Its history is steeped in stewardship of the land. But in the 21st century, is such a title an oxymoron?
By Alexandra L. Woodruff


When Stiles came to the shocking conclusion that he should publish a "Good News" issue of the Zephyr, we decided an article examining the LDS Church's relationship to the environmental movement might fit right into the issue's theme. With the help of the ever-optimistic Dr. Richard Ingebretsen (see interview on page 20), I contacted LDS general authority Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, who spoke encouragingly on this topic at the University of Utah in April.

Mormon Temple - Salt Lake City, Utah

I scheduled an interview and began preparing questions. But when I called a week beforehand to confirm the appointment, I learned that Elder Featherstone would be unable to do the interview; Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had chosen to participate instead. I was passed on to the media department and submitted a formal request, but after weeks of calling, the Oaks interview remained in doubt. July is traditionally vacation month for church authorities and it is not exactly clear why the interview was not approved.

I have resubmitted my request for the interview, even if it happens after this issue's deadline. Although the church officials are not currently willing to continue this dialogue, the church was able to put me in contact with some devout Mormons whose faith inspires their concern for the natural world. They use Christian and LDS scriptures to justify their commitment to preservation.

Church leaders may not vocalize their stand on environmental preservation and many members even say they don't need to; the scriptures and teachings already exist and simply need to be brought to light again. They actually prefer their church to stay out of the politics of the environment. Still the potential power of the church and its members is daunting. When a country needs humanitarian aid after a natural disaster or during a war, members fill food storage warehouses and volunteer their time to prepare disaster relief. In the early 80s, when there was talk of developing the MX missile in Utah, the church came out against it. The project died soon after. Imagine what the LDS Church could accomplish if it became an advocate of environmental protection.

Taking responsibility

Living in Utah we often forget that it is not just this state that contributes to environmental destruction. The United States is the world's largest over-consumptive nation. We account for 2-percent of the world's population, yet we consume over 85-percent of the earth's resources. George Handley, an assistant professor of humanities at Brigham Young University, studies eco-theology and Mormonism says he would welcome the church's involvement, but says it wouldn't be a panacea for the problem.

"Of course it could and would be effective if it threw its considerable influence around a bit more on environmental issues. But I also think it is not going to do anyone any good to sit around and wait for institutional action of an explicitly political kind. That draws us away from focusing on the fact that solving the environmental crisis is a matter of changing our hearts and our living patterns...all of us. We don't have an environmental crisis on our hands simply because the Mormon Church, or other institutions do or do not make institutional choices; we have a crisis because we as a collective society of various individuals and groups have misplaced our values. We have to start taking individual and local responsibility," said Handley. Handley says the original Mormon pioneers were taught to conserve and live within their means. Now, there is debate as to what changed their attitudes. Was it the coming of the transcontinental railroad? Or endured physical struggles that implemented a culture of taming nature?

Right now capitalism and economic exploitation seem to drive us away from taking care of the land we live on. "Most of our lifestyles are styles are so far removed from the production of food and the dispersal of our waste that we don't really even have any idea what we do to the land. Our society is driven by commodification. This is something Brigham Young preached vehemently against. He didn't think water should be commodified.

"There were land issues that he fought against," Handley explains. "Brigham Young preached on a regular basis the importance of using resources very conservatively. They certainly wanted the church to grow in numbers, but he did not see that necessarily went against the ethic of a conservative moderate lifestyle." The Law of Consecration is an LDS ethic that says there are enough resources for everyone in the world if we learn to equally and fairly distribute them.

Wild lands in Southern Utah

In other words, if we didn't live past our means and lived a less materialist life, we probably would not be facing a resource crisis. "The scriptures are clear that as long as there is unequal distribution of resources and inequality in temporal terms, there is going to be an inequality in spiritual terms," Handley said. Handley has used his Mormon background to confirm why he is involved in the environmental and conservation movement. A mandate from the pulpit may actually be damaging because it could take responsibility away from the individual. "The church is teaching principles and doctrines and it's encouraging members to make decisions on their own about particular issues. My activism in environmental issues is perfectly consistent with my religion. I would debate with members who are anti-environmental that they're not being consistent with their religion," Handley said, "The environmental crisis is, at its roots, about individual attitudes toward the earth that add up into collectivity of communities and their attitudes toward the earth. And until the individual and the local communities can reorient themselves in powerful ways towards an environmental ethic, whatever the church does on a macro scale may actually displace the primary responsibility of the individual."

Conserving faith

World-renowned conservationist Paul Alan Cox is a devout Mormon and a dedicated environmentalist. He is a prime example of how the LDS faith has fueled passions for protecting the natural world. Cox is currently the director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a project in Hawaii trying to preserve plants threatened with extinction. He comes from a long line of conservationists, but says it is his faith that keeps him dedicated to the preservation of the ecosystems. "As a young boy, I prayed that God would protect the plants and animals of the world. I realized that a lot of the plants and animals in wild settings had no voice or protection. So, what became prayers of a young boy become a guiding focus of my work now," explained Cox. "Theologically, my view is if you love the artist you shouldn't slash the painting." He cites the Doctrine and Covenants 104: 13-14 to support his view of using the earth's resources with judgment: "For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine."

Throughout his life he has kept consistent with these beliefs. In the early 70s, he served a mission in a remote rainforest in Samoa. Because he learned both Samoan and Tongan, he was able to return to the island of Savaii in Samoa in the late 80s to study how the natives used the different plants as medicine. Everything was going well, until loggers showed up to cut down a part of the rainforest. The government was planning to sell the timber, so it could pay for the construction of a school. Cox organized a movement and raised money to pay for the school without cutting down the rainforest. He says the natives interpreted events very differently than he did. "Here's this white guy that shows up out of nowhere, speaking fluent Samoan; he spends all his time in the forest studying plants for healing; when the loggers come, he immediately leads an attempt to remove them from the forest. They thought I was somehow inspired by an ancient deity, Nafanua," recalls Cox.

As a condition of signing a covenant to protect the forest on a long-term basis, the people of the island required him to accept a chief's title as Nafanua, a god who protects the forest. "I think without exception every indigenous tribe I've worked with to this point believes the earth is sacred. It's only western culture that sees it as a commodity. Yet in our scriptures the sacredness of the earth is asserted," Cox said, "I consider the story of Noah a great saga about the preservation of biodiversity in the face of man's depravity and depredations." The Doctrine and Covenants 59: 16 & 20 states, "Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this [keep the Sabbath holy], the fullness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth."

Cox believes that members who use theology to justify environmental degradation and demonize conservationists are walking on very thin theological ground. Every month, church members fast and donate the money they saved on food to the poor. Cox says it would be hypocritical to help the needy on one level, but jeopardize them on another. "Environmental degradation represents a tax on the poor. Those of us who are well off can buffer ourselves to some degree from the effects of environmental degradation, but the poor have no recourse. I see it as more than a moral issue; I see it as a spiritual issue," Cox explains.

A matter of perspective

Dr. JoAnn Valenti, a communications professor at BYU in Provo, has studied what influences positive environmental attitudes. She finds that attitudes of LDS members are high. But religion is just one factor that influences these attitudes; personal ideology, moral upbringing, media, economic background, career are just some of the others.

Throughout her studies she found education was key to high levels of environmental awareness. Costa Rica has the highest literacy rate in Central and South America and its environmental awareness is so strong that conservation has become synonymous with patriotism. Sweden is another country with high environmental awareness. Education in Sweden is state-supported and through university, schooling is free to anyone who qualifies. "I think education, intelligence and a respect for intelligence sits right up there hand-in-hand with attitudes toward the environment. I'm not surprised to find that attitudes toward the environment in the Mormon population are more present than what you find in a cross-section sample of the U.S. public. Education is valued in the Mormon culture," Valenti explained. It is difficult to acknowledge these positive attitudes, when so many of our LDS politicians seem to do so many things that go against the environmental and conservation movement.

But Valenti says there is a line between actions of a politician and the faith of a politician. "When Al Gore does something, does it somehow spin off and it's good news for the Baptists. When the Baptists do something inane like they're prone to do with great regularity does that somehow impact on Al Gore? There's a tendency to buy into a paranoia that I don't see as productive or constructive. Because for every Jim Hansen there's a Ted Wilson," said Valenti, She says environmental awareness is in a downtime right now, not just in the Mormon Church and in Utah, but everywhere in this country. But because of people like Paul Cox, Richard Ingebretsen and Terry Tempest Williams she says the topic will move to the forefront again. As a Florida native, she remains positive about Utah's future. She says it is too easy to rush to judgment and only see the negative.

"It's the mythology within the boundaries of this state, the limits of what we think about off the front pages. I think is an element of mythology, misinformation, paranoia, suspicion and distrust that taints our ability to see the positive and to look forward. We're more reluctant to assume something good is going to happen than we are anxious to say, 'Here we go again, the church is going to do something again, BYU is doing something again.' When in fact, I'm seeing some pretty good things come out of it. As a person who does consider herself environmentally responsible, I have felt much more hopeful than in my home state of Florida," said Valenti. She does not anticipate any revelations on environmental attitudes, but because the doctrines and teachings are already in place; a new revelation is not needed. "I think it's already there. If church leaders just continue to remind church members on what Brigham Young and Joseph Smith said, what's already in their doctrine, we're in fine shape. Those are fine principles to live by."

And opening the discussion and dialogue is the first step towards resolving environmental conflicts.

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