Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Five Paradoxes of Mormon Environmental Advocacy

This is a brief summary of the speech I gave at the recent Stegner symposium, with a little more elaboration on the final point that I ended up having to rush through. You can see a video of the lecture here.

1. Advocacy Requires Knowledge and Humility

Advocacy is precarious. You risk becoming what Mormon thinker Hugh Nibley once called a zealot without knowledge. So you need knowledge. This includes the knowledge of large environmental issues such as climate change and air pollution and basic ecology, knowledge of the political process, knowledge of the history and environmental conditions where you live, and deeper knowledge and responsibility to your beliefs. As a result of taking the path of advocacy, I feel that I know my home and its ecology better, I know my politics better, and I know my religion better.

But advocacy thrives on an excess of selective information and a reduction of the complexity of problems; as a result, there is not a whole lot of humility. Bringing religion into the civic sphere risks adding religious fervor to what is already an arena of fanaticism. But if religion and civic engagement can keep us within sight of what we don’t know and therefore what others might understand better than we do and ultimately why we need each other, then I think the alchemy can work. As Wendell Berry puts it, “to counter the ignorant use of knowledge and power we have, I am afraid, only a proper humility.”

2. Advocacy That Stems From Your Own Beliefs Brings You to a Broader Community

I engaged in advocacy, especially on behalf of climate change, because of my deeply held Mormon beliefs, but this has given me the great gift of valuable friendships outside of my Mormon circles, no easy task for a Mormon professor at BYU with pioneer ancestors on both sides of my family who lives in Provo. I not only understand my own religion better, but I understand more my indebtedness to the different people, religions, and communities that make up this great state. These people have moved and inspired me because of their commitment to the well-being of their community and because of their interest in reaching out to Mormons. They have helped me to be a better Mormon.

3. Advocacy Tries to Change Leadership But It Needs to Change the Electorate

Activists get involved because they don’t like the political status quo, but it is often not elected officials or other power brokers who are the root of the problem but the electorate itself. The fact is that most Americans know little about the political process. They cannot name who represents them at the city, state, and national levels. And most Americans read the news so rarely or so superficially and do so little work to keep themselves informed that it is not surprising that our elected officials and party platforms so often assume positions far more extreme than the majorities. So it is not surprising, actually, that the majority of Republicans want action on climate change or that over 90% of Americans want action on gun control, but government is not responsive. They get away with this because they can. Changing leadership helps, but we can more easily lose a good leader than gain one. It is politically more sustainable to change the culture.

4. Mormon Environmentalism is Not an Oxymoron, But It Ain’t Easy

Although stewardship does not get the attention it deserves in Mormon culture, LDS church leaders have made it emphatically clear that we should be engaged in civic causes that are related to our doctrines. As Elder Oaks once said in a speech to the students at BYU in 2004: “a less concerned, less thoughtful and less informed citizenry… results in less responsive and less responsible government.” Every Mormon knows that “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58). Elder Christofferson said this at a recent worldwide training:

“There doesn’t have to be an agreement on all points of doctrine for us to collaborate with and work with others. My own experience is that I’m a better person through that kind of association. I’ve had many opportunities in the different places that I’ve lived around the country and outside the U.S. to work with other groups, people of other faiths and, in some cases, no faith, I suppose, but people of real goodwill. And as I said, I feel like I’m a better man for it. And the Church organization really lends itself to group service. Our quorums and wards and all the organizations really do facilitate and prepare us to lead out and, in some cases, to join others.” (emphasis mine)

The paradox is, of course, that despite strong stewardship doctrines and clear encouragement of civic engagement, there remains in this state a strong, even ironclad resistance to policies that promote clean energy, that mitigate against climate change, that protect species, and that seek to protect Utah’s extraordinary wilderness. Because their environmentalism isn’t mainstream, every Mormon environmentalist I know has had to overcome a persistent nagging feeling that others think something might not be right with them. I took comfort from this marvelous statement from President Dieter F. Uchtdorf last weekend: “Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads us to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold–that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God…But we are diverse in our social, cultural, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.” Indeed, in all of our attention on the environmental uniformity of the Utah congressional delegation, the governor, and the state legislature, a vibrant and growing Mormon environmentalism has the chance to help the church and the state of Utah thrive, but sadly it remains almost invisible in the public eye. The LDS Earth Stewardship blog hopes to highlight these stories before long because the anti-environmentalism of some prominent Mormons simply gets too much air time.

5. The More We Wait for the LDS Church to Change the Picture, the Less the Picture Will Change

In the absence of strongly worded and frequent messages about environmental stewardship like we heard from Elder Nash, indifference and hostility have flourished, bolstered by what I would call folk theology that, as far as I can make out, has weak doctrinal basis, or none at all, ideas such as the notion that because we are in the last days, there is no need to worry ourselves about climate change, loss of biodiversity, or endangerments to supplies of clean air and water; that individual freedoms are more important than collective responsibilities; that science is categorically suspect; that good stewardship is merely about financial planning, or if it is about the earth, it is only manifested in developing earth’s resources but never about conserving natural resources and natural beauty for future generations; that fossil fuels were given to us by God to allow the development of civilization without a single mention of the possibility that God also gave us sun, wind, geothermal energy, not to mention our own brains to process new information and make appropriate changes in our policies.

When I took a tour of the LEED-certified, solar paneled, Farmington chapel, I was moved to see what the church was doing to be a better steward and was inspired by Bishop Burton’s comment that this was the responsible thing to do as members of the “community of man.” But my biggest concern was that over time, just like every other built environment, the chapel’s connections to the environment would become invisible or insignificant to its attendees without some pedagogical change that would teach worshippers to be more aware of and concerned about how their consumption levels and energy use impact the environment and the poor. A green building cannot substitute for users who are indifferent or hostile to environmental concerns. So more teaching of stewardship doctrines from the church would certainly help.

But it is also important, as President Uchtdorf’s comment implies, that we recognize the necessary gap between doctrines and its various political manifestations. We aren’t all going to agree on policy. We should agree on principles, however. But those who pine for the church to make the definitive statement about environmental issues and policies are wanting a church of strict political uniformity and are pretending that there is, indeed, only one solution to problems that often require many. Besides, focusing on the church’s actions distracts us from our own responsibilities to act on what we already know and may inspire even more passivity as citizens. If we expect the church to be an activist institution, we implicitly suggest that we don’t need to be activists ourselves.

More overt teachings about stewardship from the church would certainly clear the air of suspicion regarding the importance of sound environmental stewardship and unleash the power of the majority of Mormons who await clearer signals to find the courage to speak out and act on behalf of their concern for creation. Politicians and other civic leaders who deny such problems as species extinction and climate change don’t stand much of a chance with such an electorate. In the end, though, I choose not to focus on what the church does or doesn’t do, both because I respect the process of revelation and because I believe religion gains meaning not merely from how frequently or correctly truth is preached but from how deeply it is lived; its power comes not from being right but from inspiring people to be and do good. Environmentalists and people of faith alike sometimes hunger too much for vindication when we should be more worried about finding ways to create good societies in a context of real political and religious differences. We Mormons don’t need new doctrines. We need more thoughtfulness, courage, and common sense. Those aren’t uniquely Christian traits, of course, but when a Christian exhibits them, it sure makes Christianity work a lot better.

  • George, thanks for the well written and motivating post! We can all take a step further towards living our religion and being anxiously engaged in good causes. This is one of my favorite blogs to read, keep up the good work!