Stewards of the Earth

The relationship between humans and the Earth that I have been advocating is often described as one of stewardship. We are on the Earth as its stewards. The word implies that we are carrying out our duty as stewards on behalf of someone else - but whom? Some environmentalists see no need to answer the question specifically, others might say we are stewards on behalf of future generations or on behalf of a generalised humanity. A religious person would want to be more specific and say that we are stewards on behalf of God. The religious person would also argue that to associate the relationship of humans to God with the relationship of humans to the environment is to place the latter relationship in a wider, more integrated, context - providing additional insights and a more complete basis for environmental stewardship.34

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the story of creation in the early chapters of the Bible is a helpful 'model' of stewardship - that of humans being 'gardeners' of the Earth. It is not only appropriate for those from those particular traditions - it is a model that can be widely applied. That story tells that humans were created to care for the rest of creation - the idea of human stewardship of creation is a very old one - and were placed in a garden, the Garden of Eden, 'to work it and take care of it'.35 The animals, birds and other living creatures were brought to Adam in the garden for him to name them.36 We are left with a picture of the first humans as 'gardeners' of the Earth - what does our work as 'gardeners' imply? I want to suggest four things:

• A garden provides food and water and other materials to sustain life and human industry. Part of the garden in the Genesis story contained mineral resources - 'the gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there'.37 The Earth provides resources of many kinds for humans to use as they are needed.

• A garden is to be maintained as a place of beauty. The trees in the Garden of Eden were 'pleasing to the eye'.38 Humans are to live in harmony with the rest of creation and to appreciate the value of all parts of creation. Indeed, a garden is a place where care is taken to preserve the multiplicity of species, in particular those that are most vulnerable. Millions of people each year visit gardens that have been especially designed to show off the incredible variety and beauty of nature. Gardens are meant to be enjoyed.

• A garden is a place where humans, created as described in the Genesis story in the image of God,39 can themselves be creative. Its resources provide for great potential. The variety of species and landscape can be employed to increase the garden's beauty and its productivity. Humans have learnt to generate new plant varieties in abundance and to use their scientific and technological knowledge coupled with the enormous variety of the Earth's resources to create new possibilities for life and its enjoyment. However, the potential of this creativity is such that increasingly we need to be aware of where it can take us; it has potential for evil as well as for good. Further, good gardeners intervene in natural processes with a good deal of restraint.

• A garden is to be kept so as to be of benefit to future generations. In this context, I shall always remember Gordon Dobson, a distinguished scientist, who in the 1920s developed new means for the measurement of ozone in the atmosphere. His home outside Oxford in England possessed a large garden with many fruit trees. When he was 85, a year or so before he died, I remember finding him hard at work in his garden replacing a number of apple trees; in doing so he clearly had future generations in mind.

How well do we humans match up to the description of ourselves as gardeners caring for the Earth? Not very well, it must be said; we are more often exploiters and spoilers than cultivators. Some blame science and technology for the problems, although the fault must lie with the craftsman rather than with the tools! Others have tried to place part of the blame on attitudes40 that they believe originate in the early chapters of Genesis, which talk of human beings having rule over Creation and subduing it.41 Those words, however, should not be taken out of context - they are not a mandate for unrestrained exploitation. The Genesis chapters also insist that human rule over Creation is to be exercised under God, the ultimate ruler of Creation, and with the sort of care exemplified by the picture of humans as 'gardeners'. Why, therefore, do humans so often fail to get their act together?

Washington Laghi Alpini Natura
The Garden of Eden, Jan Brueghel.
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