This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in late October, 2023.
In the Book of Genesis, after telling Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it,” God gave humankind “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [Gen 1:26-28.]
By the time those words were written down, something like seven thousand years had passed since human societies began exercising an altogether new kind of control over the natural world.
Before that breakthrough, like every other species, our ancestors had lived within the natural order – as primate bands, then as small societies of human hunter-gatherers. Operating within the niche in which our kind had gradually evolved, our ancestors survived on the animals that hunters could kill in the wild, and the plants that gatherers could find in the wild.
But then humans became the first creatures in the 3.5 billion-year history of Life-on Earth to extricate itself from the niche in which it had evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.
The invention that provided the foundation for other changes to come was humans exercising a new kind of control over their food-sources:
- Some of the animals that the hunters had killed in the wild were gathered into herds controlled by people. Thus humans invented the life of the “herder”;
- The plants that the gatherers had taken in the wild got planted by people — first in the gardens of horticulturalists and eventually in the agricultural fields of the expanding agrarian societies. Thus was born the human as farmer.
So by the time those words about God giving man “Dominion” were written, they described what had already happened over the course of the previous millennia.
“Dominion” had already given rise to an altogether new life-form invented by a species exercising an unprecedented kind of power over the rest of the natural order.
By the time we get to fully-flowered “civilization” – cities, empires, agriculture, etc. – humankind has become more dominant on the planet than any observer of the prior history of life could have imagined.
The question has always been whether God’s granting of rights would be matched by a corresponding requiring of responsibility.
The sins that God is unhappy with in the time of Noah –for which He will destroy the rest of humanity — focus on violence. No mention of degrading the environment.
The Bible does touch upon the idea of Stewardship: a Good Steward is given the powers of management of some domain, and what makes a Steward “good” is that he takes good care of the domain that’s been placed under his control.
History makes clear, however, is that throughout the history of civilization, people have been far more likely to used their powers in every way that served their own purposes than to fulfill the duties of the Good Steward.
And so, with the rise of Civilization, the human exercise of “Dominion” inflicted damage on the health of the rest of Life-on-Earth, e.g.:
- The over-grazing by herders in North Africa spread the Sahara desert, and
- The salting of soils in the first areas of agriculture, where erosion washed the top soil away, while irrigation salted the soil.
Meanwhile, over the millennia, it has been those societies that extract the most power out of nature that have dominated how the human world has developed.
- In the first millennia after civilization’s emergence, we see agricultural societies overrunning hunter-gatherers; and
- More recently, industrialized societies colonized by force the older-style agricultural societies around the planet.
The conquest of nature has gone hand-in-hand with conquest of less powerful peoples.
Ultimately, it is only for the short-run that the exercise of Dominion without Responsibility is advantageous. Ultimately, the growth of power over nature comes up against limits that a Good Steward needs to understand and respect.
For human civilization, that “short run” has now run out.
Unsurprising that things would change, given that Human Domination has accelerated to the point where our civilization
- supports a world population of eight billion people, who
- utilize technologies unimaginable just a few generations ago, to
- operate an economy wielding undreamt of levels of productive power;
Unsurprising that — with such rapidly expanding impact — civilization has now visibly run up against a requirement of the systems of life so profound that irresponsibility has become a ticket to self-destruction.
The need for environmental responsibility has been made newly urgent, as our new level of impact threatens consequences at an altogether more dire level than humankind faced during civilization’s long history of denuded soils, deforested mountains, spreading deserts (and the occasional extinction).
Most immediately, this crisis of climate disruption has revealed that if a civilized species multiplies its power over nature many times over – without taking adequate heed of what’s required of a Good Steward — that creature’s civilization might careen into a self-inflicted catastrophe.
And with the altogether inadequate way that human civilization has responded to this challenge (to bring our activities into balance with the needs of the living systems of the earth) – which a responsible species would have been addressing seriously for decades by now – it becomes clear: we urgently need to counterbalance the Spirit of Dominion with the Spirit of the Good Steward.