Economics and ecology share the same root, derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning “home.” If words meant only what their roots imply, ecology would be the study of our home, economics the management of our home, or the principles (nomoi) that make it habitable. Yet we often think of ecology as having to do solely with “nature” or the “environment,” a realm “out there” from which see ourselves as separate–except perhaps when we intrude and disturb the supposed “balance of nature.” Economics, meanwhile, we imagine as restricted to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, with the wider oikos in which such activities take place, and from which we derive our life, reduced to a storehouse of potentially scarce but infinitely-replaceable resources that require only ingenuity and efficiency to serve the boundless needs and desires of humankind.
Ecology, on this understanding, risks treating us as aliens in our own home; economics risks narrowing our focus to such an extent that we become insensible of our home and the creatures with which we share it. Yet we will not learn to be good “stewards” (oikonomoi) or care well for the earth until we learn to see all of our “economic” activity as belonging to and dependent on the wider community of creation of which we are all a part (what Wendell Berry called the “Great Economy”).
Is there any connection, then, between stewardship of our financial resources and stewardship of creation? Two recent books on environmental stewardship suggest that there is. The first, Stewards of the Earth (Lexham Press, 2022), is a collection of articles on creation care published over the last five decades in Christianity Today; the second is a short but already influential book by Old Testament scholar Sandra L. Richter called Stewards of Eden (IVP, 2020). Although neither book deals at length with questions of business, investing, or financial stewardship (a point to which I will return), it’s impossible to miss the fact that biblically-informed Christian reflection on our responsibilities in creation leads inevitably to a vision of God’s purposes for all of life that has particular relevance for the world of business and investing.
It’s interesting that both books refer to “stewards” in their titles, given the bad rap the term gets these days from environmentalists. Loren Wilkinson, one of the first and most important evangelical thinkers to give sustained attention to creation care (and author of the introduction to Stewards of the Earth) would later adopt the term “earth-keeping” to refer to our role as those who “work” and “keep” the earth (Gen 2:15). But in the 1980 article “Global Housekeeping: Lords or Servants?”, he explores the significance of what he calls “the fine old biblical word ‘steward’” (p. 47) when applied to our relationship with creation. As he points out, its usage in Scripture refers to the manager of a household, such as the steward (oikonomos) of Jesus’ parables who is entrusted with responsibility for the master’s servants (Luke 12:42-48) or possessions (Luke 16:1-15). The popularity of “stewardship” to describe the management of financial resources (derived in part from Luke 16) has made it easy to extend its referent to human responsibility for the earth and its creatures.
But this connection with the management of possessions is precisely what bothers some environmentalists (including me, truth be told). It can imply that the earth and its creatures are there to be owned, objects over which we have unique responsibility and control, mere resources with only instrumental value. By contrast, Scripture acknowledges that other creatures, as Richter says in her book, neither belong to us nor are disposable (p. 59). They are creatures in which God delights, as Job and Psalm 104 describe so beautifully (pp. 49-50). Other creatures are loved and cared for by God, and they have their own relationship with God. Moreover, we ourselves remain creatures who belong to the community of creation. The distinction between us and other life that the metaphor of stewardship assumes bothers those who see the profound damage that modernity has wrought on ourselves and the earth through forgetfulness of our shared and humble creatureliness. As Simone Weil put it, it’s easier for us to imagine ourselves in the place of God the Creator than in the place of Christ crucified.
But Wilkinson’s definition of stewardship (and Richter’s too) holds together what Scripture also holds together: we at once belong to the earth and yet are distinct from other creatures, called as God’s image bearers to care for creation and exercise rule under God’s dominion. Therefore, Wilkinson interprets stewardship as requiring humble acceptance of our responsibility, and he suggests some principles that apply to our care for the earth (and, I would suggest, to how we invest and run our businesses). These include reckoning with the effects that our actions have on the entire household of creation, which in turn requires paying attention to what ecological (and, we might add, climate) science tells us; recognizing that the biblical picture assumes that both the human and the nonhuman must thrive together, and that technology can play a positive role as well as a negative one in pursuing that mutual flourishing. Above all, we must always ensure that we do not put greater burdens on the future than we have inherited from the past (pp. 56-57).
One of the most compelling essays in the CT collection immediately follows Wilkinson’s and is sadly a dramatic example of the way our present actions do in fact not only burden the future but deprive those to come of the very means of life and sustenance. In this 1985 article, Paul Brand writes about how as a child in the mountains of South India he learned from farmers of the terraced slopes just how precious was soil as the sustainer of all of life. Yet based on his experience back in India since then and in the United States and across the world, he laments that greed, industrialized agriculture, broken politics, and the pursuit of short-term profit – sometimes aided and abetted by Christians – is depleting the soil, destroying the earth, and making places uninhabitable for anyone. This pioneering missionary surgeon writes, “I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge. But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?” (p. 68)
Brand’s call for restraint and care in the place of efficiency and short-term profit, along with his recognition that “soil is life,” inevitably calls to mind Wendell Berry, who has written on all of this for even more decades than the CT collection surveys. Berry is the subject of a 2006 article by Ragan Sutterfield, who notes the popularity of this farmer and writer among younger Christians in particular (something that I can attest is still the case among my Whitworth University students). They are drawn to Berry’s coherent vision of responsible community life, grounded in a Christian imagination that recaptures the sacredness of creation, dismantles the dualism between spiritual and physical, and roots us in our place. Sutterfield observes that Berry is a critic of many of the assumptions that drive our current economy, which he sees as contributing to our society’s failure to care well for the earth. This failure has much to do with our willingness to overlook how people and the earth are treated by the many proxies we depend upon for everything from the production of our food to the investing of our money. (I would add that the exclusive use of money as a proxy for something’s value can also lead us to miss the true worth of something like a healthy ecosystem, and the true cost of its ruin.) Proxies distance us from the effects of our collective actions and lead us to see ourselves as “mere consumers – passive, uncritical, and dependent,” forgetful of our ties to “land, ecology, and the work of a particular place” (p. 188)—and therefore often concerned only about satisfying our immediate need and calculating short-term financial costs and profits. Sutterfield notes how in the 1970’s when some environmental organizations were found to hold stock in companies notorious for their ecological destruction, Berry found their actions “absurd,” but “not aberrant”; in our current economic system, such hypocrisy is normalized. To choose convenience over care even when it means the ruin of the earth is easy when we are separated from the effects of our actions.
Berry encourages us to find ways to reconnect with the earth and the soil, with the natural world to which we belong, even to grow some of our own food if we can as a part of reclaiming our creatureliness and learning again to value care over efficiency. He also encourages everyone, as Wilkinson does, to learn about the economy and about agriculture and the business practices of those who source our food and our wealth, to trace the impact, for good and for ill, that our proxies are having on people and places. For this latter task, we today are in the enviable position of benefiting from growing interest in doing precisely that. Christians can surely celebrate the growing emphasis on corporate transparency about environmental and climate impacts and risks, as well as the rising popularity of ESG and climate impact funds.
One of the last articles in the CT volume is appropriately entitled “The Joyful Environmentalists,” a delightful interview from 2011 with Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris. Harris is the founder of the international Christian conservation organization, A Rocha (which has a US branch on whose board I serve), and he claims that the “smart money” today is on “the building of a sustainable economy” (p. 246). As he says, “an economy founded on degrading the creation is theologically incoherent. The old model that you can make your money any which way and then give some of it away when you’re rich enough is lacking biblical warrant. A much better way is to make money in a way that impacts the poor and the planet beneficially.”
It’s a positive note on which to end this first part of a two-part blog. Lots of folks are recognizing that investing in environmentally sustainable ways is not only the right thing to do but is also quite possibly the more profitable thing to do. But here’s an uncomfortable question: what if it isn’t financially profitable? Should we be willing to take greater financial risks with our businesses and with our investments if they are better for the earth? Would you invest in environmentally responsible investment products if they clearly yielded much smaller returns over the long run? In the next part, I’ll look at what Sandra Richter’s book suggests the Old Testament might say about that.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.