In the Bay Delta area of California conflicts have arisen lately over water. The American West is known for its water wars. In this installment, big farming companies (in the Central Valley) want more water for their farms, so they can grow more of the lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops we eat every day. To do so, they need to practically drain the region’s river water supplies. This is bad news for the fish in the river and bad for local fishermen who rely on salmon. It also probably means the end of the line for some small native fish(1) which will go extinct without the needed water levels.
Admittedly, most people would probably never in their lives see these native fish. And maybe it’s important to feed ourselves, too. But during the recent drought big farming interests have been very obvious about their “unconcern” over the fish that will go extinct. Human needs vs. nature’s needs? – who’s more likely to win that one?
But it is never a good idea to cause the end of a species. Despite the things we could lose by causing an extinction – possible medicines, recreation revenues, etc. – even small species can be critical to the proper functioning of an ecosystem. The loss of some foundational species could even possibly cause cascading effects which could increase our own risks as a species exponentially.
Another reason? It’s just not a good policy to let species go extinct every time there is a conflict between a species and financial gain. Environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, once said that the first step in tinkering is to keep all the parts.
What’s really at stake is a mistaken notion of human economic growth. Can’t we just make a distinction between economic growth and population growth? It can easily be stated. We can be for a complex society – a society with doctors, and artists, and teachers, and scientists – and still be for a smaller population. We can also be for change and economic progress, adding new things to our culture like cell phones and computers. We will just never get over the wealth divide – the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer – hundreds of millions of people starving – if we keep adding billions of people to the planet. Some people seem to think we can. But we can’t. There just aren’t the resources on the whole planet to do anything more than feed so many people (if that).
Even when we do the right thing and set aside parks and preserves for preserving nature, when there are so many of us, the temptation is for people to go into preserves and poach animals just to feed themselves. As long as our population is growing, this will always be the case. And other types of encroachment will also continue to increase the more people there are. This is what’s called pressure on the land. For a Biblical reference for pressure on the land see Genesis chapter 13. In short it says, “Now Abram was very rich in livestock… Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. And the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions [animals] were so great that they were not able to remain together.” (Genesis 13: 2, 5-6) This is a critical Scripture for Christians and Jews seeking Biblical proofs for protecting the Earth. It demonstrates that the Bible is aware that the land will not accept too much pressure.
Another important Scripture is the story of Noah and the Flood. This story not only places humans at the center of nature’s salvation but it does so after the fall and indicates to us that this is still to be our role in the world. It also declares that all of God’s creatures are worthy of salvation and that our appropriate role as humans is to save all of them.
The great thing about the Endangered Species Act is that it draws the line at the same place. No species is “supposed” to go extinct. Nothing is worthless, everything is worth it. At the point of extinction, we are forced to re-evaluate our activities and are required to make the necessary changes. We do this on a case by case basis. In some ways, we might save more of nature by setting aside plentiful habitat, but the Endangered Species Act effectively draws the line in the sand forcing us to provide habitat where it is most urgently necessary. But in the long run, we will experience less pain and suffer fewer losses by finding a way to limit ourselves. And that’s the key ingredient that’s missing. And that means decreasing our population.
To me, the Endangered Species Act is exactly the policy we should have. It makes of the planet (in the U.S. at least) an ark and draws the line at destruction in a place it appears even God would draw it. The Endangered Species Act is not only the scientific line in the sand against cascading effects and ecological failure, it is also spiritually the right thing to do.
Maybe it’s time for us to stop bickering over whether the story of Noah and the Flood is to be taken literally or not, and start trying to learn what it is God is saying (in the Bible) we should do. In the end, no one wins, if we don’t do that.
(1) The Delta smelt is the fish in question. It was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993.