Exploring Environmental Stewardship at BYU

In a recent post, I described the general questions that would be explored at the symposium at BYU, “Conservation, Restoration, and Sustainability: A Call to Stewardship.” I wish now to provide some perspectives on the symposium, which was in my opinion a great success, with papers from plenty of participants from nearby but as far away as Japan, the UK, Australia, and Canada. All papers will be online in either podcast form or in video before too long. I will be sure to post a link when it is available.

As I announced at the symposium, this event took place because of generous support from The Nature Conservancy and BYU’s College of Humanities, College of Life Sciences, The David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, and the approval of BYU’s central administration. It was also the fruit of many years of effort on the part of many faculty at BYU who have been gathering every semester to read books together, share ideas, collaborate on inviting guest lecturers, and even on occasion team-teaching together. It was the second symposium of its kind. In 2004, BYU sponsored a symposium called “Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment.” We published the selected proceedings of this conference and you can find the publication here. This 2012 conference differed in that it sought to be move beyond the LDS perspective, as important and as necessary as that still is to explore and promote, and provide a context in which an LDS approach to environmental questions might engage in deeper dialogue with the broader discourse about environmental responsibility.

Although from a wide variety of disciplines in the life and physical sciences, social sciences, business, law, and the humanities, those of us faculty involved in these efforts share a common passion for environmental stewardship and a common commitment to the principles and values of our sponsoring church. Although over the years we have received disgruntled emails from two or three faculty who perceive environmental stewardship to be a value shaped and promoted by secular leftist thinking and therefore a threat to teaching and research done at BYU, these complaints come from a very tiny group who do not represent a significant difference of opinion. This is not to say that we always all agree on what environmental stewardship means, how it ought to be implemented, or where it fits exactly within the larger scheme of Christian discipleship. Indeed, we have our political and philosophical differences. But we are united in the belief that we, as Mormons, need to do much more to contribute to the environmental problems our world faces. We gather so as to educate ourselves and our students to meet the challenges that face us. I should also add that we have never received any formal discouragement from the BYU administration but have instead enjoyed sufficient financial support to buy books, gather together, and to occasionally invite authors to campus.

Although I have often looked with some degree of envy at other universities with major environmental centers or environmental studies programs, I have learned over the years just how unusual this group is, a group we now call The Environmental Ethics Initiative, and just how good we have it at BYU. The depth and breadth of our discussions have been exceptional, and I have marveled at how these discussions have been catalyzed by our common commitment to gospel principles that urge us to work to build a good, fair, clean, and equitable world. We have discussed and debated climate change, evolution, environmental ethics, ecological restoration, and a host of related questions. We might have taken it for granted that we have been able to talk so comfortably across disciplinary boundaries and to speak so openly about the values of stewardship, concern for the poor, and respect for the Creator that motivate us to have environmental concerns. We do not understand why there is such apathy and even antipathy toward environmental concerns and toward science among some members of the church, but we have spent very little time or energy trying to get an answer. What seems far more important is learning what we need to understand about this earth and the strains and stresses that we have placed on it, and learning what difference we can make.

I can only touch lightly on all that transpired over the last two days, but perhaps I can at least describe a few highlights that emerged from the symposium. We learned that ecological restoration can be a kind of repentance, a practice that teaches and catalyzes greater commitment to more ethical living within the creation. We learned about the importance of preserving cultural and epistemological diversity so that when we approach environmental problems, we don’t seek a “one size fits all” solution. There are many values and traditions that can lead us away from environmental degradation that are found in indigenous and religious communities, whose survival is often threatened by the flattening effects of globalization. A diverse set of ideas and ways of understanding the world makes us more resilient. A lot of discussion circled back again and again to the dangers of consumerism, which offers us the illusion of unrestrained consumption and the promise of a happiness derived from material things, all with little or no consequence. This is perhaps one of the greatest lies perpetrated by our capitalist system. Anti-capitalism was certainly not the overall tone of the conference, however, but capitalism has a tendency to produce a culture in which our choices seem to narrow and our ideas, values, and identities become more and more pre-packaged and homogenous. However, several presenters argued rather persuasively, including one of our keynote speakers, Jonathan Foley, that capitalism and markets perhaps only need to be more strongly guided by the values of stewardship and sustainability. I came away with the impression that if we wish to retain hope in the benefit of “free” markets, we need to make sure we don’t abdicate our responsibilities to guide them in ethical and morally valuable directions. That is to say, if we wish to solve environmental problems, we need to be pretty clear about our values. And if one of our keynotes, Margaret Palmer, is correct, chief among them should be equity, honesty, and fairness.

We heard a lot, too, about LDS conceptions of stewardship, about the importance of giving greater heed to what it might mean to use natural resources “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59: 20). We heard about the church’s efforts to restore the sacred grove and were asked to think about the larger implications of such an effort for the fate of the world’s forests. There was unanimous agreement that Mormon belief states clearly that we should be ambitious, judicious, and committed in taking seriously our stewardship of earthly resources and that we have a lot of ground to make up to compensate for our past reluctance to embrace our stewardship. I spoke about the Economy of the Creation, based on a talk I reported on earlier here.

What was amply clear at this conference is that if we wish to use resources judiciously, we cannot afford to be dismissive of what science is telling us about the consequences of our choices. Of course, “science” is not always telling us just one thing nor is it some static and unchanging form of knowledge, and, indeed, one of the purposes of the conference was to explore the underlining principles and values that should guide us in our choices in light of changing circumstances and changing understandings of the world. A dogmatic denialism against science is no less rational than a dogmatic insistence on its radical superiority to all other forms of knowledge. What we need are religious beliefs and moral values informed by an ongoing commitment to understand the workings of the world and to make this a more just and healthy world for present and future generations.

At the conclusion of the conference, we held a special panel session with the keynote speakers, Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota, Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland, and J. Baird Callicott, of the University of North Texas. We didn’t know how well this group of speakers would respond to the unusually interdisciplinary range and religious underpinnings of the questions posed by the symposium. And at their own admission, neither did they. But it was clear that they were intrigued by the ambition of the symposium, respectful of our community, and maybe even moved by what they heard. I directed a few questions at them in order to elicit some responses, and I was stunned by what they said. Here are a few highlights:

When asked about how to reconcile the different ways of knowing that we find in the sciences, the humanities, and in religion, Margaret Palmer said that she believes most misunderstandings over the environment occur not because of different or incommensurable epistemologies but from misunderstandings about where others are coming from. In other words, folks who resist the worry about, say, climate change and those who worry intensely about a warming planet might be able to find more common ground if they knew and understood each other better. While we might not want to gloss over important differences between science and religion or between people who lean left and right politically, for example, we would all be better off if we learned to talk to one another and learn about what life experiences and values inform our worldviews.

When asked about why they care about the environment, Jonathan Foley admitted he had never spoken publicly about this but that when he was in his teens his mother died tragically of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He said he had never experienced such a feeling of helplessness and vowed to embrace what was possible, rather than focus on what he couldn’t control. He also spoke movingly of his own sense of awe that comes from a secular point of view about the amazing facts of our existence and of the universe. He said that he long ago learned that he would rather spend his time working on behalf of what is possible, rather than bemoaning how bad things are. I was moved to hear a secular scientist share such a personal story and thought of how the facts of our own mortality and the suffering we all share can connect us to a concern for the physical health of others and of this planet, regardless of differences in metaphysical belief.

At the beginning of this school year, Elder Russell M. Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke to deans and chairs to inspire and instruct us about our responsibilities to our students. He mentioned that he had been reading a book about the challenges of feeding and sustaining humanity into the future and asked, “Did you know that more than 5000 times more solar energy falls onto the earth’s surface than we use?” He wondered if students at BYU might be the leaders to discover things that were not yet known. He said: “There is a lot more to be done. The world is not ending yet.” And then he pleaded with us to help our students to be prepared to discover how to do what we haven’t yet figured out how to do. I don’t pretend to know what he would think of our symposium or what he thinks about environmental degradation. I only mean to suggest that he seemed intent on asking more of ourselves and of our students to think and work on behalf of making the world a better place. In my opinion, we certainly don’t need more leaders who are content with the status quo or who would disparage or deny concerns about a shrinking planet with a compromised capacity to regulate the climate, or about depleted or diminished resources, or new and unprecedented dangers presented to the poorest of the world’s populations. Many of our challenges seem impossible, but we cannot shrink from facts. Facing reality with faith is the only path to possibility.

Experience and Understanding
If Truth Were A Child
Mormonism, Cosmology, and Environmental Stewardship
The Hope of Stewardship: A Review of Joseph Spencer’s For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope