Finding religion in new places

oceanThis weekend I was contemplating the similarities between the modern and older nanny states. Forgive me for the pejorative term, which refers to the attempts of some people -- whether they are Puritans or public health activists -- to enforce limits on individual freedom. They lobby for regulations about what you can drink, smoke, eat, drive, say, etc., on the basis that personal behavior has significant ramifications for the community. And, of course, as the nanny state grows in scope and size, the definition of personal behavior is further limited and feeds further restrictions.

Attempts to regulate what people can eat or drive are rarely compared with previous attempts at similar regulations enforced or drafted by religiously-controlled societies. I think it would be interesting to see some of the religious undertones fleshed out in more than opinion pieces or books. Sometimes we limit our discussion of religion in ways that hurt our understanding of larger, complex issues such as capitalism, rule of law and multiculturalism.

Which is why I was elated to see a casual religious reference in a New York Times article about carbon credits. The article was even in the Week in Review section, which I had previously thought completely useless. Environmental reporter Andrew Revkin writes about a carbon-cutting plan in which companies estimate their output of greenhouse gases and then try to offset them by paying for projects that absorb an equivalent amount. They plant trees or fertilize the ocean with algae:

As long as the use of fossil fuels keeps climbing -- which is happening relentlessly around the world -- the emission of greenhouse gases will keep rising. The average American, by several estimates, generates more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide or related gases a year; the average resident of the planet about 4.5 tons.

At this rate, environmentalists say, buying someone else's squelched emissions is all but insignificant.

"The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences back before the Reformation," said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. "Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins."

"This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther," Mr. Hayes added.

There are many religious angles to pursue in modern environmental movements. I've been contemplating the similarities between religious folks who talk about the imminent end of the world and environmentalists who occasionally speak in somewhat similar fashion about certain doom for the planet. The angle mentioned by Revkin is even more subtle, but I think it's provocative and interesting and helps the reader contemplate the issue in a broader context. Nicely handled.

Reader John Hoh noted the article's accompanying illustration, titled "Repentance and Redemption." It has a man weeping before a confessional booth saying, "Forgive me, for I have S.U.V.'d." The man in the booth -- who is not dressed like a priest -- is taking a money bag, handing over a piece of paper, and says, "Go thy way, thy sins are offset."

Please respect our Commenting Policy