Two weeks ago I attended a conference in Claremont California, called the Seizing the Alternative Conference. Sixteen hundred scientists, theologians and philosophers gathered to explore the question of how to best respond to the ecological changes the earth is experiencing due to climate change. These people were among the world’s top researchers, thinkers, writers, ethicists, and others concerned about how best to respond to what scientists are calling the Anthropocene–a geological era dominated by the influence of humans who are changing the fundamental ecology of Earth. At BYU we just had a semester long series of climate change talks, sponsored by BYU’s Environmental Ethics Initiative and the Kennedy Center for International Studies. Every week we brought in scientists from around the country to talk about their research on different aspects of global warming. This was a nice setup for my participation at Claremont. The conference was a call to action for the spiritual and intellectual communities to more clearly communicate what’s happening to the planet. However, a concise statement of much of what we discussed is framed in the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change.
The evidence of these changes is overwhelming, from melting Arctic polar ice, to the global retreat of glaciers. From rising sea levels and the acidification of the oceans (literally dissolving the coral reefs and the calcium-based exo- and endoskeletons of the plankton; the base of the ocean’s food chain). Widespread droughts, floods, and changes in the jet stream (which we see in the movement of the polar vortex dropping into the Northeast in winter, to earlier springs and warmer winters) are effecting every ecology of which I’m aware. The evidence is abundant, clear and uncontroversial—unless you include the 500 million dollars used by the Heartland Institute’s disinformation campaign to undermine the science and politicize what should be of concern of every political party on the planet (ironically, that amount of money is about the same amount that the National Science Foundation spends on Climate Change research). This should never have been considered a political issue. It simply is not, although it has been made such.
But I don’t want to talk about that. If you don’t believe in science, then you will reap the consequences. I find it ironic that I often find members of the church so willing to cling to the most tenuous evidence to embrace the claims of essential oil and herbal remedy enthusiasts, yet deny what the best and most rigorous science going on in the world is saying. Which research is revealing and documenting the widespread and clear evidence that the climate is reeling to and fro like a drunken man. Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel indeed.
I do, however, want to talk about how to establish an spiritual and ethical response to the current ecological crisis—especially in light of the Pope’s recent encyclical on the matter. He rightly notes that this is in fact a spiritual crisis. The greatest threat to families right now is not the things that many Americans are most concerned about in their political discourse and divisions. The most obvious and perilous threat to the family on a global scale is poverty, which is expanding its reach due to droughts, rising sea levels, floods, changes in the growing season, redistribution of crop pests and diseases, water resources diminishing, and other climate effects, making agriculture (and especially subsistence agriculture) much more difficult. This in turn is causing population redistribution, due to worldwide crop failures and resource wars, creating pressure to move off the land and into the cities, or by immigrating to more stable areas. This causes pressure and unemployment in the cities, removing fathers from homes as they try to eke out a living in urban settings rather than enjoying the lifestyles their families had embraced for centuries in traditional landscapes. Conflicts worldwide but especially in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are now recognized as crisis precipitated by the ecological changes that have been brought about by the warming planet. More conflicts are on the horizon as Himalayan glaciers retreat setting up future regional water conflicts.
If we genuinely care about the family there is nothing on the world stage as damaging as poverty and war—two plagues growing more and more common as the ecological basis of our economies—agriculture and other ways of life are disrupted. The Pope provides a nice framework for discussing this.
The entire encyclical is a call to Zion. There is no other way to describe it. The Pope quotes St. Francis,
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
This is reminiscent of our own scripture,
And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children.” Moses 49:48.
The encyclical is divided into six chapters. Each of them addresses an aspect of the current ecological crisis. In every chapter, the Pope returns again and again to the poor. Throughout the entire document, he keeps us focused on the fact that climate change is disproportionately affecting the poor of the earth. This also is in line with our own scripture. When we talk about the unequal distribution of goods and its effect on the poor, we often quote 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.
Yet we neglect the context. It is good to remember the scripture before (vs. 16) that says,
But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
When was the last time you heard a member of the church say in a lesson that it is normative Mormon ethics to insist that the rich be made low? The scripture that follows (vs. 18), says,
Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.
The first chapter of the encyclical goes over the effects, established by science, of climate change. Especially as it affects the disenfranchised peoples of the earth. It goes over the harms that our current social and economic practices have had on the earth. He provides an excellent overview of these.
In the second chapter, the Pope goes over the theology of caring for creation, the purposes for which the earth was made, and how the spiritual and the ecological aspects of our planet are connected.
The human technological condition frames the third chapter, in which we come to understand how sin, greed, and avarice, are widespread in our attempts to control nature through technology. This is not a rant against modern tools and methods, but rather an attempt to show how we have failed to remember the Lord in its application.
How to live ecologically and harmoniously with the earth is the focus of the fourth chapter. It explores how depended we are on ecological services and how their neglect through ignorance is inadvisable if we are to live spiritual lives.
Chapter five is a call to action, with specific recommendations on how to turn our lives around and live with greater spiritual awareness of the poor and the services we rely on for or our happiness and well-being.
The last chapter is a call to education about ecology and spirituality.
The entire document is a call to remember the poor of the earth and our effect on them. It is a direct call to action to bring about the condition that “There were no poor among them.”
For the next six months, I will join the Mormon Lectionary Project with a post on each chapter of the encyclical. I hope that you will take the time to read with me the entire document and discuss how as LDS people we better understand creation, and our relationship to it. This is especially important as we claim to be a Zion People and it will be useful to see if we can reframe our actions to better reflect that claim.
It is important to recall a specific reason given for why the Lord is displeased with the condition of world,
But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. D&C: 49:20.
We knew in the last days that the elements would be in commotion. Should we be surprised that what is happening to our planet is being caused by our sins, rather than being brought about for our sins?