SAVING LIFE ON EARTH: DOING NOAH’S JOB TODAY
By JOHN R.E. BLIESE, Ph.D.
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the spring 2004 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter.
The most remarkable thing about our lovely planet is the incredible proliferation of life. Wherever we look, we find myriads of plants and animals of all kinds that have adapted to fill every niche on the globe. So far as we know, this is unique in the universe. Certainly, no other planet in our solar system could support life like this, nor could any of the hundred or so planets that have been discovered outside the solar system.
What is biodiversity?
In the jargon of biologists, this marvelous proliferation of life is called “biological diversity,” more often shortened to the rather bland term “biodiversity.” We do not even know how many different species there are on planet Earth. Some 1.4 million species of plants and animals have been identified by biologists, but only a tiny fraction of those have been studied in detail. Biologists estimate that there are between 10 million and 100 million species on Earth. Which-ever number turns out to be closer to the truth, it is clear that we know little about the plants and animals with which we share this planet.
In their interrelationships with each other and with the Earth and atmosphere all these varieties of life form ecosystems, and it is ultimately on these ecosystems that our own lives depend. Everything from the air we breathe to the soil from which we get our food to the systems that must finally recycle or absorb the wastes we produce is a product of ecosystems.
Where is biodiversity?
If you look around, you will see numerous forms of life—plants, birds, insects. Unfortunately, if you live in a city, most of what you see are imported “weeds.” If you are lucky enough to live in a rural area, you will see a lot more of ?nature.? Go on vacation to a wilderness areas and you will see nature itself (almost). But biologists believe that half of all species are found in tropical rainforests in South America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Most marine species are found in coral reefs.
What is at risk?
Overall, life itself is not in danger; we will always have plenty of pests like cockroaches, English sparrows and Norway rats. But we are extirpating millions of species of plants and animals worldwide. Extinction, of course, is a natural phenomenon, but it is normally very rare and very slow. In geological time there have been five catastrophes that wiped out large portions of life on Earth. The last one happened 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared. In each case it took millions of years for life to recover. Today, we humans are causing a sixth mass extinction. We are wiping out forms of life 100 to 1,000 times faster than natural extinction rates—much faster even than in the previous mass extinctions.
In the United States, 1,263 species are officially listed as endangered or threatened (517 animals and 746 plants —www.fws.gov; updated 8/1/2003). But The Nature Conservancy has identified 6,500 species in our country that are at risk of extinction. Worldwide, millions of species are endangered. Since half of all forms of life are found in tropical rain forests, which are being wiped out at a frightening rate, most species at risk are found there. If current trends continue, half of all kinds of life will be eliminated in the next few decades.
What are we destroying?
The most significant thing we are destroying is the habitat that millions of plants and animals need to live.
Some species are very adaptable and can live almost anywhere with us. But these are almost all “weedy” species and pests, like house flies, starlings and crab grass. Most forms of life have adapted to specific niches in nature, and if we destroy those niches by paving them over or converting them to agriculture or golf courses, many species simply die out. Their homes are gone and they cannot survive without them. In tropical forests, the main threats are from slash-and-burn agriculture and clearcut logging, which is often illegal. Many of these environmentally-destructive activities are even subsidized by governments, including our own.*
The second most significant thing we are doing is introducing—usually unknowingly—plants and animals into new places. Often these “invasive” species do not have any natural enemies in their new territories, so they can simply take over and outcompete native species. Think of kudzu, “the plant that ate the South.” In the Rocky Mountains, Canada thistles are taking over large areas, reducing the native food for the animals that live there, which can become endangered.
Other threats come from polluting the air and water, over-harvesting, even recreation. Off-road vehicles cause enormous damage by eroding soil, frightening wildlife, and spreading invasive species.
Why should we care?
What difference will it make if we impoverish the Earth of its biological riches? This question often takes shape as “What good is a salamander?” (or whatever).
The best response is by Professor Hugh Iltis of the University of Wisconsin. He just looks at the questioner and asks, “Well, what good are you?”
Biologists have come up with many reasons why we should preserve the entire web of life.
They fall into three categories: UTILITARIAN, AESTHETIC, and MORAL.
I. UTILITARIAN: NATURE’S MEDICINE CHEST
The utilitarian category is the broadest and argues that species richness is of great usefulness to humans.
First, nature has provided us with numerous important medicines. Nature is a vast chemical laboratory, in which plants and animals have developed billions of chemicals to support their forms of life and to ward off predators. So nature—especially the tropical rain forest—is a huge pharmacopoeia. Some 40% of all prescription drugs are ultimately derived from plants and animals. Antibiotics originally came from fungi and bacteria. The rosy periwinkle, an obscure plant from Madagascar, turned out to provide a treatment for childhood leukemia, which used to be a death sentence. In the Pacific Northwest, loggers used to burn yew trees as trash, but they turned out to be the source for taxol, which is used to treat some forms of cancer.
We could never hope to invent useful chemicals on the scale that nature has already done. But we have only investigated a tiny fraction of plants and animals to see what use they might be to us. Driving millions of species to extinction therefore deprives us and our children and grandchildren of the opportunity to discover many new medicines in the future.
I recall seeing an ad with two pictures. The first showed a lush tropical rain forest. The caption said: “There might be a cure for cancer in here.” The second showed the remains of a rain forest that had been clearcut and the slash burned. The caption said: “Let’s hope it wasn’t in here.”
We also depend on wild species of our main crops to provide new genes to protect the crops from new diseases and pests. We often find genes in the wild species that can be used to make our crops resistant to these new threats. But if we pave over the few remaining places where these plants grow, we will eliminate all future opportunities to use them to protect our food supplies.
But the main argument that biologists use for why we should preserve all forms of life is that we humans depend on many services that ecosystems provide us for free. Nature’s services include such obvious things as providing food and raw materials that we use, and opportunities for recreation. But they also include:
- purifying air and water,
- creating and maintaining fertile soils,
- pollinating crops,
- regulating freshwater supplies,
- reducing flood damage,
- detoxifying and decomposing the wastes we produce,
- controlling far more pests and diseases than we could ever do with pesticides, and
- maintaining a genetic library.
Today, with genetic engineering, that last service is far more important than it was before.
These services are provided to us for free by nature. They are not marketed, so they do not appear in our gross national product. That makes it all too easy for policy makers to take them for granted or to overlook them entirely, but their economic value is considerable. Their total value is, of course, infinite because we could not live without them. A group of economists and ecologists led by Robert Costanza estimated the marginal value of just a partial list of nature’s services. Their estimates in each case are very conservative; nevertheless, their total comes to $33 trillion per year, far more than the total global economic product.
But the continued provision and quality of these services depend on retaining a very wide range of species. The entire web of life, we are learning, is important for ecosystem productivity, stability and resilience. The loss of species threatens ecosystem functioning.
Since we know little about how ecosystems work, it is only common sense to preserve all of their parts. We have no idea which species in an ecosystem might be expendable and which are crucial for its functioning. As Aldo Leopold said, the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all of the parts.
Paul and Anne Ehrlich use an interesting analogy. Suppose you are going to fly somewhere. As you approach the plane, you see a guy popping rivets from the wing. He tells you that the airline can sell these rivets for a good price and the plane still has plenty of rivets in the wing; so far, no wings have fallen off. Would you still take that flight? ?
“Ecosystems,” the Ehrlichs write, “like well made airplanes, tend to have redundant subsystems and other ‘design’ features that permit them to continue functioning after absorbing a certain amount of abuse. A dozen rivets, or a dozen species, might never be missed. On the other hand, a thirteenth rivet popped from a wing flap, or the extinction of a key species …could lead to a serious accident.”
Of course, we have no choice but to take this “flight” on planet Earth.
II. AESTHETIC: THE BEAUTY OF NATURE
A second type of argument for preserving the full web of life is aesthetic: people appreciate the beauty of nature.
This translates into pragmatic considerations as well: ecotourism is a rapidly expanding industry world wide. While the general public focuses on the cute, beautiful or spectacular species—birds and butterflies, chipmunks and elk—naturalists also appreciate the beauty of the tiny creatures that most people never see.
Perhaps under this category is the ability to increase our scientific knowledge. When a species becomes extinct, that opportunity is lost forever.
III. MORAL: THE RIGHT TO EXIST
A third general reason to preserve all forms of life is moral. Other kinds of creatures have a right to exist, whether or not they are of immediate use to us.
This reasoning is firmly based in our Judeo-Christian heritage. Although you seldom find this in the writings of biologists, it should be of central importance to many conservatives. God saw His creation and proclaimed that it was “good.” He ordered Noah to save all kinds of creatures, not just the ones that were cuddly or that he thought he could make a buck from later.
There is no reason to believe that God expects any less from us today. The Rainbow Covenant was not just with Noah and his family, but with all humans… and all creatures. We may have “dominion” on this Earth, but that does not give us license to trash the place. “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24). We humans are mere stewards, answerable to our Creator.
Richard Weaver, one of the founding fathers of modern conservatism, wrote that piety “admits the right to exist…of things different from the ego.” Exterminating species is nothing less than a “sin.” “Man has a duty of veneration toward nature and the natural.”
Exterminating a species is fundamentally different from killing an animal for food. With extinction, there is not just death; there is no more birth. We have no right to exterminate what God created. God’s question to Job confronts us, too: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?”
What can we do?
The primary key to saving all forms of life is to preserve the habitats they need to live. Then they will take care of themselves. So when our politicians say that they want to remove habitat conservation from government action programs, they are saying that they do not want to save God’s creatures. They just don’t want to admit that outright.
We need to set aside many more nature preserves all over the world. A recent study concluded that if we set aside 15% of the land in every region of the world, the net economic benefits would be 100 times larger than the costs!
Since half or more of all species live in tropical forests, we should support policies that would make a major effort to teach the people who live there how to increase their agricultural productivity without chopping down more forest. They could also be taught how to make a living from sustainably harvesting rain forest products, and from guiding and serving ecotourists. They could also be hired as guards for nature preserves—the sort of thing that the World Wildlife Fund does today on a small scale.
Here at home there are many things we can do. As conservatives, we should start with private action—the more private organizations do, the less government has to do. In the private sector, we should give maximum support to land trusts that focus on preserving habitat for rare and declining species. The largest is The Nature Conservancy. It does basic science to discover what habitat is important, and then it buys it from willing sellers.
But private action will never be sufficient; government will have to be involved. As conservatives, we should first support removing all of the subsidies that are destroying natural areas. That is just a simple free-market principle, and it will save us taxpayers billions every year.* I
n the U.S., the most important law for preserving God’s creatures is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was signed into law by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Today, the ESA is the most controversial of environmental laws, but much of the opposition is unwarranted by the facts.
Two notorious cases stand out.
First, the ESA stopped construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee to save the snail darter—a small fish. The press went crazy, but a cabinet-level committee concluded that the dam was a total waste of taxpayers’ money. If you pay taxes, you should be on the side of the fish.
The second case is the northern spotted owl. A federal judge stopped all logging on national forests in the Pacific Northwest until the Forest Service developed a plan to save the owl—which should have been done in the first place. The timber companies and the press again went crazy, screaming “jobs versus owls.” But a decade later, the best and most thorough study of employment in the timber industry concluded that saving the spotted owl had no effect on timber jobs.
So, how does the ESA work?
Under this law, the federal government can list a plant or animal as threatened or endangered, and then the habitat it needs has to be protected —for animals, even if it is on private land. (Endangered plants have no protection on private property, but many endangered animals have their last refuges on private land.) The land can be used, but its use must be compatible with the needs of the animals. That is why some people hate the ESA.
The ESA needs to be reformed, but strengthened, not weakened. The federal government needs to put far more resources into saving species. The residents of Washington, D.C., spend more on pizza each year than Congress spends to protect the web of life.
For conservatives, two other reforms need to be made to the ESA.
First, for property owners the ESA is all stick and no carrot. Incentives should be added to the Act to reward property owners for helping preserve rare creatures.
Second, the ESA can only protect individual species when they are on the brink of extinction; it cannot protect habitat before species are almost gone. The Act must have the ability to protect ecosystems to prevent species from becoming endangered. We have a good model, signed by Republican Pete Wilson when he was governor of California, called Natural Community Conservation Planning. It preserves habitat to prevent species from becoming endangered. It incorporates habitat protection into all of the normal processes of land-use planning—from local zoning boards up to the state level. If the federal government could do the same, it would prevent many of the emotionally charged conflicts the current ESA produces and protect rare species before they become endangered.
We also need to support policies to restore natural habitat. Half of America’s wetlands have been drained or filled, but many could be restored. Many uneconomic dams on rivers could be removed. The largest restoration project ever is now trying to bring the Everglades back to health. There are countless smaller opportunities to return lands to a more natural state, so they can once again support all of their original forms of life. The 21st century should be the century of restoring lands.
The future of our planet is in our hands. As conservatives, we realize that we have an obligation to future generations to pass on to them the full range of life with all of its resources, not just a bunch of weeds.
As Edward O. Wilson says, the mass extinction we are causing is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive. It is up to us to do Noah’s job today.
As references to this article, Dr. Bliese provided the following:
- For further details and citation of sources, see: John R. E. Bliese, The Greening of Conservative America (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2001), chapters 2, 8 & 9
- Highly recommended reading: Gretchen C. Daily, editor, Nature’s Services (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1997)
- Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Extinction (New York: Random House, 1981)
- Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1992) and The Future of Life (New York: Knopf, 2002)
CREDIT FOR THIS PIECE: This was the fourth feature article that John R. E. Bliese, Ph.D. — a REP member from 1996 until his death in 2009 — wrote especially for The Green Elephant. Taken all together, these pieces make a significant contribution to the body of literature that Dr. Bliese built up around the theme that Conservation is Conservative.
Dr. Bliese retired in 2002 as Associate Professor of Communications at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He published numerous articles and monographs on the link between conservation and conservatism.
We remain grateful for all four of these essays and are proud to continue making them available on our website. We also know that he would be happy to know that they are still available for future generations to read and learn from.
“Conservative Principles and the Environment” (Fall 1997, The Green Elephant)
“The Great ‘Environment Versus Economy’ Myth” (Summer 1999, The Green Elephant)
“Facts and Myths about Global Warming: A Conservative Perspective” (Summer 2001, The Green Elephant)
“Saving Life on Earth: Doing Noah’s Job Today” (Spring 2004, The Green Elephant)
We also highly recommend Dr. Bliese’s important book, The Greening of Conservative America, which elaborates on many of the themes discussed here.