chapter  11
11 Pages

Stewards of a full Earth

In the Anthropocene, humans have emerged as a new Earth-system force, exerting strong evolutionary selection pressure on the biosphere and significantly affecting energy and material flows at a global scale. Having developed such capacity, humans must assume moral responsibility for the consequence of their actions. To the extent that humans can understand the relationship between their behaviour and its social and environmental impacts, they must be held accountable for their actions in ways that, for example, a hurricane cannot (Palsson et al. 2013). For better or worse, humans are now ‘Earth stewards’ (Power and Chapin 2009), or literally housekeepers. The meaning of ‘steward’ holds connotations of managing an estate in trust on behalf of others – stewards do not own the estate, nor can they do with it as they will. If, in the Anthropocene, the ‘estate’ is planet Earth itself, then for humans to assume the role of steward is to assume the duties of care and maintenance for others into the future. Furthermore, Earth is now ‘full’, to use Daly’s expression (Daly 1996). In the past, environmental systems had the capacity to absorb the impacts of human activity (Chapter 8), but the global economy has now grown to the point where no such surplus exists. The Paradigm of Limitless Growth (Chapter 9) that allowed humans to ‘fill the Earth’ is unable to regulate behaviour so that all people can live equitably and sustainably. Accordingly, humans need a paradigm shift to a new way of understanding their relationship with each other and the environment – one that will allow them to conduct themselves well as stewards of a full Earth. Human ecology, as originally seen by Ellen Swallow Richards in 1892 as working towards ‘knowledge of right living’ (Clarke 1973: 120), can help establish the goals of this new paradigm. As Richards said, our ‘normal lives’ should be ‘healthy’ and ‘happy’ – to which we would add, in the language of today, ‘and sustainable’.