Friday, February 1, 2008

Commentary: Mormon Environmental Ethic Explained for a General Audience (I hope)

My editor (spouse) is yet to review this post. Proceed with caution.

I started Latter-Day Sustainability with the intention that this blog would be a place where my fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (AKA Mormon Church, AKA LDS Church) could come to learn about our theology as it pertains to sustainability, consumption, and the environment. Another intention was to gently persuade Mormons to live a little “greener.” These intentions haven’t changed. I just offer this as an explanation why my posts have been geared towards a Mormon only audience.

Earlier this week Latter-Day Sustainability reached a much broader audience after being featured by Andrew Sullivan and other bloggers (Grist, Evaneco, Rumromanismrebellion). Perhaps this new attention is because of my engaging and eloquent writing style? A more likely reason for the attention is the apparent novelty of a Mormon environmentalist. Whatever the reason, I assume that this broader audience includes at least some people who are unfamiliar with Mormon theology. I have observed that many people’s understanding of Mormons is based on outrageous claims and stories (some of which are probably true). If you will indulge me, I’d like to use this post to branch out and explain a portion of the Mormon environmental ethic to those with only a limited knowledge of Mormon theology and practice. Before diving in, I have a few of disclaimers:
1. I am not an official spokesperson for the LDS Church.
2. I am only an amateur theologian.
3. I am only an amateur environmentalist, and a mediocre one at that.
4. This is a huge topic for a single post.

Enough bla-bla-bla, let’s dive in. A twelve-word explanation of the Mormon environmental ethic: God made the earth and we are commanded to care for it.

And here is a much longer explanation:

To the best of my knowledge, the LDS Church has not issued an official statement that explicitly and directly addresses the environment. Still, one can glimpse the Church’s environmental stance by gleaning from its canon of scripture and secondary texts. The scriptural gleanings teach why we should be good environmental stewards, but they do not specify how. The secondary texts, especially recent articles in the Church’s magazines, do however give some commentary on the “hows” of environmental stewardship. You can find links to many of these articles on the Green Mormon Architect Blog.

Generally speaking, the absence of a direct and official statement by the LDS Church should not be taken as an endorsement or a rejection, of particular environmental positions. I speculate that the lack of an official statement could be in part because of the political nature of many environmental issues. The LDS Church doesn’t often weigh-in on political issues because of a commitment to political neutrality. On a side, I have always taken this neutrality to mean that heaven is big enough for Republicans and Democrats. Maybe Mitt Romney and Harry Reid will be heaven’s ultimate odd couple?

To some, environmental stewardship may be considered beyond the traditional religious scope of saving souls. However, the Mormon environmental ethic has roots in our theology of salvation. Our theology directly links care for the soul with care for the body. An 18th century Mormon leader said it this way:

"There is no distinction between spiritual salvation—of course, with some qualifications—and temporal salvation. Our bodies are as dear in the sight of God as our spirits. Our spirits cannot be separated from our bodies to have us perfect. The body and the spirit are the soul of man—not the spirit alone, not the body alone, but the body and the spirit. And God gives revelations for the temporal salvation of His children—that is, for the salvation of their bodies—and they are as important in their place as His revelations concerning their spirits" (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth [1987], 518).


By extension, care of the body must include care of the environment. Perhaps the most direct statement on the environment comes from The Doctrine and Covenants (one of the books in the LDS canon of scripture):

"Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion." Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20


Simply put, Mormon theology teaches that God created the earth to house and bless humankind, and that the earth’s resources are to be used wisely and not exploited. Our mandate to use resources wisely is amplified by the link between spiritual and temporal salvation. Thus, the Mormon environmental ethic has a strong theological base. However, the Church chooses to let the members decide how to best act on this ethic.

Another face of the Mormon environmental ethic is our bent against conspicuous consumption and materialism. From the Bible (yes, the Bible is also part the LDS canon of scripture) we read:

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” 1 Timothy 6:10

From yet another of our books of scripture, the Book of Mormon, we read:

“But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.”
Jacob 2: 18-19

In addition to addressing the appropriate use of money, Mormon texts also encourage thrift and modest consumption. From our late President, Gordon B. Hinckley:

“I deplore waste. I deplore extravagance. I value thrift." (Rise to a Larger Vision of the Work, General Conference 4/90)

To Mormons, materialism causes people to “[err] from the faith and [be] pierced with many sorrows.” In other words, happiness and spiritual enlightenment follow a freedom from materialism. Reducing environmental strain happens to be an implicit benefit of rejecting conspicuous consumption.

It would be a stretch to say that the LDS Church totally embraces the agenda of the stereotyped environmentalist movement. Still, Mormon theology does have a strong environmental ethic. The trick is getting Mormons –and others- to act on our environmental ethic. Encouragement to action is the intention of Latter-Day Sustainability.

I could go on and on…and I’m sure I will in future posts.

For those familiar with Mormon theology, please comment on the accuracy and tone of this post. And for those who are new to Mormon thought, please tell me if lost you.

9 comments:

Mellifera said...

Once upon a time I read Jared Diamond's Collapse and the Book of Ether in the same week. You should try it some time- once you can get yourself out of the fetal position you'll have some good insights.

Collapse looks at the life cycles of various cultures, and kind of goes something like this: "Culture is founded. Culture progresses, flourishes, becomes more wealthy and gets better art. The elites start to have lots of nice things so that everyone knows they're elites. The conspicuous overconsumption ruins their resource, resulting in war and famine."

The Book of Mormon looks at the life cycles of various cultures, and kind of goes something like this: "Culture is founded. Culture progresses, flourishes, becomes more wealthy and gets better art. The elites start to have lots of nice things so that everyone knows they're elites. The poor get spit on in the meantime, and eventually God punishes the people for their abuse (not to mention all the murder and whoremongering that goes on if you're serious about consolidating power so you can have more nice things) via war and famine."

Hmm. Could it be that the Book of Mormon was right, and that overconsumption is a significant facet of overall spiritual degeneracy? (I'm seeing the Testaments on the backs of my eyelids right now.)

One thing that I really got out of Collapse-and-Ether was that when you use too much stuff, you are in essence taking it away from someone else. When that is true, you don't have to get into obscure scriptures and secondary sources and quoting something Hugh Nibley thought about writing once. That's the Golden Rule.

Latter-Day Sustainablist said...

It all comes down to the golden rule.

very simple.

thanks.

jonathan3d said...

Nice blog. We should have many more like this in the LDS community.

If you haven't already, you should read the book "Stewardship and the Creation - LDS Perspectives on the Environment."

Good luck. I teach environmental ethics and daily confront a variety of views from students on the topic.

sans auto said...

Christ himself asked the rich man to sell all that he hath and, "come follow me." Oddly enough, I think he meant it.

Jesus, the son of a carpenter, was born under the simplest of conditions in a manger. He was persecuted and eventually put to death by the rulers of the land for claiming to be the Son of God. It was the Man born of simple means (although He was literally the Son of God), versus the power and prestige of the royalty and leadership of that time. The rulers of state put Jesus to death in order to defeat the simple man who threatened the power of the state. In so doing, the state finalized the purpose of Christ's life. It is in simplicity that we have life eternal; seeking wealth and power only leads to death.

I like the blog, keep it coming.

dawn a said...

Thanks for the message, Sustainablist. I am LDS and environmental concerns are always on my mind. In fact, I keep expecting the revelation that will put us in step with many other religious organizations who are trying to green-up their message on Christ-like living and good stewardship of the planet. I think we are on the cusp of some major ecosystem break-downs across the planet, and unless we take this issue more seriously, we will be forced to make changes under dire circumstances. I'd really hope that the church would be on the forefront of such a movement rather than bandwagoning at the last minute. Alas, I fear our focus right now is mostly on gay marriage and pornography. While these are problems for many, they seem less pressing to me than the issue of wanton environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

Elise said...

Hello,

My name is Elise and I would love to talk to you more about your thoughts. I would like to write a book/paper directing towards mormons on environment and would love any input from you! Hope to hear from you soon.

elise gonzales
elise.noel1@gmail.com

Mark said...

I agree with the points you make on the blog about the accountability that each of holds in regards to the environment. When it mentions in Doctrine and Covenants (104:17) that "the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare", it doesn't mean that we have free reign to spoil and waste the earth's natural resources. In fact, the Lord's reference to the abundance on the earth is accompanied by references to each of us being accountable before Him as "a steward over earthly blessings" (verse 13). God does care how we treat the environment.
The tricky balance for me, as I see the environmental movement unfold, is between environmental responsibility and the political movement known as environmentalism. The political movement made up of "environmentalists" runs on different principles and motives than what the gospel perspective details. (This is the perspective shared on a traditional Judeo-Christian level as well.) Adam and Eve were placed in the garden of Eden as stewards over the plants and animals there. They were given commandments in regards to their treatment of nature. After their irresponsible treatment towards a fruit found in the garden, God held them accountable and expelled them from the garden. The consequences enforced upon Adam and Eve applied also to the plants and animals. To me this story is evidence of humanity's role in holding responsible dominance over the earth's resources.
In contrast to this is an "environmental" perspective that demands that humanity be placed on an equal plane with plants and animals. Many of the environmental policies I have seen passed in state and federal governments actually position human rights below those of specific plants or animals. I think policies developed on these principles have the potential of stripping us of freedoms to exercise our agency. We cannot exercise our agency responsibly if we don't have agency.

Roy's 21st Century Family said...

I agree with what has been said, and I am an environmentalist; i believe we have a stewardship to protect the earth. However,I am deeply concerned over some aspects of today's environmental movement. I work at a major University as a Natural Resource Law, and Economic Policy Analyst. My job, basically, is to research and write about natural resource issues. My studies have led me to a disturbing fact,and I would like some input to help me get my head around it and how we as members of the church feel about it. There is a movement underway based on the philosophy of Deep Ecology. Many groups such as The Wildlands Project, The Center for Bio-Diversity, and the Wild Earth Guardians espouse the view that "man" has devastated nature and now their time is over. They believe in population control, in establishing a "human free' zone running down the center of the U.S., and in saving endangered species at whatever cost. This philosophy has been responsible for displacing and impoverishing thousands of families all in the name of "saving the earth." We know that there are spirits waiting to be born and that the earth was prepared for that purpose. However, deep ecology believes that man is the enemy, and the enemy must be stopped. That humans and animals are "equal" and that any means justifies the ends in order to accomplish this. As Mormons, we believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired and yet, these environmental extremists find new ways to take our freedoms away,using the justice system to list as endangered, thousands of species that are found not only on federal land, but private property as well. My studies lead me to believe that this agenda is another way that the adversary has concocted to override our Father in Heavens plan. i would like to hear what other members think about my theory.

Roy's 21st Century Family said...

I agree with what has been said, and I am an environmentalist; i believe we have a stewardship to protect the earth. However,I am deeply concerned over some aspects of today's environmental movement. I work at a major University as a Natural Resource Law, and Economic Policy Analyst. My job, basically, is to research and write about natural resource issues. My studies have led me to a disturbing fact,and I would like some input to help me get my head around it and how we as members of the church feel about it. There is a movement underway based on the philosophy of Deep Ecology. Many groups such as The Wildlands Project, The Center for Bio-Diversity, and the Wild Earth Guardians espouse the view that "man" has devastated nature and now their time is over. They believe in population control, in establishing a "human free' zone running down the center of the U.S., and in saving endangered species at whatever cost. This philosophy has been responsible for displacing and impoverishing thousands of families all in the name of "saving the earth." We know that there are spirits waiting to be born and that the earth was prepared for that purpose. However, deep ecology believes that man is the enemy, and the enemy must be stopped. That humans and animals are "equal" and that any means justifies the ends in order to accomplish this. As Mormons, we believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired and yet, these environmental extremists find new ways to take our freedoms away,using the justice system to list as endangered, thousands of species that are found not only on federal land, but private property as well. My studies lead me to believe that this agenda is another way that the adversary has concocted to override our Father in Heavens plan. i would like to hear what other members think about my theory.