Wednesday, January 16, 2008

If they pollute their inheritances, they shall be thrown down...*

This summer I attended a BYU alumni conference in Sandy. I don't normally spend my Saturday afternoons voluntarily attending lectures, but I showed up because I wanted to hear a presentation by one of my former professors. As it turned out, the lecture I came to hear was not very interesting, but I wandered into another lecture that really struck me.

The topic was Mormons and Environmentalism. It's not hard to find doctrinal and scriptural support for a strong Mormon environmentalist stance, but I liked that his presentation focused on several reasons Mormon culture has largely shied away from the environmentalist movement. Below I've listed several "reasons" he'd heard offered by church members to explain their disconnect from environmentalist concerns. I had heard all of these myself over the years and even used to believe a couple of them. After each reason I've listed my own response, which in some cases was very similar to the presenter's response.

If you're not LDS, you may not find this interesting. Even you Mormons may find it dull. But too bad -- it's my blog, and I'll drone if I want to.

1. We believe that we are living in the "Last Days" and that at some point in the not-too-distant future the earth will be purged of the pollution (both spiritual and physical) that man has inflicted upon it, and resurrected into its perfect and eternal form. Therefore, why lose sleep over treating the earth well when we know it's headed for its new life anyway? Why fight prophecy?

-- This viewpoint bears a disturbing resemblance to the "eat, drink, and be merry" philosophy that Christ condemns both spiritually and physically. The Mormon doctrine regarding the sacredness and eternal nature of the human body specifically condemns mistreatment of the body during mortality, even though we know that we will all be resurrected into our perfect form one day no matter how we treat our body in this life. Such mistreatment of the body is a sin, we are taught, even though any damage is ultimately reversible. This is because such maltreament betrays a lack of respect for life and the God who gives life, and this is a serious spiritual lacking. To say that the earth is any different from the body is morally insupportable, especially given that LDS doctrine also teaches that the earth is a living thing in its own right, and not just a stage for living things to move around on. As far as the "why fight prophecy" question, there is a logical fallacy amongst Mormons (and Evangelicals and other Bible literalists, for that matter) that if God has said something is going to happen, he is happy about it and wants you to help facilitate it. Hence our embarrassing support for the modern state of Israel, despite its violence and racism.

2. Environmentalists have historically been in favor of population control measures that conflict with Mormon doctrines regarding God's intentions for human life on the planet. (Tangent: Remember how in the silly Saturday's Warrior play/movie from the 80s, what made the evil gang evil was that they wanted to "decrease the surplus population"? Not drugs, not violence -- they were a Planned Parenthood Gang, out to persecute the hero's big Mormon family!)

-- Presenter's response (I didn't have a response for this one): This attitude is much less prevalent than in the past. Environmental studies of recent years have shown that it is not population alone that causes environmental stress, but much more the kind of children we raise. Honest environmental scholars have had to admit that is entirely possible for a family of thirteen to leave no significant environmental damage, so this historical conflict between the environmentalist and Mormon camps is fading. On a side note, he mentioned that it has also been found that divorce tends to have a high environmental impact per capita, what with shuttling children between parents year after year, needing to provide two of everything for the child in his two homes, etc. In short, scholarship on environmental issues no longer condemns large families as a basic part of its principles. Rather, training children to be environmentally responsible is the key.

3. Our prophets have said little specifically over the pulpit about environmentalism. If it were really that important, wouldn't they say more to us and more often?

-- This is possibly because environmentalism has historically been a highly charged political issue, and so speaking of it over the pulpit could have easily violated the Church's efforts to keep leaders from taking overt political stands in church meetings. Admonitions have often been less overt, and have appealed to the spirit of truth that should guide each of us as we seek personal inspiration. However, some prophets have been very overt about our environmental responsibilities (notably President Spencer W. Kimball) and have simply been ignored by most church members. Also, Joseph Smith said the role of prophets was to teach people correct principles and then let them govern themselves, and revealed that we are to use our agency to do good in the world whether or not we've been specifically commanded to do it. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who consistently focused on the importance of conscious and careful discipleship said, “True disciples would be consistent environmentalists –caring both about maintaining the spiritual health of a marriage and preserving a rainforest, caring about preserving the nurturing capacity of a family as well as providing a healthy supply of air and water...Adam and Eve were to 'dress the garden,' not exploit it."

4. Mormons are largely Republican, and the Republican party has typically ignored or opposed the environmentalist movement, which has typically fallen under the banner of the Democratic party.

-- This is very true, but as the matter becomes depoliticized and more and more thinking people realize that it is a universal concern, political party will likely play a much smaller role in affecting Mormons' stance toward environmentalism. And of course, I think a lot of Mormon Republicans are currently rethinking their party affiliation in light events. A brief history lesson on the relationship of the Mormon church with the two major political parties might also open people's minds, but that's the topic for a different discussion...

5. The word "environmentalist" calls to mind too many extremist images that are not in keeping with the gospel's message of wisdom and moderation.

-- It can be hard for people to get over the negative associations they have with the word "environmentalist." However, in Mormon doctrine we have powerful doctrines and commandments linked to the words "steward" and "righteous dominion" that can help us craft our own vision of how God expects us to treat the earth and its creatures, or at the very least help us not break out in hives when we hear the word "environmentalist."

6. We believe that God gave Adam (and mankind, as his descendants) "dominion" over the earth, which means he wants us to use the earth and its resources.

-- Similar to the last answer; yes, this is true, but again we are taught clearly that moderation and stewardship are the keys in whatever power and authority God gives us, whether it's church callings, how we steer the lives of our dependent children, or how we appropriate the earth's resources. We are also taught that we were given dominion over people and things in this life as a practice to see if we will be worthy to take on greater dominions in the eternities. If we fail to use wisdom and self control in our use of the earth's resources, we will prove ourselves unworthy for greater responsibilities. There are many LDS scriptures that we may skim over (eating meat sparingly, eating foods that are in season, for example) that can be considered ahead of their time environmentally, if we choose to pay attention to them rather than waiting to be spoonfed them by our leaders.

7. The scriptures say that in the earth there is "enough and to spare," so to rein in our consumption is to deny God's statement about the earth and its ability to provide amply.

-- "Enough" means that there is sufficient to meet the basic needs of everyone. We don't know how much "spare" there is beyond that -- it probably depends on how many people there are at a given time on the earth. It has long been clear that if part of the earth's population takes much more than it needs, there is NOT enough for the rest to survive on. To me, that "enough and to spare" scripture sounds like God saying, "don't blame me that there are starving children in Africa -- I've given you what you need to provide for everyone, and if you deprive your brethren through your greed [cringe] or indifference or supporting leaders in your own nation who uphold oppressive foreign regimes and foreign policies, then the sin be upon your heads."

8. I think there was an eighth one, but I can't remember it at the moment.

-- But I'm sure I would've had a really long-winded response to it.

Anyway, I don't have much more to say on this. I'm far from perfect. I'm still addicted to lots of things that I don't need that my children will one day reprimand me for having used in my youth. They'll ask me how I could have done X, Y, and Z, even though I knew that it would make the world smoggier, grayer, and bleaker for them. They'll ask how, as a good Mormon, I could have continued to drive my car to work and produce a bag of garbage per week, and I don't know that I'll have a satisfactory answer for them. But I do want to be able to say that I choose to change before I was forced; that I mulled over these questions and came to my own conclusions based on my own reasoning and the doctrines of my faith, regardless of the tides of my culture. That even if I didn't behave perfectly or go carbon neutral overnight, that I was willing to be inconvenienced in order to start carving out a new way of being so that the next generation will be able to take it for granted that green is the Only Way to Be. I don't care if the cocky little brats get all morally superior with me -- as long as there are still a few polar bears floating around on a few icebergs...somewhere.

* Doctrine and Covenants 103:14


wynne said...

I think you forgot a MAJOR point in the "Mormons Being Unable to Embrace Environmentalism" debate, being:

Mormons are cheap. ("We must be free of debt and self-sufficient" again taken to an extreme.)


"Living green" is expensive. For example, look at the price tags on "organic" and "made from recycled materials" items: they are more pricey, therefore, evil.

It *costs* to clean the environment, to put money into research for alternative sources of energy, etc. Even buying the twisty-energy-efficient light bulbs is initially more expensive.

(Never mind the fact that it is all MUCH MUCH more expensive in the end to NOT do these things. Again, as a people, we aren't really willing to plan for the future, even though the prophets have been drilling us to do this for as long as the church has been in existence...)

What say you?

Joanne said...

Good stuff. I agree with Wynne's point too. I was thinking similar thoughts today while shopping at...Volde-mart. :(

Regarding #1 -- By the same logic, why don't we ditch all humanitarian efforts?

Ninny Beth said...

Ps. I went to that conference for work a few years ago and was blown away. Thanks for sharing with those of us who didn't get to go.

lenalou said...

Thanks for sharing. V. interesting stuff, and I pretty much agree. One thing about cheapness- I think that's absolutely true as an ostensible reason, and Wynne is also right in pointing out that it's a fallacy in the end anyway --but also, Mormons (and everyone else)just buy lots of tat that they don't need in the first place. If we consumed a bit less, we could affort Seventh Generation products without a qualm.

And yes, I do have many more shoes than I "need."

wynne said...

But I always need MORE chocolate. I can't help it. Must buy MORE and GROW to SIZE of WHALE...MORE, MORE!

D'Arcy said...

Thanks for sharing that Marie. As a single gal, not having to support a family. Money isn't too much of a hindrance, so I eat mostly organic and buy safe products. Many people think I am crazy. I save any plastic and metal and take it to Salt Lake to recycle when I am going down there, and yesterday at Smiths Food and Drug I got strange looks when my produce and groceries were all put in reusable cloth bags...

When I lived in New York, it was a way of life. EVERYONE recycled. The teenage punks on the street recycled!! They made it so easy. We had separate garbages for paper, glass, metal, and plastic in my building. This was how all the buildings were. I got into great habits.

When I moved back I went to my local community building and asked about getting curbside pick up for recycling, only to find that it is not in enough demand to be offered where I live, so I have to go to greater measures to get it done. But, like you said, when it's important, when it's a part of life, when you chalk it up to just being a person lucky enough to live on this earth, then you just do it. You don't debate it, you scrimp other places so you can get Seventh Generation and you can feel good.

I think for a lot of my family it is just not ever being taught, not ever being trained, not ever being aware. You live in your little house and you never listen to Al Gore or Leo DiCaprio so you just don't pay attention.

But those of us who do can slowly help...I see it like missionary work. Use the commitment pattern!

Marie said...

Thanks for your responses. Here's a general and EXCESSIVELY LONG response (because I just have to have the last word, y'know -- all 3 trillion of them). Cheapness is a big one -- true. I think the presenter would have mentioned it, except it's not one you hear Mormons admitting to when you ask them why they don't care much about environmentalism. :) I think you're right -- Mormons take the general American philosophy even further, buying the cheapest items they can find, driving across town for a Great Bargain. You could say this is partly historical (your basic genetic pioneer frugality principle) and partly religious (we tend to have more kids to support and we also give at least 10% of our income to the Church). For a few years of my childhood, my family truly could not afford to buy anything beside the cheapest things and still have a roof over our heads (we lived off our food storage for awhile). However, I do agree with you guys that for the most part we fall prey, more so perhaps than our fellow Americans, to this idea that you can still have it all if you can just get it all cheaper. We dispense with considering social impacts of our consumption patterns so that we can pay our tithing and have our seven kids and still keep up with the Joneses. The thing we forget is that tithing is *supposed* to feel like a sacrifice, and if we can get everything we need AND most everything we want, whether at Wal-Mart or at Wild Oats, we probably aren't giving enough. One other factor -- we Mormons have this principle learned from the Book of Mormon that when a society is righteous, it tends to prosper. We think we know what "prosper" means, and so of course we figure it's only right for us to have everything that those around us have -- and hopefully more! (Again, by buying cheaper, regardless of the social cost.) I think, however, that the true meaning of that abundance/prosperity principle is finally hitting us as we see overspending and unnecessary debt catching up with those around us, both in and out of the Church. Hopefully we're finally starting to believe that prosperity is having what we truly need and feeling confident that we will be helped by God when we hit hard times because we have not used our stewardships (money, time, resources) foolishly or selfishly. It's a high principle to live, and I have a long long way to go, but I'm glad that it's part of my faith, because Lord knows I love bargain bin therapy as much as the next guy, and I have a closet full of ill-fitting and useless clothes to prove it.

It's really hard to break out of this, though. I know that the bargain hunting that was crucial when I was young has made it hard for me to transition to a spending mindset more logical for one who has what she needs and some to spare: that looking for a handful of more expensive, better quality, carefully chosen things and being content with them is ultimately more economical than buying a whole lot of cheap retail therapy stuff that either falls apart too soon or isn't exactly what I need to begin with. I'm getting better, and I feel healthier as I get better at living this way, even though I still relapse. My grandma, who lived through the Depression in poor rural Utah and then WWII and raised her kids through some lean years never broke out of that mentality, even after she and my grandpa became millionaires!

As I see it, the other side of the cheapness coin is convenience. If there's anything your typcial Mormon family thinks it has less of than money, it's time. Between jobs, lots of extracurricularly obsessed kids, time-consuming church callings, and a general do-do-do culture, we start believing that anything that helps us get things done quicker is Good. It's hard to imagine Mormons embracing enmasse the idea that it might somehow be good to take the bus to the store, since it probably means you'll have to tell your boys they can't sign up for both soccer and guitar lessons because you no longer have enough time to shuttle them to both. I think we can be convinced of the evils of the cheapness/overconsumption problem if you sit us down and show us all the facts. I'm not so sure most Mormons are ready to be convinced that a more deliberate, thoughtful pace to life is a virtue, no matter how long you reason with them.

The presenter did touch a bit on the convenience thing. He mentioned the way he was teased by fellow Young Men's leaders at Scout Camp when he made a move to recycle the large amount of plastic and aluminum waste generated at the camp. To them, the convenience of the disposable utinsels and containers was a tiny evil necessary in bringing about the Greater Good that was Scout Camp. How will you find time to have the morning devotional AND go kayaking AND rapelling if you have to take the time to sort your waste into recycling bins or (heaven forbid) wash out your metal mess kits?? We have this idea that we simply can't get done all the Important Things we have to get done for the sake of righteousness and be environmentally responsible at the same time. Again, the healing can be hard, because it's true -- we can't have it all. I decided to walk to the grocery store this week instead of driving. It only took an extra half hour, and I really enjoyed the walk and the moderation imposed on me by the thought, "if you buy it, you have to carry it home," but I did find myself wondering what else I could have done with that extra half hour. I found myself wondering if I was just being silly -- how big a difference would a 5-minute car trip have made? In the end, I wasn't sure if what I'd done was a Worthy Sacrifice or a Selfish Indugence.

Of course, both of these issues -- cheapness and convenience -- will become much harder when we have kids (and some of you here do). There is more of a strain on your finances, including a much greater impulse to scrimp and save so that you can get an even better health plan for your kids, an even bigger life insurance policy, or just put more away for a rainy day or the college fund. The concept of disposable income can become harder to define when you have kids, even if you really do have more than you need. And as far as convenience, would I really enjoy walking to the grocery store if I had to haul my kids and the diaper bag up the hill in a wagon to get there? I realize all my previous ramblings are said from a place that is devoid of a lot of the stresses that your average Mormon parent experiences. Hopefully I can reprogram myself well enough while I'm single that when I'm a parent I won't just fall right back into the old grooves.

One other thing. I think one thing we tend to forget as we (both Mormons and the rest of society) react to the negative impacts of our lifestyles on the environment is that real healing might not be finding miraculous solutions that will allow us to live just the same way we are now without the negative consequences. The solution to shrinking landfills and might not be carting more of our glass and plastic to recycling centers, but rather learning to live with less stuff and less free time. The solution to our weight problem might not be learning to love the taste of Splenda, but rather learning to love the taste of food that's a bit tart, a bit more interesting and unexpected. Whatever the global response to our environmental crises, maybe they can trigger little revolutions in our individual lives as we back away from overstimulation and learn to feel again?

Live deliberately?

Suck the marrow out of life?

That sounds pretty Mormon to me.

That said, I still prefer my warm comfy bed to a soggy sleeping bag by Walden Pond, and I doubt that will ever change.

wynne said...

Your response to all our responses was brilliant. And I agree whole-heartedly. Convenience? Cheapness? OVER-CONSUMPTION, yes, yes, yes. *sigh* We have too much. We want too much. And...well, marketing...everyone in the world wants us to buy the useless things they need to sell (so they can have more). And being a parent...oh my heavens. When you have your first baby, your clueless. You have no idea what's going on. Clever marketing tells you that you need to have such-and-such a product for your baby to be healthy, happy, and so you can be a "good mom." (Don't get me started on !@#@! Jif peanut-butter.) And suddenly, you house is crowded with useless products like diaper genies, wipes warmers, countless piles of clothing that are grown out of in a matter of weeks, bouncy-seats, play pens, and toys, toys, never had so much junk. And in a year, you've got no use for it.

Talk about waste.

Really, the disposable diaper is a perfect symbol of this dilemma: they are the epitome of convenience, yet HORRIBLE for the environment. And, yet, when you have a wee crying thing that eliminates waste at an alarming rate and it's the middle of the night and all you want is to go back to sleep--is the environment really worth more than your own sanity? Sure doesn't seem like it in the middle of the night.

It's a huge problem. And making changes is hard (especially if your dearest companion is more committed to frugality than healthy environments and convenience saves your sanity).

Personally, I've been trying to do with less stuff. I have a long way to go, and miles of stuff to toss/donate/recycle before I sleep.

Latter-Day Sustainablist said...

Nice post. I wrote this post a few weeks ago that addressed many of the same issues -I'm glad to know the lecturer gave all the same reasons why Mormons do not embrace environmental stewardship.

I don't buy the theory that stewardship costs too much (pun intended). What about the 3R's?...reduce and reuse save money. And recycling is inexpensive-to-free depending on where you live.