How Then Shall We Live?

January 13, 2011 | Posted in: Editor blog

by Michael P. Nelson and John A. Vucetich

John A. Vucetich is a contributor to Moral Ground.  He is also a scientist – an animal ecologist to be precise.  He co-leads (with Rolf O. Peterson, one of our online contributors) the famous Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project, the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system in the world.  The project enters its 53rd year this week when the two scientists and their pilot, Don E. Glaser, make their way via small aircraft from cold and snow Ely, MN to cold and snowy Washington Harbor on Isle Royale’s west end to begin their seven-week “winter study” from the remote island in Lake Superior, North America.  Each winter John writes about their daily findings in a diary/blog entitled “Notes from the Field” (found at www.isleroyalewolf.org).  I think readers of Moral Ground would be interested in this diary/blog given the profound fusion to be seen at the intersection of science and ethics both with John’s writings and with the wolf-moose project.  This fusion parallels the fusion seen in Moral Ground: the factual and the normative coming together in a sense of obligation to act to prevent great harms to the future.  John has graciously allowed me to share his first entry:

Getting Reoriented – 7 Jan 2011

Can you contribute to the recovery of Mexican wolves?  Would you help us understand whether wolves should be killed in British Columbia to save endangered caribou populations? Would you ask the Governor to veto a law requiring a moose hunt in Michigan?  Can you help our organization understand whether we should oppose the government’s decision to delist wolves in the Midwest?  Can you help us oppose the unnecessary killing of wolves out West?

The past year has been saturated with requests from people working for a better relationship with nature.  And then there have been a couple of independent challenges to the wolf-moose project, the details of which are too unsavory to discuss here.

“How are the wolves on Isle Royale doing?”  The question caught me by surprise each time.  I had begun to lose interest in questions like this.  I had become self-absorbed by all the worries and obligations of the past year.  I’d say: “Oh, well there aren’t so many moose these days, and the wolves are down to two packs.”

I usually got a polite, but expectant look.  So, I’d offer a more appropriate answer: “East Pack and Paduka Pack are gone.  It’ll be interesting to see if dispersing wolves will even try to establish a territory in the vacuum left beyond.  Previously, Chippewa Harbor Pack had to contend with three packs.  Now, all their territoriality will be entirely focused on Middle Pack.  Middle Pack and Chippewa Harbor Pack are all that remain.”

“And, the moose… conditions seem to be looking better for the moose.  With the recent drop in wolf abundance (they dropped from 30 to 19 over the past 4 years), moose predation has been lightening just a bit.  The ticks, they weren’t so bad this past spring.  Because moose abundance has been low for so many years now, the forest plants have been growing considerably, and that means more food for each moose.  I think we’ll see more moose this winter.”

I’ve come to think that living sustainably means meeting our human needs in a socially just manner without depriving ecosystems of their health.  I asked myself many times this past year, how should I approach that kind of life?  By exhausting my energy to promote sustainability in society?  Or by spending more effort on simpler, but no less difficult, purposes like discovering the motivation to manifest sustainability more directly in my own life; for example, by reducing my own personal consumption.

Philosophers, artists, and writers, even Gospel writers, have wrestled with forms of this question for millennia.  Bob Marley used to sing “Don’t gain the world and lose your soul.” Ed Abbey once wrote “Save the other half of yourselves…it is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it…”

My soul feels a little bedraggled.  I need to get back to that one particular harbor, where I think I can find an answer.  Washington Harbor, Isle Royale, has been frozen for almost a month.  There, we can land safely.  We’ll arrive on 12 January, or as soon thereafter as the skies permit a safe flight.

Until then, the Island waits patiently.  Her invitation always present, an invitation to discover secrets for right living.

As Kathleen and I were on our “Why It’s Wrong to Wreck the World Tour” this past fall in support of Moral Ground, it was not uncommon to encounter someone who would say, “Yes, yes, I get it, climate change is a moral issue, your argument is persuasive, but what does it mean for me in my daily life, how then should I live?”  We grappled with this question constantly as we drove and flew around the country espousing a position that might at least imply…well…not driving and flying around the country so much.  This question, “how then shall I live?”, is one of the oldest and most challenging a human being will face.  But it is also a question that so many of us simply do or will not confront – not once in our entire lives.  The fact that someone will confront it is a moral step of some significance (pat yourself on the back, at least gently).

A common mistake is to assume it’s easy to know the answer – it’s not.  For nearly three millennia, many of the world’s greatest minds have struggled mightily with this question.  As Kathleen so poignantly puts it in her book The Pine Island Paradox,

“Say you agree that humans have an obligation to care for the earth.  What does that mean in particular, in this place and time?  What are you going to do?  The point I want to make is that it isn’t easy to know.  You can’t assume you know what to do.  Everything changes around you, and you can’t do nothing, but something is often the wrong thing.  And what you do in one place has unexpected effects a hundred miles away or a hundred years in the future.”

Perhaps the first step is to understand the challenge.  If being a moral person means manifesting certain virtues (empathy for all living things, reduced consumption, etc.), and if we know that we do not manifest those virtues as well as we could, and if we see the world around us also does not manifest those virtues, what then are we to do?  Is it wrong to sacrifice our effort to manifest those virtues individually and personally in our daily lives for the sake of encouraging others to manifest those virtues?  If it is a matter of balance – balancing our personal manifestation of important virtues with encouraging others to manifest those important virtues, an encouraging which may then require us to not manifest these virtues personally at a given time – then how does one decide how to balance the two concerns?  Or is the question based on a false dichotomy, or is it a trap somehow?  Should we assume that this balance would look the same for everyone?  Will, or should, the conservation professional manifest this balance in the same way as does everyone else?  How does one translate from the possibly special case of the conservation professional, to a more general case to which others can relate?  For example, for some people “encouraging others to manifest those virtues” might be mean working in ones local community for more sustainable management of our local cities.  If we assume that balance is a one size fits all proposition, then variation from that fit implicates us as hypocrites (a kind of immorality).  But if it isn’t the same for everyone, if each of us has to find this balance according to his or her own unique gifts, then our various “balancings” will and should look different.  We will be unified in our effort, in our attempt to manifest virtue, but we will vary in our moral expression.  And perhaps this is how it should be.

I’ll be visiting the wolf-moose project on Isle Royale in late February, this place where the quiet and the cold promise answers.

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