George Handley serves on the Executive Board of Utah Interfaith Power and Light and is the author of Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (University of Utah Press 2010), a book that blends LDS theology, history, nature writing, and memoir. He will also have an article forthcoming in the Summer 2011 edition of Dialogue.
Actions speak louder than words, or so they say. In which case the actions taken by the LDS church to green their architecture according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards represents a major sermon on the Christian duty to reduce our ecological footprint. LEED certification was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council as a way to facilitate architectural design that works to reduce the ecological footprint comprehensively (see http://www.usgbc.org). Last spring, the LDS Church unveiled a new multi-congregation building in Farmington, Utah with 158 solar panels on its roof, state of the art Solarban windows to reduce interior heat in the summer, dual-flush water-saving toilets, bike racks, instantaneous water heaters, comprehensive recycling, xeriscaping, and a meter in the ward library that measures the building’s savings in units of electricity, gas, and, yes, carbon. This is one of four prototypes that the church will use to apply for a portfolio certification so as to then roll out all future meetinghouses according to LEED standards.
A group of us from Utah Interfaith Power and Light, a state chapter of a national coalition of people of faith dedicated to fighting climate change, were recently given a tour of the Farmington building by Jared Doxey, director of Architecture, Engineering, and Construction at the LDS Church. In a church that operates over 17,000 meetinghouses and builds over 300 a year, it is difficult to overstate what a significant contribution this makes to reducing carbon emissions. This one building alone will save 2 million pounds of CO2 in the next 25 years. To go along with the millions of dollars the church is already spending on humanitarian aid, this represents an important preventative measure to ease the environmental burdens of a warming world on millions. As Bishop Burton noted when the church first unveiled the building, “We want to be responsible members of the community as well, and I mean the community of man.” Plans are underway for retrofitting pre-existing buildings where and when feasible.
The building tangibly and unambiguously links LDS belief and environmental stewardship. Several months ago, Bishop Burton suggested he hoped the buildings would provide a “teaching moment”: “Not only are we trying to do it institutionally, we hope that our members will use responsible, conservative kinds of activities as they conduct their own personal lives.” However, because the construction and financial maintenance of LDS meetinghouses are centrally controlled, the irony is that leaders and members in current meetinghouses often don’t know or don’t ask what, if anything, they can do to make their buildings more environmentally friendly. Moreover, a church-wide green building program might not defeat indifference if there isn’t a comparably comprehensive educational program for members. The good news is that Jared Doxey suggested something was in the works.
The issue of climate change, particularly since the economic downturn, has been more politicized, and skepticism has been on the rise. At such a time, it would be especially helpful to have unambiguous, environmentally focused lessons and teachings that emphasize the unusual and potent doctrines of stewardship in LDS belief to go along with these architectural advancements. Otherwise, when they otherwise have so much to give, members of the LDS church may end up remaining largely on the sidelines of a vital international and interfaith effort to mitigate against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Indeed, Bishop Burton admitted that “in the things we advertise and the things we promote, we could probably be more proactive in that arena. It’s a great story, and we ought to probably promote it more.” Jesus wasn’t shy about preaching what he practiced, so here’s to wishing for a few sermons—of words—to go along with these important actions.