Of all the horrible things the Trump Administration is contemplating or doing, weakening the Endangered Species Act is the one that, surprisingly, bothers me the least. I say “surprisingly,” because I consider myself an ardent environmentalist/conservationist/naturalist. The philosophy behind the ESA is that man is the steward of this planet and responsible for the health of what we have inherited. One step behind this is the belief that every living creature has value and we should not lose that value. In terms of species that share the planet with us, nothing should change.
Unfortunately, and entirely through our own fault, everything is changing. Human population explosion inevitably causes loss of natural habitat. People need places to live and play and places to grow or harvest food. Concomitant with population growth is climate change, which is altering the natural habitat of the entire earth, from the arctic regions through the oceans to the forests, coasts and cities. Some species are being crowded out; many others are having trouble adapting to a changing environment.
Elizabeth Kolbert has identified our age as the Sixth Great Extinction. It would be nice if we could stop it, but focusing on stopping the extinction of a particular species is targeting the cart, not the horse (let alone the man in the driver’s seat). We should be striving to get in balance with the natural world, but that requires stopping climate change and uncontrolled population growth. Those are the extinction drivers, not the developer who wants to build a parking lot where the last stand of Houdini’s milk vetch is growing. It was easier to require coexistence 40 years ago, when the ESA was enacted.
Of course, Trump’s reasons for weakening the ESA are the worst. He is not saying that the law has to adapt to the changed conditions we find ourselves in, all the while doing what he can to solve the underlying problems. On the contrary, all his actions will only make the problems worse. He doesn’t want the burrowing owl’s continued existence to stand in the way of coal mines, oil pipelines or logging roads – all of which will hasten climate change and more extinctions.
In sum, I don’t want an outdated ESA to stand in the way of reasonable and needed development – of, for example, solar and wind farms to produce renewable energy. It has been too easy to cast the ESA, and by extension the entire environmental movement, as the enemy of the economy and development. Instead, the ESA should be amended to acknowledge the changed world we now live in, to recognize that not every species must be protected at all costs. But any change to the ESA should be part of a broader, more enlightened environmental policy that recognizes climate change – and, yes, population growth – as mortal threats to life as we know it. Which takes me back to Trump.