On the Ideologies and Theologies of the Earth: Reprise

On the Ideologies and Theologies of the Earth: Reprise December 31, 2012

In honor of the conclusion of 2012, I thought I would post one of my previous posts, this one from April 20. I chose this post because these issues continue to haunt the land where I live, and I hope it is useful for those who share my concerns for the land to revisit the question of how easily ideology disrupts the logic, ethics, and values that should follow from belief. I don’t pretend to have all the answers or to be immune to the seductions of ideology, but I at least think I know the difference between the sound of clear thinking and ideological static.

So here it is:

Giving an interview always leaves unfinished business. In my interview with KCPW on Wednesday, April 18, a caller (later identified as Scott Howell, Democratic candidate for US Senate in Utah) asked my opinion of HB 148, a piece of legislation recently passed by the Utah State Legislature and signed by Governor Gary Herbert. I said that while in theory taking back federal lands into state control could result in better stewardship of those lands, I didn’t have confidence that this piece of legislation was motivated by concerns for or commitments to sustainability. I know this because these are the same legislators and the same governor who also emphatically deny climate change is real and human-caused, who actively support the coal industry, who advocate for fracking, and are only willing to ask industrial polluters to place voluntary restraints on themselves to help improve Utah’s declining air quality. They are also the first to discourage the development of clean and renewable energy sources. It is because behind this policy lies a theological view of stewardship with which I fundamentally disagree.

In 2010, I participated with dozens of citizens in an initiative called Faith and the Land, where we gathered in small communities of faith—Quakers, Episcopalians, Jews, Mormons, and others—to discuss the value of wilderness in our spiritual lives. These were not political discussions about policy. We simply met to discuss what wilderness experiences mean to us on a personal level. What emerged was a remarkable consensus about our need for these lands as sources of spiritual renewal.


A small group of us went to Congressman Rob Bishop’s office in Brigham City to plead for greater protection of wild lands in Utah. Representative Bishop has never been warm to the idea of wilderness preservation, but because he sits on the natural resources committee of Congress that determines the fate of federal land in Utah, it seemed necessary to open the dialogue. Oddly enough, at one point in the discussion he turned to me and began to debate me about the meaning of the mandate to Adam and Eve to “dress the garden.” He said that it was clear that our purpose on this earth is always to improve on nature, which for him seems always to mean to develop it. If there are natural resources in the desert, God fully expects us to make use of them. I was a bit stunned by this and tried to point out that this was a theology with no ethics since it can’t make a distinction between actions that enhance and actions that degrade the health of a place. I was a little embarrassed by what felt like was turning into a Sunday School discussion with my fellow Mormon, so we let it lie at that. I wish I had at least asked him that if God gave us fossil fuels, he also gave us the sun, the wind, and the heat of the earth too. Why don’t we have an obligation to use them too?

Not long afterwards, representatives from each faith group went to the state capitol building. A few of us, including me, spoke to represent the others. This is what I said:

This remarkable interfaith effort of over 250 people from 11 different faith communities represents an exceptional undertaking for two reasons: first, it shows that a vital source of our spiritual health and renewal is access to wilderness; second, it shows that our shared love and care for wilderness unifies an extraordinary diversity of people in Utah. Our beliefs might differ, but our values harmonize on this essential point: wilderness teaches us humility, wonder, respect, and gratitude for the Creator. Wild beauty has a special quality: its joys are spiritually meaningful because they are unexpected, like grace. Wild beauty teaches us about our small but important place in a diverse, complex, and interdependent world and inspires the moral value of self-restraint. We are on a clear path to privatize, develop, and ruin every last wild and beautiful place in America. As the great LDS thinker, Hugh Nibley, once said, “the appreciation of beauty is nothing less than the key to survival.” When we get to the point where beauty is dispensable, we are in trouble. Wild beauty is a gift that requires our best stewardship.

It is human arrogance, however, to assume that stewardship gives us unbridled license to do as we please to nature or to act in short-term interest only. It is wrong to assume that nature always needs human development and improvement in order to have value. I like to remember that the Bible, for example, teaches that God used the words “good” and “very good,” to describe a world not yet inhabited by humans. I also like to remember that He commanded Adam and Eve to “dress” the garden but also to “keep” it and “take good care” of it. Of course, there is a place for gardening, extracting needed resources, and developing land. But if we assume we can use up nature without limitations, we will not only ruin its remaining wild beauty, but we will degrade ourselves. We live in an age of rapid growth and aesthetic impoverishment. To protect wilderness requires the highest principles of love, gratitude, modesty, humility, and self-sacrifice and provides more opportunities for more people to derive spiritual benefits from enjoying the wilderness responsibly.

There is a reason why deserts, mountains, and sacred groves are sought by prophets. It is because, as these people have witnessed, wilderness enhances spiritual and physical health and the bonds of family and community. We endanger our health and those bonds if we stand aside and allow continued unrestricted use of ATVs, unhampered development, fossil fuel extraction, and environmental degradation. To get serious about preserving wilderness is to get serious about living a more reverent and gentle life. We are here today to call upon our elected leaders to work with us to make meaningful progress in protecting Utah’s public and shared heritage of extraordinary wild lands.

When I was finished, state legislator Mike Noel approached me. Noel is known for his vehement anti-environmentalism. He called me “brother” and assured me that he agreed with most of what I had said. He insisted that he was a good steward of his ranch in southern Utah. I told him I had no doubt that that was true, and that I had no experience ranching. But I told him that when I had seen him recently lead a group of ATVs up the Pariah river in defiance of federal designation, I felt it was a desecration and not a good example of the “leave no trace” Boy Scout ethic, let alone the upholding of the law, which is so central to Mormon ethics. I pled with him to expend more energy articulating the importance of stewardship and less on battles with perceived enemies of his community. He asked me if I had ever seen what God does to that river in the springtime. I didn’t know what he meant. “He washes it clean every year in the spring runoff.” His theology too seemed absent of a real sense of ethics; he seemed to live in a world where choices didn’t really matter because we can’t do real harm, certainly not irreparable harm, to the earth.

A similar theology seems to be behind climate change denial. Sarah Palin once claimed it was arrogant to believe that we could warm the earth, echoing a claim that Charlton Heston had made a generation earlier about the ozone layer, suggesting that the world is perpetually able to renew itself, that we are living on some kind of ethics free planet which will perpetually absorb our wounds. Heston’s views were echoed too by novelist Michael Crichton who saw the earth’s age and complexity as reason, not for caution or conservative approaches to its uses, but for us to cease our worrying. Several years ago, when I tried to argue over email with the editor of the Provo Daily Herald, Randy Wright, about the paper’s consistently irrational attacks on climate change science, he pointed me to Heston’s recitation of Crichton’s strange world without ethics:


So when I was asked about the federal lands bill, I couldn’t take the time to recite the dangerous theologies that inform it. Despite claims that it stands little chance in court, one of its proponents, Chris Herrod, a state legislator from Provo, once said: “the rewards of going after that land are in the billions and billions. I am not a gambling man, but if someone were to say I could put a quarter in a machine and had a chance to get a billion dollars, I would put that quarter in.” Well, he is a gambling man, unless he is willing to return the millions of dollars this lawsuit is projected to cost, dollars taken from our public schools, when the lawsuit fails. I want our legislators to tell us where these anti-environmental bills are coming from and why there is an uncanny resemblance among bills proposed throughout many states. At least one explanation is ALEC:


So it may not be bad theology but ideology that is behind such legislation, ideology that is then dressed up as theology.

As I tried to thematize in Home Waters, land resources are such easy and frequent tools in our battle over identity. We use land, not to explore our wonderful and awesome connection to the natural world and least of all as a reminder of our need to remain humble, but as a method to shore up identity and power. Whatever the merits of increasing state rights, if it is motivated by a desire to be less answerable to the nation, to the planet, and especially to God, then I want nothing to do with it.

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