One Mormon’s Views on Ecology

Once, someone asked the Prophet Joseph Smith “what was the first miracle Jesus performed?” They probably were expecting to hear about water being turned to wine, but I can imagine a twinkle in his eye as caught them off guard by answering: “He made this world, and what followed we are not told” (Young Women’s Journal 2 [November 1890]: 75-76).

“Behold, the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it” (1 Nephi 17:36)

The creation is indeed a great miracle—one that we do not fully understand. Why did it take place? Nephi taught: “Behold, the Lord hath created the earth that it should be inhabited; and he hath created his children that they should possess it” (1 Nephi 17:36). The creation took place for us. Taking a look back to the time before the Creation, during the Grand Counsel of heaven: “there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:24-25). The earth was to be a place for us to be tested. A latter-day prophet summarized this event by saying: “‘Now,’ said the Lord, ‘we shall take of the elements at hand and organize them into an earth, place thereon vegetation and animal life, and permit you to go down upon it. This will be your proving ground. We shall give you a rich earth, lavishly furnished for your benefit and enjoyment, and we shall see if you will prove true and do the things that are asked of you. I will enter into a contract with you. If you will agree to exercise control over your desires and continue to grow toward perfection and godhood by the plan which I shall provide, I will give to you a physical body of flesh and bones and a rich and productive earth, with sun, water, forests, metals, soils, and all other things necessary to feed and clothe and house you and give to you every enjoyment that is proper and for your good. In addition to this, I will make it possible for you to eventually return to me as you improve your life, overcoming obstacles and approaching perfection.’

“To the above most generous offer, we as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father responded with gratitude” (TotPotC: Spencer W. Kimball [2006], p. 2).

Now, we are given some teachings about the process of creation, but there is much we do not know, such as the exact time frame or mode of operation employed. As the First Presidency once stated: “Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church” (First Presidency Minutes, Apr. 7, 1931). One of the things we do know, however, is that at each step of creation, it is recorded that: “I, God, saw that all things which I had made were good” (see Moses 2), and that it was glorious and beautiful.

One need only spend a few minutes out in the world to behold its beauty. When one further contemplates the complexity of all that surrounds us, he may exclaim as did the prophets of old: “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge” (Psalms 19:1-2). “The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God… and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power” (D&C 88:45, 47).

One of the reasons I love science—particularly biology—so much is that I feel as though I am touching the face of God and gaining an understanding of Him and His mind through His magnificent creations. His influence is infused everywhere: “This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; as also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; and the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand…. Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things” (D&C 88:7-13).

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge” (Psalms 19:1-2)

We further learn from the Psalmist: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalms 24:1). All of creation is God’s and He knows and cares about each part of it: “All things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them” (Moses 1:35). Yet, He is willing to share with all of us: “yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul” (D&C 59:18-19). Even though it was created for us, we must always remember what Brigham Young taught: “The Lord has given to me all I possess; I have nothing in reality, not a single dime of it is mine… the coat I have on my back is not mine, and never was; the Lord put it in my possession honorably, and I wear it…. I do not own a house, or a single farm of land, a horse, mule, carriage, or wagon… but what the Lord gave me…. It is all the Lord’s and we are only his stewards” (TotPotC: BY, 156-157). It is all a gift, and only a trust from the Lord—not our own to use as we will.

What’s even more amazing to me is that ultimately the earth is to “be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory” (AoF 10) as it is “crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father; that bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it made and created, and for this intent are they sanctified” (D&C 88:19-20). Those who are worthy of the celestial glory will inherit the earth as it is redeemed from the Fall. With this understanding in mind, Elder J. Golden Kimball of the Seventy once stated: “If this earth is to be your heaven, I think you had better have an inheritance here, don’t you?… You had better be very good and take care of this earth” (Conference Report. October, 1906, p. 118).

Indeed, when the Lord stated that man was to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Moses 2:28) it was meant that we are given responsibility for it (see Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, 6th edition. [1946], 221). Further, when man were placed in the garden of Eden, they were “to dress it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). The Hebrew word for “dress” denotes working for or serving while the word for “keep” denotes guarding, observing and giving heed to. Thus, they were to watch over and care for the land, working to improve its condition.

In a way, it could be stated that the earth is under the curse of the Fall and must be redeemed through our efforts in watching over and serving the land. Elder James E. Talmage taught that: “So marked has been the universal curse… that the description of Eden is to us as the story of another world, an orb of a higher order of existence, wholly unlike this dreary sphere. Yet we learn that Eden was in reality a feature of our planet, and that the earth is destined to become a celestialized body fit for the abode of the most exalted intelligences.” (A Study of the Artiles of Faith [42nd ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967], 375.) A historian described the attitude of the early Church towards this precept: “This purification was not to be accomplished by any mechanistic process nor by any instantaneous cleansing by fire and/or water. It was to be performed by God’s chosen; it involved subduing the earth and making it teem with living plants and animals. Man must assist God in this process of regeneration and make the earth a more fitting abode for himself and for the Redeemer of Man. The earth must be turned into a Garden of Eden where God’s people would never again know want or suffering. The Kingdom of God, in other words, was to be realized by a thoroughly pragmatic mastery of the forces of nature. An important admonition to be industrious, and not idle, was supplementary to this belief.

“Making the waste places blossom as the rose, and the earth to yield abundantly of its diverse fruits, was more than an economic necessity; it was a form of religious worship. As one early leader later wrote, the construction of water ditches was as much a part of the Mormon religion as water baptism. The redemption of man’s home (the earth) was considered to be as important as the redemption of his soul. The earth, as the future abiding place of God’s people, had to be made productive and fruitful. This would be accomplished ‘by the blessing and power of God, and… by the labors and sacrifices of its inhabitants, under the light of the Gospel and the direction of the authorized servants of God.’” (Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints 1830-1900 [Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993 reprint], 25-26.)

The early Church members believed in redeeming the earth from the Fall through hard work.

The question now becomes: how are we to help redeem and take care of the earth? Following the scripture mentioned before about all things being made for the benefit and use of man comes this statement: “And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59:20, emphasis added). At another time a revelation was received that stated that: “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance. But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. And we be unto man that shedeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need” (D&C 49:19-21 emphasis added). While it is true that the earth was created for out use, there is a way that it is to be used that will maximize the benefits of creation. We must take care of it in the Lord’s way. “It is not our privilege to waste the Lord’s substance,” Brigham Young preached (JD 11:136, August 1-10, 1865). “There is only so much property in the world. There are the elements that belong to this globe, and no more. . . . [A]ll our commercial transactions must be confined to this little earth and its wealth cannot be increased or diminished.” (JD 13:304, November 13, 1870.) We are to value that which we are given, not take more than we need, and not waste the Lord’s creation. It is to be cared for and not selfishly used up. We are stewards over the earth and need to take good care of it. To do otherwise is to be selfish. There is plenty for everyone, for “the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” but “it must needs be done in mine [the Lord’s] own way” (D&C 104:17, 16).

Christ himself set the example while he lived on the earth. During the feeding of the five thousand, Christ provided food for literally thousands of people from a mere five loaves and two fishes. Even with this great providing and creating power: “when they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” (John 6:12). When they did so, “they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes” (Mark 6:43). Nothing was to be wasted or lost.

“Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” (John 6:12)

Similarly, modern day prophets have also been advocates of the “waste not, want not” principle. During the march of Zion’s camp, Joseph Smith “exhorted the brethren not to kill a serpent, bird, or an animal of any kind during our journey unless it became necessary in order to preserve [themselves] from hunger.” Later in the journey, it’s recorded that he: “had frequently spoken on this subject, when on a certain occasion [he] came up to the brethren who were watching a squirrel on a tree, and to prove them and to know if they would heed [his] counsel, [he] took one of their guns, shot the squirrel and passed on, leaving the squirrel on the ground. Brother Orson Hyde, who was just behind, picked up the squirrel, and said, ‘We will cook this, that nothing may be lost.’ [Joseph] perceived that the brethren understood what [he] did it for, and in their practice gave more heed to [his] precept than to my example, which was right” (DHC 2:71-72).

President Brigham Young continued this legacy in such teachings as: “Idleness and wastefulness are not according to the rules of heaven. Preserve all you can, that you may have abundance to bless your friends and your enemies” (TotPotC: BY [1997], p. 226). “Never let anything go to waste. Be prudent, save everything, and what you get more than you can take care of yourselves, ask your neighbors to help you consume” (ibid, p. 229). “Never consider that you have bread enough around you to suffer your children to waste a crust or crumb of it. If a man is worth millions of bushels of wheat and corn, he is not wealthy enough to… sweep a single kernel of it into the fire; let it be eaten by something and pass again into the earth, and thus fulfill the purpose for which it grew. Remember it, do not waste anything, but take care of everything” (ibid, p. 229). “It is to our advantage to take good care of the blessings God bestows upon us; if we pursue the opposite course, we cut off the power and glory God designs we should inherit” (ibid, p. 229).

Brigham spoke of keeping the natural and manmade environment pure just as one maintains personal purity: “Keep your valley pure, keep your towns as pure as you possibly can, keep your hearts pure.” (JD 8:80, June 10, 1860) As the Saints did so, “the earth under their feet will be holy; . . . the soil of the earth will bring forth in its strength, and the fruits thereof will be meat for man.” (JD 1:203, April 6, 1852.)

During President Heber J. Grant’s administration, the world was rocked by the Great Depression. As part of the Church programs to relieve the effects of the crisis, Deseret Industries (D.I.) was founded. The second of four reasons given for its creation was so that “waste will be reduced by keeping our possessions in use as long as possible” (John A. Widtsoe, “Deseret Industries,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1938, p. 544). They were interested in reducing the amount of waste that was left behind and making sure that things were reused and waste was reduced.

From studying such patterns as these, we may see at least parts of the three ‘r’s of conservation: reduce, reuse and recycle. I would like to use the three-leaf clover to help remember the three ‘r’s—reduce, reuse and recycle—one for each leaf. We all can do these simple things. Water bottles are a perfect example: we can use reusable ones so that we reduce the waste created by hundreds of plastic bottles being thrown away by using them over and over. When we do use disposable ones, we should try to recycle them if possible. The aluminum cans we use are another great example: it takes 5% of the energy needed to create an aluminum can from raw materials to recycle aluminum (saving enough energy to run a TV for three hours or a 100 watt bulb for four years). When recycled, the can has the potential of ending up back on the shelf as a new can within 60 days. Considering that the average employee consumes 2.5 beverages a day at work, recycling these cans can add up. In 2006, for example, 54 billion cans were recycled, saving the energy equivalent of 15 million barrels of crude oil (see http://earth911.com/news/2007/04/02/facts-about-aluminum-recycling/). The energy created by using up crude oil is important—and not just because of gas prices. That affects society, but is more easily adjusted for than the other side of the coin—food prices. The food industry is based on using up energy to grow up produce in highly effective ways.  It is shipped all over the world, again using up energy. The more we use up petroleum, the higher gas prices will rise, meaning higher food prices, which will hurt our pockets far more than driving less will.

It takes 5% of the energy needed to create an aluminum can from raw materials to recycle aluminum

In contrast to this we can look to plastics used in the U.S. Each year, the average American office worker uses 500 disposable cups and Americans in general throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times. More seriously, during an International Coastal Cleanup, it was found that plastic bags are the second-most common kind of waste found—10% of everything tallied. Looking in some of my apartment cupboards, I can believe it. On average the state of California alone spends 25 million dollars sending plastic bags to landfills each year and another 8.5 million dollars to remove littered bags from the streets. As a whole, Americans use approximately 1 billion plastic shopping bags, totaling 300,000 tons of landfill waste. Once at a landfill, they sit and poison the land—they aren’t biodegradable, they just break into smaller pieces when they’re exposed to light and spread out into the land and water and poison whatever consumes them. Unlike aluminum, it isn’t cost effective to recycle plastic bags. (see http://www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html#_ednref7). While efforts can and should be extended there, it is more effective to use reusable shopping bags made of hemp or cotton—they last well and are biodegradable when they do wear out.

Another place to look is to air quality. I’m writing this in Logan, Cache County UT. It is one of the safest places to live in the world, but one of the few problems with it is air quality. In March 2005, USA Today reported that Logan had recorded three of the nation’s 15 most concentrated soot readings since monitoring began in 1999 and at one point in 2002 recording more than double the EPA’s “unhealthy” threshold for particulates (http://www.usatoday.com/weather/stormcenter/2005-03-08-utah-bad-air_x.htm). It’s not good for people’s health to face such pollution—here or anywhere else. More than anything else that can be done by individuals is to reduce car use—use public transportation, bike, or walk whenever possible. It saves money for gas and promotes better health.

Yet, even with such evidence as this, some choose to remain blind. I remember driving by some factories on the Mississippi river going to Nauvoo and the man who was driving told his children that the factories weren’t really producing pollution—it was just steam and liberals were invading the education system to make them believe otherwise. Whether it fits our bias or not, we need to accept the truth when it comes to us. We are taught by Joseph Smith that “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are yet to come” (D&C 93:24) and that “the first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitations or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 264). Brigham Young taught: “Be willing to receive the truth, let it come from whom it may…. If the infidel [one who doesn’t believe in God] has got truth it belongs to ‘Mormonism.’ The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belongs to this Church…. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it” (TotPotC: BY, 16). He also taught: “Our religion measures, weighs, and circumscribes all the wisdom in the world—all that God has ever revealed to man. God has revealed all the truth that is now in the possession of the world, whether it be scientific or religious” (ibid, 17). If the scientific world has hit upon a truth, then we need to give heed to it. The general consensus in that community is that we are not being good stewards to the earth and need to change or there will even more major problems for the earth and for us in the future.

Cuyahoga River of Ohio, fire on the 3 November 1952.

For a dramatic example, we may look to the Cuyahoga River of Ohio. A description given in 1969 of the river was as follows: “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays’. . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: ‘The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.’ It is also — literally — a fire hazard.” The river was so polluted by Cleveland factories that it was known to have caught fire thirteen times, causing millions of dollars in damage and catching national attention in 1969 (http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1642). Pollution is real and is a real problem and it will affect our heath.

Now, I love reading. As I read fiction, I often think about commentary that the author is making about the world. Some of my favorite scenes from both Lord of Rings and from Prince Caspian of the Chronicles of Narnia are where trees start fighting along with the good guys. In Lord of the Rings, the ents (the tree things) are moved into action as their leader Treebeard is shown the deforestation and destruction wrecked upon his land by the evil Sauruman. The social commentary I see in this is a cry against the destruction of forests and natural lands to make way for industrialization. While we are somewhat limited in our realm of this problem, one way to improve conditions (including air conditions) is to plant gardens and trees within our sphere of influence. Heber C. Kimball taught: “Some may ask why I talk so much about these temporal matters. I do this because I feel it to be my duty to do it, and not particularly on account of any desire that I have to speak of them. Our immediate and daily connection with temporal things renders it important that we should be reminded of our duties in relation to these matters.

“We have been taught that our Father and God, from whom we sprang, called and appointed his servants to go and organize an earth, and, among the rest, he said to Adam, ‘You go along also and help all you can; you are going to inhabit it when it is organized, therefore go and assist in the good work.’ It reads in the Scriptures that the Lord did it, but the true rendering is, that the Almighty sent Jehovah and Michael to do the work. They were also instructed to plant every kind of vegetable, likewise the forest and the fruit trees, and they actually brought from heaven every variety of fruit, of the seeds of vegetables, the seeds of flowers, and planted them in this earth on which we dwell….

“By faith and works we shall subdue the earth and make it glorious. We can plant vineyards and eat the fruit thereof; we possess this power within ourselves.”
~Heber C. Kimball

“Father Adam was instructed to multiply and replenish the earth, to make it beautiful and glorious, to make it, in short, like unto the garden from which the seeds were brought to plant the garden of Eden. … God the Father made Adam the Lord of this creation in the beginning, and if we are the Lords of this creation under Adam, ought we not to take a course to imitate our Father in heaven? Is not all this exhibited to us in our endowments? the earth made glorious and beautiful to look upon, representing everything which the Lord caused to be prepared and placed to adorn the earth. The Prophet Joseph frequently spoke of these things in the revelations which he gave, but the people generally did not understand them, but to those who did they were cheering, they had a tendency to gladden the heart and enlighten the mind. By faith and works we shall subdue the earth and make it glorious. We can plant vineyards and eat the fruit thereof; we possess this power within ourselves. I would not give a fig for faith without works, for it is dead, even as the body without the spirit is dead. … As members of the body of Christ we are called upon to labor and to do our part towards building up his kingdom, and should all have equal interest in that kingdom. We manifest our attachment to the principles of progress and improvement, both of which are intimately connected with the building up of Zion, when we plant orchards and vineyards, and when we make good gardens, good farms, and when we build good houses; in doing all of which we get a liberal reward as we go along. Then let us stretch forth our hands and build up the towns and cities of Zion” (JD 10:234-235, emphasis added).

Similarly, his grandson—Spencer W. Kimball—then president of the Church—counseled: “We encourage you to grow all the food that you feasibly can on your own property. Berry bushes, grapevines, fruit trees—plant them if your climate is right for their growth. Grow vegetables and eat them from your own yard. Even those residing in apartments or condominiums can generally grow a little food in pots and planters. Study the best methods of providing your own foods. Make your garden as neat and attractive as well as productive. If there are children in your home, involve them in the process with assigned responsibilities….

“Keep in good repair and beautify your homes, your yards, farms, and businesses. Repair the fences. Clean up and paint where needed. Keep your lawns and your gardens well-groomed. Whatever your circumstance, let your premises reflect orderliness, beauty, and happiness. Plan well and carry out your plan in an orderly and systematic manner” (“Family Preparedness,” Ensign May 1976). Growing a garden helps the environment, creates beauty, provides food at a lower cost, and allows children to learn work ethic.

“We hope all of you will put in your gardens and prepare to enjoy their produce… There is so much to learn and harvest from your garden, far more than just a crop itself.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Becoming the Pure in Heart,” http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1978/04/becoming-the-pure-in-heart?lang=eng&query=zion+kimball.)

Now, considering all that must be done, I have felt overwhelmed at times. More than once I have had the thought cross my mind: “well, when Jesus comes, He’ll fix everything. That will be soon enough, right?” Similarly, once at a scout camp, one of our leaders threw some plastic utensils into a fire and an eco-conscious scout questioned him for doing so, he responded “ah, I’m just speeding up the time to when Christ comes. I’m all for that. Aren’t you?” Though somewhat humorous, we really don’t know when Christ will come. When Elijah came to the Kirtland temple, we know he said “by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors” (D&C 110:16). We don’t know what exactly “near” constitutes, though—people in Paul’s time thought Christ would return soon (see 2 Thess 2:1-3 for an example), some flagellants and others in the mediaeval era (particularly during the time of the black death) believed it was imminent, and to this day many groups try and predict it and watch as their planned days of rapture or end of the world pass by. So, while the signs point to the fact that it is soon, it will come “as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour [He] shall come upon thee” (Rev. 3:3). Until the time that he comes, we are expected to do all we can to live the gospel and take care of things so that we may be presentable when He comes.

Change is always hard, but it is a centre-point of the gospel. It will be hard to make the adjustments we all must, but we must do all that is in our power to take care of (dress and keep, you might say) the earth—plant gardens; reduce, reuse, recycle; to not take more than we need—In general to take care of the it as God Himself would. In most situations, God won’t directly intervene but leaves it to us to choose what to do. Folklore tells of the story of “President Young overlooking the valley with an admiring minister: ‘What you and the Lord have done with this place is truly amazing,’ observed the visitor, to which President Young replied, ‘Yes, Reverend, but you should have seen it when the Lord had it alone!’” (James E. Faust, “Brigham Young, A Bold Prophet.” BYU speech 21 Aug 2001).

If we are to bring change about, we need to do our part as individuals in our daily lives. As we do so, we shall live in greater beauty, be more healthy and able to do the Lord’s work, and the earth will be able to support more people. I believe that these principles are of the Lord and hope that they will be of help in the world we live.

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