open bible resting on a sandy beach

Replenish the earth and subdue it; the bible tells me so

Wilderness may no longer exist because we have dominion. Manipulation of nature into goods and services is what humans do well. Better than any other organism. Can we keep doing it?

Here is an interesting injunction. 

replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”.

Genesis 1:28

It explains a lot about human behaviour, especially those people in the west, many of whom default to the word of the Lord even though they have not been to church on a sunday for a generation. 

The edict sets up a war on nature because if we don’t fight the wilderness it will consume us, the evil forces of entropy will turn us into dust. We have to bring nature under our control by capturing its production for our food and fibre and removing the nasty predators and pests from our presence.

Guardian columnist Jeff Sparrow suggests that the ‘wilderness’ no longer exists – but we can make things on Earth better because before we had “capitalist agriculture driven by the imperatives of individual enrichment” we had a different approach to nature. 

Aboriginal peoples did things very differently, even as they changed nature for their benefit. 

At sustainably FED we agree. 

More than once we have stood in a rainforest that modern science considers pristine. But the first peoples who live there know that it was moulded by their ancestors who planted what they wanted and discouraged species with no obvious use. 

The result of millennia of human interventions is that the proportion of ‘useful’ trees is far greater than by chance not because people found new uses in all the different trees but because they increased the percentage of useful ones. 

The same applies to the westernised landscapes of Australia.

There is little doubt that the use of fire by aboriginal peoples gave the continent its eucalyptus forests that are dominated by tree species able to regenerate from seed or epicormic growth even after severe fire events. 

firefighter hoses down a wildfire in the Blue Mountains, Australia in 2013
fighting a wildfire in the Blue Mountains, Australia 2013

Manipulation of nature is older than the plough and much older than the bulldozer and the tractor.

However, we could borrow from these older, more benign ways of moulding nature, that are more collective than for the individual. 

A forest dweller who sets a tree seedling to create a forest ‘garden’ close to his village will not see the fruits of that tree. His son might even need to wait until he is an elder. Collective use was intergenerational care not something for todays market. This is the opposite of modern capitalism that turns capital into goods and services for immediate profit. But it suggests that it is possible to restore nature, to repair some of the damage done in pursuit of profit.

We certainly could do this restoration and rehabilitation of nature. Only there is a snag. We can’t currently replace capitalism. 

If we can understand the natural dynamics of the system and match the use of resources to that dynamic, then it is possible to return toward a wilderness. For example, we can rest paddocks sometimes or lower expectations on production during a drought or allow regrowth rather than constantly ‘tidying’ it up. 

These and a multitude of other actions could ease us away from dominion and closer to the alignment of production to the pulse of the natural world. 

However, it is near impossible at present to replace the “imperative of individual enrichment”. This is as entrenched as any biblical edict. Nay, it even draws on it for sustenance.

It would need a mighty powerful political change to displace profit.

Humanity faces a monumental challenge 

Food production for 8 billion human souls growing in number by over 70 million a year and remembering that this means feeding them every day for at least 100 years will require intensive agriculture — there will be some dominion over the living things. 

And under our current paradigm, we will be doing it not with nature foremost but profit.  

We can make things better and we must. Only we cannot do it from the premise that we fight nature. In that, we agree with Jeff Sparrow and the thoughts of Emma Marris in her book Rambunctious Garden that he quotes. 

We should also follow the biblical edict and ‘replenish the earth’.

We also cannot do this by assuming that we must return to wilderness nature for that is not only a convenient myth but also a place that will not meet current demand. 

Ask any economist what happens to people when supply consistently fails to meet demand. 

It is never pretty. 

lilly flower on a green backdrop

What sustainably FED suggests…

Concentrate on actions to ‘replenish the earth’ but we are going to have to use the forces of capitalism to that end. 

This is not an easy solution for capitalism is corrupted by the ‘individual enrichment’ drive that we all find so hard to resist but we need to figure out some options.

Here is one. 

Convert as much organic waste as possible into biochar by burning it in the absence of oxygen and then putting the biochar onto fields and pastures. This bumps carbon levels in the soil, increases water retention and aids nutrient exchange. Invest in the biochar plant and make money.

Sounds a bit whacky but there are many left-field ideas like this one. 

Do you have a suggestion? Feel free to leave a comment or ask us a question

sustainably FED

Hero image modifiedfrom a photo by Ben White on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed