In Bill McKibben’s new Oil and Honey, a memoir of his recent environmental activism, he comments that good farming should “leave the land better than you found it”. Christianity has a long history of this kind of sound environmental management, and it is called stewardship. Unfortunately, there is also a long history of the source of this notion, the book of Genesis, being taken to mean that the gift we are given (the world) is therefore ours to treat as we please.
There has also been a tendency to see the world as fallen and tainted, and in ages past this made some sense, as the natural world was hostile to human endeavour. We had to toil amongst the thorns and dust. And the wilderness was a vast, threatening place (rather than a rapidly diminishing novelty). Additionally, there was the sense that civilisation is a good, God-given thing. Human beings are in the privileged position to be able to make long-term, cumulative changes for our benefit. (Though more than one theologian has pointed out that this anthropocentric view may at the very least be a rather narrow-minded view of what God intends for the universe, which is more about glorifying him than us.) But civilisation has costs as well as benefits, and unfortunately we are piling up the costs, to be paid by future generations (as well as certain sectors of the current global population – surprise surprise – usually the poorest ones). McKibben describes a situation where our fossil fuel bingeing is like alcoholism – beyond our control, likely only to be stopped when calamity strikes.
It has been somewhat to the detriment of environmentalism that it has been so focused (as McKibben is) on (the admittedly serious issue of) climate change, because the question of the legitimacy of the science has given an excuse to those who want to avoid stewardship. But we don’t have to look very far beyond climate change to see evidence of a lack of stewardship: mass extinction, monocultural agribusiness, habitat destruction, the proliferation and side-effects of chemicals, overcrowding, overfishing, air pollution, soil and water quality, rubbish disposal, and so on. We cannot shrug our shoulders at these problems as the inevitable results of God giving us the world. It would seem a little ungrateful, if, when given an antique clock, we smashed it up for firewood.