July 8, 2003

Of Geese and Men

In Union County New Jersey, the county administration recently authorized the killing of thousands of geese, producing a predictable outcry. One activist complained, “I just can’t conceive of someone doing that to something as sensitive and intelligent as geese”. Another shrugged, “Even though goose poop is unpleasant, it can be cleaned up”.

Perhaps. What can’t be cleaned up so easily is the philosophical incoherence of this particular form of environmentalism.

The numbers of Canada geese and deer near human communities in the Northeast are not ecological systems that need to be preserved against human intervention: they are the consequence of human intervention (as is virtually everything we call “wilderness” in North America today, and indeed, as were environments in pre-Columbian North America).

The question is not the preservation of something natural or outside of the rhythms of human life. It is simply a question of aesthetics, in the end. What is more beautiful, a lake or stream with many Canada geese on it and feces on its banks, or a feces-free bank with no geese? Which is more beautiful, a mixture of woods and meadows with many deer feeding and living within that environment while also causing damage to automobiles and household gardens (as well as to many plants they eat, and the other mammals and animals that rely on the plants that the deer eat)?

This question cannot be answered with reference to the management or preservation of ecological systems. Even the argument for the preservation biodiversity (which weighs heavily against deer and Canada geese) is in some ways an aesthetic argument: it is not clear that an ecology with a smaller number of generalist species is in some utilitarian or functional way inevitably superior to an ecology with a larger number of specialist, niche species except perhaps that the generalist-biased ecology is more vulnerable to catastrophes because of a smaller reserve of genetic variation. It is more that humans tend to find variety in nature appealing, for very good cultural and intellectual reasons.

There is no way to argue coherently that a deer or goose, for example, is a more sensitive, intelligent, desirable animal than any other, and therefore deserves to live more than the species which their overabundance threatens. In a less managed, less human-habitated environment, there would be fewer deer and geese because predator species like wolves and coyotes would feed on them. For the person who regards the death of geese as a tragedy because of the intrinsic intelligence and sensitivity of geese, their death from a wolf would have to be just as tragic, and just as objectionable, as death by county supervisor. Meaning that the goose-loving activist cited above must also be a predator-hating activist in order to make any kind of sense at all.

The argument that geese or deer must not be culled ultimately comes down to, “What animals do you like best, and what experience of nature do you treasure most?” If that’s seeing geese in the local pond—and you don’t ever walk barefoot through the grass next to the pond—you will inevitably and legitimately object to having geese killed.

In matters of public policy, what you like is a defensible basis for action only inasmuch as you can make a good case that your tastes are instrinsically better than anyone else’s, or that the preservation of what you find pleasurable is part of a good management strategy for the public nurturing of cultural and aesthetic diversity, or that your preferences are shared by the majority. Such arguments only work well if they do not involve actively harming or diminishing the preferences of other individuals. I can argue that funding performance art through the NEH is good public policy because it nurtures artistic achievement that ultimately enriches all of American society and that would not be otherwise enriched because of the lack of a marketplace for such performances. The existence of such work does not reduce the supply of summer action blockbusters, so it expands rather than contracts the total cultural marketplace. Contrarily, I could argue that a statue being placed on government property ought to conform to majoritarian preferences in its design. These are good—if arguable—premises.

Can you make a similar argument that forbids the execution of geese under any circumstances, and authorizes only much more expensive and less questionably effective techniques for discouraging their overabundance? I doubt it. Even with the culling of geese and deer, they remain in large (and replenished) numbers in environments around the Northeast, meaning that those who get pleasure from seeing them will still do so following culls. Failure to cull, in contrast, means that the pleasure that goose and deer watchers receive directly and aggressively diminishes the pleasure that those who seek natural environments free of goose feces and without the depredations of overly large herds of deer. Is a goose more beautiful than a yard without goose crap? I can’t see how to make that argument work without a hopelessly sweeping recourse to the sanctity of all life, the kind that obligates one to start wearing a Jainist screen over one’s mouth.

Environmentalism ought to be one of the most potent, urgent political forces on the landscape. It can’t be until it grows up a little and gets beyond being a sentimental fashion accessory for the suburbanite who wants everything: a goose, a lawn, and eternally preserved property values to match. A real stewardship of the environment has to embrace culling and some of the costs and difficulties of living inside of an ecology that includes animals and plants that inconvenience and occasionally even endanger human well-being.