By Mark Thomas
Mark Thomas earned an MBA from Northwestern University, and works professionally in public finance. He is the author of Digging in Cummorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives.
For the first time in history, a conviction has developed among those who can actually think a decade ahead that we are playing a global endgame. E. O. Wilson1
[Bill] Gates believes that by 2050, wealthy nations like China and the United States, the most prodigious belchers of greenhouse gases, must be adding no more carbon to the skies . . . [According to Gates,] ‘We Need an Energy Miracle.’ 2
If we do not find a way to fulfill Gates’ ideal of “adding no more carbon to the skies” after 2050, we will reach a convergence of unprecedented economic, resource, and environmental challenges. Fortunately, the public is becoming more aware of this and is demanding revolutionary changes in the way we live. Universities, businesses, and political and religious institutions are responding as never before to the demand that we live sustainably on the planet.
However, these same institutions are often tempted to pose as being environmentally friendly while actually doing little to nothing toward that end—or even doing more harm than good. This practice of speaking green and acting grey is known as greenwashing.
One example of greenwashing can be found in Koch Industries, the second largest privately run business in America, owned by billionaires David and Charles Koch. Greenpeace claims that since 1997 the Koch Brothers have given at least $88 million to 80 groups that deny or denounce climate change science. When David Koch ran for Vice-President of the United States in 1980, one of the planks of his platform was to abolish the EPA. According to EPA records, one paper plant of Georgia Pacific (a Koch Brothers subsidiary) emits more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals each year, including numerous known carcinogens, near the small town of Crossett, Arkansas. Yet, the National Review proclaimed that the Koch Brothers are “Award-Winning Eco-Stewards.”3 This claim constitutes greenwashing.
A less blatant, but pervasive, form of greenwashing can be found in the marketing of numerous consumer products, which, despite being labeled as “natural” and “organic,” contain ingredients that aren’t either. “Herbal Essence has claimed a ‘truly organic experience’ in the past. But lauryl sulfate, propylene glycol and red no. 33 aren’t really that organic,” writes Drea Knufken in a Business Pundit article.4 A 2010 study indicated that 95% of products claiming to be green do not possess environmentally positive attributes.5
During the past few years, Mormonism has developed terms for environmental consciousness such as “earth stewardship” and “respect for creation.” And the LDS Church has given some nods toward sustainability by installing high efficiency heating and cooling systems in its buildings, finding ways to cut water usage, and using energy-efficient building materials. On a few buildings, such as the Church History Library6 and City Creek Mall,7 the Church obtained LEED certification. In 2010, five prototype LDS chapels were outfitted with solar panels, though that practice has not continued. Further, the Church has produced a video and posted teachings on sustainability on its website.8 And in 2010, the Church posted a Web page entitled “Timeline of Construction Practices”9 to describe various environmentally friendly projects in Mormonism since the 1950s.
These measures have been met with enthusiastic approval from some groups in and out of the Church. Some have even speculated that the LDS Church could finally become a moral and intellectual leader in sustainability. But others find these efforts woefully inadequate. Nearly a decade ago, Ed Firmage, Jr. presented a plan to the First Presidency advocating widespread use of solar panels on Mormon meeting houses and ground source heat pumps in parking lots. Mormonism, Firmage claimed, could be one of the largest producers of renewable energy in America. Representatives from Zion’s Bank and faculty from the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University have made presentations to the Presiding Bishop’s office arguing that widespread use of solar energy could provide net present value savings for the Church. These proposals were not acted upon. By contrast, in 2018 the California Energy Commission (CEC) demonstrated prophetic leadership in earth stewardship by unanimously agreeing to mandate solar installations on all new homes in California, starting in 2020.
These and other considerations have led some critics to accuse the LDS Church of greenwashing—making token gestures to improve its public image, but ignoring the bigger picture of earth stewardship.
The following are ways of measuring whether or not the LDS Church is guilty of greenwashing.
A typical means of demonstrating an organization’s real commitment to sustainability is to employ an independent assessment of its efforts. The LDS building program is centrally controlled and tightly managed from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City under the Office of the Presiding Bishop. While researching this article, I asked LDS public affairs officers for any details about the building program’s conservation measures, but they declined to give any answers and referred me to the Church’s official Web page.
So far, the Church has offered no independent verifications or studies to demonstrate the sustainability of its programs, leaving us to our own independent assessments.
One way of measuring the possibility of LDS greenwashing is to examine how it addresses sustainability in its Church-wide teachings. The Church claims to be a good steward of the earth in the examples that they cite above. But an overview of actual teachings on sustainability in general conference addresses, church manuals, and magazines reveal almost nothing on the subject. This is despite repeated requests by many church members for guidance from Church headquarters on the subject. The lds.org search engine for general conference addresses has a category for “environment,” but it contains only one speech, titled “Happily Ever After,” and the closest it comes to addressing earth stewardship is to describe a hike in the mountains. The pressing issues of global warming, renewable energy, and the like are very rarely addressed in public by the leaders of the LDS Church. In fact, there was an occasion when the LDS Church instructed its representative not to use the word “climate change” in an interfaith panel discussion on religion and climate change. In a centralized, prophetic church whose teachings are its greatest tool for change, such silence is eloquent.
In addition to surveying the Church’s teachings, one can measure the LDS commitment to environmental issues by its political initiatives. The LDS Church will take stances on political issues that it considers moral—notably the Equal Rights Amendment, local bills affecting liquor laws, and efforts in the United States to defeat same-sex marriage. But earth stewardship, carbon tax, and other political and moral commitments to the environment are not high enough priorities for Mormon leadership to offer any support. This in in contrast to Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, Evangelical, Muslim, Buddhist and other religious organizations that have spoken, written, and acted powerfully to effect political support for environmental issues.
We can also assess the commitment of the Mormon people to real earth stewardship by noting how they actually act politically and noting whom they elect to Congress in the most Mormon of states—Utah. The environmental grades given to the Utah congressional delegation in 2015 by the national League of Conservation Voters are as follows: Love 0%, Chaffetz 0%, Bishop 0%, and Hatch 0%. Stewart received a 3% and Lee a 4% grade. The average grade for a senator is 45%. An average grade for a member of the house is 41%.
According to Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, at least four goals must be simultaneously addressed if we are seriously committed to advancing the cause of sustainability:
- Eradicate poverty
- Stabilize the climate
- Stabilize the earth’s natural support systems
- Stabilize the human global population
The Church makes commendable efforts toward eradicating poverty, but its stance toward population stabilization has been problematic for over a century.
Biologists E. O. Wilson of Harvard and Joel Cohen of Columbia have concluded that the carrying capacity of the earth is something less than 10 billion people.10 Other mainstream scientists and scientific studies believe we have already passed our long-term carrying capacity.
But aggressive statements against population policy as either unnecessary or evil have been delivered by general authorities since the 1960s. Hartman Rector, Spencer W. Kimball, Russell M. Nelson and others have consistently condemned global population planning. President Kimball said that family planning and delaying marriage is a “doctrine of the devil.”11
Earlier, President Joseph F. Smith stated that any Mormon who “curtail[ed] the birth of their children” was committing a crime and a great evil. His son, President Joseph Fielding Smith, stated that those “who attempt to pervert the ways of the Lord, and to prevent their offspring from coming into the world . . . are guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in the category. There is no promise of eternal salvation and exaltation for such as they. . .”
- H. Roberts released a much more moderate statement which advocated sex education, contraception, and a common-sense approach to family planning which accommodates income, health, and other family circumstances. His sentiments were echoed by Mormon physician Homer Ellsworth in a 1979 Ensign article, though Ellsworth also reminds his readers in this article that LDS doctrine is in favor of large families.12
The current Mormon position on a global population policy was articulated in the 1960s by Ezra Taft Benson. A current Church manual on the Doctrine and Covenants quotes him on the topic:
And so far as limiting the population in order to provide plenty is concerned, the Lord answered that falsehood in the Doctrine and Covenants when he said:
“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” (D&C 104:17.)
A major reason why there is famine in some parts of the world is because evil men have used the vehicle of government to abridge the freedom that men need to produce abundantly.
True to form, many of the people who desire to frustrate God’s purposes of giving mortal tabernacles to his spirit children through worldwide birth control are the very same people who support the kinds of government that perpetuate famine. They advocate an evil to cure the results of the wickedness they support.13
His basic tone, theme, and even scripture choice still reverberates through official Church discourse today. For example:
Dallin H. Oaks: “From the perspective of the plan of salvation, one of the most serious abuses of children is to deny them birth. This is a worldwide trend. … As rising generations diminish in numbers, cultures and even nations are hollowed out and eventually disappear.”14
The Family: A Proclamation to the World: “We believe that ‘children are an heritage of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3) and that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”15
Russell M. Nelson: “Arguments swirl around that the earth is dangerously overpopulated and that couples should restrict the number of their children. . . . I adjure you to believe the Lord, who said that ‘the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare.’”16
In a November 1995 Message of the First Presidency, President James Faust stated that population concerns are unfounded and that the earth may be able to sustain 1,000 billion people. Faust believes that “Free people don’t ‘exhaust’ resources. They create them. . . Those who argue for sustainable growth lack vision and faith,” Elder Faust concluded. “The Lord said, ‘For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare.’”17
These statements are at odds with early Mormon views on sustainability. Early Mormonism actually advocated a global population policy by lowering the birth rate. Over several years in the 1830s, the official LDS Church publication, The Evening and Morning Star, reprinted population tables reflecting the correlation of births and deaths with the price of corn. The March 1837 issue carried a short article entitled “Preventive Check,” which advocated family planning customs in Germany and Moravia as “the best Malthusian plan . . . being founded on prudence,” and serving as a limited deterrent to population growth. The early Mormon support for controlling global population growth continued to be published after the revelation in D&C 104 (1835) that has been quoted so frequently in recent years as an argument against population growth control. Early Mormon leaders clearly interpreted this revelation differently than current church leaders. But the days of Mormon advocacy for population planning, it seems, are long gone. No real stewardship of the earth can ignore the notion of its carrying capacity, as was the published belief in early Mormonism. The human global population problem will be solved. It is only a matter of how—through war, through famine, or through limiting birth rates.
Our assessment here strongly suggests that stewardship of the earth remains a low priority for the LDS Church and the LDS people. Bill Gates is right. We need a miracle, a Mormon miracle. We as a people wish to exert moral leadership in the world and we talk of being a light on a hill. Yet the above evidence suggests that we may be greenwashing in the name of God, unwilling to save the world for our own families. If that is true, I can think of no greater miracle of deception than that. Its absurdity is reflected in the most socially conscious letter in the New Testament, in a passage beloved by Mormons:
Suppose a fellow Christian man or woman is naked and without food for the day, and one of you says, “Go in peace, keep warm, and enjoy your fill of food!” but does nothing to supply their bodily needs—of what use is that? So it is with faith that does not lead to action; if faith walks without action, if faith walks alone, faith dies. (James 2:15–17, author translation)
- E. O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York: Liveright, 2016), 1.
- James Bennet, “An Interview with Bill Gates on the Future of Energy,” The Atlantic, November 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/11/we-need-an-energy-miracle/407881/ (accessed 1 June 2018).
- Deroy Murdock, “The Koch Brothers: Award-winning Eco-stewards,” The National Review, 15 August 2014, https://www.nationalreview.com/2014/08/koch-brothers-award-winning-eco-stewards-deroy-murdock/ (accessed 1 June 2018).
- Drea Knufken, “The Top 25 Greenwashed Products in America,” Business Pundit, 2 March 2010, http://www.businesspundit.com/the-top-25-greenwashed-products-in-america/ (accessed 24 May 2018).
- Terra Choice Group, “The Sins of Greenwashing Home and Family, Edition 2010,” 16 August 2013, http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/index35c6.pdf (accessed 22 May 2018).
- “Church History Library Goes ‘Green’ with LEED Certification,” Mormon Newsroom, 22 April 2009, https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-history-library-goes–green–with-leed-certification (accessed 1 June 2018).
- “City Creek Center,” GreenRoofs, http://www.greenroofs.com/projects/pview.php?id=1407 (accessed 1 June 2018).
- “Environmental Stewardship and Conservation,” Mormon Newsroom, https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/environmental-stewardship-conservation (accessed 1 June 2018).
- “Timeline of Conservation Practices,” https://conservationpractices.lds.org (accessed 1 June 2018).
- It is currently 7.6 billion.
- Spencer W. Kimball, “Guidelines to Carry Forth the Work of God in Cleanliness,” General Conference Address, April 1974, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1974/04/guidelines-to-carry-forth-the-work-of-god-in-cleanliness?lang=eng (accessed 1 June 2018).
- “Is it Our Understanding that We Are to Propagate Children as Long and as Frequently as the Human Body Will Permit? Is There Not Any Kind of ‘Gospel Family-planning,’ for Lack of a Better Way to Say It?” Ensign, August 1979, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/i-have-a-question/are-there-gospel-guidelines-for-family-planning?lang=eng (accessed 1 June 2018). For an overview of family planning and birth control teachings among Mormons, see Lester E. Bush, Jr., “Birth Control among the Mormons: Introduction to an Insistent Question,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10, no 2:12–44); Lester E. Bush, Jr., Health and Medicine Among the Latter-day Saints (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1993).
- Conference Report, April 1969: 12.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Protect the Children,” Ensign, November 2012, 43.
- “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 2010, 129.
- Russell M. Nelson, “Youth of the Noble Birthright, What Will You Choose?” Church Educational System Devotional for Young Adults, 6 September 2013, https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/ces-devotionals/2013/01/youth-of-the-noble-birthright-what-will-you-choose (accessed 24 May 2018).
- “Serving the Lord and Resisting the Devil,” Ensign, November 1995, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1995/09/serving-the-lord-and-resisting-the-devil (accessed 24 May 2018).