Can Theology Help Us Understand the Human Role in Environmental Restoration?

Bethany Sollereder
Saturday 28 August 2021

1. Introduction

Humans represent a stunningly small proportion of life on earth. If we weighed life on earth according to its carbon content, the totality of life on earth weighs 550 gigatons (Bar-On 2018). Of that, the vast majority is plants: 470 gigatons. Bacteria is the next most prolific form of life, comprising about 70 gigatons. Then fungi at 12 gigatons, and protists (all the other single celled organisms you never think about) at 4 gigatons. Viruses weigh about .2 gigatons. Humans weigh a mere 0.06 gigatons. Indeed, the only life forms that are smaller than us are nematodes or round worms (0.02 Gt), wild birds (0.002 Gt) and wild mammals (0.007 Gt). And yet, our tiny little species, just 0.01% of all life by weight, has entirely changed the conditions of living for every other species.

When the author of Psalm 8 reflects on the heavens and the earth, he asks “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4, NRSV). Now, we can honestly answer that we are the planet shapers. We have indeed filled, dominated and subdued the earth, with all the violent connotations that radah and kabash of the original Hebrew commandment carry in Genesis 1:26-28.

We have also depleted it. In important ways, we have decreased the biodiversity at alarming rates. There are 5,450 mammalian species in the world. Only a handful of species, however, make up the vast majority of mammalian life. Humans account for 36%, our few livestock species, 60%, and all wild mammals are only 4%. Just 12 species of plants provide three quarters of human food (Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs 2017).

We know that climate change and species extinction are anthropogenic. How are we to think of ourselves as made in the image of God and the human vocation in light of these changes? To what extent are humans responsible for restoring the damage they have caused?

I will argue that there are multiple ways to understand the human role in creation, and each of them in turn may help us address various aspects of our current ecological crisis.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Restoration Ecology

In light of the heavy toll we have inflicted on our common home, there has been growing interest in the science of restoration ecology. According to the Society for Restoration Ecology (SER), restoration ecology attempts “to return an ecosystem to its historic trajectory” (SER 2004). In short, find out how an ecosystem would have operated if humans had not interfered, and try to return it to that state.

In some part of the world, where invasive human action has been limited to a couple of hundred years, we know essentially what the “historical trajectory” was. (In reality, everywhere that early humans went had mass extinctions of large mammals and birds and significant changes to crops and forests. (Martin 1967; Alroy 2001; Levis 2017)) We have a sense of what species were introduced during colonial expansion, and how the landscapes of the “new world” have changed due to intense human development. However, there are many ecologies where human activity is inseparable from the historical trajectory. What does the historical trajectory mean in England, for example? Every part of this land is so deeply affected by human presence that there is no way to remove the human effect or to know what the land would have looked like without the last forty thousand years of intense human activity. England is a profoundly human-shaped land and there is no clear historical trajectory to try and recover. How can a restoration ecologist set a historical benchmark in these situations? Should they aim for the ecological state of 200 years ago? A thousand years ago? Just after the last Ice Age? When do you know if you have succeeded?

Restoration normally sets targets under different categories, such as physical conditions, species composition, ecosystem function or structural diversity. These are standards that are used by SER to help practitioners evaluate the goals and the work yet to be done (McDonald 2016). One might—in practice—head into damaged land, root up and burn all the invasive plant species one can find, and then re-plant the native species that had been pushed out by the invasive species. Yet, the process of restoration is not always straight forward. One site I visited on Galiano island (District Lot 63) was primarily an old-growth Douglas-fir forest. These trees were logged and then replanted with the same species of trees with the intention of re-logging in a few decades. However, because the aim was to grow timber the reforested area was planted with an exponentially higher density of trees that strangle out natural biodiversity.

An untouched hectare of old growth forest would normally host about 150 mature trees—huge giants that scrape the skies, and then countless small shrubs and saplings would be growing around the feet of these colossal life forms (Scholz 2004). Fallen giants would normally litter the forest floor, providing cover and housing for insects, invertebrates and birds.  However, after the forest was clear cut, loggers gathered all the living material on site into long windrows—all the soil and undergrowth as well as anything left over from logging. Then, using helicopters, they dropped balls of napalm and burnt all the coarse woody debris and species in the area. The ash remains were considered the perfect environment for replanting trees. The new tree density was not 150 trees per hectare but 1200. The trees, hemmed in by each other, grew up straight and thin. The forest now resembled a giant spaghetti art installation, with each tree having only a very tiny set of three or four branches at the top of a 60-foot trunk. The trees made the ground underneath so inhospitable to other life that there was no undergrowth except for moss and a little grass. No shrubs or bushes, no saplings. Without available cover, there were also no squirrels, no birds, no deer: hardly any animals at all. The forest was like a moonscape interrupted by these living spikes.

The work of restoration, then, was to cut down these trees—help make the density more appropriate and to restore areas of cover and deadwood. Rather than do too much, the ecologists made trial patches, and reduced the number of trees per hectare to 400, 600, and 800. With more light and ground space, undergrowth started growing again, and animals moved back in. Some trees were simply killed where they stood: left as standing deadwood. These create habitats for birds (particularly woodpeckers) and insects. Another “restorative disturbance” was to take large trunk pieces from ancient mature trees that have started decomposing and move them into the middle of the forest floor—again creating new habitats for a myriad of tiny beings: beetles, solitary bees, larvae, and worms. The caution of the scientists in this case was unrewarded: the places where they took down the most trees did far better than the places where they were more conservative. The biodiversity increased and the area is much healthier in terms of wildlife, soil health, and tree diversity (Koele 2006, 31-37).

In areas where we do not know what the native ecosystem looked like or where they cannot be revived because of species extinction, practitioners guess. They act creatively to piece together an ecosystem that they think closely resembles what might have been. For example, the Knepp farm in West Sussex began in 2001 to “rewild” 3500 acres of intensely farmed land (Tree 2018). As opposed to Galiano, where the restorers are actively involved in managing the plant life, cutting trees and gorse, in Knepp they simply introduced wildlife that would create many of the changes for them and then took a more hands-off approach.

Longhorned English cattle were introduced to simulate the effect of the extinct Auroch, or wild ox of Europe. Since wild boar are not allowed to be set free in England, the managers of the Knepp estate have introduced the hardy English Tamworth pig. Their rootling around is a form of soil overturn which in turn creates space for seed germination and insect colonies. Dartmoor ponies and three species of deer complete the grazing contingent. The lifestyles of these animals actively change the landscape around them. Highly eroded fields of clay are being transformed by the grazing, droppings, and food preferences of these species. They have begun to shape this homogenous landscape of fields into varied patches of meadow, brush-land, lightly wooded forest, and water meadows. Since none of the animals are fed, they have to forage, meaning that during the different months of the year their focus prunes different parts of the plant life.

There is still some control: particularly, since the landowners cannot re-introduce the natural predators—wolves or bears—they have to cull the wild herds of grazers in order not to denude the landscape by over-grazing or have simply ending up with large herds of mostly starving animals. Cattle are still ear-tagged and vaccinated. Even in this largely hands-off environment, the human input is central to maintaining a balance.

2.2 Christian Anthropology

Any restoration or rewilding project inevitably “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell” to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’s phrase. There is creativity, innovation, and decision making even in the “objective” work of restoration. Consider Knepp farm. Some of the species they wanted to restore are extinct, others are illegal. In each case, they have to make a substitute: to find a functional equivalent when the original species is no longer available. What is created is not a return to some past real ecosystem, but instead they make a novel ecosystem pieced together with biological anachronisms. They have long-horned English cattle to represent the auroch, a bison-like species which went extinct in the late bronze age, around 1200 BC. However, the fallow deer that are also part of the ecosystem today are actually native to Asia and were introduced in the 11th century. The ecosystem they have made is composed of species that never naturally overlapped. Despite being far more hands-off than many other methods of land management, it still is essentially a wild Disneyland. It is impossible to pinpoint an ideal baseline for the “historical ecosystem”.

A more radical experiment in rewilding is the Dutch Oostvaardersplassen, an area of 22 square miles of reclaimed land that has been left to the grazers almost entirely. Left largely to itself, the growth in biodiversity and population density soared. When large mammals die, they are left to rot to provide food for scavengers and the multitudes of decomposers. The herds of deer and cattle are left uncontrolled, leading to an astonishing density of diverse wildlife, but which also means that overpopulation is rife, and populations are vulnerable to mass starvation. In the winter of 2005, massive amounts of starvation led to a culling program beginning, but in 2017-2018 even with culling in place 3,300 deer, horses, and cattle starved to death. This sparked a massive public outcry at the cruelty of the rewilding experiment. Humans and their ethics are inevitably a part of any discussion of wilderness, because there is no true wilderness left.

One problem in restoration ecology is that the science does not tell us what our role is. The science can only tell us how to cut down trees, or which species are invasive, or which species were native at a particular time. It does not tell us if we should or to what extent we should intervene. Science cannot define the human role. That is the job of philosophy and theology, and that is what my project is about: asking how the technical ability of the restoration sciences can participate with the ethical, philosophical, and theological work of the humanities.

3. Discussion

What role do humans play? I look at four possibilities: the idea that we are stewards, that we are created co-creators (or co-redeemers), that we are priests of creation, and finally that we are simply part of the community of creation.

3.1 Stewards of Creation

The idea that we are stewards of the earth is a very popular one. Theologians point commonly to Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’”(NRSV) (Bauckham 2010, 18). Contrary to popular belief, I think that this passage provides almost insurmountable obstacles to supporting a view of creation care. This passage is set in Ancient Near Eastern kingship motifs—where might was usually shown by violent brutality. Violence is reflected in the word choices here: “dominion and subdue” are not benevolent verbs. “Subdue”, or kabash in the Hebrew is translated by Strong’s Concordance as “bring into bondage, make subservient, force, violate, and tread down” (Strong’s, H3533). The verb is used elsewhere to talk about the subjection of nations turned into vassal states by being defeated in war. In the book of Esther it is used to talk about rape (Esther 7:8). The only possible redeeming use of it is in Micah 7:19 where God promises to subdue iniquities, to tread sins under foot. That might be good for people, but the action towards the subdued sins is unquestionably violent.

Dominion, the Hebrew radah, is no better. Once again, it is to dominate, to tread down, even to scrape out. In other instances in the Pentateuch, it is used to describe how the Israelites are not allowed to treat their fellow Israelites. Don’t have dominion over your fellow Israelites, don’t rule over them in this harsh way. Possibly more redemptively, the word is used to describe the great rulership of God’s anointed, for example in Psalm 72:8 “He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth,” but this is closely followed by his enemies having to lick the dust at his feet, a picture of utter humiliation and domination. Whatever model of interaction we want to build, Genesis 1:28 is not without significant problems. It is violent, forceful, and strongly interventionist.

What about Genesis 2? The human is set in the garden in order to “till and keep” it, or to work and guard it. Avad and shamar are much better verbs for modern ecological purposes than subdue and dominion. Avad means to serve, to work for another’s sake. Shamar is often translated to “keep” or to “guard”–it is used of city guards on the walls who watch over the well-being of the city. People keep covenants and commands and they observe feast days—all the same Hebrew words. This shares the implications of a shepherd keeping sheep—it has all the implications of tender care and service that we could want.

What then are the problems? Well, largely, as Peet J. van Dyk points out, the garden the human is supposed to till is just that: a garden—a highly developed, managed and domesticated plot of ground. van Dyk writes:

The purpose of this command was clearly to ensure that Eden would look something like our well-tended parks and would not become a chaotic wilderness. Eden is therefore… NOT an appropriate metaphor for nature conservation, because Eden is neither described as natural wilderness, but as a cultivated park, nor was the task of the first humans to preserve its wilderness character, but rather to farm and cultivate it by “taming the wilderness” (van Dyk 2015).

You can create a highly managed ecosystem, but that doesn’t give you a natural environment, it just gives you a very big zoo or wildlife park. There are many species for whom that would work well, but many others which will never flourish under human ideals of order.

Theologically, the stewardship model can, in its emphasis of “humans left in charge” emphasise the absence of God. Rather than working with God, we work for God. Like the stewards in Jesus’s parable, people are left to their own devices until the landowner returns. It ultimately tends towards a deistic rather than theistic view of God.

When it comes to creation care with a stewardship model, especially in discussion of wilderness areas, neither Genesis 1 nor 2 offers very much help. The first, because its language is absolutely invasive and dominating. The second, because it is not talking about wilderness, but about cultured land. Generally speaking in the Bible, being “rewilded” is considered a curse—as in Isaiah 27:10-11:

The fortified city stands desolate,
an abandoned settlement, forsaken like the wilderness;
there the calves graze,
there they lie down;
they strip its branches bare.
11 When its twigs are dry, they are broken off
and women come and make fires with them.
For this is a people without understanding;
so their Maker has no compassion on them,
and their Creator shows them no favour.

The same problems crop up with many of the oft-cited eco-theological passages in the Hebrew Bible—most references to the land or the ground are referring to agricultural fields—land that is heavily inhabited and used by humans. Now, while proper use of agricultural land might be of general interest to ecotheology, restoration ecology is more interested in the wild—in rewilding places, or restoring areas harmed by intensive farming or industrial action. While theologians like Richard Bauckham have rightly made use of the way the Bible talks about the land, these are less interesting to the restoration ecologist (Bauckham 2010).

3.2 Created co-creators

The idea of humans as co-creators or even co-redeemers is another popular model—it is advanced in particular by Philip Hefner (Hefner 1993). The emphasis here is on the impossibility of not making a difference—accepting that humans will always change the places we are involved in and to embrace that and participate in it. God created one thing, but we innovate on that creativity, like jazz players riffing off of each other’s melodies.

When it comes to human involvement in restoration, it means that fictions like the Knepp farm are not a problem but are precisely part of the human vocation. Yes, it is a managed environment, but it is a merging of the natural way of life of the animals and of human actions. It is like a painter who is both expressing their own vision through the mediums of paint and canvas, but equally is constrained by the nature of those materials.

In light of climate change, this sort of model may become more and more important. In many places, the work of restoring native species to damaged land is futile, because the conditions have changed enough that they are no longer viable. So, for example, on the west coast of Canada, the longer and drier summers mean several native plant species that are adapted to rainforest conditions are simply going to go extinct in that area. The question restoration ecologists face is whether they should bring similar but drought-resistant species up from California to fill that empty niche in the ecosystem, or whether the ecological niche should simply be left vacant (though inaction will have knock-on effects on the animals that depend on those species for food or shelter).

If we are stewards of the land, then we probably want to take the second option: do what we can to keep out invasive species and let them be. If we are co-creators, then the idea of creating a novel ecosystem intentionally becomes more appealing: sustain the function of the ecosystem while changing its composition.

The idea of being a co-redeemer is fraught with important choices since it implies creative action. For example, if climate change eliminates the regular way of life for a species, how should we respond? Think of polar bears, starving as the arctic ice disappears. What actions can we take to work with God in redeeming their lives if the northern ice is already doomed?

Do we:

  1. Put them in zoos, perhaps for centuries, until we have figured out a fix for climate change and can set them back in their environment?
  2. Bring them south and encourage mating with Grizzly bears, creating the “grolar” bear? Some polar bears have done this already on their own, but perhaps we could encourage it as a way to preserve a remnant of the species.
  3. Move them to Antarctica where ocean ice and seals still exist in abundance? This last option would fit well with the idea that we are creatively making a new world in cooperation with the other species. But it may have serious unintended consequences. What if polar bears realised that quite apart from clever and elusive seals, there are literally sitting ducks in the penguin populations? Is the preservation of polar bears worth the possible extinction of penguins? Too cavalier a view of the redemptive and creative prowess of humans would not result in a new paradise, but rather in additionally destructive outcomes for other species. As James Lovelock said, “we are no more qualified to be stewards or developers of the Earth than are goats to be gardeners” (Quoted in Bauckham 2010, 3).

Yet, in some ecosystems, every marker of health is increased by careful management. Forests, for example, have long life cycles where dominant trees like oaks or firs eventually form monocultures which squeeze out most other life. Eventually, after centuries, these trees die and fast-growth trees and shrubs move in, providing for a multitude of wildlife until the slow-growing trees eventually dominate again. With careful management of woods, biodiversity can be maintained in the woods: a mixture of old and young trees, fast-growing and slow, and the woods can support a greater population and biodiversity of wildlife (Pommerening and Murphy 2004).

There is, perhaps, another almost opposite way of seeing co-creation. If we are to create in imitation of God, it is interesting to note that much of divine creation happens in the course of letting other creatures simply be themselves. Open and Process views of God emphasise the freedom offered to creation—not only moral freewill to humans, but the freedom of agency offered to all living beings (and in process thought, non-living creatures as well). Ruth Page, in God and the Web of Creation (1996) speaks of two concepts that originated with Heidegger as key for describing the relationship of God to the creation. The first, Gelassenheit, means “releasement, or letting be”–it is an active letting go that allows the other to selve. As Page writes, “It is a valuable way to understand God in creation, for it is more creative and supportive than mere permission, but not determining in the way that causation is normally understood. It therefore expresses freedom without loss of power on the part of the one releasing, and a consequent freedom to experiment and explore for those let be” (2018, 7).

This kind of letting be is quite close to the way that Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell, the owners of Knepp, talk about their decision-making in the wilding project. “Rewilding,” Tree writes, “is letting go, allowing nature to take the driving seat. In contrast, conventional conservation in Britain tends to be about targets and control, doing everything humanly possible to preserve the status quo, sometimes to micro-manage a particular habitat for the perceived benefit of several chosen species, or just a single, favoured one.” (Tree 2018, 8) As a theological concept, Gelassenheit “concerns a God who let possibility be without designing how it should be fulfilled” (Page 1996, 8). It offers a broader view of conservation, one where we imitate God’s creativity by refraining from the sort of specified outcomes the Society of Ecological Restoration champions and instead simply give room to be. One of the problems with specific targets is that we often don’t know enough about species to really know where or how they prefer to live. All animal observations in post-industrial times offer so little wilderness that many species may be living in less-than-ideal conditions simply because those are the only places where they can hold on. Our observations lead us to think that this is the species norm and we design our “restoration” accordingly—in reality depriving them of their proper flourishing. Species like nightingales, purple emperor butterflies, and turtle doves have been found in increasing numbers in re-wilded thorny scrub land when all modern conservation books dubbed them as close-canopied woodland species (Tree 2018). There were simply not enough fields of thorny scrub left in England to show that this is what they really preferred.

The second concept Ruth Page draws from Heidegger is “Mitsein”: being with others. If you ask what God does in the world, Page’s answer is that God establishes and maintains relationships of love with creatures (Page 1996, 52-55). What does this mean? Perhaps just to know and be known: God’s work is to learn about creatures, and to reveal God’s-self to creatures. In this, human action in imitation of God would allow all the tools of the sciences to study and understand nature—but not to control it.

If our co-creation is in imitation of God, this letting-go and being-with become valid ways to fulfil a human vocation without exploitation of wilderness areas: though it would still require us to set aside parts of the earth as wilderness. It leads to visions like E. O. Wilson’s hope that half the ground and half the oceans should be left as wild places for the rest of species—which would require a significant constriction of human land use, and an even more intensive use of the land we currently farm (Wilson 2017).

3.3 Priests of creation

The third view we will explore is that of humans as priests of creation. This is particularly held by Eastern Orthodox theologians, like John Zizioulas and John Chryssavgis. T.F. Torrance and Christopher Southgate have also made use of this imagery, that as priests, humans are in a unique place to be the servants of divine love (Torrance 2001, 1-14). The priestly role of humans is also present in Roman Catholic thought in thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin who, rather famously, once ran out of bread and wine and so conducted a mass where he offered the creation itself to God (King 2005, 145). That is the image: of treating the creation as a sacrament rather than as a resource, and ourselves as its priests. The natural world is something we use to some extent to give us life, just as the bread and wine consumed during a mass do physically nourish, but it is also treated with a special reverence, with care shown for the procurement and disposal of all the elements.

It is, in short, a way to envision a sacred relationship with the earth from within the Christian tradition rather than drawing on popular narratives like the concept of Gaia. This model also preserves the sense of service: the priest is in some senses a leader, but in more senses is the servant and is even a sacrifice for the good of the community. Of all the models, this is the only one that assumes and makes central the place of sacrifice: the need to give up self in costly ways for the good of others. The priest, imitating the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, holds a powerful image of limiting one’s own flourishing for the sake of others, however poorly that vocation has been practiced in the actual history of the Church.

A potentially problematic aspect is that there is an assumption of the need for human mediation between God and other species. Did creation lack contact with God through all the long ages of evolutionary development before humans arrived? Are the solitary deep-sea squid even now awaiting our discovery of underwater living so that we can draw them into this mystic mediation? It seems unlikely. Rather, they live out their part of the song of creation as humans live out theirs. And that leads to our final model:

3.4 Part of the community of creation

Paul Santmire and Elizabeth Johnson advocate that we must look beyond stewardship—that we must see ourselves as simply part of the community of creation: a partner with the rest of life (Santmire 2006, 253-276; Johnson 2015, 267-269). Many biblical passages, such as Psalm 98 or 104 or Isaiah 55, particularly the Psalms and Prophets envision the whole earth, and the oceans, and all that is on or in them as offering their own praise to God, not articulated through human tongues (as might be the case in Psalm 19) but through their own means. Humans are part of that community chorus or orchestra, and each member must perform their part. It is this image of the symphony of creation that may offer a really practical way forward for thinking through human action in ecological restoration.

A symphony orchestra entails a whole group of different kinds of instruments doing different sorts of jobs towards a singular end. There is leadership amongst the orchestra—not just the conductor, but the first violin and the lead of each section. Think of the ecology, if I can use that term, of the orchestra. In each case, the efforts of the players have to be coordinated. But no one part can do the whole work—in every instance, the players do their own part and trust to the composer and the conductor to create the harmonies.

Humans are part of the created world. Our excellence can exalt the performance of other life, and our failures definitely can ruin the whole performance for everyone. Power in an orchestra is not a zero-sum game. It is not competitive: one does not play at the expense of another, rather it is cooperative and enabling.

When it comes to the natural world, to see ourselves as part of the community of creation, part of this symphony of life, our task is not to perform or manage the work of others, but to play our part in harmony with other life. Our work and our identity then become part of this cooperative exchange—a perichoresis or co-inherence that enhances the work of other creatures without replacing or managing. This is really very similar to what I explored in Ruth Page above—the Gelassenheit and Mitzwein—the main difference is that her account is intended to be hierarchical: the letting-be and being-with are the actions of one with a position of superior power. Being part of the community of creation also takes our hands off the driving wheel but does so because the other is a partner in creation.

Practically speaking, I think this would lead to restoration efforts that have more to do with protecting wilderness areas, and (when expanding them into badly damaged land) keeping interventions quite minimal without forbidding them altogether. As in the case of a forest, minimal interventions may allow greater health for all species compared to no interventions at all. At most, we participate with God’s work in the world, but the ultimate work of both creation and redemption are God’s. Like the violins, we are an integral part of creation, but we are neither conductor nor composer, nor are we meant to go take over for the basoonist. The work of restoration, then, is God’s ultimate work. Our job is not so much to create new ecosystems or co-redeem the world, but to listen to the rest of the orchestra and try to pick up the performance in harmony. We enter into the exchange of the world, receiving and giving, eating and—in turn—being eaten. We have a unique gift to give with our specialised brains and technological power, but earthworms also have a unique gift to give in processing uncounted tons of soil every year.

Ecological restoration in this mode is cautious, humble, and ready to learn. Interventions are gentle, like steering a boat or driving on ice. We can move quickly in preventing harm or cutting CO2 emissions, but move very slowly in introducing solutions in the way the co-creator might.

Objections to this model might claim that it is over-romantic. A human population of 7.8 billion that is still growing cannot simply leave large portions of the earth unmanaged. This approach might work for isolated pockets of land or sea, but if humans are not going to starve en masse then we need restoration efforts to work hand in hand with agricultural, forestry, and fishery efforts. That will require management. Even in areas that are left largely alone, ongoing management efforts are still required to stop stealing and poaching. The ideal of playing alongside in harmony is not realistic in an orchestra where many humans insist on killing and burning the other sections.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, I’ve outlined some of the difficulties faced by the emerging science of restoration ecology: how it tries to restore ecosystems to their historical trajectories, and the challenges that mission faces in light of climate change and long histories of human action. The science tells us how to restore, but not why or what the human role is. The second half of this paper explored four different models used by eco-theologians: stewards, created co-creators (or co-redeemers), priests of creation, and part of the community of creation. Each of these was weighed for their usefulness in providing a model of human activity in restoration ecology. In terms of restoration, perhaps we actually need a plurality of models—models of co-creation in areas of particular damage like strip mines or clear-cut forests, and models of letting-be in oceans and arctic. This would lessen the reliance on standards of restoration and encourage principles of care, leaving local practice to rely on local wisdom. Whatever is chosen, it is clear that the human role, the actions of that .01% of life, cannot help being a central place in the shaping of the future of the earth.


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Cite this article

Sollereder, Bethany. 2021. “Can Theology Help Us Understand the Human Role in Environmental Restoration?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 3).

Contact the author

Bethany Sollereder
[email protected]

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