Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Stewardship in Action: George Handley

George Handley

Professor of Comparative Studies & Interdisciplinary Humanities

4d257700d7768.preview-300 Tell us a bit about your personal background.

I was born into the church, having pioneer ancestors on both sides of the family, but my conversion and decision to be an active member really didn’t happen until I was 17. I had a pretty typical middle class upbringing in Connecticut where I had plenty of chances to play in the woods, explore streams, and join friends at the beach. So I guess I always enjoyed nature, but I was never much of a camper and backpacker, although I did have the privilege of backpacking in the Tetons in my teenage years. That was certainly an experience that stands out to me. I was one of the only Mormons in a large public high school and then similarly spent my college years as part of a small religious minority at Stanford University. After a mission in Venezuela that interrupted my studies, I combined my newfound love for language with my love for literature and majored in comparative literature. I got married three days after graduating with my BA in 1989. My wife, Amy, and I later moved over to Berkeley where I continued my studies in the same field. I completed my PhD in 1995. We have four children, one on a mission in Russia, one in college, and two still at home. My wife is a nurse practitioner and I have taught at BYU in the department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature since 1998. I am an avid recreationist. I love trail running, fishing, hiking, skiing, and biking.

Tell us a bit about your work and interests in relation to stewardship for the earth.

I really didn’t get turned on to environmental problems until I was in my 30s. I taught for a few years in Flagstaff, AZ at Northern Arizona University and there I took a workshop on sustainability in higher education. I also had many conversations with colleagues about the relevance of religion to environmental stewardship, and I guess a light turned on and I decided to devote my research and my civic activity to environmental concerns from that moment forward. This also brought to me a new interest in gaining more scientific literacy—learning about botany, ecology, evolution, climate change, and a host of other topics. I love reading about these issues and learning how they intersect with religion and the humanities. I have served on a variety of boards and committees of environmental organizations and been involved in environmental activism for many years now. Currently I am on the board of LDSES and on the board of Utah Interfaith Power and Light, which seeks to address climate change through faith communities. I am also on the Sustainability and Natural Resources Committee for the city of Provo. I have enjoyed lobbying the state legislature and in D.C. on variety of issues.

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How has your personal and/or professional background affected your conception of environmental stewardship?

When I was first asked by a colleague at NAU what my Mormon beliefs said about stewardship, I began to think through what I believed, what I had been taught, and I recounted it all to her. As I did, she was stunned. She had never heard of such a rich reservoir of beliefs to draw on and immediately asked, “Do Mormons know these doctrines?” She asked, presumably, because she did not have the impression that Mormons were particularly interested or concerned about the environment. That was when I decided I should try to make a difference to raise greater awareness of the relevance of religion, and my religion in particular, to addressing the problems we face. I was in a good position to think about this because of my literary training, and I think because I developed my writing and reading skills early on, I felt that I should use these abilities for a good cause. This has helped to get me out of the proverbial ivory tower and make sure that my education and training are put to good, practical use and not just to esoteric scholarly projects. I still like scholarship a lot but I also believe that I should be actively engaged in a good cause in my community. This makes me a better Mormon, a better citizen, and a better thinker, so overall, I can’t recommend environmental activism enough. I have met so many fine and wonderful people, both inside and outside of the church.

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

The gospel informs everything I do, and I try to honor the restored accounts of the creation in the temple and in the Pearl of Great Price by how I live, think, and vote. I believe I should be deeply concerned for the poor who are suffering disproportionately the effects of climate change and other environmental problems and that those of us with the means, the education, and the moral instruction should take up the responsibility to lead out in word and in deed to be the best stewards we can be. I am inspired by so many examples of good stewards in the church and by the recent actions take by the church. I hunger for even more instruction from the church and more emphasis on our principles of stewardship, however. I hate to think we have such incredible teachings and yet do too little with them.

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

We should live differently than we do because of our beliefs. Our commitment to stewardship should be obvious to outsiders and it should be a common understanding among our youth, in our families, and in our communities. We have a lot of work to do to honor our beliefs, to make them more relevant. No one should feel alone in the church in being concerned about the environment. There are many, many members who care a great deal and who have devoted their lives to making a difference. We just need everyone to stand up, speak out, and invite others to live up to our high standards of stewardship. We don’t have to invent scriptures to urge us to care. We have them already. We just haven’t been paying enough attention to them. Activism takes many forms, and I especially encourage more active participation in the democratic process. Know your local issues, your local politicians, and get involved. There are as many styles of activism as there are people, and you can eventually find a way to contribute that matches your personality and interests. You will feel so much happier and fulfilled as a result. Just don’t be apathetic!

You can find George’s academic site here, his excellent book here, and the accompanying blog here.

This is the tenth 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

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  • avatar Jane Birch says:

    Thanks, George, for your good example, for your passion, and for your devotion to this great work of caring for our earth!