Just days after the Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, a dozen or so writers raised the subject of theodicy. Within weeks, scores of writers broached the subject. Theodicy, if you didn't know, is the branch of theology which tries to explain how a good God can allow evil to persist.
So far, according to a search of Lexis-Nexis, I'm the first to bring it up in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. I'm pretty sure I won't be the last, and I'm positive I'll be among the least authoritative.
Indeed, I have no idea how to answer the question of how God can allow evil to exist, except to say that God's ways are mysterious; a world without evil wouldn't be the world; free will matters; and so on. It may be boilerplate, but it works for me and I really haven't read anybody who does much better.
But what I find fascinating is how so many people desperately want the culprit to be someone - or something - other than God or "Mother Nature."
A slew of partisans have already declared that George W. Bush is responsible for this disaster because of his policies on global warming and the Kyoto Treaty. Cindy Sheehan, with the sort of desperation that comes at the end of 15 minutes of fame, declared Bush was "heading to Louisiana to see the devastation that his environmental policies and his killing policies have caused."
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blamed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for the devastation. "Now we are all learning what it's like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged," he said.
Even the environment minister of Germany joined the chorus of those who believe the "butterfly effect" of Bush's signature on the Kyoto treaty would have stopped Katrina.
On one level, I think all of this is partisan opportunism. Even a casual glimpse at the data provided by the National Weather Service (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pastdec.shtml) shows that big hurricanes (categories 3, 4, and 5) haven't increased over the 20th century. But for years now, activists have exploited media coverage in order to make it seem like something scary is driving the rise in hurricanes. "Global warming = Worse hurricanes. George Bush just doesn't get it," blared a billboard in Florida during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.
A great many people tried to pin the 2004 tsunami on global warming, too, even though that wasn't even theoretically possible (it was caused by a deep-sea earthquake). Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth in Britain, spoke for many when he proclaimed, "Here again are yet more events in the real world that are consistent with climate change predictions."
But I also think there's something much deeper going on. It cannot be disputed that not just the activists but millions of normal people honestly believe these self-fulfilling prophecies that explain virtually every kind of weather - except nice weather, of course - as the comeuppance of man. And the key word there is "prophecy."
It's become something of a cliche to say that environmentalism has become a religion, but that's because there's something so obviously true about it. The cant, the ritual, the creation myths all feel more religious than scientific. Within the environmentalist worldview there's "an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all," observed Michael Crichton in a famous speech on the subject.
Secular, "scientific" liberals understandably titter at televangelists who pray away hurricanes or claim that this or that calamity is God's retribution. But as unpersuasive or unhelpful as much of that theater may be, there's at least a serious theology somewhere underneath all the posing. Save for the cults of "deep ecology" and Wicca, environmental theology seems slapdash.
They could start by getting their own theodicy, one that would try to reconcile natural disasters with their faith that Mother Nature is such a nice lady. Rejecting Tennyson's description of nature as "red in tooth and claw," they opt for a nurturing but wounded mommy nature. Were it not for man's folly, she would be rocking us to sleep in her gentle arms every night. God, it seems, is a deadbeat dad in this whole scheme, and man ultimately has all the power. Indeed, George Bush (with the aid of Haley Barbour, of course) could eliminate catastrophes with the stroke of a pen.
Those who study theodicy spend a lot of time on the Book of Job, which tackles God's willingness to allow bad things to happen to people who don't have it coming. Despite his hardships, Job never abandons God because to do so would be to abandon hope.
Environmentalists, it seems, need their own Book of Job. Because, as it stands right now, Mother Nature's ways are not mysterious, but entirely contingent on the output of fossil fuels. And, ironically enough, all of their hopes lie in George W. Bush. Which sounds just a bit like their version of Satan worship.