By Fr. Bud Grant
I might have mentioned that I have been participating in a state-wide discussion about Iowa’s “natural resource infrastructure.” Consisting of government officials, academics, nonprofit organizers and private business people, all participants in the group share a common vision for restoring Iowa’s water, soil and air, which, I learned, are frighteningly threatened.
Yet, in addition to thinking about natural resources — those elements of nature that we use — we might also consider talking about ecosystems. The conversation got bogged down as ecologists tried to define this term.
This is important because resources are often treated like warehoused goods that we take and then re-stock from a supplier. This deludes us into dangerous misconceptions: the warehouse will never go empty; if we run out of one stock, we just substitute another; there is no inherent connection among various resources. Warehouse thinking sees no difference between a pristine forest and a tree farm, except that the latter might be more efficient!
But natural resources are parts of complex systems. If we reduce or remove one species, the system changes. That causes other species to decline and, finally, whole systems to collapse. But this begs the question: what IS an ecosystem?
One answer hit me on my way down the blacktop to Mass: the earliest documented ecosystem in our heritage may well be the fabled Garden of Eden. You already have an image in your head, don’t you? You see myriad species of plant and animal meandering around a richly verdant and exotically lush landscape and yes, the inevitable fruit tree. (For fun, google “The Peaceable Kingdom” of Edward Hicks, or Wenzel Peter’s “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Creation.”)
Genesis tells us much about that ecosystem. It is composed not only of living species of flora and fauna, but also such elements as climate, topography and geology. All of these various pieces cohere so that the system is self-sustaining. That is the very picture of the Garden: kinetic balance among various members in such a way that the health of the whole is maintained. Hmmm. Without doubt we have left that paradise far behind … self-banished, one might even say.
We often speak of “preserving” God’s creation, but I have recently vowed to avoid that phrase because what there is to be preserved is not a healthy ecosystem but rather a seriously degraded mess.
Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute near Salina, Kan., defines a healthy ecosystem as complexity of function (what a system does) and structure (what a system is). He adds that a healthy ecosystem is marked by maximum diversity among and within species. A native Iowa prairie might have 350 species of grasses and forbs, for example. A corn field has one (unless you include volunteer beans and aliens such as timothy, foxtail and the like). Indeed, Iowa’s may be the most altered ecosystem in North America. Less than 0.01 percent of our original prairies are left to us, and those remnants tend to be broadly scattered patches whose very isolation threatens their viability.
No one at that natural resources meeting wants to destroy our agricultural economy or our rural way of life (though very few Iowans farm). Certainly no one romantically dreams of following migrating herds in some sort of American Eden (we would at least have to wear clothes!) But we ought not to disregard the ecosystem upon which we all rely.
To think only in terms of natural resources is neither morally valid for a Christian who accepts God as nature’s Creator nor is it safe for any of us who want to continue to derive not just resources, but less tangible goods, from nature — like tranquility, delight, even joy. As much as we’ve messed up Iowa, it is not yet too late to recognize the intrinsic value of this once-vast tall grass prairie ecosystem. It is not too late to restore some of it to its former health. Not too late, friends, but really quite late.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)