By Fr. Bud Grant
Moral issues, as we all know by experience, are seldom clear choices between good and bad. Those that impact God’s creation are no exception. Recently I had a personal encounter with that moral complexity. I share an acreage with a couple of horses, chickens and a few sheep. It is surrounded by one vast corn field. The topography un-dulates subtly, channeling water from the neighbor’s field through my pasture and back out into his field. In heavy rain, erosion slashes through the fields. Crossing my place, where the soil is not exposed and compacted, it isn’t so bad.
Still, when my neighbor asked if he could run tiling through my place to connect the whole waterway, I thought it was reasonable. I agreed, not just to be a good neighbor, but because tiling does reduce erosion.
Then I spoke with one of my best friends, who manages a loess hills prairie preserve in western Iowa. Tiling, he reminded me, interferes with natural processes: we move water from where we don’t want it. We treat water, he admonished, like a waste product rather than an amenity. In a rush I saw the complexity of the situation, humbled as I usually am by his insight.
On a prairie, there is no such thing as flooding or erosion. The deeply rooted plants hold soil and soak up water; its gradual release keeps streams flowing clean (riparian and aquatic plants filter polluted water). This water provides habitat for a wide variety of birds, fish and other critters. Tiling, in contrast, flushes water off the land and into the streams, albeit without the erosion caused by water rushing across the bared surface of compacted farm soil.
Furthermore, erosion is only one problem in agriculture. Farm chemicals pollute groundwater and cause the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Steroid use in livestock makes human antibiotics less effective. Monoculture doesn’t really help feed a world wherein one in eight people are malnourished. It feels overwhelming, doesn’t it?
Catholic moral theology offers no tidy absolute mandates to which we can thoughtlessly subscribe. The problem here — and in analogous situations — hinges on what “good” we serve. If we are trying to heal a broken ecosystem, then tiling is inappropriate — so are tractors, herbicides and corn. But if the purpose is a sustainable farming economy, tiling does help and anyway no farmer wants to lose the soil.
Catholic moral theology insists that these seemingly competing ambitions are good. How do we balance them? First, it is important to insist that the apparent contradiction between these two goods is resolvable. There are ways of using nature’s resources while saving God’s creation. Moreover, this is not just a problem for farmers: anyone who consumes their products is morally obliged to engage in solutions, even if they are uncomfortable. Even so, long-range initiatives cannot blithely be mandated immediately without causing economic upheaval to the farming community. It wouldn’t be too helpful to suggest that, instead of tiling, my neighbor should install broad swaths of native green belts and convert his crop from corn to native plants for which there is no market right now. Right now we have erosion. Applying a short term (and reversible) fix is a kind of triage tourniquet to stop the immediate threat.
The root problem is that we have this lazy habit of treating short-term fixes as permanent solutions, like the guy who drives around on his “donut” spare instead of getting that flat tire fixed. Such moral inertia is, I think, pretty clearly and unambiguously, bad. Contemporary agriculture is unsustainable, even with tiling.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)