On screen Espera Oscar de Corti paddles down a remote river. Rhythmic drums play in the background. The river leads Espera into an unknown city, a city choking from pollution. Trash clogs the waterway. Smog hangs heavy in the air. Just as Espera drags his canoe ashore, the passenger of a belching car casts a bag of trash at Espera’s feet and the rubbish spills everywhere.
An offscreen voice says, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.” And as Espera Oscar de Corti makes a dramatic turn toward the camera, a single giant tear runs down his wrinkled face.
This summary is of an early environmental advertisement by “The Keep America Beautiful” campaign. It is ranked as one of the greatest television commercials of all time, though not without issue. The actor, Espera Oscar de Corti, went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody” and claimed to be a Native American. He was actually Sicilian.
That bit of deception aside, the message of the ad was both honest and effective. Almost singlehandedly, it helped launch the activism of the contemporary environmental movement, turned world attention to the sordid impact humanity was having on the planet, and solidified the focus on recycling, sustainability, and eco-friendliness.
That advertisement ran 50 years ago this year (just after the first annual “Earth Day”), and since then almost every sector and entity on the planet has adopted more environmentally favorable policies, products, and attitudes (even if only for economic or public relations purposes). One coterie that has resisted this movement (beyond strip-miners, anti-environmentalists, and flat-earthers) is large swaths of Christianity.
Sadly, this is a dereliction of our primal duty. No, I’m not talking about the church giving its assent to a political or social agenda. I’m talking about stewardship, a faithful and responsive way of life that affirms humanity’s first divinely ordered task, way back in the extraordinary garden of Genesis 1: “Be responsible for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
Here is a Native American perspective – a genuine one from the Iroquois, not Iron Eyes Cody – that is exceptionally wise: The “Seven Generation Ethic.” While sometimes defined differently, these generations include the one living, the three generations that preceded it, and the three generations that will follow. What we possess was handed to us by our ancestors which, God willing, makes us grateful. And we will one day hand it all over to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – which, hopefully makes us conscious and careful.
Thus, these indigenous people were mindful of these relationships, and they understood what the equally ancient and wise Psalmist proclaimed: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it!” Maybe a summary of this abiding wisdom, primordial faith, native principle, and environmental activism coalesces with what our mothers and grandmothers taught us all: “Leave a place better than you found it.”