The Common Good

Joyful Responsibility of the Commons

Many years ago, I sat in a church that resembled nothing like the church that I barely frequented while growing up. As the overhead lights dimmed in preparation for opening song, a blue-ish red hue washed over the stage to what felt like a concert opening and the following lyrics for “Indescribable” emerged on two oversized screens flanking the worship team:

From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea

Creation’s revealing Your majesty

From the colors of fall to the fragrance of spring

Every creature unique in the song that it sings

All exclaiming …

These song lyrics stuck with me because they remind me of how God is manifest in our natural world, where grace and interconnectedness are reflected in species that are intricately dependent on one another, and where the sheer beauty of our earth often becomes more apparent when we are able to step away from our industrialized lives and behold a starry night or a hike in the woods.

These lyrics also remind me of the part in Genesis where Adam is first put in charge of taking care of Eden and then gets to name all the animals, implying that he is responsible for them too:

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it … Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals …” (Gen 2:15; 19-20).

Today, these passages can be interpreted as being all of humankind’s responsibilities, where we are still in charge of stewardship on this earth. And in being in charge, we can decide if we destroy it or protect and nurture it. In the “tragedy of the commons,” an economic theory that informed the environmental movement, individuals act independently and rationally according to each person’s self-interest, and as a result, behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting some common resource. We see this happening still, for example, in our water use, which Americans living in the West and Southwest feel most acutely since there won't be enough water to feed both their agricultural and day-to-day needs if they continue to consume it at the current pace.

One of our biggest challenges today to good environmental stewardship may be because our relationship is largely disconnected from Nature and her species, where, in our modern lifestyles, many of us don't experience firsthand the impacts resulting from how our food is grown, how our clothes are made, and where and how our homes are built.

Thankfully this is changing, from local food movements, to awareness of chemicals in our home and personal care products, to efforts to improve transportation and create more mixed-use urban development, etc. There is even a pilot project in Queens, N.Y. (hometown proud!), to compost food and garden waste among high-density neighborhoods with single-family homes. But mostly the “commons” in the environment is still not accounted for in how we pay for and consume things, and is therefore still "ours" for the taking.

But what would happen if we saw our natural world, not as a collective “ours" but as an individual "mine?” What if we shifted our thinking about environmental preservation from being an imperative or an obligation to equating good stewardship with our own personal act of worship? Worship is often described as being joyful, celebratory, and laden with gratitude. Can we think of our individual choices, such as in how we eat, shop, heat our homes, and transport ourselves, as a reflection of our reverence for God’s beauty in our natural world, choices that we make freely and joyfully? Because, let’s face it, we are more inclined to do things we enjoy, rather than feel obliged to do.

For those who believe in and seek to follow God, depending on God is a form of sustenance. In the end, stewardship of our environment will ensure a physical sustenance, as without access to clean air, land and water, we cease to be. If each of us can approach stewardship as an act of worship, such reverence not only stands to increase our personal joy and gratitude, but, contrary to the tragedy of the commons, could very well be what helps lead us to our collective survival.

Verena Radulovic is a sustainability practitioner and photographer based in Washington, D.C. She works at the U.S. EPA, and the views expressed here are her own.

Image: Mountain scenery, Nataliia Melnychuk/ Shutterstock.com

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