Fruitful Dominion: A new environmental ethic?

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
                    – Genesis 1:28 (NKJV)


When it comes to mankind’s relationship to nature, the idea of “dominion,” as expressed in the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, is for some people one of the most objectionable concepts imaginable.  For them, human dominion can never mean anything more than a license to wantonly pollute and pillage the earth. 


That is why professor Lynn White, in his famous article in Science magazine in 1967, largely blamed “orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature” for our present “ecological crisis.”    That is why Woodstock-era activist Tom Hayden, in his 1996 book The Lost Gospel of the Earth, maintained that the anthropocentric values of the traditional Judeo-Christian model must be rejected, and replaced with a rediscovery of pagan animism that properly values and extols the needs of nature on an equal footing with those of people. 


And that is why practically the entire contemporary environmental movement, from “conservation biologists” to many promoters of “sustainable development,” believe that the best thing people can do for nature is to leave it alone, and therefore the fewer people on earth needing food, clothing, houses, energy and water, the better.


Now to be fair, this perspective is somewhat understandable given that in past centuries, the idea of subduing the earth and having dominion over it meant hand-to-hand combat in a struggle to eke out a bare existence, and survive against the plagues, pests and back-breaking labor of a harsh and unforgiving natural world.   The serfs of Europe, the tribesmen of Brazil and the pioneers of America simply didn’t have the need, or the luxury, to worry about how their “footprint” might be affecting the biosystem around them.


Back then, “dominion” meant just about everything that its modern-day critics think that it means.


But today, at a time when we can probe cells down to their specific DNA, feed six billion people on land that used to feed only 400 million, fly 435 tons of steel across the sky in the form of a 747, and instantaneously Google-search more than 4 billion web pages in the blink of an eye, at least half the people on earth are no longer struggling for survival.   And those that are need not repeat the clear-cutting, strip-mining, soot-bellowing practices of former days due to the great technological advances abounding around us.


So the question, at the start of the 21st Century, is this: What principle should now guide our environmental ethic?  Can human dominion over nature ever lead to anything other than hostility, degradation, and unsustainability?  Do we need to embrace a more earth-centric view if we are to preserve anything of the beauty and health of the planet?  In sum, does Genesis chapter one still have anything to say to us in the year 2004?


Well the answer is yes, but not as it is often understood.  If by “dominion,” what is meant is something more akin to “domineer” — that is, to tyrannize, or rule over something in a harsh and arrogant way — then the time for that has passed.


If by dominion, however, we understand it more along the lines of caring and compassionate direction — of a more mature leadership that no longer needs to battle it out, hammer and tong, against the forces of nature, but can work in a cooperative way for the benefit of people and nature alike — then that is a completely different story.


Indeed, as the global community agonizes to find consensus around a guiding principle that can provide and care for growing numbers of people while at the same time preserving and enriching the natural world around us, it is precisely what could be termed “fruitful dominion” that is most needed at this time.


Yes, the Judeo-Christian ethic starts with the premise of dominion.  But the first command given in Genesis 1:28 is a command to “Be fruitful.”  And while in its context this refers to physical reproduction, there is a fuller sense of fruitfulness that likely captures the entire essence of what this kind of dominion is all about.


Productivity.  Prosperity.  Prolificacy.  Not just for people, but for all of the earth.   These are just a few of the beneficent ideals wrapped up in the notion of fruitfulness.   They will only be achieved, however, if we recognize and embrace the lofty position and responsibility of each and every person on the planet.


This was quite well expressed in the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, an ethical statement of belief put forth, with CFACT’s active participation, by an interfaith council of clergy and theologians not long ago.


In recognizing that “the moral necessity of ecological stewardship has become increasingly clear,” Cornwall seeks to clear up three common misunderstandings that can impede a sound environmental ethic.


First, the document notes that “many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumer and polluters rather than producers and stewards.”  This is important because a right understanding allows “growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital” to improve the condition of all living things.


Second, Cornwall addresses the misconception that “nature knows best,” or that “the earth, untouched by human hands is the ideal.”  Here the writers point out that humanity alone is capable of developing resources and strategies that can “unlock the potential…for all the earth’s inhabitants,” and therefore embrace beneficial human management of the earth.


Finally, the declaration declares out that while “some environmental concerns are well founded and serious, others are without foundation or greatly exaggerated.”  This is of particular concern in developing nations, where basic issues like “inadequate sanitation, widespread use of primitive biomass fuels like wood and dung, and primitive agricultural, industrial, and commercial practices” go largely unaddressed while more distant and theoretical issues receive the lion’s share of funding and attention.


This third issue is particularly troublesome, not only because efforts to combat exaggerated risks can exacerbate problems of poverty among those who can afford it the least, but also because it dangerously delays improvements in the environmental impact of developing nations which are forced to slog away at nature, much like our ancestors did centuries ago.


In the end, an earth-centric perspective on environment and development will benefit neither people, nor nature.  However, a principle of “fruitful dominion” will yield a great harvest for all living things.

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