On the Ideologies and Theologies of the Earth: Reprise

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.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    George, I have worked in the area of environmental regulation for some thirty years. I personally find myself disagreeing with you on some issues and agreeing on others. Even-handed regulation of industrial activities (including mining, oil and gas wells, and lumbering) is absolutely necessary so that businesses who don’t care about the natural environment are not financially rewarded in competition with businesses that do care. And the cost of providing a fair and effective level of environmental protection oversight should be borne by the businesses that profit from use of resources.

    At the same time, I don’t see the necessity of classifying all public lands as wilderness, which seems to be the objective of many environmental advocacy groups. We can regulate timber harvesting so habitat values are preserved along with sustainable wood production for use in building materials (a method of sequestering carbon). We can regulate oil and gas production so its footprint in the surface ecosystem is minimized. There is a course of reason between “all development, all the time” and “no development, none of the time”.

    Both “acid rain” and the “ozone hole” are, in my opinion, false crises that were artificially hyped to create a sense of doom and increase the political power of certain advocacy groups. The IPCC has reported that the substitute chemicals for CFCs are such ferocious greenhouse gases that the Montreal Protocol, intended to combat the “ozone hole”, has significantly contributed to greenhouse gas warming, on the order of twice the GHG reductions sought through the Kyoto Protocol.

    Then there is the disjunction between the constantly rising levels of carbon dioxide throught the last century and the fact that average temperatures FELL from about 1935 to 1975, and after rising from 1975 to 1998, have basically leveled off for 15 years. None of the GHG computer models can explain the actual observed relationship between CO2 levels and actual global temperatures, so how can we confidently predict where they are going in the next hundred years? That is especially noteworthy in that the models fail to incorporate the complex role of water vapor in the atmosphere, both a greenhouse gas and as the source of clouds that reflect sunlight. Even though the US did not adopt the Kyoto Protocol in 1997-2000 (during the last 3 years when Al Gore was Vice President) or other drastic measures to decrease CO2 production, the temperature outcome has been BETTER than was expected to occur if Kyoto had been fully implemented. If Kyoto had been adopted, climate scientists would be pointing to the temperature record of the last 15 years as proof of their models. But it has been largely ignored in the US, China and India, and we have had positive temperature results from doing nothing! Surely we need a lot more descriptive science before we try to be prescriptive and control the climate through significant changes to our energy usage. After all, CO2 is an essential basis of all life on earth, the source of all carbon atoms in every living thing, while we know from geology that the earth has been in a recurring cycle of ice ages, and we are overdo for the next one. We should certainly study more and gain a more complete understanding of the cycle of carbon and water vapor in the atmosphere, but we clearly do not yet have predictive climate models that can be trusted for ten years out, let alone a century.

  • georgehandley


    Thank you for your comments. I am glad to know that we share some common ground. I want to clarify a few things. My post made no claim that all public lands should be classified as wilderness. I certainly would agree that we can find a reasonable course of action between all development all the time and none at no time. I don’t know anyone, in fact, who would disagree with you on that point, and I know a lot of pro-wilderness activists and a lot of anti-wilderness folks, so I sense you are characterizing positions that don’t in reality exist.

    As for your other claims about the “false” crises of acid rain and ozone and climate change, I don’t suspect we are going to get anywhere debating those points. I don’t really want to make this blog a site for debating the science. There are such blogs. A good website you might consult is Skeptical Science. If you have been in the business for as long as you have and are not persuaded of the reality of climate change, then I don’t imagine any amount of fact checking back and forth will get us anywhere. You are obviously convinced of your positions. I would at least hope that you would openly admit that yours are very different positions than those held by the vast majority of the world’s leading scientific societies and that this is because there is no shortage of research that contradicts your positions–which makes them appear to be quite risky assertions, risky because of how much counter-evidence you will need to explain away or ignore. I simply mean that your claims are flatly denied by the science these societies offer. There is nothing patently obvious in your claims. They are positions of a very small minority. I don’t mean to disparage them because they are minority positions. I understand the Michael Crichton school of thought that wants to make a minority position a categorical virtue. There is nothing categorically virtuous or wrong about being in a minority–it all depends on reasoning, evidence, and values. I simply mean to say that an honest attempt to argue against climate change must acknowledge the steep mountain of evidence against which one is arguing. Otherwise, climate change denial doesn’t strike me as scientific at all but merely an ideological assertion. And my point in this essay, even though it wasn’t about climate change, is that ideology is running interference on our ability to accurately assess empirical evidence and leading us to neglect our own values.

    In the end, perhaps we could agree that many, if not most, measures that would reduce our carbon footprint (i.e. use of clean and renewable energy, more modest and efficient levels of consumption, eating more locally grown foods, weaning our dependence on petro-dictators, using more public transportation, eating less meat, etc, etc) are consistent with our LDS principles of good stewardship, good for public health and increased self-reliance, and should be our focus, regardless of differing opinions about the science of climate change.