Fairer society & stewardship of the natural world
16th May 2022
Author: Jeffrey Tang, PhD1 and Christie-Joy Hartman, PhD2
1Associate Dean, College of Integrated Science and Engineering (CISE); 2Executive Director, Institute for Stewardship of the Natural World (ISNW); James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
James Madison University (JMU) is one among a few universities to make an explicit institutional commitment to environmental stewardship, creating an 'Institute for Stewardship of the Natural World (ISNW) in 2008.
As a public university named after President James Madison who author Andrea Wulf described as the "forgotten father of American environmentalism," this approach fits well. JMU connects with the Shenandoah Valley and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and stewardship is at the heart of the agency implied by the university's tagline, 'Being the Change'. Stewardship emphasises the moral and practical obligations we collectively have to promote environmental well-being, and complements JMU's 'Ethical Reasoning in Action' initiative that links classroom learning in ethics to daily decision-making.
Stewardship and sustainability are used at JMU to engage students in helping solve the world's problems. The ISNW promotes cultural change for environmental stewardship and sustainability, focused on a broader sense of citizenship. There is evidence this approach is working. For example, JMU participants completing a sustainability faculty development program that included environmental stewardship said it "enhanced their course redesign by providing real-world relevance, awareness, and engagement." As JMU emphasises community and civic engagement, and engaged learning, these outcomes are highly valued.
What is environmental stewardship?
Welchman posits an expansive and flexible definition, "Environmental stewardship is the responsible management of human activity affecting the natural environment to ensure the conservation and preservation of natural resources and values for the sake of future generations of human and other life on the planet, together with the acceptance of significant answerability for one's conduct to society."
In the United States, the concept of responsibility for environmental quality has its roots in Native American cultures, farming, hunting, conservation, and spiritual practices. In the 1960s, theologians discussed stewardship in the context of Christianity and the environment, tapping into deeper history of the religion.  The United States Environmental Protection Agency identifies key groups and their environmental stewardship roles, including individuals, companies, communities, and governments. Further, the concept can refer to actions "taken at diverse scales, from local to global efforts, and in both rural and urban contexts." After a two-day environmental stewardship workshop at the University of Winnipeg in 1994, the coordinator observed, "Perhaps the most provocative of all of the aspects of stewardship discussed during the workshop was the potential of this action-oriented environmental ethic for human transformation and ecological preservation/restoration evidenced in some of the presentations." We agree!
Environmental stewardship does have its critics. Some find the term hierarchical, utilitarian, or oblivious to the interconnections between human and ecological systems. Others see it as lacking accountability absent a higher divine power, and some say it is "inherently sexist, speciesist and/or anthropocentric." Ironically, anthropocentricity is arguably a strength to the extent that it focuses on human agency and accountability.
What is sustainability?
While many higher education institutions have made a university-level commitment to sustainability, it means different things to different people. Some adopt a largely environmental focus, others view sustainability more broadly across the interconnected environmental, social, and economic dimensions.  While there are many scholarly definitions of sustainability, leading professor Mark A. White proposes an actionable shared vision using a visually-appealing ménage of terms in his commentary piece, "Sustainability: I know it when I see it." A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2020) report about sustainability curricula defines sustainability as "achieving individual, societal, and environmental well-being in present and future generations. The pursuit of sustainability explicitly links social, economic, and environmental goals. It requires understanding and working with the dynamics of socio-environmental systems." However, there is a concern that students, especially undergraduates, can become overwhelmed, disheartened, or even demoralised when first encountering complex sustainability issues. Further, an emphasis on systems can implicitly de-emphasise individual actions, and thus fail to motivate students and citizens more generally.
A call to action
Stewardship and sustainability, with their positive attributes and drawbacks, are among the lenses that have been used at JMU to engage students as problem solvers. Currently, a group of JMU administrators coordinating students' real-world experiences (in community-service learning, global engagement, civic engagement, academics, and stewardship of the natural world) is working with fellow members of the University Global Coalition (UGC) to engage students around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This set of 17 goals recognises "that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests." Connecting to the SDG framework in a global partnership offers hope that students will feel energised by the possibilities of systemic change. Regardless of approach, we in higher education should heed the UGC's's call to recognise our obligation to "educate and inspire students to play an active role in addressing the most pressing issues confronting our world today, produce new ideas that can lead to new solutions, and collaborate with other organisations to create awareness, support and even lead local and global efforts." This includes embracing student engagement for the betterment of people and planet in its various guises.
See the JMU video about our work.
We are passionate about working with researchers globally to deliver a fairer, more inclusive society. This perhaps has never been more important than in today’s divided world.