By Rachel Mabey Whipple
We live in a consumer society—all about spending, acquiring, cluttering, and replacing rather than about maintaining, repairing, renewing, and protecting. It is cheaper to buy the new than to repair the old. We live in a disposable country: everything is trash—if not now then soon. How did we get here?
One of the best explanations I’ve found was posited by social theorist Max Weber, who examined the correlation between the work ethic that accompanies Protestant religious belief and the accumulation of capital and the subsequent rise of capitalism.
One aspect [of the concept of calling that arose during the Reformation] was unequivocally new: the fulfillment of duty in vocational callings became viewed as the highest expression that moral activity could assume. Precisely this new notion of the moral worth of devoting oneself to a calling was the unavoidable result of the idea of attaching religious significance to daily work.1
Unlike Catholics, Protestants have no priest who can give them absolution for their sins, leaving the status of their souls in doubt—an uncomfortable position.2 But this new worldview provided some relief: gaining wealth became a confirmation that the believer had been saved.
Restless work in a vocational calling was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banishes religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved.3
As American culture has become increasingly secular, the religious motivation to accumulate wealth has waned. Now wealth is its own end. There is some evidence that we are also losing our work ethic, as we require fresh immigrants to do the hard manual labor we are no longer willing to perform ourselves.
Weber’s insights are applicable to the LDS Church because we, like those early Protestants, retain a belief that wealth is a sign of God’s approval. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants make this claim explicitly (“inasmuch as ye keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land”), while still warning us of the dangers of wealth (consider Jacob 2:18–19; Alma 4:6; Helaman 12:1–2; 2 Nephi 28:21; and D&C 38:39). Hugh Nibley argued that we modern Saints have become much more like the Nephites in their prideful phase than is good for us.
American Mormons accept without question that we need a washing machine and dryer, along with disposable diapers, cutlery, plates, bibs, towels, shopping bags—really, what product hasn’t been transformed into a disposable version? We assume that we must keep our homes and public buildings at a temperature that is comfortable for T-shirt wearers all year long. We accept that bottled water is a good idea. We consider a durable good to be one that lasts three years. Planned obsolescence and disposable goods are a critical component of our economy. We are told that we vote with our pocketbooks, our money being the only form of speech heeded by the giant multinational corporations that shape our lives.
This consumer-driven, disposable culture is in conflict with environmental values, and I believe that a close reading of Mormon doctrine and history aligns us more closely with environmental values than with consumer demands. Sadly, the fact is that Latter-day Saints seem to be turned off by the term “environmentalist,” so I’m going to use the term “stewards of creation” to describe how I believe we Mormons should think of ourselves.
In Alma we read: “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”4 If all creation testifies of God, then all our actions should testify that we believe in that same Creator and that we accept our roles as stewards of this creation, starting with our bodies, our families, our homes, and personal property.
I am not proposing a radical overthrow of our culture or the American dream. Rather, I’m calling for us to examine some of the ways we choose to spend our time and money. Are we making the best use of the resources we have been entrusted with? Specifically, I want to talk about ways to be a virtuous housewife—as that is my current field of expertise—and how, by being virtuous, we can be responsible stewards of our own personal and family resources, as well as the land we have been given for our inheritance.
I am inspired by the competence and industry of the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31, and strive to be a virtuous housewife. Aristotle defined “virtue” (arete) as excellence in the fulfillment of a particular function.5 “Aristotle believed that every ethical virtue or positive character trait can be described as a pleasant intermediate between unhealthy excess and painful deficiency.”6
The life of a virtuous housewife is a series of attempts to find that happy medium between excess and deprivation, between intensive labor and convenience. The preparation of food is a good example of this process. The more work I put into a meal and the better the quality of ingredients, the better the food will be in terms of presentation, taste, and nutrition (as well as in increasing my sense of accomplishment). But I don’t have unlimited time to devote to cooking each day.
Consider the classic childhood favorite, macaroni and cheese. I can use a boxed mix, adding margarine and skim milk per the package directions, and my kids will be happy (although I substitute butter and whole milk; there are some compromises I cannot make). But it takes only a little more effort to make macaroni and cheese with real cheese, flour, butter, milk, and pasta. The result tastes significantly better, and the leftovers are edible. If I wanted to take it a step further, I could run some bread through the food processor, mix it with melted butter and parmesan cheese, and broil it for a few minutes to make a great topping. That’s usually as far as I go, but it’s not the limit. I could make my own pasta. I could make it from wheat grown, threshed, and ground in my own back yard. (Currently I only grind the wheat I purchase in huge buckets, and I have not yet attempted making pasta.) I could make my own cheese and butter from a hypothetical backyard dairy cow. (There are small, milk-producing cow breeds called Dexters that, if dubbed a pet, might be able to legally stay in my urban backyard.) I could be a ceramic artist or potter who makes the casserole dish in which I bake the macaroni and cheese. (I have already woven the dish towels and potholders I use to take it out of the oven.)
As more work, craftsmanship, and expertise go into making the meal, the quality improves and the sense of satisfaction increases. But, like the graph of a derivative in calculus, you may approach the limit—the perfect meal—but you will never actually reach it. Indeed, at some point in the quest for perfection, you will cross the line of virtuous balance and lose your efficiency as a steward. Once any activity required for daily living is no longer practical, your practice of it is no longer virtuous and requires reexamination.
Attempting to make everything we do into a virtuous practice brings us closer to the exercise of responsible stewardship over the earth. To encourage us in these virtuous efforts, the Church advocates the principles of thrift, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; it also promotes gardening, eating seasonal produce, and limiting the amount of meat we consume. Generally our church couches these messages in terms of “temporal self-reliance” without any mention of their environmental effects, but the environmental benefits of such a life are clear. If all Mormons practiced these principles, we would be the greenest people on the earth.
I try to practice these principles of stewardship in my own home. Some of what I do takes more work and time than most Americans are used to spending on household chores, but I find that my efforts increase my sense of worth as a stay-at-home mom and improves my family’s quality of life. I am reclaiming the virtue of my domestic work from the disposable convenience products corporations want to sell me.
How do I do this? I garden, compost, recycle, reuse, buy less, avoid buying disposable items (I hate buying things for the express purpose of throwing them away), use canvas shopping bags, walk instead of drive, ride my bike with a trailer if I need to haul a kid or groceries, grow herbs, bake bread and granola, cook food from scratch, can fruit and preserves, hang clothes to air dry, mend damaged clothing, shop at thrift stores for everything from clothes and household goods to small appliances and furniture, buy locally produced goods from farmer’s markets and CSA programs, and donate serviceable items I no longer use to local thrift stores and charities. I can’t image that these practices are out of the ordinary. Doubtless many who read this article do at least some of these things as well.
I’ve worked up to my current level of virtue over many years. Some practices, like using cloth diapers, do feel onerous at times. But I love being free from buying something disposable every month. The funny thing about my lifestyle is that from some perspectives, I look like a good, conservative, Molly Mormon. But when we lived on Long Island, the same lifestyle led my neighbors to see me as the eco-friendly, liberal, crunchy, earth-momma type.
We must reject the culture that values buying over working and consuming over producing. The appliances of convenience that clutter our homes can alienate us from our work by removing the opportunity to develop craftsmanship and skill. In a general conference address on family preparedness, Spencer W. Kimball said,
The Lord’s way helps our members get a testimony for themselves about the gospel of work. For work is important to human happiness as well as productivity. The world’s way, however, places greater and greater emphasis on leisure and upon the avoidance of work . . . I see no disadvantages in work. I believe it was one of the clever and most important and necessary creations of our Father.7
So, although my neighbors may think I’m old-fashioned, I would rather beat a rug than vacuum it. Instead of using a bread machine, I prefer to knead the dough and find a good, warm spot for it to rise. Instead of tossing the clothes into the dryer, I hang them out on a line. Instead of running the dishwasher, I immerse my arms in the warm suds and wash the dishes by hand. Instead of relying on central air and heating, I moderate my home’s temperature by opening and closing window and blinds, using fans, or retreating to the basement in summer and to a sunny room in winter. I allow my microwave to languish in idleness.8
One particularly Mormon example of consumer culture supplanting producer culture is the way you decide to build your recommended one-year food storage. You can buy canned and dry goods (which you may or may not know how to turn into a meal—or be willing to eat for that matter), or you can learn to grow, raise, preserve, and cook the food yourself. If you choose the latter course, you will develop a skill set that will actually be useful if some crisis, personal or otherwise, puts you in a position where you need to rely on yourself, your stored food, your seed reserves, and your compost pile. The latter option seems to be what President Kimball had in mind in 1976 when he counseled us to “develop your skills in your home preservation and storage.”9
The Relief Society Homemaking program used to teach these housewifery skills. Homemaking manuals produced by a New York stake during the 1970s presented Homemaking meetings as a kind of on-the-job vocational training where useful skills were shared among women. By the time I got to Relief Society, Homemaking was painting pieces of wood to decorate your home with. And now women need not even know how to wield a brush: they can simply purchase vinyl letters to make LDS-themed decor. Now that local Relief Societies are free to set up activities and classes to suit the needs of their sisters without trying to fit into the constraints of an international program, some more traditional classes, such as basic sewing skills, are making a comeback.
I realize that the consumer culture we are embedded in will not change quickly, and I am not an agitator. Rather than change the culture, I simply want to help Mormons recognize that as they live the gospel, they will become good stewards, not only of their money, but of all their resources—as well as of the earth. True-blue Church members may realize that they are already green. To that end, I have compiled a short list of some LDS beliefs that support an environmental ethic.
● We believe that a spiritual creation occurred prior to the physical creation. That, to my mind, implies some planning—some sort of divine forethought. Creation was not an accident, and we should not be mindlessly squandering anything God has put thought into.
● We believe in living within our means: avoiding debt, having a modest home and car, avoiding extravagances.
● We believe in being modest. Please let us reclaim modesty from the narrow, sexually charged definition. A recent post by Tracy McKay at the blog By Common Consent gives us a good start:
Before I joined the Church, I considered myself modest. I lived a simple life, devoted to my small child, in a home my husband and I could afford. We were not flamboyant or ostentatious and we lived within our means, on one income, even before joining the Church. I tried to carry myself with dignity and deal with my fellow man with kindness and fairness. I did not strive to make situations or circumstances about me—all of these things I considered living a modest life. Modesty was simply a part of who I was—and had nothing whatsoever to do with the length of my shorts or the cover of my shoulders.10
● We believe in eating fruit in season and eating meat sparingly, if at all.11 Heber J. Grant once reported,
I think that another reason I have very splendid strength for an old man is that during the years we have had a cafeteria . . . I have not, with exception of not more than a dozen times, ordered meat of any kind. . . . I have endeavored to live the Word of Wisdom and that, in my opinion, is one reason for my good health.12
● We believe we should grow gardens. President Spencer W. Kimball said,
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 . . . neat and attractive as well as productive. If there are children in your home, involve them in the process with assigned responsibilities.13
● We support the Boy Scouts, which gets leaders, boys, and young men out of doors so they can come to know and love the land around them, learning the principles of “Leave No Trace.”
● We believe that we should help and care for each other: our families, our wards, our neighbors. We believe in doing good to all men and women and children.
● We believe that God visits us in natural sacred spaces, including groves and mountaintops.
● We believe in paying tithing. All we have has been given us by God, and in a token of gratitude and obedience, we ought to return a portion to him.
● We believe in consecration. Everything we think of as ours, from our money and material goods to the intangible attributes that define our person, all must be given to building God’s kingdom on earth.
● We believe that we are God’s stewards on this earth and that we will be held accountable for our actions during this time of our probation. This accounting will include the part of the Lord’s creation that we have been entrusted with during our lives.
I would love to hear these beliefs talked about as environmental virtues over the pulpit at general conference, but I’m not holding my breath. Instead, my hope is that we will move beyond the word “environmentalist” and all its unfortunate connotations to accept our calling as stewards. In every aspect of our lives, I want us to magnify our stewardship—so closely linked to the covenant of consecration.
Belief is important. But so is practice. “I will show thee my faith through my works.”14 Our beliefs are made tangible through our actions. We are saved by grace after all that we can do,15 and what we do matters.
As we consciously endeavor to be responsible stewards, we will be blessed, and we will bless our families and communities. We will bless the earth by being a peculiar, green people. This is our only hope if we want God to judge us as he did Creation, saying, “It is good.”
1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The Expanded 1920 Version Authorized by Max Weber for Publication in Book Form, (Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishing Company, 2002), 39–40.
2. Ibid., 60, 66.
3. Ibid., 66. Weber cites the belief of both Thomas Adams and John Calvin that the majority of people “would continue to obey God only if kept poor;” being unable to withstand the temptations that come from wealth (120, 243). Not everyone could be trusted with wealth, but because employers’ acquisition of money could be seen as a “calling,” their accumulation of wealth was acceptable (121), so long as they did not fall into the trap of the “external display of luxury consumption,” which was considered an “irrational use of possessions” (115).
4. Alma 30:44.
5. As Charles Ess puts it, “‘Happiness’” (eudaimonia) = a sense of well-being, resulting from achieving excellence in the fulfillment of one’s functions, including the ‘species-specific’ functions of reason both theoretical and practical.” http://www.drury.edu/ess/reason/Aristotle.html (accessed 21 May 2012).
6. “Aristotelian Ethics,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotelian
_ethics (accessed 21 May 2012).
7. Spencer W. Kimball, “Family Preparedness,” Ensign, May 1976, 124, http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1976/04/family-preparedness?lang=eng (accessed 21 May 2012).
8. Please note that I don’t think any of these conveniences are inherently bad, nor are the people who use them. But we tend to forget that convenience is not the only virtue, and we should not thoughtlessly sacrifice other virtues for it. Although our house has a built-in microwave, we have lived without one quite happily in the past.
9. Kimball, “Family Preparedness.” Emphasis mine.
10. Tracy McKay, “Perverting Modesty,” By Common Consent, http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/07/09/perverting-modesty/ (accessed 21 May 2012).
11. Doctrine & Covenants 89:11–13.
12. Heber J. Grant, One Hundred Seventh Annual Conference Report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1937), 15.
13. Kimball, “Family Preparedness.”
14. James 2:18.
15. 2 Nephi 25:23.