President Bush went fishing this weekend. In his weekly radio address, he told us that fishing not only builds memories but also adds billions of dollars to the economy. While he went on to outline some initiatives regarding the environment, it is telling that he started by making an economic case for the actions. Too often in our national conversation the only way to advance a cause is to show that there is more benefit than cost. But sometimes the greater good has no dollar value.
Thankfully, the president seemed to understand that point when advancing the plan to expand the National Wildlife Refuge program. He highlighted migratory birds as a reason for increased funding. Habitat loss is a critical concern for migratory species. Economic concerns argue in favor of managing habitat for migratory waterfowl that are hunted since that is regulated by the federal government and thus and includes gathering revenue from licenses and fees. Perhaps, the president is motivated by unconditional concern for vulnerable non-game species, or by the boon to the economy offered by the burgeoning birdwatching community. We may never know, but there is hope that threatened species will benefit.
The larger question in this discussion is the ethical one, that is, how shall we find the motivation to protect the vulnerable who have no economic stake? Unconditional concern for the other, particularly those others with whom we have little or no connection is rare to find. No doubt this is why faith traditions strive to nurture this high ideal, we don't seem to come by it naturally. Enlightened self-interest where we can see that something might return to us is at least one step in this process. We need to see that there is potential value in saving all the current resources of the earth for our children and their children. Then we need to see that there is no good distinction to be made between our children and the children of other people. In fact, if we open up more fully to true unconditional concern we might discover that even seemingly insignificant birds might be worthy of our efforts.
Maybe we need to save the birds simply for the inspiration they provide. A recent Mutts comic sums it up. The dogs are marveling at a bird about to fly south without any luggage, in fact traveling without any stuff. They come to the conclusion that this lack of stuff is the reason they are capable of flight. Maybe we should try to learn that lesson as well. If we could begin to free ourselves from a primary concern for gathering and protecting stuff perhaps we could find the freedom of flight into a future where generosity by all will mean scarcity for none.