By Father Bud Grant
Chinese teenagers recently completed their annual ritual of the “Gao Kao,” that is, memorizing answers for standardized tests that determine their fate. It would be tidy if life could be prepared for with all the answers coming from a book.
But analyst Shaun Rein, of China Market Research, says that the tests leave them “unfit to run global businesses” because they cannot work out their own solutions. Nor can rote answers solve even simple moral questions. Take the dilemma of my sister. She is what the EPA refers to as a “residential/lifestyle” farmer, that is, a small farm operator whose primary occupation is other than farming (about 40 percent of all farms).
Judy is a professor of nursing education who keeps chickens and cows. Coyote are getting her hens. She commented in exasperation that if her life depended on farming, she’d have packed up and moved back to Boston (we are not from Boston, but never mind). Of course, her family does not depend on keeping chickens so the drama is rather trivial, especially seen from the perspective of farmers whose livelihoods do depend on forces outside of their control. Still, Judy’s heartfelt frustration raises a bushel of genuine ethical problems.
Does she inhabit a coyote world or has it invaded hers? When can we alter the way nature operates and when should we adapt ourselves to it? Killing native predators that are designed by God to prey seems problematic, especially since the non-native chickens are merely ancillary interests.
Still, domestic poultry are not the natural diet of those opportunistic hunters, and what if the family DID depend on husbandry for sustenance? Is that economic measure a valid instrument for determining when the tipping point has been reached from “live and let live” to “kill or be killed?” Do human interests always trump those of the other members of an ecosystem? Do other species have any right to exist or are they to be defined only from their influence on how well humans live? We regularly evaluate other species as dangerous threats, weedy nuisances, resource competitors or as useless. Worth typically means valuable to us.
I’m not stacking the deck in defense of the coyote. It is more complicated than that. The robust coyote population of the farming belt is the unintended consequence of how humans have rebuilt the system. Francois Leydet who, for my money, has written the definitive book on coyote (it is called “The Coyote”) points out that, even while other species like bluestem and bison have suffered, coyote thrive precisely because of humans: we’ve inadvertently created habitat for their favorite meals … including my sister’s chickens.
So how do we live with the coyote in an ecosystem that we have so shifted that we both want the same things from it? There are no “Gao Kao” by-the-book answers. And anyway, that would reduce moral decision-making to rote obedience. General principles cannot account for all the variable specifics of each moral situation.
Still, Catholic Environmental Ethics does offer broad parameters that frame our responses to problems that arise in the complex relationship between humans and nature. First of all, nature is God’s Creation with intrinsic value quite apart from its utility for human flourishing. Secondly, Creation does advance human flourishing and its resources ought to be stewarded for the common good, including the marginalized and future generations.
The challenge is to strike a balance between the intrinsic good of an indigenous ecosystem that includes predators and the instrumental good of husbanding domesticated livestock. I think my sister has intuitively found the right note: she will not poison, trap or shoot. She has reinforced the chicken coop and she lets the poultry out in the a.m. and tucks them securely away every night. It is a bother for an already busy person, but she senses one other principle of Catholic environmental teachings: doing the right thing requires sacrifice.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)