Dominion over Natural Resources as Curatorship, Custodianship or Stewardship

January 15th, 2013 5:45 pm

Alexander (Areshian-Hakopyan) Arktos


This article was developed from the presentation given at WSCF Europe theology conference in Bratislava, Slovakia in March, 2012.

And God said to them ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’

-Genesis 1: 28

His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshall Al Haji Dr. Idi Amin, … Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular     
-Paul Collier, 2007

The presented above epithets open a solid ground for discussions and debates about the nature of dominion over natural resources. How the relationship between humans and earth creates a sense of guilt or pride in humans as habitants with home address called Earth?Human’s increasing influence on this plan is undeniable. In 2008, an article in Science magazine cited a proposition by a group of geologists at International Commission on Stratigraphy to mark a new geologic epoch of Anthropocene.[1] The Encyclopedia of Earth defines Anthropocene as, the

most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. The word combines the root “anthropo”, meaning “human” with the root “-cene”, the standard suffix for “epoch” in geologic time. [2]

Thus humans have reached an unprecedented level of dominion over the Earth. This is particularly evident in such area of human activity as usage of natural resources. So with this in mind, how does consumption of an extra paper towel or an extra liter of water make us feel – guilty, concerned, indifferent or none of the above?

In exploring further these thoughts and sentiments this article will discuss three approaches to the relationship between humans and Earth: curatorship, custodianship and stewardship. Before getting further into details about these approaches a question of ownership of natural resources, in ethical and legal sense, appears in the first place. Who or what can claim ownership over natural resources?

In attempting to answer this question general definitions for ‘natural resources’ and the word ‘dominion’ have to be established. ‘Natural resources’ include minerals, such as oil, gas, coal, metals and stones as well forests and the most precious resource – water. In addition, resources such as oceans and forests include their ecosystems which consist of diverse flora and fauna. Natural resources are not made by humans. They are by made by God or by nature, depending on individual perspective. Therefore humanities claim over these resources is based on economic, political and social structures created by societies throughout history.

The word ‘dominion’ is defined as having the power to control, to rule and to govern. However like with any privilege and benefit come obligation and responsibility, associated with control and authority. These responsibilities include human dominion over the Earth. If one imagines privileges and benefits on one side of an equation, and obligations and responsibilities on the other side, only then when both sides are present in equal amounts the equation works. So when nature and humans are in balance, our environment is in homeostasis. When one part of equation is not balancing the other, then the homeostasis is broken and the equation stops functioning. As theologian and scholar Ken Gnanakan writes, “When privileges are separated from responsibility exploitation is inevitable”.[3]

Curatorship, Custodianship, Stewardship

The first approach is, what renowned economist Paul Collier calls, curatorship. That is the preservation of nature as it is, just like in a museum. However, it is important to remember that nature is not a static entity and, as a result, the Earth is not a static entity as well. It is in constant, albeit gradual, state of flux. This process is accompanied by violent events like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcano eruptions. These cataclysms are stark and reflective reminders of human fragility in the face of natural processes despite all scientific and technological progress. They also demonstrate that humans are present within a context of living nature accompanied with the cycles of creation then destruction and then again creation. Without these processes the life itself would not exist. So, although curatorship may appeal to our natural inclinations of preserving and saving, it is not viable not only from economic perspective but also from the perspective of natural processes of creation, destruction and transformation.

The second approach to dominion is custodianship. It is an obligation to pass to future generations’ equivalent value of natural assets that we received from previous generations.[4] This approach, at least in economic terms, addresses the question of balance of resources. If one imagines natural resources as a bank account, then the amount one removes from the account should be replenished in the same amount that was removed. In order words, this approach addresses one of the famous quotes from the letter by Chief Seattle to the American government. Although historically contested for its accuracy, it states, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”.

As mentioned earlier economic, political and social structures of societies, just like natural processes, continuously change and transform. This may result in reevaluation and possible shift in priorities of human societies. Pressing needs of our society today may be very different from the needs of future generations. In fact, our impact today on the Earth may be inconceivable to future generations. They may even view us as environmental terrorists. For these reasons, the custodianship approach, despite its initial strengths for addressing the question of guilt, has potential shortcomings which have to be taken into consideration. The shortcomings of this view are apparent in the sphere of natural resources management as well. For example, in the case of cod fisheries off the northeast coast of North America where as a result of extraction rates, based on the models of equilibrium between reproduction and harvesting, the ecosystem reshaped itself to a new equilibrium which was not understood by conventional resource management models.[5]

The third approach is known as stewardship. It is part of a wider approach known as Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.[6] Its main idea is to view the Earth as a household and humans are special part of this household in charge of maintenance. Thus, humans occupy an integral and a constituent part of the creation.[7] This point was also presented centuries ago by St. Francis of Assisi throughout his activities. However, the institutionalization and power accumulation by religious institutions in conjunction with technology based on secularizing societies took the concept of dominion of the Earth and its resources into a production-consumption mode of existence. To magnify the significance of this issue, it is important to keep in mind the massive rate at which natural resources are used. It took about an hour for the author to present this topic at the WSCF conference in 2012 in Bratislava. Within that one hour humanity consumed:

17kg of Platinum Group of Metals (PGM) > 3.5 million barrels of crude oil
360 metric tons of lithium, > 12 million cubic feet of natural gas


So the concept of stewardship, as having dominion over the Earth, emerges to the forefront of human thought. It starts with acknowledgement that humans inhabit the Earth which is a place in the ocean of cosmic creation. As human ecologist Alastair McIntosh describes the concept of ‘place’ as a product of both environment, and, therefore, nature and culture, and therefore, human society.[9] He suggests that this connection to a place is called ‘the Cycle of Belonging’ which consists of four steps. They are:

  1. A sense of place (grounding);
  2. gives rise to a sense of identity (ego/head);
  3. which carries with it a sense of values (soul/heart);
  4. generating a sense of responsibility (action/hand).[10]

It is also important to add that stewardship carries with it, in addition to spiritual, also the same scientific and technological capacities of humanity, which on the one hand can endanger, but on the other, can alter and shape our environment in positive ways. Precisely for this reason, rather than for tautological debates about humans’ place in the hierarchy of creation, the concept of stewardship may give ethical and legal capacity to better manage natural resources of the Earth and beyond. As renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva writes, “The future of our world depends on how we steward our land, soil, water, and seeds and pass them on to future generations”.

So just as paradoxical combination of institutionalized religion and scientific triumph created anthropocentric view of humanity, the same view has the capacity to reassess and readjust human action based on powerful human aspects of spirituality, science and technology. This kind of anthropocentric view is not based on belief in invincibility of human gods or human technological progress, but on human ability to put its survival and development at the centre of its existential priorities. As Universal Declaration on Population and Sustainable Development states in its first principle, “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.[11]

Guilty or not guilty  

In the story How Much Land Does a Man Need? by Leo Tolstoy the main character of Pakhom complains that his main grievance is not having enough land. This statement is overheard by the Devil. As a result, Pakhom starts an obsessive quest for acquisition of land. This obsession eventually brings him into contact with community of Bashkirs who offer Pakhom the following proposition. Pakhom will pay 1000 rubles for a day in exchange he may take as much land as he can cross within a period of that one day from sunrise to sunset. However, it will happen under one condition. If Pakhom will not return to his starting point by the end of the day, he will forfeit his money. Pakhom succeeds in reaching starting point at the time of sunset, but as a result of exhaustion, he collapses and dies on the spot. His worker digs a grave for him six feet in length which is how much land Pakhom needed at the end. So is humanity is like Pakhom on its obsessive quest for more and more material possessions exemplified by modern production and consumption mode of existence? As a result of such quest is humanity guilty in its lack of care for Earth, especially exploitation of resources?

As presented in this article, the idea of dominion over natural resources can be viewed through multiple prisms such as: curatorship, custodianships or stewardship. Each prism has its relevant points. However, in the case with stewardship approach to dominion, stemming from already established scientific and technological capacities of humans, there is a possibility to integrate spiritual, ethical and legal dimensions into our understanding of the concept of dominion. It may create a more harmonious relationship between humans and Earth with giving humans more sense of pride than guilt in stewardship of their home they affectionately call Earth. Such interpretation of dominion has a potential to limit the cases of viewing dominion over the Earth in terms preferred by Idi Amins of this world and give humanity better chance of not ending like Pakhom by forfeiting its presence on the Earth. The presence or absence of humanity on the face of the Earth is the ultimate verdict in evaluating humans’ guilt in their relation to the Earth.

I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Geraldine Smyth, Professor Andrew Pierce and Dr. Cathriona Russell all at Trinity College Dublin for their initial guidance. I also would like to thank Pawel Pustelnik and Jill Piebiak both at Mozaik and Olha Sinkevych at Oxford University for their valuable comments and suggestions on the original draft of this article.


Further Readings:

Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: why the poorest countries are failing and what can be
Done about it
, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2007).

James Lovelock, “Living Planet,” Geographical, August 2000, p. 25 – 27.

Shiva, Vandana (2012)

Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need? And Other Stories, (Penguin Books: London, New York, 1993).

Christopher Vena, “Beyond Stewardship: Toward an Agapeic Environmental Ethic“, Marquette University e-publication, 2009.


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[1] Phil Berardelli, “Human-Driven Planet: Time to Make it Official?Science, 24 January 2008, 16 July 2012.

[2] Erle Ellis, et. al, “Anthropocene”, The Encyclopedia of Earth – Environmental Archeology, 30 May 2012, 16 July 2012.

[3] Ken Gnanakan, “Creation, Christians and Environmental Stewardship,” Evangelical Review of Theology, 2006, 30:2, 110-120

[4] Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature, (London: Penguin Books, 2010).

[5] Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Newest Science Replacing Physics, ecology will be the Master Science of the 21st Century”, Alternative Journal, University of Waterloo, 2009.

[6] World Council of Churches, “The World Council of Churches and Eco-Justice”, 21 July 2012

[7] Douglas John Hall, The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.; New York: W.B. Eerdmans; Friendship Press, 1990), p. 242.

[8] Index Mundi, 21 July 2012.

[9] Alastair McIntosh, Hell & High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition (Birlinn Ltd: Edinburgh, 2008), p.235.

[10] Ibid 8.

[11] Rio Declaration, “Population Dynamics and Sustainable Development,” Issues Briefs,  No. 14, UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 2012,, Table 1, p.3.

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