Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Acknowledging Dominion
distributed 3/28/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt, of Fulton, Missouri, in honor of Bob and Annabel Clark. Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

On the Columbia River, not far upstream from Portland, Oregon, there's a difficult problem with no easy answers. It is a vivid example of a type of situation that we're going to have to confront more often in the years to come.

How do we deal with a world that is profoundly shaped by human impacts? There are tricky practical elements to that questions, but we also encounter much larger philosophical and theological issues. We're taken to the heart of that unpopular (to many) biblical word, "dominion."

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You may seen news reports in the last few weeks about salmon and sea lions on the Columbia River. Plans are being considered -- and now argued in court -- that would allow state wildlife officials to remove many sea lions from the river. The first option is to trap the mammals and relocate them to zoos or aquariums. If no facilities can be found to take them, the sea lions would be killed.

The sea lions are a problem because very few salmon are swimming up the Columbia River in recent years. When the salmon get to the Bonneville Dam -- the first dam on the Columbia -- they have to swim up "fish ladders" to continue upstream. Some resourceful sea lions have figured out that this confined spot on the river is a wonderful place to catch salmon. About a hundred sea lions are eating at least 5,000 salmon during the spawning season, and that's a significant percentage of the already diminished salmon run.

The salmon population is at risk because of an "unnatural" situation, with huge dams that hinder their migration, and deteriorating habitat -- both in the ocean and in the Columbia watershed. In that already compromised setting, a crowd of hungry sea lions can demolish the fragile salmon population.

So what do you do at the base of the dam? Let the sea lions feed where the fish are forced to concentrate? Remove the sea lions so the fish stand a chance? Tell people that they can't fish for salmon? (That restriction may be imposed on both commercial and recreational salmon fishing along most of the Pacific coast this year.) Remove the dams so that the fish can migrate freely? (Removing dams is being seriously considered, but it certainly won't happen soon.)

A decision will be made about the sea lions and salmon, even if it is to decide not to decide. This scene on the Columbia River illustrates one occasion when humans are in a position where they must exercise some sort of "dominion" over a habitat.

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A lengthy recent report in the journal High Country News ("Unnatural Preservation") takes this question of ecological management to a much larger scale, and looks at many of the difficult and complicated choices being faced by public land managers. The article gives primary attention to the new management questions being encountered as the impacts of global climate change become evident across the western US.

As with the Columbia River dam, human impacts have changed the rules. With global warming, though, we don't get the option of "putting it back the way it was", of removing the dam. Climate impacts will continue, and become stronger, in years to come. Decisions will have to be made, even when we don't want to make them, or have a good basis -- scientifically or morally -- for what actions to take.

As the High Country News reporters put it:

So professional preservationists, and the environmental movement as a whole, are left with unnatural choices: They can intervene aggressively to maintain habitat threatened by planetary warming ... Or they can decide to continue to use the traditional hands-off approach -- and thereby allow millennia-old ecosystems to die off and be replaced in ways that would never have happened naturally, if not for global warming.

In the presence of human-induced climate change, there is no "natural" choice. There is no way that humans can be uninvolved in what happens. The reality of global warming is forcing many ecologists to reconsider what is now required in the "management" of lands and wildlife.

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A friend of mine speaks of Genesis 1:26-28 as one of the "terrible texts" in the Bible. It is the oft-quoted passage which speaks of God giving humans dominion over the earth. The dominion role is one that many in our faith tradition have been eager to claim, even though it is not a widespread theme in scripture. (The language about human dominion over creation appears only in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8.) The biblical command to have dominion has provided a theological basis for the extensive human use of God's creation.

For decades, the Christian environmental movement has struggled to clarify that "dominion" is very different from "domination." Dominion, at its best, has been lifted up as enlightened stewardship and management. Often, though, we've tried to downplay the whole notion of dominion. As we've come to a deeper understanding of the complexity of ecological systems, we've been hesitant to claim the sort of wisdom and power that are needed to actively manage the natural world.

The recent news from the Columbia River, and the many difficult choices faced by those charged with managing public lands, show us that "letting nature take its course" isn't a legitimate option anymore. Human impacts are so pervasive and so powerful that we are always in a role of shaping how ecosystems function. Like it or not, we must decide how to manage the world around us.

Precisely because we have already shaped the world so dramatically, we cannot turn away from the ongoing need to manage this disrupted situation. We must, in some way, exercise dominion, even if we find that role distasteful.

Those decisions about management are being made -- in legislatures and courts, and by the dedicated staff in National Parks, National Forests and other public lands. They are complicated and controversial decisions, because we no longer can pretend to be uninvolved, and because we don't have thoughtful principles about how to be involved.

It is important that we, as leaders in faith communities, join in the conversation about the values and goals that should be used in making these management choices. As climate change and other human impacts force us into exercising dominion of some sort, let us dig deep into our theology and ethics for guidelines about appropriate stewardship.

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Tomorrow evening (Saturday, March 29) from 8-9 PM, the Earth Hour campaign is encouraging individuals and businesses to turn off all unnecessary lights and appliances. Join with people in over 200 cities around the globe in making a statement about climate change by cutting your energy consumption. Use that hour tomorrow evening as an opportunity to reduce your impact on the planet, and to ponder how else you might shape the way we exercise dominion/stewardship of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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