It seems anytime new environmental action is proposed, the main questions that get tossed about in the public discussion are, “How much will this cost?” and “Who will pay for this?” They’re important questions, certainly, but I do not think they are the most important questions. I’d much rather we discuss the answers to “What are the long-term costs of failing to act?” and “How will future generations pay if we don’t make changes now?”
Public dialogue is an important precursor to action in a democracy, and the environmental movement needs robust discussion if we are to succeed in moving toward a more sustainable future. But critical to any good discussion is asking the right questions. In today’s post, I’d like to share some thoughts on some of the questions we should be asking about environmental sustainability and stewardship.
Church Statement on Environmental Stewardship and Conservation
The new statement from the Church on Environmental Stewardship and Conservation provides some great guidance on some of the questions we should be asking. The proper approach to environmental issues, it counsels, should not be the “vindication of personal desires or avowed rights,” but rather, should be “consistent with the needs of the earth and of current and future generations.” So the appropriate question is not “What do I want to do?” or even “What am I allowed to do?” Rather, this statement suggests that we should be asking, “What does the earth need? What do the people who live on the earth need?”
The website also points us to D&C 59:20, which advises that the resources of the earth should be used “with judgment, not to excess,” reminding us to ask whether our use of natural resources is straining the system, whether we’ve reached “excess.”
A compendium of statements from church leaders linked from the website references a quote from Elder Russell M. Nelson:
As beneficiaries of the divine Creation, what shall we do? We should care for the earth, be wise stewards over it, and preserve it for future generations. And we are to love and care for one another.
Again, Elder Nelson raises an important issue that we must consider—are current environmental practices sustainable for future generations? What do we need to change so that we can preserve the earth for our children? I love how he also ties the injunction to love one another to the need to care for the earth and preserve it for future generations. Surely, then, one of the questions we should be asking is, “What environmental policies and practices best help us care for others, especially the poor and the needy?”
I find it significant and inspiring that church leadership counsels us to put the needs of the earth and the people on it above our own desires or perceived entitlements. Globally, we need to do a lot better on this. We have significant environmental problems, problems that have arisen largely because we’ve been much less concerned with the needs of the earth and the people living on it than what we individually and collectively have decided we want or are allowed to do with the earth. But asking these questions is the right place to start, and I applaud the way the Church statement drives us toward considering these more difficult—but much more important—questions.
A couple of months ago, I happened upon an interview on PBS with the farmer, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry. He’s in his 80s now, and in the interview, conducted by Bill Moyers, he discusses his years of farming his family’s land in rural Kentucky, his writing, his activism, and his Christian faith. For those who care about the environment and see the current state of things, it’s tempting to despair of things ever getting better, but Berry applies the hope inherent in Christ’s teachings to environmental concerns. The interview begins with a quote from Berry, advising us on both a question we shouldn’t be asking, and one that we should. Speaking on progress toward a more environmentally-sustainable future, Berry says:
We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?
Later in the interview, Moyers asks Berry about moving toward more sustainable farming practices, something close to Berry’s heart. Berry acknowledges it’s a process that will take time and patience, and his interviewer asks, “Do we have time?” Berry lets him know that isn’t the right question to ask:
We don’t have a right to ask that question. We have to ask what’s the right thing to do and go ahead and do it and take no thought for the morrow.
Ultimately, I think that’s the best question: What’s the right thing to do? It’s a question I pray that, as a people, we’ll have the courage to not only ask, but also to answer.
How about you? What are some questions you think are important to ask around environmental issues? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.