One of the Eucharistic prayers in the Episcopal Church acknowledges that, at God’s command, all things came into being, including “this fragile earth, our island home.” When I think of an island home, what comes to mind is a beautiful tropical island nurtured by a sea abundant in life. Perhaps some other vision comes to your mind, and I’ll bet that whatever it is, it is a place surrounded by other life.
The fragile earth, our island home, is not like that. The small portion of the universe in which we travel is not surrounded by life. We are alone. To be sure, we are suspended in that magical zone just so far from the sun about which we orbit that we are neither burned to a cinder nor frozen out of existence. Life here, human life, is possible even if it is not possible anywhere else in our neighborhood.
This fragile earth, our island home, is a living breathing space ship capable of sustaining itself along with the flora and fauna it supports. It renews itself through climactic cycles of warm and cold, the shifting of its outer skin, and the sometimes violent respiration of wind and weather. All living things on its surface and under its water both depend on it and affect it by the mere fact of their existence. The displacement of a single plant or animal makes a difference in the ebb and flow of all life, including the life of the planet itself. The life and death cycle of nature is an essential part of what is needed for the planet to sustain life, generation to generation. But among all that life, we alone, we human beings, are the only ones who can deliberately affect the life cycles of this fragile earth, our island home, by the decisions we make and the actions we take, and therein lies the problem.
We cannot help but be significant among the causes affecting the cycles of earth’s life through the decisions that we deliberately make. The wolf and the deer may also affect the cycles of earth’s life, but they cannot do so through deliberate decision making. We can and do. For many thousands of years our use and abuse of the earth had no significant impact on climactic change because there were not enough of us, and we did not have the technology needed to create significant impact. Just the same, we were instructed to care for the land, giving it its much needed periodic sabbath rest.
Times have changed. Our numbers have exploded. The Industrial Revolution began a time of rapid change in the technology human beings have available to manipulate their environment in untold ways. What followed has resulted in better health, longer lives, improved nutrition, higher standards of living, and the abundance of conveniences without number. All of that also brought with it an ever increasing impact on the environment itself; some good, some bad, and most an unanticipated mix of each.
I am very much aware that there are many who steadfastly refuse to believe that we are the cause of climate change, or even contribute to it. It doesn’t matter that thousands of scientists working over half a century say otherwise. They are simply dismissed with a “You have your opinion and I have mine” shake of the head while pointing to the normal cycles of earthly change as evidence that whatever is happening is no fault of ours.
Given that reality, I wonder if we might approach the issue from another direction: stewardship, holy stewardship. Made in the image of God, given dominion over the earth, commanded to care for the land, and instructed by Christ to tend his sheep, we under a holy obligation to use what is available to us in obedience to God, with respect for those who came before, in deference to those who will come after, and with due regard for all other life with whom we share this fragile earth, most especially because they cannot make decisions about how to use it, and we can.
Many of us have seen the television shows about hoarders, about how the abuse of their immediate environment has horrible consequences affecting not just them, but everyone around them as well. Each of us knows someone who so abuses the things they own that we wonder at their lack of respect for themselves, their belongings, and others. We see plainly what poor stewardship means in particular instances. Why then is it so difficult to see what poor stewardship of this fragile earth, our island home, means? Forget about climate change. Don’t worry about global warming. Ignore the spotted owl. Pay attention to the simple act of holy stewardship of God’s creation, and our responsibility to do our best to pass on to future generations a fragile earth that we have not corrupted by our greed, selfishness, and failure to be good stewards.