A Planet Commanded to Our Care

At the inauguration of President Barack Obama, we heard a rather stunning statement:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

And what is that creed? It was the theme of President Obama’s address:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Putting aside for a moment the context partisan politics (which, maybe for some of us, is about as easy to do as to temporarily use a different set of eyeballs), what is it about climate change that might hamper anyone’s capacity to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? How can an increase in a few degrees over a few generations really impact the quality of life for our future generations? Let’s take Utah, for example. Climatologists estimate that snowpack in the American West will be reduced anywhere from 30-50% by 2050. How might that affect future generations? The better question is, how can it not affect them? Our population levels are not going to remain steady; they are going to increase in the West, not only because of birthrates but because of increasing numbers migrating to the West. And where will these folks get their water? How can agriculture be sustained in the West? How will the shrinking resources of the Colorado River watershed be able to sustain our growth, especially when we consider the decrease in snowpack?  This is, of course, not to mention the other symptoms of environmental degradation that are happening simultaneously with climate change—air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, higher mercury levels from the burning of coal, devastation to forests due to the ravages of the pine beetle, staggering levels of biodiversity loss, and devastating mining practices in the desert due to proposed fracking and tar sands production.

And what about other parts of the world? What about Bangladesh, where close to 120 million people live at or below sea level? If the ocean rises 40 centimeters in the next century according to predictions, we will see millions of people displaced from their shoreline homes, especially among the most impoverished nations on the earth. Most of the humanitarian efforts conducted by the LDS church in recent decades have reached areas of the world suffering the exacerbating effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Increased flooding, severity of storms, drought, and countries of high political instability that are dependent on the uncertainties of a global petroleum economy—all of these contexts mean that climate change is a humanitarian concern. I have written about climate change before here and have noted too how other faith communities have managed to grasp the connection between climate change and human dignity. Climate change is not some vague concern for polar bears, as important as their plight might be, but it is a global crisis in public health, human development, and social justice.

Some might balk at Obama’s language, maybe because it seems to imply that climate change is something that we are commanded by God to believe in. That would be an inaccurate rephrasing of Obama’s point. He is simply saying what theologians have been saying now for decades, if not for hundreds of years—that the earth is the Lord’s, that it has been entrusted to us, and that we will be held accountable for how we treat it. Any cursory reading of the Bible provides such insights, as well as any reading of the Quran. A reading of the Doctrine and Covenants certainly highlights these same principles. I have elaborated on them here.

But somewhere along the way, we lost our bearings. We started to think that God’s gift of the physical resources of life was a gift of our own making. Why? Because we never plant seeds, we don’t watch our food grow, we have no real concern with the weather, apart from its impact on our mood, our travel plans, or our recreation. Technology takes care of everything from health to food to transportation to climate. We are no longer vigilant like we once had to be about the earth’s many moods—its bounty and depravation, its harshness and its gentle succumbing to our labor and we think we are no longer vulnerable. We take pills, we watch the world through mechanical eyes, and we monitor our happiness as if it should be measured by the hour. We don’t have the stamina to stay with the world, to work for its restoration. How can we when we can’t even believe the narrative that science tells us about its compromised capacity to regulate our climate or to sustain a broad diversity of life. We do more than disbelieve. We mock, we openly parade our indifference, as if it were a mark of our intelligence and wisdom, even of our morality, to have the “proper” perspective on why human life and human interests come first. At the very least we shrug our shoulders as if it isn’t a big deal. Obama reminds us of something fundamental to biblical ethics: our hearts must be turned to the children. We cannot live morally if we do not learn to live for future generations. And while there are few among us who wouldn’t wish for our children’s children to have the same opportunities of life that we have enjoyed, there are few among us willing to work for just such a world. What kind of fool is it that believes that his life and his interests, his chances for happiness in this world, have nothing to do with the health of the planet or that the health of the planet has nothing to do with the well being of others or of future generations? A human fool, the only kind of fool there is, and they come a dime a dozen.

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