My children have “safe” spaces where they hide toys they don’t want their siblings to touch. This behavior comes naturally. They, like most of us, believe instinctively that they’ll take better care of their things than someone else will. This attitude is probably at the heart of capitalism’s triumph over the past century as the world’s dominant economic system. Its core tenet, the affirmation of private property rights, appeals to our inborn view of the world.
Christians of all people know, however, that human instinct alone quickly reaches its limits as a guiding principle for life, and the subject of ownership is a case in point. For starters, there’s the Bible and its nettlesome insistence that nothing is really ours because “everything under heaven” is in fact God’s (Job 41:11). I’ve never met a good Christian who disagreed with this, at least in theory (even if our credit card statements betray less-than-complete fealty to that theory).
Christians in the West tend to reconcile our contradictory beliefs in private ownership and divine ownership by leaning hard into the principles of personal stewardship. Yes, Genesis 2 commissions man in general to care for God’s resources, but it especially commissions man individually to care for the lot God has entrusted to him. So we’ve received ample formation in, say, stewarding our personal finances. We know what we’re supposed to do with the harvest from our proverbial garden: tithe, give, save, and wisely spend what’s left.
Where we lose our footing is communal stewardship. We’re much less sure about the rules of the garden if not only I depend on it but everyone else does too. This, the classic “tragedy of the commons,” is difficult enough to solve as it is. But what if we add a twist and say that, with every piece of fruit picked, the garden dies some imperceptible amount?
Two stories in this month’s issue broach these and other challenges as part of a larger exploration of Christian approaches to conservation. As our cover story argues, the church unquestionably has something significant to contribute to debates over how we should steward oil and other fossil fuels, regardless of our individual views on contentious topics such as climate change.
Certainly, the solutions can feel complex and elusive. But as a starting point, Christians can feel confident enough in God’s providence that we don’t have to panic. As researcher Eli Knapp’s surprising insights into East African poachers suggest, environmental stewardship may require sacrifice, but it is not a zero-sum game. Joyfully, in the Creator’s genius, we find that what’s good for man and what’s good for the earth are often, in fact, the same thing.
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