Work and the Care of the Earth

Last Sunday I used the example of homesteading in the settlement of the American west to illustrate how land is appropriated to families through use and development, which involves work. I made the further points that land is the most fundamental form of property; that private property is ordered first to the maintenance of families, but through their work becomes a benefit to the larger community. I further added that more extensive acquisition of property, in principle at least, needs to be justified somehow in relation to the family.

Nevertheless, by using the example of homesteading the question of historical injustice arose as well. After all, some people (e.g. Portland ‘protestors’) claim that the land was stolen from the Native Americans.

I would suggest that the matter really is not quite so simple. It is necessary to distinguish the fact of appropriating the land from how the Native Americans and their prior claims were treated. In this regard there is a very important fact that is rarely considered, at least not presently: the land was underused by the Native Americans; the current population in Oregon, even east of the Cascades, away from the big cities, shows this.

The whole tragedy of the settling of the American west involves the conflict between large populations moving into and appropriating underused land, and the small population that was already there, whose claims were neglected and who were generally treated in a despicable and unjust manner. It would seem to me that the common destination of the goods of the earth was what justified the settling of the land by the ‘white man’. That was not, in principle wrong. What was wrong was the way the Native Americans were treated in the process.

Of course, that raises another question: the more extreme environmentalist will deny that the land was underused by the Indians. Rather, they will condemn the ‘white man’ not only for his unjust treatment of the Indians, but also for plundering and ruining the land. This leads to the question of work and the environment.

The more extreme environmentalists actually are very anti-human as they see man not as part of the created universe, but as an alien being upon the planet earth, even worse a predatory being at that. I came across this on the Internet: “Coronavirus is the earth’s vaccine; we’re the virus.”

This is a far cry from the vision given us by Genesis in which man is commanded to fill the earth and subdue it. Of course, many environmentalists blame Christians because of the ‘subdue it’, holding that the destruction of the environment in the industrial age is the fruit of a Christian drive to dominate the earth.

The exploitive character of the industrial revolution, however, came rather from the rejection of faith in Christ. As I explained a few weeks ago the dominion God gave man over the earth was not a dominion to use and abuse, but rather to ‘cultivate and care’ for the earth.

I wrote: “The earth is not perfect in its ‘wild’ state, coming forth from the hand of the Creator, because the Creator did not make the earth to be perfect without man. The earth needs man to bring it to perfection through ‘cultivation and care’. In some way, the perfect earth will be the ‘domesticated’ earth. Or the perfection will consist in wild part being ordered to the domesticated part, so that the whole receives its perfection through the part that is domesticated.”

So, properly, man is part of the natural world, not a predator upon nature.

Of course, because of sin the dominion of man over the earth has often become abusive; the industrial revolution in particular let loose a particular culture of exploitation. Just as the problem was not the westward movement of the white man, but his exploitation of the Indian, the problem was not the growth of industry as such, but the spirit of domination and conquest that has driven it.

Human history is a patchwork of good and evil; at every level the ‘wheat and weeds’ to which Jesus referred in the parable are present. (cf. Mt 13:24-30; 36-41) All forms of modern utopianism simplify the matter by making facile arguments to put all the justice on one side and all the injustice on the other. Rather than recognizing the good in the inheritance received and trying to move forward from there in a good direction, wheat and weeds are pulled up together.

Still, the industrial revolution has changed the way man relates to the environment by means of his work, tending to make it more a relation of exploitation, rather than of cultivation and care. More needs to be said on this subject.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.