January 14, 2013

What does the Merced River have to do with religion?

By Damien M. Schiff Senior Attorney

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week (note: behind paywall) about efforts to remove a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation for a half-mile segment of the Merced River, in central-eastern California.  Removal of the designation would facilitate the expansion of an existing reservoir, in turn important for the region’s growth.  Environmentalists are predictably up in arms over the proposall; they contend that removing the designation would destroy one of the few “untouched” waterbodies in the greater Yosemite area, and would be inconsistent with Congress’ purpose in enacting the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, that purpose being to preserve Nature’s “cathedrals” and other holy places.

This brewing controversy nicely highlights the point, made by many commentators (perhaps most convincingly Professor Robert Nelson) that modern environmentalism, with its non-anthropocentrism, precautionary principles, and rejection of normal cost-benefit analysis, mimicks many habits of mind (but not necessarily the substance) of religious belief.  The half-mile segment of the Merced River at issue here is practically inaccessible, reachable only by traveling a difficult and apparently untended-to path for several miles.  Presumably, then, preservation of the river in its “natural” state is not about protecting an aesthetic value but rather about avoiding the “evil” of human manipulation of the environment, and thereby preserving the “good” of the environment untouched by the marks of the human species.

Maintaining the Merced River’s designation may not be an establishment of religion, but the parallels between the arguments made to preserve that river, and arguments typically advanced in favor of religious belief, should undoubtedly inform the political (and secular) debate that will resolve this dispute.

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