Academic journal article Environmental Values

Environmental Stewardship, Moral Psychology and Gardens

Academic journal article Environmental Values

Environmental Stewardship, Moral Psychology and Gardens

Article excerpt


Vast and pervasive environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss call every individual to active stewardship. Their magnitude and causal and strategic structures, however, pose powerful challenges to our moral psychology. Stewardship may feel overburdening, and appear hopeless. This may lead to widespread moral and political disengagement. This article proposes a resolve to garden practices as a way out of that danger, and describes the ways in which it will motivate individuals to so act as to coordinate on behavioural patterns that will significantly alleviate grave, but seemingly distant and intractable environmental quandaries.


Moral psychology, environmental stewardship, gardens, resolve, virtue theory, coordination


Environmental ethicists have often been critical of stewardship--understood as a normative directive--on grounds of the anthropocentrism that seems to animate it (see, among others, Routley and Routley, 1980; Callicott, 1999; and essays in Berry, 2006). They have also largely neglected the topic of gardens, and the practice of gardening, for much the same reason (but see Cooper, 2006; also Parsons, 2008). The moral demands generated by climate change, for their part, concerning as they do the wellbeing of spatiotemporally distant people, have often been said to be uncongenial to our moral psychology (see Jamieson, 2006 and forthcoming; Gardiner, 2006; Sunstein, 2007). In this article, I want to defend environmental stewardship (ES), enumerate the challenges that climate change (CC) poses to our moral psychology, and propose that working in gardens can be an appropriate way to meet these challenges, and therefore an important dimension of ES.


A human-friendly climate is an environmental resource common to all human beings. (1) Today, this resource has become fragile, and requires protection. Its being common implies that providing such protection is, at least in principle, a task for us all. ES gestures precisely at such engaged effort, required of each of us, to act so as to protect common natural resources for the sake of other people, near and far, present and future. The spatiotemporally unbound scope of stewardship is easily justified if equal moral worth, and thus consideration, is accorded to everyone's wellbeing. (2)

ES can be defined as a role of guardianship characterised by self-restraint and the exercise of a variety of moral and intellectual virtues (like loyalty and prudence). This role is to be performed by every human being who is or will ever inhabit the earth; its object is understood to be nature. (3) Traditionally, ES has not fired the enthusiasm of environmental ethicists. Objectors have contested the attitude that animates it, accused of being unacceptably anthropocentric and inescapably instrumentalist: to a steward, it is alleged, nature is ultimately human property to be used for human benefit, and 'guardianship' but a sweet word for 'management'. Moreover, the idea of humans 'managing' the complexity, magnitudes and evolution of natural systems appears at any rate preposterous, and attempting to do so is thus irrational. Such management being impossible, it cannot be construed as a moral obligation. (4) I will first comment on these two last points, and then say something about stewardship's anthropocentrism.

I propose to look at ES not as the management of nature but, rather, of humanity. By humanity I mean the human species, with all its needs and aspirations, as these have evolved up to today and as they are exemplified, in different ways and combinations, in and by each and every human specimen. (5) Ensuring satisfaction of those needs (e.g. food, water, breathable air), and the opportunity of pursuing those aspirations (e.g. the appreciation of beauty, the pursuit of knowledge, the entertainment of valuable relations with other humans as well as non-human entities), amounts to the protection, and possibly the promotion, of human wellbeing broadly understood. …

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