Here’s a thought in progress. It’s rough, but perhaps it will spur dicussion or thought.
For much of the 20th Century, socialism was the opiate of the intellectuals. Nowadays, it seems that environmentalism might be taking that same role. In part, the latter is merely the latest version of the former. As. P.J. O’Rourke noted, many environmentalists are “watermelons,”–“green on the outside and red on the inside.”
But is there something deeper at work here? Why socialism and environmentalism? I suspect it might have something to do with the character of modern science. If one studies history, it seems to be the case that men are, as John Adams said, “praying beings” by nature. Where men gather, there tend to be religions. If that is the case, and if our intellectuals cannot accept that reality, they must create a religion in disguise.
What is the character of this religion? It tends to be historical. Why is that the case? Perhaps it has something to do with the scientific method. The key to modern science is the method developed by Francis Bacon and others. According to that method, scientists study the world as it appears to our senses, and from repeated observations, and repeated experiments, it discovers patterns and correlations. Those patterns and correlations, plus mathematical calculations and equations are the essence of modern science. Given that, history becomes religion. What I mean by that is that since modern science is good at describing lines of force moving over time, and since science can only describe facts, but cannot account for values, the only way science can give direction to society or politics is by turning history into a religion. (The scientific method admits defeat if it truly acknowledges that the fact/ value distinction is bunk. Many intellectuals allow that the distinction is problematic, but, being pragmatists, they go along as if that were not a real problem.)
Henry Adams makes this point in the Education
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about.
The modern historian describes lines of social development over time. By describing such lines of development and, further, by projecting them into the future, history can fill the void left in the secular soul. History can give direction to life in a seemingly scientific manner.
Environmentalism is the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. Given increasing carbon in our atmosphere (or should I say “atmos fear”?) science can draw a line describing the likely impact of that upon the planet. Describing that impact gives scientists and those who follow them, a means of suggesting what we ought to do without admitting that they have deserted the scientific method and have entered the realm of politics and religion. Moreover, as with the socialist understanding of history, it gives a coalition of natural and social scientists an excuse to take over the political system.