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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Environmental Stewardship

If there is one viewpoint missing from discussions on the environment these days, it is that of effective stewardship. The term is so little used (or so rarely used properly) that it is a bit difficult for us to immediately come to terms with its implications.

The word "steward" is derived from two words in Old English. The first meant "hall" and the second meant "ward". To delve a bit deeper into semantics, the first word also evolved to mean "sty" as in "pig-sty". "Ward" in this case is used as a synonym of "guard". So, the literal meaning of the word is to denote someone who is in charge of guarding either the home or pig pens (I'll stretch to include other forms of livestock, as well).

It is the English equivalent of the French word, much better understood by Americans (pehaps thanks to Batman), "butler".

The job of the steward, or butler, was not to prevent the house or barn from being used, but to keep it from being used improperly. The purpose of having a single person in charge of the house is to ensure that someone is accountable for maintaining it. If it is to be used for a dinner party - presumably to impress business and governmental interests - then the very best the house has to offer is utilized in such a manner as to maximize that impression. If the barn (or other business) is left in the hands of a surrogate, the understanding is that the steward will work dilligently in the best interest of the business - not just to keep it safe, but to maximize it.

You could liken the position of the steward to that of the modern CEO in business.

The problem with that, of course, is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the modern CEO has forgotten that he (or she, but normally he) is responsible for the long-term vision of the company and not just the short term usurous pursuit of profits. Hopefully, the recent spate of scandals will refocus some attention on corporate responsibility - which begins with personal responsibility and accountability with the people in the top seats.

Ok, ok, how does this relate to the environment?

Well, let's look at the environmentalist side first by examining the Sierra Club's view of environmentalism:

Their official mission statement sounds wonderful - especially the second part that states "To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources"

After all, the whole point of having resources is not to simply hoard them, but to use them judiciously - to maximize both the short-term and long-term benefits.

However, one of the national issues they have chosen to focu on is "an end to commercial logging in national and other public forests".

There is a big difference between ending logging and restricting it to areas where it is sustainable and ensures the health of the forest. In the Western States, one of the primary causes for wildfires is lightning strikes after drying winds. A total ban on logging only ensures that there is an over-abundance of fuel.

It is also against the very nature of some sub-ecosystems to not allow fires.

From living in Florida, I can attest to the severity of the fires in 1998. One of the big problems encountered during those fires were the natural adaptations the flora had made to periodic naturally occuring wildfires.

Most pine trees in Florida are either long-leaf pines or scrub pines. As they grow, both species shed the limbs closest to the ground. The reason is to allow low-burning fires to sweep through the forest without destroying the elder trees.

Of course, if the scrub is allowed to grow too thickly or too tall, such adaptations are self-destructive. The over-abundance of palmettos - which literally turn into fire-balls when they burn - sent flames shooting higher than the lowest limbs of the pines. The drying pines had concentrated pine oil close to the surface in their needles, cones, and bark. Once the flames reached the canopy, they jumped over eighty feet of clearing to cross over I-95.

We cannot act as if mankind has never existed and has not assumed stewardship of our environment. To do so is simply to deny reality and to promote unsafe conditions.

However, the vision of the environment embodied in the new Energy Bill is just as much a violation of stewardship principles as the total "hands-off" approach. To simply give public funds to companies who are already turning record-breaking profits is an incredible violation of public trust.

Jesus gives an account of what he expects of a steward in Sixteenth Chapter of Luke. It's an odd story for a culture consumed with the production of wealth. The steward is not rewarded for exceeding earnings - or even breaking even on his debts - but for making the most of the debts that were owed in a (fairly) just manner.

This is also the chapter that speaks of Lazarus and the rich man (read the text linked above for the whole story). The connection of the two stories is clear - we are not called to pursue profits to the forfeiture of all else. We are entitled to earn a fair living, but we are not entitled to deprive others of the method for doing so.

Clear cutting a forest deprives the next generation of any ability to use that resource - as a carbon sink or as a source of potential precious woods. However, leaving "nothing but footprints" can also be damaging.

It's fairly clear that a good steward is expected to be involved in the affairs of his or her master. It's also clear that we are expected to steer a middle course where we take advantage of the good things we are given but ensure that enough is there for those who come after us.

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