The Last Palm Tree: Mormonism and Sustainability

By Mark Thomas


Soon after her second child was born, in 2005, journalist Florence Williams decided to have her breast milk chemically analyzed. To her surprise and consternation, she found that though she was eating a healthy diet, her milk contained trace amounts of pesticides, dioxin, and a jet-fuel ingredient, as well as high-to-average levels of flame retardants. The results of these tests are probably not unusual. Research recently published by scientists at Mt. Sinai Hospital implicated widely distributed chemicals as possible causes of neurological disorders that affect between 400,000 and 600,000 of the 4 million children born in the United States each year. The toxins we have disseminated so liberally into our environment are finding their way into our bodies and into our children. Like the earth and its atmosphere, humans are starting to corrode under the effects of our current lifestyles. We are walking an unsustainable path.

Living sustainable lives, and ensuring the health of our children, should be of utmost importance to Mormons, given our particular concern for the well-being of families. Sustainability lies hidden within the symbolism of the Restoration: Joseph Smith informed us that only righteous lifestyles can continue into the eternities, and that one of the purposes of the Restoration is to prevent the “whole earth” from being “utterly wasted.”(JSH 1:39) The principles of sustainability are the principles of celestial living, both for individuals and for civilizations. Prophets in every age have warned those who do not live a sustainable lifestyle that their societies can and do collapse. The Book of Mormon is structured from beginning to end as an apocalypse that foretells the destruction of its various societies. And as its introduction tells us, the Book of Mormon is meant to act as a warning to modern readers.

Many factors contribute to the collapse of a society: war, economics, disease. But according to recent historical research, one of the primary contributors to societal collapse throughout history has been the abuse of the natural environment.

Take, for example, the case of the prehistoric society on Easter Island, 2,300 miles west of Chile. The disappearance of this culture was due almost completely to environmental mismanagement. The island is best known for its giant moai—statues of human heads—that were built by the dozen or so clans who thrived on the island after 900 c.e. These heads loomed as high as 40 feet and weighed up to 90 tons. Their construction, transportation, and installation required the abilities of a complex society rich in natural resources. The island’s giant palm trees served as an essential part of the island’s economy, likely providing sugary sap for food and drink; nuts for food; fronds for mats, roofs, and rope; and wood for deep sea fishing boats. But after about 600 years, the people had consumed all the palm trees, along with many other native species.

“When the natives of Easter Island cut down the last giant palm, what were they thinking?” asks UCLA professor of geography, Jared Diamond. Despite a new controversial counterargument by Hunt and Lipo that rats destroyed the palms, the issue remains the same. Intertribal war and environmental degradation went hand in hand to cause their society’s collapse. Their silent statues do not speak, but the archeological record is eloquent. The blow to Easter Island’s environment led to escalating war, the defacing of the giant statues, cannibalism, and finally, societal collapse. When Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on the island on Easter Day in 1772, only a handful of survivors greeted him. But the fall of Easter Island’s civilization was not inevitable.

Diamond reminds us that Japan faced a similar environmental challenge. After the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657, which destroyed over half the capital at Edo, the demand for wood became enormous. Exploitation of the local forests could have led to the collapse of Japanese civilization. But over the next two centuries, successive shoguns appealed to Confucian moral principles to stabilize the population and resource consumption. And they planted trees. By 1700, there was a woodland management system in place that imposed strict controls at both regional and village levels. Between 1721 and 1828, the population of Japan stayed essentially level, with people marrying later in life and spacing their children in response to levels of food and natural resources. Japan avoided the fate of Easter Island through the wise management of population and environment.

Every civilization faces environmental challenges. The key is how people react to them. Today, the entire civilization of earth stands together on a single hill to defend its continued existence against impending assault. Will we choose Easter Island or Japan as our model?


The State of the Globe


A 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that global human demands began to outstrip nature’s regenerative capacity sometime around 1980, meaning that we are currently destroying our natural capital more quickly than it can be replenished.

During a 2008 conference at the University of Utah, Terry Root, senior fellow at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy and a faculty member at Stanford University, explained the implications of our unsustainable lifestyle. She stated that many biologists believe we now stand at the brink of a human-caused mass extinction. If global mean temperatures increase 1.3 to 2.3 degrees Centigrade above current levels, roughly 20–30% of species so far assessed stand at a high risk of extinction. It is likely that these temperatures will be reached within this century. Between 340,000 and 570,000 species could be gone within the next hundred years. In fact, the march of extinction has already begun. Last year we mourned the loss of earth’s last Black Rhino. The Rocky Mountain pika and certain Baja California butterflies are already “functionally extinct.”

Human lives are in danger, as well. All of the world’s major water aquifers are being over-pumped. Safe drinking water is becoming scarcer in many regions. Desertification is increasing. Three-fourths of our global fisheries have reached or surpassed their sustainable limits. In large parts of Asia and Africa, topsoil loss is increasing. Many countries are racing to buy up scarce metals, agricultural land, and energy sources. The 2012 McKinsey Quarterly stated that when current economic conditions improve, demand for oil will probably grow faster than supply. “In fact, within the present decade, prices could leap upward and oscillate between $125 and $175 a barrel for some time.” Studies by the Department of Defense have come to similar conclusions regarding the future price increases for oil. Carbon emissions are increasing. Rising temperatures are melting the glaciers that supply major rivers, affecting the food-producing abilities of people in India, Southeast Asia, and China.

Most worrisome of all, many of the world’s poor have trouble feeding themselves. In 2009, the number of the world’s hungry and malnourished jumped to 1 billion. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, predicts that if we continue on our present course of resource consumption, that number will rise to 1.2 billion by 2015. In short, we are exceeding the carrying capacity of the globe, and the first thing that will fail is food.


Renewable Energy


Addressing sustainability is, of course, a monumental and complex task that involves comprehensively addressing interdependent issues, such as world population, forest cover, water resources, and grain harvest. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on what the Earth Policy Institute considers one of the leading indicators of sustainability: renewable energy production. We will need massive amounts of energy in future decades, and that energy must come largely from renewable sources if we are to survive.

According to Daniel Nocera (MIT) and Nathan Lewis (Caltech), as a country’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) increases, so does its energy use. As developing countries such as India and China try to “catch up” with the living standards of developed countries such as the United States and the nations of Europe, global energy demand will increase dramatically—from the 15 terawatts annually that humans produce now to at least 30 terawatts by 2050. The temptation to extract this energy from conventional fossil fuels is enormous. But, in order to meet this impending demand without incurring severe, enduring climate consequences (carbon emitted into the atmosphere can circulate there for hundreds of years), much of the energy we produce must be carbon-free. Nocera and Lewis argue that solar power has the greatest potential of any renewable energy source on the basis of cost and practicality.

With this sobering state of the globe in mind, let us explore how we as a Church are meeting the challenge of sustainability, focusing particularly on renewable energy.


BYU and the Pioneers of Sustainability


Many organizations—churches, universities, governments, and corporations—have taken the needs of sustainability to heart by investing in renewable energy and making the commitment to becoming carbon-neutral. One of the key performance indicators for renewable energy among universities is the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which represents a formal, institutional pledge to develop a long-term plan for achieving carbon neutrality. To date, the presidents of Weber State University, Utah State University, the University of Utah, and the presidents of ten of the PAC 12 Conference universities have signed this agreement. The program is supported by corporations such as Xerox, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Lockheed Martin, and Siemens, and it has received wide publicity during the past five years.

BYU administration has not yet signed the Commitment. Last April, curious about why such a widely accepted and publicized program would not interest BYU, I asked one of the leaders of the university’s sustainability program what BYU’s reasoning was for holding back on participating. To my surprise, my source had never heard of the University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

Another gold standard measure of sustainability for universities is the adoption of renewable energy sources. The University of Utah is a leader in this field, appearing third on the EPA’s list of Top Ten University Partners. The EPA website states that 36% of the U’s electrical energy comes from wind and solar power. Much of this renewable energy comes from the solar arrays recently installed on the roofs of some of the university’s buildings. Note that these arrays do not represent an economic sacrifice. The U used federal grant money and partnered with for-profit corporations that could take tax credits and depreciation benefits for their contributions to the project. The resulting solar energy costs less than energy from conventional sources. The U also anticipates significant benefits from the 20-year fixed prices that provide a hedge against higher future fossil fuel prices. Meanwhile, BYU’s electrical energy comes primarily from Provo City, where electricity is generated largely from coal. From what I understand, BYU is not currently considering renewable energy as part of its energy portfolio. The facilities personnel at BYU are quite experienced and curious about renewable energy possibilities, but it seems that the administration at BYU selects its energy sources based on current market price.

Despite not being a signatory to the Presidents’ Initiative and despite its current lack of interest in pursuing renewable energy, BYU has put forth much effort in establishing recycling, conservation, and transportation programs. It has also recently completed three new buildings that are LEED-certified (an independent certification recognizing sustainability in construction). These initiatives are described on the BYU sustainability webpage ( This is all good news. However, BYU has not put itself in a position where its progress toward sustainability can be easily assessed. In search of a metric that might be well suited to assessing BYU’s efforts, I asked Myron Willson, the director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of Utah, “If you were to pick one key performance indicator to measure a university’s progress toward sustainability, what would it be?” Without hesitation, he named the STARS system.

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) is a transparent, self-reporting framework that colleges and universities can use to measure all aspects of their sustainability performance. Developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), STARS is a thorough measure of sustainability and a valuable tool for defining, measuring and moving institutions of higher education toward sustainability. In Utah, the University of Utah, Weber State University, and Westminster College are participants in STARS, along with four members of the PAC 12. Utah State University is considering joining. BYU is not yet a participant.

Of three key performance indicators for sustainability—using renewable energy, being a signatory to the ACUPCC, and incorporating the STARS program—BYU is a participant in none. Let’s turn now from BYU to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.


The Corporate Prophets of Sustainability


In 2010, the Church announced completion of five LEED-certified chapels that are powered in part by solar energy. The Church calls these chapels “a test drive.” How does this progress toward renewable energy compare with similarly sized organizations in America? Given how centralized the Church’s facilities management is, and given how heavily Church administrators rely on corporate models, it is reasonable to compare the Church’s best practices in sustainability to those of Google, Walmart, and the United States military.

When it comes to forging paths into sustainability, few companies have invested more than Google Inc., which has been carbon-neutral in its electrical energy usage since 2007. Their Chief Sustainability Officer recently flipped the switch on one of the world’s largest solar power arrays—9,200 solar panels that cover Google’s corporate headquarters. The company’s philanthropic arm,, has invested $10 million in a program to speed development of electric car usage at its facilities. It has also invested $20 million in wind and solar companies and has pledged tens of millions more toward ambitious initiatives to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Google is a for-profit company, remember, facing demands that all such companies face for quick return on capital.

Another mega-corporation, Walmart, has received many awards for its efforts in sustainability. Its stated sustainability goals are: to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain people and the environment. The company recently completed its 100th solar technology installation with the addition of six stores in Colorado. According to Walmart and SolarCity, these installations will generate about 3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Walmart is known for its hardnosed, bottom-line business strategies—and for being wise stewards of its investors’ “sacred tithes.”

One of the great non-profit pioneers in sustainability is the American military. In 2010, the Department of Defense issued its Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan. In an 18 April 2012 report in EnergyBiz, Ken Silverstein writes,


The Defense Department will increase its commitment to renewable energy to 3 gigawatts. That includes solar, wind, biomass and geothermal, all of which will be placed in army, navy and air force installations by 2025. That would equate to 25 percent of their total energy needs. About 450 green energy projects are now operating around the globe.


Whatever their motives, these three organizations are reading the signs of the times and responding with wisdom. Their approach represents a savvy, farsighted recognition of global economics as well as good corporate citizenship. We seem to see a surprising role reversal here. Google and Walmart are known for aggressive business practices that increase shareholder wealth. The military is mainly concerned with national defense. Yet, these hard-nosed organizations claim the moral high ground on sustainability, which should be part of the core mission and competency of churches. It seems that the LDS Church is acting like a business, focusing on short-term cost savings, while the military and these for-profit companies are acting like prophets.

So far, the LDS Church has announced no sustainability policy, nor has it announced any long-term sustainability goals. Even companies with weak performance records in sustainability, such as some in the mining industry, at least make public commitments to instigate environmentally sustainable practices. Thus, even by average corporate standards, the LDS Church fares poorly in the first and most modest key performance indicator of sustainability: to make a public commitment.


A Plan of Action


Even though the Church is not an early adopter of sustainable technologies, we should not give up on the Church or on sustainability. Late adopters have the advantage of seeing what the pioneers have made of the territory. There are lessons, both positive and negative, that the early adopters of sustainability can teach us as a Church and as individuals. If we do not wish to be pioneers in the stewardship of the earth, the least we can do is follow the best practices outlined by the pioneers in sustainability.

There is good reason to hope for the future of sustainability. Many organizations, including businesses, are beginning to take the problem seriously. A significant portion of Fortune 500 companies have appointed a senior-level chief sustainability officer. Large corporations are greening their supply chains. The Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce has organized a Clean Air Committee that looks serious about reducing air pollution. But we need more players on the field. As Myron Willson put it: “We will not get anywhere until churches and the organizations that attend to issues of morality and justice are fully engaged in sustainability.”

A critical starting point for the Church is to publish a formal proclamation of commitment to sustainability. If the Church does not sound the trumpet or raise the ensign of sustainability, will the Saints gather?

Once the Church makes the commitment, it will need to instigate ongoing performance measurements. The American military has demonstrated an approach worth emulating with the progress measures built into its Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan.

BYU can be a testing ground for Church-wide sustainability initiatives. According to recent reports, our youth struggle with the burden of a tarnished Mormon image. These youth are already well aware of environmental issues. An ecclesiastical commitment to sustainability would be a great re-branding opportunity for the Church and BYU. Imagine the positive effect of thousands of BYU graduates going into the world each year having been steeped in the ideals and practice of sustainability.

It is all-important that Church members join in this effort. Do we buy Energy Star appliances? Do we buy fuel-efficient cars? Do we use mass transit? Do we walk or ride our bikes to Church and on errands? Can we better insulate our homes? We need to speak up in our wards and Sunday School classes about the importance of our environmental stewardship. We can tell our bishops that we support a sustainability audit of our ward building from Church Facilities. If enough bishops try to set up a sustainability audit with the Facilities Management in Salt Lake City, something could happen. After all, isn’t sustainability a deeply Mormon ideal, believing as we do in self-sufficiency and security?

The Church can make friends with organizations such as Interfaith Power and Light and other interfaith groups promoting sustainability. The University of Utah was able to complete the solar arrays on many of its buildings by involving for-profit partners who could take advantage of tax benefits and pass those savings on to the university. BYU could consider a similar approach. Rocky Mountain Power, the public utility in Salt Lake City, predicts that electric energy prices will likely double in the next seven years—a typical prediction for energy costs throughout the United States. Renewable energy pricing, however, can be locked in for up to 20 years. And additional advantages may be offered to certain first movers in the renewable energy arena. It makes sense to be on top of renewable energy options earlier rather than later.

Even if we have lost the chance to be pioneers in this journey toward sustainability, let us at least use the maps of those who have gone before us. Let us breathe a spirit of cooperation and extend a hand of fellowship and support for the future of all humanity. Let us not be stragglers in the company, lost in the dark mists of accounts payable.

Sustainability is the standard by which future generations will judge us. We cannot save ourselves by tinkering. We must become part of a revolution of the spirit and the body, the Church and the state. If we fail to stand, I believe we risk ceding our role as a prophetic church and people, as others take the lead in doing what is right.

The LDS Church is in a unique position to address sustainability. Unlike most large corporations, which are constrained by investors who insist on short-term returns, the Church has the luxury to take a long-term approach to problems. Let us have the courage to practice long-term thinking. No other church has the capacity to singlehandedly move the sustainability market as we do. We have a unique core competency to act boldly and inspire others in times of distress. We have seen the Church respond in Europe after World War II. We have seen the Church respond with astonishing efficiency to tragic earthquakes and devastating floods around the globe.

The human race has metaphorically chopped down most of its palm trees, and must plan now to make sure that the legacy we leave our children consists of more than fierce competition over dwindling resources. Collectively, we stand now on a global Cumorah, surveying the impending attack.  The time has come to act.


Note: Mark Thomas and Edwin Firmage, Jr. are in the process of creating a sustainability advisory board that will act as a friendly, independent voice in assessing LDS institutional progress toward best sustainability practices. If you would like to be a part of this initiative, contact Mark at

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