Monday, March 1, 2010
Coyotes, Mother Nature, and the American Way
Irate Wheaton citizens have confronted one another at city council meetings, some demanding coyote extermination while others object that to kill even a few coyotes would be to upset the precarious balance of nature. The meetings sound a lot like the health-care debates: there is apparently no middle ground.
Friends, the precarious balance of nature is already upset, or coyotes would not be fearlessly approaching humans, killing pets, and watching children on school playgrounds. Yes, if we killed all the coyotes we'd soon be overrun by rabbits and squirrels and Canada geese, and we don't want that. Coyotes, in their place, are good. But killing a select few--preferably the ones who have become exceptionally bold--might actually be helpful for the remaining coyotes, who would then get larger portions of rabbits and squirrels and Canada geese and would not have to hunt poodles.
This idea that nature will keep a perfect balance if only we leave things alone is an interesting article of faith. It tends to be held by people on the political left, but it is strangely similar to an article of faith beloved by the political right: that the market will provide the most wealth for all if only we leave things alone. We Americans, whatever our political persuasion, love our freedom.
And there is a certain amount of truth in both dicta; it is not hard to find examples of nature and the economy being thrown out of whack by inappropriate intervention. Let 100 starlings loose in Central Park in 1890, for example, and you end up with maybe 200 million starlings in North America today. Or force all farms to be collectively owned, as Stalin did in the late 1920s, and you end up with millions dead of famine just a few years later.
People who mess with nature and the economy often make mistakes. Some make big mistakes. But we no longer live in Paradise, and all of our natural and financial ecosystems are imperfect. When the imperfections are in precarious balance, many individuals prosper. But given half a chance, some individuals (and packs and corporations and governments) inevitably terrorize others. Think mosquitoes. Bacteria. The slave trade. Colonialism. Industrial barons. Corrective intervention is often necessary to restore balance.
The peaceable kingdom requires constant attention. So does the just society. Mistakes will be made, but leaving everything up to Mother Nature or The Invisible Hand of the Market is a certain route to disaster. Economists and ecologists need to discuss and even argue about how much regulation is needed, and what kind, but not whether. Total freedom will not return us to a mythical Golden Age.
To the Wheaton city council:
For the good of the dogs, cats, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, geese, and mice in my neighborhood, please regulate (yes, that's a euphemism) those overbold coyotes in order to restore as much natural harmony as possible. Even the coyotes--the timid ones, that is--will thank you.