By Robert A. Rees
Robert A. Rees is the director of Mormon Studies at the Graduate Theological Union. He is the author of A New Witness for the World (BCC Press, 2020) and editor of Why I Stay 2 (Signature Books, 2021).
According to Latter-day Saint theology, this earth was created by the Gods expressly for the purpose of giving their spirit children a place to make progress toward becoming like them and thus have the potential to create worlds of our own, inhabited by other beings like us—as well as by a rich and essential diversity of flora and fauna. Our theology argues that there are innumerable planets like ours swimming in space, also inhabited by the offspring of deity; but, so far, our scientific instruments have discovered only one planet on which the conditions are exactly right to sustain life: ours. Its complexity and beauty are astonishing, and—as we have discovered in the past century—also astonishingly vulnerable to our indifference, selfishness, and greed.
My attitudes toward earth stewardship are influenced by Hugh Nibley’s inspired and enlightened teachings about our divine mandate to be lords of—rather than lords over—the earth. It is a distinction we seem to have overlooked. Our current cultural sensitivities might suggest that we substitute a word like “caregiver” for “lord” in order to shed its connotations of “master” and “ruler,” but the word actually derives from the Anglo Saxon hlaford, a contraction of an earlier word, hlafweard, meaning “one who guards the loaves” or the “keeper and guardian” of bread,1 which is the meaning I think the scriptures intend.
According to Terryl B. Ball, Nibley’s attitude toward earth stewardship can be summarized by the following four principles: “(1) humankind has a divine mandate to properly care for creation; (2) humankind’s spiritual health and environmental heath are linked; (3) creation obeys, reverences, and provides for humankind, as humankind righteously cares for creation; and (4) humankind should not sacrifice environmental health for temporal wealth.”2
In a 1972 New Era article,3 Nibley argued that, with regard to our stewardship over the earth and all its plants and animals, God allows us to choose the way of light and love or the way of darkness and destruction. Unfortunately, for at least the past half century, both as a religious community and as a world community, we have been choosing the latter: darkness and destruction. Consider the following.
According to a recent UN report, “Humans are accelerating the extinction of up to 1 million species of plants and animals.”4 The Center for Biological Diversity states: “It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals—the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We are currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural ‘background’ rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we are now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.”5
Recent news from climate scientists reveals an acceleration of the glacial melt in Antarctica. According to the Washington Post, “We may have irreversibly destabilized the great ice sheet[s] of West [and East] Antarctica” which together would cause a rise in sea levels of more than twenty feet.6 Imagine New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Bangkok, Calcutta, Amsterdam and many other of the world’s great coastal cities under water! What we may have already unleashed portends a slow-motion flood of biblical proportions.
The earth’s atmosphere seems to be warming at an accelerated rate, leading to dramatic increases in violent storms, floods, droughts, and fires, which lead to massive losses of jungles, forests, plains, and food and water sources, which lead to starvation, disease, and death.
According to the World Health Organization, within a decade “climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.”7
In his powerful essay, “The Passing Wisdom of Birds,” the naturalist Barry Lopez writes about Hernando Cortez’s destruction of Tenochtitlan, the “Aztec Byzantium” known today as Mexico City. Having been driven out of the city a year earlier by Montezuma, Cortez returned with a larger army and, with vindictive violence, “laid siege to the city. Canal by canal, garden by garden, home by home, he destroyed what had been described by Charles V as ‘the most beautiful city in the world.’”8 In an ultimate act of cruelty, Cortez set fire to the great aviaries and to the nests of wild birds that were found throughout the city.
The deliberate destruction of all that beauty and civilization reminds me of what we are doing to the earth today. Lopez writes, “The image I carry of Cortez setting fire to the aviaries in Mexico City that June day in 1521 is an image I cannot rid myself of. It stands, in my mind, for a fundamental lapse of wisdom . . . an underlying trouble in which political conquest, personal greed, revenge, and national pride outweigh what is innocent, beautiful, serene and defenseless—the birds. . . . Indeed, one could argue, the same oblivious irreverence is still with us, among those who would ravage and poison the earth to sustain the economic growth of Western societies.”9
In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Jesus gives the ultimate challenge to his followers: they are always to consider those whom they see as “the least” as if they were Jesus himself. Here, Jesus speaks of this challenge of discipleship in the past tense, but clearly intends for his followers to apply it in the present and, certainly in terms of earth stewardship, to the future—to those who will be adversely affected by our indifference and inaction. We should consider those who will suffer disease, destruction, and death if we fail to act in the earth’s interest, just as if they were Jesus himself. As Francisco Goldman says, “The great metaphor at the heart of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew is that those who suffer and those who show love for those who [will] suffer are joined through suffering and grace to Jesus Christ.”10 Likewise, in the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin articulates an ethic that enjoins us to “love one another and serve one another” (Mosiah 4:15) without judgment and with special emphasis on those who suffer because of want, which increasingly will include those affected by our inaction on climate change.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma suggests that redemption is directly related to our imaginatively identifying with those who suffer—or who will suffer. He insists that candidates for baptism be “willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God” (Mosiah 18:9). One assumes such mourning and comforting of others (at “all times,” in “all things” and in “all places”) includes those who will suffer as a result of our degrading and destroying the earth. Further, scripture suggests that the earth itself mourns because of the desolation caused by such wickedness (Jer. 4:28; Isaiah 24:4–5). Latter-day Saint theology also teaches that our Heavenly Parents mourn with the suffering and extinction of other creatures due to our violence and indifference.
The effects of global climate change were all too visible to a group of us from the Bountiful Children’s Foundation who visited the island nation of Kiribati in 2015. Located in the middle of the Pacific, Kiribati is one of the poorest nations of the world; it also happens to have one of the highest LDS population densities in the world—some 17%. The country is also predicted to be the first nation to lose all of its land mass to rising seas. Everyone there will have to relocate to other nations during the next several decades. In the meantime, there are high levels of poverty, malnutrition, disease, and social dysfunction.
In April 2019, my wife and I, also on behalf of the Bountiful Children’s Foundation, visited Madagascar, one of the most beautiful and yet most environmentally devastated countries in the world. Although it has much plant and animal life that is found nowhere else on the planet, Madagascar has lost 90 percent of its forests and is rapidly losing more. While there, I read that 45,000 illegal miners were devastating forests and rivers in pursuit of sapphires. While visiting a lemur reserve, I was delighted when a lemur leaped onto my shoulders. I wondered how many years remain before all the lemurs are gone.
Utah’s Pando aspen grove, near Fish Lake, can be a powerful metaphor for what Latter-day Saints’ vision of earth stewardship could be. Located in the middle of what we have long considered Zion, this grove, a “Trembling Giant,” consists of a single clonal root system for thousands of individual trees. Considered the largest and oldest (eighty-thousand years) living organism on earth, its intertwined root system consists of nearly 50,000 stems covering over 100 acres and weighing 6,000 tons. While one stem has a comparatively short life span (50–150 years), “the entire clone can live for tens of thousands of years!”11 Like individual aspen trees, humans, too, live and die, but like Pando’s intertwined root system, humanity as a whole has continued to survive and grow.
Like the Pando, our collective roots are essential to our survival. As Owen Staples writes, “With our own roots planted firmly and extending deeply into the earth, over time, our thirst for nourishment, living water, and knowledge can preserve us and help us to survive droughts, forest fires, floods and the like. When the soil nearer the surface at times becomes toxic or corrupt, we can, at this point, remember our roots, which all connect so deeply in the earth, able to access true nourishment and life-giving water.”12
Although Pando has been thought “virtually impossible to kill,” there are indications that this botanical treasure may be dying “an ugly death” because of climate change.13 And so might humanity itself. To avoid this catastrophe, we need to turn to our roots—to our interrelatedness.
In his yet unpublished book, The Lens of Love, Eye of Universal Consciousness, Dr. Raymond Bradley gives us a glimpse into how we could use interrelatedness to heal ourselves and the planet. “Whether as group bonds of positive attachment or as a positive emotion experienced by the individual, love generates a coherent rhythm . . . which radiates outward as a wave field of bio-emotional energy in all directions.”14 One could speculate that if enough individuals and groups focused on our relationship with the earth, we could establish coherent bioenergetic fields which could radiate outwards to both the present and the future, influencing every living organism on earth. That seems a much more hopeful future than the one we are presently headed toward. Certainly, more hopeful than what took place in the Valley of Mexico when, in the words of Barry Lopez, “we behaved as though we were insane.”15
A more hopeful future for the earth and its diverse inhabitants is embedded in the Restoration as envisioned by Joseph Smith. According to Kathleen Flake, “Smith’s narrative history of human and divine interaction was ultimately oriented to a future time that served as a basis for acting in the present. It provided a world of meaning by which his believing readers understood themselves existentially, including their future and not merely their past” (emphasis added). This vision is precisely what I am proposing here: that we orient ourselves to a reimagined future of the earth and all its living entities by acting in the present. Flake adds, “Most fundamentally, Smith’s writings give his believing readers a different sense of what was and what will be.”16
If, as individual Latter-day Saints and as a church, we choose to act with passionate intention to save the earth, we could have a powerful impact on others—both present and future. When we are motivated by love—love of our fellow beings, love of other creatures, and love of the earth—we fulfill the charge given to Adam and Eve and all the generations of God’s people since Eden—to act in relation to the earth as God does. As Nibley says, “The ancients taught that Adam’s dominion was nothing less than the priesthood, the power to act for God and in his place. The idea is that God, while retaining his unshakable throne in the heavens, ‘extended his glory to a new world below in the work of the Creation; then as the culmination of that work he created man to be in charge . . . of all the beings he had created,’ with the understanding that ‘from this time forth man must work to improve the earth and preserve and take care of all that is in it, exactly as God had done before.’”17
I believe that saving the earth is the moral imperative of our own and future generations. How wonderful it would be if our prophet received a revelation calling the Church to establish earth stewardship as its fifth mission. After all, fulfilling the other four major missions—perfecting the saints, preaching the gospel, redeeming the dead, and caring for the poor and needy—all depend on a healed and whole planet. Without clean air and water, without sustainable natural resources, without the delicate balance in the atmospheric, oceanic, and biological spheres, the only area of growth for the Church of the future will likely be work for the dead! I realize that that is a somewhat macabre attempt at humor, but climate change is already producing enormous increases in disease and death, as well as obliterating resources that could be used for urgent human needs. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s imaginative projection, The Collapse of Western Civilization, provides a sobering view of a world allowed to continue descending into ecological apocalypse. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has only intensified the problem.
My hope is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will work toward becoming known worldwide as one of the leaders in a movement to redeem the living planet for the generations who will yet inhabit it. We could begin by thinking of future generations as if they were Jesus, and by revising our tenth Article of Faith from its present passive, “The earth will be renewed . . .” to the active, “We will renew the earth so it can receive its paradisiacal glory.” That, I believe, is what Jesus calls us to do.
1. “Lord,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 29 Sep. 2021, etymonline.com/word/lord.
2. Terryl B. Ball, “Nibley and the Environment,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 16–29.
3. Hugh Nibley, “Man’s Dominion,” New Era, October 1972.
4. “UN Report: Extinction Looms for More than One Million Species,” Buenos Aires Times, 5 Nov. 2019, batimes.com.ar/news/world/un-report-extinction-looms-for-more-than-one-million-species.phtml.
5. “Halting the Extinction Crisis,” Center for Biological Diversity, accessed 29 Sep. 2021, biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis; see also Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).
6. Chris Mooney, “The Melting of Antarctica Was Already Really Bad. It Just Got Worse,” Washington Post, 16 Mar. 2016, washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/03/16/the-melting-of-antarctica-was-already-really-bad-it-just-got-worse/.
7. “Climate Change and Health,” World Health Organization, 1 Feb. 2018, who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health.
8. Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground (New York: Charles Scribner, 1988), 196.
9. Lopez, 207.
10. Francisco Goldman, introduction to the Gospel According to Matthew, Pocket Canon Bible (New York: Grove Press, 1999), xv.
11. “Quaking Aspen,” National Wildlife Federation, accessed 29 Sep. 2021, nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Plants-and-Fungi/Quaking-Aspen.
12. Owen Staples, Lifestyle Changes (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013), 89.
13. Ben Winslow. “Pando, One of the World’s Largest Living Organisms, Is Dying,” Fox 13 Salt Lake City, 30 Oct. 2012, fox13now.com/2012/10/30/pando-one-of-the-worlds-largest-living-organisms-is-dying.
14. MS copy in my possession.
15. Lopez, 208.
16. Kathleen Flake, “Translating Time: The Nature and Function of Joseph Smith’s Narrative Canon,” Journal of Religion 87, no. 4 (Oct. 2007): 524–25.
18. Nibley, “Man’s Dominion.”