Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Earth stewardship: Personal virtue or basis for policy?

This is a guest post by Peter.

A United States Vice-President once notoriously dismissed conservation as “a sign of personal virtue,” but not a basis for a comprehensive energy policy.  I’ve thought about that dichotomy many times as I’ve listened to earth stewardship conversations.  I’ve noticed that people tend to approach the principle of stewardship with one of two orientations.  Some focus on stewardship implications for themselves as individuals, endeavoring to personally tread more lightly.  These stalwarts eat local produce, buy fuel-efficient vehicles and turn the thermostat down in the winter.  If they are concerned about overfishing of the oceans, they resolve not to eat unsustainable seafood.  When they consume resources, they do so mindfully.

I have the utmost respect for those who strive to align their own lives with the principle of stewardship.  I share their aspiration, but I have to confess that my primary orientation is somewhat different.  For better or worse, I am preoccupied with the big picture, the implications of society’s stewardship choices writ large.  Global phenomena like climate disruption and ocean acidification, tropical deforestation and collapsing fisheries.  I believe such unfolding disasters require institutional solutions.  I look to fishing quotas and creation of marine reserves for hope of protecting the oceans.  I look to water pollution laws to keep industrial poisons out of rivers and lakes.  Moreover, I see such laws as appropriate tools for exercising societal stewardship.

I ultimately reject the former Vice-President’s simplistic binary framing.  The challenges of earth stewardship clearly demand both personal virtue and public policy.  They demand local action as well as global perspective.  Threats like species extinction, air pollution, and water pollution can only be effectively addressed through public policy, and effective public policy must rest on a foundation of popular support.  That means the support of individuals.  Not tenuous support that squeaks through a partisan Congress by a whisker, but broad and resilient consensus.  By bringing the most intimate and the most expansive perspectives into the same conversation, this earth stewardship group can be a vehicle for personal edification as well as for global solutions.

  • Sprout says:

    Your post reminds me of the phrase: “Think globally, act locally.” I’ve always liked that concept.

  • Karmen says:

    I completely agree.    Personal actions reflect personal virtues.  At the church level, we believe in personal choice and accountability but we also believe obedience to commandments with accountability for that obedience.

    Public policy should reflect those virtues held by and for society, the community, state or nation dictating that policy.  Ultimately these become global policies demanded by individuals within that society.  Problems arise, policies are either deferred, sometimes until too late (i.e. species extinctions) or reversed when there is a lack of consensus or even the weak majority you refer to.   Even if the citizens are largely united behind or against a policy,special interests can interfere and influence policymakers away from the greater to the smaller good.  Anyone who has heard or read anything that I have said or written lately knows that I am on a quest against corporate energy interests right now as I see them exerting extreme influence on policymakers.  That to me is corruption.  A congressman or legislator who essentially sells the earth’s soul is also selling his own.  His/her actions in doing so exhibit a weak character and very shallow personal virtues.

  • George says:

    One conundrum I have often had in my mind is why “personal virtue” as it is defined in Mormon culture does not typically include environmental stewardship. When you read Wendell Berry, you come away with the impression that environmental waste is the result of a kind of lack of personal virtue toward our own bodies.  And when you read Brigham Young, you come away with a similar idea.  So why is it in Mormonism, personal virtue doesn’t translate into better care for the earth?  Is it possible for virtue to become a self-centered pursuit?  When and why does it not include actions toward the broader communities of which we are a part?  Why is it sometimes almost exclusively thought to be about sexual behavior?  

    • Anonymous says:

      I would be interested to see a history of the usage of the word “virtue,” both within and beyond the LDS community. And then I would like to revive the Aristotelian sense of virtue; that is, the middle way between excess and deprivation in all aspects of character and action. 

  • Anonymous says:

    I definitely fall on the side of individual action rather than public policy. I think that response is due to the conflict between my high ideals and low expectations. I am profoundly pessimistic that any industry or government will sacrifice immediate profits for the long term benefit of anything: the planet, the people, or even future of their own organization. Because I have so little faith in these entities, I simply do the best I can, and hope that my efforts will be enough to absolve me and mine from the sins of others. (This isolationist principle is also found in Mormon culture–“Save ourselves and all our dead” Hymns, #5). 

    But even with my deep seated pessimism, I am beginning to work to make a difference in my local community. I go to our city council meetings, city development and planning meetings, volunteer a few hours every week, and share my belief in the importance of environmental stewardship, both as a personal practice and public policy, with my friends and acquaintances. And I am very grateful to people like you, Peter, who are willing to brave the frustrations of working to change the big picture.