Saturday, November 7, 2009

Religious environmentalism and how ideas change

Photo: We attended an Amish wind turbine raising in Unity Maine, on Wednesday. These home-built turbines, which make compressed air, not electricity, may soon be made illegal by several local towns. Do the Amish have a different mental model of energy and sustainability than the rest of American society? Does their religion affect the way they think about energy?

Three news items sent me to the bookshelf to pull down my PhD dissertation (on the potential effects of American religious environmentalism) and re-read the conclusion.

This was, I admit, a moment of pure academic self-gratification.

The Queen has been hosting world religious leaders at Windsor to discuss climate change responses. Al Gore, albeit expectedly, has released his new book on climate change, setting forth the religious and moral imperative for action. And Tim Nicholson, a young fellow in Britain, won the right to have his discrimination case heard in court against the firm that allegedly fired him for his religious environmental beliefs.

I told my thesis advisors and the small crowd that attended my dissertation defense in 2002 that religious environmentalism would be important one day.

"I told you so," gets you nowhere in life, particularly with your spouse.

Lately I've been interested in the number of people around me, and in the public arena, to whom I might have said this, were I less than diplomatic, and if I could.

Which has led me to more useful and productive thoughts about ideas and leadership and how people's ideas of how important systems in the world work change over time, also a topic of my thesis. It helps that I currently have a class, my Environmental Citizen "Build a Barn" class, to whom I am supposed to teach about such things.

One of my dissertation advisors, Willett Kempton of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware, wrote a rather decent book about Environmental Values in American Culture, still in print, which I used a good deal in my thesis.

Kempton, et al, hypothesized a relationship between people's actions on the environment and the mental models they held of environmental processes. "Mental models" are the explanations for phenomena that ordinary people use to understand complex systems and make decisions. The weather is a good example. Few folk are weather forecasters, but we must all make decisions about what to do based on what the weather will do. Anticipating good or bad weather can make or break a picnic or a wedding, or even, especially in Maine, make a mundane daily commute a huge challenge.

So most of us have a mental model of what the weather does in our region and walk around daily applying this model, making decisions about what to do. We get a lot of help from experts, of course, the forecasters on the TV or radio or these day the Internet.

But they can't make decisions for us. We have to do that.

So in Maine, the accuracy of your mental model of the difference between driving in the dark on the freeway in light powder snow versus heavy fluffy snow, when all the forecast said was "one to two inches of snow," may make a big difference. Knowing whether the snow that was forecast was likely to be light and powdery or wet and fluffy, based on your model and based on other factors like the air temperature, the direction of the storm, the wind, the itch in your big toe, is important to your life. However rational or irrational, if your mental model works for you or at least seems to work, you will cleave to it.

Many folks, possibly an increasing number, are still walking around thinking climate change will not affect them. And they are cleaving to this model. This disinterest, plus the recession, interference with the health care debate and the debate over the war in Afghanistan, have scuttled American progress on a climate bill for a while, and thus the Copenhagen conference.

Others, particularly our local anti-wind activists, are deciding that green energy is not for them, based on mental models, often somewhat mistaken, about how much climate change will affect the countryside they seek to protect, how much they will be affected by energy shortages, the amount of noise wind turbines make, their efficacy in actually reducing climate emissions, their cost-effectiveness, and mostly, how ugly they are.

And boy are they ever cleaving. Just ask our local selectors.

Once people have a model and become stuck to it, it is hard to change, however much evidence may pile up to the contrary.

As a degree-trained scientist and social scientist, I'm supposed to be good at changing my mind. We PhDs are beaten fairly soundly with the sticks of assumption-questioning and premise-challenging as we come through the gauntlet of highest academia.

This may not be good: we become like the proverbial two rabbis with three opinions on an issue between them. But at least we can change our minds.


The religious ideas mentioned in the three articles are interesting to me as a scientist and a social scientist because they demonstrate the way that certain more reflective fields of discourse in society have a rare ability to change mental models and thus the minds of the people that hold them. It's hard to think of religion as one such field.

We tend to think of the mainstream world religions as things with timeless creeds, but the best religious organizations act more like philosophical think tanks for ordinary people, asking questions about moral behavior and trying to answer them while staying within the confines of the tradition, whether Talmudic, Biblical or Koranic.

This is definitely a better guide to right action than utilitarianism, whether of the capitalist libertarian sort, or the socialist welfare-maximizing sort.

Both, in the their time, have reduced people to slavery and could happily do so again. So for that matter have the three Abrahamic religions, and at least some followers of one of these seek to do it again.

But I think the mainstream religions do make a solid contribution to societal discourse, and I think Gore is right to suggest that climate change is a biq question for God.

The new scientific information about the planet's climate is a huge challenge to the various mental models we have of the good human society. If we live on a planet that can switch into an ice age or into a superheated phase more or less at will (or at least driven by Milankovitch cycles), where is God in that, and how does he want humans to live?

As a scientist and as a Quaker I don't generally expect God to tell me this. I expect to have to figure it out for myself, using rational thought, my own conscience, and above all, moments of quiet refection in which the most brutal self-honesty can move to the surface of consciousness. This particular praxis, to my mind, of careful reflection, marks the best, and hardest to implement, idea of my adopted tradition.

But I know most other religions feel a deep need to know what God wants them to do.

I do hope they figure it out soon.

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