In this era of alarming rates of extinction and human-caused climate change, we have seen an extraordinary outpouring of concern for the environment across the globe from Catholics and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, evangelicals and Buddhists. It’s not hard to understand why. Stewardship of the environment is an important principle in every religious tradition.
This response certainly ought to put to rest the old and tired stereotype of the environmentalist as someone who worships nature but not God or who cares more for plants than for people. The religious concern for the environment, as Pope Francis has most recently exemplified in his remarkable encyclical on climate change, is based on a profound respect for life — for all forms of life and for all the gifts of creation — and in principled devotion to alleviate the suffering of the poor who are disproportionately affected by all symptoms of environmental degradation. After all, a polluted or dangerous environment makes it hard to raise a family or for the young to hope for the future.
I am struck by how consistent this global religious response has been with the teachings of my own faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a Mormon, I am taught that plants and animals are “living souls” and that all life has a right to have joy in its posterity. I am commanded to use natural resources with “judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion,” and I am warned: “Wo be unto man who wasteth flesh and hath no need.” My faith teaches that I do not own the earth or its resources and that my material wealth should be used to lift the young and the poor. My faith, in other words, means that my concern for the poor and for the well-being of families must include concern for all of creation.
As the religious response across the world has made clear, this concern must translate into an awareness of and responsibility for the impact of our choices on the environment. Every one of us contributes to our bad air, our degraded water sources and our changing climate. Everything we eat or drink, everything we wear, every time we transport ourselves, or every night we tuck our children into bed on a down pillow, we are teaching our children how to prioritize our wants and needs in using the earth’s precious natural resources.
Modern living has so profoundly divorced us from our impact on the land that it is altogether too easy to ignore the degradations we have caused. The earth’s bounty is taken for granted or, worse, we assume that these material goods that make human flourishing possible come from some magical and unlimited source.
We might give thanks for our food or praise a beautiful sunset, but until we learn a more reverent stewardship of the earth, we are treating the earth like a vending machine or a movie theater. The cost of our indifference is not just financial but, perhaps more important, is a cost to all of creation and to future generations and it only will increase over time. Only a more modest and conscientious lifestyle and an aggressive transition to clean and renewable energy sources can mitigate the considerable impact we Americans have on the environment.
We should hold our elected officials to much higher standards of stewardship, but we also must assume greater responsibility for living up to the highest moral principles we hold dear. If people of faith are serious about ending inequality and restoring dignity to the lives of the most poor, and if they are serious about safeguarding family well-being, then they should be serious about honoring the Creator by respecting his creations, avoiding overconsumption in all of its forms, and protecting the earth’s sacred sources of physical life.
Among the many important issues confronting our nation, let us remember that we cannot strengthen families, uplift the poor or build strong and resilient communities without mitigating and even repairing the damage we do to the earth.
George Handley serves on the boards of The Nature Conservancy, LDS Earth Stewardship and Utah Humanities and is the author of "Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River."