Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Responsible Environmentalism

A little over a year ago I finished reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail by Jared Diamond.[1] In the introduction Diamond admits that he set out writing the novel with the intent to show that environmental damage was the only major factor contributing to the collapse of ancient societies such as the Maya and Angkor Wat.[2] However, his research [3] forced him to conclude that there were other variables which could not be ignored: climate change (such as El Niño or the Little Ice Age [4]), hostile neighbors, friendly neighbors/trade partners, and how a given society responds to environmental damage.[5] His tone throughout the book is generally panicked, though ends by claiming "cautious optimism" about the future of global society. At the end of the book he encourages everyone to engage in efforts to improve the environment, both globally and locally.[6]

Environmentalism often gets a bad rap from the extremists who figuratively froth at the mouth when they talk about the death of the planet. Among them are the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, (VHEM) who produced this little gem:

Yet, to some degree, I believe we're all environmentalists. I can't imagine anyone who would be pleased to go to their favorite camping spot and find it full of trash and litter. Or to discover that the forest they love to go hiking in has been cut down. Or to visit their favorite picnic spot to see that all the wildflowers have been bulldozed to make way for a dusty, noisy gravel pit. Or to learn that their favorite fishing hole has been ruined by a chemical spill from a mine owned by Canadians.[7] Or to go to a beach covered with washed-up syringes. Or to spend two hours each way getting to work and back because of overpopulation.[8] Nature is beautiful and we all want to keep it that way, both for ourselves and for our posterity.

The main point that the VHEM group doesn't understand is that the Earth and all that is in it is created for mankind:
...the fulness 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; yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards; 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. 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. (Doctrine and Covenants 59:16–20) [9]
Without humanity on the earth, the rest of Creation would be pointless.[10] But this does not mean that we won't be accountable for misusing it or destroying it. We are expected to be stewards, not simply consumers of the Earth's resources. If we don't improve what we've been given by the Lord, then we are "wicked and slothful servant[s]". (Matt. 25:14–30)

If we obey his commandments, the Lord has promised to provide for our needs:
For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves. (Doctrine and Covenants 104:17)
However, there are two things to keep in mind with respect to this passage. First, this promise was given in connection with the United Order.[11] Since we no longer practice the United Order (and certainly the non-LDS population doesn't), it is uncertain whether this statement is still true. Second, the Apostle Neal A. Maxwell [12] warned that this is true only so long as we don't mismanage our resources—i.e. "with judgment, not to excess". (Doctrine and Covenants 59:20) While food and shelter are needful uses of the Earth's resources, perhaps many of the luxuries we currently enjoy are not. And I do not think that the Lord countenances needless waste. For example, when an animal is endangered with extinction, let us keep in mind that that is a creation of our Heavenly Father. At one point or another He judged everything that He created "good".[13] Thus I believe He will not condone the wanton destruction of any of His precious creations.[14]

I do not participate in Jared Diamond's hand-wringing about the state of the environment. I believe that most people who care about the environment aren't maniacal about it. Like me, they just want the wonders of God's creation to stay beautiful for themselves and for their children. They engage in simple practices that help keep things that way. And when outside forces threaten the beautiful nature that they love, they use legal means to oppose them. Furthermore, I believe that some day Jesus Christ will return to the Earth and fulfill his promise to beautify it and make it perfect.[15]


[1] I really enjoyed another one of his books, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

[2] Diamond, Jared. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, NY: Penguin Books, ISBN 0-670-03337-5,  p. 11.

[3] His research is poorly documented. Rather than cite his sources directly, like a good scientist, he contents himself with providing a bibliographic tour of his sources at the end, organized according to chapter. In perusing the internet, I've discovered many complaining that he is often biased in his interpretation of others' data or even goes so far as to overstate the facts. Also, his interpretation of what happened on Easter Island isn't favored by modern science—the collapse of that society was caused by rats which ate the seeds of the local trees, eventually deforesting the island.

[4] Diamond inevitably brings up global warming, but I can't help but think of the many droughts and famines that the Lord sent to chastise the wicked (e.g. 2 Samuel 21:1; 2 Kings 8:1; Jeremiah 24:10; Mosiah 1:17; Helaman 11:4–5; Ether 9:28; Doctrine and Covenants 43:25; etc.).

[5] Diamond, op cit.

[6] Ibid., p. 555–560.

[7] I'm not just ragging on Canadians for fun. Diamond gives several examples of Canadian mining companies that destroyed rivers in Montana. To get out of cleaning up the environmental damage they caused, they voted million dollar bonuses for the shareholders and then declared themselves bankrupt. Since Montana law didn't forbid them from doing so, the Montana taxpayers have to pay for the cleanup while the Canadian fat cats got all the profits from the mines and got off scot-free.

[8] It has been estimated (here) that it will take the Salt Lake Valley another ~180 years to reach the population size of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area (and therefore have the same traffic problems). It is, however, an amateur projection.

[9] Note, however, that this is also contingent upon mankind keeping the Sabbath Day holy (Doctrine and Covenants 59:9–15). You can find LDS scriptures here.

[10] Liberal movie critic Roger Ebert echoed this sentiment in his review of Powaqqatsi (here).

[11] The United Order was a program for implementing a principle of the Church referred to as the Law of Consecration. The Law of Consecration entails a covenant with God to utilize your time, talents, and possessions to the Church to build up His kingdom and serve His children—particularly the poor. See "Lesson 14: The Law of Consecration," Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Class Member Study Guide, (1999). The United Order was a failure, due to the selfishness of the people who were asked to practice it, but the Law of Consecration is still in effect.

[12] Maxwell, Neal A. (2002) "Our Creator's Cosmos" (.pdf), address presented at The Twenty-Sixth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators Conference.

[13] e.g. Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31.

[14] Here in Utah Valley there is a lot of concern about a fish that is endemic to Utah Lake: the June Sucker. It's a pretty worthless little fish, and I don't really think its conservation deserves all the effort and money it has been receiving. But perhaps the Lord is more concerned about its continuing existence than I am.

[15] You can find a list of scriptures relevant to this here.

Image attributions:

The Eco Depth Gauge is by Les U. Knight, available at

Star Valley Covered in Snow is by Wayne Noffsinger, available at

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