Not Dominion, Not Stewardship: Reflections on the human relationship to nature.
(This essay is modified from a sermon I gave on Sunday 8 August 2010, at First Unitarian Church of Providence directly after a three-week trip to Belize, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador.)
Feminist author Susan Griffin writes, “A deep and continuing relationship with all other forms of existence is an ancient aspect of human consciousness.” Unitarian Universalist principles state, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
I began to contemplate these ideas with a series of questions. How do we remain hopeful in the face of environmental challenges like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill? What responsibility should we take for ourselves, for each other, and for the planet in this age of global warming? If we are committed to respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, what exactly hat does that mean, and how can that be made a part of our value system and spiritual practice?
In this essay I will raise many more questions than I can possibly answer. In fact I have no answers to most of the questions I am about to raise. The only answer, in summary, that I can safely give is, “It’s complicated.” I feel uneasy. I write this with a profound sense of urgency that itself is complicated by the teeter-totter of hope and despair.
I grew up a Baptist in a Unitarian Church in New York City and now I’m comfortably settled back into being Unitarian since I can neatly stuff the additional learnings from Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, paganism, and Islam into that one satchel. The Christian part of me has always been a bit confounded by the 8th Psalm. Here is the Jewish version:
1 ADONAI! Our Lord! How glorious is your name throughout the earth! The fame of your majesty spreads even above the heavens!
2 From the mouths of babies and infants at the breast you established strength because of your foes, in order that you might silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place –
4 what are mere mortals, that you concern yourself with them; humans, that you watch over them with such care?
5 You made him but little lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor,
6 you had him rule what your hands made, you put everything under his feet –
7 sheep and oxen, all of them, also the animals in the wilds,
8 the birds in the air, the fish in the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
9 ADONAI! Our Lord! How glorious is your name throughout the earth!
What, really, could be meant by dominion or rule over all things? Humans have lived by and made a total hash of this dominion paradigm. We have trampled the animals, birds, and sea creatures that were given to our care. Dominion, dominance, power, control; the origin word is the Latin dominus. Humans are the “god” of domesticated and wild animals, birds, fish, and other sea creatures? Given our track record so far what a troubling notion this is. Let me set the idea of the 8th Psalm aside, then, and look at the equally problematic notion of stewardship.
“Historically, stewardship was the responsibility given to household servants to bring food and drinks to a castle dining hall. The term was then expanded to indicate a household employee’s responsibility for managing household or domestic affairs. Stewardship later became the responsibility for taking care of passengers’ domestic needs on a ship, train and airplane, or managing the service provided to diners in a restaurant. The term continues to be used in these specific ways, but it is also used in a more general way to refer to a responsibility to take care of something owned by someone else.”
In the process of investigating the foundations underlying a Western idea of the human relationship with nature I am left feeling confused and inadequate. Aldo Leopold admonishes us, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.” (Land is what Leopold names the natural environment.) “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect….that land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
The 8th Psalm idea of dominion and the notion of stewardship seem both to be saying that we should have control over that which does not belong to us and a duty to take care of the same. I’m not happy with this. I suspect that our relationship to nature is far simpler and far more complex than this. We are an inseparable part of nature. It is our alienation from this certainty that is causing unimaginable misery for ourselves and our environment.
Annie Dillard reminds us that Hasidism has a tradition that one of man’s purposes is to assist God in the work of redemption by making holy and sacred the things of creation. I’m going to a river in Ecuador, and a beach in Colombia, to see if I can tell the stories that will get at this sacred responsibility, this covenant that I think is the essence of our relationship to the Earth.
In Ecuador I find myself in the last village on the River Santiago. The equatorial rainforest drips, humid and green. The river is clear, swift, blue grey. Cerulean blue butterflies the size of birds cavort over waterfalls careening down mossy rocks. Lemon curd yellow and fire engine red butterflies dance over the wake of the canoe. A bird mocks us by flying alongside as we dash upstream through the twists and turns of the rapids.
The village of stilted wood and bamboo cottages appears around the next bend. It is much as it always has been, and only the fall of night, the drone of TV sets, bare light bulbs, blaring salsa music, give way the degree of modernization. It is a village of African Ecuadoreans. Forced in slavery by the colonial Spanish to extract the gold that lies in the sand of the river, they eventually killed their Spanish masters and remained at the farthest end of the inhabited part of the river. They have outlasted the Spanish, the English who came and took the rest of the gold, the Ecuadorean military, the ecotourists. They plant cacao and bananas and protect hundreds of hectares of rainforest.
I’m enchanted, yes, but more interested to know how they feel about the road that may soon reach their village that has always been unreachable except by canoe. The village headman tells me this is progress, a necessary evil. The grandmother who cooks our meals listens and shakes her head. No one is sure.
My fleeting thoughts as I leave the last village on the Rio Santiago? For some inexplicable reason I am reminded that the tragedy of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico is related to the purity of the rushing water of this river. Does one herald the end of the other? Alternatively, does the river promise redemption, healing? If we destroy ourselves in the pollution, violence and war of our teeming filthy cities, and this village, these people, are what remains, perhaps we can count ourselves fortunate. Perhaps this is a life we should strive for. I vow to come back and learn more of the good and the bad of this heaven on earth.
My next story is dark and powerful, more questions abound. I am two days into the La Guajira peninsula of Colombia, not far from the Venezuelan border. We have spent most of the day bouncing around in a four-wheel drive jeep driven by Don Salustio over the dirt, potholed roads as if it is a prize wild stallion.
My head hurts with trying to grasp the size of the coal mine we have visited. We have now been from the deep coal pits in the mountains along the 150 km to the Caribbean port city of Puerto Bolivar where gigantic coal barges lie in wait to be filled so they may ferry the coal across the Atlantic to the electric plants of Europe.
This coalmine is the largest open pit mining operation in the world. It started thirty years ago when the Arawak indigenous people, the Wayúu, were forced off their ancestral lands to make way for the mining operation – the mines, the mining compound as big as a large military base, the port for storage and loading, the railroad that carries the coal from pit to port. The Wayúu are still here. Marginalized, poor, resentful, living and breathing amidst the coal dust on the outskirts of their homelands.
Coal generated electricity is the single most polluting and dirty source of climate warming carbon in the world. I struggle to grasp what I am witnessing as the coal passes through long snake like chutes to the ship waiting at harbor. A lone worker sweeps coal dust that falls to the ground
Don Salustio tells us that when the railroad was first constructed young Wayúu men and women would regularly lie down on the railroad tracks and be run over by the 120-car coal trains. The mining company would pay the families of the victims. Don Salustio says, “They stopped that payment. It seemed to be encouraging the Wayúu to commit suicide.”
I gaze out the car window at the dusty, dry, beautiful land and wonder if the Wayúu, living in their own and very different paradigm, were not in fact desperately trying to tell us something about the environmental tragedy of coal.
Susan Griffin states, “Yet, I do not find the loss of forests, the loss of a way to make a living, and a sense of meaninglessness unconnected. There is a resemblance in the look and feel of a field that has been polluted with chemical waste, a neighborhood devastated by poverty and injustice, a battlefield. And this resemblance is not coincidental. The alienation of human society from nature has led to many different kinds of destruction, not the least of which has been the fragmentation of consciousness.”
I went to South America looking for partnerships, for answers. I leave with questions and uncertainty. Is that not the reason we set aside a time for reflection, contemplation, worship? I know for me it is. If I had all the answers, if I had certainty, I would not bless certainty with faith. I prefer to practice my uncertainty. I prefer to make a personal covenant with the space of Not Knowing and to share that lonely vulnerability and fragility with others.
Back home, I am drawn to the videos of the oil spill with unreserved fascination and reluctance. Like witnessing the catastrophe of a crash, I watch the Earth bleed from our rapacious and utterly unethical actions. Morals crushed, destroyed by profit and greed. The Earth hemorrhages black death and destruction. I cannot watch. I tune out. I don’t want to know. It is too awful to contemplate.
In the West, once, religious doctrine placed the sacred above the profane in all things. Now technological authority, the might of science wielded by corporations and governments, has placed the profane, the scientific, above the sacred. I am not okay with this.
I turn again to the words of Susan Griffin, “If one would create an egalitarian society, nature must be restored as the common ground of existence. Yet this common ground cannot be reclaimed without the transformation of an unjust social order. And every aspect of this transformation demands reflection. The task is to study the nightmare that has driven us to self-destruction. The process of such a profound change may not be easy. Yet old ideas of self, familiar maps of existence which have come to feel like life itself, are already dissolving.…And beneath familiar ideas of reality there lives perhaps an older sense of self tied to an older connection to the cosmos, a sense of being and place that holds a coherence one has all along desired.”
I desire to reclaim this coherent connection to nature. I yearn to claim my responsibility to hold and maintain the natural world as sacred. I aspire to use my unique position in the web of existence to fight for social justice and in so doing to champion a different, simpler, respectful way of being of this world and not only in it. To do this I must learn the ability to be wounded and to be an activist at the same time. The environmental tragedies that we have created demand nothing less of me.
 Susan Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1995), 84.
 Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1949), xviii.
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), 94.
 Griffin, The Eros of Everyday Life, 9.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 46.