Environmental stewardship | not yet for everyone

Environmental stewardship sounds laudable. A steward is a person “responsible for supplies” who “supervises arrangements” and “looks after another’s property” meaning it requires personal, societal and economic responsibility to take care of the environment. 

Most people would not trash their backyard or neighborhood. It is in most of us to want a clean and pleasant place to live.

The challenge seems to be when this care of where we live is extended outwards into the general environment. We have little understanding of exactly how far our immediate environment stretches.

Let’s use an example of tonight’s dinner of Italian style chicken drumsticks baked in the oven on a bed of leeks, capsicum and olives. Yum.

  • the half dozen chickens that sacrificed their limbs would have come from an intensive agriculture operation, probably within 100km of your kitchen
  • the grain that fed the chickens came from many separate farms further afield
  • the capsicums came from the store and got there from a supplier who collected the produce from a series of farms specializing in irrigated horticulture — the leeks likewise
  • the olives came from the Greek islands

The geographic scope of this simple dish is wide. The environmental effect should also include

  • a proportion of the fuel use, infrastructure and transport pollution that was required to move the ingredients from the farms to the plate
  • the water that went onto the crops rather than elsewhere in the environment

This anecdote tells us that our environmental footprint is much larger than we usually admit and it tells us that environmental stewardship includes more than our backyard.

It also shows us that stewardship has to be a collective responsibility. If I am fortunate enough to afford the ingredients for Italian chicken and choose to cook the dish, then I must trust that the extensive supply chain that made the ingredients available to me has done the right thing.  

Except this is not quite how we have set things up.

care for the environment helps prevent the spread of weeds | lypia in grazing lands of NSW, Australia

environmental stewardship in the real world

Accepted understanding is that stewardship just happens because we have “responsible use and protection of the natural environment” somehow programmed into our psyche. We do it innately.

Except that is not what happens. The anecdote of the chicken dish shows that with environmental footprints that stretch far beyond our backyards and it is hard to understand our relationship to the land.

It is much easier to take it for granted. 

Now there are many good folk who will put in time and energy into environmental protection and restoration, pulling on gloves and pulling out weeds. Others will donate cash to support these efforts.

Then there is a small cadre of civil servants whose job it is to allocate public funds to stewardship programs from choosing the location and listing of nature reserves and national parks to the design and implementation of incentive programs for habitat protection and restoration.

In other words most of us are not involved with environmental stewardship at all. We leave it to someone else.

This is not very smart. The importance of agriculture and the potential for food insecurity should be enough not to leave the management of natural capital to chance.

farmers are often thoughtful and forthright about what needs to be done to improve the environment

› environmental stewardship

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farmers are important custodians of the environment

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