Stewardship Research Paper

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The ancient origins of stewardship beliefs are traced to Plato, Neoplatonism, the Old Testament, and Christianity. Evidence of attitudes regarding human beings as entrusted to complete God’s work of creation and nature as a trust is found in the Church fathers, as well as in the Reformation period. Traditionally the earth was regarded as belonging to the Creator, with humans as custodians answerable for its care. Stewardship has often been understood in recent decades as a secular concept, with answerability owed to society. It need not be construed as having an anthropocentric basis. Indeed some definitions represent it as a secular and non-anthropocentric concept. Numerous ethical and political objections have been raised against it, and these are considered in turn and found unpersuasive. Stewardship involves a sense of justice and upholds the Precautionary Principle. It is applied here to biodiversity preservation, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation.


Stewardship involves being a trustee or guardian of goods such as time, money, or other resources and has in recent times been applied to the human responsibility for the care and management of the natural world (the focus of this entry). This theme can be traced back to Platonism and to the Bible. Stewards do not own what they are entrusted with, but are implicitly answerable to a higher authority or constituency, whether divine or human. Objections to stewardship are here addressed, and stewardship is related to the Precautionary Principle, to biodiversity preservation, to sustainable development, and to climate change mitigation.

History And Development

John Passmore traced belief in human responsibility for nature to Plato’s Phaedrus, where it is said at 246b, “It is everywhere the responsibility of the animate to look after the inanimate” and subsequently to the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, who derived from this passage the view that humanity is sent to earth by God “to administer earthly things” and care for them in God’s name (Passmore 1974, p. 28). While finding the language of stewardship in the New Testament, Passmore does not find it applied to the care of nature until the Reformation. But his key source, Clarence J. Glacken, takes the view that the Bible as a whole is supportive of human stewardship of nature (Glacken 1967, p. 168). Pace Lynn White, it is certainly not anthropocentric, as readers of Psalm 104 or of Job 38–41 will acknowledge, and in Romans 8 the whole creation is included in God’s plan of salvation.

Passmore also discovers ancient origins for a related tradition, for which the role of humanity includes cooperation with nature with a view to its enhancement or perfection (rather than for human self-interest). This tradition he traces to the Stoic Posidonius (in the first century BCE) and to the Hermetic tract Asclepius (of the second century CE), which asserts that “God willed the Universe should not be complete until man has done his part.” It then disappears, according to Passmore, until resuscitated by the German metaphysician Fichte. However, Glacken also finds what amounts to endorsement of cooperation with nature (albeit not under that name) in Church fathers such as Basil, Ambrose, and Theodoret and in the less well-known Cosmas Indicopleustes, as well as their medieval successors such as the Benedictines and Cistercians. A frequent image used by the Church fathers was the likeness of the created world to a house which has been left incomplete for humanity to furnish and adorn, completing the work of the Creator. This image is close enough to one of trusteeship or stewardship to show that steward- ship beliefs were alive (and not in abeyance, as suggested by Passmore) during the period between Iamblichus and the Reformation (see further Santmire 1985).

Jean Calvin resuscitated the New Testament language of stewardship and related it to responsibility before God for the use of a person’s time, talents, and possessions. Indeed Calvin’s anthropocentrism has inclined some critics to accuse stewardship beliefs in general of being integrally anthropocentric. But this trait is less apparent in the writings of Matthew Hale, a seventeenth century Chief Justice who explicitly applied human stewardship to the world of nature. “The end of man’s creation was, that he should be the viceroy of the great God of heaven and earth in this inferior world; his steward, villicus [farmmanager], bailiff or farmer of this goodly farm of the lower world.” Only for this reason was man “invested with power, authority, right, dominion, trust and care, to correct and abridge the excesses and cruelties of the fiercer animals, to give protection and defence to the mansuete [tame] and useful, to preserve the species of divers vegetables (i.e., wild or domesticated plants), to improve them and others, to correct the redundance of unprofitable vegetables, to preserve the face of the earth in beauty, usefulness and fruitfulness.” As Passmore comments, the farming of the earth by humanity is thus subject to preserving its beauty and refraining from degrading its resources: and for derelictions humanity can be called to account (Passmore 1974, p. 30). Hale grounds his remarks in the injunction of Genesis 2 to “dress and keep the garden,” which many others have interpreted, like Hale, as a charter for stewardship of the world of nature.

Hale was not alone. Thus in 1713, Alexander Pope wrote that “The more entirely the inferior creation is submitted to our power, the more answerable we should seem for our mismanagement of it” (Attfield 1983, p. 43). This passage was written in criticism of vivisection, and Pope was followed by many of the British moralists in his opposition to cruelty toward animals. Meanwhile the attitudes of Church fathers such as Basil to nature were echoed by John Ray (in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691)) in his depictions of how humanity can enhance the landscape, for example, with fruitful fields and orchards, and his themes soon became commonplaces for writers of natural theology. Thus, Christian writers readopted the theme of enhancing nature, well in advance of Romantic writers such as Fichte, in a manner that Hale would have recognized as advocacy of stewardship.

During the twentieth century, the themes both of Calvin and of Hale were widely taken up. Many Protestants used the metaphor of stewardship about accountability for the use of money, while many environmentalists applied it to responsibility for the care and preservation of nature. (While many environmentalists have retained a religious sense of stewardship, some have adopted a secular sense.) This entry concentrates on the latter of these uses and thus environmental stewardship, the use relevant to the conservation and preservation of the natural world.

Conceptual Clarification

Stewardship involves the responsible care or management of some good, together with some kind of answerability. While its sphere is sometimes regarded as time, talents, money, or even political power, for present purposes this is treated as the natural world or relevant parts of it. A recent variant (devised to avert charges of pretentiousness) treats it instead as concerned with the management of human behavior as it relates to the natural world (Welchman 2012). However, the various charges against stewardship will be considered in the sections on ethical aspects that follow.

Some commentators have claimed that the aims of stewardship are invariably human interests. But there is no restriction to human interests in the sense of stewardship conveyed in the previous paragraph, and historically there was no exclusive concern with human interests on the part of Plato, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Church fathers, or writers such as Hale or Pope. Even ancient Stoics (such as Posidonius) seem not to have been exclusively anthropocentric, holding that everything exists for the sake of humanity except the universe itself. Some adherents of stewardship (of one kind or another) have been anthropocentrists, like Calvin, but many have not, and the possibility of adherents being biocentric and recognizing the moral standing of all living creatures remains an open one.

Others have maintained that in view of the implication of answerability, stewardship is essentially a religious notion, since if belief in answerability to God is discarded (or is merely absent), then there is nobody for stewards to be answerable to. But this is a fallacy. Stewards cannot be answerable to future generations, as the latter will never be in a position to hold current agents to account, but they could be answerable to (say) the community of moral agents (past, present, and future), since the present segment of this community is capable of holding them to account, or simply to all their human contemporaries (for the same reason). Accordingly secular stewardship is a significant possibility, and this makes stewardship open to millions more people than the approach of the critics would suggest. Besides, if stewardship beliefs are to be found in Plato, then they will quite possibly have been secular beliefs, since Plato’s theology fluctuated from belief in a demiurge (as in Timaeus) to an agnosticism associated with belief in the (uncreated) forms.

Stewardship beliefs are often (but not invariably) accompanied by denial that the earth is owned by the present generation of humanity. This denial can be expressed as in the opening of Psalm 24, “The Earth is the Lord’s,” but can be expressed in a secular manner, as in Karl Marx’s rejection of the possibility that the present generation of humans possesses the earth for their exclusive benefit. It can also be expressed in the environmentalist commonplace that the earth does not belong to us, but that we borrow it from our children. While the latter claim cannot be literally true, the sense of responsibility that it seeks to convey makes room for some kind of recognition of stewardship, however anthropocentric.

A recent definition of stewardship is worthy of note: “Stewardship is the responsible use (including conservation) of natural resources in a way that takes full and balanced account of the interest of society, future generations, and other species as well as private needs, and accepts significant answerability to society” (Worrell and Appleby 2000, p. 269). This definition manifestly concerns secular stewardship of a non-anthropocentric kind and could for these reasons be construed as too narrow (through apparently excluding both religious versions and anthropocentric ones too), but these apparent defects serve to rectify the mistaken opposing claims that stewardship can never take either a secular or a non-anthropocentric form at all.

Traditionally, however, stewardship has been understood theocentrically, as in the following statement from the General Synod Board for Social Responsibility of the Church of England:

Christians believe that this world belongs to God by creation, redemption and sustenance, and that he has entrusted it to humankind, made in his image and responsible to him; we are in the position of stewards, tenants, curators, trustees or guardians, whether or not we acknowledge this responsibility. Stewardship implies caring management, not selfish exploitation; it involves a concern both for present and future as well as self, and a recognition that the world we manage has an interest in its own survival and wellbeing independent of its value to us. Good stewardship requires justice, truthfulness, sensitivity, and compassion. It has implications .. . for individuals, organisations, and states. (Board for Social Responsibility 1991, p. 2).

Ethical Dimension

Stewardship has far-reaching ethical implications, both for biodiversity preservation, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation, but first several ethical, theological, and political objections need to be considered and then the Precautionary Principle, to which adherents of stewardship standardly subscribe.

Indelible Historical Associations?

The association of stewardship with long-standing theistic traditions, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, has aroused objections that it is for these reasons an expression of a premodern hierarchical, oppressive, and/or sexist society. Those who deploy this kind of objection range from some Marxists, via some critical theorists, to some feminists, ecofeminists included.

To such objections, Jennifer Welchman well replies that we do not regard the comparable associations of democracy, which originated in sexist and slavery-dependent societies, as fatal to its modern acceptance, and that environmental stewardship has, like democracy, been significantly revised so as to outlive these historical associations. Thus, contemporary stewardship has no links to oppression or to sexism and can be endorsed by both women and men alike. Her claims about modern revisions are borne out both by the definition of Worrell and Appleby and the statement of the General Synod Board of Social Responsibility (both quoted above): stewardship, as thus understood, does not regard human beings as ancient slaves or as medieval serfs nor women as subordinate, but treats men and women alike as free and responsible agents, entrusted with the care of the planet.

To ensure that undesirable historical associations do not attach to the stewardship of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, adherents of stewardship are well advised to focus on some of the alternative metaphors included in the Board for Social Responsibility statement. Stewards are also trustees, entrusted with valuable goods, tenants expected to preserve the land, curators in charge of treasures to pass on to future generations, and guardians, whose charges have a value that is more than instrumental. To focus on these alternative metaphors can help rescue adherents of stewardship from any tendency toward entrapment in historical associations that they seek to disavow.

Devaluation Of The Natural World?

This objection can take several forms, but they have in common the claim that the stewardship tradition separates God from the world of nature and thus prevents it from being respected. God, for the critics, is an absentee landlord. A theology such as pantheism, by contrast, confers a higher status on nature; if God were understood as coextensive with the world, then more salutary ethical practices would be promoted – or so it is sometimes suggested (see Palmer 1992). This is the kind of objection inspired by White’s aspersions on Judeo-Christian theology (White 1967).

But the doctrine of creation, which certainly advocates worship of the Creator and not of creatures, at the same time involves regarding the world as an expression of God’s creative purposes, and God as indwelling the world (rather than absent from it). It requires human beings to respect nature as God’s creation and other creatures as fellow creatures. While for pantheism God is material and there is no Creator independent of nature itself, to whom worship and service are owed, theism is itself consistent with regarding God as present in his or her creation, and in the forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam advocates, for example, the preservation of natural species and their habitats as creatures of God.

While the Bible confers on humanity dominion over nature (Genesis 1; Psalm 8), dominion is misinterpreted if it is taken to authorize domineering or human domination. Indeed the commandment to take care of the garden in which Adam and Eve were placed (Genesis 2:15) can instead be understood as requiring nothing less than stewardship (see further Attfield 2000).

A Pre-Evolutionary View?

Palmer (1992) has also suggested that the stewardship model represents humanity as God’s deputy on earth, for whom, at least in some versions, everything was made, whereas, if we accept Darwinism, humanity is as much a product of evolution as other species are, and the survival of those species involves not human government but their being left alone.

However, though the view that everything was made for the sake of humanity has sometimes been held, it conflicts with many Biblical passages (see above). Thus, passages like Psalm 104 and Job 38–41 presuppose that nonhuman creatures have an independent place in the Creator’s intentions. There is indeed no inconsistency between theistic belief and acceptance of Darwinism, including its implications about human origins and vulnerability, and human survival not being guaranteed; and theists can recognize that stewardship often requires nonintervention, as well as planning the use of natural resources so that both present and future needs (human and nonhuman) can be satisfied. Secular adherents of stewardship are, of course, free to agree (see further Attfield 2003).

So far removed are stewardship beliefs from embodying a pre-evolutionary view that some secular advocates of stewardship have actually suggested that it could involve humanity in taking charge of the direction of evolution through large-scale genetic engineering (Attfield 1999). Such measures, however, fall foul of the Precautionary Principle (see below), which adherents of stewardship characteristically uphold.

Stewardship As Managerialism?

A range of critics have alleged that stewardship involves human interference with the entire surface of the planet in order to enhance the productivity of nature’s resources. Stewardship thus stands charged with an instrumentalist attitude to nature. It has also been claimed to involve a managerial model (as in the role of an ancient household steward), for which interventionism is a natural corollary. Yet human capacities are inadequate for such a managerial role, and, as James Lovelock claims, the planet has no need for such human management (Lovelock 2006). Palmer’s conclusion is that “Stewardship is inappropriate for some of the planet some of the time, some of it for all of the time (the deep oceans), and all of it for some of the time – that is, before humanity evolved and after its extinction” (Palmer 1992, p. 79).

But there is no need for adherents of stewardship to adopt an instrumentalist attitude to nature, particularly when many Biblical passages appear to recognize its intrinsic value. And recognition of this value involves respect for other species and their habitats and thus refraining from colonizing the entire surface of the planet (rather than an approach of cosmic management). As we have already seen, there is no need for all the historical associations of ancient stewardship to be endorsed by modern stewards, and in any case stewardship is far from synonymous with interventionism.

Indeed stewardship is compatible rather with letting-be, appropriate for Palmer’s own example of Antarctica. And while Palmer is right in holding that there was no human responsibility before there were human beings, and that there will be none after human extinction, responsibility remains possible for the entire sphere of nature which humans can affect, which, in the twenty-first century, includes, for better or for worse, the deep oceans, the solar system, and much of the outer space beyond it. Unless the correspondingly extensive human power is exercised with responsibility, global problems will be intensified. Thus, far from stewardship being inappropriate for any of the spheres of human activity, modern technology actually makes an attitude like stewardship indispensable (Attfield 1999, p. 55).

Further, Bruce Reichenbach and V. Elving Anderson aptly reply to Lovelock that the very arrival of humanity on the planetary scene, and thus of human disruption, is what makes stewardship both possible and necessary (Reichenbach and Anderson 2006). This defense of theistic stewardship, indeed, is just as appropriate as a defense of secular stewardship. What stewards are doing is mitigating the human footprint and ameliorating its ecological impacts. The related indispensability of stewardship suggests that, far from its practice being arrogant, its non-practice could be seen as amounting to negligence.


Lovelock further supposes that stewardship embodies a form of “reductionism” that disregards the self-regulation that may, in his view, already be exercised by the superorganism “Gaia.” This charge may seem to be a methodological one but turns out in practice to be an ethical objection. Stewards, he believes, will be prone to reach for technological solutions such as geo-engineering to solve the problem of climate change, favoring, for example, saturating the oceans with iron chloride to fix surplus carbon dioxide through the growth of algae. But this “gunboat diplomacy” approach strongly conflicts with recognizing the Precautionary Principle (see below) which environmental stewards are both free and prone to favor, and suggests that Lovelock confuses stewardship and the technology of neocolonialism. Nor can we rely on planetary systems, however self-regulating they may be, to curtail either anthropogenic climate change or rapid species loss, for both of these dire processes are advancing despite the planetary systems that are in place.

Perhaps this is why Lovelock goes on to advocate seeing ourselves as planetary physicians, instead of stewards (Lovelock 2006, pp. 106–111), taking steps to protect vulnerable species and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

But if the misunderstandings about reductionism and the supposed arrogance of stewardship could be set aside, there would be no reason why we should not see ourselves in both these roles (planetary physicians and also stewards) at the same time, as long as the role of planetary physician is not construed as involving planet-wide interventionism and remains, like stewardship, consistent with widespread letting-be.

Neglect Of Social Justice?

Yet other critics of stewardship have maintained that it is liable to ignore social and international justice and focuses instead on managing time, talent, and treasure, albeit sometimes in the name of the kingdom of God. Maybe some adherents of stewardship are tempted in this direction, but if so, they would be falling into a different kind of reductionism, in which the ethical basis of stewardship would largely be ignored, for the sake of a limited focus on the resources over which stewardship is most immediately exercised.

But that is not the stance of Worrell and Appleby, whose secular definition of stewardship requires stewards to take fully into account “the interest of society, future generations, and other species as well as private needs,” and also “accept significant answerability to society.” Nor is it the stance of the General Synod Board for Social Responsibility, whose statement, quoted above, involves stewards having “a concern both for present and future as well as self, and a recognition that the world we manage has an interest in its own survival and wellbeing independent of its value to us,” adding that “Good stewardship requires justice, truthfulness, sensitivity, and compassion.”

For both these definitions, then, stewardship involves a concern for justice, and thus for the poor and disadvantaged, and for developing countries as well as developed ones, for future generations, and for nonhuman species and their interests both in the present and in the future. This broad and deep ethical basis cannot be relinquished if stewardship is to remain true to itself. Besides, stewardship involves not just responsibility but also answerability, an acceptance which makes delivery of the concerns just mentioned far more likely to be taken seriously.

As was mentioned above, answerability is sometimes seen as owed to God, but can also be understood as owed to the community of moral agents or, as the definition of Worrell and Appleby advocates, “to society.”

As a broad ethical platform, the stance of stewardship is neutral between the various forms of normative ethics. Thus, it can be upheld by deontologists, by consequentialists, by virtue ethicists, and by rights theorists (particularly those who emphasize animal rights). It can also advocate the cultivation of virtues, grounding these not on a virtue ethics basis but on a basis of rights, consequentialism, or Kantianism (see further Attfield 2012).

Nevertheless there would be a problem of justice if everyone were to be treated as having the same degree of responsibility as everyone else for the care of the environment and the natural world. People living from hand to mouth, however, cannot be expected to make provision for future generations when their own day-to-day survival is itself precarious. Individuals and communities vary enormously in their powers and capacities, as also do corporations and countries, and both responsibility and answerability vary accordingly. Hence often the stewardship of the poor cannot be put into effect because of their own lack of resources, while much greater responsibility rests with those who wield financial and/or political power. Sometimes, certainly, schemes and policies are devised which encourage local people of limited means to preserve their own environments, forests, and wildlife, and such schemes would appear greatly preferable to policies of excluding forest peoples from their own forests. Yet the requirements of justice extend further. To the extent that those committed to stewardship are also committed to justice, they will look for ways of enhancing the agency of the poor, such that they too can participate in the stewardship of the environment, which committed adherents of stewardship recognize as the role not only of themselves but also of humanity.

An Establishment View?

The sheer number and variety of the objections to an apparently salutary ethical stance of itself calls for diagnosis. An analogy is the concept of sustainable development (see below), an equally salutary concept, which in addition carries the unanimous support of all the countries represented at the Rio Summit of 1992 and at subsequent Summits on environment and development. In the case of sustainable development, objections can widely be traced to the strong desire on the part of these countries (subsequent to 1992), and on the part of the companies which seek their support, to reinterpret sustainable development in ways that align it with their own policies, and this has led to accusations to the effect that “sustainable development” has come to mean “business as usual.” In fact, though, it remains a radical concept concerning the satisfaction of both current and future needs, which should not be discarded just because lip service is so widely paid to it. For if this were a reason to reject it, we should equally reject democracy as well.

In the case of environmental stewardship, there has been equally widespread support of this concept, all the easier to adopt in view of “stewardship” being fundamentally a metaphor with ethical overtones that are difficult to resist. The term “stewardship” has accordingly been used not only by religious bodies but also by governments and by financial institutions, to such a degree that skeptics find it easy to represent it as a cliché meaning little more than “business as usual” or as a trite expression of tired establishment ethics. But this view of its meaning involves a further form of reductionism, curable by reverting to definitions of stewardship such as that of Hale or that of Worrell and Appleby. The application of human ethical responsibility to our environmental problems remains crucial, together with acceptance of answerability, whether to God or to the moral community, and that is precisely what the concept environmental stewardship offers (and what the critics could join in recognizing).

The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle concerns the avoiding of harm that is either irreversible or serious and reversible but only with great difficulty and great effort. Because irreversibility is much more obviously a feature of environmental resources than cultural ones, it is to these that the Principle is most often applied. The Principle declares that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage (environmental damage included), lack of full scientific certainty or knowledge should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent this damage. It thus transcends principles which seek to prevent damage once a risk has been established, and concerns cases of uncertainty, where the probability of damage cannot be predicted, but where there is reason to believe it likely.

The attitude of environmental stewards to this Principle is almost invariably one of acceptance, for it safeguards those resources of which stewards see themselves as custodians, advocating action to avoid serious or irreversible damage. While some object that this Principle advocates excessive caution, this objection is itself based on the misunderstanding of conflating the Precautionary Principle with the Principle of Maximin, which advocates selecting the option (inaction included among options) of which the worst conceivable outcome would be least bad. But the Precautionary Principle is not concerned with outcomes that are merely conceivably possible in theory, but ones which there is reason to credit. Accordingly there is nothing to prevent its adoption by adherents of stewardship.

The same reasoning implies that policies of stewardship can be expected to comply with this Principle. This is why adherents of stewardship will usually steer clear of “technological fixes” (see above) such as the more radical forms of geo-engineering. They will not avoid all forms of modern technology, because in some circumstances applications of, for example, genetic engineering could be crucial in averting famine. But where technology embodies serious or irreversible risks, as with most forms of solar radiation management, they will advocate other policies instead, such as ones of mitigation and adaptation (see below).

Biodiversity Preservation

Faced with a loss of species of an almost unprecedented kind, adherents of environmental stewardship will support measures of preservation and in some cases restoration. Where, for example, plantations in Indonesia have illegally been extended along the very banks of rivers, depriving wildlife of riparian corridors sufficient to sustain the viability of local populations, they will support the rewinding of riverside stretches, either through the regrowth of forest after plantations have been pulled back or through the deliberate planting of forest species. These, after all, are policies that the Precautionary Principle supports (further instances of its capacity to advocate intervention rather than cautious passivity).

The same people can consistently support the international agreement on biodiversity preservation made at Nagoya (Japan) in 2010. International collaboration is going to be vital if biodiversity-rich countries, which are often developing countries, are to receive the support they need to preserve biodiversity from less biodiverse countries which often have greater resources. While stewardship does not, as such, prescribe particular national policies, let alone international ones, it can supply grounds for positive action at all levels, including these.

Another example is here in place. In an address delivered at Cardiff University in 2013, Fazlun Khalid related that as soon as Qur’anic insights about responsibility for the environment were translated into Swahili in 2001 and conveyed to the fishermen of Zanzibar, they immediately abandoned their long-standing practice of dynamiting coral reefs; disobedience to the state was one thing, but disobeying Allah was quite another (see further Khalid and O’Brien 1992).

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development involves provision for present needs in ways that, far from undermining provision for future needs, put in place systems and policies that facilitate their fulfillment. As mentioned above, sustainable development was granted approval by nearly 200 countries at the Rio Summit of 1992 and at subsequent international conferences on environment and development.

Those who accept the definition of environmental stewardship of Worrell and Appleby will notice that, in matters of the treatment of natural resources, that definition commits them to policies of sustainable development in this sphere. Adherents of environmental stewardship need not be committed to sustainable development for all spheres (such as those of population), but will be guided by the requirements of the preservation of some resources and the conservation of others for use by future generations when it comes to policies for, for example, energy generation. Thus, there is a strong non-accidental link between stewardship on the one hand and policies of sustainable development on the other.

Climate Change Mitigation

Similar implications arise in connection with climate change. If resources such as clean air, a viable climate, and intact ecosystems (forests, wetlands, and coral reefs included) are to be available to successive future generations, then urgent steps are needed to mitigate anthropogenic climate change, and also to adapt to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have already taken place. But just such preservation of resources is required by stewardship, if understood along the lines of the Worrell and Appleby definition or that of the Board for Social Responsibility.

When we also bear in mind that to avert an average increase in global temperatures of over two degrees (Celsius) humanity can emit no more than a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) across time, and that well over half of this total has been emitted already (Attfield 2014), the urgency of an international agreement on greenhouse gas mitigation is underlined. Forms of adaptation, such as seawalls and flood barriers, are also essential, but without mitigation the underlying problems will become increasingly intractable. Advocacy of such an agreement thus turns out to be a natural application of commitment to environmental stewardship.


The religious and theistic tradition of stewardship well equips its adherents to uphold an ethic of environmental concern, not least for the conservation of resources that future generations can be foreseen to need, and for the preservation of as many as possible species, habitats, and ecosystems. However, adherence to such an ethic does not depend on allegiance to any of the religions, for secular versions of stewardship can be embraced, recognizing answerability to society or to the community of moral agents, rather than to God.

This ancient tradition has been applied across the centuries of the modern period to the treatment of nonhuman animals and to human interactions with the natural environment. It is arguably immune from charges of commitment to oppressive social practices of the ancient and/or medieval periods, of devaluing nature, of embodying a pre-evolutionary view or managerialism, of commitment to technological reductionism, or of neglect of social justice, or again of upholding an establishment stance of “business as usual.” Its adherents are likely to be committed to a range of ethical values and principles such as the Precautionary Principle and to support biodiversity preservation, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation. These considerations suggest that it may well supply a viable and tenable option for addressing many of the problems and vicissitudes of the contemporary world.

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