Thursday, April 14, 2005

Stewardship: For Other People's Grandchildren

Here's another virtue for our time: stewardship. The word in its plainest sense means taking good care of things that have been loaned to us, such as when we borrow a friend's car, or care for a hotel room or an apartment as if we owned it rather than rented it. As a virtue, it means the recognition that life does not begin and end with each of us, and that the resources that enable and enrich our lives came to us from those before us and will be left by us to those after us.

The word has long been used in some religious traditions, by people who believe that all resources in this world ultimately come from God, and that they may be entrusted to us by Him during our temporary stay in this world. For that reason, some people believe it is important to take good care of the Creation we have been entrusted with. This can get complicated for those whose religious convictions include the belief that "the end is at hand", since such people might understandably lose their incentive for a long-term view of resource conservation. But to remain truly virtuous, those people must tend to their souls as if the end is near, at the same time tending to the world as if the end is not near. The former entails the latter, for to do otherwise -- "the end is near, so buy the Hummer and don't worry about the future" -- is just plain greedy and selfish. And greedy and selfish is not a good state of soul to be caught in when the trumpets blow.

For those not of such a religious mind, there are good secular reasons for stewardship. From a Kantian morality (more or less the "golden rule", to treat others as you would have all others treat you) or a utilitarian perspective (maximizing happiness), stewardship is the logical consequence of taking future generations into consideration. For Kantians, we must refrain from guzzling all the fossil fuels and leaving none for our great-grandchildren, just as we are grateful that our predecessors left some for us. For utilitarians, the total happiness calculations come out negative if the marginal happiness increase for the current generation in polluting, overfishing, and destroying the ozone layer is overwhelmed by endless future generations full of cancer and diminished food supply.

Some such as Andrew Sullivan have recently noted with interest a convergence of "hippies, hawks, and theocons" around environmental issues (and in particular, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuel), a rallying together of religious and secular notions of stewardship. Stewardship is much associated with environmental and energy issues, but it relates to other issues as well. Fixing Social Security many years before the ship hits the iceberg, and fixing it in such a way that is fair to our grandchildren, is a matter of stewardship. For those who are parents, our children provide a natural call to stewardship. For the rest of us, stewardship is a noble call to think beyond ourselves, to leave the world better than we found it, for the sake of other people's grandchildren.

No comments: