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The stewardship ethic: A feasible solution for ecological crises
Apr 1, 1993

The reason that new and modified legislation to protect the environment fails to deal with the increasing number of global environmental crises is that legislation alone cannot address the root of what is wrong. The real solution lies in the development of an ethic, of a body of norms and attitudes, which is protective to the environment and seeks to husband and enhance, rather than exploit and exhaust, the world's resources. Such an ethic in which human beings see themselves as stewards or caretakers of the environment has been, historically, best stated and developed, in the civilization of Islam.


Around the middle of this century, influential voices in the West began to say that unlimited exploitation of natural resources could not continue much longer. They questioned the viability of the prevailing ethic based on laissez faire capitalism and unlimited economic growth at the expense of others and of the environment. The main outcome of such Western self-criticism has been the emergence, since the 1950s, of two broad schools of thought.1 The first arose out of efforts to re-examine and re-present the stewardship ethic of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The second, ironically enough, grew as a critique of that same Judaeo-Christian tradition, accusing it of being the cause of the problem. This second school of thought is generally known as the 'deep ecology' school:

The 'deep ecology' approach

Here the inspiration is from Hindu and Buddhist religious philosophy which contains the oldest known ecological teachings.2 The Hindu-Buddhist world-view regards all creatures, including the non-human (perhaps also the inanimate), as holy, as possessed of intrinsic value, and therefore to be respected. This view is based on the idea that the soul leaves the body after death only to move into another, different body, the cycle of transmigration continuing from every level of existence to every other, possibly including inert existents like stones, minerals, etc. Because a human being's soul might be embodied in, for example, a plant or animal, every element of the global ecosystem is respected as sacred. Respect for the ecosystem must be independent of any utilitarian value human beings may derive from the non-human species. In sum, 'deep ecologists' reject the attitude that values ecosystems only to the extent that they contribute to human survival or human quality of life. Humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of the environment except to satisfy basic needs.3 The most well-known advocate of this school is Aldo Leopold who maintains that 'a thing is right when it tends to preserve the stability and integrity of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.’4

This non-Western attitude has achieved a widespread following among Western environmentalists since the 1950s. They reject the Judaeo-Christian ethic which, as they believe, is centred on human domination of the non-human and so promotes an uncaring, rapacious attitude.5 Lynn White, a famous historian of technology, was the first to voice this critique.6 Hooker, commenting on the passage in Genesis ch. 1, felt that the Bible urged an imperialist attitude to nature.7 The Bible there orders man, created in God's image, to go forth and multiply, and to subdue the earth. In so doing, it appears to encourage a despotic human rule over the 'lower orders' of creation. Passmore says that the despotic elements in the Christian concept became more intense in the 17th century, around the time of Descartes.8

While we do not support the Christian view, we must protest that it is a historical misunderstanding to claim that Western European attitudes and actions have been securely based on Christianity. As Murphy rightly says, Western materialism has always disguised in the name of Jesus, the Evangelism of conquistadors and missionaries and the acquisitive Calvinism of the merchant burghers.9

It is not God's will that mankind should use up natural resources in a self-centred, exploitative manner.10 Western writers themselves have realized this: ‘The phrase “conquest of nature” is certainly one of the most objectionable and misleading expressions of Western languages. It reflects the illusion that all natural forces can be entirely controlled, and it expresses the criminal conceit that nature is to be considered primarily as a source of raw materials and energy for human purposes.’11

Whether ‘conquest of nature’ is inspired by Christianity is doubtful. It is certainly the case, however, that (whatever Christianity's influence) international law shows no awareness of ecological considerations in the exploration and exploitation of the world's natural resources.12 The cardinal principles of international law such as freedom of exploitation of international spaces or permanent sovereignty over natural resources have been ‘primarily based upon the concept of successful sharing rather than conservation itself.’13

The stewardship ethic

It was inevitable, given the self-assertiveness of Western culture, that Christians, as a part of that culture, should search for a Christian teaching that did not propose ‘conquest of nature’. In the last twenty years or so, a new ethic has been outlined on the basis of the Protestant Doctrine of ‘good stewardship’. An advocate of this approach, Kevin Kelly, writes:

It has been fashionable to blame our Judaeo-Christian ancestry for our woeful behaviour toward Gaia. Outrageous figures like James Watt convinced most people that good Christians believed that they were obliged to loot the Earth. All the while a congregation of believing environmentalists has been steering toward an ethic of ecology based on the Bible-the key word is ‘stewardship’... Their directive is the Eleventh Commandment: ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; thou shall not despoil the Earth, nor the life there-on.’14

The stewardship ethic is human-centred, erected upon human choices not choices within the domain of other species, entities or systems. This view denies the belief that human beings are simply one other species sharing the planet with the rest. But, the superiority of mankind or the Biblical call for dominion cannot be a justification for cruelty to animals or for the destruction of nature. Human beings, as the stewards of God, have responsibilities not only for the other creatures, but also for the generations to come.

In many areas of collective activity, Christians struggle to find a secure basis for a sustainable ethic which can win and hold the adherence of the mass of people. The neo-Christian stewardship ethic is but the latest example. The Islamic teachings on the issue are, by contrast, unequivocal and have the authority of tradition, of ‘custom and practice’. 

The Islamic stewardship ethic

Man, in Islam, has no dominion over the earth, but is charged, as a khalifah or steward, with the protection and preservation of the environment, and permitted the use of its natural resources without undue waste. As khalifah, he has responsibilities to creation as well privileges over it. In other words, man was not created in order to let loose a consuming, selfish destructiveness on the earth. Everything in the sky and on earth has been put at the disposal of man as a trust or amanah,15 for the use of any particle of which he is answerable to its true Owner, Allah. The human duty to protect the biosphere has been succinctly expressed in these words: God"s wisdom has ordained to grant man inheritance on earth. Therefore, in addition to being part of the earth and part of the universe, man is also the executor of God"s instructions and commands. And as such he is a mere manager of the earth and not a proprietor; a beneficiary and not a disposer or ordainer. Man has been granted inheritance to manage and utilize the earth for his benefits and for the fulfilment of his interests. He, therefore, has to keep, maintain and preserve it honestly, and has to act within the limits dictated by honesty.16 The duties and privileges of stewardship extend to all human beings as such, not to a particular nation excluding others, nor to particular classes excluding others. In other words, management of these resources must be sustainable: the resources belong to mankind as a whole, not just to the present generation. It follows that Muslims should not regard use of any resource as a right of full possession which would legitimize the individual exhausting that resource.17 Man is, so to speak, a tenant, not a proprietor - and even as tenant, Islam traditionally recognizes only a right of usufruct. Man is entitled to benefit from, to produce from, the use of natural resources. But this entitlement does not, as Locke and Nozick claim,18 extend to any absolute right to dispose and use up natural resources, even if there is a legitimate "property" right as recognized in modern legal systems. Tenancy of the biosphere prohibits present generations from disregarding and threatening the interests of future generations. This is well illustrated in one of the sayings of the Prophet, upon him be peace: If the Hour is imminent and anyone of you has a palm shoot in his hand and is able to plant it before the Hour strikes, then he should do so and he will be rewarded for that action That hadith is clear evidence that a concern for future generations was on the public agenda as early as the seventh century, whereas in the Western world this concern, ushered in by John Rawls and his followers,19 is as recent as the early 1970s. That Western concern, although modern, need not be any the less serious for being so. In the 1970s it contributed significantly to the development of the public trust doctrine. This doctrine can be said to be a natural consequence of the stewardship ethic by which the present generation are regarded as trustees, charged with protecting and passing on, for the benefit of future generations, all the resources they inherited from their ancestors. The historical roots of this doctrine are claimed to date back to the Roman concept of trust.20 However, Roman law did not develop the trust concept as a tool for environmental protection. We should accept that the contemporary origin of this doctrine originates from the American Charity Trust Law.21 Since the 1970s, the public trust or charitable trust device became the most viable way of tackling global environmental problems.22 Today, there are numerous international environmental conventions which incorporate the doctrine.23 As for international application of the public trust doctrine, states and governmental or nongovernmental organizations act, on behalf of the international community and of future generations, as trustees for those natural and cultural re-sources within their effective jurisdiction. And they are morally and legally responsible to the rest of mankind for the trust they hold. It is a pity that the Western advocates of this doctrine have not had access to the vast archives of Ottoman vaqf (Trust) Law.24 If they had had access, they would have realized that the first historical precedents for charitable trusts for precisely this purpose, date back to the era of the Prophet, upon him be peace. He was the first to donate two date-yards as a charitable trust specifically for the benefit of succeeding generations. This tradition later found its mature and magnificent form in the Ottoman vaqfs which included trusts set up to protect local birds and to facilitate the settlement and migration of storks. Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the historic Ottoman vaqfs 25 situated in modern Turkey are not as effective as they used to be, and cannot therefore be demonstrated as precedents. Nevertheless, it would be of great value to do serious research on Islamic vaqfs related to environmental purposes, in order to develop practical legal models to deal with this problem in the future.

Notes and References

1. There have, of course, been several different schools of concern about this issue-for example, the North American Indian trend represented by Chief Seattle, or the "ecofeminists". See, in general, DIAMOND, E. AND ORENSTEIN, G. (eds) Reviewing the World: the Emergence of Ecofeminism, 1990.

2. See in general, NAESSA, A. "The shallow and the deep. Long range ecology movement: a summary", Inquiry, (1973) 16, p.95.

3. For more detail see DALY, E. and COBB, B., For the Common Good, Green Print, London, 1989, ch.20, pp.376-400, p. 377.

4. In 1949 Aldo Leopold wrote a slender volume, A Sand Country Almanac and Scythes Here and There. The quotation is the core message of his ethical understanding.

5. HOOKER, C. A., "Responsibility, Ethics and Nature" in The Environment in Question, pp.147-164, 151.

6. See WHITE, L., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis", originally published in Science, March 1967, but reprinted many times throughout the 1970s, e.g. BELL, G. (ed.) Environmental Handbook, Ballantine Books Inc., 1970, p.14.

7. HOOKER, p.151.

8. PASSMORE, J., Man's Responsibility for Nature, 1974, p. 114.

9. MURPHY, E. E, "The Diminishing World of Western Law", 1981, 16/1, Texas International Law Journal, pp.1-10, p.2.

10. WHITE, ibid.

11. DUBES, R., A God Within; quotation was taken from PORRIT, J., "A New International Order: One World and Beyond" in Save the Planet, 1991, p.41.

12. KU, C., "The Concept of Res Communis in International Law", 1990, 12/4 History of European Ideas, pp.459-77, p.459.

13. BROWNLIE, I., "A Survey of International Customary Rules of Environmental Protection" in TECLAFF, I. & UTTON, A., (eds) International Environmental Law, pp.1-12, p.1.

14. Quoted in REINHART, P., "The Eleventh Commandment", 1986, 50 Whole Earth Review, pp.83-4, p.83.

15. See HAMID, A., Islam: the Natural Way, MELS Publication, London, 1989, 22, pp.160-2.

16. IUCN, "Islamic Principles for the Conservation of the Natural Environment", 1983, 11 Environmental Policy and Law, pp.83-6, p.83.

17. ibid.

18. See Liberal Locke and Nozick's entitlements theories of justice over natural resources and their consequences in LOCKE, Two Treaties on Civil Government, Cambridge University Press, 1960 (Second Treatise) and NOZICK, R., Anarchy, State and Utopia, Blackwell, Oxford, 1974, pp.174-5.

19. See Rawls" "The just saving and different principles" in RAWLS, j., A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971. 20. The progenitor of this school is Joseph Sax, a jurist: SAX, J., "The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Interventio", 1970, 68, Michigan Law Review, pp.470-565.

21. See SAX, ibid.

22. See for more information NANDA, V. and KIS, W. K., "The Public Trust Doctrine: A Viable Approach to International Environmental Protectio", 1976, 5 Ecology Law Quarterly, pp.291-320; also WEISS, E. B., In Fairness to Future Generations: Common Patrimony, International Law, Inter-generational Equity, 1989, University of United Nations, Tokyo.

23. See NANDA and KIS, ibid.

24. See for more information YEDIYILDIZ, B., Institution du vaqf au XVIIeme siedle en Turquie". Etude socio-historique, Minist. de la Culture, Ankara, 1990.

25. The establishment of institutionalized vaqfs took place at the time of Sulaiman the Magniflicent, in the 15th century. The vaqf institution lost its historic meaning when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century. See AKGUNDUZ, A, Belgeler Gercekleri Konusuyor (2), Nil Nesriyat, Izmir-Turkey, 1990, pp.107-10.