Environmental Stewardship and Mormon Belief

I will be speaking next week at a fireside in a neighboring stake. The topic is “Environmental Stewardship and Mormon Belief.” I have written and spoken about this topic for 14 years. I don’t suppose I can talk about it enough. I believe that the gospel of Christ contains all truth, that all topics are relevant and important to consider. There is almost no topic I am not interested in reading and talking about with others, especially when it concerns the fundamental principles of Christ’s teachings. So despite the fact that I have devoted so much time to the environment in my life, I do in fact think and write about other matters. Nevertheless, I don’t suppose I will stop talking about this topic until our culture changes, until we Mormons have awakened to our stewardship with greater awareness, passion, and interest. Although I have my opinions about policy, I believe that there are many viable solutions, that a variety of approaches will make the greatest difference, and I believe fundamentally in the power of individual inspiration. If Mormons and all people everywhere of good will would allow themselves to truly and deeply listen to what science is telling us about our ailing planet and if we could reach deep into our respective traditions to find the gems of earthly wisdom they contain and begin, even in just small ways, to act on them, we would ignite a kind of passion and commitment and concern that would transform our environmental behavior and perhaps even allow some healing.

So what are the fundamental principles of stewardship, according to LDS belief? This list of five principles is brief and incomplete—and for now I won’t bother including all of the scriptural references—but I intend this to provide at least a primer for how we might begin to define our own stewardship more clearly. Suffice it to say, Mormon belief contains powerful doctrines about stewardship laid out explicitly in modern and restored revelation, and we dishonor these revelations by ignoring their relevance to the problems we face and by belittling the concerns about the health and well-being of the environment.

1)    The earth is sacred. It was pronounced “good” when it was created, and it is the future site of the Celestial Kingdom. Our highest ambition, in other words, ought to be to remain put, not to aspire to leave this earth.

2)    We played a role—what exactly, we do not know—in the creation of this world before we came to this earth. We were apparently already intimately familiar, in other words, with its workings. We are commanded to learn about the earth and the life systems it supports.

3)    All plants and animals, including us, are “living souls.” We all share the common feature of having spiritual and physical bodies. The world is sentient and alive; there is no dead matter.

4)    God finds pleasure in biodiversity. He is displeased with us when we fail to notice or take pleasure in his creations. He wants all plants and animals, including us, to flourish, to multiply and replenish, and to find joy in our posterity. This ethic of ensuring the flourishing of all life applies to all humankind, of course, but also to all domestic and wild animals and plants.

5)    God is displeased with us when we “waste flesh” without need and when we possess more of the earth’s resources than others. We are to use resources with judgment, thanksgiving, modesty, and with an eye to helping others. God expects us to consecrate and share the resources of the earth, so that there is enough for everyone. As long as some people are rich and some people are poor, the world lies in sin. Environmental degradation and human suffering, in other words, often go together and should be solved together.

So here are ten steps we can take to begin to act on these principles. Again, this is not exhaustive, nor do I intend it to be overly prescriptive. But I hope it inspires a commitment to begin a journey toward more thoughtful and principled stewardship.

Reduce Automobile Use

If you live close to church or to the temple, walk to Sunday and auxiliary meetings and to the temple. It is good for the body and spirit and provides valuable conversation time for relationships to develop. Consider using public transportation or bikes for other travel. Carpool whenever possible. Keeping your speed down and maintaining proper air pressure in your tires helps to improve fuel efficiency. Some Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath. Maybe a new debate for Sabbath Day observance can be how much energy we will save!

Reduce Water Use

Buy water-efficient showerheads. Take shorter showers. And reconsider your landscape design to decrease your dependency on heavy watering. Have your sprinkler system analyzed for its efficiency. Use sprinklers in the early morning or late evening and never in the wind. Avoid watering after rainstorms. Grass needs 30 inches of rain a year to grow, but we only get 15 inches on average in the valley. Some people use as much as 100 inches of water for their lawns, enough to grow rice.

For more information see http://www.hort.usu.edu/html/CWEL/CWELOverview.htm

Reduce Waste

Purchase reusable bags and take them with you when you shop. Reuse zip-lock bags, sandwich bags, and any reusable plastic packaging. Purchase one set of reusable plastic cutlery, and use it whenever you eat lunch at local restaurants. A reusable bottle for water is an excellent alternative to bottled water and other prepackaged drinks and plastic or paper cups. Consider planning ward and neighborhood activities that will produce minimal paper waste.

Reduce Energy Use In Your Home

Be more modest in your use of heating and air conditioning. Experts recommend keeping heating at least at 68 degrees and air conditioning at 78. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with more efficient florescent bulbs. Turn off your lights and appliances when not in use. Consider that the purchase of a new, energy-efficient appliance may pay for itself in saved energy costs. Reducing energy waste will certainly help your community.

Reduce Consumption

Consider ways to reduce your consumption of goods and services. Make a careful inventory of needs, and begin to make voluntary sacrifices of your wants. Paying a more generous fast offering and other means of giving of our talents help us to curb our appetites, be more generous in sharing resources, and lessen our impact on the earth.

Recycle

Recycle paper, plastic, and metal at home, work, and at church. This will dramatically reduce your garbage waste. Use the green recycling program for all green waste, and consider composting. Recycle or resell your aluminum cans. We throw away enough aluminum cans in America to make 6000 DC-10 airplanes every year.

Work and Play

Remember the inherent value of work, and enjoy the sweat of your brow! Consider ways to reduce your dependency on labor-saving devices. Mowing your lawn with a push-mower, raking instead of blowing leaves, shoveling instead of blowing snow can all have a considerably positive impact on air quality and the health of our body. One hour of a lawn mower use produces the equivalent pollutants of a 350-mile drive in your automobile!  Consider forms of recreation nearby that don’t use electronic or gas-powered machinery.

Pursue Renewable Energies

Explore options for using renewable and clean energy sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal energies, in your places of work and in your home. Encourage city and state officials to support the development and public use of clean energy and to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

Eat Wisely

Reread the Word of Wisdom, and consider growing a garden, supporting local food producers, and canning fruits in the summer. Reducing meat consumption by only 20% will have the equivalent benefit of trading in your car for a hybrid! The average meal in America travels 1300 miles to get to your plate, and the average American consumes 8 ounces of meat a day. Eat lower on the food chain, and avoid food that comes with excess packaging, especially fast food.

Cherish Your Home

Know your neighbors, human and animal alike, and know your neighborhood. Teach children to learn about the local fauna and the names of trees and flowers. Learn about the geology, environmental history, and ecology of our extraordinary mountains, rivers, and our beloved Utah Lake. Explore the neighborhood near and far on foot with family and friends. There is a reason why the prophets sought the mountains, the desert, the forests, and the wild places to call upon God.  Learn to love nature as evidence of God’s love.

  • AnnE

    Not everyone lives where there is a chapel on every corner. Some of our ward members drive over an hour to get to church. How could we not drive on the Sabbath?

    • georgehandley

      I used to live in CT, so I know what you mean. Obviously that recommendation doesn’t work for everyone, but it still seems like a good idea to reduce unnecessary driving whenever possible. Usually pretty careful attention to Sabbath Day observance reduces driving and consumption overall by quite a bit. Around here in Utah, people drive a very short distance to church and the parking lots are packed, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    • Jon

      AnnE,

      Doesn’t George say “if you live close to a church or temple”… I have also lived in rural areas where many had to drive great distances to the chapel and to the Temple. However, it’s also possible to carpool. Especially to the Temple. Love the post George. Keep it up!

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    You are exactly right on points 1 through 5 being elements of Mormon scriptural teaching. In his book, Surprised by Hope, Anglican bishop N.T. Wright emphasizes that the Bible teaches our primary future home as resurrected beings will be as corporeal residents on the transformed earth, and that we should therefore treat it with the respect due our eternal home. Wright’s book was criticized by some for sounding like Mormon doctrine; he responded that the Mormons (whom he did not quote or cite in the book) are simply more perceptive in reading the Bible than some other folks.

    Your second point, that we should care about the earth because we were witnesses to its creation, if not participants in some supporting role, was the theme of my own essay that was published in the Mormon Times a year ago around Earth Day. The earth and its solar system is a superlative gift, and a rare one as we have confirmed in our detection of hundreds of extra-solar planets in our vicinity, only a few of which might have the conditions suitable to sustain life as we know it. There are many basic quantities of physics and cosmology and geology that have had to be precisely tuned to values that allow our earth to support life and ourselves in our mortal state. It is not something made to be used up and discarded.

    I might quibble with you about the relative importance of some of the recommendations on your list, but by and large most of them are things that actually cost less than the ways most Americans live, and have positive effects on the environment. Persuading people to think about their habits and the effect of them on the earth is a good thing, along with consideration for other factors, especially affordability. I am not in favor of making these habits mandatory under government regulations, because regulation on these specific topics is clumsy at taking into account reasonable exceptions and can impose pain that is out of proportion to any environmental benefit. There are things we can do that make it easier to adopt these behavior changes. For example, is there adequate provision for parking bicycles securely at a temple or ward house? Does the siting of new church buildings take into account the availability of public transportation? The Church is in a position to benefit from investment in construction materials and methods that reduce energy costs and other environmental impacts. For example, much of the concrete debris from the buildings demolished at the City Creek Center was recycled into the concrete for the new buildings. The rooftop meadows and trees of the Conference Center are one of the larger “green roofs” in the country.

    • georgehandley

      Yes, and many new chapels are either LEED certified or very close. I have seen bike racks at some of these new chapels, but not enough of the chapels have them in my opinion. Thanks for the comments!

  • http://www.rulonbrown.com Rulon Brown

    If you aren’t careful, you are going to keep thinking and writing like this and become my favorite Mormon hippie. Great stuff! My wife and I talk often about how we feel LDS doctrine contains a unique earth stewardship. And as you point out, not just for this “probationary state.” If we are here to learn from and learn to care for our physical bodies, we are also here to learn from and care for the physical world around us. God’s vision/chat with Enoch in the PoGP is chalk full of this teaching.

    Preach on, George!

    • georgehandley

      No one has mistaken me for a hippie since, I don’t know, high school maybe. But thanks for the compliment!

  • Ernie Shannon

    A very interesting perspective of the intersection of gospel doctrine and secular environmentalism. There’s no question that Latter-day Saints have a particular responsibility to use earth’s resources with wisdom and in moderation while simultaneously supporting the use of these God-given minerals to improve the lives of people throughout the world. They were put there for that very reason. It is unfortunate that the environment, like so many aspects of our society, has been overtaken by politics with voices on both ends of the spectrum commanding the most attention with the extreme views.

    • georgehandley

      Ernie,

      Yes, and meanwhile the LDS Church quietly (too quietly in my opinion) goes about greening their architecture and supporting many worthy practices of sustainability. But in the noise of politics, a lot of LDS erroneously conclude it isn’t for us to worry about. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://adelethomas.blogspot.co.uk Adele Thomas

    AMEN! I can not tell you how happy this made my heart to read this. I was thinking I was the only one of our faith to believe in treating the earth as sacred. Thank you for writing this, I was beginning to despair. =)

    • georgehandley

      Adele,

      Despair not! There are plenty of others who share your view. Go to http://earthstewardship.org/ and join us! And there are some pertinent books and articles on the topic. I will post a list of them soon.

  • andrew

    Excellent – US culture & clothing style have worked against riding bikes to church as I did in Germany. Certainly bike racks at church would be a great start ! and then open encouragement to get to church without a car. Additionally years ago a family would have had to care for animals and do like it or not some labor ( aka exercise ) to get to church. We have drifted along way from those healthy benefits. Getting on the bike to go to church would restore some of those benefits & enliven the spirit !

  • DavidF

    Fantastic post! I’ve tried to come up with reasons why Mormons should care for the environment, and have despaired at the lack of good material on the subject. I think the five points you mention are absolutely terrific reasons for LDS environmentalism. Thanks for posting this.

  • DeneceC

    I also agree that we participated in the creation of this earth and therefore, should take care of it. I also believe it will become the Celestial Kingdom after the millennium after the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. Adam and Eve were given dominion over all things on the earth and were commanded to multiply and replenish it the same as with the animals and plants. The glory of the Celestial Kingdom is not just given to us. We need to work and help others in our lives and accept what God has given us for our trials and learn from them. (I have an illness that there is no cure for, but I am really learning a lot about how, through my experiences, I can help someone else.)

    • georgehandley

      Thanks for adding this to the discussion. I like that idea that the glory of heaven is not for humans alone. What a great concept.

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