Stewards of our environment
A reflection during Climate Week of Action
From the ages of eight to eighteen, I lived about fifty minutes from downtown Chicago. One of my favorite times of the year was the time of the Chicago Auto Show. My dad and I would drive into the city to look at the day’s new models and the visions of the car of the future. My dad I would talk about the cars we loved; he always touting the new Volvo as the pragmatic choice, me with my heart set on something sporty, like the new Corvette. At the age of fifty, with no sense of impending mid-life crisis, I don’t anticipate trading in my 2011 Nissan Sentra, though I still take a second look whenever I see a Corvette drive by.
One reason I don’t own a Corvette is I cannot afford one, not even the insurance! But another reason is that it doesn’t seem like good stewardship, not just of my money, but of our planet’s resources.
Basil of Caesarea, a bishop and theologian in the early church, preached a sermon on the parable of the rich man whose wealth was so great that he decided to tear down his old barns and build new ones that could store all the fruits of his abundant harvests (Luke 12:16-21). In critiquing the rich man—both in the story and society—Basil employed the image of the household steward, the person appointed by the owner to manage the household’s good. Basil saw the rich man’s blindness—in the story and society—arising from him not seeing himself in the role of a steward. He did not recognize his goods were not his own and so he hoarded them.
In the past several years, I have been thinking about stewardship in terms of the concept of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene is a fancy word for the era in the history where humans have been the dominant influence on the environment. Scholars disagree about exactly when this era began, but many agree that humanity’s (negative) impact on the environment exploded after WWII. The combination of exploiting fossil fuels, certainly a pre-WWII phenomenon, with the explosive growth of motor vehicles, and the corollary carbon production, were a big part of this change. Pre-WWII there were only around 40 million motor vehicles on the roads worldwide. A conservative estimate for 2019 is 900 million motor vehicles. The U.S., with the largest interstate highway system in the word, also has the largest number of vehicles on the road, well over 100 million.
In May of this year, I remade my course on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam so that we read selections from great writings from each tradition, seeking wisdom to guide us in how to care for our communities, the disadvantaged, and nature during and after this global pandemic. Our readings included Basil’s sermon. Two months later, as my family drove down one of our nation’s many highways in my Nissan Sentra for a four-day change-of-venue, stewardship and the Anthropocene were again on my mind. But I was also thinking about one additional question, this one from a Muslim environmentalist, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, who we also read during my May course. “Will we leave the planet better than we found it?”
Over the years I have worked to mitigate my impact on the environment through recycling, using a glass, refillable water bottle, riding the bus to work four days a week. But now I started thinking about wanting to leave the planet better than I found it.
Those thoughts led me to donate to a wildlife refuge local to the area of our four-day escape, a donation equal to the amount spent on gas during the trip. I know that doesn’t leave things better than I found them. But it is a start. For future vacations, I plan to budget in donations to local environmental in an effort to help leave the place better than I found it.
Which led me to this thought: will The United Methodist Church leave the planet better than we found it? What if every year, every UMC assessed their consumption of creation’s resources and, as a community, committed to doing more than decreasing consumption and committed to environmental improvement? Planting trees. Cleaning up rivers. Picking up roadside trash. Supporting local conservation efforts. Advocating for green initiatives. Building wells as part of clean water efforts in global missions. The list really could go on.
After all, this is not our house. We are just stewards entrusted to manage all its great gifts.