From tourists to stewards of nature - RSA

From tourists to stewards of nature

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  • Picture of Edmund Barrow FRSA
    Edmund Barrow FRSA
    Community Conservation, local governance of nature, ecosystem risk assessment & restoration
  • Climate change
  • Environment
  • Philosophy
  • Spirituality

We depend on and are part of nature. Our life-giving water, the air we breathe is cleansed and revitalised, the food we eat comes from a living soil. Many of our health cures have origins in nature and our education and spiritual sustenance requires exposure to nature. Edmund Barrow FRSA argues our current economic and development paradigms fail to recognise this which requires a shift from being ‘tourists’ to pilgrims when it comes to our place on Earth.

We take nature for granted; we clear forests and catchments, pollute our waters and separate ourselves from our natural world. Economics discount nature to the future as an externality, yet economic growth in a finite world is an oxymoron. As a Cree Native American prophecy says: “Only when the last tree has been cut down. Only when the last river has been poisoned. Only when the last fish has been caught. Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten”. Let us hope the Covid-19 pandemic teaches us lessons about how we should treat and value nature.

Our business model is profit and growth irrespective of the effects on nature. The economy is a subsidiary of ecology but nations operate as if it were the other way around. Yet now we see impacts everywhere: climate change, pandemics, massive soil losses, plastic and pesticide pollution. We need to transform the way we look at our natural world and be more observant and understanding; coming out of Covid-19 lockdowns offer us just that.

We all talk about the environmental crisis, which is our doing. At present human consumption causes the loss of about 13 million hectares of forest per annum. Such mismanagement and destruction lowers the overall quality of life, destabilises the physical environment (soil erosion and pollution), and speeds up the spread of infectious diseases (including Ebola and Covid-19).

We see ourselves as external to nature and free to manipulate and control her constituent parts. This illusion ignores our dependence on nature. If we could rediscover our sense of being a part of nature, we would be less likely to see the world as a gigantic production system. Pope Francis paints a clear picture: “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more like an immense pile of filth”. Earth is not only for our benefit. We are one of many species on Earth and have no special rights.

Most economists regard natural assets as factors of production. As Thomas Berry, the American cultural historian puts it: “We have turned nature from a community of subjects to a collection of objects”. Still, short-term economics rule with unprecedented technology at its disposal. We cannot simplify nature and expect it to carry on the way it did.

Stewardship brings spirituality, religion, conservation and biodiversity together for common cause. But other sectors benefit as well. For example, being part of education and awareness, peace and non-violence, landscape and land use management are all integral to stewardship. Stewardship is to hold something in trust for another and combines managing nature sustainably with the understanding these resources are more than their use and economic values. Integrated landscape and organic approaches are based on this premise. Localism and stewardship can help solve problems of the networked character of the twenty-first century: more local community action and inter-disciplinarity, less central and siloed approaches. More local and less national or international economics.

Achieving sustainable development will succeed if the social, economic, and environmental pillars are addressed and recognise the environmental pillar as the foundation. Stewardship relies more on the links between the social and environmental pillars than on economics, but it allows us to connect all three pillars. The economist Herman Daly points out: “sustainable development will require a change of heart, renewal of the mind and a healthy dose of repentance. These are all religious terms and that is no coincidence because a change in the fundamental principle in which we live is a change so deep that it is essentially religious whether we call this or not”. For this to happen, three values emerge. First the importance of quality of life not more possessions, Second, a shared humanity emphasising fairness and dignity and, third, environmental sustainability for a flourishing natural world.

Satish Kumar (founder of Schumacher College and the Resurgence Trust) shows how we can relate to planet Earth as tourists or pilgrims. As tourists, Earth is a source of goods to use, enjoy and dominate. As pilgrims, we treat our planet with reverence and gratitude, as sacred and recognise the intrinsic value of life. Pilgrims are more likely to be good stewards than tourists. While humankind may think we are the top of the pyramid, we have to be careful stewards, not thoughtless exploiters, converters and degraders.

Rachel Carson’s inspirational book Silent Spring, which did much to launch the environmental movement is an indictment of our perception of our place in the larger scheme of things. Carson concluded: “The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when nature was supposed to exist for the convenience of man”. Her critique calls us to rethink our attitudes concerning our place in the larger scheme of things.

We need to set our loss of connectivity with nature in the context of contemporary challenges. One term for this is Nature Deficit Disorder coined by the American author Richard Louv. Lack of nature exposure may cause or exacerbate disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder, stress, a lack of peace and increased violence. For example, many children are not exposed to nature as they want to stay indoors with their electronic devices. Urbanisation exacerbates this and 54% of humanity is urban. The restorative natural environments are opportunities to receive nature’s benefits in physical, mental and spiritual terms.

We need to re-localise economics and think about what we purchase, what we do, and how it is produced. Domestic and local is more important than global and national. Our growth-based economics is in conflict with the planet’s atmospheric limits. Because of our inaction on climate change, due to political apathy and weak climate policy, we face changes that challenge the foundations of the expansionist logic at the heart of our economic systems. Nature and its custodians can be part of the movement to unblock the legacy of market fundamentalism, the cultural narratives on which this is based, and enable Earth-saving climate action.

The world does not belong to us, we belong to the world. To be responsible stewards, we must transcend our differences, whether within, or between different religious groups, or between religion and conservation, or between conservation and development.


Edmund has worked in a range of countries for nearly 50 years on community-based natural resource management emphasising decentralised governance and respect for local and indigenous knowledge and institutions. He pioneered village-level environmental and land use planning at local and landscape levels and forest landscape. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya and is author of the book Our Future in Nature: Trees Spirituality and Ecology.

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  • Edmund, you put your ideas over in such  knowledgeable terms what I advocate all my life - communities, effects of our own destructive behaviour that threatens the who eco systems that have flourished for millennia until we turned us. I say no pockets in  a shroud leave your legacy not in coins but the good you do..Your quote I shall use now   honouredindividualsthroughgeneticeffectsdeficienciesphosphatesmangroves