The Problem with Stewardship

Stewardship, on the surface a kind of benevolent relationship with the earth, has, in fact, harangued the environment and contributed to its demise. The unchecked adoption of stewardship by environmentalism is to blame for the environment’s devaluation. In lieu of appreciating the earth and acting in accordance with its total needs, many environmentalists have adopted a notion that serves to diminish the earths’ capacity. This has resulted in a severing of the role of nature’s complex workings. This is due to the adoption of a false panacea that is exercised in an ultimate, unconscious desire for control. Stewardship and those who have adopted stewardship are to blame. Misunderstood notions of environmental stewardship burden contemporary society, and this begins with the unavoidable fact that the term itself serves to separate humans from that which they profess to be the guardians. We, as humans, must evolve our understanding of the complexities within nature. It is only then that we, as humans, will truly be capable of interacting with nature in a beneficent manner.

The term “stewardship” is being abused. The idea of stewardship ? of tending to the environmental flock ? has been blindly adopted by much of mainstream environmentalism, to the annoyance and detriment of many well-intentioned environmentalists. We use this term to not only motivate our actions but also to rationalize our disparaging behavior. A change in the human approach to nature is necessary so that we may begin to recognize our role within the natural environment. We must envision ourselves as members of nature, not its overlords. This is not a novel sentiment. Thomas Jefferson proposed this rationale centuries ago in his Notes on the State of Virginia when he noted the human need to strive for preservation and cease in the destruction of “every species that does not seem to serve our immediate accommodations.” Yet centuries later we continue to plod along the negative trajectory that allows human needs to serve as the lone motivator for decisions revolving around nature. Though there exists an intrinsic humility within humans that recognizes nature’s bounty, human desires of “progress” and “civilization” have muffled this sentiment. To reaffirm this relationship, humanity as a whole must first recognize its membership within the community of nature. It is only by recognizing our own membership in the natural world that we can then be motivated to pursue its (and our own) preservation.

While there do exist benefits associated with the contemporary perpetuation of the term stewardship ?  namely a sense of moral obligation to recognize and chastise behavior that is environmentally negligent ? these motivating factors no longer suffice as actors serving to inspire benevolent behavior. Humans’ passivity toward the environment has resulted in the ultimate manifestation of nature’s demise; additionally, the overt adoption and misapplication of stewardship in recent years has done little to advance or pay homage to an ideal that, in theory, proposes valued real-world functions between humans and nature. We allow ourselves too much influence upon the natural world because we falsely believe ourselves to be the authors or abiders of some manifest rule of existence (ultimate deciders of which species receive the thumbs up or the thumbs down in the arena of nature’s gladiator-hood). We place nature beneath that of the supposed stewards, humans. This action emanates out of human desires for control, and this hierarchy inherently serves to dissolve the merit associated with stewardship. Thus, by exercising contemporary notions of stewardship, one is consciously placing one’s own self above that which one purports to be in care. This is the primary fault with stewardship, and we must recognize this deficiency if we are to ever remedy its negative impacts upon the greater physical and biological community that is nature.

Human ambition for control is the imprudent and underlying justifier for our current approach toward stewardship, and it is a false validation. Humanity’s deficiencies in our ability to achieve this semblance of control can be easily noted through an analysis of contemporary problems associated with inter-human equality (the “haves versus have nots” exemplifies human failures in the arena of developing equality among members of the same species; therefore, let us not begin to broach the subject of inter-species equality). The perpetuation of an ideal wherein humans can control all they touch and see has consequently led to issues of inequity extending to the relationships between humans and nature. Humans must evolve in their relations with nature if we are ever to recognize its complexity and its inherent beneficence. We are but members of the natural world, and while this statement may appear overly humbling to many, it is fact. By condoning, and even promoting, a term such as stewardship, which certainly celebrates the removal of humans from the environment, how are we to serve as responsible stewards over nature while concurrently recognizing and exercising our dominion over that for which we are in care? This appears to be an intrinsic impossibility, and, in fact, it is.

Several alternative approaches intent upon evolving the human-nature relationship have been proposed. The most recent environmentally hip term is to declare “citizenship” with the natural world. This terminology supposes that by viewing oneself as a “citizen” of the ecological community, one would never act against the harmonious interconnectivity associated with nature, as it would be damaging to one’s own lot. The primary problem with this ideology is that one can relinquish one’s citizenship far too easily. Just note the propensity and popularity of expatriates crowded around western restaurants and bars abroad. It is for reasons such as this that the notion of “citizenship” is imperfect.

If humans must assign an alternative term to the ideology of stewardship so that it may be celebrated and practiced independently from those who have adopted stewardship in the avaricious pursuit of ulterior ends, it is imperative to align a less fickle term than citizenship, one that does not devalue the human-nature relationship. If humans are indeed to reacquaint themselves with nature in a manner that promotes nature inclusive of humans, then the only appropriate approach would be to discontinue the injustices that have been conveyed upon nature in the sole interests of humans. Let us no longer do a disservice to nature and instead willfully accept a position from which true caretaking should emanate: replace the maligned union of stewardship and citizenship with a simple notion of membership. As Aldo Leopold remarked in his essay The Land Ethic, a beneficial land ethic, one that is not pervaded by ranking or utility, should move humans away from “conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.” If we require a term to facilitate and validate our actions, let it not be one that is inherently weak and subjugates nature by making it an object requiring human control. History has proven that any fabricated dichotomy between humans and nature perpetuates an ineffective approach.

Membership in the biotic community contrasts with notions of stewardship in that, in the absence of hierarchical designs of leadership, it inherently represents a supposed equity among other living and non-living entities. And while there are memberships that can be voluntarily voided, similar to citizenship, there are also memberships from which one cannot escape (race and ethnicity stand at the fore). It is this direction and ends that should be the ultimate goal of human-nature relations: we are members of nature, and must recognize this fact first and foremost.

To be true caretakers of nature, humans must dispel any notion of nature that separates humans or promotes them above nature. Historic, human exploitation of nature has been supported by humans’ omnipresent actions of using nature to an end. Aldous Huxley in his collection of essays Ends and Means promotes justified, moral means as the only fashion in which one should be capable of achieving moral, desired ends. No longer should amoral actions be undertaken to achieve perceived moral ends. Each process involved in attaining desired ends must be undertaken as an end in itself, and these collective processes leading toward a pre-determined end can only be justly pursued if they are to be considered moral upon their conclusion. Consider Huxley’s manner of thinking with respect to contemporary environmentalism: processes of exploiting nature continue unabated every time humans consider their interactions with nature as justified through the veil of stewardship, when what is truly being accomplished is the denigration of the human character and a further clouding of environmental waters.

Members within a biotic community provide and remove while inherently understanding the need to balance the needs of other members with their own. It is only those members that consider themselves as superior to others who practice overindulgences at the expense of other members. A prime example can be found here in the Rocky Mountains, as some westerners claim that wolves are taking more than is required, and consequently diminishing sportsmens’ ability to hunt.

So, what gives us the right to exclude ourselves from this same argument? Can we justly bestow judgment upon the wolf while turning a blind eye to our own actions of self-indulgence? If we are to begin to envision ourselves as members within the natural community, then the answer is a staunch “No”; however, if we choose to continue along a path of bravado lacking in conscious humility, then our hypocrisy will never cease. If humans do envision their existence as superior to nature’s other elements, then the first step toward a better understanding of nature and eventual membership within the ecological community is to realize that this sentiment is false. In truth, we are not superior. Our subjugation will not permit our continued existence.

 Humans are born as elements of nature, just as all other beings. It is only through a false perpetuation of superiority that we have permitted nature’s degradation and selfishly promoted ourselves within the community of nature. Environmentalists must acknowledge that truly beneficent “stewardship” resides in the inalienable membership of humans within the community of nature, and that the nature we observe on a quotidian scale is strictly comprised of nature that has survived.

Will humanity, as a whole, display moral fortitude by acknowledging mistakes of the past that arose under the false pretense of our superiority over other natural elements, and are we willing to subsequently reconcile our actions that have destroyed or maimed large portions of nature’s elements? As I’ve stated, humans possess the moral humility to recognize mistakes of times past. We simply need to act in accordance with the acknowledgement of these previous errors so as to prevent their continuation. “Stewards” must begin to work with, so as to not work over, nature. We must relinquish the control that we have affected upon nature under the guise of “stewardship,” and the first step toward accomplishing this is to cease in expressing hierarchical language, behavior, and ego, while validating our actions with a medieval rationale that has been and continues to be the demise of stewardship and consequently nature. Humans are members of the biotic community, and while times’ humble hands will provide the opportunity for environmentalists’ response, the era for hesitant action has passed.

As elements of nature, environmentalists, “stewards,” should recognize a responsible and ethical transition to a notion of membership within a much larger, complex community. This acknowledgment and the ensuing actions will remove the echelons represented within stewardship, thus permitting the attainment of a true, non-biased balance within nature. It is this goal to which humans should aspire, for if nature’s elements continue to flounder and fail because of human arrogance emanating from assumed superiority, our present trajectory will one day bring us to the fore of nature’s failure. A disservice to nature such as this is avoidable. Accepting membership within the community of nature may be our final opportunity to salvage ourselves and to begin to repair the relationship with nature that we have permitted to languish. As poet William Stafford once wrote, “Justice will take us millions of intricate moves.” Acknowledgement of our interminable errors is the first move. As members of nature, we must acknowledge that now is the time for justice to and for nature.

HAYDEN JANSSEN is a research associated at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Janssen can be reached at: