Environmental Puritanism Revisited

I was reminded of something this week that I observed a few years ago, which is the kindred connection between modern environmentalists and old fashioned Puritans. I wrote about that in this blog back in 2009. In the April 6th edition of the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen mentions it in an article called Carbon Capture.

Cotton Mather

He describes the connection between environmentalism and New England Puritanism by saying:

Both belief systems are haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty….And now climate change has given us an eschatology for reckoning with our guilt: coming soon, some hellishly overheated tomorrow, is Judgement Day. Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth. 

I had to look up eschatology. But you see where he’s going. Whether it’s the killing off of megafauna in the new world, deforestation or global warming, it’s all our fault. But put the “guilty human” argument to your average world citizen he says he’s just trying to live a decent life. Don’t we have that right?

Economists see human life as a business of taking the greatest advantage of goods and resources that exist. Capitalism convinces us that satisfying our wants is the meaning of life. But consider the possibility that materialism is killing our environment and our happiness.

Environmentalists can’t give in to Puritanism. It’s a fringe way of thinking that leads to hypocrisy and cold heartedness. The only route is to promote happiness. Being happy means living in God’s grace. It means being healthy. Being happy means not having a long, nerve-wracking commute. Moderation is a virtue. When it’s hot, slow down.

The Puritans are right that we’re all sinners, but to be human also means to accept forgiveness. We can also look at our lives and know that things can change, and maybe we’ll be happier if they do.



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