Saturday, May 16, 2009

Soil, stewardship, cosmos and the human condition

Humans have a significant influence on our biosphere. This I do not doubt.

What I am coming to realize is that even with all our science, we humans still have very little understanding about what we are doing. Even given all of the predictive accuracy we have gained from the hard sciences, when it comes to complex systems like the environment, we still have very little predictive ability. Even with our very best minds and fastest computers, we have so little ability to predict all of the subtle consequences of our actions on the biosphere.

So given our current state of ignorance, it’s probably best to at least try and slow down whatever we are doing that either has (or seems to have the possibility of having) serious negative consequences on the biosphere.

Why? Because many (if not most) of the large-scale changes that we can potentially cause are effectively irreversible, the most important being species extinction and widespread negative land use changes (degradation) that can make life more difficult if not unbearable in the future.*

*Yes, we could probably "fix" many many of the problems we create, but some could take a tremendous amount of work to do, and some, like species extinction, are permanent. We can never resurrect an extinct species. It is far easier to maintain something than to try and fix it later once it is broken.

Humans are a significant factor to be taken into consideration. We have the capability of doing harm and we have the capability of doing good.

It is our choice to make.

Take, for instance, the decision to build the Jonglei Canal in South Sudan. In the early ‘80's the canal project was funded by the World Bank. The contract for this massive project was given to "Grands traveaux de Marseille" in France. Apparently they had dismantled one of the biggest digging machines in Pakistan and had it shipped to a Port in Sudan then to Malakal.

The canal was a disaster in the making. More than 260 km of the canal was built (out of a total length 300 km), but by that point the canal (in the areas where it was constructed) had already started messing up the local ecosystem. The project managers had not even taken in consideration the migration of animals - nor any other impact on the ecosystems.

Locals from the area remember how much human suffering resulted from the canal. The digging machine was later destroyed during the South Sudan war. The people of south Sudan likely started the civil war in response to this and other projects because they considered that the government of Sudan was committing to possibly some of the worst environmental crimes in the history of south Sudan. The project would have drained one of the world's largest permanent swampy areas of south Sudan. This swampy area is a vast wetland that absorbs and dissipates about half the inflow from the upper catchments of the White Nile. The canal would have facilitated the drainage of about 4.7 billion cubic metres of water annually to the upstream environments of northern Sudan and on into Egypt.

The advantages of the Jonglei canal were never clear to the major population of south Sudan, although some experts had given cautions in regards to construction of the canal and its potentially drastic environmental effects on the ecosystem of the Sudd region – which included negative effects on aquatic, wild and domestic plants and animals, negative effects on the life of the people such as displacement and conflict at water points, and a regional reduction of rainfall due to the fact that moisture from the Sudd contributes to the formation of the rain in the region.

Even though I never did attend church regularly, I have learned that the Old Testament states that humans are meant to be the "Stewards of God’s Earth", not its owners.

Rolf P. Knierim wrote a book called “The task of Old Testament theology”. Knierim is a Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology and Avery Professor of Religion Emeritus at Claremont Graduate University Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, CA.

In the book, Knierim states that, “Whatever the word 'God' otherwise means, in this context it means that the earth and its land are subject to criteria and priorities which can be discerned, but not determined, by humans, because these criteria determine humans themselves.
What determines all living creatures, i.e., their need for food to live, is fundamental to their right to and stewardship of the earth.

This perspective represents the fundamental conceptual level of theological significance already present in the distribution of the land by lot in Joshua 13-21, and also in Naboth’s defense of the meaning of his 'inheritance'.

Once this conceptual perspective is in focus, the question is no longer concerned with the modes and legalities of the possession of land as property but with the caretaking and management of the land’s own meaning and purpose as the support and supply system for the sustenance of human life. Thus, the criterion for ethos, law, and justice is no longer rooted in a worldview of irreducible human autonomy but rather in a worldview if irreducible human accountability to the always already given foundation of all life.

Since all life depends on the earth’s resources for the provision of food, the caretaking and management of actually or potentially fertile land for the production of food for all equally is conceptually and at least ethically, if not legally, the primary standard for justice in the relationship of humans to the earth.

This aspect of justice implies that the correspondence of land and food is fundamental and in opposition to the correspondence of land and hunger, and that all models of ownership of land are relative to the criterion of land for food. As soon as food supply, together with space of habitation, is understood as the just function of the land, the justice or injustice of the relationship of the various historical systems to land can be assessed in view of the extent to which they manage land, above all, for the purpose of food supply and the avoidance or abolishment of hunger.

This primary purpose also qualifies the very notion of management of stewardship.”

Thus, each successive generation inherits the earth, not as owners, but as stewards. This is the fundamental shift in consciousness we need to make if ever we are to restore the rightful function of the earth and achieve "sustainability".

Knierim further states that the Old Testament assumes that all humans are made “from the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7) and that they “return to the ground” (Gen 3:19).

Humans are therefore from the ground and this earthly human condition is basic and universal. It precedes all other conditions. Moreover, those who came from the ground and return to the ground live from the ground while they are alive and in life they are related to the ground as their home.

Humans are cosmically restricted and ground-bound because we are of the ground of this earth. To be an intrinsic component of this earth is the human condition. The earth is not only the space for human life, it is the basis from which we constantly live. We are, therefore, wholly related to it in our origin, life, and destination.

The human condition and human existence do not stand vis-à-vis what we call “nature”, but we are an inherent part of it.

The replacement of this worldview with other worldviews (a subject-object worldview) leads to a split between human identity and nature, with the resulting subjugation of nature by humans and human alienation from nature – and with it, human self-alienation.

The Old Testament not only rejected the deification of nature over and above humans, it also rejected the concept of a rightful enslavement of nature by humans. It only means that both nature and humans are considered “created”, and that they exist together vis-à-vis and dependent on “God”.

Notwithstanding the distinctiveness of each, both belong first of all, to each other. In whatever sense humans belong to “God”, this “belonging” is not based on a separation from nature or in the opposition of God and humans over or against nature and whatever “the creation of humans in the Image of God” means, it means neither that humans are not also created, nor that God and his relationship to nature has been replaced by humans and their reign over nature.

It refers to human stewardship in accordance with God’s own reign over nature for the sake of both nature and humans.

We humans are, indeed, totally part of nature.
That which makes the sustenance of human life possible is the life of the ground itself -- the soil.

You could even say that the ground itself is "blessed", for this is the view of the Old Testament.
It – the soil – is uniquely empowered to create life-sustaining food. Ground/soil is a terrestrial realm prior to and transcending the boundaries of nations or individual property owners. It is related to the function of food for all life.

The totality of the ground is the substance from which humans in their totality live, just as humans in their totality belong to the totality of the ground.

Therefore, all humans depend on the lasting blessing of the ground, the “uninterrupted seasonal cycle” (Gen 8:21).

In turn, the seasonal cycle, and with it the life of the ground and its production of food, are themselves embedded in and dependent on the cosmic cycle.

The fertile land does not belong to us; it belongs to the cosmos, and we belong to it.

1 comment:

  1. good exegesis of stewardship

    I had never thought about from dudt to dust - a biblical premise about man, that is refferred to at every funeral in reference to biochar...

    keep up the ggod work