When it comes to environmental stewardship, we live in a unique time in human history. The vast majority of people have worked in agricultural throughout history. They produced almost everything they consumed. It was demanding work with little assurance of a productive outcome. Drought, floods, pestilence and a host of other natural challenges could easily negate all of one’s labors. There was a direct link between stewardship of natural resources and survival, much less prosperity. Life moved to the rhythm of nature.
As we saw in earlier posts, small factories began to emerge in Western Europe prior to the eighteenth century, most notably in Great Britain. Machine power was discovered and perfected during the eighteenth century and when it was applied to factories, there was an exponential increase in productivity per individual. These machines required small army’s of workers to operate them and maintain them. Meanwhile, as machine power began to be applied to agriculture, a surplus of agricultural labor developed and the great move toward urbanization began. By the end of the eighteenth century Great Britain had rushed headlong into the industrial revolution.
Make no mistake; life in these early factories was horrendous by our standards. Yet it is inaccurate to characterize the move from farms to factories as going from bucolic utopias into servitude. For many it was a reduction in the standard of living but for a great many others it was an improvement in economic stability and opportunity. From an environmental standpoint, a major impact of industrialization was that workers no longer gathered resources and took them through a process that led to a final product. Workers worked repetitively at one task that contributed to the overall production effort. The connection between what they did and its impact on their environment was uncoupled. Work also moved out of the home. The home ceased to be a place of both production and consumption and became primarily a consuming unit. Life shifted from the rhythm of nature to the rhythm of the factory.
Industrialization rapidly moved on to transform other parts of the world. As recently as 1885, in the United States, families produced 80% of what they consumed. By 1915 the amount had dropped to 20%. Even the way we understand time changed. Each locale used to set timepieces so that high noon was always when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. Every fifteen miles you traveled east or west, high noon was a minute earlier or later. That worked fine when very few people traveled no more than a few miles within a day, but when railroads came into their own it required massive time conversion tables to work out schedules at each stop. Time zones were created in the 1880s to simplify this problem. Inventions like electricity made work and leisure something that could be done twenty-four hours a day, thus blurring the distinction between day and night.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the West began to move out of the industrial age into what many call the information age. The 1950s marked the first time in US history that a majority of people were not engaged in agricultural or manual labor. That majority has continued to grow every since. The impact of this development was that use of natural resources became even more abstract for the average person. Not only was contact with raw materials eliminated but many never even saw raw materials as they went through the production process. As Alvin Toffler has written, so blurred has our connection with nature become, and even our connection with the physical aspects of production, that life no longer moves to the rhythm of nature or the machine. It moves to the rhythm of the individual heartbeat.
Of course, one of the major consequences of the industrial era was pollution of the water and air. Initially, pollution was of little concern. Little was understood about its impact and relatively small amounts were easily absorbed by nature. By the mid-twentieth century that began to change as both our scientific knowledge increased and the scale of pollution increased. Many point to events like the polluted river the caught fire in Cleveland in the 1960s and smog days that could almost blot out the sun as turning points in cleaning up the environment.
It was also during this time that the Baby Boom generation began to become adults. Many of them rejected the technological industrial world of their elders and opted for a Rousseauesque environmental romanticism. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 and most point to it as the birth of the modern environmental movement.
The 1970s saw the creation of entities like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since 1970 water and air pollution has been greatly reduced. Since 1970 in the US, the Gross Domestic Product has risen 161%, vehicle miles traveled has risen 149%, energy consumption has increased 42%, the US population has increased 39%, but aggregate emissions of the six principle pollutants has declined by 25%. (Carbon Dioxide is technically not a pollutant. Plants and trees call it fresh air.)
Within the religious community, mainline denominations were quick to adopt environmentalism as a cause, including working with some of the most radical environmental organizations. There have always been pockets of Evangelicals that have been devoted to environmental issues, but in recent years, the focus by the media on claims of anthropogenic (human caused) global warming has brought environmental stewardship to the fore. In keeping with almost every other issue of consequence in our day, the issue has quickly become polarized. Those who advocate measures for reducing the quantity and impact of pollution, and carbon dioxide emissions, are quickly labeled tree hugging flower children. Those who are skeptical of claims popularized in the media about environmental issues and worry that over commitment to an exaggerated problems could led to other problems are accused of supporting unbridled capitalism and want to pillage the earth.
The reality is that unlike every previous era in the history of Christianity, most of us living in developed nations have little direct connection with the natural environment. We see our impact on the environment almost exclusively from the vantage point of consumers. Therefore, environmentalism is almost exclusively about our consumption choices.
Yet, if we recall the Genesis creation stories, the word given by God to humanity was to tame nature. Bring it to its full potential. Stories like the parable of the three stewards entrusted with talents by their master (Matthew 25) shows that stewards multiply what is put under their care and make it more prosperous. Their ability to multiply and make what has been given to them more prosperous is the very thing that has earned them the role of steward in the first place. In the parable, it is the steward who does not make his talent productive that the master has such disdain for.
Stewards are not forest rangers, keeping nature in its pristine state. But neither are stewards despoilers and plunderers who destroy the source of their survival, prosperity and aesthetic wellbeing. A true understanding of environmental stewardship can not be had without out a full orbed view of being both producers and consumers. The challenge is to think about this holistically in such a complex economic environment.
(For a very well written piece on the complexities of how something as simple as a #2 pencil comes into existence read I, Pencil. It goes a long way toward explaining why our economy is so remarkably productive and yet no one knows how to make a pencil from raw materials to finished product. It was written fifty years ago but it still holds true today.)