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B Y K E V I N O ’ B R I E N , A S S I S TA N T P R O F E S S O R O F R E L I G I O N The Burden of STEWARDSHIP What can Christian ethics tell us about responsibility, spotted owls and being the dominant species? When I tell people that I am a Christian ethicist, they frequently have one of two reactions. Either they make a nervous joke about how I’m probably judging their every action against a high moral standard, or they ask me for a quick answer to a moral question that has been bothering them. I’m never sure how to respond, because I don’t believe that Christian ethics should involve easy judgments or answers. I have long sought a good way to explain that my discipline is not about party tricks or quick, newspapercolumnist style advice. Rather, it is about dialogue: dialogue between an ancient faith tradition and contemporary problems, between peoples of faith facing difficult choices. Lately, I’ve been trying to get this across by changing the subject to spotted owls. The northern spotted owl lives in Washington, Oregon and Northern California, and it has been particularly vulnerable to the loss of our region’s old growth forest, its only habitat. So, spotted owls were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1990, sparking a contentious national debate in which the economic interests of logging communities here in the Pacific Northwest were presented as diametrically opposed to the environmental interests of preserving the subspecies and its habitat. After long fights and controversies, a critical habitat of more than 6 million acres of old growth forest was set aside for the spotted owl, and logging remains absolutely forbidden on those lands. Years later, there are many who believe that more should have been done to save the owls, and many others who still believe that this was a disastrous choice for the logging economy of the region. So, the debate about the spotted owl continues. Unfortunately, the possibility of spotted owl extinction continues, as well. Already weakened by a reduced habitat, they are now also threatened by West Nile Virus, a changing climate and an invasive species, the barred owl. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this last threat is the most severe and immediate one, which could seriously endanger the surviving spotted owls. Native to the Great Plains, barred owls are far more adaptable than their spotted cousins, and so have made their way across the country along the patchwork of habitats that human agriculture and transportation have built. By building more and more roads and developments, the human beings of this continent have constructed an enormous habitat corridor that has led barred owls from their native ranges to the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, where they can easily adapt and settle in, and where their nesting and dietary needs are virtually identical to those of the spotted owl. This adaptive species is also aggressive when competing for breeding ground, and observers have seen barred owls fly into spotted owl nests, roll the eggs out and lay their own. So, although it has left the front pages, the spotted owl remains an endangered species. This is the kind of issue with which Christian ethics must >> FEATURES > PLU SCENE SPRING 2009 15

Scene Magazine - Spring 2009

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