Elder Marcus Nash
On April 12, 2013, I attended a Symposium on Religion, Faith , and the Environment in the S. J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. There were attorneys, Buddhists, Hindus, evangelicals, Native Americans, and various leaders of environmental institutions from across America. It was fascinating for the audience to stand with Lacee Harris (a Native American Elder) and pray as we faced the east wall of the Moot Court Room.
We heard the stories from Vasudha Narayanan of Hindu Earth Goddesses and the sacred, eternal Ganges as universal water and purifier, and sadly a river threatened by global warming. A Buddhist MD spoke of the psychological nature of their tradition with universal human suffering, and self-relinquishment as an environmental act. Nalinin Nadkarni, a biologist from the University of Utah, addressed her favorite topic—rainforest trees and how vulnerable life is in the canopy. There was a palpable excitement in the audience as she spoke of humans as the heirs of Noah, and showed how prisoners and children are aiding the research to save rainforests. We saw pictures of rap singing sessions among the trees and a Tree Top Barbie intended to attract the youth into the cause. A biologist from USU spoke of three models used to represent the human/nature interface: 1) human dominion over nature, 2) human guardianship of nature, or 3) simple human partnership and participation within and without nature.
For Elder Marcus Nash of the LDS Quorum of Seventy, the dominion/ stewardship model is the appropriate ones for Mormons. His delivered a watershed speech on Mormonism and the environment. Elder Nash claimed to be speaking, not for himself, but for Mormonism. I am not certain whether he was simply stating that he personally was reflected the core of Mormon beliefs on the environment or whether he meant that he was authorized to speak for the Church. My guess is that he was authorized to speak as a representative for the Church at the Conference. But of course, he is not the leader of the Church. It clearly was a Mormon presentation, relying on scriptural and prophetic precedent. He cited Mormon scripture and as many modem day prophets, including the following: Psalms 8:4, Abraham 3:24, Moses 3:5, D&C 49:19-21, D&C 82:19, D&C 59:20, and Moses 7:28.
According to Elder Nash, the universe was created for the benefit of humans, but that humans are accountable for their treatment and use of the earth which is to be in the spirit of respect and humility. He stated that selfishness was the cause of our environmental problems. The role of the Church, according to Nash, is to teach correct principles and let people govern themselves. This of course sidesteps the issue of what the Church itself does on issues of sustainability, and how the silence of the Church encourages inaction among its members. That was beyond the scope of his presentation. Certainly, as a high level emplyee of the office of the Presiding Bishop once stated to me on the subject of renewable energy: “We are not pioneers, you know.” Unfortunately, we are not, anymore. The Church could singlehandedly change the score in the sustainability movement. But that game is not yet over.
Back to Elder Nash. He then quoted some church leaders such as Ezra Taft Benson who stated that strip mining is a sin, and Brigham Young’s admonition to keep the valley “pure.” He quoted Elder Neil A. Maxwell, a Mormon apostle: “True disciples of Christ will be environmentalists.” I don’t see any conference talks on that topic. One participant complained that she has been making the same point for years in the face of scoffing ward members that consider her scriptural arguments distorted.
Elder Nash’s presentation is ground breaking. My guess is that this speech is just putting the church’s toe in the water. I predict that we will see more of this kind of presentation. They will pay a small price among conservatives for addressing environmental issues. But the price is far, far higher for ignoring it. The price of doing nothing is the loss of faith of its own youth. This issue is critical to keep the youth. The power is in the hands of our leaders to make Mormonism either a truly universal and relevant religion or to consign it to the role of a marginal sect. This is the issue that picks the future path of Mormonism. The Church has a choice: seriously address environmental issues or lose the youth. The Church is too pragmatic to ignore that fact that the youth are already leaving, in part because the Church is not addressing one of the great moral issues of our time.
This was the first time I have heard a General Authority speak with such breadth about Mormonism and the environment in an authoritative and comprehensive way. I was stunned. I was surprised to find tears running down my cheeks. I have been waiting for this speech all my life. But nothing serious will happen in Mormon on the environment until we hear it in general conference.
After the environmental conference ended at the U, I engaged in a discussion with a young Utah Mormon and an Elderly California Mormon. We agreed that Elder Nash’s speech opens the door for exciting things. Here are some of the predictions this group came up with:
- The Church has been backing off of discussions with credible religious and environmental groups such as Interfaith Power and Light. As one senior employee of the Church’s for-profit real estate arm (Suburban Land Reserve) stated “We (the Church) do not make good partners.” Necessity is the Prophet’s Father. This dialogue of religious allies of the earth will begin for the first time soon. There are churches that really do need the LDS Church and all it has to offer them. It is also a venue for all to explore best practices for religious responsibility on the environment. If nothing else, it is a great PR move for Mormonism. No brainer. This will happen soon.
- The LDS Church will draft a Declaration on the Earth. (This may or may not be a good thing depending on its content.)
- The Prophet and other General Authorities will regularly give speeches on Mormon environmentalism in General Conference. This will be a regular part of conferences. Until this happens, Mormons will not be serious guardians of the planet. After this happens, the windows of heaven may just break open on environmentalism in Mormonism and shower down blessings too full to hold.
- The Presiding Bishop’s Office will escalate its current efforts at sustainability in church buildings, including the appointment of a Director of Sustainability (as many Fortune 500 companies currently do) under the Presiding Bishop. Renewable energy will become a large part of Church energy.
- The Church will organize a long tern sustainability plan, and start to set key performance indicators to achieve goals—as many large corporations and the US Military are doing.
- Each ward will have a Sustainability Director that works with the Relief Society on ward environmental and energy issues. (This may not happen in my lifetime.)
- Missionary work will involve environmental service.
- BYU will become a place where students go forth to the world to serve the cause of sustainability. BYU will eventually sign the Presidents’ Climate Initiative seeking to eliminate carbon from its campus, start using the STARS system for measuring real environmental sustainability on university campuses, and start employing renewable energy sources on its campus (currently they have zero). This may happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime.
Check back with me in a decade and let’s see what progress we have made.