of energy use. We’re simply paying bribes to the anointed for absolution. One big difference is that the cost of these “indulgences” is falling rapidly (due to oversupply), and may soon approach zero. (See Global Warming Solution Known as ‘Carbon Credits’ Collapses).

    The “new paganism” (shall we call it “Gaia-ism”?) seems to be a manifestation of the old Hegelian Dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, with “old paganism” conbining with Christianity (it’s antithesis) to produce the new synthesis of Gaia-ism.

  • Alice

    Recognizing that the two great religious movements of our time are Environmentalism and Islam — what are the prospects of a synthesis of those two, Islamic Environmentalism (or Environmental Islamism).

    After all, if people seriously took part in 5 long prayer sessions every day, they would not have a lot of time left to produced carbon dioxide. And both Islam & Environmentalism seem to have no problem with resorting to violence.

    The synthesis would be a marriage made in Heaven, or maybe on Earth.

  • Pa Annoyed

    “It is hard to believe that the bank really cared that much about the source of their paper…”

    Banks are made up of people, who are as susceptible to belief or scepticism in fads as the general population. For the sake of working cooperatively together in the interests of their shareholders/owners, employees of businesses generally subordinate their own personal ethical/political/religious beliefs to a sort of bland lowest-common-denominator “professional” ethic. By banning controversy in the office (except among consenting adults in private) they enable moonbats and wingnuts to work together side by side in peace and harmony. While it is not all that unusual to see a company take a public stand on some controversy not directly related to their business or the media image of their owner, it is unusual enough that I suspect it is more than simply pleasing a vocal campaign. After all, you don’t see these little fortune-cookie messages on the bottom of bank letters supporting the Palestinians or organic food. (Or Ron Paul. ;-))

    It is true that something like this is partly seen as uncontroversial because even the company infidels can see the major commercial advantages of greenwashing, but the people actually organising it within the company are often motivated by a genuine belief in corporate social/ethical responsibility. Such behaviour gets past the “behaving professionally” filter only because environmentalism has now passed below the blandness threshold of “stuff everyone can accept”. There may still be many cynics who don’t agree or like it, but nobody is going to make a fuss about it. That would be unprofessional.

    That sort of social coercion applies at every level of society, not just that of government legislation. Environmentalism is now pushed into every corner by people’s desire to fit in, by the need to subordinate one’s own beliefs to those of the community you live and work among. Getting rid of government would make it a little easier to defy, but would not eliminate the pressure.

    The spread of Christianity or Environmentalism are Brownian motions in the evolution of society itself, not the product of diktats from the top. (Yes, there were/are powerful people seeking a niche who see an opportunity and work to encourage it, but whether they succeed at doing so is not something they can control.) They can no more control opinions than they can control prices. There is no puppet master pulling the levers of control behind the scenes, no Intelligent Designer able to explain the complexities of society and culture, only catallaxy.

  • Kevin B

    Whilst your analogy to the rise of Christianity is apt, our current obsession with all things ‘ecological’, and with CO2 in particular. also brings to mind counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin while the barbarians are at the gate. I’m an old cynic, but the seeming collapse of Western values and the rise of fundamentalist Islam remind me that all civilizations end.

    There are, of course, many religious overtones to Gaia-ism – and the state, and business, have appropriated them for their own purposes.

    Watching Sky Sports News this afternoon, every other ad seemed to push the green meme. Banks, car companies, power utilities and of course the state are all about ‘saving the planet’ these days and I find myself wondering how to bring a false advertising suit against them rather than buy their product.

    Last week the Met Office announced that 2007 was the second warmest year in Britain since records began.

    Funny, but I don’t remember those long hot days and long sticky nights or the parched and bare fairways where my golf ball ran for miles. Rather I remember floods and cricket matches being rained off and my drives plugging not very far from the tee.

    I’ve been around a long time, and if last year was the second hottest in my lifetime then my senility is showing.

    Of course I’m aware that warmer winter nights can have as much effect on the average temperature as hot summer days but my immediate thought when I saw the met office announcement, (apart from ‘you lying bastards’), was that Gordon needed the pressure kept up for his carbon taxes, and to cover for the fact that Britain’s energy planning has been defunct for the last twenty years, (and maybe to help his nuclear announcement along in the face of the predictable Green outcry).

    (This comment seems to be rambling so I’ll grind to a halt now. I’ve been up since the crack of dawn freezing my nuts off playing golf so perhaps I can blame that rather than the aforementioned senility.)

  • Pa Annoyed

    Kevin B,

    Well, if you want to bring that false advertising suit (although I think “misleading” would be better), the place to start is with the data they’re referring to. You can get the HadCET series from the MetOffice here, which is the one I think they’re talking about.

    If you plot the annual mean figures out (from the final column) you’ll see that 2007 is not in fact second, but equal tenth, along with 2004 and 1959. You’ll also see that it is only 0.01 of a degree C ahead of 1733 and1834.

    You’ll also see that the average temperature is remarkably stable, ranging from about 7.5 to 10.5C, and that while the current peak (starting around 1893 and rising up to 1949, dropping until 1987 and only then jumping up to the present plateau) is top, there have been similarly shaped peaks before (like the one culminating in 1733), and the excess ‘signal’ is an order of magnitude less than the noise level (half a degree versus 4 degrees).

    How accurate the figures are, with their urban biases, is an even more difficult affair, but you can make a fair amount of progress even from just the ‘official’ figures. When you claim that 2006 was the hottest ever, without mentioning that it is only a fraction ahead of peaks in 1733, 1834, 1921, or 1949, and that it’s all about the same anyway when you average over a year, you can make a case that they’re not trying to give a clear and complete picture of what’s going on, but to persuade towards a particular interpretation.

    People remember the extremes, but they’re very bad at remembering the boring interludes. (And rainy weather is not necessarily as cold as people think.) People remember what they’re told they remember, as Orwell noted. In 2007 we had a warm winter and a cold summer (Plot figures for January and August in 2nd and 9th columns, for example), which is boring, but the winter was slightly warmer than the summer was cold, so we get a “warm” year. Personally, and speaking as a non-golfer, I think that’s good, but unmemorable weather doesn’t stick in the mind and all people will remember about it in a few years time is that it was reported as a climate disaster. And so a new truth is constructed.

  • Kevin B

    Pa, the report on the BBC, (for what that’s worth), is about UK temperatures. The link you gave is for Central England temperatures.

    Whatever, if I collected all the data for last year, and then apllied all my correction algorithms and calculations and came out with 2007 as the second hottest ever, I’d be checking my data, checking my algorithms and checking my calculations rather than announcing that to the world.

    We need our own McIntyre and McKittrick, (not to mention Anthony Watts) to keep these guys in line.

    (Incidentally, a search on the Beeb’s science site for Met Office hottest produces some nice juxtapositions. “Met Office predicts Hottest ever Summer – May 2007″. ” Met Office predicts Wettest ever Summer – Aug 2007″)

  • Dermanus

    I work in print, and FSC (the most common ‘sustainable’ initiative) is pretty brainless. The one good thing about it is that it ensures the wood was not cut illegally, although that’s more of a problem with furniture than paper.
    The (main) bad thing is that FSC also ensures that the trees are not genetically modified. I’m not quite sure how that helps the sustainability, since presumably the trees would be modified to grow faster/bigger/in more adverse conditions.
    Like most green initiatives, it’s further proof that Barnum was right and that some people just have too much money.

  • Robert

    Interestingly enough, given the technological trends that favor the super-empowered individual in this Century, me-thinks the medium-term future mostly resembles the Fifth Century instead of the Fourth Century.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Kevin B,

    Ah, the BBC.

    It says the second warmest “on record”. That’s a bit difficult to interpret since there are many different records of different lengths. Usually, one would assume it meant on any record, and the records of the central England temperature series means this goes back to 1659, but if you allow it to mean on a particular record, you can get any answer you want. But whether second or tenth, the point that the peak is hardly any different from the normal range of natural variation still stands.

    MacIntyre and associated others have had a go at the UK weather establishment – check out their communications with Phil Jones of the Hadley Centre in the University of East Anglia. They even tried using the freedom of information act. I think the eventual conclusion was that Jones had been so busy altering and adjusting the records that he had lost the original data and hadn’t wanted to admit it, but nobody was very sure if even that was the truth. All very Orwellian.

  • CS Lewis (following GK Chesterton, I believe) noted that pantheism is the faith that civilization always falls back to unless there is a positive faith impelling it otherwise. Environmentalism is simply a variant of pantheism, a sort of default religious belief when people have no other.

  • Pixelkiller

    Gentlemen; Thank you all for one of the best posts and string of comments I’ve had the great good luck to read in a long long time. There may be hope for us all afterall.

  • djr

    I think it’s already happened – most people I encounter, well educated as they are, buy into it. When it’s more than just dunces supporting it, when it’s skyrocketted to a sustained (multi-decade) movement, and on the teat of public finance, the game is up.

  • A couple of the great “oceans of illogic “upon which the Faith of
    Christianity sails have been named. There are Oceans of Thomas Aquinas, The Great Ocean of Augustine, The Pauline Oceans, and many many others. We still recall the names of their vessels these 1000 plus year on: Summa Theologica, The City of God, The Fleet of the Letters of Paul, and the numberless vessels of the Fleet of the Communion of the Saints.
    The Seas of Lord Goracle are fetid, unavigable swamps. Their vessels no more than waterlogged barks and punts, infested with fleas, manned by rats.

  • David

    Gibbon might also add that while the empire devoted its attention to supporting its new faith it ignored the rising threat from the barbarians around them. Hmmm, I wonder if we are missing any rising threats???

  • m

    “what will really qualify as comparable milestones in the rise of environmentalism as the official faith of the West”

    Don’t be so pessimistic,they must overcome 2 things first:

    1)the next ice age

    2)islamofascism(don’t think the RoP is very pagan friendly)

    And of course,the first jihadi nuke to pop in a western city will render the first 2 hurdles irrelevent anyway.

  • M, you made me feel so much better now:-)

  • Sunfish


    M, you made me feel so much better now:-)

    Think of it this way: in about five billion years, the Sun will turn into a nova and incinerate the Earth and everything on it.

    So, if you think about it, all of our problems are strictly temporary.

  • FamouslyUnknown

    The rise of Christianity and the rise of Environmentalism both show rational inceptions. Those accepting the spiritual rationale of Christianity, found unacceptable the superhero and supervillain composition of the pagan overworld.

    The growing faith of the West in Environmentalism will follow a trajectory similar to that of Christianity. That is, description of benefits (spiritual for one, mundane for the other), acceptance of those benefits by the active, controlling minority or majority, extreme applications of the original principles to force acceptance of intrusions to one’s everyday life, reformation of applications, and rejection of corruptive interpretations of the movements’ essential sane principles.

    We see this now in the widening crack in the edifice wretch of the costly anthropogenic global warming (AGW)farce.
    This is truly a ‘fissure of men’ to use a biblical term, as it took some heroic scientists, growing now in number and influence, to demonstrate that the AGW thesis was more male bovine manure than comprehensive, methodologically sound, data-taking and data analysis.

    As this fissure widens, it will give impetus to evisceration of other exaggerations of environmental disaster.

  • Paul Marks

    James Lovelock, the modern foudner of “Gaia ism” (although he would not like the term) is an ardent supporter of atomic fission power – however the Greens have ruled that this is heresy (indeed vile heresy).

    It is much like Augustine’s reinterpretation of Christianity.

    The early Christians debated whether even violence in self defence was acceptable – but Augustine ruled that it was acceptable to use violence even against other Christians if they did not accept the authority of the Church.

    He was not the first Christian thinker to justify persecution – but he was the deciding voice in making it the mainstream postion.

    Also the early Christians had stressed agany – free will. How every person (even a slave) had a free choice to accept Christ or not.

    Augustine supported predestination (whilst still pretending that it was compatible with freedom – which it is not).

    Again Augustine was not the first Chritian thinker to support predestination – but he was the one that made it a mainstream position.

    One could say that Augustine was simply finally bringing the Church up to date with the practice of Constantine long before.

    For, after all, the Emperor (like most late Roman Emperors) had no interest in freedom, and had done such things as steal the property of pagan temples in order to both give money to Christian churches and to simply coin new gold and silver coin for the Empire.

    If the Church was to ally itself with tyrants how could it have religious doctrines that supported human freedom?

    Augustine dealt with this contradiction.

    No doubt a “Green” Augustine awaits us.

  • JM Hanes

    If you are promoting a cause, it’s more important to be chic than right.

  • celebrim

    “No doubt a “Green” Augustine awaits us.”

    This has already happened, though as yet no writer with the enduring power of Augustine has formalized the transition.

    Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, describes the hijacking of the conservation/environmentalism movement by communists of various stripes, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The irony of this is of course that its hard to find anything that has proven a poorer steward of the environment than communist dictatorships (in the same way that it would have been hard for an early Christian to think of anything less Christian than the Roman empire), but the mainstream environmentalist movement in the West is now more or less identical to the mainstream communist movement both in membership and in philosophy.

  • johnbrown

    People are noticing that there are clear points of similarity between the environmentalist movement, the old pagan religions, and the early Christian Church (I think it’s something of a Christian heresy, myself). Assuming that environmentalism is some new kind of secular religion, does it really pose any threat?
    One of the clearest similarities is the shallowness of those religions when confronted by the realities of life. When confronted with the specter of a real barbarian invasion, for example, St. Augustine came up with the “just war” doctrine; when confronted with the need for making money (and the opportunities for it), the church leaders rapidly watered down their earlier prohibition against charging interest on loans. The Roman empire ultimately collapsed, not because the Christians imposed a love-your-neighbor, pacifist philosphy on it, but because its economy grew stagnant, the tax revenues that formerly supported the military decreased, and its population was decimated by the bubonic plagues. (The eastern part of the Empire survived Rome’s fall for another thousand years, and was defeated only by a numerically far superior military force.)
    Numerous people have commented on the religious nature of carbon offset, which is indeed the modern equivalent of the medieval indulgence. When confronted with the need for a real sacrifice, though, environmentalists have shown that they are every bit as cynical as those people who professed Christianity and got rich under the Empire. Witness Al Gore’s home and jet plane, Ted Kennedy’s opposition to a wind farm, or the similar opposition put up by the south shore Long Islanders. Modern-day capitalists who know the laws are learning that there’s money to be made in the “Green” economy, if the history of carbon emission limitation schemes in Europe is any indication.
    In the last analysis, our modern day Empire is far more vibrant and socially innovative than the Roman empire ever was; and, however strongly the environmentalists profess their faith, their actions speak much louder than their words. Let’s face it: Is there any group of people more supportive of the status quo than the environmentalists?

  • Heheheh…

    This is really amusing. For decades on end, the reality-based community has been told that if enough customers cared enough about the environment to take their business elsewhere when a company did not care about the environment, then companies would begin to care.

    Now enough people care, and the market fundies are being hoist on their own petard. Cue cries of market manipulation by a “small and vocal minority.” Amusing.

    Doubly amusing when one considers the scale to which the obsessive deregulation of the past thirty years has enabled and abetted real market manipulation by a tiny, entrenched oligarchy of trans-national neo-nobility, at the expense of everyone else. (Actually, “market manipulation” understates things – the Reagan-Thatcher era can be better likened to a thirty-year pyramid scam. But I digress.)

    And even more amusing when one considers the genesis of the “silent majority” trope, which was invented by the post-War US president who did second-most to expand the power of the US state…

    Schadenfreude aside, can anybody explain to me why being sustainable is a Bad Thing? Surely, robbing your descendants to pay for your own luxury is no less vile than robbing your contemporaries to pay for those luxuries?

    (As an aside, plenty of robbing of our contemporaries has been going on – but of course the victims of that robbery were all brown and yellow and black people who speak funny, and such people apparently don’t count for most advocates of Shock Therapy…)

    – Jake