Post by Randy Astle -
We’re now on the cusp of election day and unfortunately time won’t allow me to do as deep a dive into Mormonism and environmentalism as I’ve done on my other topics. Still, the protection of the environment is important enough an issue that I thought it merited its own entry. I’ve been rather amazed throughout the presidential campaign that global warming and the environment have been virtually absent from the campaigns’ messages, even for President Obama who supposedly has a base concerned about government involvement in environmental issues. There have been other topics that have received little to no attention—education, the Supreme Court, nuclear disarmament—but the potential environmental catastrophe that we’re teetering into seems large enough that it would have received at least cursory examination.
So, following the lead of my earlier articles, how do my beliefs as a Latter-day Saint influence how I view the environment and environmental policy? The chief concept is one of stewardship, that the Lord has given us the earth on loan and that he will require an accounting of how we cared for it during our brief time upon it. As I study Church history my impression is that environmental thought was long absent from LDS rhetoric beyond a pragmatic desire to bend the elements to man’s will and make the desert blossom as a rose (Isa. 35:1). It’s only in recent years that other scriptures about environmental ethics have received attention, and I’m grateful for publications like the 2006 BYU-published book Stewardship and the Creation and the recent Sunstone issue on “Earth Stewardship” that have explored these issues in greater depth.
In discussing foreign aid, domestic economic policy, and domestic social issues, I have emphasized that I believe one of the primary purposes of a government is to protect and nurture the most powerless of God’s children. I see government not as a sentient entity but as a compact of the citizens it governs, and as such we the people have a responsibility for how our government acts in carrying out these duties; it is a tool the Lord has given us, not an obstacle we must overcome. Again, here’s D&C 134:1: “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.” Couple that with scriptures like the Lord’s statement that when we have cared for “one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40) and King Benjamin’s that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:27) and we see that the disadvantaged, those who are unable to help or advocate for themselves, are probably those who the Lord most wants us to help.
The Earth, God’s footstool, is defenseless. It lies entirely at our mercy. I think there are no truer words in scripture than these:
“Mister!” he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs”—
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed—
“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”
Our treatment of the Earth is perhaps the ultimate test of our character in this Second Estate, beyond how we view each other, our bodies, and other things over which the Lord has given us stewardship. Not even the Lorax could stop the Once-ler (us) from exercising his agency and his dominion over the Earth, so it’s up to us as free agents to decide what we will do. But it’s precisely because the Earth is so defenseless that the Lord requires such a careful accounting at our hand. Add to that the fact that we and our children and their children—and all God’s other living creations—have to live here for a very long time, and I cannot really fathom anyone wanting to err on the side of recklessness or diminish the tools, like the EPA, that could help us better care for the environment. This is one area where an overabundance of caution should prove universally acceptable, because all of humanity is at stake.
Well, the argument against the EPA or environmental regulations usually goes that they hurt business, they slow the economy, they cost jobs. There are a whole lot of people out there who still assert global warming isn’t a threat, but the primary rejoinder is an economic rather than a scientific one. Which is fine, because I don’t really know how to discuss this with someone who refuses to believe the enormous amount of objective evidence scientists have gathered in support of global warming being a man-made and potentially irreversible phenomenon. In addition to saying that all truth belongs to Mormonism, Brigham Young got specific and said, “Our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular” (JD 14:116). When 98% of the most active researchers on environmental issues agree that global warming is man-made, how could it be worthwhile for any Latter-day Saint to continue arguing that it’s a hoax or is scientifically unfounded? I think we would all, Republicans and Democrats, be better served if we locked arms and started trying to figure out ways to combat the threat.
But going back to the economic argument, not only is it very hard to believe that saving the planet is bad business, but the Lord has consistently shown that he values a lot of things a lot more than business. We are God’s children and he certainly cares about our ability to provide for our families—again, no one is saying it’s a zero-sum game between the environment and our pocketbooks because God is capable of taking care of both—but he is vitally interested in how we treat the earth and provide for a suitable home for his other children to live in. The command to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Moses 2:28) came long before the Fall and Adam’s consignment to working the earth “by the sweat of thy face” (Moses 4:25). Between those two verses the Lord taught Moses that “every plant of the field . . . and every herb of the field” (Moses 3:5) have spirits just like people and animals, so it just makes sense that these should receive higher prioritization in our minds than the system of buying and selling that Satan introduced after the Fall.
I haven’t yet given the Once-ler’s reply to the Lorax’s question. It’s telling:
“Look, Lorax,” I said. “There’s no cause for alarm.
I chopped just one tree. I am doing no harm.
I’m being quite useful. This thing is a Thneed.
A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”
Appropriating environmental resources—free gifts from heaven—for economic benefit is what Nibley calls the Mahan principle. “And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain . . . And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands” (Moses 5:31, 33). It’s just business, ma’am. If some deforestation is involved, that’s an unavoidable cost of business. If we pollute some water in Ecuador, that’s a consequence of exploiting the Amazon’s fossil fuels. If fracking might be getting people sick in western Pennsylvania, we can’t postpone drilling until studies are done because our shareholders require consistent profits. And since inexorable commercial forces drive all these activities, and hundreds more, it’s not the government’s role to step in and restrict our right to conduct commerce.
And then I got mad.
I got terribly mad.
I yelled at the Lorax, “Now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!’
Well, I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you
I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And, for your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering
Unrestrained by government, it’s nearly impossible for companies that are driven by profit to restrain themselves from environmentally destructive but financially profitable behavior. There are concerned individuals who may run some of these companies, and there are rare exceptions like Wal-mart’s upgrading of its fleet technology and routing systems, but the bottom line is such a powerful force that I fear 49 times out of 50 environmental concerns get consciously or unconsciously brushed aside. I believe Satan pushes for this kind of mentality not because he’s out to destroy the earth but because it engenders a selfish mindset that will distract us from seeking for God. By contrast, those who are concerned about animals or the earth are quite likely, I suspect, to also be concerned about their fellowmen and, often, their God.
Both presidential candidates are beholden to big business. In August Mitt Romney released his energy plan for America, and my understanding is that the words “environment” and “global warming” never even appear in the document. Instead he’ll drill aggressively (which Obama is already doing) and roll back environmental regulations. All indications are that he would love nothing more than privatizing the EPA or breaking it up into state agencies, where localized commercial interests could easier sway policy away from wise global stewardship. Renewable energy is mentioned in his plan’s general statements but not in any of its specifics, meaning it will receive little beyond lip service in a Romney administration. Earlier I quoted D&C 104:17—“the earth is full, there is enough and to spare”—in saying that the Lord has the ability to give us unlimited resources, but I want to make clear I don’t think that means there’s no such thing as peak oil. It could just be that wind, solar, wave, and other developing energy sources, such as from nanotechnology, are the way the Lord desires to continue blessing us and ensuring that the benefits of electricity and technology spread throughout the developing world—and without the high cost of burning unlimited fossil fuels.
President Obama has a mixed record on the environment, and his campaign unfortunately continues to advocate for increased oil production and clean coal, which I am dubious will work in a truly sustainable economy. But his willingness to investigate options beyond increased drilling, his efforts to encourage (including helping fund) private technology firms to develop new energy sources, and his support of controlling damaging emissions through cap-and-trade is admirable and a necessary first step as we seek to end global warming and other environmental disasters. President Obama is aware of the ecological cost of America’s actions and is actively engaged is seeking solutions for both our country and our entire world.
The Lord has given us this Earth, but it is not ours. I believe he will require an accounting from each of us as to how we cared for it and the plants and animals he placed upon it. I believe that we cannot let ourselves off the hook by saying “someday it will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” In fact, I believe that working to replenish the earth now will help prepare it for this renewal after Jesus’ Second Coming.
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”