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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Environmental Stewardship - a review

Environmental Stewardship
Critical Perspectives - Past and Present

edited by R. J. Berry
T&TClark International
ISBN 9780567030184

Over two hundred years ago a British clergyman published a book that has had unprecedented effects. Its effect on Charles Darwin was so profound that it provided the seed thoughts for his theory of natural selection. It was perhaps the first doomsday-scenario environmental book to be written. It was Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Malthus (1766-1834) was the first to spell out the apparently inevitable consequence of a geometric growth in population and an arithmetic growth in food supply. Survival meant a reduction in population growth. The same idea as taken up in the 1970s by the think tank the Club of Rome in their book The Limits to Growth. The book was based on computer models; their conclusions were similar to Malthus's: a limit to the population growth is required or we are on an apocalyptic collision course.

Less than a decade previously in 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published. the book brought attention the problems of pesticides such as DDT in the food chain. This marked the beginning in the rise of an environmental awareness or consciousness. In the nineties there were signs that such environmental enthusiasm was beginning to wane - at least if membership numbers of environmental pressure groups were any indication. Now with climate change a major issue it seems we are all greens.

Christians cannot be culture transformers and shapers if they follow such cultural ebbs and flows. We have a responsibility to God's good creation irrespective if it fashionable to be green or not. Unfortunately, the shadow of Lynn White's seminal paper 'The historical roots of our ecologic crisis' Science 155 (10 March 1967) has loomed large over Christian discussion of the environment. Until recently most Christian writing has been to defend Christianity against the accusation of Lyn White that Christianity with its emphasis on dominion has been to blame for the environmental crisis. The debate, however, must move on. And that is exactly what these essays do. Christianity is not merely environmentally benign but it has something vital to contribute to a robust theocentric environmental ethic. An ethic that avoids the excesses of anthropic approaches and the sloppy mysticism of biocentric approaches.

The role of humans as stewards is a crucial issue and it is this that volume, Environmental Stewardship, seeks to address. Stewardship has been the 'default position' for most Christians. However, not many stop to consider it and examine its implications. What does it mean to be a steward? As Gandalf once said we are all stewards now. But is stewardship dominion and technological imperialism by another name?

This book was conceived at the 2000 consultation on 'environmental stewardship' organised by the John Ray Institute at St George's House, Windsor Castle. Four of the papers delivered there are included here - but this is far more than the proceedings of a conference. The list of authors is truly impressive - though there are some notable omissions Steven Bouma-Prediger, Celia Deane Drummond, Loren Wilkinson, Lukas Vischer, Tim Cooper are the ones that immediately spring to mind. Most of the papers were written specifically for this volume, some are (revised) reprints from elsewhere.

The book is split into six parts with an introduction by Sam Berry. Berry's introduction is clear, precise and provides an excellent overview. Part I looks at the history of the idea with two excellent essays by Peter Harrison and Richard Bauckham - both for me were the highlights of the book.

Part II looked at some criticisms and expositions of stewardship. Despite being the default position for many stewardship hasn't escaped criticism. Critics include Clare Palmer (ch 5). Her objections include:

  • There is no 'biblical concept of stewardship of nature' (p 65) - 'even if there were, it would only represent one view of many displayed in biblical writing' (p 65)
  • It has the problem of accommodating God's action or presence in the world. God becomes an absentee landlord (this is also an accusation made by Matthew Fox) (p. 68)
  • It originates in a society based on slavery, a represents an autocratic form of government. It is thus unsuitable for modern society (p. 70)
  • It assumes that humanity is separated from the rest of creation. (p 70)
  • It may lead to the assumption that the natural world is a resource that humans are in control of. (p 70) (p 72) This attitude is in a feudal perception of stewardship (p 72)
  • In the light of evolution this metaphysical set apartness is impossible to justify (p 71) [Might not the same also be said on being the image bearers of God?]
  • It is influenced by the idea that the eath needs to be managed because it is fallen and imperfect (p 71). The earth existed for millions of years without humans.
  • Stewardship is an anthropocentric ethic, which considers it to be best for humans and the natural world to be it to be managed by humans. (p 73)
  • Is non-theistic stewardship exercised on behalf of the planet? (p 74)
  • It is un-ecological (p 75)
Many of these concerns are directly addressed by Attfield in the next essay. The agnostic James Lovelock (ch 9) also dislikes the stewardship model, he senses that it is ‘an imperial concept that assumes an automatic superiority invested in those in charge’ (p 108), he prefers a partnership model - a partnership with the Earth/ Gaia. Ruth Page also proposes a similar model, but from a theistic perspective, preferring to call it ‘fellowship with creation’ (ch 8). The advantage of such approach is that it avoids the anthropocentrism that can accompany stewardship but the danger is that it can slip into pan(en)theism.

In Part III, Consolidation, Douglas Hall makes an excellent point, which does much to alleviate many concerns of stewardship - he writes: ‘The steward is different [from the rest of creation], but the steward is also the same. Like all the others, the steward is recipient of that which can never be his or hers to own’ (p. 143). Cal de Witt contends, rightly, that stewardship must be ‘highly interactive and dynamic’ (p150). He sees it involving an engagement with science, ethics and praxis. This raises the question why not also with religion, history, law and so on? He then advocates a two-books approach. I have reservations about such a framework/metaphor - why, for example, only two books? Other essays in this section look at stewardship in the context of evolutionary theory. Christopher Southgate sees stewardship - in a limited way - as a part of a matrix of our relationship with the rest of creation. Larry Rasmussen sees it as one symbol among others including dominion, partner and priest

In Part IV, Applications, Susan Power Bratton examines the implications of stewardship for marine systems by extending the sabbath and jubilee principles to include them. Michael Northcott applies it to the soil and agriculture. Crispin Ticknell opens his essay with a great statement: ‘Environment is the stuff of religion, and religion is the stuff of the environment’ (p 220). He goes on to clarify what he means but it seems his view of religion is more mystical than a robust earthy Christianity. Derek Osborn makes a valid plea to slay the four giants of unsustainability: the ideas that growth, efficiency, money and the present all come first.

Part V, Relevance/ Ways forward, may have been mis-titled as I saw little to take the discussion forward in these articles. There is little attention paid to how a stewardship model might help say climate change or deforestation or further avenues for philosophical or even theological exploration. Zizioulas advocates seeing humans as priests of creation but there is no discussion as to what this model could add to a stewardship view, or even if it is compatible with it. The highlight in this section for me is Murray Rae’s paper originally presented at the St George’s House consultation. Rae covers much ground including examining other models that have been proposed. It provides a good summary of the many approaches mentioned elsewhere in this volume.

Part VI - by far the shortest has a three-page conclusion by John Houghton. The book concludes with a 21-page bibliography and a 10-page index.

This is an excellent compilation of some of the best material available on stewardship. Berry has a done a great service in pulling together these articles. Taking stewardship as the default position is now no longer an option - here are the resources to examine closely the issue. It seems to be that the malleable concept of stewardship has taken a bit of battering in recent decades but it has come out in better shape and though it can no longer be seen as the panacea for a Christian approach to the environment it certainly seem to be the best model or metaphor to work from.

Publisher's website

Available in the UK from:
book depository

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