I recently visited a museum exhibit on big cats. A sign featuring a beautiful jaguar asked, “Why should we care about wild cats?” Its answer: “Because in protecting big cats, we are protecting ourselves.”
Is that really true? That implies big cats are in trouble because “we” don’t care to protect ourselves. And if it turns out that we don’t really need jaguars in order to protect ourselves, have they lost their case for existence?
For decades, many conservationists have been trying to sell a clumsy, fumbling appeal to self-interest: the idea that human beings need wild nature, need wild animals, need the species on endangered lists. “If they go extinct, we’ll go extinct,” is a common refrain. The only problem: it’s false.
We drove the most abundant bird in the Americas — the passenger pigeon — to extinction. The most abundant large mammal — the American bison — to functional extinction. We gained: agriculture, and safety for cows, from sea to shining sea. Who misses the Eskimo curlew? Indeed, who knows they existed, their vast migrating flocks like smoke on the now-gone prairies? That experiment is done.
Billions of people want what you and I got in exchange: health and wealth and education. We now live the way most other people on the planet wish to live. Governments, institutions, and regular people have cheered the material expansion that has cost many species (and tribal peoples) everything. We have endangered species not because what is bad for them is bad for us, but because the opposite is true: what is bad for them has fueled the explosive growth and maintenance of human populations and technologies. We are losing many species along the way to humanity’s only three apparent real goals: bigger, faster, more. Propelling the human juggernaut has entailed wiping many species out of the way. People live at high densities in places devoid of wild species and natural beauty. Human beings have thrived by destroying nature. When the animals and open spaces go, we have industrial-scale farms and factories, ball fields and strip malls and quick-lubes. How could saving this or that endangered species, that is following those whose oblivion brought fast food and sneakers, be a matter of — of all things — saving ourselves? Telling people that “we” need jaguars to “protect ourselves?” That’s a hard sell. We don’t need them.
I can’t name a single wild species whose total disappearance would be materially felt by, essentially, anyone.
There is no species whose disappearance has posed much of an inconvenience for civilization, not a single wild species that people couldn’t do without, fewer whose erasure would be noticed by any but a handful of die-hard conservationists or scientists. The irrelevance of wild things to civil society is why endangered species never make it into polls of top public priorities. I can’t name one wild species whose total disappearance would be materially felt by, essentially, anyone (you can easily function without having access to elephants, but if you misplace your phone for one whole day, it’s personal chaos). But I can effortlessly list various species from tigers to mosquitoes whose annihilation has been diligently pursued. Annihilation comes easy to Homo sapiens. What’s of little interest for us is coexistence.
I have seen with my own eyes that the role of elephants as ecosystem engineers affecting all animals on the African savannas matters not at all to people converting bushland into vulnerable subsistence gardens or, more decisively, into large commercial farms raising flowers destined for vases on the tables of Europe. Think of your favorite species. Gorillas? Sperm whales? Hyacinth macaws? Karner blue butterflies? Billions of people never give them a thought.
Only a tiny minority of people actually work with wild creatures, as ecologists, conservation biologists, wildlife rehabilitators, falconers, or even fishermen (oddly and not coincidentally I’ve been all of those.) On an average day, animals and plants must put up or be pushed out. In most countries, few wild things can “provide” to humans anything more valued than their carcasses. Many major American tree species have disappeared or nearly so (American elm, American chestnut, eastern hemlock, for instance). Ash trees are now disappearing and the main pain-point for humanity is nothing more than angst for the future of baseball bats.
Lest anyone misread me: this predicament is catastrophic.
It is of course true that the things that are bad for nature as a whole — degradation of land and soil, polluted water and air — are bad for people ultimately. A total breakdown of living systems would mean a breakdown of human economies, and indications are it likely will. But “ultimately” is very far down the line, long after we’ve lost all the big animals, wild lands, viable ocean habitats, and the world’s living beauty. The human juggernaut can continue to blow through rhinos, parrots, elephants, lions, and apes and hardly feel a breeze. The most charismatic species all stand at or near historic lows and humans are at our historic high, two facts that are sides of the same coin. Claiming that people depend on wild nature is nice, but dependence on wild nature ended, and not well, generations ago. What keeps most people going is farming felling, pumping, and mining.
Far down the line when the land is exhausted and there’s no water on an overheated planet, there may be a great reckoning. It’s easy enough to hear the rumbles now. But even the recent hurricanes and fires that have left communities seemingly beyond recovery have not shaken the deniers. In this country, government disdain for natural places and species, and official ennui about the human health effects of environmental degradation, are worst-ever. And the current rollbacks remain too weakly opposed; most people don’t feel affected. Most of wild nature could be gone long before the human species confronts an existential cliff.
What a grim world it will be by the time we’re down to what humans need. Human need is a very poor metric for evaluating the existence of living things.
The natural services humans actually need to fuel modern living come from microbes of decay, a few main insect pollinators, the ocean’s photosynthesizing plankton, and non-living things like water and the atmosphere. Eventually we may well simplify the world to the bare essentials, and it will still support billions more people. Indeed, that’s the only way it can.
What a grim world it will be by the time we’re down to what humans need. Which only shows that human need is a very poor metric for evaluating the existence of living things. Ask living creatures to justify their existence in terms of human need; they lose.
So, in what bleak terrain does this leave us? The law that has been called the gold standard of species protection, the U. S. Endangered Species Act, doesn’t begin to get interested until after a species, considered in isolation, is already in dire straits. Then it sets a floor, measuring success as mere existence. A wiser law would target an aspirational ceiling of robust, resilient populations across broad, intact scapes of viable lands and productive waters.
Yet when applied in good faith it works. It works because of something many environmentalists have forgotten, most average people never think about, and most politicians are incapable of learning: it works because it doesn’t ask a species to prove its usefulness, what they’re good for, or how much money they’re worth. The act doesn’t say that we need them. It acknowledges that we harm them. In its first words, “The Congress finds and declares that various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth.” It says that recovery plans shall “give priority to… particularly those species that are, or may be in conflict with construction or other development projects or other forms of economic activity.”
Yet many conservationists continue trying to make the flimsy case that we need endangered species. And because the argument is false, it can be a counterproductive pandering to the self-interest of people who simply won’t care. “Prove that I need some endangered snail or whale.” You can’t.
Fortunately, you don’t have to. The argument was decided decades ago, by Congress on behalf of all Americans, in favor of what you and I care about. The Endangered Species Act doesn’t claim that our existence depends on the existence of wild species. It says that we, the people, don’t let species go extinct, that this is who we are. It’s not about practicality; it’s about morality. The moral compass of species stewardship or loss is already mainstream — loss is bad. Conservationists and rank-and-file nature lovers should not pick that scab by trying to show that nature can and must serve us. The law says we need to serve nature. That’s a lot to work with.
Of course, laws are only as strong as the support they have. Conservationists must not only remind themselves that the law guides policy based on moral principle; they must continue to make the wide case for that underlying moral principle. When people say, “What good are they. They’re in the way!,” conservation needs a stronger argument than an appeal to self interest. Self interest has already been considered and nature has lost. Oil palms make money; never mind orangutans. We don’t need orangutans in order to “protect ourselves.” Orangutans need us to protect them.
But how best to press the case for life on Earth?
Humans have considered ourselves the most moral of species. A moral species has moral obligations. Despite capitalism’s appeal to self-interest, religions continue to assert the primacy of right and wrong. It may be that in our social species the only thing capable of standing up to pure self-interest is moral suasion. But what religions have underplayed — and indeed some have disdained — is seeing the physical world as sacred. On this planet where astrobiologists detect no other life in the galaxy, the rarity and perhaps even uniqueness of life in the universe makes Earth a sacred place. All known meaning in the universe is generated here, because this is the only living planet.
Winning the war against the natural in pursuit of accelerated material living, we lose the beauty that makes living worthwhile.
Although wild nature is not necessary for human survival, it is necessary for human dignity. Some of the grimmest places for human existence are those where nature has been scorched. People can lose their dignity in various ways, including oppressive governments. But oppressive surroundings are sufficient.
Zoom out from “endangered species” to the big picture. Abundant multitudes of species, wild things in wild places, anchor beauty to the face of this planet. What is true is this: Wild things create and live in the remaining beautiful places. As wild animals disappear, what is lost is the world’s beauty. Winning the war against the natural in pursuit of accelerated material living, we lose the beauty that makes living worthwhile.
That is not trivial. It is the most profound thing on Earth.
Ecology — living relationships and reliances — may be the only concept containing sufficient scope for a future worth humanly living. Ecology is most easily perceived by this shorthand: natural beauty. Each of our senses has ways of informing us what is good and bad. Our sense of smell evolved to sense things good for us as smelling pleasant and bad as smelling putrid. Our mind evolved the ability to combine all our sense into one overall detector of what is good in the world, and that best overarching sense is what we call “beauty.” As the beauty of the world drains away, we become less than human in the long run. And part of the long run is now.
Beauty is the single criterion that best captures all our deepest concerns and highest hopes. Beauty encompasses the continued existence of free-living things, adaptation, and human dignity. Really, beauty is simple litmus for the presence of things that matter.
If a future reckoning arrives for the human species, as seems likely, it will come because we asked life to prove its value compared to ever-more corn and shopping discounts, but could not hear the real answer. It will come because we did not see our planetary miracle as sacred.
Endangered species and wild things in the remaining wild places need us to care for them not selfishly but selflessly, for their sake, the sake of everything and everyone who is not us, for the sake of beauty and all it implies. As we make our habitual appeals to practicality, the argument we cannot afford to ignore, the one that must frequently be on our lips, is this: We live in a sacred miracle. We should act accordingly.
Meanwhile, a few things are right. Within the last few weeks, the long-endangered Kirtland’s warbler came off the endangered species list. This didn’t happen because we needed them. It happened because the Endangered Species Act determined that when species need us, we shall go to their aid. It happened, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced, because, “Kirtland’s warbler has responded well to active management over the past 50 years.” Before the Endangered Species Act, the species was down to 200 singing males. The population has increased more than tenfold, not because we needed Kirtland’s warbler, but because we understood that Kirtland’s warbler needed us. We understood our moral responsibility and commitment to keep a tiny bird in the world with us. Many would say that the warbler doesn’t matter to us. But the people who won the argument on behalf of the bird were those who argued and acted on the premise that we mattered to the warbler. Nothing else could have worked.