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.
“It is easy for us to assume that as the result of modern science “we have conquered nature,” that nature is now confined to beaches for children and to national parks where the few remaining grizzly bears have been shot with tranquilizers and removed to above the timberline, supposedly for their safety and our own. But we should be prepared for the possibility, even if we are going to accompany modern firefighters into Mann Gulch, that the terror of the universe has not yet fossilized and the universe has not run out of blowups.” ~ Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire
Robert Sallee died a week ago at age 82 on Monday, May 26, 2014. Does this mean anything to you? It didn’t to me either until I bumped into his obituary two days ago. In 1949 15 men were dropped into the Gates of the Mountains in Montana to fight the Mann Gulch Fire; Salle was one of only three smokejumpers to survive and was the last surviving member to pass on. The Mann Gulch Fire was one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. It was Sallee’s first and last jump.
As I ran up into BLM land just behind my house today, the scent of juniper thick in the hot desert air, I thought of recent fire blow-ups that cost lives; the most recent being the Yarnell Fire in Arizona in 2013 that took the lives of 19 firefighters. While we can analyze events in hindsight and question decisions and subsequent actions, the truth is, fire is a reality, it is normal and it can be managed, but it is also and always dangerous. Though firefighters love what they do, whether it is the adrenaline rush, out-smarting the fire, problem solving, or traveling around the country rather than sitting in an office, none of them goes into a fire to give their lives. They are all equipped with the training and tools to do their jobs and all expect to be successful and drink a cool beer at the end. As Norman Maclean wrote in Young Men and Fire,
“Jumping (wildland firefighting) is one of the few jobs in the world that leads to just one moment when you must be just highly selected pieces of yourself that fit exactly the pieces of your training, your pieces of equipment having been made with those pieces of yourself and your training in mind.”
But with the effects of global warming and radical or bleak weather, drought, bark beetles, invasive grasses, and low budgets set by Congress, it appears even more daunting a task to be a wildland firefighter these days, even with the right pieces and training. As we on the sidelines watch the evening news and catch glimpses of the battles being fought in our forests and across our lands, we must recognize that our one vote and voice does matter – it matters where it counts most: money allocation.
While Congress cannot control the weather or events that take place on the ground, they do control the purse strings which should provide adequate funding for personnel and resources. Unfortunately, land management agencies routinely get their budgets cut and these agencies have to do more with less – less firefighters, less gear, less equipment. We have a responsibility to turn to our representatives and demand that they fund these agencies accordingly, and if their records show a history of voting for cuts to budgets, to get rid of them.
We all have a stake in our land – whether it reaches the boundaries of our property or not. We also have a stake in providing funding to the men and women who choose this profession. If we can’t control the weather, the wind, or the fire, we can at least control the money flow while we enjoy the great outdoors that so many manage, work on for our enjoyment, and protect.
Luckily today the smell of juniper was not a thick blanket of smoke hoping to choke me out or burn up my lungs – it was just the warm, earthy scent that naturally rises off the plants and seemingly out of the ground. It was a beautiful, if not hot, day. But if this fire season turns out the way that many are predicting, it may feel like the world and sky is burning. It is good to learn the names and remember the people who choose to do this job and who face greater risks and more fires in the future. With scarce water and ever mounting CO2 being blown into the air by burning forests, we have a stake in their success. It could not be more appropriate as fire season ramps up that Robert Sallee died on Memorial Day 2014. May he rest in peace.
“For many former Smokejumpers, then, smoke jumping is not closely tied up with their way of life, but is more something that is necessary for them to pass through and not around and, once it is unmistakably done, does not have to be done again. The “it” is within, and is the need to settle some things with the universe and ourselves before taking on the “business of the world,” which isn’t all that special or hard but takes time. This “it” is the something special within that demands we do something specials, and “it” could be within a lot of us.” ~Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire
For a look at the South Canyon Fire where another 14 firefighters died in Colorado:
There is a difference between a common criminal who breaks the law and a conscientious objector who raises awareness to an unjust law. I would make the distinction between selfish gains and the greater good of humanity. History has set aside a special place for some who acted defiantly in the name of a higher moral code such as Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name just a few. Today, some would add Tim DeChristopher, Pussy Riot, and Cliven Bundy to that elite list. But before reaching any conclusions one must understand what civil disobedience is in American tradition and the delicate balance one walks when they engage in it because it is breaking the law.
“Political theorist John Rawls argued that civil disobedience has a constitutional role in a just society. It is an appeal to the shared values of a community, aiming to persuade a majority that it is wrong. Civil disobedience is not an appeal to political expediency or self-interest. It is not a legal right, but an appeal to justice. Citizens have a general duty to obey the law, but in some cases some feel that the law is wrong and must defy it. But they do so first with the aim of changing the law and second, cognizant that they face legal retribution for their defiance. The act of civil disobedience has the potential to change the law because one is willing to go to jail or be punished for one’s act. One of the most basic principles of American democracy is majority rule. Majorities get their way so long as they do not violate the constitutional rights of minorities. Majority rule settles decisions until such time as a majority reaches a different conclusion. Similarly, majority rule is the rule of Congress. At some point votes and elections have settled issues and it is time to move on. (1)”
Tim DeChristopher and Cliven Bundy offer two sides of the coin regarding the difference between breaking the law and civil disobedience. Both men broke the law when dealing with the BLM. Tim DeChristopher upset an oil and gas land lease auction by illegally bidding on land leases, and Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees and allowed his cattle to graze illegally. That is about where the similarities end. When Tim went into the oil and gas auction he knew what he was doing, he knew he was going to disrupt it somehow, and he knew there would be consequences. When he saw acres of land being sold for $8 and $10 dollars he knew what he had to do. He started bidding to raise the prices on those parcels of land. Tim DeChristopher is concerned about global warming, not because of what will happen to the planet, but because of what will happen to people. He said,
“I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people. And even my value of wilderness is about what it brings to people. I have a very anthropocentric worldview.”
He believes that we have a moral obligation to address climate change and mitigate it because of the negative impacts it will have on people. His actions of disrupting the auction were meant to raise awareness and hopefully encourage a change in our laws. He thinks that as a Nation, we are acting immorally. His plea was to our sense of ethics. Tim had nothing to gain from his actions. In fact, he spent two years in federal prison despite the fact that the auction was later found to be an illegal auction and all of the leases were dropped. It seems to me that in that instance, when the BLM was found to be acting illegally, the charges against him would be dropped. But they weren’t, he was still accountable for his crimes. Since the courts often consider the actions of a reasonable man relative to a precise standard of obedience to the law, I personally believe that Tim’s punishment was excessive. That being said, according to the letter of law, the time between his actions and his punishment was swift, and by all rights, just.
In the case of Cliven Bundy, I cannot find a just or moral cause for his act of defiance. He did not like that his permit was changed and stopped paying for it and then continued to graze his cattle illegally. What I see is an unfortunate situation, perhaps unfair for him personally, and yes, sad. But unfair situations happen all the time to people and while I can sympathize with them, I would never succumb to the belief that everyone with a grievance is entitled to break the law. There is a difference between not liking a law and disobeying it on ethical grounds. If everyone decided to disobey any law they did not agree with chaos would follow. So, while many argue that Cliven Bundy is standing against tyranny in an act of civil disobedience, I would argue that he is not. The reason is first and foremost that he does not believe he is breaking any laws. All civil disobedients intentionally and knowingly break the law. But the rest of the reasons are as follows:
• He has a selfish motive
• He broke the law before seeking redress in court
• He does not acknowledge the rights of others
• There is no clear injustice
• He has threatened violence
• He has a disregard for federal law, and has no fidelity to it
• He is not submitting to the penalties of breaking the law
Cliven Bundy, as well as his defenders, are pointing to natural law as their justification for defying the law. They state that the federal government cannot take his “life, liberty, or property.” From what I can see, the only property in danger is his cattle, and that is because they are illegally on public land. As for the land in question, it is not his land and he has no right to it. Furthermore, the 5th Amendment says that no one can “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Mr. Bundy did receive due process. The bigger problem with his argument, however, is that it ignores other principles, such as equal rights under the law (another natural law as well as legal one), and all legal precedent established between the founding of our democracy and now. One cannot make a sound argument by taking a principle and arguing it in a vacuum, it has to be argued in context. That context is the law. “Within a democracy, even the moral right to civil disobedience is hedged with numerous qualifications. First, there is the standard of just and fair behavior. There must be an apparent and socially significant reason for the action taken and it must relate in some way to the law that is to be disregarded (2).” A claim to family tradition and heritage has value, but it does not have legal standing.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” What made Martin Luther King Jr. and others like him so effective was their reasoned appeal to the public to change unjust laws. The use or threat of violence is incompatible with a reasoned and articulate appeal to people’s sense of justice. Like an ad hominem attack, you encourage people to ignore your argument when you invoke violence. But further than that, when you state you will resort to violence, it moves from civil disobedience to civil rebellion. Cliven Bundy said in the Moapa Valley Progress that he was “willing to defend his rights at all costs.” When asked whether the matter might come to violence he said, “Why not? I’ve got to protect my property. I have a right to life, liberty and property.” In the LA Times he said,
“I’ve got to protect my property. If people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.”
While his language has strong emotional appeal, it hurts his cause. There is great debate over whether violence is ever justified and the case can be made on both sides of the argument, but I believe the moral high ground belongs with those who peacefully protest. When asked if violence is ever justified, Tim DeChristopher said,
“Well, it’s justified. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense. I mean, if you’re talking moral justification, yeah—to prevent the collapse of our civilization, and the deaths and suffering of billions of people, it’s morally justified. But violence is the game that the United States government is the best in the world at. That’s their territory.”
In response to Bundy’s threats, the government has shown up prepared for violence. The BLM halted their roundup in 2012 due to his threats because they did not want anyone to get hurt, but this time, they tried to cover all their bases in case Bundy decided to act on his threats. They closed roads and access to the land where the roundup is happening to ensure the safety of the public; they have set up First Amendment areas for people to peacefully protest in order to ensure their rights, but also to ensure their safety. As of yet Bundy has not acted on his threats, but threats are real and must be taken seriously. As Ayn Rand famously asserted, “Words have an exact meaning.”
All that being said, I do not believe that Cliven Bundy has a just or moral case, or one with general appeal, but I do sympathize with him and his family. If I were to make an argument in favor of Cliven Bundy I would appeal to the public on grounds of American tradition and heritage. I would argue that if feral horses and burros are protected as symbols of the west, shouldn’t ranchers also be? Ranchers and farmers are a dying breed and that is not a desirable end. I would argue that due to development and competing interests, ranchers deserve special protection under the law in terms of preserving a living part of American history and heritage. There is immense value in heritage and tradition. Most people see this inherent value and I believe, would support it. There is room in this great country for ranchers, and wild species. It seems to me that a reasonable compromise could have been reached 20 years ago had Cliven worked to that end. It is not too late to get this ball rolling, however, though it may take a long time. Why not leave a lasting legacy of improving the West rather than a legacy of inciting a range war?
Since the law changes with time and adjusts to new social and economic conditions, Cliven Bundy must realize that his family’s tradition of ranching is not a static state guaranteed forever. But he should not lose heart, the government can adapt and adjust to appeals for new laws. Mr. Bundy has shown himself to have great strength and stamina, as well as the ability to rally people to his cause. He could use those traits to do something good and lasting for many people, not just himself. Rather than inciting anarchy and violence, Bundy and his supporters could seek something reasonable and edifying for everyone. He could turn this ugly situation into a good one and leave a lasting legacy that promotes peace and healing. If his threatening language turns to action, or incites others to action, he will be culpable in any injury or harm that takes place, as will anyone else promoting such tactics. While the government is not free from critique and does not always do what is right, we do have ways of addressing it. In the marketplace of ideas, the best ideas rise to the top. Bundy should make a reasoned case and bring it to the people rather than appealing to people’s emotions and baser instincts. So much of how this plays out rests on his shoulders. As George Bernard Shaw said in Maxims for Revolutionists,
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
1. The American Society for Public Administration: http://patimes.org/congressional-refusal-fund-obamacare-act-civil-disobedience/
2. The Legitimacy of Civil Disobedience as a Legal Concept: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1944&context=flr
3. Tim DeChristopher’s Interview in Orion: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6598
4. Should we Ever Disobey the Law: http://www.richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/back_issues/rjp14_grant.pdf
5. Moapa Valley Progress: http://mvprogress.com/2012/04/18/bunkerville-rancher-holds-out-against-federal-officials/
6. LA Times article: http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-vegas-blm-range-war-20140407,0,1480936.story