The Scouring of the Shire
It is a strange mark of our times that things that should seem so obvious are so tenuous and controversial. It is a bitter burden to consider that such fundamental realities – that reasonable people might disagree on matters without vile intentions; that technology is only a tool, not an inherent good; that life in all its forms deserves to be preserved – are not self-evident. Especially in recent times, another once clear point of agreement has become muddle in conflict and disagreement: the stewardship of the earth, the care and concern of creation.
It is inhumane to desire that wanton destruction of nature; it is orcish to fell trees and uproot gardens at random, leaving them to rot or burden just to despoil the soil or scar the land. We roared with anger alongside Treebeard at the devastation outside the gates of Isengard; we clench our fists with fear along with the hobbits in the tainted lands of the Shire. Rational people do not dispute this; instead, our conflicts seems to rise around the question of balancing the needs of human communities with the needs of nature, with discerning the impact of human action on creations capacity, with recognizing the larger ramifications of the small modifications we seem to make. In this space, there is room for reasonable disagreement: on the particulars, on the protocols, on how the balance should be struck. However, as is so often the plight of our days, the discourse has been poisoned with ideology and political gamesmanship, so that one side is blind to facts, and the other has trouble with nuance.
Here is the great paradox: the science, amidst all its controversy, doesn’t fundamentally matter. Before we knew the inner workings of the cell or the immense patterns of the atmosphere, we knew our responsibility to preserving nature, allowing creation to thrive. Before we understood the impact of human industry and built climate models of varying complexity, we knew that we lived in relationship with creation, and that we poisoned it at our own peril. At its best, new scientific discoveries, new environmental revelations should galvanize us, helping us to put things in perspective and discover new ways to live in tandem with the world around us; at its worst, it should not retard. For the care and concern for all creation stands as a value that dates back to ancient days, enshrined in religious texts and moral codes. We, like the hobbits, shouldn’t need complex studies or detailed reports to convince us that all creation is beautiful, and that we have a responsibility to steward it.
Somewhere along the way we lost that understanding. Then environmental evangelists, concerned by how industrialization, urbanism, and de-localization had obscured this perspective, sought to revive the spirit within us. With rational thought, scientific study, and emotional pleas they made the case for a new investment in the created world.
Alas that the results have been mixed at best, and arguments that should not have needed to be argued have been so. Perhaps, therefore, what is needed is a return to basics, the first principles of stewardship. For the hobbits saved the Shire because it is their home, not because someone told them it was worth saving. If we bring the nature back to the people – connecting them once again to it in their communities, in their work, in their daily lives – then perhaps no complex facts will be needed to convince us to fulfill our stewardship. For from the Garden of Eden to Pope Francis has the message been clear: the care and concern for creation is a moral imperative, not because nature is inherently good, but because it reflects the goodness of the creating God.