Environmentalism: A Religion Without a Founder
Climate change has become the hot topic of our day. The environmental lobby has transformed from a fringe movement on the edge of political discourse to the only issue mounting a sustained challenge against the never-ending coverage of Brexit.
Groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and individuals like Greta Thunberg have become powerful players within politics; challenging the British Government into legislating for a net zero emissions target by 2050, and the latter addressing world leaders at the annual UN Summit in New York in September 2019.
The environmental movement is large, mainstream, and radical. Urgent, comprehensive action is demanded – anything less is failure. Shallow words and inaction are not received well.
One of the most striking characteristics of the environmental movement is its deeply religious overtones. Peter Harris (founder of A Rocha International) observed that the environmental lobby is like a ‘religion without a founder’. Mainstream commentators have made similar points with a recent Spectator article noting ‘Church attendances may be falling, but there’s a new religion in town: recycling. Its followers are devout and full of missionary zeal.’ The movement has a deeply religious character in message, in tone, and in the dedication of its followers.
To find such an obvious example of ‘religion’ being adopted across the secular West really ought to make us stop and think. This article seeks to do just this. To examine where the movement has come from, what its core elements are, and how this compares with the Christian faith. If all this is true, what hope do we have?
Origins of the religion
Since the early 1900s scientists had postulated that climate change existed and was caused by greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels. However, it wasn’t until the development of computer models that this became consensus in the late 1970s. In the UK the movement moved into mainstream political discourse under Margaret Thatcher, who in 1989 raised the issue at the UN.
Nearly two decades later the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed, which ‘set a target to significantly reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and a path to get there. The Act also established the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to ensure that emissions targets are evidence-based and independently assessed.’
In 2015, nations party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed the Paris Agreement. This sought to strengthen the global response to climate change to keep the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and if possible to limit the increase to 1.5°C.
One of the most striking characteristics of the environmental movement is its deeply religious overtones
Then in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body responsible for assessing the science on climate change, published a report on the impact of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The report is the central evidence base for the present-day environmental movement. The report highlights, with varying degrees of confidence, the observable or projected consequences of human activity on the global temperature, as well as warning of the serious risks global warming poses to as human and animal populations, including health, food and water supply and economic growth in connection.
The environmental movement in the UK has built its cause on the scientific evidence of the IPCC report. With the growing scientific consensus, the environmental cause forced itself into common life through the work of figures such as Sir David Attenborough, whose 2018 series Blue Planet II dramatically highlighted the issue of plastic pollution.
Environmental groups have played their part too, with the emergence of groups like Surfers Against Sewage joining longstanding activists like Greenpeace and the Green Party in raising the environment as an issue in the public square. The growing cult of celebrity around key climate activists has also played a significant role. Beginning with celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio and politicians like Al Gore, but culminating in the exaltation of the teenage activist Greta Thunberg as the hero of the movement, after her protests outside the Swedish Parliament.
Crucially, the foundation of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in 2018 revolutionised the debate. XR has organised mass protests across the globe involving millions of people and catapulted the issue into the mainstream consciousness through its tactics of peaceful civil protest and public disruption. The group has three demands: ‘tell the truth’ about climate change, ‘act now’, and go ‘beyond politics’ by setting up a citizen’s assembly to deal with the issue.
The movement has pushed green concerns from the edge of the political agenda to the front and centre. The environment is increasingly being spoken about as a key issue and this is particularly true amongst the young. As a result there has been significant success, with the House of Commons forced to address the issue. In June 2019, one of the final acts of Theresa May’s government was to legislate for the target of net zero emissions by 2050. Yet for many, targets like this do not go far enough, with XR pushing for a goal of net zero emissions by 2025.
The biblical teaching on environmental concern
We can draw significant parallels between the concerns of the environmental movement and Christian beliefs. The biblical narrative tells us God created a ‘good’ world and gave humanity the task of caring for and developing this creation (Genesis 1–2). Though humans originally lived in harmony with the world, this soon collapsed as sin entered the world though humanity’s rejection of God (Genesis 3). Throughout the rest of the biblical narrative we are repeatedly shown the devastating effect of sin on our relationships with God, with each other, and with our planet:
‘The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers,
the heavens languish with the earth.
The earth is defiled by its people;
they have disobeyed the laws,
violated the statutes
and broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse consumes the earth;
its people must bear their guilt.
Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up,
and very few are left.’
Yet at the same time as revealing the devastation caused by sin, the Bible reveals God’s plan to restore his relationship with his people, redeeming souls, redeeming creation and uniting all things through and under the lordship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9–10).
Ultimately, Christians believe in the final judgement and justice of God’s rule and this applies to the earth too (Revelation 11:18). Furthermore, Christians have the hope of a new heaven and a new earth in which God dwells with his people, in which there is no curse and the brokenness unleashed by the Fall is no more (Revelation 21–22).
We can draw significant parallels between the concerns of the environmental movement and Christian beliefs
With this in view, Christians can affirm and share concern for creation, even more so given we trust in a creator God who gives us good gifts and calls us to honour him. We should detest the sin and greed which causes destruction and pursue behaviour that cares for creation as God intended.
The biblical framework gives us reason to examine our consumption and spending habits. It spurs us on to look at the effects of our lifestyles and to seek to make changes – not to virtue signal but to honour our maker. We should assess the policies we support and the manner in which they care (or fail to care) about the world. We should understand the impact of environmental injustice on the global poor and assess how to support those worst affected by the impact of climate change.
A religion without hope
The environmental movement shares the Christian belief in the goodness of the natural world, and likewise acknowledges that the greed, selfishness, recklessness, and evil of humanity has caused destruction to the planet. However, it lacks the Christian hope of redemption and restoration, there is instead a deep fear for the future. We see this in the words of Greta Thunberg to the World Economic Forum at Davos in January 2019,
Adults keep saying that we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
This is the biblical narrative without hope – there is no promise of salvation, and the motivation for action is fear.
The fundamental problem with the environmental movement in its current form is that it constitutes religion without God. And in this religion, salvation depends on human effort and will alone. The widespread recognition of human fault comes with the proposed solution of human transformation both individually and systematically. Greta Thunberg’s comments to Parliament in April 2019 give a flavour of their salvation model, ‘The moment we decide to fulfil something, we can do anything.’
The environmental movement lacks the Christian hope of redemption and restoration
Yet Christians know this is not the case. The Old Testament patiently walks us through century after century in which humans fail to live the way that we should. Despite God’s patience, forgiveness and grace we see that time and time again humans are unable to solve our deepest problem – sin. For all their efforts and sacrifices the law remains powerless to save: ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin’ (Romans 3:20). Obeying the Old Testament law does not and cannot save – rather it demonstrates our inability to save ourselves. This is something the environmental movement does well. Isaiah 64:6 also proves helpful;
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Despite our best efforts we remain sinful and flawed. Even the best of our works cannot redeem us.
Pursue change but recognise the saviour
The crucial issue then is humanity’s inability to deal with the problems created by its own sin. More effort alone will not solve this. No matter the clarity of decision making, no matter the unity in which people respond, humanity cannot deal with its sin, which is the fundamental cause of the climate crisis. Even if the environmental movement was united in its cause, and had a coordinated and constructive response, then human efforts would still fall short of the change needed to reverse the damage and rebuild a thriving nature.
Romans 9 makes clear that salvation does not depend on human effort but on God’s mercy. The environmental movement in its secular sense is thus critically flawed. We are indeed responsible, environmental destruction is clearly rooted in our sin, but the solution can only be found in another and that ‘other’ is not Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, or even the overthrow of global capitalism as we know it.
No, the solution rests in Jesus, who is God become man, who lived a life of righteousness but died a sinner’s death in our place, then rose from the dead three days later. In this, he conquered sin and death and made a way for the restoration of relationship with God the Father, for the restoration of relationship with our fellow humanity, and for the restoration of creation itself.
We ought not despair therefore. There is a God of redemption who changes hearts, who breaks the power of sin and death, and transforms lives for his good work. He alone provides a solution and we must therefore pray for and pursue gospel transformation if we are to have a real impact in this debate. This does not excuse us from inaction but should spur us on to care for creation, as we recognise that 'The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24:1, NIV). Our role therefore is to carry out the call, uttered at creation, to be good stewards of a world that belongs to God, not us. The knowledge that Christ will one day come to make all things new does not legitimise doing nothing but calls us to do more as we seek to be like him and so in a small way depict him in the world. And as we do so, we can labour with hope, not despair, knowing that it doesn’t all hang on our efforts alone. We are not the solution, Christ is.
The crucial issue is humanity’s inability to deal with the problems created by its own sin
We cannot then fully affirm the movement in its current state, because we have a hope and a certainty that is absent from it. We must also recognise the command to submit to our leaders, with Romans 13 the chief example. This does not rule out public protest and, given the free democracy we live in, this right can be exercised. However, it should alter the way we protest or lobby. It should alter the way we speak about, and to, our elected representatives. Scripture notably extends our submission to rulers beyond pure legal submission and into the realm of paying respect and honour (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17). These characteristics should be obvious in any activism or protests we are involved in.
But if there’s one thing we can learn from the environmental movement, it is in the way that their deeply held, heartfelt conviction that they have a message the whole world needs to hear and respond to has spurred them on to urgent, costly action. The fervour of this movement ought to challenge Christians in our evangelism – if the gospel message is true then we must share it. Do we care about God’s created world and do we pursue God’s salvation plan with the same kind of single-minded gusto? How bold are we in proclaiming the salvation that is found in Christ?
We can affirm the desire for a better world, we can affirm the call to act to prevent the destructive effects of our sin on the environment, but above all we must speak of our certain hope. The Christian hope is not created by effort or works but by an external saviour. There is only one way out of the mess created by our sin and it's not us. Christ is our only hope; he deals with our much deeper problem of which the climate crisis is only a part. Christ deals with our sin. Christians hold on to the hope that one day he will return, when ‘the time comes for God to restore everything’ (Acts 3:21). Only then we will see our destruction of our world undone forever.
 ‘'Margaret Thatcher: How PM legitimised green concerns’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22069768, (April 2013).
 For the full report, see here: ‘Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers’, IPCC, (October 2018).
 See also Hosea 4:1–3 and Jeremiah 2:7.
 ‘“Our house is on fire.” 16-year-old Greta Thunberg wants action’, World Economic Forum, (January 2019). For the specific quote used here, watch this video.
 ‘“You did not act in time”: Greta Thunberg's full speech to MPs’, Guardian, (April 2019).