Older Adulthood and Stewardship of the Environment

“As to our own planet which God has given us for a dwelling place, we must be mindful that it is given in stewardship. The power over nature that scientific knowledge has put into our hands, if used in lust or greed, fear or hatred, can lead us to utter destruction. Now as never before we have the choice of life and death. If we choose life now we may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick on a world scale, thus creating new conditions for spiritual advancement so often till now prevented by want. Many of our resources—of oil, coal and of uranium—are limited. If by condoning luxury we overspend the allowance God has given us, our children’s children will be cheated of their inheritance…”
Norfolk, Cambs&Hunts Quarterly Meeting, London Yearly Meeting, 1957, Quoted in PYM Faith and Practice, 2002

Engaging in multigenerational conversation and activities can help carry our values and forward into the future. Quakers have a testimony on Stewardship of the Environment, and in this concern the wisdom passed between generations may be especially crucial. In your spiritual community, it is the older adults who know what once grew in the field where the strip mall now stands. If you understand where the underground springs lie, or where the lady slippers grew in the woods, chances are it was an older neighbor who passed that wisdom on.

One key to stewardship of the environment may be shared experiences and wisdom passed through generations. Communities can be intentional in providing opportunities for relationships to develop that promote this generativity, or it may happen naturally. Francis Irwin of Yardley Friends Meeting once found himself explaining to young Friends why he was often spotted picking worms off the road after a rainstorm. Francis had noticed that there were not as many earthworms as there used to be, and he knew that they were not likely to survive on asphalt. By moving as many worms as possible back to the soil, he felt he was doing his small part for the environment. This story encouraged children in the Meeting to rescue worms from their own sidewalks and driveways, and they remember this lesson from Francis to this day.

Those who have lived history can teach us what we may have lost in our local fields and forests, and what has not worked in sustaining a healthy environment. They can also help us understand what will work. Grandparents and our older teachers can teach us about what has changed in our environment and often know ways to live more simply within our ecological means.

The oldest among us have already lived through times where conservation was a necessity. Mike Davis, in “Home-Front Ecology: What our grandparents can teach us about saving the world” (Sierra Magazine, read here) says, “The World War II home front was the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history. Lessing Rosenwald, the chief of the Bureau of Industrial Conservation, called on Americans ‘to change from an economy of waste — and this country has been notorious for waste — to an economy of conservation’.”*

Children today are increasingly disconnected from nature. Many have never planted a seed in the ground or picked an apple from a tree to eat. Meat is from a Styrofoam package; broccoli grows under fluorescent lights in the produce aisle; beans come frozen in a plastic bag. Much is disposable or expendable. Yet science is telling us that we need to adopt different ways if human life is to continue on this planet, and the knowledge held by our oldest is precious.

In From Ageing to Sageing, Zalman Schachter Shalomi quotes Brooke Medicine Eagle, who has observed, “Elders serve the larger world not from mystic sentimentalism but from a felt experience, matured through contemplation, that the world is one family that they feel connected to through bonds of love. Their deepened sense of time, and the sense of responsibility it calls forth, heighten the intimate care they extend to all of creation.”*

Ideas for Spiritual Communities:

  • Work with elders to identify trees and other plants on your grounds. Start an Environment History Journal for your place of worship with this information, and continue to add to it as trees are planted or die. Consider expanding this outside your property, to the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Plant a tree in honor of a birth, a death, or a birthday.
  • Start a tradition to clean a vacant lot together, or stretch of woods. Engage people who may be less mobile in explaining the natural history of the area, or in recording what natural life you find there.
  • Engage in brainstorming about conservation. In what ways can we save energy, reduce, reuse, or recycle? Were things done differently in the past—for example did you always use paper towels? Disposable cups during shared meals? What new technology can we learn about that may serve in stewardship of the environment?
  • Assist a frail elder to take a nature walk.
  • Bring flowers, autumn leaves, pinecones, pictures of the trees in bloom on your place of worship to a friend who is homebound or living in a care facility.

“Let us show a loving consideration for all God’s creatures. Let kindness know no limits…”
Faith and Practice, New England Yearly Meeting, 1985

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More articles on this website:

Celebrating Lives and Life Stories
Generativity and Aging

Other Articles/Links:

Eco-mall environmentally friendly products, personal care items, clothing and household items
The Legacy Project multigenerational project for change
Green Seniors

Sources/Further Reading:

Brooke Medicine Eagle, quoted by Zalman Schachter Shalomi and Ronald S Miller, page 142, From Ageing to Sageing, New York, Grand Central Publishing, 1997.

Mike Davis, “Home Front Ecology: What our grandparents can teach us about saving the world.”, Sierra Magazine, January, 2009

Richard Louv, Last Child in The Woods, 2008 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.

Zalman Schachter Shalomi and Ronald S Miller, From Ageing to Sageing, 1997, Grand Central Publishing, New York.