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Wednesday Soapbox: Ideology and Skepticism

by Dave Powell on February 23rd, 2011

This is the second in a series of weekly opinion pieces by various members of the Belfast Skeptics. If you have an opinion to share or just want to rant about something, email us and we’ll have a chat.

Certain things are easy to be skeptical about – bogus health claims, UFO’s, psychics etc. But when it comes to personal politics, we are all under the impression that our own views are the most rational and reasoned approach to any given topic. After a brief flirtation with the Liberal Democrats in my late teens, I went to university and became your typical lefty student involved with the Anti Nazi League, Anti Poll Tax, Animal Rights and Environmental movements. I’m still broadly left wing but hope that my beliefs are more driven by reason than hippy idealism. To look at me as a student, the word “hippy” wouldn’t have been far from your lips but I’ve never really liked the hippy label.

I think it really only applies to a specific time at the end of the 60’s and start of the 70’s when people were really motivated by radical social upheaval – the backdrop of Vietnam and the emergence of a distinctly new type of youth culture providing the impetus for genuine change. But as the hippies grew up and went on to create multi-national ice cream companies, they left behind this legacy of a vague group of wishy washy individuals trying to meld some deeply held revolutionary convictions with a pick and mix eastern mysticism. Maybe I’m being too harsh, as they have also left us a legacy of sexual liberation and a wider acceptance of alternative lifestyles which many of us benefit from today.

But it’s the emphasis on “spirituality” in the environmental movement that I want to focus on here, and I’m afraid the hippies must take some of the blame. The environmental movement has some important messages to get across and I don’t think it does itself any favours by aligning itself with the shamans and mystics. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of clear-thinking rational people in the environmental movement -particularly working in the area of climate science but this seems to me slightly at odds with the “Mother Earth” approach.

A couple of years ago The Guardian ran an article bemoaning the decline of spirituality in the environmental movement. Here are a couple of quotes:

The hippies were fond of speaking of Gaia, Mother Earth, as a living organism. But as the environmental debate eventually reached the ears of politicians and scientists, it moved away from talk of spirituality and began to concentrate solely on a rational, scientific analysis of the effects of climate change.

“Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.”

– Satish Kumar

“Realists” seems to be a very broad category of people to blame for all the worlds ills. Anyway, this was my response:

The implication here seems to be that if you aren’t “spiritual” then you don’t truly understand the needs of the planet.

I’m more of a rationalist, and at the same time as understanding the need for respecting the planet and moving towards a less consumer based society, I would also be sceptical of this wishy washy spiritualism that supposedly gives certain “enlightened” people a direct line to the earth’s “energies”.

Your spirituality may give you a sense of personal fulfilment and motivate you as a steward for the planet, but that doesn’t mean that the non-spiritual are any less capable.

I acknowledge that some spiritual leaders have some wise things to say about the planet, but I don’t get this reverence for spiritual wisdom above reason and evidence.

Some writers such as Alastair Mcintosh make important points about the relationship between small communities and large corporations but then go and spoil it with references to pagan Christianity. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe these are the kinds of ideas that people feel they can invest in. Maybe the “Mother Earth” idea is a necessary narrative device to get people to take an interest in the planet and it’s survival. But in my experience it’s the preachy “mother earth” types that put people off environmentalism. I still get portrayed as a bit of an “eco-warrior” at work, just because I cycle in and do the recycling.

If I started to tell my colleagues that they needed to be at one with the planet I’d be laughed out of the office, but start talking about the top speed and range of the new generation of electric cars and their ears prick up. In reality change is only going to come with innovation and development in eco technology combined with a move away from an oil based economy which will be driven by cheaper alternatives becoming more readily available. Even though I am convinced by the ethical arguments for reducing our carbon foot print now – most people are only going to change their habits when it saves them money.

One final word on Climate “skeptics”. They have taken our word and soiled it. We need to take it back, and the only way we can do that is by proving the validity of our claims and by re-imagining the earth mother narrative in a secular context.

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