Land Stewardship

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Land stewardship

Little has been written explicitly on the subject of land stewardship. Much of the literature that does exist is limited to a biblical or theological treatment of stewardship. However, literature on the related ideas of sustainability and the land ethic has expanded dramatically in recent years, and these concepts are at the heart of land stewardship.

Webster's and the Oxford English Dictionary both define a "steward" as an official in charge of a household, church, estate, or governmental unit, or one who makes social arrangements for various kinds of events; a manager or administrator. Similarly, stewardship is defined as doing the job of a steward or, in ecclesiastical terms, as "the responsible use of resources," meaning especially money, time and talents, "in the service of God."

Intrinsic in those restricted definitions is the idea of responsible caretakers, of persons who take good care of the resources in their charge, including natural resources . "Caretaking" universally includes caring for the material resources on which people depend, and by extension, the land or environment from which those resources are extracted. Any concept of steward or stewardship must include the notion of ensuring the essentials of life, all of which derive from the land.

While there are few works written specifically on land stewardship, the concept is embedded implicitly and explicitly in the writings of many articulate environmentalists. For example, Wendell Berry, a poet and essayist, is one of the foremost contemporary spokespersons for stewardship of the land. In his books, Farming: A Handbook (1970), The Unsettling of America (1977), The Gift of Good Land (1981), and Home Economics (1987), Berry shares his wisdom on caring for the land and the necessity of stewardship. He finds a mandate for good stewardship in religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity: "The divine mandate to use the world justly and charitably, then, defines every person's moral predicament as that of a steward." Berry, however, does not leave stewardship to divine intervention. He describes stewardship as "hopeless and meaningless unless it involves long-term courage, perseverance, devotion, and skill" on the part of individuals, and not just farmers. He suggests that when we lost the skill to use the land properly, we lost stewardship.

However, Berry does not limit his notion of stewardship to a biblical or religious one. He lays down seven rules of land stewardshiprules of "living right." These are:

  • using the land will lead to ruin of the land unless it "is properly cared for;"
  • if people do not know the land intimately, they cannot care for it properly;
  • motivation to care for the land cannot be provided by "general principles or by incentives that are merely economic;"
  • motivation to care for the land, to live with it, stems from an interest in that land that "is direct, dependable, and permanent;"
  • motivation to care for the land stems from an expectation that people will spend their entire lives on the land, and even more so if they expect their children and grandchildren to also spend their entire lives on that same land;
  • the ability to live carefully on the land is limited; owning too much acreage, for example, decreases the quality of attention needed to care for the land;
  • a nation will destroy its land and therefore itself if it does not foster rural households and communities that maintain people on the land as outlined in the first six rules.

Stewardship implies at the very least then, an attempt to reconnect to a piece of land. Reconnecting means getting to know that land as intimately as possible. This does not necessarily imply ownership, although enlightened ownership is at the heart of land stewardship. People who own land have some control of it, and effective stewardship requires control, if only in the sense of enough power to prevent abuse. But, ownership obviously does not guarantee stewardshipgreat and widespread abuses of land are perpetrated by owners. Absentee ownership, for example, often means a lack of connection, a lack of knowledge, and a lack of caring. And public ownership too often means non-ownership, leading to the "Tragedy of the Commons." Land ownership patterns are critical to stewardship, but no one type of ownership guarantees good stewardship.

Berry argues that true land stewardship usually begins with one small piece of land, used or controlled or owned by an individual who lives on that land. Stewardship, however, extends beyond any one particular piece of land. It implies knowledge, and caring for, the entire system of which that land is a part, a knowledge of a land's context as well as its content. It also requires understanding the connections between landowners or land users and the larger communities of which they are a part. This means that stewardship depends on interconnected systems of ecology and economics, of politics and science, of sociology and planning. The web of life that exists interdependent with a piece of land mandates attention to a complex matrix of connections. Stewardship means keeping the web intact and functional, or at least doing so on enough land over a long-enough period of time to sustain the populations dependent on that land.

Berry and many other critics of contemporary land-use patterns and policies claim that little attention is being paid to maintaining the complex communities on which sustenance, human and otherwise, depends. Until holistic, ecological knowledge becomes more of a basis for economic and political decision-making, they assert, stewardship of the critical land-base will not become the norm.

See also Environmental ethics; Holistic approach; Land use; Sustainable agriculture; Sustainable biosphere; Sustainable development

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Byron, W. J. Toward Stewardship: An Interim Ethic of Poverty, Power and Pollution. New York: Paulist Press, 1975.

de Jouvenel, B. "The Stewardship of the Earth." In The Fitness of Man's Environment. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Knight, Richard L., and Peter B. Landres, eds. Stewardship Across Boundaries. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998.

Paddock, J., N. Paddock, and C. Bly. Soil and Survival: Land Stewardship and the Future of American Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986.