November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Alongside a client, Oasis is inquiring into the application of the word “stewardship”.

It is a word that holds many rich meanings; the Institute for Family Business, for example, takes Tomorrow’s Company definition of stewardship as “the active and responsible management of entrusted resources now and in the longer term, so as to hand them on in better condition.” Family Business Stewardship, 2011.

Tomorrow’s Company characterises modern stewardship as a proactive rather than defensive approach, enhancing not just protecting value, “recognising the interdependence between us and the wider system of which we are part, whether it is the economy, the financial system, or the natural environment.” Tomorrow’s Stewardship: Why Stewardship Matters, Tomorrow’s Company, 2011.

Accepting that we hold the world’s riches in trust for others is a key developmental step away from the idea that we somehow ‘own’ the earth and its resources were placed there for the ultimate benefit of the human race. This view, a rights-without-responsibilities approach, has historically driven much of our approach to economic development – if it’s good for profits, why wouldn’t we do it? The importing of bottled water from Fiji to the UK is one of many remarkable consequences of this line of thought.

There are positive resonances of the historical usage of stewardship that we can learn from. In perhaps the most well-known example, of a steward overseeing a farm or land on behalf of an absent owner, we can see the following:

  • A system-wide view of the enterprise, managing all aspects in pursuit of a bigger picture that may be less visible to sub-elements within the system
  • A leadership role, exercising influence and guidance
  • Led from a place of humility – “I am not the master”, so there is limited freedom to dispose of assets or take a short-term view
  • And an approach of responsibility and caring – preserving quality and income in the knowledge that the owner will return and hold the steward to account.

The phrase ‘human stewardship’ is used to encourage us to see ourselves in a new relationship to the earth and the environment. Whilst again this is a positive step, there are aspects of this approach that could lead us into danger. Briefly stated, these are:

  • False ownership. If we are stewards, we are taking care of the earth on behalf of its owner – in this case, all humanity. This encourages careful use, taking one’s share and no more. But in truth humanity does not own the world: all life owns itself – or better still, we are co-creators.

Taking this line further:

  • We risk hubris if we think we are the ones that are tasked to “solve” the environment’s problems, that we are somehow in charge. Rightly we need to reduce our impact because of the damage we are causing to our species and others across the planet. But it is not we who decide how the planet responds – the ecosystem’s laws are far beyond our control, beyond any decisions we make take about how things ought to be.

And so:

  • A stance of stewardship may make us believe that there is a false separation between us and the planet we think ourselves stewards of. All life, all resources, all actions, all economic realities, are a subset of the planetary environment, not the other way round. We are not separate from those things we care for, at a transpersonal as well as a system / environmental level. We are the many that make up the one, the see-er and the seen.

It is for that reason that I find myself drawn towards global responsibility rather than stewardship. Not responsible in a steward’s way, of managing and overseeing. But responsible in that we know our impact, we are responsible for the choices we make, we are connected in more ways that we know about to people and to planet, and we have values, passion and commitment that makes us actors in the world. This to me implies responsibility – able to respond to what we know and what we yearn to see in the world around us.

As ever, these are developing thoughts for me, and comments and “Have you thought about…” are warmly welcomed.

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