Category Archives: Connecting to Community
I finally asked my mom if she would talk about her suicide attempt in order to understand the perspective of someone who gets to that point. This last summer suicide rates of wildland firefighters made the headlines and with such a long and devastating fire season, it seemed to add insult to injury for those in the community.
Wildfire Today and The Atlantic both ran in-depth pieces on the epidemic. I ran the numbers and they are staggering: Between 2015 and 2016, 28 firefighters died on the job. During that same period 52 firefighters took their own lives. Numbers do not lie and these numbers reveal that more firefighters die by suicide than by fire.
I wanted to address mental health and suicide at work, I wanted to get people talking about it to help remove the stigma that only the weak or selfish take their own life; hoping that perhaps if we try to understand, maybe we won’t judge and thereby provide a safe place for people to talk about what has caused them to reach a point of no return. But in order to do that I needed to try to understand myself.
I was touched by suicide when I was 25 years old after my mother almost succeeded at taking her own life. We’ve never talked about it. I don’t know why I have been so afraid to ask her about it but I figured it was time. I needed to understand. To my surprise she had no problem talking about it – seemingly eager to tell her story. Maybe she’s been waiting for an opportunity to be understood.
After my mom graduated from law school she got a job in the Utah Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general. She was also teaching law classes at the University of Utah. Her and my dad were divorced and me and my three other siblings lived with my dad, but mom was around a lot. She had latitude with her work schedule working for the State. She was flying high – she had a great and prestigious job, she had flexibility, she had a successful boyfriend who was also a lawyer that she thought she might marry, and she had aspirations of running for office – she seemingly had everything; the sky was the limit. Until she flew too close to the sun.
The Utah Medical Association offered her a job. Life was moving fast. She couldn’t believe how great it was; surely being the attorney for the Utah Medical Association would propel her to the pinnacle of her career. She was warned by an associate not to take it, certain she would hate it. Her father suggested she let him negotiate her salary and told her not to take anything below $100,000. She didn’t listen to anyone because she knew what she was doing, it was a strategic move for her and her career – it was a prestigious private sector job. If she could hack this, she could take on the world. She took the job for $11,000 more than she was making, which was roughly $80,000.
The glamour and allure wore off fast. The new job did not have the flexibility or independence that the government job did. She could not work early and leave early, she was required to be with her bosses all the time, to have a cell phone so that they could get a hold of her, and then she started to have to work nights and weekends.
It was then that she began to feel like she was suffocating, like a noose had been placed around her neck and was tightening. No longer was she able to see her kids when she wanted to, she didn’t have time for her boyfriend; she didn’t have time for anything but work.
One night she did the math on her salary and the hours she was working and it amounted to little more than minimum wage. The warnings and suggestions she had heard before she took the job came back to haunt her. She had not done her research and now she was trapped. Her life became fragmented; she was losing control of it and watched helplessly as pieces of it started drifting away. For a professed control freak, this was terrifying. She started having anxiety attacks. It was a gradual sequence of events that led her there, but once she got there it sped up and her life spiraled out of control.
I had recently gotten out of the military and was going to school at what was Dixie State Community College in St. George at that time. I was living in my mom’s second home that she rented out to single women. I didn’t know at the time that something was wrong but I took a trip to Mexico with my mom and an old boyfriend hers that she had gotten back together with after her and her other boyfriend broke up. She wasn’t herself. She seemed scared and nervous which was completely the opposite of her normal state of being. Me and my brother blew it off as weird and didn’t think about it beyond asking, “What’s wrong with mom?”
A year later I had moved to Salt Lake City and was going to Salt Lake Community College. I went to visit my mom at work – I’d never seen her office. While we were talking she told me she couldn’t breath and took her chair outside to sit in the parking lot. Admittedly, it was strange but then again, my mother never liked being inside so it was kind of normal. I was still a little confused by her behavior and didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that she felt like she was suffocating in the building. It never occurred to me she was in trouble.
Years later when I was talking to one of my aunts, she told me that my mom was talking about suicide to them. They took her to a behavioral health hospital because they thought she was suffering from depression. The doctors gave her anti-depressants. As someone who doesn’t like to be out of control, she didn’t want to take the pills, but I think she did take them. Later it was discovered that she was suffering from anxiety not depression.
At this point she had married a long-time boyfriend and was living in Midway, Utah. She lost a worrisome amount of weight and was not herself at all. She said she had been told she had a life threatening brain disease. With this news she started to wonder what it had all been for. Why had she left her family and her kids to go to law school and then work a job that became a prison if she was just going to die anyway? She had given up what mattered most to her for something she thought had a higher purpose, that was bigger than her – a heroic life – only to find out that it wasn’t worth it in the end.
She started to look at what she had to leave us kids. She had $15,000 in the bank. She wrote notes to all us where she left all she had to us (I never saw the letters), took her bottle of pills and drove to Deer Creek Reservoir and swallowed them all. She thought what she was doing was a loving act not to make us go through the long process of watching her die only to leave us with nothing.
For some reason she drove back to the house. She says she remembers it being very scary because of all the medications she had taken. Her husband rushed her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. When I got the call he was sobbing and told me what happened. He explained how she went into convulsions and only survived because the pills were time released. The doctors said that if the pills had all released at the same time she would have died.
I was in shock. I drove to Midway though I don’t recall why or what I did. All I remember is seeing the man who for all intents and purposes was a second father to me, sitting out behind his barn on the ground bawling – his eyes bloodshot, the life drained out of him.
The next day I had to go to school. I cried all the way there. I remember sitting in the parking lot and thinking that if I let myself feel this, my world would fall apart too. I wiped the tears away, pushed my feelings beneath the surface, went to class, and never let myself feel it again.
At the time I had just started dating my husband. We were in a long distance relationship and he would fly from Georgia to Utah to see me or vice versa. We were sitting in Barnes and Noble in Salt Lake City on one such visit and he asked me if I was okay. I said, “I’m not a glass doll, I won’t break.” In retrospect that seems like such a calloused thing to say, but in reality, it was a defense mechanism against the fear of falling into a void I was afraid I would never be able to climb back out of.
My mother was transferred to the LDS Behavioral Health Hospital. I recall only going to visit her there once. She was lying in the hospital bed and didn’t seem aware of my presence. I tried talking to her but she wouldn’t respond, staring straight through me. She looked empty as if she had succeeded at killing herself but her body hadn’t registered it yet. I wanted to hold her hand or lay down with her and hug her, hold her tight, but I couldn’t do it. The person in front of me was not the strong, fearless, larger-than-life woman I had known all my life – the person in front of me was a stranger.
I didn’t know how to reach her. I didn’t know what to say or do. I’d never been taught what to do with pain and suffering and so I sat there frozen and terrified. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, certain I should be doing something but not knowing what, and thinking that I was a worthless daughter. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other in order to survive myself.
What transpired after that is a blur. I got married, moved away, and started a family of my own. My sister got out of the Air Force and her and my brothers tried picking up the pieces while trying to find their own way in life. Mom never recovered. She had a mental break that left her in a perpetual loop of regret and agony. She became a ghost, an empty shell, a person without a purpose, living because – what choice did she have?
I don’t know if the suicide attempt caused my mother brain damage or if she already had some form of mental illness that was camouflaged by her success that would have eventually revealed itself in time, but mental illness is the only way to describe what happened to her. She bounced around for years living with family members who would take care of her until worn out and then pass her off to someone else. She did not take care of herself and engaged in erratic and disturbing behavior that left her and the family routinely dealing with the police. Mom was supposed to be taking medications but wouldn’t and the family couldn’t make her.
Roughly eight years later I moved back to southern Utah. While my mom didn’t live with us, we took her on and spent a lot of time with her. This was when I started to see a change in her; she seemed to be getting better. I don’t know if it was having me close or if it was my children, or if it was a combination of things but she found a desire to live again and started getting better – not whole, but better.
When we talked on the phone she told me she was so glad she didn’t succeed at killing herself and that even though she is homeless, she loves life. She wondered aloud if idealistic people were at a higher risk for suicide than others. She queried further if people who work “heroic” jobs, who witness destruction, loss, and ugliness in life – as well as heroic, bigger-than-life events that they are a part of – or those who have to choose between that life and people they value or who lose their “heroic” status – are at a higher risk. She told me that she definitely saw her work as heroic, as noteworthy – but that when that heroic world started to crumble, her idealism crashed with it.
She explained that it wasn’t one thing, it was a sequence of events that all collided at once and left her feeling fragmented, her life seemingly in shards that she couldn’t seem to put back together. While my mother’s story is her own and I am certain people have many reasons and different triggers that get them to that point, I’m also certain there is a common strand between all of them.
I am now the same age my mother was when she tried to end her life. I have never contemplated suicide but I lived long enough to question what it is all for, to wonder what the point is. I have taken the hard knocks of life and as Stephen King said, I’ve seen time begin its stealthy and rotten subtractions. I know what it is like to lose interest in things that used to bring value and joy to my life, and force myself to keep doing them, hoping the joy and fulfillment will return. I know what it is like for kids be the only reason to keep going and do what must be done and I know what it is like to long for close friendships and community and not have the energy to reach out and maintain, establish, or build it while enviously watching others who have. This is all without a collision of destabilizing events.
I thought of my season on the engine, the high stress, high camaraderie, fulfilling, and fun work and then the denouement that followed at the end of fire season that left me lost and off balance when I returned to normal life. It took me a good two months to recover and find meaning in life outside of my job. I still struggle with it and that was one season. I can only imagine a career of it year after year with all that life throws at you – potential problems or stresses at home, perhaps unhappy spouses, or no support and loneliness waiting at the end, illnesses or injuries that end the job, medical expenses that lead to bills and debt, time away from children – or just trying to find value outside of a high-value job.
As my mother talked I thought of a conversation I had with my boss who talked to me about the stresses of of being a wildland firefighter and warned me of the strain it puts on a marriage, telling me to take care of the home life. He said, “There are a lot of divorced firefighters.” He then went on to say, “You never know what a coworker is going through, you may never know that one of them is living out of a car – let me know if you are struggling so that I can help okay?”
What he didn’t tell me was that fire is an escape from the worries of life, that for brief, adrenaline-filled periods you have a single purpose where the cares of the world fall away and, as Steinbeck said, “…a kind of glory lights up the mind like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished,” – until it ends and everything turns back to gray. What my boss didn’t tell me was how hard it would be to get by in the day-to-day stretches of time after the glory had faded.
I asked my mom if there was anything anyone could have said or done to help her, any intervention that would have kept her from veering toward suicide. She wasn’t sure and said she would have to think about it. *
My mother was strong, fierce, and full of life – I still see her that way but perhaps more realistically now, more human; definitely fragile, breakable. Perhaps that is where we go wrong with people, we don’t allow them to be completely human – we don’t pay attention when they are living in the gray.
Perhaps the stigma of being weak if you are struggling with circumstances that appear to be a result of poor choices is what causes people to go it alone. Or maybe there is something insidious to the culture of rugged individualism where you are told to pull up your bootstraps and push through it despite needing help, and as a result, there’s a fear of sharing just how bad a shape you are in. And then there’s sharing your mental fitness with others – the trust required and vulnerability that would follow such an admission, combined with the very real possibility of repercussions for letting people know the truth, could be a strong deterrent to that kind of honesty.
I am just taking stabs in the dark but I have to believe there are answers. Why is suicide so astronomical, especially among veterans, police, and firefighters? Why do “heroes” kill themselves? Why does anyone?
Furthermore, what makes a life worth living? What can we do for those who think theirs isn’t? What can we do if we think our own life isn’t worth living? It’s possible there are answers if we are willing to look, if we are willing to enter uncharted territory where answers are uncomfortable, don’t come easy, and where when they do, they’re hard to grapple with. I’m willing to go there and listen to find out. Are you?
If you want to talk or share you can contact me here.
*My mother has since told me that being given the statistics of suicide among children of parents who have committed suicide might have kept her from trying.
Through brand marketing and sponsorship of professional athletes, outdoor retailers promote their gear and merchandise through the extraordinary talents and lives of the few in order to sell to the many. The people who accomplish such phenomenal athletic feats and live adventurous lives are thrilling to watch by any standard, but the advertising is targeted at the lay, amateur, or hobbiest adventurer hoping to add more adventure to their life – and the brand ambassadors do indeed sell.
But the subliminal message at the core of such advertising instills disappointment in the common life where none may have been before and where none need be. For the masses who were not born with extraordinary athletic ability or who do not have the financial luxury to live lives of travel, leisure, and adventure, to be peddled messages suggesting that a fulfilling lifestyle is one of unending adventure ultimately delivers disillusion and disappointment in an ordinary life by comparison. The ads feed off the hopes and dreams of a new life, a life not one’s own, lived in the virtual reality of the mind and realized more often than not, through shallow consumption.
While the end goal of a business is ultimately profit, the ends do not need to justify the means. For what is lacking in promoting highlights and snapshots of the world’s greatest athletic ability is the depth of personhood. What is absent is the nobility of character and depth that comes from the day-to-day struggles and growth that come with the endeavor to live a good life – of which even athletes must contend when they are not putting up a first ascent or catching a wave.
While the elite life of a professional athlete captured in moments of brilliance is phenomenal, it does not provide a good example of right living. Because the message sets the bar at a level out of reach for most it is like selling a shooting star: something beautiful and out of reach, distant and spectacular, to be observed from afar.
The noble life, on the other hand, is one that anyone can have. It is a life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, but is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
The noble life, unlike the athletic ideal, is at once worthy, honorable, and decent – both for the common man and woman, and the elite athlete as well. There is no biological barrier, no contingencies on net worth, and no in-bred disappointment, except that which comes from the endeavor to overcome failure in one’s pursuit of fine personal qualities born from upholding high moral principles and ideals.
This is not to say that there is something wrong with athletic ability, or promoting activities in the outdoors, for those are good and necessary and foster love and appreciation for the landscape, but caring for the earth requires so much more than using it for play, at least if that care is meant to translate into action.
Sustaining recreational lands requires knowledge, maintenance, care, and labor. If we do not understand what the earth offers us and requires of us, then we will continue to destroy it. For no matter how much one may love the earth, one can only live fully in it by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life.
To promote such a lifestyle, a company would be dealing with the common man and woman, the laborers, the advocates, the volunteers, the safe-keepers and people who not only play and develop themselves in the outdoors, but who work and care and try to restore the outdoors. To do this, a company would have to watch, and listen, and capture what amounts to a life fueled by spiritual and community values not quantifiable or easy; at certain points it may even deal with mysteries and unknowns, for the actions are but a hope and dream engineered in the mind of an individual brave enough to put those ideas into action. What they would find is that these undefinable and often unseen rules such people have chosen to live by have results, among others, that are economic – and probably profitable as well.
To promote such a life would add depth to the message of the company while giving people the space to love where they are, to rejoice in what they have, and to be comfortable in their own skin, knowing that it is the person wearing the clothes or using the gear that gives such things value, rather than the other way around. In short, the person adds value to the company because they feel valued and proud of their own life and their life’s work and the brand becomes a part of it.
For, if we have a common purpose, which is to value our lands, to promote a clean and healthy environment, and to sustain outdoor recreation for generations to come, how successful do we hope to be by peddling dissatisfaction that leaves people unhappy with their own lives and hence will not invest in their home community because they are consumed with living a different life elsewhere?
If one does not find value in the day-to-day investment in the place in which they live, no amount of moral messages or theoretical ethics from a business will change anything. To echo what Wendell Berry suggested, issues on a landscape or world scale cannot be solved until it is understood and dealt with by local people as a multitude of local problems hinging on the relationship between them and the local ecology, community, and culture.
In the aftermath of the arrests of Ammon Bundy and others a sort of denouement has overcome me. It is cathartic to see the militants arrested and to see the fiasco in Oregon slowly dissipate. It is tragic that someone died. But in the aftermath of this event one can’t help but see that there were real victims of the stunt pulled by the Bundy brothers, and they are the people of Harney County.
This morning I was going through photos of my oldest son for his school yearbook and the warm memories they conjured mixed with thoughts of residents in Harney County. They are people just like me, with children of their own, trying to make it in life. I can’t seem to stop thinking about them and some of things I have read.
One article that struck me in particular was in The Nation. It took note of the fact that many in Harney County are poor and feel disenfranchised and while none to my knowledge publicly supported the occupation of the refuge, the people were divided and getting torn apart by it.
They didn’t buy the Bundys’ claimed reasons for being there, they didn’t agree with their interpretation of the constitution, but they did understand some of the anger and did worry about the impact the occupation would have on their town and businesses from tourists watching from the outside.
The article ended by saying that after the news worthy events end, no one will pay attention to the poor people left in its wake.
It is a sad state of affairs that the poor have no voice in this country and that it takes poisonous drinking water or the actions of distorted militants to get some attention. Unfortunately, the author of the article is probably right; now that this is winding down, people will move on to other “hot” events and forget about Harney County – and that is tragic.
Over the last couple of weeks I have wondered if there is a way beyond breaking the law to draw attention to problems and I haven’t come up with much. There are the normal routes such as talking to local politicians, but for poor people, there seems to be little else they can do and there seems to be even fewer who care or are willing to go the distance to help. This is perhaps what makes civil disobedience so powerful and alluring.
The beauty of civil disobedience, (not to be confused with the armed resistance manifested by the Bundys) the act of breaking the law and accepting the penalty, is that recognition of the rule of law enables people to see the humanity of the plight of the person/people breaking it.
Most mainstream people cannot relate to breaking the law and so cannot relate to people who do it, and probably will never relate if the person breaking the law does not acquiesce to the punishment; but they can relate to a person or people who articulate problems and why they resorted to breaking the law to bring those issues to light.
While I am not a huge fan of cattle on public lands I am even less a fan of gentrification or disenfranchisement of poor rural people. My fear about our public lands is that they will become pristine playgrounds for the wealthy (take Vale, CO for example) if we are not careful.
Who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful and pristine place with clean air, water, and abundant outdoor opportunities? What rural towns and ranchers have provided, I think, is a buffer between development and our public lands and may even provide environmental services that I am unaware of. Furthermore, as far as I know, no ranchers actively seek to keep people out of those public places.
Typically, when ranches go, development moves in. There are many cases of wealthy home owners moving in, jacking up the costs of living, and then restricting access.
There have got to be real solutions for rural people to thrive and continue. Their economies need to be diversified and they need to be able to continue in a sustainable way. A huge part of the future of rural communities is going to be tourism and recreation as more and more people want to enjoy public lands and as a result, they should be given financial help to develop that sector of their economy.
Not too long ago I had a discussion with Justin Fischer, the economic developer in Garfield County, Utah, where we were discussing these very issues. Garfield County is probably somewhat similar to Harney County in that a large portion of the county (94%) is federal land.
We went the rounds about the federal government, environmentalists, the economy, tourism and recreation, grazing, timber, and mining and at the end of it all what Fischer told me was that it is hard for a poor county to compete and to build a sustainable economy without help.
He said, “What can we, a very poor county, offer in terms of incentive that bigger counties cannot? We would love to diversify our economy, but that is a tremendous, costly challenge as we are competing against thousands of other communities nationwide, and we lack some of their assets.”
He went on to say, “A great deal of our means is spent in trying to prevent economic loss. The solution isn’t more tourism. We need a wide diversity of employment, and we need help to get there. Thinking we can bootstrap our way out of this is just as wrong as saying that a poor person should pull him/herself up by their bootstraps without a helping hand.”
I started brainstorming and asked him if it would help local communities to get a stimulus package when monuments get designated and if it would help to have a local hiring authority for federal jobs. He said that those things would help immensely; that is, those things would help in providing amenities for tourism and recreation and paychecks for people trying to raise their families and to stay in the county.
While it is easy to pick on the federal government, the states and Congress members are not blameless. Congress determines the budgets of land management agencies which puts limits on how many people they can hire, how many environmental impact statements can get done and how fast, and hinders people from being able to do their jobs such as road grading, prescribed burns, etc.
States often broker land swaps with the federal government and could broker deals that help rural communities. Furthermore, states and local counties have control over growth, growth incentives or requirements, and can establish regulations on builders and developers to buffer local people against rising living costs from wealthy new incomers.
Furthermore, what often happens at the local level is that farmers and ranchers are pressured by local officials to sell their property for development. This is happening in Washington County as grow, grow, grow seems to be the only value.
I believe that real solutions can be found and that people need to be willing to listen to concerns by people who have voices that are often ignored or overlooked. It shouldn’t take wealth, celebrity, or crime to be heard.
I am very interested in talking with people from Harney County. Please contact me if you are willing to talk about the local issues affecting you.
More on the political ecology (the associated connections between politics, economics, and the environment) of rural western towns to come.
Zoe Carpenter, The Nation. Inside the Bundy Brothers’ armed occupation: http://www.thenation.com/article/inside-the-malheur-wildlife-refuge-occupation/
Whether we like it or not, what we wear says something about us and reveals insight into our personality, our taste, and possibly our attitudes. Just think baggy jeans with underwear sticking out, skinny jeans, a business suit, a low cut, slinky dress, wranglers, or a ball cap worn sideways, to name just a few. As you think about them, images come to mind with conjoined judgment.
Over the years fashions have changed only to come back around decades later. Clothing trends popular one year die and give way to new trends the next, but some items remain classic. There is an enduring quality to them that makes them adaptable to the progression of time and loved by one generation to the next. One of those items is the flannel shirt, and whether you agree with me or not, I think a flannel says, “Cool, laid back, unpretentious.”
When I see someone in a flannel, any number of things may come to mind depending on how they wear it, but overall I usually think, “My people.” The greatest thing I have seen recently in regard to flannel is that it seems to transcend not just time, but class as well. Gone are the days when only lumberjacks, miners, or fishermen wore flannels – everyone is, from doctors to surfers, hunters to pop stars, from hipsters and gangsters, to metrosexuals. It’s not just for grunge music, nor just for men. These time tested shirts are everywhere and on everyone and are made by companies from Carhartt to Victoria’s Secret.
So what is the allure to these time tested shirts? I think it is what they represent. They represent the humble, the hardworking, the hard scrabble, the rebel rousers, the adventurous, and more generally, ‘the common man.’ They are practical and simple, and I think it is the simplicity that draws people and social groups to them decade after decade.
They also tend to generally be worn by those in the outdoors community, whether ranchers or climbers, and no wonder, they got their beginning by the Welsh who needed clothing that would keep them warm from the elements – something that is always necessary for those who spend a lot of time outside. And let’s not forget plaid, the synonymous pattern associated with flannel shirts, which got its start in, where else but Scotland. As for America, we all know the legendary Paul Bunyan and his black and red flannel which may have contributed to the myth and lore surrounding the shirt, but they were largely popularized by Hamilton Carhatt who made clothing specifically for the blue collar working class, including flannels, in the late 1880s.
So whatever your take on flannels, they’ve been around a long damn time, and for good reason. They are warm, casual, colorful, and are typically reasonably priced. I like getting mine from local thrift stores and often find real gems with brand names like Pendleton, Woolworth, and Patagonia, for a few bucks at the most. They are kind of like an aged wine, the older they get, the better they look – and feel.
So in homage to the flannel, we have our annual non-Christmas, Christmas flannel party every December. Everyone is required to wear a flannel and must bring food and drink to attend. In other words, it’s the antithesis to a serious religious ceremony to mark the birth of Christ or a rated G family holiday party. I guess in retrospect, it’s kind of a Krampus party in that it’s more in the spirit old Saint Nick’s holiday devil sidekick than the jolly old man himself.
I’d be willing to bet the German originated Alpine Christmas devil wore flannel – or perhaps didn’t play tricks on those who did. Either way, between today ringing in the first day of winter, Christmas around the corner, and the cold weather to boot, flannel is king this time of year – though as stated already, it has a steady showing all year long.
Let me say outright that I am not interested in this post in trying to prove climate change to anyone. I frankly find such debates exhausting. If you want to know what I think of climate change, you can find some of my posts here and here. And if you want to read a more serious and academic version of these arguments, you can read an essay I published in Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment. More importantly, if you want a primer on the science from a reputable resource, take twenty minutes and watch this excellent video from the National Academy of Sciences.
What I am interested in, however, is the reasoning, particularly the theological reasoning, I often hear used to support climate change denial. I have heard over the years various arguments made by deniers that appeal to an idea of the universe in which human-caused climate change just can’t exist. The theology goes something like this:
God alone controls the natural world. To imagine that human beings are capable of damaging the environment on a planetary scale is absurd. Sure, we can ruin a stream, pollute the air, and we might even endanger a species now and then, but the very idea that we have the power to influence something as complex and global as the climate and perhaps even endanger all of life as we know it and especially our own livelihoods flies in the face of everything we know about God and his plans for us and this planet. Least of all if what causes this damage are emissions and not sins! Why should we imagine that fossil fuels, which have enabled so much good for so long for so many, are now a scourge? There is nothing quite like climate change in the Bible, for example. In the Bible we see God punishing the wicked by cursing the earth under their feet. Similarly he blesses it for the sake of the righteous. And we might imagine that natural cycles too were part of history. But it is never human action that directly creates environmental problems. Environmental problems are secondary symptoms of such sins as immorality, worship of false gods, and the like, or they might be the natural outgrowth of natural processes, but we never read of instances of human behavior directly compromising the health of the environment. And to imagine that this could happen on a global scale, where millions of people collectively influence and damage a climate and harm millions of others would make individual accountability simply too difficult to trace, so there must be some other explanation for problems we see. Perhaps God is punishing us. Perhaps nature is just being nature, and we just have to accept it. Perhaps it isn’t happening at all. But it simply cannot be something we are directly causing.
If you want to read one version of this theology, you can find an argument here in an Op-Ed in my local paper. What is striking about the author’s argument is that there simply are only two explanations for natural events: they are either caused by God or by natural law. They are never, in other words, unnaturally caused by human interference in ecosystems. And this is despite the fact that she lives in a valley choked by so much pollution that it has caused a dramatic uptick in rates of asthma and heart and lung disease. This is a scientific fact. One of the world’s leaders in understanding the link between pollution and public health is Arden Pope, a professor at BYU, who was able to establish this science because Utah Valley provides an ideal scenario to study the effects of spikes in pollution on an otherwise quite healthy and largely non-smoking population. The elderly, the young, and the pregnant, it turns out, are the primary victims of this pollution. Are we to believe these effects have no human causes or that we bear no responsibility? Maybe pollution is God’s curse for our sinfulness but it isn’t as if he had to create a big brown cloud of bad air and hurl it down upon us. Like all forms of environmental change we have instigated, we brought it on ourselves, and as a result, the innocent and vulnerable are suffering. The fact is, environmental problems have huge collateral damage. If you and I won’t take responsibility for this, who will?
But this is just a small sample. To believe that only God or nature can cause environmental change, we would have to ignore virtually all of human history which is rife with stories of environmental excess. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that human-caused environmental degradation explains societal collapse. Environmental degradation is surely a symptom of sin. When people consume more than they need, when they are indifferent to the plight of the poor and the most vulnerable, when they are indifferent to their fellow humans and to God’s creations and greedily pursue more and more, the environment loses capacity to support all life.
But for some reason denial simply cannot accommodate such logical and theological possibilities. Now, granted, deniers claim the science is totally bogus, but you won’t hear them citing scientific evidence to establish their claim and that’s because such evidence doesn’t exist. That’s right. There isn’t a single scientific society that purports to have sufficient evidence to overturn climate science. Questions and doubts about the research and aspersions about the integrity and honesty of researchers certainly exist, but they do not constitute evidence. They simply create doubts about findings. And once you become convinced that the very process of research is corrupt, then you don’t have to listen to the science at all. That’s very convenient except for the fact that it is also hypocritical. I don’t see the same level of distrust for, say, good old American government sponsored cancer research or space research. Or, for that matter, what about healthy distrust of the petroleum industry that funds much of these efforts at denial? So what gives?
It’s theology and bad theology at that. It might be hard to accept, but the fact is that there are many phenomena today for which we have no biblical precedent. I am thinking of human trafficking, acid rain, or environmentally caused cancers, depletion of the ozone layer, contamination of ground water, to name just a few examples. Heck, the list is pretty long. That is not to say that the Bible isn’t relevant. It is highly relevant, precisely because of the principles of respect, integrity, equity, honesty, judgment, and justice that the Bible espouses and that would go a long way in redressing such problems. But it also seems that at least for one segment of our society, climate change offends their very idea of God. I guess I have a hard time believing in the same Bible they do. What I read teaches over and over again that the earth’s capacity to support life is directly connected to human agency. Why else are we commanded to respect the Creation and to be good stewards over it? Why should we be given dominion and responsibility for the whole of the earth if it is true that we are not capable of harming it? Why would God care what we did to the environment if we can never influence it? Why so much attention in the Bible to how we eat, how we dress, how we labor, and how we treat the poor, if it simply doesn’t matter how or when or why we use natural resources?
Let’s just take the Sabbath Day as one example. Honoring the Sabbath Day was instituted as a way of recognizing the creation and the need to give the land a rest from our interference, and to honor and thank and respect the bounty we receive from it. When we observe the Sabbath, we recognize that its bounty are not things we earn but are gifts of God, evidence of his grace. And it seems to have environmental benefits to follow this spirit of humility in the commandment. For Mormons, this should be even more obvious because Section 59 of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it plainly clear that we are promised the bounty of the earth as a gift for which we must show proper gratitude by careful observance of the Sabbath and of fasting. And it warns explicitly about using natural resources “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.”
Granted, these verses don’t prove that climate change is real and human-caused. That’s not my point. But they do demonstrate the Lord’s profound concern for our proper treatment of the earth. It is a moral issue for him and if so, it’s apparently because we are capable of messing it up. I hear deniers admit that they at least believe in stewardship, but then it astounds me how quickly and flippantly they dismiss science or claim their own science. We can’t make up facts and we can’t cherry pick evidence. If we are serious about stewardship, we should be serious about knowing science. To do otherwise is irresponsible. You can’t claim you are a good steward of your own body if you don’t know the first thing about how it works, what it needs, what harms or what helps it. I am not surprised to hear deniers spout theories that don’t reflect even the most superficial understandings of climate science. When Sean Hannity makes fun of a snowstorm in Houston, you can be pretty sure you are listening to ideology, not science. When people claim history is full of climate change so therefore what we are seeing now cannot be human-caused, they aren’t even using good logic, let alone science.
There has never been a generation in the history of the world that has had a better opportunity to understand the causes and depth of our impact on the world. What a crying shame it is to see such knowledge mocked and disparaged, even though our science is also what we rely on everyday to enjoy our American standard of living. To enjoy the fruits of our economy while we disparage the science that built it is unconscionable. Why did Brigham Young teach that scientific discoveries are part of the ongoing restoration of all truth if we are to ignore such findings? Surely we can’t ignore science and then claim, when we do our damage, that we didn’t know any better. Maybe we didn’t want to know, but we certainly had a chance.
The Word of Wisdom warns about “conspiring men” in the last days who will presumably wish to distort facts about our health and the health of the earth so lovingly described in the revelation. It has been well documented that the same folks who worked hard to deny links between smoking and cancer have also worked hard to deny climate change. The Word of Wisdom teaches to eat meat sparingly and to remember that the earth is intended to feed all of life, including domestic and wild animals. Does it not interest us to know that such industries as the cattle industry and the petroleum industry are deeply involved in climate change denial and are also responsible for enormous levels of environmental degradation? What does our society tell us? It says:
Eat lots of meat. Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as fast as you want it, at whatever cost, from whatever distance. Drive lots of cars. Build more roads. Buy things. Buy more than you need. Whatever technology allows us to do, you should do. It’s all good for the economy and, in the long run, for the poor, so you can consume with categorical impunity.
According to this accepted logic, there is never anything wrong with being a consumer in the global economy; it’s a virtue to consume more than the next guy. That is what every industry wants you to believe. And these would be interesting ideas to consider as a Christian, except for the inconvenient fact that they have never been supported by biblical ethics, not to mention that we now know these are the very things that are causing us to emit so much carbon into our atmosphere. A Christian economy is a moral economy and it matters what we eat, how we eat, what and how much we consume, and why. And our obligation is to the foreigner, the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable, and to God himself. And to imagine that we can watch while biodiversity collapses on this planet and the earth’s capacity to regulate the climate is compromised to such a degree that millions of the poor are threatened and somehow convince ourselves that these things are not happening, or that they are the will of God, or that they are merely natural and have no relationship whatsoever to our own agency, well, I don’t know how we can call such an attitude even remotely Christian. A denial I could respect would at least be based in a commitment to living up to the highest standards of material modesty, concern for the poor, and respect for all of life that I find everywhere expressed in Christianity. However, if such were the truly cherished values of conservatism, then Christian conservatives couldn’t help but be the most ardent conservationists. Some Christian conservatives get it. But unfortunately they aren’t the ones getting elected or hired or heeded.