Stewardship: How to Help the Earth

In Genesis 19, Lot had lived so long and so contented among ungodly people that he was no longer a believable witness for God. He had allowed his environment to shape him, rather than he shaping his environment.

Anyone who has lived in Florida during the past decade knows the toll that the state’s booming population and development have taken on the environment.

Seemingly overnight, cattle pastures have turned into shopping centers and wooded areas have become subdivisions as the state’s rampant growth has eaten into the natural areas that make Florida unique. As a result, water supplies are taxed, native plants and animals are becoming scarcer and green space is being gobbled up, leaving many areas of the state looking like an endless concrete jungle.

The next 10 years will be critical as Florida leaders struggle to strike a balance between growth and conserving natural resources. How it will end depends on what we – as Floridians and as Christians -are willing to do to protect the environment and encourage others to do the same.

From the earliest pages of the Bible, Christians are called upon to be stewards of the environment, to care for the creation that God has bestowed upon us. This mandate is reflected in many of the prayers that we, as Episcopalians, recite seeking to use our natural resources wisely.

“If you believe that God created the heavens and Earth and all the creation on the planet, you should be concerned – why would you want to destroy God’s creation?” asked Robert Bendick, Florida state director of The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit group that buys and preserves biologically important land. “If you care about plants and people and animals, you should care about the environment.”

“The Diocese of Central Florida is in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the United States, so we need to be educating our people,” said Rev. Al Jenkins of All Saints Episcopal Church, Lakeland, and immediate past chair of the diocesan stewardship committee.

“Awareness will help us participate with others in managing the impact residential and corporate development have upon our quality of life, our wildlife, and our natural resources.”

No where is caring and prayer more needed than in Florida, where the population has more than doubled from 6.8 million people to 15.9 million – a number expected to hit 20.4 million by the year 2020. All those people need housing, roads, food, utilities, schools, and other resources that tax our natural systems.

The next 10 to 15 years will be critical, Bendick predicted. “The rate of change is so astonishing – population growth development – and the natural systems in Florida are so delicate and interconnected.”

The biggest challenge may be finding enough water to supply thirsty residents.

The St. Johns River Water Management District, which covers 19 counties in central and northeastern Florida, is worried about future water supplies. Most drinking water now comes from aquifers, with huge underground reservoirs, but by 2020, many counties in the district will not have enough water to supply their needs without harming natural resources such as rivers, lakes and springs. As a result, the water management district is searching for alternatives, which may include seawater desalinization and using more water directly from the St. Johns River.

Urban sprawl is another problem that must be addressed. A recent study by the Sierra Club rated Florida poorly in its ability to curb sprawl – development that moves into natural areas without needed infrastructure. That means houses in the way of wildfires with no protection, runoff of yard fertilizers into pristine lakes and rivers, and bears in back yards.

Although the state mandates that local communities have plans to manage current and future growth, those plans have been ineffective. The only real control is elected leaders who are committed to making growth pay for itself while encouraging urban redevelopment, preserving green space and promoting mass transit to reduce road construction and congestion.

Another big concern is the quality of Florida’s air. Floridians must reduce their reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline and natural gas by using carpools, solar energy, mass transit, and by improving energy efficiency in vehicles, buildings and homes.

“Florida is running out of cheap water, inexpensive land, cheap energy, and clean air because we are wasteful, inefficient in our energy use, and pollute our air and water with carbon-fossil fuels,” said Dr. Joseph Siry of the Alliance for Florida’s Future.

“The future will not be as cost-free as the recent past or immediate present. We will have to be smarter and repair the damage we are causing as the seams unravel to the weal that is our common heritage – water, energy, air and landscape.”

Perhaps the only means of maintaining what is best about Florida is through purchase and preservation of land. In 1998, Floridians overwhelmingly approved a Constitutional amendment creating Forever Florida, a 10-year, $3 billion program to buy and save environmentally sensitive lands. This proposal was a continuation of Preservation 2000, which during its decade-long run preserved more than 1 million acres. Many local governments have approved additional local initiatives to preserve land.

Still, it is estimated that the state annually loses 200,000 acres of open space and habitat to sprawl. Which makes it imperative that the next decade be one in which Floridians support land preservation while stepping up to the challenges of growth and preserving the environment.

“It’s not a doom prophecy but the future is in our hands,” said TNC’s Bendick. “It is still possible to save the basic structure of natural Florida so all of Florida’s native plants and animals can survive. But possible means it won’t happen unless people make it happen.”