Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Stewardship in Action: Jane Birch

Jane Birch

Author and Associate Director of Faculty Development, BYU Faculty Center

Tell us a bit about your professional background.

I am Associate Director of Faculty Development at the Brigham Young University Faculty Center. We provide training and support to faculty and administrators.

Tell us about your work in relation to stewardship for the earth.

I have recently published a book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective. The book describes my “discovery” of the Word of Wisdom as an essentially plant-based diet. This allows me the opportunity to explore the relationship between animal food production, animal food consumption, and LDS earth stewardship.

I have also created a website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom, which features LDS people who are (as I put it) “waking up” to the Word of Wisdom. I’m finding that people who are discovering greater meaning in the Word of Wisdom are typically also discovering their responsibility to the earth and its creatures.

How did this book come about?

My great awakening came when I was persuaded that a totally plant-based diet is best for human health. I had been a happy, non-questioning omnivore up to that point in my life, but I immediately gave up eating all animal foods. I’ve discovered that doing this has a huge impact on one’s sensitivity to animals and to the natural world. This is true not just of me but of most people I know who give up animal foods, whether they already have an interest in environmental issues or not.

We humans are intimately connected not just to each other but to the entire biological family and to the physical universe as well. Giving up animal foods is a profound change in our relationship to the biological world. It naturally leads to a greater love and sensitivity toward our fellow creatures and also a greater respect for the planet and a desire to protect it. I believe it also leads to a greater appreciation for the beautiful, delicious plant foods the Lord has blessed us with.

As my diet and understanding of my relationship to this world changed, I began to realize that each precious new understanding I was uncovering was already contained in scriptures with which I was very familiar, like D&C 89 (the Word of Wisdom), D&C 59, and others. Scriptures that before seemed ambiguous or unimportant suddenly became clear and found a deep resonance with my experience. I gained a greater appreciation for how deeply God cares for His animal creatures as He cautions us to use them but “sparingly” and only in times of need. I like Hugh Nibley’s interpretation of “sparingly,” as “sparing God’s creatures.”

What is the relationship between how we eat and earth stewardship?

As part of my research, I learned a great deal about how animal food production disproportionally impacts not just the animals (obviously) but also the earth. Animal foods demand so much more in land, water, and resources and produce so much more pollution and greenhouse gases that it is clear that the level of animal food production we have here in the U.S. is simply unsustainable worldwide. And it certainly is one contributing factor to the inequality among God’s children that is condemned in scripture (D&C 49:19-21).

I’ve also been working on some shorter academic pieces. As part of my research, I’ve searched for LDS environmental literature addressing the relationship between the consumption of animal flesh and the environment. I’ve been surprised to find next to nothing. In the secular literature, the impact that the production of animal foods has on the environment is well documented and frequently discussed, but I have yet to find any substantive literature exploring this connection from LDS authors, just a few bits and scraps.

My book Discovering the Word of Wisdom contains a chapter entitled, “Stewards of Our Bodies, the Earth, and Its Creatures.” Here I make an attempt to explore the relationship between the Word of Wisdom and our temporal stewardships. What I have included in my book is not much, but it appears to be more than I have found in other places. I hope in the future more will be researched and written on this important topic.

How has your background affected your conception of environmental stewardship?

I grew up with a mother who loves all things beautiful, including this amazing world our Lord created for us. She often took us into the mountains and other natural settings and emphasized the beauty of the sights, sounds, and smells. As an adult, I found it hard to sit still in nature and just listen, but I’ve learned to be quiet and to connect to the profound spirit of this planet that sustains us.

Like most people, I am drawn to the beauty and power of the natural world, but when I stopped eating animal foods I suddenly saw the animals and the earth in a very different light. This was totally unexpected and has brought a tremendous increase of peace and joy into my life. I count these blessings as some of the many “hidden treasures” promised in the Word of Wisdom.

How does the Gospel affect how you think about earth stewardship, including the recent church statement about stewardship and conservation?

I love the phrase from the Church’s statement which reminds us that “The state of the human soul and the environment are interconnected, with each affecting and influencing the other.”

President Joseph F. Smith wrote, “We are a part of all life and should study carefully our relationship to it…The unnecessary destruction of life begets a spirit of destruction which grows within the soul. It lives by what it feeds upon and robs man of the love that he should have for the works of God.” (Juvenile Instructor 53 no. 4, April 1918:182–183) Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith explained, “Although there was no sin in the shedding of [animal] blood when required for food . . . to take the life of these creatures wantonly is a sin before the Lord. It is easy to destroy life, but who can restore it when it is taken?”(Improvement Era, August 1961: 568).

In days gone by and in certain parts of the world today, the consumption of animal foods was/is a matter of necessity. But for we who are surrounded by groceries stores and too much food, it is clearly a matter of choice. When we can so easily get all the nutrients we need to grow and flourish from plants, what compelling reason is left for destroying animal life for food?

What message do you have for Church members about earth stewardship?

The Lord himself told us that it is pleasing to him if we do not consume the flesh of animals except in times of need (D&C 89:13, 15). This may be an inconvenient truth, but this counsel comes with great blessings—for us (D&C 89:18-21), for animals, and for the earth.

To find out more about Jane’s book, see http://discoveringthewordofwisdom.com.  Also see Laura’s review of Jane’s book at http://ldsearthstewardship.org/2014/02/discovering-word-wisdom-review/.

This is the eighth of a series of profiles of Church members that exemplify stewardship in some aspect of their lives.  We hope to show the diverse and wonderful ways that Church members show respect and wise use of the earth’s resources.  If you would like to suggest someone to highlight in the future, let us know