SustainaReligion

Ashley Thorne

This month Tim Nicholson, a sustainability officer for Grainger, the UK’s largest residential property company, won the right to sue his employer after he was laid off. Nicholson claimed that his dismissal was an act of discrimination against him for his belief in climate change. To everyone’s surprise, the judge agreed with Nicholson and granted that “a belief in man-made climate change… is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations Act.” 

The decision poses a problem in several directions. For one, climate change scientists are dismayed that this will undermine their research by equating it with spiritual, unscientific belief. They quake with fear that the ruling might shake people’s faith in global warming rather than reinforce it. “As a scientist who works on climate change, I find it deeply alarming,” fretted Myles Allen (writing for the Guardian), who directs the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford. Allen called it “an insult to science to rule that belief in man-made climate change is a religious conviction.” On the other hand, philosophers are also insulted. They are skeptical that “philosophical belief” is the right term—shouldn’t it be called a “lifestyle” instead?  

And there is a general feeling that this ruling has done something serious and ridiculous by adding a new ism to the already long list in anti-discrimination clauses. As Nathalie Rothschild wrote in a Spiked article, “This signals that discrimination on the basis of green views is as unacceptable as sexism, racism or religious prejudice. How long before we see the term ‘envirophobia’ to describe people who dislike greens?” She is right. Like its predecessor the diversity movement, the sustainability movement gives diplomatic immunity to certain people who belong to certain identity groups. I will not be surprised to see condemnations of “carbon-normative” (like hetero-normative) people not too far in the future. All the while, the real bullies are the sustainabullies.  

Sustainability is indeed a pseudo-religion with its own code of morality that misappropriates the ideas of “ethics,” “justice,” and “social mandate,” to shame people into compliance. Global warming advocates call skeptics “deniers,” a term that sounds disturbingly similar to “heretics.” And sustainability even has its own eschatology: if we don’t change our ways, we’ll end up boiling along with the planet. But if we are good—very, very good—we’ll have sustainatopia on earth.  

Apparently Tim Nicholson was upset with his employer when his boss flew a staff member from London to Ireland to deliver a left-behind Blackberry. According to Spiked, “he was also angry about not being able to set up a company-wide ‘carbon management system’ because colleagues failed to provide the necessary data.” The resistance among the Grainger employees to having their carbon footprints measured and monitored is telling. Even in a company that made the effort to have a sustainability officer, people were disinclined to submit to such invasive scrutiny. And as for the plane-hop over to Ireland from England, compare that to Nicholson’s own highly publicized journey from Oxford, England to Oxford, New Zealand (“After nine sea crossings and 17,000 miles of driving we arrived”) in 2004-2005.  

Nicholson now works for 10:10, a campaign to get individuals businesses, schools and universities, and organizations in the UK to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010. As for his religion, he carries it along to his new job. Nicholson defended himself in the Guardian last week: “I believe there is a moral imperative upon us all to individually take action to cut our own emissions as well as making others aware of what they can do.” He also hoped that that the judge’s decision on his behalf would help “climate change believers”: 

Despite the concern expressed by some commentators about the judgment – that it could be used by climate sceptics to brand climate change as a pseudo-religious, irrational belief system - I hope that in practice it will encourage people who share my beliefs to speak up about climate change in their workplace and seek practical measures to cut emissions. 

We’ll stay tuned to find out whether Nicholson wins his case. If he does, he can call it a victory in Jesus – er – Gaia.

 

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