the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 June 13


The world has great and important problems. No one who has reflected for a significant period of time on the matter can have failed to observe that. Simple logic and calculations make clear that the solutions to these problems will take a large number of individuals a long time to achieve, if they can be achieved at all; and before that can happen, there must be some basic agreement among this large number of individuals on the nature of the problems and the solutions. That would be the short answer to the question of why I am doing this, why I am periodically intruding into your lives with thoughts on distantly-connected topics.

Some of you read the first of the manuscript commentaries twelve years ago; some are reading this commentary for the first time. Some of you asked to be included; some were not even consulted. Some of you have explicitly allied yourselves to the stewardship; some have made clear that you hold yourselves apart. But you are all stewards, all in some way taking responsibility for the protection and improvement of the world, and it is my hope that in time we might all come better to accept that we have a common purpose, and that in more time we might develop a common vision to guide us in our efforts.

I am always attempting, as I write these messages, to convey a balance between two distinct and probably mutually-exclusive impressions: that I am writing intimately to a few who would best understand, and that I am writing to a large and powerful group with the inherent ability to change the world. But I will confess here that those impressions may both be false. There are enough of you to make it impersonal, but likely not enough to make a difference even were we all to act in concert on a matter of serious concern. But even the US Congress can be ineffectual when acting in concert, so that is not necessarily the appropriate test.

The test will be made, though. Whether we are prepared or not, we will face, as a matter of historical course, a crisis. This will be a period of judgement, as the name originally implied. It would be a mistake to focus on a single event, like September 11, or even the Second World War. For a long time I felt that I could predict an imminent crisis, which was ultimately an overreaction of mine to the complacency of my contemporaries. None of them felt at all threatened by the possibility of a crisis, all felt they were immune, that it could not happen to them. I came to believe in contrast that there would most certainly be a crisis, that it would happen to me. And yet the Y2K computer glitch did not bring civilization crashing down, and September 11 did not drag the world into a full-scale war. Fate, whose ways I only attempt to understand, has passed up two seemingly-perfect opportunities to overturn our society. My conclusion is that what we are facing is likely to be much more subtle. In any case, the principle is not so much that there will definitely be a single crisis, but that, inevitably, there will always be another.

The stewardship did not originate recently or through the agency of any one person, not even me. It has been around as long as there have been minds to see the need in the world. As a student of language, I want to call a thing by its name. As a student of geography, I want to know where it begins and where it ends. Thus speaking of stewardship has been not a matter of creation but of definition, of identifying a phenomenon that is already affecting us, witting or not.

More a matter of creation has been the Stewardship Union, designed as a network of stewards, to facilitate their collaboration, and as a coalition of stewards, to give voice to their common beliefs. Since its inception, though, its stated purpose, when contrasted with its apparent actions, has led to a single skeptical question: What does the Stewardship Union do? The question is, in fact, often phrased thus: Why doesn’t the Stewardship Union do anything? While that is not entirely accurate, it is a valid concern; but it is taking too shortsighted a view of our work. At this point, another outfit for organizing individuals to march or write letters or plant trees would be redundant. Existing organizations do that well enough. Of deeper concern is the fact that, without a broader plan for action on the global scale, another march or letter or tree will have no impact, rhetoric notwithstanding.

Also of concern is that the quest for one more march or letter or tree can have unintended costs. There is a particular dichotomy within the central body of the stewardship. On the one extreme are those whose ideal is to delegate everything; and on the other extreme are those whose ideal is to do everything themselves. The former are true organizers. The latter are martyrs, a term I can disparagingly use since this is of course my primary affiliation. I wouldn’t say that either extreme is superior to the other, but each is certainly indispensable. The value of organizers is perhaps evident, considering the multiplication of efforts they can achieve. The value of martyrs is beyond the value of the work they themselves can produce. They also serve as a check in the system, to hold accountable their opposite number and moderate their excesses.

We know well that it is a small group of individuals who do most or all of the work, and cover most or all of the expenses. And it is in the nature of organizing to ask the most of those people, even if they have just been asked. This is not merely because it is the easiest thing to do, though undoubtedly that is a part of it. It is also based on an understanding of possibilities. There is more to be gained from a single visit to an overused spring than from the drilling of countless blind wells. And this is fine when we are talking about groundwater, which has no feelings. But what of people?

I have seen far too much fatigue among those who want to do good ― and not merely among those who do little and are seldom asked, but also among those who are most dedicated and always volunteer. We all have limits. Many are the activists I have advised to take time off, to build time into the schedule for doing nothing, or at least nothing that seems immediately productive. The principle is simple: an activist who burns out and ceases to care about the world, or perhaps ceases to believe that it has the endurance to care, contributes less in its few short years of ceaseless activity than the activist who periodically rests but lasts a lifetime.

Quite apart from the very real physical exhaustion that periodically affects so many of us, there is the emotional drain that comes from seemingly-endless toil. And so part of my function has been to guard against that fatigue. We must husband our strength; and not only the strength that comes to us from the peripheral contributors to our cause, but our own direct strength, from our own direct contributions. We must commit ourselves to action over the longest term, and then carefully protect our ability to persevere for that term. Hyperbole can be a useful tool in organizing, but it can be dangerous to believe our own rhetoric; and so while we make the case regarding the cosmic importance of every decision, and the historical severity of every single moment in time, we must recognize that few decisions and few moments in time would merit our ultimate commitment.

It follows, naturally, that we must be vigilant for those moments that do merit our ultimate commitment. It is right to make a serious effort against the little Hitlers, lest we lose too much of our progress through attrition, or find ourselves unable to make the great fight when the time comes. I myself have joined in sounding the alarm against George Bush, recognizing in the work of his cabal a serious effort to advance the cause of dominion. Certainly we have to marvel at the unanimity in the process to select him as the figurehead two years ago, and sense a deeper intention. We have more to fear from the handlers of his handlers than we do from the handled one himself. But until the dons, the great agents of dominion, show themselves and reveal their plans, we should be cautious in the use of our own resources. If the shepherd boy cries Satan once too often the villagers will just assume that it is always a wolf.

And so the work of the Union, like the stewardship it represents, must be about the longest term and the grandest scale. We must build our strength for the future, and use it wisely. Part of that, the obvious part, is that we must each develop ourselves in personal ability as much as possible. The more we learn and train, the more experience we seek out, the greater will be our ability to contribute to the cause. But we must also each think strategically, not merely tactically. One of the characteristics that should distinguish our side of the spectrum from the opposite is that we are not dependent on leaders, that every one of us is capable of taking the lead and striking out independently, that we think critically and for ourselves.

We are already at a disadvantage because of this trait. The dominion, as I have remarked before, has the inherent organizational strength of its authoritarianism. The discipline of the dominion lies in the ideologically-grounded obedience to a few individuals and to the ideology. Our discipline must be internal. Certainly our authority can only be internal, but for the authority of the truth itself. And the only way we can compete with so fearsome a machine as the dominion is for every single one of us to think as the greater stewardship. We do not have the luxury of narrow focus, of parochialism, of tactics alone, of expediency. The conflict between the stewardship and the dominion is as old as time, perhaps, and perhaps there is no victory in this war, only the exchange of ground from endless skirmishes and the occasional battle. But if we accept this, we give up all hope of victory in the long term, and we must have that hope. We cannot compete for ruthlessness, nor would we necessarily triumph in determination. We must draw strength from our integrity, and this means always asking ourselves, as we act, how that action will serve not just our immediate needs, but our ultimate goal of a world beautiful, just, and at peace. It is in knowing our destination that we will find our way. And we will need everyone before the end. Of that I am certain.



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