Science and Ethics in Practice of Earth Stewardship

October 13, 2016

Not long before I was appointed by The University of Michigan-Dearborn as a scientist in 1963, I had believed that most people in positions of leadership, once they were well-informed scientifically, would work to make appropriate decisions for living rightly on Earth. If the science of life and the biosphere were understood, good decisions would be made. But I was wrong. That belief was shaken as I came to discover people making bad decisions even when they had access to science and had the capacity to understand it—even more so when decisions were made contrary to maintaining the integrity of their communities and the integrity of the biosphere.

My first dramatic realization of such cultured disregard and cultured ignor-ance of the science of deserts came while my wife Ruth and I lived on the open desert in southern California during the summer of 1961. I was researching how animals lived in this dry, hot, and thirsty land, on a study site situated on a nearly barren alluvial fan at the mouth of Deep Canyon—a gorge whose dry river bed originated in the San Jacinto Mountains to the south. Nearly every day during those three months of summer I walked my study site, signaling to Ruth under a nearby canopy the location of individually-marked Desert Iguanas canopy at the edge of this site, as she and I entered notes on their location and behavior. Three times every hour I would walk another 15-minute round, rest for 5, continuing this during the course of the day and drinking about a liter of water an hour.1

One day I drove a few miles west of my research site to an area of blowing sand where desert dunes were being leveled by men in bulldozers. The dunes were being flattened, sprinkled from water trucks, and covered with poured concrete slabs upon which houses were being built. One end of a just-completed ranch-style house had been undercut by desert winds, had cracked in the middle, and now hung into a wind-scoured hole. Incoming residents seemingly overlooked this event, even as they complained to me that Riverside County plows came too infrequently to push drifting sand off their paved streets. Rainfall that year was two and 54/100 inches; the regional water table was dropping 1 foot per year. Surface temperatures exceeded 150 degees F nearly every day during July and August on my research site.

Life magazine pictured these newly-built homes in the Palm Desert dunes on the cover of their March 23, 1962 issue, announcing, “A New Vista in the American West: OPENING UP THE DESERT FOR LIVING.” Reading the article again in 2016, I found it saying of its new human residents, “Their continuing enthusiasm is a distinct triumph for advanced air conditioning and the positive thinking of real estate developers, whose missionary bullishness, more than any other single factor, has been changing the face of the desert.” And then, “In a moment of uncommon candor, one of these salesmen recently looked out over a bleak track and mused: ‘There’s no real reason for anyone to be here — and they wouldn’t be if we weren’t bringing them in, selling them, convincing them it has a great future.’ ”2

More recently, similar disregard and cultured ignor-ance of science is being illustrated by events in the coastal Bald Cypress – Tupelo swamps of Louisiana. The science of wetland systems describes well their vital role in the coastal landscape, demonstrating clearly how their component cypress trees with widely buttressed trunks, intermeshing matrix of tough root systems with their protruding cypress knees, and flexible branches and crowns absorb furious energy of hurricane winds, and hold the landscape in place to the benefit of other creatures, inland landscapes, and human settlements. Yet, cypress trees are being cut and ground up as mulch to beautify gardens and landscapes in Florida and to the northern states. Their wonderfully marvelous services to Louisiana life and landscapes are eschewed by their destroyers, and ongoing destruction continues while protective coastal wetlands convert to marshland which is washed to the sea. Highly integrative wetland science is robustly published by scores of scientists at Louisiana University, scientists at Southeastern Louisiana University, and across the U.S., and yet cypress trees and their remarkable ecosystem services are sacrificed to powerful wood-chippers at great profit and tremendous loss.34

Science asks the question, “How does the world work?” Seeking the answer to this question is not only important but critical for wise habitation and use of the land. But as these two examples show, it is not enough to know. While it is vitally necessary, science is not at all sufficient. Science must be accompanied by ethics. Ethics asks the question “What is right?” Seeking the answer to this second question, interactively with the first, is critical to becoming earth wise.5

Thoughtful people—and that should mean everyone—soon find both science and ethics vitally necessary. Yet these are insufficient without corresponding praxis. Praxis asks the question, “What then must we do?” Understood as including study and development of practice, praxis must result in doing what must be done—now, and into the future with resolve and diligence.6 And such practice ranges from practical action to wisely deciding to “let it be.”7 This relationship can be pictured as a triangle we can call the science-ethics-praxis triad:8

                        Science: How does the world work?


        Ethics: What is right?                                                                                                                     Praxis: What then must we do?

In my own Wisconsin community, the Town of Dunn, we answered the first two questions by discovering everything we needed to know scientifically and ethically about the 34.5 square miles of land we held in trust, and summarized this in what we called The Town of Dunn Open Space Preservation Handbook.9 But this Handbook—and developing a plan based upon it, was not sufficient. We next had to make sure that it all was put into practice. We achieved this by translating what we had learned into our land stewardship plan, and then codified this plan into laws and ordinances. Then—and this is the highly crucial part—they were applied with diligence, and most importantly were enforced with no exceptions. Knowing, however, that sometimes we might not “get things right,” we also provided for adjusting our plan and ordinances annually with full citizen discussion; this allowed us to address inadvertent mistakes and injustices without having to make exceptions to our plan and ordinances. In all of this we have come—citizens all—to be stewards of our own place.

Earth stewardship—stewardship of our lives and landscapes—was the outcome of our work in integrating science, ethics, and practice into fruitful interaction.10 We published our work on paper, but most importantly our major publication is in our lives and landscapes. This practical publication is our principal measure and testimony of how well we are keeping the three corners of the science-ethics-praxis triad interacting together to serve and to keep what we hold in trust.

About the Author
  • Calvin B. DeWitt is an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and member of graduate faculties of Land Resources, Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, Water Resources Management, and Limnology and Marine Science; is a Fellow of the Teaching Academy and recipient of the Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching. He developed Au Sable Institute as its Director and President from 1979 to 2005. Cal has degrees in biology and zoology from Calvin College (B.A.) and The University of Michigan (M.A. and Ph.D). In 2005 he received the National Wildlife Federation’s “Connie” Award for his work in bridging environmental science and ethics.

  1. For details on this research see my 1967 paper, “Precision of Thermoregulation and its relation to environmental factors in the desert iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis.” Physiological Zoology 40:49-66.  

  2. “The Great Shift to the Sands.” Cover story, Life magazine, March 23, 1962. Cover photo and two other photos are all of the Palm Desert dunes development. 

  3. A good source, both for content and an extensive bibliography is: Gary Shaffer et al. 2009. “Degradation of Baldcypress—Water Tupelo Swamp to Marsh and Open Water inSoutheastern Louisiana…” Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue No. 54. Geologic and EnvironmentalDynamics of the Pontchartrain Basin, pp. 152-165. He and his co-authors write about the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, saying: “The 2005 hurricanes caused wind throw of up to 100% of midstory trees in areas of low canopy density and was negligible when basal areas of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) and water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) were greater than 30 m2.” 

  4. For other illustrations of the problem of acting with cultured disregard and cultured ignor-ance for science, see my 2003 paper, “Biogeographic and Trophic Restructuring of the Biosphere: The State of the Earth Under Human Domination.” Christian Scholar’s Review 32:347-364.  

  5. Earthwise: A Guide to Hopeful Creation Care is the title 2011 book published by Faith Alive Christian Resources (Grand Rapids, MI) that is a book-length treatment of the subject of this article. For a shorter treatment of biblical principles see my 2008 article, “Inspirations for Sustaining Life on Earth: Greeting Friends in Their Andean Gardens, In: Bill McKibben, American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. New York: Library of America, 919-928. 

  6. Keeping science, ethics, and praxis together—and keeping together all of knowledge—is being seriously compromised by disciplinary fragmentation throughout society. This poses one of the greatest problems of our time. An introduction to this problem is given in my 2006 artcile, “The Professor and the Pupil: Addressing Secularization and Disciplinary Fragmentation in Academia,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 59(2):119-127. 

  7. See my 1989 article, “Let it be: a wetland scientist and restorationist reflects on the value of waiting.” Restoration and Management Notes 7(2):80-81.” 

  8. See Chapter 4, “harmonizing science, ethics, and praxis” in my 2012 book, Song of a Scientist, pages 71-90 for additional discussion and reflections on the Science-Ethics-Praxis Triad. 

  9. Google “Town of Dunn” on your computer to get a snapshot of my community of 34.5 square miles and 4000 people to find a copy of the Handbook and my 1996 article, “Community Mobilization: A Case Study of the Town of Dunn. 

  10. For describing Earth Stewardship as a “Realm of Stewardship” that is dynamic, deeply rooted in the pre-biblical and biblical Stewardship Tradition, and inspired by the Appointment “to serve and to keep” summarized in Genesis 2:15, see my 2016 paper: “III. Earth Stewardship and Laudato Si’,Quart. Rev. Biol. 91(3):271-284, with free access at: and related material including PowerPoints at (My University of Wisconsin Home Page). 

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  1. Ideally, Calvin DeWitt’s concepts would be employed without politicians seeking their own benefit. Harlan Vander Griend

  2. I’ve been to Palm Desert. Had a relative who taught in an elementary school there and even helped her out in her class one day. And someone in my church has a winter home there.

    I wouldn’t want to live in Palm Desert, but then I wouldn’t want to live in any desert climate, which blocks out much of Arizona, S California, and lots of other places.

    But I don’t really understand the view that it is apparently self-evident that no one should want to, or should be allowed to live, in places like Palm Desert. I’d much rather that people build houses and schools and roads on land that can’t be readily farmed (e.g, Palm Desert) than land that can (e.g., Willamette Valley in Oregon).

    But, you may say, farming isn’t neccessarily “earth wise.” No, maybe not, but maybe it is, or maybe it’s “people wise” and maybe it is “earth/people wise” to use deserts for housing.

    My point is that judgments must be made about these questions and it isn’t as simple as avoiding “ignor-ance” or even remembering “praxis.” Nor is it as simple as getting folks together and all agreeing to leave an open space unused for anything but an open space park.

    And as above suggested, there is more to be wise about than just the earth (as in “earth wise”). We must also be “people wise,” because God’s creation includes the sixth day (creating people) and the Creation account has things to say about the relationship between God’s image bearers and the rest of what he created, especially the “garden.”

    Without any doubt, building houses and roads will inevitably impact sand, dirt, lizards, insects, snakes, etc. And frankly, we’ll never have the scientific ability to know for sure how much or in what way, or how exactly how that hurt hurts other things, people included.

    I do know — or am of the conviction — that when we evaluate the impacts of any human development, the dominant concern must be for people, not for “the earth sans people.” No, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have open space parks. It doesn’t mean developers are to be given free license to always do what the decide to do. It doesn’t mean we should ignore future generations of people, or the fact that the lives of people are intertwined with the environment they live in. But it does mean that the purpose of the “garden” (the earth) is to be a garden for people, and not for the other things in the garden.

    In law these days, that is the question. Should trees, plants, animals, and dirt have legal protection rights? Many who call themselves “environmentalists” say “yes.” I emphatically say “no,” and would suggest that is the biblical answer as well.

    It would be good and clarifying I think, that when Christians talk about “creation care” or being “earth wise,” they use words that make clear that God created the earth (“the garden”) for his image bearers to live in. We don’t always make that clear. Sometimes, I’m not sure we still believe it.

    1. I think your final comments are worth some careful consideration. The garden is not a garden for people in the way that you imply. It is for God. God made the earth and all that is in it for His Glory. Part of that is our careful, creative, thoughtful, use but other things have value to God independent of our use of them. God declares all that he made good- even before man was created. There are themes all through the bible that make this clear. Even the Noahic covenant is not properly between God and Noah. It is between God and all creation with specific promises to Noah. Throughout the old testament and new, The creation is treated as a moral object. There are right and wrong ways to treat it. Science reinforces this theme and elaborates on the meaning of these moral trajectories. There are plenty of negative consequences for inappropriate treatment of other creatures.

      We get to live here, we get to be a part of the “very good”, whole creation that God made. We are given the opportunity to creatively explore, shape, enrich, develop. But choosing to ignore the consequences of choices we make, or not trying to anticipate negative outcomes, seems as absurd as putting your hand on a burner and not expecting it to hurt.

      As you suggest, being earthwise is being people wise. I don’t think you can “love your neighbor” without “loving” the place that he lives. If we impoverish our environment, we impoverish ourselves in both the material sense and the spiritual sense. I believe that some of the choices we make in our relationships with other creatures represent a wrong heart direction. Some are made with the best of intentions but little thought or insight.

      There are many ways that we can serve and be served by the land and other creatures. Is it our right to be served? No- it is our privelege. The earth is the Lord’s. I would say that we are here to keep it as much as it is here to serve our needs…or our desires.