On this Veterans Day it seems appropriate to reflect on a battle we’re all currently enlisted in, because we just lost a whole regiment today, so to speak. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared Africa’s western black rhino extinct today. Dialogue‘s recent issue focusing on the environment and Latter-day Saint thought (guest-edited by the beloved Steven Peck) got me thinking. Given our scriptures which declare that an important relationship exists between God, the earth, and humans, the loss of the black rhino should catch our attention.
We believe God created the heavens and the earth, and that male and female were created in God’s image. It’s in our scriptures and our rituals. I’ve been told there’s been a bit of debate on how all that creation stuff really shook out, but here I want to focus on the idea of God’s creation in terms of the fall of Eve and Adam, and all of their posterity, and our responsibilities to creation.
To put it bluntly, enmity between us and the earth clearly exists. That enmity seems to have increased, especially since the advent of the internal combustible engine. We all rely on it to some extent to maintain our current quality of life, but we purchase that quality of life with the credit of the world around us. It makes no sense to worry about the future financial situation of our children if we bequeath to them a dying and polluted planet. One without cool rhinos. And bad effects of the engine are only a slice of our human-caused problems.
I’m aware of the debate (though it’s not really a debate, more of a clear consensus with a few crank objectors) regarding climate change and the extent to which we humans are responsible for it. It goes inaccurately like this: Either it’s our fault and we can make changes to save the planet, or it’s a natural earth cycle and we can’t do much to help. After all, God is in charge, and if the Lord is going to return and burn it all up anyway what’s the use in recycling?
Moreover, some Latter-day Saints have gone as far as using scripture to justify an outlook of fatalism, to distance us from our responsibility to the earth, our “stewardship.” Here’s a quote, one particular example: “Some people are of the mind that our consumer-driven society is rapidly depleting the earth’s natural resources. They argue for conservation…But why? Do they really think we’re going to run out?” He concludes, “Ladies and gents, we have nothing to worry about.” He bases this on D&C 104:17:
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)
We can certainly interpret this verse in a “All is well in Zion” sort of way, although the Book of Mormon has some verses which warn against such an approach. There is enough and to spare? Reassurance? Try telling that to the black rhino. Or maybe we can just say, hey, there are other species of rhinos still around out there, so no biggie. (And is it just me, or is there some frequent correlation between people who dismiss the theory of evolution and also global warming and human impact on the environment?)
Or instead, this verse can be understood as God’s declaration of our responsibility, a setting of terms, and ultimately today, an indictment for our failure to take good enough care of the earth God creates. In other words: telling us there is “enough and to spare” is not a reassurance. It is a call to repentance. Having enough resources isn’t the same as having the wherewithal to prudently make use of said resources for the good of ourselves and others, including animals (though I recognize some difficulty in line-drawing. What about eating meat, what about microscopic organisms that we kill with medicine, etc.? Well, as for the rhino, it died off not to feed our starvation or to save us from illness, so those points aren’t exactly relevant here). God made us “agents,” and if there’s “enough and to spare” but we’re seeing extinctions like this, maybe it’s time to recognize that “the world [still] lieth in sin.” Elsewhere in Joseph Smith’s revelations we read that the earth was made for the use and enjoyment of man, yes. But we also learn about the earth fulfilling the measure of its creation, and we hear about all things finding joy therein.
And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion. And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who dconfess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments. (D&C 59:20-21)
We wouldn’t be warned about excess and extortion if they weren’t real possibilities. We let you down, rhino.