The following is a modified excerpt from my presentation at Sunstone this summer.
We live, not only in a capitalist, but a consumerist, society. Our society is all about spending, acquiring, cluttering, and replacing, not about maintaining, restoring, renewing, and protecting. It is cheaper to buy new than to repair old. We live in a disposable country, where everything is trash, if not now, then soon. How did we get here?
One of the best explanations I’ve found is in the work of the social theorist Max Weber (1). He examined the correlation between the Protestant religious belief and its accompanying work ethic and the accumulation of capital and the subsequent rise of capitalism.
One aspect [of the concept of calling that arose during the Reformation] was unequivocally new: the fulfillment of duty in vocational callings became viewed as the highest expression that moral activity could assume. Precisely this new notion of the moral worth of devoting oneself to a calling was the unavoidable result of the idea of attaching religious significance to daily work (39-40).
“Restless work in a vocational calling was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banishes religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved (66).
As American culture has become increasing secular, it has lost the religious motivation to accumulate wealth. Money is now its own end. There is some evidence that we are also losing our work ethic, as we require immigrants to do the hard manual labor and backbreaking work we are no longer willing to do ourselves.
Weber’s insights are applicable to the LDS church because we, like those early Protestants, retain a general belief that wealth is a sign of God’s approval. The Book of Mormon makes this claim explicit, with a warning (see Jacob 2:18-19, Alma 4:6, Helaman 12:1-2, and especially 2 Nephi 28:21 for examples). Modern revelation reinforces this message:
D&C 38:39 And if ye seek the riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity; and it must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give; but beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old.
Hugh Nibley saw that we modern saints have become far more like the Nephites in their prideful phase than is good for us, and condemned us harshly in Approaching Zion (a book I find even more discomfiting to read than The Miracle of Forgiveness).
As Americans, we accept without reflection that we need a washing machine and dryer and disposable diapers (and cutlery and plates and bibs and towels and bags and really, what product hasn’t had a disposable version made of it?). We assume that we must keep our homes and public buildings at a temperature that is comfortable for t-shirts (or suits) all year long and accept that bottled water must be a good idea. A durable good is one that is expected to last three years (2). Planned obsolescence and disposable goods are a critical component of our economy.
This is the American consumer-driven disposable culture. It is this culture that is in conflict with environmental values. The peculiar Mormon culture that has evolved through our doctrine and history should naturally align with environmental values, not consumer demands. As latter-day saints, we need to not be turned off by terms like “environmentalist”. But as many saints are, let’s use the word “stewards” or “stewards of creation”.
I practice my stewardship on the home front, with the work I do every day to care for my family. I live the gospel, and show respect for God’s creation and my stewardship obligations through the quiet acts of trying to live a responsible, sustainable life. I know many saints who do the same, but don’t think of it in the terms of the environmental movement.
My hope is that through my writing, I can help these saints to recognize the environmental value of the work they already do, so that we can all move past the divisive language to embrace our stewardship of the earth. Most of my posts are brief meditations on the simple work of living: baking bread, hanging laundry to dry, canning tomatoes. They are not scholarly; rather they are reflections on my life as it is lived with the hope that I can come closer to meeting God’s expectations for me.
1. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism: The Expanded 1920 Version Authorized by Max Weber for Publication in Book Form. Roxbury Publishing Company. Los Angeles, CA. 2002.