January 22, 2010

The new holy wars

By The new holy wars

Author: R. S. Radford

At an environmental law conference a few years ago, I was surprised when a professor called on his fellow academics to impose what I took to be a requirement for ideological purity. First-year college students who want to major in environmental studies, according to this speaker, should be counseled never to take any courses in economics. Even a fleeting exposure to such concepts as trade-offs, opportunity costs, and time preference would supposedly be enough to ruin their young minds forever, leaving these students hopelessly unfit to take their place among the front ranks of the environmentally enlightened.

It wasn’t until much later –- last week, in fact –- that I understood what that episode was all about. The source of my epiphany was Robert H. Nelson’s new book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion v. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, which recasts one of the major policy clashes of our time as an essentially religious conflict.

Of course, Nelson is by no means the first to notice that a great deal of environmentalist rhetoric sounds suspiciously like religious fervor. What he adds is the recognition that the economic analysis that is often deployed in opposition to environmentalism also has roots that are uncomfortably close to a spiritual faith. What this means is that economists and environmentalists tend to talk heatedly past each other for the same reason as, well, Catholics and Baptists. 

Nelson’s insight can only be pushed so far before it breaks down into metaphor. But even taken literally, it illuminates quite a bit about the heated policy debates that have been raging for decades over things like endangered species protection, wetlands regulation, and (dare I say it?) global warming.

And it finally helped me understand why a committed environmentalist professor would try to keep his young charges from studying economics. After all, when it comes to theological doctrine, nothing interferes with the process of internalization so much as exposure to a competing creed.

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