I started volunteering with my local arboretum over 2 years ago after wanting to take a more active role in my understanding of our home. I won't reminisce about this since I've done that at length in my first Human Nature blog post, but this volunteering was also my first foray into environmental stewardship. That is to say, the kind of volunteering I was doing (and still do) revolved around learning about plants and animals so I can actively participate in caring for the environment. This involves work like seed collection, seed propagation, monitoring, and aggressive species removal.
In my case, I have an intrinsic motivation to understand the environment around me. I like knowing about plants and animals that I see because it makes me feel more like a part of this world rather than an observer. Knowing what something is, when it's active, and what it can be used for is a fun skill to have and work on. While my immediate friends and family aren't as interested in the topic as me, it does occasionally provide some insight or a fun fact for them to take with them.
Though, arguably, knowing what something is used for isn't actively helpful to me in modern life. I will not likely need to know medicinal or crafting properties of plants to make it through my life because I can depend on a society of people where someone else is using that knowledge to make things for me. What is helpful, however, is looking past the individual value of something and knowing how it interacts with other plants and animals in its local environment. These properties of life are still important, in my opinion, for everyone to have some knowledge of. If we see that an environment degrades so much that an entire species is suddenly gone, knowing how that species fit into the system lets us know what will be impacted next and how that could impact the larger system. When enough of these larger systems ripple into each other, they eventually hit humanity, so having a base knowledge of this interconnectedness keeps us, at a minimum, aware of when things are going to change and why.
It's here that I find value in my environmental stewardship. I build an appreciation for the complex connectivity of everything on Earth. I'll never know it all, but by actively working to maintain and restore natural areas, I get to learn about my local community. Not just the human one, but the one of all living and non-living things.
Let's dive in.
What is Environmental Stewardship
With that preamble out of the way, some of you might be wondering what exactly I mean when I say "environmental stewardship." A very valid question as it turns out since I figured it was a more general phrase, but it isn't terribly well defined. A paper from 2018 prefaces with the generalized statement below before trying to break down a framework understanding environmental stewardship in practice:
Local environmental stewardship is the actions taken by individuals, groups or networks of actors, with various motivations and levels of capacity, to protect, care for or responsibly use the environment in pursuit of environmental and/or social outcomes in diverse social-ecological contexts.
This does hit the point, but it's a bit dry for me. More succinctly, environmental stewardship is action taken to care for the environment. It can come in many forms, even some passive ones. For example, a direct form may be aggressive species removal. Native, supportive, and keystone species may be out-competed by overly aggressive plants, which slowly turn the ecosystem into a fragile monoculture. This direct action uses knowledge of species representative of a healthy ecosystem and assists the land in maintaining a healthy status.
There are also supporting actions to take into account. Something like frog monitoring lets us know more about the quantity and activity of frogs in a specific area, but we're not intervening in any active way. This monitoring ideally produces results that can be used to inform action (or inaction) later. Say if the number of frogs seems decreased, or another species of frog is encroaching on the pond, that's information that can be used to either begin other research like "why are certain frogs suddenly liking this pond" or "is the pH of the pond shifting such that frogs of a certain species won't lay eggs" which can lead to eventual action.
All that said, environmental stewardship is effectively being an active participant in the world around you. Working with others to maintain a healthy environment through application of knowledge to direct action as well as supportive study to inform us of how things are changing and whether we need to be concerned or wary. Environmental stewardship, at its core, is merely a culture of active participation in your home.
Origins of the Concept
I also wanted to do a bit of digging beyond just where we are today in understanding environmental stewardship. I was actually a little surprised by what I'd learned. Also prefacing that this is almost exclusively an origin tracing back from the United States, so most of this is likely very Euro-centric.
Way before "environmental" was tagged to the front of the phrase, the term "stewardship" finds its roots in Christian theology. I was surprised at even how many searches I had done on the concept of environmental stewardship were more or less a 50-50 split on environmental practices and analysis vs. biblical interpretation. In essence, stewardship as a concept stems from the Earth being the responsibility of humanity and they should seek to care and nurture it. While the "environmental" part hadn't been introduced, the core of the meaning is with regards to the world humans had been given.
Similarly, the etymology of steward is derived from old words for "house" and "ward." That a steward is effectively a guardian of a place. Later, the term was used for a type of office usually held by ship workers that that managed resources and provisions for higher officers. While not necessarily caring for a home, they still manage resources for others to use.
These meanings and derivations come from a place of human-centricity and ownership, however. Humans, in these understandings of the concept, are an intrinsically special part of the world, whether in the Christian view of being given a gift or the etymology seemingly implying ownership of a home. It wouldn't be until a bit later that the phrase "environmental stewardship" came to be.
During the United States' environmentalism boom, the big picture of the environment was one of a pristine nature. When people talked of a natural world, it was one untouched by man (or rather white colonists). The allure of this natural world was also predominately one of "dominion" and "conquest." The idea that the wilderness was something to be wrestled with, defeated, and subdued was a key feature.
While certainly not the first person to oppose this concept, Aldo Leopold was one of the first to popularize the concept of a more modern environmental stewardship. In his book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote of a "land ethic" that described how humans should have a intrinsic desire to care for the land, applying ecological principles to understanding and caring for the world around us. I don't think the phrase "environmental stewardship" was coined by him, but most of the literature I was finding pointed back to his writings as a key turning point in considering humans a part of the larger world rather than a force intended to use it as a resource.
Interestingly, Leopold's flavor of environmentalism would likely be within the realm of religious naturalism. While not tied to any individual religion, he still spoke of a certain spiritual desire to participate in the systems that sustain our planet. Even though the concepts are largely secular, it was an interesting coincidence finding a sacred side to the concept from origins to modernity.
Practice Ahead of a Name
One thing I want to stress immensely is that concepts don't need names to be real. We do things all the time that may not have a formal word or phrase associated to them, though they might with time. The concept of environmental stewardship is no different, and humanity has been practicing it long before there was a name for it. It's just been a while since it was a ubiquitous thing across the globe.
Prior to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, humans had a necessity to understand how nature worked. And not just how it worked, but when it worked and what influenced the how and when. Before humans knew how to bend the land in a way that allows growing food and products essentially all the time, we only had limited land to work with. We were at the whims of the systems we were surrounded by. Building myths, drawing inferences from observations, and telling stories all facilitated building a library of knowledge that could be passed from person to person with the goal of understanding local communities enough to directly influence and assist it so humans could do two things: live there and live there for an unpredictably long period of time.
Those might sound pretty similar, but they're a bit different. Let me elaborate.
Being able to live somewhere because there are resources present lets you answer a fairly invisible question. Do you live there considering the resources will run out and you'll find another place when that happens? Or do you live there considering you will live there indefinitely and need to understand how to use the resources in a way that will allow staying put for a long time? These encourage drastically different behaviors. The former can work if you know there are other viable places to go, but you run the risk of eventually not having a new place to move to. Your journey ends when your path of places ends. In the case of a species on Earth, that's extinction.
The latter is certainly harder, much less lavish, but ensures you have a place to live for an unknown amount of time. If you learn the seasonality of certain plants and how to grow batches of that plant yourself, you can care for your society and know where to find more in times of need. Understanding the abundance of a plant lets you know how much to take so the world will replenish itself. Knowing the grazing patterns and preferences of nearby animals lets you build a hunting pattern that guarantees a certain rate of success while ensuring you don't over exploit one species or herd too much in any one season. Knowing that local birds will call a certain way when a predator is nearby can inform you of your next action to take, how to protect your resources or whether you can hunt for a surplus of dried meats and additional pelts that day.
These are all more obvious things, but humans for generations built societies on traditions of understand the world around them so they could live there for a potentially indefinite amount of time. I speak of this like humanity has completely moved on from this culture, but not all of us have. The indigenous people around the world are still very much out there, still having a voice, and still maintaining the knowledge and skills we honestly need to help repair the ecosystems the modern humanity has thrown into disrepair.
It's worth bearing in mind that people who popularize a concept and the communities that practice it don't always line up. Even without a word, our ancestors and the indigenous world, at large, practiced (and still practice) this concept, and are owed much credit to the planet and resources we still have available to us today.
A Natural Progression from Literacy
One of the concepts I personally champion is that people don't know to care about something if they don't know what it is they're caring about. In a past blog, I talk at length about how learning about a topic to gain a core literacy can lead to care and advocacy. In the case of the Earth, I think it's fair to say that environmental stewardship is where people will tend to land after learning about the world around them.
Not everyone is the same, though. My volunteering path came from an internal motivation to want to be a better environmental citizen after realizing I knew next to nothing about the plants right outside my window. To others, learning about how humans have impacted the world, directly and indirectly, might encourage active participation in local community conversation and restoration.
To anyone reading this that is in that camp, I would highly recommend taking that opportunity to learn core ecological concepts. It's very easy to get a spark of encouragement from a negative feeling, and that can certainly fuel you for a while. But in the interest of being powered by a positive fuel, I've found that learning about the interconnectedness of everything has helped me understand our climate crisis all the more. It's so easy to hear about a tragic storm or melting ice caps or increased wildfires and not readily know why they're happening. Learning how the Earth works, how ecosystems depend on both their constituent parts and the surrounding environment helps understand the bigger picture.
This isn't to say that environmental injustice shouldn't be aggravating, it still very much aggravates me. I just also find that being on a pursuit of knowledge and understanding how the Earth works helps me put things in perspective such that I not just supporting a cause, but I can put knowledge to practice and enthusiastically advocate for environmental change beyond the initial anger.
So wherever you may be on your journey to understand the world around you, if you do choose to build that understanding, maybe looking into environmental stewardship. There's nothing quite like taking the knowledge you have and making an informed and positive impact in communities local to you. And the more people we have with experience applying this knowledge, the more we can become an actively participatory humanity in the world around us.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Defining modern environmental stewardship
Bennett, N.J., Whitty, T.S., Finkbeiner, E. et al. Environmental Stewardship: A Conceptual Review and Analytical Framework. Environmental Management 61, 597–614 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-017-0993-2
Indigenous Knowledge Reference
NOTE: The reference list above was used as a starting point for finding out about traditional knowledge around the environment. The reference also lists good rules of thumb for interacting with indigenous tribes in a way that embraces this knowledge without exploiting the openness of these people. Thumbs up for that :)
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.