And God said, 'Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.' And it was so. God called the dry ground 'land,' and the gathered waters he called 'seas.' And God saw that it was good. Then God said, 'Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.' And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the third day. (Genesis 1:9-13, New International Version)
Human life is life on and from the land, even if we walk on cement pavement and buy our food at the supermarket. While most of us in the United States today live in cities, and few of us live as close to the soil as the people of biblical times, what we do nonetheless depends on and has an impact on the ecological processes that take place on the surface of the earth. We do well to remember God’s powerful words to the ancient Israelites: “The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." (Leviticus 25:23b)
The surface of the earth is a variegated patchwork of habitats — fields and forests, wetlands and mountain wildernesses, deserts and prairies — each with their own collection of nonhuman inhabitants. While we have turned many of these landscapes to our own use, some we have set aside as wildlife reserves and wilderness areas, thus recognizing that we are not the sole inhabitants of the planet.
At the same time, land is “property” as well as habitat. Decisions about land use and environmental regulations that affect how individuals or businesses can use their lands, or who has access to public lands and for what uses, are politically charged and even explosive. Land use issues are often, if not always, environmental justice issues.
Agriculture is the human activity most directly tied to the land, but our economy makes use of other resources on and under the land in addition, such as timber, minerals, and fossil fuels. Urban development and transportation networks consume land and compete with these other uses and with the preservation of wildlife habitat.
In the ecological web of life, materials and energy flow between the land, the atmosphere, the waters and human bodies in never-ending cycles, carrying with them pollutants as well as what is needed to sustain life and health.