Posted by: Barry Bickmore | November 10, 2010

Are Mormons Catching Up On Sustainability?

We Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) tend to be a pretty conservative lot, both socially and politically.  The sad thing is, from my perspective, that too many people who lean to the left or right on social issues because of their religious values tend to keep following the party line about everything else.  Here in Utah, I see a lot of religious conservatives whose political opinions are essentially a checklist of the national Republican platform.  On the other side of the fence, I have friends who belong to more liberal religious traditions (e.g., Unitarians, Episcopalians, Reformed Jews, and so on,) and some of them seem to have political opinions that are essentially a checklist of secular, liberal pop-culture values.

This seems to extend to views about climate change.  I.e., in my experience those who lean right about social issues for religious reasons (including the Mormons in my neck of the woods) tend to be much more likely to reject the idea of significant anthropogenic climate change.  Why?  Anyone who thinks the Bible, for instance, teaches that God wouldn’t allow disasters to happen due to human greed and general nastiness, simply hasn’t read it.  (Try Ezekiel and John’s Revelation for starters.)  I’m not saying the Bible has much to say about climate change, specifically.  Rather, I’m just saying that there’s nothing there that would tend to foster any science-religion conflict about this issue.  It’s just a matter of people parroting the party line about issues they haven’t really thought much about.

If there is going to be a sea change about climate issues among naturally conservative Mormons, they have to be confronted with the fact that certain aspects of their political outlook aren’t as much in line with their religion as they may have thought.  For Mormons, this usually happens via Church leaders giving subtle nudges to the general membership to help them see they need to think a little harder.  I think (hope?) I’m seeing a few of these subtle nudges.

In the October 2010 General Conference of the Church, for example, Dieter Uchtdorf (a member of the “First Presidency” of the LDS Church) used a paleoclimatology metaphor to bring out a certain point.

It’s remarkable how much we can learn about life by studying nature. For example, scientists can look at the rings of trees and make educated guesses about climate and growing conditions hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

“Really?  But I thought that fraudulent ‘hockey stick’ graph was based on tree rings.”  I don’t know if this was intentionally meant as one of those subtle nudges I mentioned, but that’s not all.  It turns out that the LDS Church is piloting a program in “green architecture” for their meeting houses and other building projects.  At a recent “Bioneers” conference in Logan, UT, two of the featured speakers were Bill Williams, who heads up Salt Lake City’s City Creek Center project (run by the LDS Church), and Jared Doxey, the director of architecture, engineering and construction of meetinghouses for the LDS Church.  Here’s a quotation from the linked article.

Although it’s not a city government project, the massive City Creek Center in Salt Lake City will positively change that city — hopefully forever, Williams said Friday night. The project has allowed the LDS Church to re-create downtown Salt Lake with a focus on sustainability, he said.

“Truly, we’re trying to create environmentally conscious living,” he said.

Williams said the church is working toward constructing several of the new buildings at City Creek to be LEED Silver certified, meaning they meet certain environmental standards. About half of the project is “green roof” — which means buildings are partially or completely covered with vegetation.

Additionally, 80 percent of what was torn down two years ago when construction started was later recycled, Williams said.

During a time when few major construction projects are underway due to the economy, Williams said the City Creek Center has attracted significant attention.

Meanwhile, the LDS Church is also attracting modest attention for its goals in making new meetinghouses more efficient.

Doxey, who heads up the church’s construction of meetinghouses worldwide, told Bioneer conference attendees about the LDS Church’s efforts to save money and reduce carbon emissions when building new construction.

Little things — such as webcasting church broadcasts to local meetinghouses — have cut down on emissions by allowing church members to travel shorter distances rather than driving hours to get to a stake or regional center in some parts of the world. Within stake centers, the church has begun recycling baptismal font water and installing lighting and motion detectors to reduce energy usage. Better insulation, windows, water heaters and finishes also help to better control internal temperatures.

Doxey said the “green” projects have allowed the church to create connections with others outside the faith.

“When you talk about reusable energy and sustainable design, it knocks down all kinds of barriers,” he said.

The LDS Church is now in the middle of a project to build five prototype meetinghouses in Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Doxey said all of the buildings have been or will apply for a LEED Silver certification.

“We are trying different types of technologies to see the impact on … the design and environment,” Doxey said.

One meetinghouse in Farmington, which is now complete, has 156 solar panels and is 100 percent solar-powered, he said.

“Two months before we were done with construction, we were selling power back to Rocky Mountain Power, and that was pretty nice,” he said. “We’re expecting that system to be working 50 years from now.”

In the church, a touch screen shows church patrons energy use as its happening. Doxey said the hope is for church users to understand what uses energy and conserve accordingly — both in the church and at home.

These initiatives had to be going on well before the last President of the LDS Church, Gordon Hinckley, passed away in 2008.  Here’s what he once had to say about our society’s wasteful habits.

Ours is such a wasteful generation. The disposal of garbage has become one of the great problems of our time. Part of that comes of wasteful extravagance. Our Pioneer forebears lived by the motto:

Fix it up,
Wear it out,
Make it do, or
Do without.

It is the obsession with riches that cankers and destroys. The Lord has said: “Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” (D&C 6:7.)

So who knows?  Maybe more Mormons will start getting the idea that it isn’t part of their religion to treat environmental issues in a cavalier manner.  I hope so, anyway.


  1. Hi Barry – I also noticed Pres. Uchtdorf’s remarks, and there are a number of other good signs too. The church participated in “Earth Hour” (symbolically turning off unnecessary lights) earlier this year, for instance.

    A few years ago we were visiting Salt Lake City and managed to visit the new conference center, and walk around on the roof. I was very impressed with the “alpine meadow” and other plantings on the “green roof”, it’s a stunning design. And that’s from 10 years ago, so I think the ecological consciousness of church leaders is not anything new.

    On the other hand, you could smell (and see?) the oil refineries off in the distance too… Salt Lake City has quite a way to go…

  2. I’m not saying the Bible has much to say about climate change, specifically. Rather, I’m just saying that there’s nothing there that would tend to foster any science-religion conflict about this issue.

    I haven’t had any experience with Mormons on this issue directly, but in my neck of the woods (Alberta, i.e. Texas North), I’ve heard people citing Genesis 9:11 (“Yes, I am confirming my covenant with you. Never again will floodwaters kill all living creatures; never again will a flood destroy the earth”) as proof there’s either no sea level rise or that any sea level rise won’t be a problem. That’s a pretty clear science-religion conflict if you take the Bible as literally and completely true (see also Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.“)

    That said, actions speak far louder than words, and none of this disputes the point here. Just raising what I’ve met in my experience, which does suggest there is a source of conflict.

    • Hi Brian,

      I guess if the scientists were saying that climate change would cause floods that would destroy the Earth or kill all living creatures, this would be a legitimate source of science-religion conflict. But they don’t say that, and since it’s obvious that we still have regular floods that do plenty of damage, a person would have to be really reaching to find anything there to dispute the science. That’s my point, though–people tend to manufacture science-religion conflict where it really doesn’t exist. Now, there are obviously some cases (like evolution) where it’s easy to say “there’s no conflict,” when in reality the degree of conflict depends on which of a variety of more-or-less reasonable interpretations you choose. But with climate change, it seems to me that the conflict really is manufactured solely by people who don’t understand the science, or have very poor reading comprehension, or just haven’t bothered to read the whole Bible.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Candy, Planet3.0. Planet3.0 said: Are Mormons Catching Up On Sustainability? […]

  4. I am a California Mormon. I believe that a grateful and responsible people should take care of the environment within reason. It is disrespectful of Gods blessing to do otherwise. However, I also believe that the earth was created for us and that there is enough and to spare. People are not the enemy. The earth was made for us.

    One thing did bother me about Utah. About 5 years ago, my family moved to Utah because my wife wanted to attend BYU. after unloading the UHaul truck, I asked a neighbor what to do with the box’s. It turns out that there was no process in Utah county for recycling. I had no other choice but to haul it to the dump which was extremely uncomfortable for me.

    • Hi Peter,

      You will be pleased to know that they have recycling programs in most of the cities in Utah County, now. Some have even initiated an “opt-out” strategy, meaning that you are automatically signed up for recycling unless you go in and sign a form saying you don’t want it.

      The passage you quoted about “enough and to spare” is problematic, though. Here it is in context.

      15 And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
      16 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.
      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 104:15-17)

      The gist, as I read it, is that God wants to provide for his people, but it has to be done in HIS WAY. And that way is that “the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” In other words, I don’t think God has set things up in a way that would support extravagant living. And it’s pretty certain that people aren’t generally being provided for in God’s way.

  5. Sustainability is a good way for the church to become more releavent in a modern world. Helping ourselves and others through sustainability is a good way to become relevant for a long time to come, we are also following the golden rule. It gives young people a cause (outside of just kingdom building for the sake of kingdom building) and helps everyone see how connected we are.

    Connections on the internet and socially etc., are here and are the future, and if we can connect through environmental issues that matter that is even better.

    Politcally it will be hard to push a sustainable agenda in Utah, but if the church pushes it people will get on board.

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