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Gaia, false gods, and public policy

Environmentalism has become an ultramundane pseudo-religion.

( | Elena Ray)
( | Elena Ray)

I claim no expertise in climate science. I do claim a certain competence in detecting spin in the media; for I’m a card-carrying member of that clan, as I’ve committed print journalism for more than 40 years and worked in television for over 20. Thus credentialed, I rise to note that serious spin has dominated media coverage of climate change for a long time now. There are, to be sure, exceptions to this rule. Since Hurricane Katrina, though, it’s generally been all-hysteria-all-the-time in reporting and commentary on weather and climate change. This may get eyeballs onto screens and newspaper pages; it doesn’t do much for cool, calm public debate.

So when the chief scientist in the Obama administration’s Energy Department, who’s also a professor of physics at Cal Tech, challenges the spin and the hysteria, attention should be paid. That’s precisely what Steven E. Koonin does in the recently published Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters: he takes on just about every shibboleth emboldening today’s crusaders against climate change. Professor Koonin doesn’t deny that the planet is warming and that human beings have something to do with that. He does question some of the claims behind the present drive to Do Something! through massive governmental interventions.

Thus, to quote from the Wall Street Journal review of his book, Professor Koonin shows, from the scientific data, that “tornado frequency and severity are…not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly down. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high – they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.”

Not shocked (or angry) at Professor Koonin yet? Then try his own words:

Heat waves in the U.S. are now no more common than they were in 1900…the warmest temperatures in the U.S. have not risen in the past 50 years….Humans have had no detectible impact on hurricanes over the past century….Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was 80 years ago… The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.

As I said, I’ve no credentials to judge the accuracy of Koonin’s assertions. I do like his against-the-grain boldness, and I certainly agree with his argument that the science – not media and activist spin on the science, but the actual data from the many authoritative reports he cites – should govern decision-making about public policy and climate change. I also have an idea of why the climate debate has become so emotionally fraught. It’s not just because of media spin and political opportunism, although both of those play their part. It’s because environmentalism has become an ultramundane pseudo-religion.

That religion has a deity: Gaia, the Earth. It has a sacred text: Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which began the transformation of the American conservation movement (which respected the natural environment without deifying it) into contemporary environmentalism. It has its religious holidays, “Earth Day” being the Pentecost of the new religion and the occasion for homiletics that mimic Peter in Acts 2:14-36. (A pre-K student, I’m told, brought home from school this past April 22 the revelation that “we should get rid of our cars because they’re bad for the air.”) Gaia-religion has a kind of ersatz sacramental life: I’ve been in circumstances where there are seven recycling bins, which certainly rings bells in the Catholic mind. It inculcates a moral code; some of it makes sense – How can anyone object to the fact that our highways and national parks are virtually litter-free these days? – but other parts of it veer into the worst forms of elitist, anti-natalist zealotry, as when some of the new religion’s prophets urge shrinking the planet’s human population by six billion people in the name of saving (or appeasing) Gaia. And I certainly can’t be the only person who’s noticed that carbon trade-offs are the new religion’s form of indulgences – the selling of which in the 16th century led to a lot of trouble.

Is ours a secular world? Or is it a world that’s traded authentic religion for a modern form of idolatry – one that’s corrupting our politics because it displaces reason with the kind of existential dread the ancient Canaanites once felt about Moloch?

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About George Weigel 429 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. When you’ve rejected God, there’s a need to replace Him with just about anything else.

    The Media are the evangelists for the new religions. These new religions are organizing a crusade not unlike the ones they rail against from the Medieval times. Their Sacrament of Baptism is now the new rite of initiation into the new religion – advocacy of abortion. The Sacrament of Matrimony is now the sacramentalized and unfettered unleashing of all carnal desires. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has been replaced with worship at the high altar of Covid-19 which comes with its assemblage of self-appointed priests. Their Sacrament of Confession has been replaced by wokeness, virtue signaling, and endless public postures of phony apologies when one has been caught deviating from the authorized narrative script. And, finally, one takes Communion in the new religion by voting Democrat every time there’s an election; it demonstrates one’s kinship with those of like mind.

  2. TO GW –Wonderfully insightful article – I have two devotees, i.e., ‘climate scientists’ (one self-styled and one professional)in my family – they are not publicly at the ‘devotional “Gaia worship”stage yet ,but definitely above the benighted Christians who do not follow Science. Please note the capital S. And did you know that “SCIENCE SAYS….”

  3. Weigel exhibits welcome clarity when he rejects the Gaia cult while he at the same time he avoids taking sides on conflicted science (“I claim no expertise in climate science.”)

    Now, on the latter theme of climate science, might it be that long-term natural cycles (as much or more than our recent human interventions?) do present humanity with an existential problem? Cycles longer than the data points reported by Professor Steven E. Koonin?

    Moreover, and again apart from the Gaia culture, another and opposite cultural aberration might be that of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who both championed the scientific method (hurray!) but also suggested putting nature “on the rack” to reveal her secrets so as to do our bidding. That is, for all of its benefits, is Western global industrial culture/Technocracy—in its current form—also outrunning the capacity of a contracting atmospheric and oceanic amniotic sac?

    The first rule of ecology: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” In the context of complex ecological limits, what has the Church to say about the transcendent and inviolable dignity of each person, without exception? In Centesimus Annus (etc.) Pope St. John Paul II exhibited welcome clarity when he distinguished between the “natural ecology” (the domain of science) and the interrelated “human ecology” (the domain of families, morality, solidarity/ subsidiarity, etc.).

    Cut from the same cloth are one-at-a-time neighborhood direct abortions and a less direct but possible global triage culture. Indirect disregard for entire populations is a moral issue to be forthrightly addressed by the Church’s Social Teaching. Working with real science, surely, it’s a Christian vocation to get these things right. Weigel’s clarification is a start.

    But, we can also wonder when the political “climate” will place Earth Day on Easter Sunday.

  4. “That religion” also has “a Pontiff,” The Pontiff Francis, aka Jorge Bergoglio, who orchestrated idolatry to his repurposed, neo-pagan-Marxist fertility goddess Pachamama, in Rome in October 2019.

  5. Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never is also quite informative. I haven’t read Koonin’s book yet but I believe I will.

  6. “Environmentalism has become”, to which we might respond, What else is new? Then that glib response doesn’t go into the details. We know, that is we the vast majority of self proclaimed cognoscenti that Pachamamma reigns. We’ve already had her installment ceremony officiated on the Vatican lawns by Pope Francis, then approvingly celebrated by dancing cardinals into the inner sanctum of St Peter’s She [remember the movie? An Edwardian archaeologist and two companions stumble upon a lost city in East Africa, run by a beautiful queen whose love holds the promise of immortality] carried aloft on canoe [neither can we omit her daring rescue from the Tiber]. Then there’s Environmentalism, an ultramundane pseudo religion. Not a scientist, as George Weigel admits he’s not, nor a journalist which G Weigel however owns with credentials I cannot argue for or against Prof Koonin’s scientific opinion, or as deftly respond to media spin. Consequently, my remaining option is not to opine whether an inordinate climate change is on the verge of destroying our planet [sages AOC, Greta Thunberg give us about 10 years] rather in agreement [fully] with G Weigel on the issue of Gaia worship thinly veiled as Environmentalism. A pseudo religion that’s effectively replaced Christianity among the dilettanti. Added to this is that our supreme leader’s hand cannot be omitted from this unorthodoxy as suggested. An [almost] cleverly concocted cover for the real purpose of recreating Catholicism as the globally friendly Fratelli Tutti religion with Earth worship features secondary to chronic anthropolatry. Whew!

    • For an emotionally bludgeoned and docile populace, the oracle Greta Thunberg is propped up as a modern stand-in for Shirley Temple.

      • Climate activist Greta Thunberg has set sail from Plymouth on what could be her most daunting challenge yet, crossing the Atlantic in a solar-powered zero carbon emission racing yacht (Guardian News Aug 14, 2019). That some might have endearingly named The Good Ship Lollipop

      • Greta Thunberg’s conduct bears a strong resemblance to Veruca Salt (I Want it Now) in the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

  7. George Weigel in his continuing crusade against environmentalism has created a strawman. The real environmentalism for a Catholic is the faith driven “integral ecology” not the extremist ideology driven “environmentalism.” This integral ecology is found in Pope Francis’ encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” or Laudato Si. George Weigel should get beyond his inordinate fixation on St. Pope John Paul II and get into the reigning Pope Francis and read this encyclical on ecology.

  8. Dear Mother Earth—are we still allowed to call her that without being censured?

    There was a time, a day of more measured living, Lent of prayer, fasting, penance, silence, reflection, Friday Stations of the Cross, Holy Week, Easter Sunday, controlled burning of meadows before the frost went out, a time when spring brought new hope, new life, fields waiting, prayers that St. Isadore would intercede for a good crop, newly born lambs on unsteady legs, young calves bouncing around in recently gained freedom, young colts running-playing in the sunshine, horses ready to pull the plow, the cultivator, unmodified seeds planted, the days before Monsanto and plastics and airplanes swooping over the terrain with insecticides, the days of overalls, four pair of dress trousers, one sport jacket and one pinstriped suit, two weekday/school dresses, one Sunday outfit, hat, scarf and gloves/mittens–small closet or five foot rod. Days unburdened by the daily rush, family meals, family prayer, “early to bed, early to rise”, Saturday- shine shoes – prepare for Sunday. Sunday Mass, breakfast/meals together, play games and rest.

    And so the year went day by day regulating our lives by the seasons of the year, the Liturgical seasons and remembering the charisms of the saints. Living life knowing that the Incarnate God died for our sins and rose from the dead, ascended to the Father, that He sent the Paraclete to strengthen us and He said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).

  9. I doubt that humans have much – perhaps nothing – to do with climate change on a macroscopic scale. (I remember when it used to be called global warming.) I understand that science points towards the Sun at the main or sole cause. The whole carbon-dioxide “greenhouse gas” hypothesis is – I understand – pseudoscience.

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