By Kenneth Nivison
Note: Appeared in The Morning Call on Tuesday, October 3, 2006.
Last month, my wife and I spent some time at the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy & Sustainable Living Festival in Kempton. Festival- goers were treated to a broad range of information sessions and workshops, from no-till gardening and solar power to bio-diesel and wind turbines. An air of the possible permeated the event; fellow citizens working one by one to find positive and healthy solutions to some of humanity's most daunting problems. While words like "renewability" and "sustainability" were the theme, I left Kempton with another word in my head: stewardship.
In its most basic sense, stewardship means the care of one's community. As a social concept, stewardship has been around for some time in a number of different forms. Athenians of Socrates' day, for example, embraced a progressive tax system based on the belief that their society was only as strong as its weakest members. Wealthier, more god-blessed Athenians had a moral duty to care for all; to reject this responsibility meant to threaten the future of their city-state. I doubt that anyone in classical Athens ever asked the question, so ubiquitous in our own society, "Why should I care?"
Other societies also embraced stewardship in myriad ways. The republic of Rome and the first peoples in the Western Hemisphere are among perhaps thousands of societies that placed the good of the many ahead of the good of the few or the one. Moreover, stewardship has not been the exclusive property of the civic realm; it has also been woven into the ethic of every religious tradition. Just as the embrace of stewardship has enabled many societies to grow in strength and renown, many have also fallen -- or more accurately, imploded -- because they allowed that sense of communal obligation to lapse. Nothing breeds pride like success; nothing breeds self- centered thinking like pride.
I make these observations because I believe our society is in a historically precarious situation. We are living in dangerous dis- equilibrium with our neighbors, our planet and even ourselves. Restoring that equilibrium means committing ourselves to a new covenant of stewardship, embracing the responsibility to give more than we take.
While this new stewardship is more a philosophy than a particular issue, we can see some potential practical manifestations of it. Even the smallest actions can have an enormous effect in restoring balance in the environment. Since Americans produce half of the world's garbage, recycling and reusing can have a significant impact. More thoughtful purchases and energy use can also reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. As the world leader in CO2 emissions, we should pressure President Bush and Congress to join 160 other nations and sign the Kyoto Protocol.
President Bush's assertion that America is addicted to foreign oil has it wrong. Americans are not addicted to oil; we are addicted to the individualistic lifestyle that oil enables. Only a frank conversation, followed by concrete action, can truly change that dynamic.
We can also demand a fairer economic policy. In a triumph of the individual over community, Congress and the Bush administration passed a sweeping tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. This policy helped turn a surplus into a deficit. Current economic policy has helped to create the greatest gap between the wealthy few and the many poor in American history. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens -- we're all equal, remember -- suffer incalculable pain as a result, a reality Hurricane Katrina laid bare.
Similarly, we can demand action when we see genocide. The lessons of Rwanda are currently being ignored in Sudan.
As Americans wander the political landscape this fall agonizing over the state of the union, we would be wise to find a way to recommit ourselves, each of us, to a sense of shared responsibility, and to demand this of our political leaders. Candidates will try to convince us that they have the best plan to capture terrorists or fix the health-care system. But addressing these problems individually is to attack the symptom while the disease continues unabated. Until we recommit ourselves to each other -- until we choose a consistent ethic of stewardship over the tired cynicism of division -- what ails us will continue.
Kenneth Nivison, Ph.D., is assistant professor of humanities at DeSales University in Center Valley.
Press Release: Ethic of Stewardship would improve energy policy By Kenneth Nivison | Posted on: 10/8/2006
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