It’s hardly surprising that people find a teenager annoying. But has any 16-year-old caused so many grown ups to throw their toys out of the pram as Greta Thunberg did this week? The young Swedish activist who started the “school strikes for climate” movement, came to the UK the other day, to speak at the Houses of Parliament and meet senior politicians. She also spoke at the Extinction Rebellion protests which have glued up much of central London over the last few days.
Because her shtick is climate change, she’s sparked a massive fight on the internet, down the usual culture-war fault lines. Mainly, a bunch of much older people spent the week telling this child that she’s wrong and awful, and, in one case, that she is “chilling and positively pre-modern” with her “monotone voice”. (Worth noting at this point that she is only 16-years-old, has Asperger syndrome, and is speaking in her second language to audiences of senior politicians.) So, that’s been edifying.
But there’s a specific criticism, or argument, that certain people have been making, which is that Thunberg is a cult leader, or that environmentalism is a religion. The argument is, presumably, that if something is a cult (or a religion: the two terms get used interchangeably), then we can ignore it.
Some grown-up people with newspaper columns have all made this claim, including Brendan O’Neill, Iain Martin, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Andrew Lilico. Spiked, which O’Neill edits, also used the formulation about Extinction Rebellion: “the new millenarian cult”.
This argument gets trotted out quite often – I used to see it all the time in the comments when I worked at the Telegraph, people talking about the “green religion” and the “eco-cultists”. It actually also came up in another context, when I was writing my book (The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World!). A group of people are worried that, when superintelligent AI is built, it will go wrong, not by breaking its programming or “going rogue” or anything, but simply by doing exactly what we asked it, in ways that we don’t want. That group of people, who are usually known as the Rationalist community, are often described as a “cult” because they believe in an apocalypse, they want money to help stop it – and they do some weird things, like polyamory and group sex.
Of course, it’s easy to call anything a religion (or a cult), because the words are so fuzzily defined that almost anything can fall into them. But let’s imagine that they’re right. Imagine there’s some stable psychological role that religion plays, to do with authority and community and morality, and that green activism plays the same role; or that the fear of ecological disaster, or AI apocalypse, triggers the exact same pattern of neurons to fire that fired in the brains of the Branch Davidians or the Heaven’s Gate lot.
Imagine that what goes on in George Monbiot’s brain, when he warns that we need to wean ourselves off economic growth if we want to avoid disaster, is precisely what goes on in the brain of an imam who says we need to stop having gay sex if we want to stop all these earthquakes.
Say that’s all true. What does that mean? Does it mean that the world isn’t warming? Or that AI isn’t dangerous?
Obviously not! It doesn’t mean anything! The question, “is climate change real, manmade and dangerous?” is about atmospheric physics, which you can try to answer by doing studies of carbon dioxide levels and climate sensitivity, and by making ever-more detailed models of the climate system, and doing your best to predict future emission levels.
The question “is environmentalism a religion?” is a question about psychology or sociology, which you can try to answer by interviewing environmentalists and maybe doing fMRI brain scans. The answer to the latter will give you close-to-zero information about the answer to the former. You can’t psychoanalyse your way to the truth.
You might argue that, if Thunberg or Monbiot really are a cultists who believe with the same fiery faith of an Old Testament preacher, you have less reason to believe what they say. Which would be fine if they were the only ones saying it and you had no way of checking. But they’re not: climate scientists, who are basing their beliefs on good old-fashioned data, say largely the same things.
If you don’t believe them, fine! If you think that the NASA satellite readings are wrong or that the ice-sheet loss is natural or that the rise in wildfires is a coincidence, that’s a legitimate thing to believe – although I’d say you’re reading the evidence badly. But arguing that Greta Thunberg is a cult leader, as well as being an odd thing for a man in his 40s to say about a teenage girl, does not give you a reason to believe those things.
The trouble is that it feels like it does. It feels like a real argument that we’re having. Debating the “is the climate warming?” question is hard, because we’re not very knowledgeable about the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or the absorption spectra of greenhouse gases. Debating the “are they a cult?” question is easy, because we can all say “A looks a bit like B and B is a cult”. So it feels like we’re debating the interesting but hard question, but in fact we’re wasting our time by substituting a boring but easier one.
You know what? I think there is quite a lot of overlap, psychologically speaking, between some climate activism and some religious belief. There’s even a brand of theology called “ecotheology” which explicitly makes that link. A lot of the behaviours seem similar, about sin and abstinence and guilt as well as the unwavering faith and conviction. I also think that Left-wingers have found it easier to believe in climate issues because it’s easier to square it with stuff they want to do anyway, like higher taxes on industry and greater state intervention, while Right-wingers tend to see it as in opposition with the free market, so they are more likely to reject it. That’s not surprising, that’s bog-standard motivated reasoning. We all do it.
But I am also pretty sure that Greta Thunberg is, largely, right when she says that there really is a looming problem. that the world’s governments and businesses aren’t doing enough to avoid the worst effects, and that we really are going to face up to a need to balance economic growth against ecological loss. And if she’s right, it doesn’t matter if she was told it by a burning bush, we still need to do something about it.