• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Elevating environmentalism over ‘less worthy’ lifestyles

Some scientists are bemused that a British judge has decided that a strong belief in alarmist climate-change scenarios ought to be awarded the status of religious faith.

Following a judge’s decision at a UK employment tribunal that Tim Nicholson, a sustainability officer who was sacked from a property firm, was entitled to legal protection for his ‘philosophical belief’ in climate change, scientists have been expressing their shock. ‘As a scientist who works on climate change, I find it deeply alarming’, said Myles Allen, who heads the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford (1).

Allen’s concerns are entirely understandable. Since the rise of the modern era, science has prided itself on its capacity to explain the world on the basis of experimentation, research and, above all, hard evidence. Science emerged, self-consciously, as an alternative to worldviews based on faith, moral conviction and other forms of a priori thought. So it is natural that a genuine scientist would feel insulted by the judge Sir Michael Burton’s ruling that Nicholson’s concern with climate change qualified as a ‘philosophical belief’ under the Religion and Belief Regulations 2003.

One reason why Allen and some of his colleagues are concerned about this decision is that it actually serves to undermine the pre-eminent authority of science today. In the twenty-first century, science has a near monopoly on authorising claims about virtually every aspect of human experience. We are far more interested in what ‘science says’ than in what ‘God says’. Consequently, even those who are sceptical about science and the scientific method will nevertheless mobilise these things to support their arguments. Not long ago, in the 1970s and 80s, leading environmentalists insisted that science was undemocratic, that it was responsible for many of the problems facing the planet. Now, in public at least, their hostility towards science has given way to their embrace and endorsement of science. The global warming lobby depends on the legitimation provided by scientific evidence and expertise.

However, if science is recast by a legal ruling as simply a moral or religious worldview, then its pre-eminent authority is likely to be compromised. What is to distinguish science from quacks with strongly held principles?

The erosion of the line between science and moralising has not simply been brought about by one eccentric judge. In recent times more than a few scientists have found it difficult to resist the temptation to cross the line into domain of public moralising. Take the case of Professor David Nutt, the expert recently sacked from the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. As a scientist, he is entitled to point to evidence which unequivocally calls into question the government’s policy on drugs. But Nutt is not prepared to confine his role to that of a disinterested scientist; he also wants to be a moral crusader fighting against the scourge of alcohol.

‘I want parents to know alcohol will kill your kids, not ecstasy’, said Nutt last week, before insisting that the minimum drinking age should be increased to 21 (2). Nutt obviously has strong views on the subject of the minimum age of drinking, but these views are based on his personal moral attitude, not on science. The way in which Nutt can quite easily make a conceptual leap from scientific evidence to the domain of moral and political decision-making is symptomatic of a powerful trend today: the transformation of science into an ideology, if not a dogma.

Indeed, science often has the quality of a quasi-religious dogma these days, especially in the arena of climate-change alarmism. ‘The scientists have spoken’, says one British-based green campaign group, in an updated version of the religious phrase: ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’ ‘This is what the science says we must do’, many greens claim, before adding that the debate about global warming is ‘finished’.

As I have argued previously on spiked, campaigners against climate change frequently prefix the term science with the definite article, ‘the’. So Sir David Read, a former vice president of the prestigious scientific institution the Royal Society, stated: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.’ (3) Unlike ‘science’, this new term – ‘The Science’ – is a deeply moralised and politicised category. Today, those who claim to wield the authority of The Science are really demanding unquestioning submission. The legal ruling that someone’s belief in the behaviour modification demanded by climate-change activists should have the status of a religious conviction shows how much The Science now influences Britain’s legal culture.

Although some scientists feel insulted that their views on climate change have been equated with a religion, there are many green activists who are more than happy to recruit the support of God to their cause. One blogger says ‘thinking about environmentalism as if it were a religion is an interesting way to go’. Why? Because religion ‘looks a lot more successful at achieving its aim worldwide than the environmental movement’ (4). Tim Nicholson wants to have both God and Science on his team. After the judgement he noted that ‘my moral and ethical values are similar to those promoted by many of the world’s religions’. However, he also added that ‘the difference is mine are not faith-based or spiritual, but grounded in overwhelming scientific evidence’.

Whether this ‘philosophy’ presents itself as science with a bit of religion, or as a religion based on science, appears to be a matter of personal opinion amongst campaigners, all of whom seem to believe that their cause is far too important for them to worry about opportunistic inconsistencies in argumentation.

Giving philosophy a bad name

When the law was changed to protect people from discrimination at work on the basis of their beliefs, many humanist and secular commentators believed this was a positive step forward. And some argued that philosophical beliefs ought to be accorded the same rights as religious beliefs. Unfortunately, what many supporters of the change in the law did not grasp was that if secular views were also transformed into ‘weighty and substantial’ beliefs, they would in effect become a form of pseudo-religion. This development is particularly striking in the way in which philosophy has been recast as religion-lite.

From the standpoint of Mr Justice Burton, adherence to climate-change theory is a philosophical belief because it is a view that is genuinely and deeply held. But where is the philosophy in all this? It is possible to argue that climate-change theory is inspired by a distinct epistemology and teleology and influenced by ethical and moral concerns. But in and of itself the belief in recycling and reducing consumption is not a philosophy.

Philosophy raises fundamental questions about the meaning of human existence. It engages with fundamental issues that underpin the sciences and public debate. Strictly speaking, the term ‘philosophical belief’ makes little sense, because philosophy is principally devoted to the task of asking questions and speculating about things, rather than providing answers. Philosophy is devoted to the quest for the truth in its quest for wisdom. It is not a secular form of religion. It does not rely on religious revelation for guidance, nor does it thrive when its search for answers is compromised by an adherence to a priori beliefs.

Such beliefs may arise out of a philosophical inquiry, but these beliefs do not constitute a philosophy as such. The term that Mr Justice Burton is really looking for to describe the beliefs and behaviour of climate-change crusaders is not philosophy or religion, but lifestyle.

The sacralisation of lifestyle

The decision to provide environmentalist arguments with the protection of the law, in a manner akin to that afforded to religion, demonstrates that the legal and political elites have lost their way. But it is important not to take too seriously the arguments used to support this decision. Strongly held moral views about the conduct of life have never been the essence of religions alone. In previous times, such sentiments informed political ideals and cultural movements. Today, the beliefs and practices advocated by Nicholson are part of his lifestyle. Yes, we take our lifestyles very seriously: what we eat, how we look or travel and whom we sleep with define many people’s identities. But in a world where there are a multitude of lifestyles, all of which have assumed great significance, it is not possible to treat them all as quasi-religions.

To qualify for protection under the Equality and Employment (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, a philosophical belief must be ‘genuinely held’, be about a ‘weighty and substantial’ aspect of human experience, possess ‘seriousness, cohesion and importance’, and be ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. This last point is most significant. Who decides which strongly held view is ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’? Certainly our legal and cultural elites have clear assumptions about which views are worthy of respect, and which are not. So last week we discovered that, under new proposals from the New Labour government, parents who are hostile to the provision of sex education in schools are not ‘worthy of respect’ despite the fact that their views are informed by genuine and deeply held convictions – their ability to withdraw their children from sex-education classes will be restricted.

Some forms of lifestyles are protected, or at least sacralised, by law, while others are stigmatised. So Christians who, in keeping with their beliefs, refuse to perform same-sex marriages are unlikely to gain legal protection, even though they express traditionally recognised religious convictions. However, those whose conscience does not allow them fly on Ryanair will now enjoy legal privileges and dispensation that are not accorded to their morally inferior colleagues. The sacralisation of elite-approved lifestyles creates a double standard that directly contradicts democratic norms.

Those who hold strongly held environmentalist views even have a semi-official mandate to break the law these days. Protesters against genetically modified (GM) food or nuclear power are often represented as idealist young people who are acting on ‘everyone’s behalf’. In truth, being part of the British political oligarchy, they have the kind of freedom to protest that is usually denied to ordinary mortals. That is why such protesters who break the law often face a sympathetic court hearing and win ‘not guilty’ verdicts (see State-sanctioned radicalism, by Brendan O’Neill).

So when Lord Melchett, the aristocratic former leader of Greenpeace, was arrested for criminal damage and theft after taking part in a protest against GM crops, he was genuinely shocked by his treatment. As far as he was concerned, his action was a ‘direct expression of “people’s power”’. Greenpeace, the self-appointed voice of the British people, described its action as an exercise in ‘active citizenship’ which ‘keeps democracy healthy and responsive’.

Melchett, like many other leading lobbyists, has an elitist notion of democracy, one driven by a conviction that, if they believe that something is wrong, then waiting for an unresponsive political system to do something about it is a luxury that society cannot afford. Professional environmental protesters assume that they have the moral authority to take matters into their own hands, since they are acting on behalf of The People. They believe that their unique philosophical insights entitle them to special dispensation. Now, Mr Justice Burton has effectively agreed with them, elevating environmentalism over other, inferior, less ‘worthy’ beliefs – and democracy is all the more impoverished for it.

(1) It isn’t godly being green, Guardian, 6 November 2009

(2)  Alcohol gravest threat to society, claims sacked scientist, Daily Telegraph, 5 November 2009

(3) Really Bad Ideas: Politicising science, by Frank Furedi

(4) Environmentalism is the new religion? So what if it is?, RSA Arts&Ecology, 10 September 2009

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