Was the tsunami the revenge of Gaia?

When scientists wonder whether global warming was responsible for the devastation in Japan, something is wrong.
Zac Alstin | Mar 14 2011 | comment  

Not long in the wake of the terrible earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, a small number of people invoked climate change as the cause or contributor to this terrible disaster, and renewed their calls for action.

It seems ridiculous, of course, that global warming might be causing earthquakes or exacerbating them. But some scientists have argued that the melting of glaciers may in fact relieve pressure on tectonic plates, causing them to shift and produce earthquakes. "It's unavoidable that glacial retreat will induce tectonic activity," one American geoscientist said a couple of years ago.

Now who’s crazy?

Well honestly, I still think it’s the climate change believers. They are not actually crazy, but they are operating from a set of principles that can be classified as religious – and not in a good way.

The hypothesis that human-induced climate change has caused the Japanese earthquake is as reasonable and objective as the claim that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment on New Orleans for its sexual licentiousness, or that the Haiti earthquake was likewise a punishment for that country’s “pact with the devil” for its independence. They are all entirely reasonable propositions – within the context of a pre-existing set of beliefs. If you believe in moral evil and divine punishment, then it makes sense that the moral evil of a city may cause or contribute to disasters visited upon it. Likewise, if you believe that human-induced climate change is real, and that it is influencing nature in dramatic ways, then it makes sense that great natural catastrophes may be exacerbated by human actions.

Who knows? The important point is that some people believe, and they believe not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of authority. I came to this conclusion several years ago in an effort to get to the bottom of the climate change debate. It became apparent that in order to verify the evidence, one would need a high degree of expertise in the field. Both sides in the debate can bring forth experts and expert opinion, with either side liable to dismiss their opponents’ arguments entirely. If you are willing to be convinced, either side will do a good job! But to decide which experts are right, we ourselves would have to become experts by default.

This is not an appeal to ignorance, rather, it is an acknowledgement that the evidence in play requires specialist knowledge in order to be interpreted. Unfortunately this applies not only to the evidence in play over the reality of climate change, but also to the evidence in play over the reliability of “experts” in the field.

An everyday example may illustrate this point: A relative of mine is in the process of buying a second-hand car. He’s been told by a mechanic that there’s a “knock” in the engine, but the mechanic did not seem to think it important. However, another mechanic, a family friend who has not seen the car, thinks that a “knock” is a very serious and important piece of evidence, demanding further investigation. Whom should we believe when we ourselves have no idea whether the “knock” is important or not?

Not only do we lack the mechanical expertise to decide the issue for ourselves, we also lack the expertise to decide which mechanic is worthy of our trust. In the end, we must either choose to believe one mechanic over the other, or else choose a course of action that makes allowances for worst-case scenarios.

When it comes to human-induced climate change, the majority of people who believe in it must surely have chosen to believe. Every single person who, lacking expertise, nevertheless professes to know that human-induced climate change is real has no logical, objective basis for their belief. They do not know, they merely believe.

Every reference to a “growing number of scientists” or “the overwhelming scientific consensus” is an admission that the facts do not speak for themselves. Arguments that appeal to the majority opinion, or to authority-figures are neither valid nor indicative of the truth. For most people, climate change is not an issue of finding the truth, but of “joining the club”.

While many people have pointed to the potentially catastrophic consequences of failure to act against human-induced climate change, to me the more evident problem is how the climate change issue has convinced so many people to accept an appeal to authority as the basis of belief. Our politicians and other high-profile members of the community have lent their social weight to the dangerous idea that it matters not why you believe, so long as you do believe. Let’s all get on board and not detract from this important cause!

The collective stupefying effect of this movement should not be underestimated. Not only does it encourage flawed thinking, it quietly shifts the climate change debate into the religious sphere – a very dangerous place for it to dwell, especially in a culture where serious religious adherence and thought are on the wane.

In fact, belief in human-induced climate change already meets several requirements for a primitive religious movement.

First, as detailed above, belief itself is elevated beyond the requirements of evidence. Second, belief is accorded moral significance, such that unbelief is not only considered factually wrong, but also morally wrong, and “climate sceptics” are not just mistaken, but are in fact nefarious agents with hidden interests. Third, humanity is considered to be sinfully corrupt or otherwise at odds with nature, as evidenced by our contribution to climate change, with various apocalyptic scenarios predicted. Fourth, we are reliant on authorities with specialist knowledge and insight both to alert us to the dangers at hand, and to guide us to safety. Fifth, the path to safety calls for major sacrifices, both public and private. We are called to a kind of collective repentance from the economic and industrial forces responsible for our current plight.

These sacrifices are pursued regardless of their actual impact on the problem of climate change. For example, the Australian government is currently pursuing a “carbon tax” despite the relatively miniscule contribution it will make to human-induced climate change. Likewise, individuals make bold symbolic acts such as switching off their lights for an hour, or paying extra for “green” electricity, none of which will have any real impact on the problem. The underlying theme is that personal culpability can be erased through symbolic actions and sacrifices.

The readiness to perceive a link between climate change and the Japanese earthquake – even in ignorance of any theoretical mechanism to explain the link – suggests a further religious development. Given their invalid or unsound entry into climate change belief, it will be difficult for many believers to think clearly within the confines of their own system. A temptation to invoke simple models or rules based on flawed presumptions may win out over the more considered opinion of climate change experts. Hence, the link between the Japanese earthquake and human-induced climate change will seem “obvious” to people who have already embraced the idea that human actions are responsible for perverting or corrupting nature itself, in the same way that other religious believers will perceive divine punishment at work in New Orleans and Haiti, regardless of more serious theological opinions.

“Climate sceptics” have mockingly referred to the most extreme religious phase as the “cult of Gaia”, since “Gaia“ itself is a concept elaborated and defended by ecologists in reference to the earth considered as one giant, self-regulating organism. In a religious context, Gaia symbolises the irreducibly complex order of nature that human beings have failed to respect. Gaia is responsible for the flourishing of all forms of life, yet human life has impinged destructively on Gaia’s limits and hence we are ultimately responsible for whatever crisis or catastrophe unfolds. The earthquake in Japan becomes either a symptom of Gaia’s distress, or a taste of Gaia’s revenge.

If we are not careful, our tacit endorsement of such powerful religious themes may develop into something more serious within our culture. It may be politically convenient to draw upon the religious aspects of human nature, lending religious faith to environmentalism. History suggests we do so at our own peril.  

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Aus

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