Regulating Wily Predators in Ecosystems and Economies

By LaVonne Neff 3-02-2010


100302-coyoteI've been obsessing about coyotes. A breeding pair has moved into my neighborhood, and in a few weeks they may favor us with up to a dozen pups. Meanwhile, they leave footprints in the snow as they case our backyards for tasty little dogs like my neighbor's Yorkie, Scruffy, who would be dead except that (a) he was attached to a lead when the coyote pounced, and my neighbor was at the other end of it; and (b) Scruffy was wearing a turtleneck sweater, so his neck wound was minor.

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.

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.

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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