I Blame God
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

December 15, 2003

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Now I know I can be a little neurotic. We've been in Salt Lake City for six weeks and after the first week the shortness of breath did not go away. 

Finally I sought medical advice. We quickly ruled out all the usual reasons, before the helpful medic suggested I might be imagining it.

I gave him a scornful look and went for a drive. Less than a mile from the city centre I drove past an oil refinery, then another and another.

In total there are five oil refineries close to Salt Lake City, each one pumping virginal white plumes that turn tobacco-coloured as they smother the mountains that ring this city. Then it occurred to me. It was the pollution that was taking my breath away.

It turns out that Salt Lake City, set against some of the most spectacular mountains you'll ever see, is one of the most polluted places in America.

It's home to 97 per cent of the country's radioactive waste; half the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons is slowly being destroyed in two huge incinerators nearby; there's another hazardous waste incinerator; hazardous and radioactive waste landfills; a bombing range; and, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, a magnesium plant that was, until recently, the largest toxic air-polluter in the country.

Utah ranks fourth nationally in the release of chemicals that affect child development, and the state has tied for last in enforcing the Clean Water Act.

So how did it happen that a place renowned for natural beauty has been turned into an industrial waste dumping ground?

Many blame the previous Governor, Mike Leavitt. Under Leavitt's governorship, environmental enforcement plunged, and his toxic legacy runs to pages of failure, from ignoring science that does not support his policy positions to firing dissenters and dismantling protections in favour of industry.

Leavitt's environmental track record is so convincing that President George W. Bush has appointed him to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the organization charged with protecting the environment and public health of the nation.

And with the failure of Leavitt to protect Utah so glaringly obvious, environmentalists predict the state's environment is a blueprint for the rest of the country.

Gazing out at the tops (all that's visible) of the mountains, you ask yourself why and how such a callous disregard for the environment could become so rampant?

For once the usual answer - the complicity of Government and industry to reduce or even end legal impediments to pollution in favour of corporate profit - is not enough.

Perhaps it has something to do with God.

Utah is Mormon country. It would be an understatement to say that here the business, political and social environment is controlled by the church. Very little happens in Utah without church approval. (Leavitt is one of the church's most visible faces.)

From the modest clothing to the wide streets, careful drivers and obsequiously polite people, this is one straight town. It's a place with a decidedly old-testament view of the world, one where man's dominion over nature is paramount and the focus is on the afterlife.

Is the conquest of nature seen as a sign that the Mormons are God's chosen people? It certainly fits with church history that extols their triumph over environmental adversity. It also fits with a religion that prizes conservatism.

Conservatism is the new reality in America.

And it's no secret that the leaders of this country are almost all members of ultra-conservative, evangelical churches, many of them with end-time philosophies.

Is this belief, that we're heading into an apocalyptic time, a time when only the righteous will survive, part of the pathology of disrespect and destruction of the environment?

Ann Coulter, the right-wing apologist, said in a recent talkback show: "God says, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours."' Certainly that attitude of ownership over stewardship seems to run like a vein through the Christian right.

But do they really believe they have a mandate to subdue the Earth? And if so, is this the philosophical foundation for the environmentally destructive industrial development in the Christian West?

The tragic thing is that with more than 70 per cent of Americans professing belief in a Judeo-Christian faith, those religions, because of their great sway over hearts and minds, are in the perfect position to take a stand for the environment, to return their people to an understanding of the awe-inspiring power of nature.

At the headquarters of the Mormon Church that sprawl over most of downtown Salt Lake City, the environment is a subject outside the narrowly programmed answers which self-effacing visitor guides have memorized.

So we take a tour of the public areas mostly in silence. In the atrium of the reception centre there stands a 4m high, pure white, talking Jesus.

Sitting at his feet, I longed for a miracle. A rebuke or perhaps even a tear for the degradation of this once remarkable valley, for the Earth as a whole, at the hands of the upstanding, conservative, Christian right captains of industry.

But the tape recording came to an end without a hint of emotional response from the man himself. And I still couldn't breathe.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/ Barbara Sumner Burstyn


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