Dominion vs. Stewardship: Do Christians lead the way or trail behind the movement toward environmental sustainability?
It wasn’t long ago that that those who strapped themselves to giant oak trees hoping to forestall development were castigated as loonies. Environmentalists, once denigrated as fringe alarmists, now enjoy popular support. National polls reflect consensus; Americans believe there should be stronger policies protecting open space, that it is everyone’s obligation to protect undeveloped lands, and that more lands should be set aside for rare or endangered species, national parks, and protection of historical landscapes. There is a growing acknowledgement that the supply of wild lands is limited and that access to natural, undeveloped lands benefits society. Eroding plant and animal diversity through land development and destruction of natural animal habitats increases popular anxiety.
In response, federal and state governments have added land and funding to national parks and other conservation efforts. Park based funding increased from nine-hundred million dollars in 2001 to over one billion dollars by 2006. Park acreage increased incrementally from seven million acres in 1930 to nineteen million acres in 2000.
Despite popular support and government-initiated efforts, forty million acres of land – larger than the state of Florida – were newly developed between 1992 and 2007. No doubt, complex and nuanced factors contribute to such rampant development. One such factor is the historic and deeply rooted pro-development policy embedded within American property law. In the county’s infancy a pro-development policy made sense. As a sparsely populated nation with more wilderness than production capacity, national leaders promoted colonization, cultivation, and development of wild lands – often giving away millions of acres on the bare promise that the grantee would develop. Over time, our law fully integrated these pro-development constructs.
While critical in the country’s infancy, encouraging land development through legal constructs is less important and arguably detrimental now. These long-standing legal constructs encourage land use and as a result discourage conservation. Our need to develop wide swaths of wild land has changed; our common law has not.
How has the Christian perspective played into this evolution?
On the one hand, scads of recent publications promote “stewardship.” (The Sojourner’s website offers several titles). Under the stewardship model, the Christian is not the owner of her property but a mere trustee. A strictly legal owner may use the property entirely for himself, excluded others from it, possess it, transfer it and destroy it. A Christian owner, however, must use it for the common good – or perhaps more accurately, for the good of those most in need. It cannot be excluded from others, destroyed or exploited for personal gain. From this perspective, the stewardship model parallels popular environmentalist sentiment. But it hasn’t always been so.
While progressive Christians may proclaim environmental sensitivity today, we certainly cannot claim the same environmentalism historically. In fact, religious dogma arguably helped create America’s pro-development policy. Nineteenth century Judeo-Christians harbored animus toward the wilderness, according to some historians. The book of Genesis confers dominion to mankind over all birds and beasts; believers are admonished to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Early settlers took these provisions to heart, viewing uncultivated wild land as dangerous and ungodly. The controversial 1967 article by historian Lynn White decried the Judeo-Christian worldview of dominion as incompatible to environmentalism.
Of course, this assertion of dominion over nature and subjugation of wild lands to the will of mankind is not the sole cause of modern America’s pro-development proclivities. In fact, it is plausible that nineteenth century Christians merely mirrored the popular sentiment of the day.
One scholar suggests that the nineteenth century American public – regardless of religion – uniformly valued development over conservation. Professor John Sprankling argues that Americans valued land exploitation and disdained uncultivated and unimproved land: “This model mirrors the historic American view that forests, wetlands, grasslands, deserts and other lands in natural condition contribute nothing to the social welfare until they are converted to economic use.” Forests, wetlands, deserts, hill country and other undeveloped land were seen as worthless until cleared, drained, cultivated or otherwise converted into economic use. Visiting from France in the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight . . . the march across these wilds, draining swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes and subduing nature.”
So where does that leave the progressive Christian?
Unfortunately, the prevailing Christian view in the nineteenth century reflected the popular view at the time. Today, the prevailing Christian view again reflects the popular view. Did we get it right this time or are we simply following the path of least resistance?