The call to be protectors of the land and the creatures of the earth is integral and all-embracing, as we are called to serve as stewards of the earth. As Christians, we are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person. These concepts are reciprocal and together they make for authentic and sustainable human development. Dominion over the earth can only be exercised in communion with God, among men, with all living beings, and with the whole of creation.
The 2014 pastoral letter of the Irish Bishops echoes this point: “Our earth is complex, its systems of life are interdependent and finely balanced. Small changes in one part of the planet’s rhythms and systems can have significant, if not dramatic consequences for the whole of the earth and its creatures.” For the natural environment to be respected, the human environment and its objective moral structure must also be respected. When we ignore or neglect one, it has a destructive impact on the other.
The very purpose of agriculture, of course, requires some degree of change to the natural ecosystem in order to produce the food, fiber, and other needs of human use and development. Industrial forms of agricultural production produce amazing yields, but at the same time compromise soil quality, lessen biodiversity, and create a concentration of by-product wastes. Small-scale farming can also damage the local environment, but the emergence of agro-ecological practices and sustainable land management technologies are exemplary remedies aimed at an improved agriculture that benefits both the land and the human family. The challenge for large-scale industrial agricultural leaders is to strike the necessary balance between sufficient yields of agricultural commodities without undermining the natural environment. To date, the negative environmental impact of such production is significant; the runoff of synthetic fertilizers and concentrated sources of livestock waste damage aquifers, rivers, lakes, and even oceans – with costly effects on drinking water quality and other water uses.
Climate changes will intensify the impacts of these ecological changes and imbalances. Many parts of the world – whether the Industrialized North or Global South – are experiencing extreme weather events, such as prolonged droughts and epic storms and floods. More insidious impacts include the drawdown of water resources and the increased presence of pests and diseases. Agricultural leaders, if they are to guide us through this coming era of environmental imbalances and climate change, will need to wisely integrate a multitude of functions that sustain soil, water, biodiversity, a wide variety of producers and ecosystems, ample nutrition for a growing world population, and food security for all.
Now is the time for concerted action. Appropriate governance structures and institutions related to the interconnected issues of food, water, energy, and climate change will be crucial for the future, and more immediately for the poor and vulnerable. In order to do so, let us identify and reflect upon the ethical principles – the values – that will lead towards fair, just, and right-minded action.
So to reflect: Do I recognize that the Lord is the primary “owner” of my land? Do my decisions reflect a commitment to contributing to a sustainable ecological balance for generations to come?
[Continue to next section: JUDGING]