By Donella Meadows
–April 22, 1993–
No one actively wants to cause the extinction of a species. Something within us shudders at the enormity of snuffing out forever a unique form of life. Most of us would be ashamed if we knowingly crushed butterflies, bulldozed wildflowers, starved bears. As with other shameful acts, however, some of us, when we’re in the right mood of anger or denial, gleefully go at it.
And so, I am told, some landowners, infuriated by the Endangered Species Act, purposely eliminate endangered species on their property.
A law that ignites our fury instead of our morality is not working. The Endangered Species Act, up for renewal this year, has many enemies — people whose dreams of profiting from nature have been stopped by a snail darter or a spotted owl. Yet the act has plenty of loopholes. During its twenty years of operation we have lost not only dreams, but species.
Bruce Babbitt, the new Interior Secretary, is the guy who gets to try to do better. He was the environmentalists’ choice for the job, so there is reason to expect that the Endangered Species Act will get stronger. But anyone who watched Bill Clinton’s recent hasty retreat from Western senators on the matter of grazing and mining fees has reason to wonder whether this administration has the guts to favor endangered species over organized economic interests.
So far Babbitt is hinting at a new Endangered Species Act that will be neutral, careful, and very different.
First, as a member of this information-happy administration, he’s talking about getting the facts together. He wants to create a National Biological Survey to combine research and data now scattered through eight agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. This is an idea all sides should support. It will streamline bureaucracy and give the nation a comprehensive view of its biological resources. The fact that it comes 114 years after the Geological Survey shows how long it has taken us to value our living, as opposed to our mineral, endowment.
Next Babbitt will probably push, gently, for more money. Clinton already budgeted a raise of $14 million for endangered species for fiscal ’93. Congress upped it to $19.9 million. What is needed to do the job right, say ecologists, is a raise of more like $400 million.
Before everyone goes into a fashionable fiscal fit, I should point out what an astonishingly small amount that is. An endangered species budget of $460 million would amount to less than $2 a year from each of us. It would raise federal spending by 0.03 percent. It would be about what Anheuser-Busch spends a year advertising beer. This to preserve the biological resources of the nation!
Furthermore, spending that money would save money. It would let the government catch up on its backlog of species waiting to be listed. Recovery plans could begin before a species is so diminished that it needs intensive care. The cost of recovery would be lower, and so would the rate of extinction.
Babbitt is talking of another money-saving change — building the new law around not species, but ecosystems. Cutting the old-growth forest threatens not just the spotted owl, but the murrelet, the salmon, the Pacific yew and about 800 other species that depend on the shelter of those cathedral forests. If we focus on habitats, we can protect whole communities more quickly and cheaply than we can by proceeding one species at a time.
Early listing will also open opportunities for a change the commercial interests will like — deal-making. Babbitt has just pulled off a deal with the Georgia Pacific lumber company that is a portent of things to come. He has given the company the go-ahead to log 4.2 million acres of its privately owned forest, if it will leave untouched a 50,000 acre reserve for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Agreements like this are much more likely when there are still millions of acres to log than when the cutting has proceeded right up to that last 50,000 acres.
The changes Babbitt is pondering would be real improvements. But the new Endangered Species Act, like the old one, will just be a stopgap, unless someone has the courage to bite some really hard bullets.
First, we need to do just what the environmental skeptics are asking for: look hard at the economics of preservation versus development. If we do a complete reckoning — not the narrow kind developers use to calculate their profits, but a full account of all costs and benefits, public and private, present and future — we will find that many species-threatening projects are dubious on economic as well as ecological grounds. The Tellico Dam will never pay back the taxpayer dollars that went into it. Logging in the National Forests is a loss to the Forest Service. Saving open land in southern California for a small gnatcatcher will preserve space, sanity, water catchments, and property values for a population that is growing to the point of strangling itself. Species endangerment is nearly always a result of resource overuse. For the sake of jobs and profits, as well as species, we need to say “no” to foolhardy economic ventures.
Second, we need to face the fact that our population and acquisitiveness can’t expand forever. There will, without doubt, be a stop to clearing, paving, and plowing up nature. The question is whether, when that happens, there will be 50 or 20 or 10 or 0 percent of the earth left for wild creatures — and for that part of ourselves that needs and loves those creatures and the places where they live.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993