Today we find ourselves in a battle royal over how to act toward “the environment.”

“Handyman for the earth” describes for Lewis Thomas the relationship each of us should cherish toward our planet. As he sees it, the earth has produced us. Now, because it has fallen on hard times, we owe it the devotion of tender care.

By contrast, many think “bulldozer of the earth” describes the modern Christian more aptly, and believe the Bible and the church have fueled the West’s technological extravagance.

It may seem surprising, then, that among today’s defenders of the earth the fine old biblical word “steward” has gained great currency. One conservation group, for instance, calls its donors “stewards.” And a book about living on a wildlife preserve bears the title, Planet Steward.

In the Bible, a steward managed a household for the householder, his master. A steward was an oikonómos, one who gave order (nomos) to a house (oikos). Oikos is also used more broadly in the phrase, “house of Israel.” And combined with the word for “dwell” it gives rise to oikoumén, which refers to the whole inhabited world.

We can see, then, why the new science studying this “house” we all live in, the world, was named “ecology” by nineteenth-century German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Today when we use such terms as “eco-sphere” (which means about the same as the biblical oikoumén) and “ecofreak,” we employ close cousins of the biblical word for “steward.” It is the planet-wide dimension of the word that has made it (and its “eco” relatives) an appropriate way to express the ...

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