The Moral Issues of Stewardship

by Gray Merriam

Why do we encourage stewardship of the lands and waters?
We may believe that we must protect features that please us or serve us. Or we may believe that we actually own the portions of our environment that we pay taxes on and thus have rights to manage its future. Or it may seem that we are just conserving what is there, or replacing what existed historically. But there is also a strong moral force encouraging stewardship.

What happens to environmental riches and natural processes on our home place connects globally to the environments of many others. What we do at home affects others — humans, other living things, and the self-maintenance processes of nature. Those other beings have not given us permission to change their environment. We have not even informed them of our actions. Such actions have moral consequences. Because we do not fully understand the natural processes that our actions may change, that too has moral implications. Our actions at home carry moral responsibilities on a global scale.

Those moral responsibilities have extended durations. Stewardship of our lands and waters benefits others not just now but in the future. Some say we should think about effects for seven generations. Both benefits and damages deserve consideration. Once damaged or destroyed, natural riches and the processes that support them are unlikely to be recoverable by future generations; the common belief that we can always find a fix has been disproved many times. So we need to care for natural riches now. Stewardship enhances the inheritance we will pass on.

The logic of environmental morality is simple. We enjoy many freedoms to choose the riches of our environment. Those choices and those riches bring responsibilities. When significant numbers of us fail to fulfill those responsibilities, various levels of society impose regulations to direct us. Economic alternatives cannot substitute for execution of responsibilities. We cannot buy exemption of our environmental responsibilities either at home or afar. Stewardship attempts to balance the execution of responsibilities and social direction by suggesting beneficial environmental behaviour.