“After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” In 1879, Gerard Manly Hopkins lamented the destruction of a line of trees with this line of poetry. He captures a sense of loss that we’ve all felt when something that we love has been destroyed. But more than that, he captures the loss of those who will never have a chance to know what we loved. There is a gap where those trees once stood, a gap that future generations will see but will never perceive.
Hopkins isn’t just mourning a few trees. He’s touching on a far deeper idea, a concept we now know as “sustainability.” It’s a word that seems to be on the tip of everybody’s tongue in the last few years, applied to everything from fisheries to our shopping habits. We’re probably most familiar with it as an environmental concept, but at heart the concern for sustainability includes everything that’s necessary for fully human lives. Perhaps the current emphasis reflects a timely recognition that when we fail to sustain that which is truly precious, the result will be human misery.
It matters in every area of life, and it’s a moral obligation that we owe to our ancestors and our descendants—the obligation of stewardship.
Imagine that you’ve been the victim of a crime, but the police turn a blind eye because the criminal paid them off, or that you live somewhere where government ministers take bribes to give out favours and award state contracts. We take it for granted that this won’t happen in New Zealand, and we’re rightly proud that we’ve sustained a political culture where transparency is the norm and corruption is almost non-existent—but not everyone has this culture, as New Zealand firms sometimes find out when they do business overseas.
Now imagine a world where trust has been eroded by a history of family members informing on each other to totalitarian authorities. That’s not something a novelist made up, that’s part of the legacy that affects many people in modern China. Or try to put yourself in a situation where companies lie about their performance and manipulate their finances to deceive investors, markets, and regulators and line their own pockets. Then recall the fraud and insider trading that took place at Enron, and remember that we need a strong culture of ethics to sustain individual firms and the economies they make up.
Then think of a country where being accepted and participating in society means giving up your language and culture, and adopting the views, language, and customs of another tradition so that the day comes when almost no-one speaks the native language, and where traditional knowledge and customs are in danger of extinction as accepted ways of building lives and communities together. Losing these precious things—these taonga—is all too painfully real for many Māori and other indigenous cultures around the world, who now strive to regain and sustain the culture of their forebears; honouring their heritage and identity.
In 1997, one of my former colleagues was living in Brunei, wearing a full face respirator that looked like a World War I gas mask. Sleeping was a problem, and going out meant being completely enveloped by an amorphous wall of acrid white smoke from forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia—started to clear rainforest for palm oil plantations. His wife and their children had evacuated to Christchurch because their young lungs were vulnerable to the haze. The fires were so intense that the peat below ground caught alight, making it impossible to put them out. In the end, the fires ate themselves out, but not before they had devoured millions of hectares of rainforest and ravaged people’s health and lives. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing is happening today.
These brief examples show that there are many areas where we need to act sustainably—politics, social relationships, economics, culture, and the environment, to name a few.
Because we need each of these areas to live well, we can’t simply prioritise one above the others. It’s not real sustainability if business is booming but we’re abusing the environment. Likewise, it’s not real sustainability if we’re keeping the environment pristine by preventing people from using resources in a reasonable way to make a living. In real life, we have to make trade-offs between each of these areas, and that will often be messy and uncertain—what kind of resource use is reasonable and how much is sustainable? The point is that we should be thinking about each of these areas together.
This thinking is part of our moral obligation to be good stewards. The term “stewardship” isn’t fashionable like sustainability, but it paints a fuller picture of what sustainability is, and why it’s not optional.
To be a steward is to take care of something that belongs to someone else—using it in a way that person would approve of, and handing it back undamaged or, preferably, improved. The great statesman, Edmund Burke, used the analogy of a trust or a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Instead, it’s our duty to pass it on as good as when we got it, if not better.
Of course, what our ancestors leave to us isn’t always good. Think of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, straining to break the inherited yoke of racist oppression and law. That’s why the obligation to be a steward isn’t simply to maintain what we’re given, but to improve it where necessary. To do this, we need to know if something in our inheritance is missing or distorted, which means we have to talk about what we need in order to live well, and we have to teach this to our children. Of course, we’ll never get it perfect—racism didn’t end in the 1960s. That’s why improving, sustaining and keeping our inheritance is a continual task, one that requires us to learn and renew, rediscover and recreate.
Think of this task in terms of Hopkins’ trees. There are “aspens” in our world: beautiful, important, life-sustaining things that have grown up around us, that we may even take for granted. Think of those things that we’d grieve for if they were mown down, the things we’d have to slowly and painstakingly regrow. And then think of the gratitude that we owe to the people who planted those for us a long time ago; not for their own enjoyment, but for the after-comers. Sustainability is both a challenge and an opportunity; we can either pass on a desolate gap that after-comers will never perceive, or bless them with a richer inheritance than we received. To be a good steward, sustaining the things we need to live well, is one way we live out the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. Ultimately, therefore, sustainability is about love. Love for the person beside us, their children, and the world that is our home.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being sÓ slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.