Earth—A Gift of Gladness


God has made us responsible for the earth and all living things. How well are we doing?

As I was reading the scriptures recently, my mind flashed back to a Sunday morning thirty-five years ago. I was ten years old at the time, walking home from church. The sun was breaking through the trees with those wondrous, slanted rays, backlighting leaves and turning their edges to gold. The fields beyond the trees were covered with color—lavender and pink. The delicate hue was suddenly everywhere. I was surrounded and stunned by the beauty. There was no one to share the experience with, but the Spirit whispered, and for the first time I sensed Heavenly Father’s love for me, expressed through his creations.

The verse that brought that memory to mind is in Doctrine and Covenants 59. There the Lord tells the Prophet Joseph that “all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart, … to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.” The Lord goes on to tell us that he is pleased to give all these things for our benefit and use, but that they are to be used “with judgment, not to excess.” (D&C 59:18, 20; italics added.)

A recent awareness of man’s activities on earth came to me in the form of a report from a Boy Scout. He wrote this paragraph for his Environmental Science merit badge: “Although nature doesn’t have much of a chance against us humans, the mountains are still a place of beauty. There are laws that protect parks. Most people don’t care anyway. If we would ask ourselves if what we are doing would harm this mountain or that forest, maybe nature would have a better chance.”

The relevance of this simple message comes with repetitive impact these days as we read about the environmental damage caused by such man-made problems as acid rain, excessive carbon dioxide and other chemicals in the atmosphere, deforestation, and the pollution of our oceans, lakes, and streams.

Scientific American has noted that at the beginning of this century mankind did not have the power to radically alter the global environment. Today we have that power, and as a result, serious, mostly unintended changes are taking place in the air, water, and land around us. These changes outstrip our present ability to cope with them, largely because the world’s financial, social, and political systems are out of step with natural processes. (See Gro Harlem Brundtland, “How to Secure Our Common Future,” Scientific American, Sept. 1989, p. 190.)

At one time, there may have been reason to be skeptical about the idea that we are damaging the earth on a global scale. But no longer. The evidence is mounting that we are doing ourselves and our mortal home serious damage. An observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawaii far away from large industry has recorded a rate of 1.5 to 2 parts per million increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1958. Similar observations were made at the South Pole. A continued increase in carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, produced by our vast consumption of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, appears to be responsible for a general increase in temperature worldwide. (See Sylvan H. Wittwer, “The Greenhouse Effect,” Carolina Biology 163:8.) That increase threatens possible major changes in climate around the world, potentially causing drought in some areas and greater rainfall in others.

Evidence for this global warming also comes from studies made by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which analyzed records going back to 1860. The studies showed that the greatest global temperature increase has taken place in the last decade. Carbon dioxide and trace gases produced by our industrial societies were considered to be the cause. (See R. A. Haughton and G. M. Woodwell, “Global Climatic Change,” Scientific American, April 1989, p. 37.)

Another consequence of our burning large amounts of fossil fuels has been a condition called acid rain. Forests, streams, and lakes have all been seriously damaged in regions where pollutants in the atmosphere are converted into mild acids that are brought back to earth through rain and snow. As the acid accumulates, it kills both plant and animal life.

At the same time, we are combining that indirect and largely unintended attack with a more direct attack: deforestation. As forests are cut in many parts of the earth, the effect they have on slowing global warming decreases, and the loss of animal and plant habitat increases.

In Doctrine and Covenants 104:17, the Lord said, “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] My impression on reading those words is that the Lord is an ample provider—but he did not plan that we waste the gifts he has given us. The scriptures make it clear that we have dominion over the earth, but they also make it clear what that dominion means: We are to care for our planetary home and use its resources wisely. It was never intended that we abuse it.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of most people that when they are given authority, they begin to exercise “unrighteous dominion.” (See D&C 121:39.) I confess that when I was a young man, my respect for God’s creations was not a high priority. My attitude was not much different from that of my friends. Together we used and abused nature as we felt inclined. Scouting introduced me to the concept of conservation, but somehow I was slow to abandon my “consumer mentality.”

Now, as a trained biologist and a member of a bishopric, I find my past behavior totally out of line with being a son of God. A disregard for the gifts of nature is an attitude contrary to the instructions given by our Father in Heaven. We all enjoy scenic vistas, wilderness experiences, or opportunities to commune with nature. Too often, however, wise dominion conflicts with convenience, and usually it is convenience that prevails.

However, restoration is possible, though in the case of the damage we are doing to our global environment, including the destruction of living species, restitution is very difficult if not impossible. After all, how do you restore a species once it is gone? Some measures must be truly global in scope, involving governments worldwide. But there are also steps we can take as individuals.

Every spring our stake high priests group spends a Saturday morning cleaning the roadsides in our neighborhood. It is hard to imagine the good that participating in that project has done for us all. The amount of trash collected always astounds us, and we come away from the experience sobered by the realization that even acts like littering can add up to big problems.

It is also sobering to recognize that in the support of our living here on earth, some life must be sacrificed. We all need to ponder that humbling fact. Whenever the United States Army Corps of Engineers draft plans that will disturb a habitat, they must also draft plans on how they will mitigate the effects of their activities. This means they have to reclaim, restore, or develop new habitats that are equal to those being destroyed. If we have to destroy life or the habitat of a species for any reason, we could try to adopt the same policy. Why not have a personal plan to mitigate our own destructiveness by building, adding back, or supporting life whenever we can?

Every year we hear about worthwhile projects that improve our environment. Why not make it a point to be less passive in the future and to participate more? As we do so, our understanding will grow, we will effect positive changes, and we will be humbled to see what it takes to successfully reclaim, restore, or beautify natural areas. Heavenly Father has already provided these processes naturally; we need but learn how to copy and use them.

I used to wonder why President Spencer W. Kimball admonished us so often to raise gardens. But as my gardening skills grew, I came to appreciate the wisdom of his counsel. Not only do we center that activity at or near our homes where the focus of our attention should be, but we learn much about the processes of nature. When we work with the soil and learn ways of producing food from the earth, we begin to understand the delicate balances in nature. This harmony is difficult to see if the only way we get our food is by visiting the supermarket.

Gardening also teaches us that life is fragile. It teaches us that all living things require food, water, space to grow, clean air to breathe, and protection from natural and man-made enemies in ways that God has established. This is true of both plants and animals. Pollution, erosion, waste, destruction of unique environments, careless use of resources, and uncontrolled “sport” killing destroy those creatures and the places in which they live.

Can Heavenly Father be any less pleased with this willful destruction of nature than when we break the Word of Wisdom? Certainly, if we are to become like him, we must begin to master the skills necessary to preserve and encourage the processes of life. It seems to me that part of our responsibility as caretakers for the earth is to learn about those processes and take advantage of opportunities to protect our world’s resources. Ecology and the natural sciences should be areas of interest for us all. (See D&C 88:79.)

These matters are vital. Apart from the fact that our personal safety is being increasingly endangered by the deterioration of our environment, we need to recognize that someday we will be asked to account for how we have managed our resources. What will our answer be when the Lord asks how we treated the earth—this gift he gave us gladly and which he asks us to use with gladness?

How You Can Help

Here are a few ideas you might consider in trying to take better care of the earth:

  • Find ways to reduce unnecessary personal consumption of energy, water, wood products, and other products that come from scarce resources.

  • Stop using products that damage the environment.

  • Recycle metal, glass, plastic, and paper products.

  • Be conscientious in disposing of chemical wastes properly.

  • Learn more about natural processes and earth science.

  • Cultivate a garden where possible; learn the art and science of composting.

  • Adopt a conservation rather than a consumption attitude.

  • Be grateful.

[illustration] The Creation of the Animals, by Stanley Galli

[photo] Photography courtesy of NASA

G. Michael Alder serves as bishop of the Wasatch Eighth Ward, Salt Lake Wasatch Stake.