During my freshman year at BYU, a conservative friend of mine tried to explain to me why recycling, and caring for the environment in general, were scripturally unsound practices. He cited the LDS Doctrine and Covenants Section 59 verses 16 to 19, which, in a nutshell, indicate that the Lord provided all of the natural things on the earth "for benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea, for food and raiment." My friend’s attitude was that if the earth and all the things on it are for our benefit, why bother to protect the environment? He conveniently left out the next verse, which states, "for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion." The scripture is clear: we are to be wise and reasonable stewards of our natural resources. George Handley, a professor at BYU, outlined several fundamental principles of environmental stewardship in LDS belief, which I won’t go into here, but are worth reviewing. Unfortunately, far too many people who claim to be Christians do not feel a duty to care for and protect the earth.
It is not difficult to find evidence around us that our planet is ailing. From local ecosystems to our global oceanic and atmospheric climates, the environment is changing in ways that are often irreversible. Mass extinctions, the great Pacific garbage patch, dead rivers and lakes, dying coral reefs, warmer oceans, hotter global temperatures and increased frequencies of extreme weather events indicate that humankind continues to leave its permanent mark on the earth.
Part of our current situation can be understood by examining the selfishness that sits at the heart of consumerism. Most people take no thought for how their actions impact our world and its condition for future generations. However, the choices we make each day have an impact on our environment. When we throw away tons of consumer packaging, waste food and water, fail to turn off unused lights and appliances in our homes, or drive gas-guzzling vehicles that are larger than our needs, we leave an adverse impact on the planet. The impact is exponentially compounded when billions of people repeat these actions on a daily basis. By focusing solely on our current wants while ignoring the needs of future generations, choices are made that provide momentary gratification, but jeopardize the future. Unfortunately, if caring for the planet means making some sacrifices of convenience, many will choose convenience over the environment.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Environment
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches and exemplifies wise stewardship of the earth. President Gordon B. Hinckley said “this earth is [Christ’s] creation. When we make it ugly, we offend him.” When the Church constructs meetinghouses and other buildings, it tries to build them in environmentally-sustainable ways. Recently, the Church has begun to implement a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified meetinghouse structure that includes solar panels, high efficiency HVAC systems, and landscaping and plumbing designs that cut water consumption in half. As a Church architect noted, “we work to be good stewards of the environment wherever we build and manage properties.”
Additionally, Church presidents have advocated for the protection of wildlife. In a 1978 General Conference address, President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of boys he knew during his youth who killed small wild birds for pleasure and expressed his displeasure at “the unnecessary shedding of blood and destruction of life.” He stated, “not less with reference to the killing of innocent birds is the wildlife of our country that live upon the vermin that are indeed enemies to the farmer and to mankind. It is not only wicked to destroy them, it is a shame, in my opinion.”
President Joseph Field Smith once stated, “I do not believe any man should kill animals or birds unless he needs them for food, and then he should not kill innocent little birds that are not intended for food for man. I think it is wicked for men to thirst in their souls to kill almost everything which possesses animal life.” This prophetic counsel about protecting wildlife, the scriptural prohibition on abusing our natural resources, combined with the church’s environmentally-friendly example in its building practices should be ample evidence of the mandate Latter-day Saints have to care for our earth.
What We Can Do
There are many things that people can do on an individual and household level to practice good environmental stewardship, or conservation. We can reduce our water consumption by using eco-friendly faucets, shower heads, and washing appliances. We can recycle and reduce the amount of waste that we produce. We can reuse disposable items before throwing them away. In countries like Germany and Scandinavia, landfills constitute less than 5% of the total waste management effort due to ambitious recycling and waste reduction programs as well as improved cultural attitudes about conservation. In the U.S., over half of all garbage ends up in landfills. We must do better.
During President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, he challenged the nation to double U.S. energy efficiency by 2030, a bold, but achievable goal. Aside from developing the needed improvements to technology, we can accomplish this by driving smaller vehicles that are more appropriate to our families’ needs. We can car pool, better plan our outings, and use bikes or walk when feasible. Using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, taking care to turn off unused lights and appliances, and turning down the thermostat by a couple of degrees in the winter and up by a couple of degrees in the summer will go a long way to conserve energy. Aside from reducing your environmental footprint, conserving energy at home will save you money. It also benefits our nation’s security by reducing our dependence on foreign, and especially Middle East oil. Many of the world’s most despotic regimes are home to the world’s largest oil deposits. Think of how different our national security policies in the Middle East would be if we no longer needed their oil.
The Word of Wisdom teaches that we should eat meat “sparingly.” Doing so is not only good for our health, according to the latest nutritional research, it is also good for the environment. Meat production requires a staggering amount of energy, land, and water compared to plant foods, and produces exponentially more carbon dioxide. Growing our own vegetable gardens and purchasing locally-grown produce also provides benefits for our health and planet.
Just as millions of environmentally-poor choices have hugely compounded, adverse impacts on our planet, millions of environmentally-conscious decisions make a synergistic, positive impact. Everyone needs to do their part.
Republicans’ Strong Record of Environmentalism
American conservatives have a strong record of environmental achievements. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps the best-known conservationist. As president, he created the U.S. Forest Service and established scores of wildlife reserves, national forests, parks, and monuments, protecting about 230 million acres of public land altogether. He wisely implored Americans to “inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 into law, which created national air quality standards and gave the EPA power to enforce them. In 1972, Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, which gave the EPA authority to regulate the discharge of pollutants into American waters. As a result of these two key pieces of legislation, air and water quality in the U.S. dramatically improved.
President George H. W. Bush dealt a severe blow to the acid rain problem in the Northeastern U.S. when he signed into law an amendment to the Clean Air Act that created a cap and trade system to control sulfur dioxide pollution, which was a primary contributor to acid rain. His administration also effectively reversed the growth of the hole in the ozone layer by instituting regulations on gases and chemicals that were causing the problem.
Conservation and Conservatism
However, since George H. W. Bush left office, the GOP has departed from its former stance as a champion of environmental protection. President George W. Bush signed into law the Clear Skies Act, which actually rolled back pollution standards, allowing more pollution to be emitted into the air. George W. Bush also signed an energy bill that removed many environmental protection regulations on companies that perform natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” On an individual level, many contemporary conservatives scoff at the idea of a civic or moral duty to protect the environment. Concern for the environment generally ranks extremely low in polls of Republicans. Recent polling also shows that a majority of Republicans believe that global warming is a hoax.
It is time to put the “conserve” back into conservative. As Republicans for Environmental Protection once stated, "We remind skeptics that nothing is more conservative than conservation. True conservatives should safeguard the resources on which the health, recreation, and economic prosperity of present and future Americans depend. There is nothing conservative, and certainly nothing wise, in squandering our wildlife, wilderness, wetlands, and other natural treasures."
Properly conserving our earth for future generations is a moral duty we must not shirk. If we heed what science tells us about our ailing planet and learn how to change our individual and collective behavior accordingly, we will unleash a greater passion and dedication to being faithful stewards of the earth.