Looking at hunting scenes of the early cave paintings, we might be tempted to conclude that our ancestors’ sole aspiration was to conquer nature. Their environment was certainly hostile; their fight for survival terrifyingly real. And yet their relationship with nature was much more nuanced than that. If anything, there was a strong sense of a shared destiny, interdependence and awe.

Fast forward to the Age of Enlightenment, and Man, we were told, was the master of nature. In the centuries that followed, our self-professed dominance wreaked much havoc on the natural world. For one, it accelerated the rate at which species other than homo sapiens go extinct by up to 1,000 times, while our own populations are steadily on the rise.

Does this mean we have become masters of nature? Far from it. Even in this day and age, our knowledge about the diversity of life around us is perhaps only slightly deeper than the Stone Age humans’ familiarity with computer technology.

We have barely scratched the surface of the intricate ways in which nature sustains life on our planet. For instance, we know more about the surface of the moon today than we do about the depths of the oceans on Planet Earth. It is a humbling realization. It is also one that underpins the concept of environmental stewardship which has, too, existed since the dawn of humanity.

However, environmental stewardship means different things to different people. For indigenous people, it may be caring for the forest they live in and which is the source of their livelihood. For nomadic herders, it could be managing livestock in a way that does not deplete fragile arid soils or exacerbate competition over already scarce water resources.

For a mining company, it could be the way it selects a site for its operations. For a bank – the way it invests its shareholders’ money. For a government – the kind of policies and incentives it puts in place. Finally, for individuals it is about the choices we make as voters, consumers or parents.

All of these environmental stewardship decisions are based on a number of considerations – for the main part, economic ones. And herein lies the problem: environmental stewardship is often a “nice to have”, rather than a “must have” when it comes down to harsh economic or political realities.

As we have heard time and time again, environmental stewardship is all well and good so long as it does not impact a company’s bottom line, a politician’s poll ratings or a family’s bank balance. This is still pretty much where we are in 2014 – just one year before the deadline agreed by world leaders as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to achieve environmental sustainability.

We are now in the process of establishing a new set of goals – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – that would take us beyond 2015. Clearly, environmental stewardship has to be at the heart of these goals. How can we ensure that this time it really happens?

Over the past few years, we have seen some positive steps by leaders from the worlds of politics, business and civil society who pushed themselves outside their comfort zone. One such example from the business world is the B Team, which promotes a 10-step plan that puts people and planet alongside profits.

Another important change deals with the question of where we place environment in national and international decision-making. Over the past four decades, the majority of countries have put in place environment ministries, and we congratulated ourselves that the environment was now taken care of. In reality, however, environment is often one of the weakest voices in the cabinet.

A few countries, including Colombia, France, Mongolia and Norway, have combined their environment and development portfolios – a bold step towards placing environment at the heart of economic decision-making; exactly where it belongs.

Coming back to the SGDs, we must ensure that environmental stewardship permeates discussions on poverty eradication, health, food security and other key issues. We must look at nature as not something to fear or to triumph over, but instead as our ally in solving some of the greatest challenges of our time.

Finally, we all need to acknowledge that environmental stewardship is not just a hobby of a few eccentrics, and that we all can and must exercise it as individuals. To quote the eminent 20th century scientist and presenter of the acclaimed BBC documentary series The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski, “Man masters nature not by force but by understanding.”

And this, perhaps, is the essence of environmental stewardship.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a panellist at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014’s session “Stop to Think: Environmental Stewardship”.

Image: A royal Bengal tiger walks in a pond at New Delhi Zoo. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore