Scholars Shed Light on Enviro-Econ Wars



On October 7, the Independent Institute hosted a public forum on the clash between environmentalism and the economics discipline. Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars, began by defending his claim that these two rivals, despite their claims of practicing a value-free science, are “secular religions” that rest on unexamined assumptions. The secular-religion hypothesis, he argued, also helps explain curiosities such as why environmentalists feel guilty if they have not recycled and why many economists believe material progress can save the world.

The forum’s next speaker, Steven F. Hayward (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute), asserted that many environmentalists have grown less hostile toward economic thinking in recent years, due in part to the wish to formulate feasible policies related to climate change. “I see some progress in environmentalists, baby steps, at least, in understanding economics as a tool they need to use,” he said. Hayward also argued that because environmental religion does not exalt humankind above the rest of nature, it is “fundamentally irreconcilable” with Christian theology.

Speaking last, Max L. Stackhouse (Professor Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary) lauded Nelson for his identification of environmentalism and economics as secular religions and his exposé of their origins and development. “Secular religions are in fact dependent on major motifs of the Judeo-Christian traditions,” said Stackhouse. “They all involve the notion of Creation, the fall into sinfulness, a prospect for redemption or salvation. And they all view their own movement as a company of those who are going to be the agents of redemption.” He concluded by praising Nelson’s book: “This is a magnificent contribution to all of our thinking.”

Video, audio, and transcript: “Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in America,” featuring Robert H. Nelson, Steven F. Hayward, and Max L. Stackhouse (10/7/10)

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert H. Nelson (The Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Winner)

[This item first appeared in the October 26, 2010, issue of The Lighthouse, the Independent Institute's weekly newsletter. For a free subscription, enter your email address here.]

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