It's one of the canards of present-day Republicanism -- I've heard Mr. Right raise the point more than once -- that there's something discreditingly pagan about the environmentalist movement. On the campaign trail this year, Rick Santorum comes closest to expressing this sentiment without necessarily using the p-word. Invited to clarify his position on one of the Sunday interview shows, he attempted to draw a distinction between the "stewardship" of the planet mandated by scripture and an environmentalist ideology that reduces man to a "servant" of the Earth. The Pennsylvanian insists that "The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective." As if you can choose between the two.
I quickly found a more articulate version of Santorum's critique. The author seems to have a problem with the notion of nature as an "end unto itself" that can't be used simply as a means to someone else's objectives. Somewhere between this sophistry and Santorum's demagoguery, the idea arises that if you regard nature as an end unto itself, you elevate it to divine status -- to serve the Earth is implicitly to worship it. That may well be the belief of some actual pagans, but most environmentalists strike me as having more mundane concerns. I doubt whether they recognize the stark choice Santorum wants to force between stewardship and servitude. It's more likely that they recognize no contradiction between the interests of the planet and those of mankind. At the very least, the planet and its inhabitants have a common interest in survival. For the forseeable future, the survival of man depends on the survival of the planet. That's why most environmentalists I encounter invoke the concept of sustainability. They oppose ecologically questionable projects not because those insult their deity, but because they put humanity's long-term survival into question. To my knowledge, many Christian environmentalists feel the same way, and a similar opposition to similar projects falls comfortably within their definition of "stewardship." But Santorum seems to think that stewardship would never or should never require us to refuse a proposal for technological progress on ecological grounds. As he stated quite clearly today, man's needs -- which might mean our collective need for energy or some people's need for jobs or profits -- come before any concern for environmental well-being, such concerns being suspect on the assumption that you would sacrifice people, even if not with a knife on an altar, to the planet. But the idea that concern for the planet's survival is equivalent to worshipping it is itself equivalent to the widespread monotheist notion that any portrait of a living thing is meant as an object of idolatrous worship. The suspicion of false "worship" is often simply an advanced if not decadent form of superstition and has no place in political discourse. Of course, Santorum could be simply and cynically demagoging a job issue, telling people that Democrats are preventing job creation for superstitiously sinister reasons -- but he strikes me as too much of a true believer for me to give him any credit for lying about this.