We deal with lofty matters. Issues of life and death, creation and resurrection, quantum physics and biodiversity move and shake us. The human species has been given the responsibility of being the brains of the created order, of getting the big picture right. Our report card on how well we do that is a bit shaky, but we charge ahead and are often in awe of the great thinkers, the Albert Einsteins of our world.
But while we may cogitate in a macro world, we exist in a micro one, each of us just a single individual among seven billion or so, all born ignorant and helpless, all ultimately equal in the democracy of death. The kind of world we shape will come about more by the cumulative efforts of our individual actions than by our intellectual musings. While those musings, when vetted properly, can lead to coordination of cumulative efforts, it still requires the efforts for change to occur.
The Apostle James says it well: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).
A classic example is the accusation tossed at environmentalists driving in gas-guzzling SUV’s to a meeting held in an air-conditioned hall, while in general enthusiastically participating in a plastic-filled consumer economy and eating hamburgers. Their intellectual views are not being put into gear in the actions of their lives.
Let us therefore come down to earth. What does Christian stewardship mean to me on an average Thursday in America? Can similar accusations be made of a great gulf between my confessed faith and my actual deeds? As an individual, of course, even great dedication in deeds cannot do much when weighed against the rest of humanity. But I am not simply an individual. The direction our world takes is steered by my acting with others, influencing them and being influenced by them in a myriad of ways from early childhood forward. Christianity is particularly clear that we are “members of one another” and serve and thrive in the Body of Christ, the communion of saints.
A simple primer of stewardship deeds is thus much in order. It begins with your lifestyle.
Energy: Americans argue over ways to improve the world by reducing use of fossil fuels, and promoting solar, wind, and other alternatives. Fair enough, but the best reduction comes from conservation. In the winter, put on a sweater during the day and an extra blanket at night and turn down the thermostat. A few degrees can make a significant difference in consumption, even to 65 during the day. My wife and I simply turn the thermostat down as far as it will go at night (usually 50 or 55). Unless you live in a severe winter climate, the thermostat will not likely kick on if you are inside a house that is insulated at all. One side effect can be cuddling and an improved relationship, which even the best solar and wind can’t do.
Conversely, during the summer, you do not need to be at 62 degrees. The human race somehow survived summer for thousands of years with a bit of shade, a good attitude, and with luck, a cold beer or an ice cream. Since the latter probably makes you hotter, you can see why the good attitude is the most important part. Our house does not have air conditioning, even though summers here reach 100 degrees. The enormous amount of energy expended on air conditioning and the major damage it does is mostly unnecessary. If you must have it, at least put the thermostat in the 80’s and not the 60’s. Advocate for the same in public places where you might be heard and set a good example in church. You will survive.
Plastic is not usually thought of as an energy issue. But it is. The excessive use of plastic for virtually everything in our economy is a major use of oil and a major source of pollution, since it does not easily degrade. It seems almost impossible to make a purchase of anything without plastic being involved. But you can mitigate it by taking your own non-plastic bags to stores and trying to avoid plastic for drinks and other containers. It will help the world, even now including large areas of ocean, not to choke on the debris of human existence.
Travel is another area. In Copenhagen, for example, most people commute by bicycle rather than car. Not only is it better for the creation, they are healthier and in better shape, and it saves money. Where public transport is an option, use it. In many places, Americans see bus or rail as somehow low class. The rest of the world is witness that it is not. The side effects mean less congestion, saved money (no costs for parking or burning gas while sitting in traffic jams), saved time and less stress as you read or talk instead of gripping your steering wheel, and it is a chance to emerge from the lonely, introverted, raging world of your car. Done in sufficient numbers, it could also save billions in tax dollars freed from freeway construction.
About those hamburgers? This is perhaps for the advanced class, but cows in large numbers, through no fault of their own, are tough on our earth. If you eat your vegetables directly instead of passing them through the cow first, exponentially more people can be fed with the same amount of food, and without a lot of methane polluting the atmosphere in the process. Someone also calculated the amount of oil in a hamburger and found it substantial. The oil isn’t in what you eat. But it took oil to run the tractor to grow some of the cow’s food, more to transport the cow to market and the meat to the store (often thousands of miles away).
And of course, the whole economy is set up to run on goods from around the world being shipped (=lots of fuel required) to you or your local merchant. The more you can buy from your local farmer, your local craftsman, your local factory, your local anything, the less energy is needed to get it to you.
The above is only a teaser, something to move you from thoughts to deeds. These examples may not be practical for you in particular. But there are hundreds of other possibilities. Our assumptions have been based on building an endlessly growing economy that requires greater and greater levels of consumption, selling you on the belief that your comfort and well being must be greater than anyone else in history or around today’s world, and that it can be achieved only by acquiring stuff. It is a worldview that rewards overuse, greed, and waste.
But that is not the worldview of the owner, whose property we are damaging, indeed some would say, wrecking. The question of whether or not the earth can survive our treatment of it is fiercely debated today. Our own survival obviously depends on who is right in the debate, as it is unlikely we can flee to Mars and start over. Yet, regardless of the outcome of the debate, the question for Christians is whether or not we are being what we are called to be: the stewards of the Lord’s earth. We have been given the gift of a good, wonderful planet. One would think gratitude alone would make us want to treat it lovingly. Failing that, the basic selfish need to survive may be a strong motivator. We know from experience that simply having more of everything does not bring happiness. Being loved as the child of our Creator and loving him and the creation in return is likely to work better, for him, his earth, our fellow creatures, human and otherwise, and us.