Caretakers or Pioneers?

Christopher Nolan is no small name in Hollywood. Known for blockbuster hits like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Dunkirk, the director never fails to deliver thought-provoking, intense movies. Given this record, many were disappointed by his 2014 space adventure, Interstellar. The time-bending story received mixed reviews from fans and critics. However, the film raises interesting questions about human ingenuity, love, the environment, and social progress.

In the film, the earth is in the midst of crisis. Crop blight and dust storms have caused a massive shortage of food. Earth is quickly becoming uninhabitable. Cooper, a former NASA pilot and engineer, now runs a small farm with his father-in-law and two children. He never got a chance to explore space, due to the crisis on earth. After an unpleasant confrontation with staff at his daughter’s school (where they are teaching that the moon landing was a hoax), Cooper laments to his father-in-law the fact that humans have become “caretakers” instead of pioneers.

Who are We?
Cooper complains, “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are . . . explorers, pioneers, not caretakers.” Cooper seems to have a negative view of caretakers, pitting this against the idea of being an explorer or pioneer. But are these ideas opposed? Perhaps it would be helpful to define our terms. According to Webster’s dictionary, a caretaker is “one who takes care of the house or land of an owner who may be absent.”1 While a pioneer is “a person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity or a new method of technical development.”2

If the Christian worldview is correct, these two ideas need not be pitted against each other. In Genesis 1:27-28, God made people in his image. Part of what this means is that humans are to stand in for God’s rule on the earth. God sets his image-bearers in the garden to work, take care of, and wisely steward his good creation. In this sense, we are caretakers. We are commanded to steward the planet. The Creator of the universe has entrusted the planet to our care. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned it and left us completely on our own, but he has given us responsibility rule it well.

Being a caretaker is actually a tremendous responsibility, but there is more to the biblical vision than this. According to Genesis, we are also pioneers. God made a good world, but an incomplete world. Notice that there are things for people to do at the beginning of creation. The earth wasn’t pre-populated. Cities weren’t built, not all gardens were planted. Humans are commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. God doesn’t say, “Alright, I’m giving you charge of my house. Don’t touch anything, don’t change anything, don’t move anything. Just make sure to let the dog out every now and then.” No! Instead, God gives humans the task of making the world a more beautiful place!

Humans are to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28). Unfortunately, people sometimes take this to mean that Christians should exploit the earth and abuse it in the service of human progress. However, that is not the correct interpretation. “Subdue” here refers to the idea of bringing things into order and obedience to God’s good rule. As theologian Francis Schaeffer says, “we are to exercise our dominion over these things . . . as things borrowed or held in trust . . . Man’s dominion is under God’s dominion.”3 That means bringing abundance out of the earth and caring for it, using its resources wisely, not abusing and exploiting it. Humans are really God’s way of blessing the earth—but some would beg to differ.

What is the Problem?
In pursuit of worthy goals like saving ecosystems and protecting forests, extreme environmentalists often identify humans as the scourge of the earth. They seem most concerned with saving the environment even if that means eliminating people. We may think this is strange, but it’s actually an easy mistake to make. After all, it is humans who dump industrial waste into the rivers killing life forms, pollute natural sites with garbage and graffiti, and destroy picturesque landscapes to build highways that ruin the natural habitat of animals.

Humans are guilty of all these things, but isolating humans as the problem and calling for their elimination is a mistake. Think about it this way: suppose you get ill from drinking a gallon of soda every day. It rots out all your teeth. Would you say that soda is the problem? If only we eliminated soda, people would never get rotten teeth. Yes, perhaps so, but there are plenty of people who drink soda occasionally who do not get rotten teeth. Soda in reasonable quantities is actually refreshing. Would you say that soda is the problem or a lack of self-control?

It is the same way with the environment. Humans are not the problem so much as sin is the problem. For example, imagine you are looking out on a picturesque scene—rows upon rows of wheat. Anyone who has watched the sunset in a wheatfield knows that this is true beauty. But is this scene completely natural? No, it has been tampered with by humans. But the tampering has in some way made the landscape more beautiful. Discussing this idea, Roger Scruton notes that we can “appreciate the scene as marked by a way of life, a repeated homebuilding and homecoming.”4 These types of landscapes are tied together with human significance and culture. Scruton sees these landscapes as “the free elaboration of nature, in which human beings appear because they too are natural, leaving behind them this unintended mark of their presence and unintended record of their griefs and joys.”5

Yes, humans have changed these places, but rather than exploiting the environment, they have actually made good use of the land, while creating another kind of beauty. Humans are not the scourge of the earth, sin is. It is sin that drives us to think of everything in the world as something that we can exploit. It is sin that makes us think only of our current desires instead of thinking about the enjoyment of future generations. It is sin that causes people to torture animals, tear up the natural beauty of the world without cause, and pollute rivers with toxic waste.

We need not be reactionaries here who worship the environment in opposition to those who misuse it. As Christians, we are stewards. Being a good steward means that we take care of God’s world, while caring most about the people that he put into it. It means thinking hard about how to bring abundance out of the earth and using our resources wisely, without depleting and destroying. It means thinking about the care and enjoyment of future generations. It means taking care of God’s world and thinking of innovative ways to make it a better place. We are Caretakers and Pioneers.

In one of the film’s most famous lines, Cooper remarks, “We used to look up in the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now, we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” When we look up at the stars, it ought to remind us that we are loved by God, that this world is a treasure, and that we have a responsibility here and now. This shouldn’t cause us to worry incessantly over our “place in the dirt,” but to seek ways to responsibly care for what God has entrusted to us.

Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!

Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.